Archive for January, 2011

Life Lessons of Music: Alcoholic Depression to Joy

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

The ‘Music Taught Me to Love’ post has made me think of the many people I’ve known that have learned important life lessons by listening to music. Music can reach people where other influences cannot, and this seems to be a commonly shared experience. The lessons can be really big ones, or just small; music can help you dream of bigger and better things and set you on a particular life path, or it can simply take the sting out of an annoyance and put a smile on your face. Either way, life without music would be much poorer.

I wanted to share the stories of a few of my friends who have been affected by music. I find their stories inspirational, and it’s one of the reasons I set up Memories in Music, so I could come into contact with more music fans. I want to hear their stories and share them, hopefully to inspire others to give to charities in honour of the musicians that have enriched their lives. Because I am a huge Led Zeppelin fan, these stories involve their music, but I would dearly love to hear from the fans of other musicians too!

The first person I ever knew that was deeply affected by music was my friend Merle. Merle grew up in small town USA. He said his life was ‘painfully middle class’ and uneventful. He fell into a depression when he was around 15 because it seemed to him that life was just stretching out in front of him in a long, dull series of events by which he felt no real inspiration. Getting a job, getting married, having kids… it all felt like a trap to Merle. He started drinking with his friends, just a beer in the back of the school yard type stuff, but for Merle this quickly turned into alcoholism. A couple of beers became several six packs and then bottles of Southern Comfort. He dropped out of high school and wasted his days on drinking. Years went by in a haze of drunkenness, but nothing inspired him to really live his life with joy. Merle wasn’t a violent drunk. He didn’t hurt anyone or fall into some dramatic life of crime, he was simply quietly drinking his life away, making no real connections to people. He just drifted in his alcoholic depression. He told me he had no joy and was just numb. He spent his whole life drunk. He lived in his truck, only occasionally doing part time work to eat and buy alcohol.

Merle's inspiration - Jimmy Page playing in 1973

Merle's inspiration - Jimmy Page playing in 1973

Then in 1973 a friend of his got two tickets to see Led Zeppelin at Madison Square Garden and invited him along. He said that he wasn’t too excited and just went for something to do. He’d packed his bottle of Comfort in his jacket and planned on getting even more drunk. I can still see the massive sparkle in his eyes as he recounted this to me. “That band was incredible, bursting with unbelievable passion, a passion I had never felt, not even once. I was electrified from the first song, but it was Jimmy Page who completely broadsided me. He slapped me upside the head so hard with his playing I saw stars. It was like he’d plugged his guitar into me. That concert changed my whole life. He turned an old drunk into a joy-filled music zealot in under 3 minutes. Somewhere during that concert I put down the bottle of booze and never picked it up again.”

Merle started reading the band’s interviews and learning about their musical inspirations. “I had no money, but I had to have this music, theirs as well as whoever they said influenced them, so for a time the only way to achieve hearing it was to go to the library. I was motivated to get a real job – quick.”

Merle was so in love with music he decided to make a career of it. He somehow persuaded friends and family members to give him money, and with it he rented an empty shop and opened a music store in 1974. “I think they were just amazed at the change in me, so they took the risk.” He told me his Aunt gave him the majority of the cash needed and said to him, “Whoever this Jimmy Page is, he has my undying gratitude.”

My Uncle took me with him when he visited Merle’s shop one day. He told Merle I was a fan of Led Zeppelin. Merle smiled at me and said he was impressed that such a little girl had such great musical taste. Merle said he had a picture to show me. He brought me over to a wall at the side of the shop, and there on the wall was a black and white photo of Jimmy, framed along with his ticket to the Madison Square Garden show. Over the years, that wall grew and grew with photos and tickets, and that shop was where I learned all about music. It was also where I learned to love memorabilia. It was a refuge for me while I grew up.

Merle never set the world on fire. You will not have heard of him unless you happened to live within the area of his shop, but he was an inspiration to me and a lot of other people. He was always handing out jasmine tea and sitting people down to let them listen to tracks and seeking out music for people. He spread a lot of joy, and it all began with one concert. Music changed his life from drunken despair to one that was happy and productive. He died of cancer a few years ago, but I will never forget him or his massive enthusiasm for Led Zeppelin. When anything bad would happen people would often go to his shop because he had this ability to make you feel better. “Yep,” he would say, “it’s all gonna be OK – just drink this tea, turn up The Jimmy and smile!”

Annie x

Music Taught Me to Love

Monday, January 3rd, 2011

A musician friend of mine rang me this morning very excited about a programme he was watching about music. He thought I might find it interesting. Tuning in, I found some music professors having a chat. One of them held the illustrious title, “Professor of Cultural Musicology.” Geeze, fancy stuff! Not something I would ordinarily watch, but just a few sentences later I was hooked when I heard one of them say that music produces very strong responses in us and can have physical as well as deep emotional affects relating to our core needs. It is not all just a bit of fun or purely entertaining.

The programme meandered through various scientific experiments which were interesting. Why do babies from all over the world respond to the singing of a lullaby no matter what language is being used to sing it, or even if singing is absent? Patients with advanced dementia recognise and sing songs that mean a lot to them, and music can even help people to communicate who have lost the ability to speak due to brain injury – they can sing sentences that they cannot speak. Apparently music has a measurable effect on the brains of musicians as well. The areas of their brains where music is processed are noticeably larger and thicker than in non-musicians. Even the universe makes music. Fifty-seven octaves lower than we can hear, you find the vibration of a black hole resonates a B flat when raised to our hearing level. And some believe that a string is found at the centre of all matter that vibrates as the string of a guitar.

Amazing stuff, but by far the segment I found most meaningful was the effect music had on children. Not only does it help them learn things like maths and syntax better, but it helps them interact socially. The celebrated pianist Daniel Barenboim supports music kindergartens, where he has observed that when children are exposed to music (simply through listening not playing an instrument), they learn discipline, sharing and love. Love? They learned to feel love and express love to others because of exposure to music? That struck me forcefully. I don’t have any fancy Professor of Musicology title, but I don’t need one to know that is certainly true because this is my experience of music, that it actually taught me to love. I have never heard anyone confirm this is real, so since it is my experience, it was great to hear. By studying the children, and audience reactions to music, it is seen that music creates unity, and is able to connect you to yourself and others.

Experiencing music in this way is life changing when you have no role models or loving guidance to help you process emotions and teach you how to relate to the world at large. I shut myself off and wouldn’t allow anything to reach me because I feared it would bring more pain. But one day I heard music that changed all that. I had no idea why, but suddenly I felt connected to something, drawn, and the more I listened, the more connected I felt – first to the music, then to the musician, then to myself, and then to others. Those stages of broadening connections were a healing and learning process for me that was real. The musician was able to break through all the barriers I had built around myself, and here was a group of scientists telling me so.

This is how music saved my life. It can sound very ‘fan-like’ and silly to some when you say that, but it is real and powerful. Much of the recovery progress I have made relates back to this experience, and I am forever grateful to the musician that unlocked my prison and helped me take the first tentative steps out. I think perhaps a lot of music fans share this experience, just to differing degrees. Anyone else have similar experiences to share? How was music life-changing to you? A big way? Just a little? I’d love to hear. I’m still thinking all this through. I’m really stunned at what I heard. Music is everywhere, and it lies at the core of life; connected to love. I always knew it!

Annie x