Ten Meaningful Records #3: A Street Called Straight by Roy Buchanan (released 1976/first heard 1998)

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Read the previous instalment #1 covering Wilco’s Summerteeth here

Read the previous instalment #2 covering Bob Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind here

Roy Buchanan’s 1972 instrumental rendition of Don Gibson’s country ballad, “Sweet Dreams” arrives at the close of Martin Scorsese’s film The Departed. Digham has dispatched Sullivan in his hotel room with a single gunshot to the head; a spatter of brains and he collapses to the ground. Buchanan’s guitar materialises with a couple of solitary tones, expertly faded in with swells of the guitar’s volume pot. Sulivan’s prostrate body lies on the floor bleeding as the camera slowly pans up to reveal a view of the city from the hotel room balcony. The guitar is then joined by the smash of drums, bass and swirling organ as the screen fades to black and the credit roll. From thereon, the familiar tropes of Buchanan’s remarkable guitar technique are laid out: delicate warm tone contrasted by a biting attack; economic phrasing met with a rapid flurry of notes; the aforementioned volume swells – sounding akin to a violin or crying voice. “Sweet Dreams” is oft regarded as Buchanan’s signature track, and I imagine for a mainstream audience, this was the first time that Buchanan’s “Sweet Dreams” was heard on a wide scale. Prior to its inclusion on the films soundtrack, it was more likely regarded within the tight circles of guitar fanatics, niche radio playlists and various compilations. Roy Buchanan wasn’t (and still isn’t) a name that immediately or even remotely springs to mind when one weighs up seminal guitarists of the 20th Century, whose approach and dexterity with the instrument went on to inspire a thousand imitators. Where names like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and David Gilmour frequently clog up Best Guitarist Ever lists, names like Buchanan’s barely register a blip or mention. Buchanan remains an otherwise cult figure, an obscure presence – enormously talented and influential, yet not a name that immediately comes up when one thinks of guitar legends, especially those whose primary axe of choice was the Fender Telecaster.

The Departed had not yet been released when I first came across Buchanan. My first encounter with his music occurred in early 1998 on the eve of my last year of high school. I had a cassette given to me by an older friend of mine – on one side was his live album, Livestock (1975); on the other was A Street Called Straight (1976).

A Street Called Straight represented a new beginning and a lifeline of sorts for Buchanan, whose career by 1975 was beginning to stall. The album was a calculated leap of faith (on the part of Buchanan’s new record label, Atlantic) and – as evidenced by the album’s title – a literal reading of the artist’s (and probably his incumbent labels) desire to get his shit together. Although Buchanan was a reliable draw on the live circuit, after a few studio albums he had failed to capitalise on the slightly ridiculous tag of ‘the greatest unknown guitarist in the world’ that had followed him around for half a decade. This tag had come as the result of his belated ‘discovery’ aged 30-ish at the beginning of the 1970’s, which resulted in a one-hour television special, highlighting the talents of this pathologically shy, balding and slightly overweight guy who could play virtually anything. If it weren’t for the turtleneck sweater and groovy pin-striped flares, one could be mistaken that he’d recently walked off a shrimp trawler that had been at sea for years.

Buchanan had been an active musician since the late 1950s, cutting his teeth and making bread from endless touring and session work. Although the documentary can now be watched on YouTube, one can only speculate what audiences made of this guy back in 1971. It did however make enough of an impression to garner Buchanan a record deal with Polydor and a decent advance and publicity to accompany each release – Roy Buchanan (1971), Second Album (1972), That’s What I’m Here For (1973), In The Beginning (1974) and Livestock (1975). Whilst his reticent appearance would have no doubt hampered his commercial success during this period, it was further undermined by his limited ability as a vocalist and over-reliance on guest singers (often ill-fitting choices for the material on hand. *) Speaking of the material, whilst Buchanan’s instrumentals and guitar work were the main attraction, his studio albums were frequently padded out with generic blues standards.

* Which I imagine was largely at the behest of the producer and not so much a decision Buchanan would have made himself.

A Street Called Straight represented a clear break from the previous template. It’s an intentionally polished product. Buchanan sings (quite well) on a majority of the tracks, whilst the bulk of the record is made up from original material. Accompanied by a surfeit of incredible guitar work and strong production values, one would expect it to have garnered above-average sales upon its release. It didn’t however, and aside from the obligatory sales accompanying anything with Buchanan’s name on it, it made next to no impression and gradually slipped out of print.

* * *

By the start of 1998, my musical tastes and interests had become fairly erratic. On a given week I’d be obsessively listening to The Byrds or The Flying Burrito Brothers; the next week Elvis Costello and Ry Cooder; the following week Pavement and Sonic Youth. A bit later on, I discovered Jethro Tull, and I feel I’m still apologizing to some of my family and high school friends for what I subjected them to.

At the time, I’d been playing guitar for about a year-and-a-half and – in spite of my eclectic tastes – I was largely stuck in the pentatonic paradigm of blues and generic idiom of the Three Chords That Make Folk Music. Nobody in high school was remotely interested in blues guitar or folk music, so my only peer and enabler in this area was a family friend and the same person who gave me the cassette containing the Roy Buchanan albums. Alex Abbott is still one of the tallest people I’ve ever met (6’6”) and it was my impromptu jam sessions with him after school that pushed my guitar technique from generic to slightly-less-generic. We’d struck off a friendship about a year prior when I effused to him about John Mayall and we started playing blues songs together: me on guitar and Alex on vocal, guitar and banjo. Since a banjo was involved, throughout 1998 I was gradually exposed to elements of bluegrass and country and started to free up my playing a bit to accommodate these styles (to the best of my limited ability.)

When I wasn’t jamming at Alex’s, I’d hone things by my lonesome at my dad’s house when he wasn’t there*. Among the many acoustic instruments hanging on the living room wall, there was an amplifier and a Fender Telecaster stowed away. On this Telecaster I attempted to recreate the technique and palette of tones that made Roy Buchanan’s playing of his Telecaster so arresting. One of the most distinctive things about a Telecaster is the sharp and biting sound of its neck-pickup position. If the technique is accurate and the amplifier is loud enough, this biting tone is enough to make a heart hurt, eyes water or teeth come loose. This effect is further enhanced if one can pull of the trick of playing ‘pinch harmonics’ – a technique involving harmonics that makes a note sound higher and sharper. It’s got a distinctively piercing effect, and this is one particular thing that Roy Buchanan does remarkably well. Whilst I could get a grip on the fading of notes with the volume pots and bend a few bitey tones, I could not manage much else of his technique.

* The role of this house is mentioned in detail in the previous essay covering Bob Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind.

The opening track of A Street Called Straight, “Running Out” is full of Buchanan Technique. Over a funky blues groove, his guitar wails, squawks and (at one point) sounds like a machine gun*. The second track – a shamelessly early-disco cash-in – “Keep What You Got” gets even funkier, with Buchanan’s playing starting to levitate off the ground. On first hearing these openers I was mightily impressed, but not entirely sure why. I asked myself: how was this any different to the playing of someone like Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck? This is, after all fairly standard bluesy-rock guitar playing, especially within the mid-1970s zeitgeist of endless guitar solos. Buchanan’s approach was different, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Things began to crystalise by the next track. “Man On The Floor” is an odd one. Written by Buchanan and breaking away from the funky stomp of the first two tracks, its lyrics evoke Christian devotion and sacrifice are delivered over a swampy blues groove. The opening of this track is full of wails, stuttering chops and a storm of notes. It sounds like the guitar is having a panic attack or seizure. Things escalate further in the solo, where it sounds like the guitar is starting to come apart under the strain of the frenzied playing. Beneath this maelstrom, the playing from the rest of the band remains expert, tight and holds everything together. The playing on “Man On The Floor” is incredible and at the time it spooked me a little (and it still does.) Whilst “Running Out” and “Keep What You Got” could be dismissed as guitar-histrionics-for-the-sake-of-it, there was something about Buchanan’s guitar playing on this track that transcended the clichés and belied Buchanan’s otherwise quiet and unassuming exterior. Further research was necessary. With primitive Internet restricted to school, I fortunately had a paperback on hand entitled, Guide To Blues On CD and – to my surprise – it contained a generous entry devoted to Buchanan.

* Running the tips of the fingernails of the left hand over the strings whilst chopping a rapid rhythm with the right hand creates this effect. Buchanan further enhances this effect by moving the left hand position up and down the neck of the guitar, thus articulating the harmonics of the strings.

* * *

On stage, Buchanan would be positioned slightly stage left, next to his keyboardist. His guitar positioned high to his chest, feet planted, head down with scarcely any expression on his face. This stage manner prompted a bandmate to ask him how he could play such visceral and emotive guitar whilst appearing so calm on the outside, he replied:

“Well, I’m screaming on the inside.”

For most of his career, Buchanan was an alcoholic and would infrequently dabble with illicit substances. For the most part though, the bottle was his main vice. Such is the lonely life on the road: one venue blurs into the next, travelling by night, staying in anonymous hotels, another backstage rider, another dismal bar, a pervading sense of loneliness, estrangement and longing for home. Whilst performing, Buchanan would often have a couple of glasses of beer placed within reach. In spite of his otherwise reserved appearance, sometimes he would offer a brief moment of deadpan entertainment for the audience, demonstrating the feat of playing his guitar with one hand whilst downing a beer in one go with the other.

Though he would reform on a couple of occasions in the 1980s, the bottle would ultimately lead to his tragic death in a jail cell in 1988. Although the coroner determined his death was the result of suicide by hanging, visible bruises on his face suggested the possibility of foul play. Over the years, bandmates would recall Buchanan’s tendency for volatile mood swings – appearing upbeat and cheerful one moment, then utterly despondent and abusive the next.

* * *

Along with his tendency for liquid excess and deep troughs of depression, Buchanan was also a lapsed fundamentalist Christian, so in this respect – and given the track’s obvious religious underpinnings – his guitar work on “Man On The Floor” conveys the mood of an existential crisis, ala Jimi Hendrix’s “Manic Depression”. Speaking of Hendrix, one of the few covers on A Street Called Straight is Buchanan’s version of Hendrix’s “If Six Was Nine”.

Buchanan’s interpretation of Hendrix’s groovy ode to non-conformity is hardly sunshine: a slow blues groove pulsating grimly with bass and clavinet, droll vocals and soulful guitar playing. During the outro, the rapid-fire guitar solo becomes detached from the rest of the track and segues into the free-form instrumental, “Guitar Cadenza”. This track is basically an excuse for Buchanan to go all weird with tape delay, reverb and feedback.

* * *

Inspired by the ridiculousness of this track I was creating my own scrappy “Guitar Cadenza” with the electric guitar, amp and a Boss DD2 digital delay pedal. Messing around with the digital delay was the first time I’d employed a piece of music technology to repeat, modulate, warp and feedback a signal and this would spur an interest in experimental music, which would properly take hold a couple of years later. With the effects pedal I could make the guitar repeat itself infinitely, smear everything into sonic ambiguity and make it howl with feedback. It was terribly exciting.

* * *

Although Buchanan was an electric guitarist by trade, he could also play an acoustic guitar extremely well and it’s a genuine shame that this ability isn’t featured more exclusively across his discography. A Street Called Straight is the only record that he made which features his acoustic guitar work (rolling folk-style fingerpicking, bluesy twangs) on several tracks – “Good God Have Mercy”, “Okay”, “Caruso” and “I Still Think About Ida Mae”.

With my acoustic guitar in tow, I can recall jamming with Alex and enthusiastically trying to get a grip on the choppy ascending and descending chords on “Okay” or keep a consistent strumming pattern going, like the one I heard on “Good God Have Mercy”.

* * *

On most of Buchanan’s albums released in the 1970’s there’s at least one track which encapsulates probably his greatest strength as a guitarist – measured soulful playing contrasted with raw eruptions. A spectrum of emotion, expressed with the wood and wires of the guitar. That’s What I’m Here For has “Roy’s Bluz”, In The Beginning has “Wayfaring Stranger” and A Street Called Straight has “The Messiah Will Come Again”.

Buchanan had previously recorded “The Messiah Will Come Again” for his first album, and whilst the original version was compelling enough, I can only assume that the mission statement of reaching a broader audience required a reprise of this fan favourite. The track opens with fluid runs of bluesy licks before it is overtaken by a sustained, warbling peal of organ. Buchanan doesn’t sing on this track, but rather intones as if he’s delivering a sermon telling of Christ’s eventual return. The monologue ends and Buchanan’s guitar tears loose – piercing the air, screaming, wailing and sounding like a helicopter spiraling to the ground.

It’s a profoundly moving song and – along with “Sweet Dreams” – is one of the finest encapsulations of Buchanan’s uniqueness as an artist.

* * *

Considering the underlying struggles and drama of Buchanan’s life and career, the cover artwork of A Street Called Straight reveals a moment of apparent calm. The sepia-toned photo shows Buchanan sitting on a floor playing his guitar, while one of his sons sits rather morosely in his lap. Buchanan stares out at us from behind his son’s head with a mixture of tenderness and unease. In spite of the obvious messaging of getting straight and conveying a wholesomeness, it’s a slightly awkward and disconcerting staging. A Street Called Straight represented a new beginning, and although its music is – by Buchanan’s standards – bold and adventurous, on the cover the artist appears to look slightly compromised and a little uncertain of where he’s found himself and where he’s going.

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If the cover of a Roy Buchanan album is an indication of where the artist’s prospects are at a given point, then the artwork of his subsequent album, 1977’s Loading Zone makes this painfully apparent: sitting in a half-empty bar with a clogged ashtray, a mug of piss-weak beer and Buchanan leaning across the table with a weary expression on his face as if to ask:

“Where did it all go wrong?”

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* * *

Roy Buchanan’s albums from the 1970s are quite difficult to find these days. Most of the Polydor and Atlantic albums were never reissued on vinyl once they had slipped out of print. My friend Alex had vinyl copies of A Street Called Straight, Livestock and In The Beginning and throughout 1998 I would borrow these repeatedly when I’d worn out my cassette copies in order to make more copies. Over the years found some of Buchanan’s album when I’ve spied them in the second-hand racks of record stores. Although his work has been infrequently issued on CD, most of these releases are abysmally mastered or are out of print altogether. Elsewhere (and if you can get past the sub-par sound quality of the digital mastering) streaming platforms only offer what’s available, which isn’t much.

I can recall finally finding a copy of A Street Called Straight last year. It was buried in a rack of ‘Blues’ and upon seeing it (for a reasonable price) I audibly whooped and promptly handed over the cash. Having not heard this album for nearly twenty years, dropping the needle was like opening up a nostalgic portal to what was a great year – full of eclectic music discoveries, marvelling at Roy Buchanan, wrangling a Telecaster, twiddling the knobs of an effects pedal and – perhaps, most importantly – those long afternoon jams with my old mate Alex.

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Ten Meaningful Records: #1 Summerteeth by Wilco (released 1999/first heard 1999)

My room in a sharehouse, mid-1999: This album had sickened me. I felt my stomach lurching slightly, whilst my head felt heavy and was swimming in a choppy expanse of confusion. A sense of irritation eventually overcame me and I hit to stop button, ejected the CD and tossed it petulantly across the room.

Happy? Wilco in 1999. From left: Jeff Tweedy, Ken Coomer, Jay Bennett, John Stirratt

By the time I encountered Wilco’s third album in 1999 I knew their work reasonably well, but it would be fair to say I was still growing comfortable with them. Whilst they hadn’t yet completely overhauled their ‘alt. country’ tag they were still a restless unit, prone to bursts of raucousness and curious diversions. Where my listening tastes were concerned at the time, they certainly held a lower prestige compared to the likes of my enduring obsession with The Complete Works of Elvis Costello, which at the time was chewing up most of my meager spending money. Where Wilco was concerned, I still had my battered cassette copy of Being There and a CD of their collaboration with Billy Bragg (Mermaid Avenue); both of which I really liked.

How to fight loneliness / just smile all the time / shine your teeth ’till meaningless / and sharpen them with lies.

I had picked up Summerteeth in mid-1999 at the tail end of a miserable, depressed winter. Wilco’s frontman Jeff Tweedy sounded especially miserable and depressed across Summerteeth’s 50-odd minutes. The album as a whole broke away from the previous albums’ country leanings and roof-raising rawk, instead opting for what sounded like a fucked-up version of The Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle spliced with The Band’s second album. It’s an album that is at once sunny, yet persistently uneasy – it blooms and glides; then lurches and collapses. In a paisley nutshell, it’s sunny psychedelia tainted by paranoia and loneliness, howling out from the bowels of a K-Hole. Darkness courses through the entirety of this record and for every upbeat respite, there are gut and kidney punches landed everywhere else.

So with that in mind, let’s return to my room in a sharehouse a bit over eighteen years ago.

On a quiet night I loaded the CD into my boombox for the first time. The opener, “I Can’t Stand It” erupted from its tinny speakers with the chime of an electric 12-string guitar (immediately reminiscent of The Byrds) giving way to a swell of Mellotron, thumping drums and weary, nicotine-grizzled vocals.

No love’s as random as God’s love / I can’t stand it…I can’t stand it

As Tweedy’s refrain collapses into a hoarse scream, before I knew it I was immersed in one of the saddest songs I’d ever heard: “She’s A Jar”.

She’s a jar / with a heavy lid

My pop-quiz kid / a sleepy kisser / a pretty war

You know, she begs me not to miss her

Tweedy sounds even more resigned and forlorn on this song. Whereas on “I Can’t Stand It” he at least sounded like he was being propelled and pushed ahead by the momentum of the song, here he sounds like he’s been buried alive by it, half-speaking allusions of a lover as a jar (or is it ‘ajar’?), quiet front yards, water skies and bruised roads.

But what a gorgeously sad song! Lyrics aside, on musical terms alone this song is utterly sumptuous. A rickety sounding acoustic guitar floats uneasily atop a bed of entwined organ, Mellotron, loping bass and bleats from The Most Lonesome Harmonica In The World. It’s like the tangled undergrowth of the mind at its most charged, poetic and forlorn. A soundtrack for losing your mind whilst surrounded by beauty. Then there’s the rhythm that Ken Coomer lays down: a dour pulse alternating between snares and rim shots, yet totally immediate and forceful – urging the momentum of the song along. A trap kit scything through the cluttered web of the instrumentation and Tweedy’s surreal  lyrics. That’s ‘surreal’ in the Bunuel-lian sense; i.e. whereby the imaginings of the unconsciousness ruptere and manifest themselves into reality by turns discrete, poetic, bewitching and disturbing.

“She’s A Jar” contains probably what is (to this day) my favourite set of lyrics – a staggeringly beautiful and confounding string of imagery; a stream of wild mercury that in my mind is matched only by the terror and beauty of Dylan’s mid-60’s streams on consciousness:

Are there really ones like these?

The ones I dream

Float like leaves

And freeze to spread skeleton wings

I passed through before I knew you

An unconscious reverie committed to song. It’s so gorgeously vivid and unsettling.

But before we become too lulled by the twisted beauty of everything in this song, the lights shut out suddenly in the final seconds of the track. It consists of a reprise of the song’s opening lines and a tweaked revision the final line. Where Tweedy had previously sung, “you know, she begs me not to miss her”, he swaps it with this:

She’s a jar / with a heavy lid

My pop-quiz kid / a sleepy kisser / a pretty war

You know, she begs me not to hit her 

Tenderness replaced by a brutal and confronting confession.

It’s not an exaggeration to admit that I felt physically ill when that fucked up line landed. It ruined everything. Slightly distressed, I hit pause on my boombox, dug the lyrics sheet out from the CD’s jewel case and corroborated what I thought I’d just heard.

Reluctantly, I restarted the CD. The gurgling synths opening “A Shot In The Arm” made me queasy, not to mention the chorus’ refrain where Tweedy longs for “something in my blood, bloodier than blood”.

What on Earth had happened to Jeff Tweedy since Being There? How had the rest of the band not quit in disgust? (fact: they almost did) How was he still alive? Was he still alive?

Whilst I didn’t skip through the rest of the tracks, I was too rattled and sickened to acknowledge the rest of the album as it lurched along. Barring a couple of sunnier, hopeful moments, once “Via Chicago” rolled around it was all over for me:

I dreamed about killing you again last night

And it felt all right to me

Your cold hot blood ran away from me to the sea

 As the zombied closer, “In A Future Age” petered out the CD was (r)ejected and put back in its case. A couple of weeks later I sold it back to the record store and bought another Elvis Costello reissue. A couple of years would go by before I heard the album again.

* * *

When I was eighteen I didn’t understand depression. I was living with it, but I had neither the ability to comprehend it, let alone articulate it. I would instead regard my perpetual melancholy and social anxiousness as just something that happened when you were at this part of your life. It was my belief that this permitted you to cry for no reason and be perpetually angry at or feel hard done by the world. I never really regarded it as depression because that term scared me and had all-too-dramatic connotations with padded cells, electric shock therapy, slashing wrists and throwing yourself off buildings. I couldn’t decouple these things from what actually happened in real life and I figured things had to get really bad before I ended up in one of those scenarios. ‘Depression’ was a tag that I didn’t want dangling from me and on show to the rest of the world. At this stage I hadn’t been diagnosed with depression or prescribed any medication, so in lieu of professional intervention I wallowed in undiagnosed and romanticised misery.

From this unfortunate position I should have been able to relate to where Jeff Tweedy was coming from across the emotional massacre of Summerteeth. This guy feels like shit; I feel like shit. It should have clicked. In previous years, my high school friends had been into all sorts of tormented and transgressive music that sounded and read on paper ten times worse than anything Tweedy could dream up. And it’s not like I wasn’t partial to such indulgences – Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds’ Murder Ballads looms large.

So what was the issue? As a songwriter, Jeff Tweedy’s always had a knack for earnestness and sincerity in his writing, regardless of whether it’s literal, a collision of surreal imagery or a deft combination of the two. Dylan and Neil Young have a similar impact – regardless of a given song’s clarity or impenetrability (“Visions Of Johanna” and “After The Goldrush” come to mind) they are delivered with such potency (and sonic pixie dust) that some kind of emotional wallop is inevitable regardless whether you understand exactly what the fuck they are on about.

Back in 1999, that emotional wallop was also inescapable when I listened to Summerteeth for the first time. I couldn’t however get past the effect it had on on my stomach before it could get anywhere near ruining my heart. The blood, guts and bruises alluded to in Summerteeth felt so much more grave, horrifying and real than Nick Cave’s trail of dead on Murder Ballads simply because Tweedy’s experiences felt genuinely real, whereas Cave’s come across as B-grade schlock cribbed from folk tales. Chalk and cheese; Tarkovsky and Tarantino.

I’m fairly certain that Tweedy has never murdered anyone (“Via Chicago”) or committed acts of domestic violence (“She’s A Jar”). Tweedy has however suffered from depression and substance abuse and this was channeled through Summerteeth when things were especially in the ditch for him. To Nick Cave’s credit, he too has produced fine work when life was at its most shit and it should come as no surprise that in the same year that Summerteeth blindsided me I encountered his 1997 album, The Boatman’s Call.

When you’re depressed, horrible things come into your head and if you’re creatively minded you have to splatter and frame them somewhere. If you’re a good songwriter (as Tweedy is) you might be able to transcend clichés and plumb the depths of the poetic. Rather than simply dismissing Tweedy as a murderous misogynist on the basis of those two songs, when Summerteeth eventually clicked for me a couple of years later I read these songs as painful, yet articulate expressions of alienation, misanthropy, loneliness, regret and shame. It’s an album suffused with this stuff – the rough contours of existence.

Emotional maturity and intelligence is critical when dealing with this kind of work. This is primarily the reason why Leonard Cohen’s still mistaken for a wrist-slashing sad sack, when in actual fact the melancholy and torment isn’t always a literal reading of the artist’s state, especially when it’s accompanied by daubs (or smears) of humour, self deprecation and – in some notable instances – outright piss-taking.

When I first heard Summerteeth I simply wasn’t ready for it. I wasn’t old enough for it and the weight of the world, which was crushing me made it too difficult to bear and appreciate fully. That said, it’s still an album that’s been with me since I first heard it. It left an impression on me, so shocking and profound that my body literally rejected it (I think throwing the CD across the room counts here). But when it did eventually creep its way back into my life, it seemed miraculously compatible with everything going on with me at the time. Sure, I was still depressed but thank goodness I was a little smarter!

 

What’s Happening #5: Therapy Part II

WH5-TLR-Therapy

You (don’t) Want It Darker

I was just informed by my sweetheart, L that the yearly day of reckoning will be upon us once the 11th hour clocks over into midnight. More accurately but no less dramatically, I regard it as my personal reckoning since South Australia’s daylight savings ceases and the evenings are plunged into premature darkness along with increasingly colder nights and mornings. I dread this time of the year because I like daylight. I need daylight. Whatever proclivities I once had for seasonal darkness were left on the shores of a dismal coastline of seemingly endless depression. I used to relish the darkness and general climactic shittiness of the colder months. I don’t know exactly why, since I’d pretty much established an analytical framework from when I was about 16 which basically told me: “Stay inside, make a cup of tea, don’t go outside..well if you must, at least put a jacket on. It’s raining; do you care? Oh, that’s right..you’re being hard and brooding. Forgive me. You’ll be miserable when you get back…oh, fine – fuck it, don’t listen to me then.” So there I was on a given day walking along the beach in the middle of winter, occasionally it would piss down with rain. It would – more often than not – make me feel miserable, but at the same time there was a peculiar contentment to be had feeling lonely and bored whilst my shoes filled with water.

Shoot forward a couple of decades and whatever romantic notion I ascribe to walks along the beach in the middle of winter are now accompanied with a rainjacket and sensible footwear. Better yet, I don’t even get out the door and instead I make a cup of tea. Strategies!

A strategy is critical when you’re someone like me – partial to the whim of the elements, whether it’s coupled to the drift of seasonal activity or coughed up in a random spasm thanks to anthropogenic climate change. February and March are traditionally the time I lay the groundwork for segueing into not-daylight-savings-time relatively free of anxiety, insomnia and the odd panic attack. Unfortunately, this plan was scuppered by being busy and besieged by a myriad of…anxiety, insomnia and panic attacks.

You may recall the first of these long posts was written at the beginning of February this year and laid out some of the groundwork for feeling better about myself and my art practice. If someone was to read only this blog as a measure of my progress since then, you would potentially glean an impression that things have been alright, maybe even downright rosy. The evidence is there – lots of posts about engaging with own and others activities. It all seems reasonably upbeat and there’s loads of writing too (which I hope is gradually improving). The blog’s been great in this sense since it’s provided me with a point of focus, allowing me to steer my brain toward routine activities which are thoughtful and fulfilling. This sort of thing is also known by that fucking awful (awful, awful, awful) thing called ‘mindfulness’, which I equate more to a KPI dreamed up by a global HR thinktank as opposed to its supposed Buddhist connotations.

Doomed

So, on the surface of things the blog makes out that things are good, and in some respects they are. Jump over to another social media/self-publishing portal of mine such as Instagram and you might encounter the odd doomed fantasy-vision of a dystopian society. Behold:

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Look at the framing of that image. At the bottom the upper stories of a domestic idyll are ruptured by this dismal-looking building under construction that dominates the rest of the image. Desaturated completely of colour, amped-up contrast enriches the grim monochrome whilst the caption of ‘Ballardian skyline’ wraps everything in a neat little package of Depressed Chic.

Sometimes I wonder what an image like this does contextually in a given Instagram user’s photo stream. Of course it depends on whom the user is following and what other users might be posting, but occasionally I think that an image like my Ballard Building might have the chance of temporarily ruining someone’s afternoon. I’m trying not to judge here and this is a very general assumption, but a given person’s photo stream might hypothetically go like this:

picture of someone’s food >cute dog > picture of someone’s food > drink in mason jar > LOL cat > duck face > picture of someone’s food > Tristan’s picture of building in dismal monochrome > picture of someone’s food.

If the image hasn’t ruined their day then that’s excellent; I didn’t set out to purposefully ruin someone’s day. But, perhaps someone dwells briefly over this grim image and thinks to themselves, “wow, that guy must be really miserable”, the cogs tick over in their head and they proceed to unfollow my profile out of self-preservation because they don’t want to see shit like that in their feed. That’s totally fair enough. I must admit that  hypothetical photo stream description of mine above lays out a barely veiled contempt for all things food porn, cute dogs and mason jars. Who am I to judge if someone doesn’t like a photo of some fanstasy-dystopia? I despise mason jars. Each to their own.

Therapy Redux

I’ve veered a bit off track here. What I’m trying to suggest here is that in spite of the good stuff broadcast on this blog, there’s been a lot of grimness occupying my mind for the past couple of months. That domestic idyll in the picture is the blog, the ugly building erupting in the sky and ejaculating bad vibes into the air is pretty much everything else that’s been going on. Whilst life has remained relatively coherent and I haven’t overexploited my partner or friends patience and generosity, it has felt at times as though I’ve been losing my mind completely. This is why I haven’t been able to make a plan for dealing with the dreaded seasonal drift since I’ve been cracking up, recovering, analysing and making the best effort not to crack up again.

It’s been (or it’s felt like) a lengthy process of taking steps to get to a relatively safe position where I find myself now.

First of all I moved out of my private office at work and back into an open plan space. That worked wonders. I’d always fantasised about having my own office and shortly after my relocation into the city I jumped at the opportunity. I could get past the horrid early 90’s pastels that covered nearly every surface and the meagre slither of natural light entering the space because I had my own office. Since moving out of that space I’ve had conversations with fellow staff about the office and barring one exception practically everyone who’s occupied the space had to get out of there. I’m not supernaturally minded but I do enjoy spooking myself from time to time. Realistically, the problem was that I was learning a new role in an isolated space with minimal natural light and shitty decor, however I can’t get over the fact that there were some seriously bad vibes in that office. Note to self and anyone else: don’t work in dismal offices by yourself when your trying to learn a new role. It will fuck you up big time.

The second thing I did was arranged to see a councillor via work to talk through some of my issues. This is something I did once before a few years ago and mostly hated the process. I mostly hated being given homework to do. Thankfully, this current counciller hasn’t given me any homework to do and instead we talk through various issues pertaining to stress, anxiety and maintaining a work/life balance. If that sounds dry, it mostly is except this counciller actually has a personality and by the end of the first session we were already waxing broadly about the state of the global economy under Trump’s presidency and the virtues of Brian Eno’s ambient music. This might just work out and I do feel much better as a result of attending these sessions. Hooray for work who are completely subsidising the cost of this experiment, including the tangential waffles off-topic.

The third thing is a bit more multi-tiered and relates to improving aspects of my day-to-day diet and fitness. I ride my bike to work everyday and walk a fair bit to get around the place. This is one of the huge advantages of living so close to the city. So whilst I wasn’t putting on weight or remaining idle for long stretches, in the pits of my recent blues I found myself eating more bad stuff and drinking a lot more (thanks, Festival season.) So I’ve sorted that out to an extent and have curbed my booze intake marginally, though this is still an uncomfortable work-in-progress since I really, really like drinking wine. A critical workaround for this compulsion to eat bad food or drink a bit more than usual is to question why you’re doing it. If I find myself hankering for something deliciously fried, then I should be asking myself: “Do you really want this?; do you really need this?; Oh, don’t make me digest this…please.” At that point I might eat a banana instead. By this same token, if something alcoholic is on the agenda, I will most likely be asking myself: “what is the purpose of this? To get a bit numb and distract yourself from the horrors of your existence? Don’t go there, man.” At which point I might make myself a cup of licorice tea. So that’s working to an extent.  On the fitness front, I’ve recently gotten into the habit of jogging around the local oval in the mornings before work. This is the kind of bourgeois activity that would have made me mock myself verbally in public five years prior, but it’s pretty excellent and is just the thing I need to switch my brain off for five to ten minutes at a time as I amble around the oval in a daggy t-shirt. Walking doesn’t work so well since I use my brain a bit too much. It’s better if I’m entirely focused on not passing out and keeping in a straight line.

Beating Dem Ol’ Seasonal Affective Disorder Blues

Now it’s just past 6pm and the light’s beginning to wane. By 8pm it will be virtually dark. This time tomorrow night it will probably already be dark.

I’d like to think that I’ve gotten better at adjusting to this time of the year. The chemical interactions in my brain are probably following the same pathways they were twenty years ago when this stuff started to happen. I just have a better awareness of it nowadays. I think for the first few years (maybe even the first ten years) I had no idea what the hell was going on. I don’t even think the term Seasonal Affective Disorder (SADS) existed back in the 1990’s, so how on Earth am I going to know what’s going on with me if I don’t have a label to stick on it? An accredited label at that. I need labels, boxes, categories, schematics, gannt charts and to-do lists put my stuff in, under, around or through.

Life is too complicated and I’m getting too old to follow a miserablist’s  whim which lands me in my underwear on the beach in the middle of winter shouting at the ocean. I’m past that now.

I’ll still keep taking photos of depressing buildings though because I find them particularly beautiful in my own damaged kind of way. I do apologise in advance if it does happen to spoil your day.

Photo on 1-4-17 at 6.28 pm