The book that changed my life

Teenage undiagnosed music lover Part 2. Yours truly discovers classic rock beyond the Beatles and his life will never be the same again.

“Come on it’s not all music” one relative half-teased me when I didn’t recognise the name of a famous sportsman on her Facebook status.

But for me at the age of thirteen, boy was it.

Nobody else was interested in how far a line of pylons stretched (no Google Earth then).

I didn’t dig sport and team sport lessons at school usually led to someone getting mad at me back in the changing rooms for scoring an own goal or somesuch. All the teacher could say was “I know he’s annoying sometimes but AREN’T WE ALL!!!” God rest his soul but they didn’t know how to handle that sort of thing back then.

The nearest cinema was half an hour’s bus ride away and anyway I needed plots explaining to me more then.

My favourite TV series had dwindled to a shadow of its former self and only had a few years left before the BBC pulled the plug. (It came back in 2005, that narrows it down a bit).

Music had it for me. The genesis of my love affair with the Beatles has been detailed in a previous entry. But a series on TV at the time called The Rock n Roll Years, which admittedly I was watching so I could get my visual fix of the Fab Four, opened my eyes to there being so much more. When the Rolling Stones appeared playing a song that had been on a single a mate of my dad’s had had, I remembered the song and how cool I had thought it was at the tender age of six.

“What’s this song called Dad?”

“Jumping Jack Flash”

I knew I’d have to start investigating the Stones at some point – when not chasing up George Harrison’s solo stuff through the local library system that is. One term into second year (Year 8 in today’s parlance) the time came.

It was nearly Christmas. I had been browsing music related titles in my local bookstore. One in particular had caught my eye. It is pictured below (image grabbed from eBay).

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I opened it up. Facts and figures. Aspies love those. I already had them for the Beatles courtesy of a lyric book complete with discography. Now I could investigate further. When a book token came by post (you always opened what only looked like a card early) I knew what I was going to spend it on.

The Stones entry was the first I looked upon. Yes, Jumping Jack Flash had deservedly topped charts on both sides of the Atlantic. Ah but there was more. So much more. With no streaming services or YouTube back then, I was left with guesswork. Why I didn’t avail myself more of my local library is anyone’s guess. But anyhow I familiared myself up on the Beatles’ solo careers, got to know which Stone did what and found myself looking through to learn of artists they’d covered like Chuck Berry.

Then there were others I’d heard of in passing like Pink Floyd and Deep Purple (I’d  heard Smoke on the Water on the curate’s son’s guitar not long before). Now I could read up and learn more and see what was touted as worth listening to. Now I knew why one sixth former’s jacket had Black Sabbath emblazoned on the back. Now I knew why the names Abba, Roxy Music and Thin Lizzy had all disappeared from the charts not long after I’d started noticing their names in them – surprise surprise they’d all disbanded at about that time. Abba… so THAT’S who did that Money Money Money thing Mum used to sing while she was doing the housework (much as she loathed Abba). Bob Dylan – I had to look him up cos I’d learnt Blowing in the Wind at a summer camp the previous year and heard Peter, Paul and Mary’s rendition on The Rock n Roll Years soon after. It wasn’t in the hit singles list but I knew which album to find it on.

At my school it wasn’t cool to be a trainspotter and somehow my love of the few Sinclair Spectrum games I had didn’t inspire me to save up for or hunt out more. I knew it would be a long time before I got to explore Britain’s railways in any depth (I’d bought a national timetable and map with birthday money on turning thirteen).

But now whole new vistas were opened up. And the folks singing these songs knew how I felt and expressed it better than I could, and certainly better than any counsellor or form tutor had managed to relate to.

Unrequited love and being a target of bullying with varying degrees of provocation? George Harrison could deal with both in one stanza.

In the eyes of the lonely one
Everything is cold and hopeless that he looks upon
He needs a friend, a lover who can comfort him
His deeds offend, he knows that he has brought on him… Teardrops

Teardrops (Somewhere in England, 1981)

And when I made a start on other bands, the Rolling Stones knew about my innocence that had died.

It is the evening of the day
I sit and watch the children play
Smiling faces I can see
But not for me
I sit and watch as tears go by

As Tears Go By (single track, 1965)

It wasn’t long before I got into Fleetwood Mac too. Their entry in the book had fascinated me – even their name had a certain strange allure. Conveniently, they brought out their first single and album (Tango in the Night) in five years not long afterwards. A getting on point which led me to delve deeper. If I had had enough of being told “That’s the way you get bullied when you call people names” and thinking “Well heck I get bullied anyway” and hearing the “Just ignore him” advice yet again right in front of said tormentor, thus encouraging him all the more by making me the fall guy then I had no further to look than the Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie co-write World Turning.

Everybody’s trying to say I’m wrong…
Maybe I’m wrong but who’s to say what’s right
I need someone to help me through the night

World turning – I got to get my feet back on the ground
World turning – everybody’s got me down

World Turning (Fleetwood Mac, 1975)

“You’re obsessed with records aren’t you. And groups” the French teacher chided me one summer afternoon out on the lawn when none of us wanted to sing Alouette. “You have to remember to focus on real life as well you know.”

But heck this WAS real life. The Doctor and the Daleks weren’t real. Nor were Tom Tomato or Pete Pepper whose ‘adventures’ I had been magnetised back to a few summers before.

But these people were. Whether it was John Lennon pouring his emotional pain out in between political rants or Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks ranting at each other in song on songs like Go Your Own Way and The Chain, I had found real people to identify with. I read their stories in the Rock Handbook over and over again. It all reached deeper than any shrink could and moreover at my independent school where it was “hip to be square” (to quote Huey Lewis) and Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd could be heard drifting out of the dormitories, it helped me meet my non-autistic comrades halfway and made it easier for them to relate to me and vice versa.

“Reading your Bible again?” my grandmother would tease me when she would see the book spread open in front of me on the dining table.

Well maybe not the Bible – more on a level with Greek mythology albeit with real-life tails of derring-do, psychotic episodes and great music being created that made me thirst for more.

I shall probably recount how certain artists caught my attention and brought me to the point where I own all their commercially released studio work in future entries.

But though multiple copies of it fell apart over the years, I will never forget the book that changed my life.

 

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“I’m not so self assured” or “All my troubles seemed so far away” – my troubled early adolescence and the Beatles’ music.

Music therapy is a big thing today. Part of me thinks if only they’d had it readily available in my youth but then I remember how much harder I found it to open up and be myself when forced to lay my emotions bare in other kinds of therapy.

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I made my own music therapy. I found I could think and express myself far more clearly with a lyric or two to identify with. Oh sure we all have to some extent. Who hasn’t found a love song to sigh along to with those early crushes. But let me give you a timeline.

I had always appreciated music. I had been exposed to folk music at an early age courtesy of an aunt and uncle with guitars and always enjoyed the records my mother got from the library of songs like Old Daddy Fox and Peri Meri Dixi Domini (google them) considerably more than the stuff like The Wheels on the Bus and I’m A Little Teapot that were supposedly the height of excitement and intellect for the average child of my age. With books it was the other way round – I never really stayed deeply into them after I got past the age of having illustrations to guide me but that’s another story.

When I was five my mother bought me a Beatles record – a rare pressing of their first American album (the same as the first British one but minus two tracks) that just happened to be in our supermarket. I liked it so much that she got me another – a compilation only available on the European continent where we were living at the time (sadly lost in a house move a few years later). I loved that so much that she bought me a songbook. All in alphabetical order, no discography or guide to that strange eight year journey through their recording career. But we sang Yesterday, Ob-La-Di-Ob-La-Da and When I’m Sixty-Four at school, a kindly great aunt gave me the Yellow Submarine album one Christmas and somehow I knew there was so much more to these four guys.

 

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In the summer between Junior and Senior Schools I felt the need for a trip down memory lane to a safer place. I didn’t get kicks out of watching The A-Team and didn’t have the co-ordination for break dancing or doing wheelies on a BMX. My beloved Doctor Who had had an 18-month hiatus imposed on it by the then controller of BBC1 and there was a bit of a vacuum. I had spent the summer before buying five-year old books with my pocket money to try and get the ghost of infanthood laid (and complete my collections) before I had to go to secondary and be all intellectual (I thought) and the mental erosion from this episode was noticeable – I was studious enough at school but at home my mind was full of which members of the Munch Bunch lived in flowerpots and next door to whom etc etc. Now one year on, once again I needed a safe familiar place – one that wouldn’t have anyone saying “Isn’t that a bit young for you?” As end of term tension simmered while we worked on the end of year play (I only had a small chorus role) I found my mind drifting to what little music I had in my personal collection at the time – bits of classical, some French chanson my mother had tried to turn me onto and… the Beatles.

I had a record token left over from Christmas and after an exhausting week at an activity centre where they thought the height of excitement was to spray you with string or push you into the pool, I decided to get a Beatles record. And I did… it was called A Collection of Beatles Oldies and collected so many songs I already knew from the lost compilation along with gems like Paperback Writer which I’d heard my father singing round the house on occasion and Michelle which I absolutely fell in love with (partly cos I had a crush on the Michelle Fowler character in Eastenders).

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Soon I could talk of little else. I got a second hand single with the two tracks missing from the American album I’d had and bought second hand singles and rereleased EPs whenever I could. My uncle put loads of his Beatles vinyl on tape for my twelfth birthday and for Christmas. One guy at school even gave me a compilation tape he’d nicked off his brother (Rock n Roll Music Volume 2) – not often I’ve been guilty of receiving stolen goods but hey I was only 11.

This influx was to prove fortuitous, for the transition to secondary school, although initially it gave me a thrill to have different teachers for different subjects and a homework diary, proved very difficult. Although it was merely the secondary department of the same school where I had spent my primary years, the major influx of new pupils couldn’t get their head round me and my ‘differences’ and it didn’t take long for the taunting to begin. I reacted by shouting and yelling a lot and it wasn’t long before there was a concerned phone call to my parents who were duly summoned in and told I was to see the school shrink. It also didn’t help that the staff at the railway station, who had perceived inappropriate and potentially hazardous behaviour from this strange youngster had spoken to my school who had in turn written to my parents thus causing them (and me) even more distress. Well heck no-one told me you had to keep back from the platform edge even when there wasn’t a yellow line! One of the railwaymen had clearly got on the train and followed me as there was also a report of “embarrassing other commuters by pulling non-existent threads out of their conversations” rather an exaggeration as although I found myself being befriended or addressed by other commuters, ranging from old ladies to college students, who saw me wandering up and down the corridor looking for the perfectly positioned seat, I didn’t usually butt in on conversations between perfect strangers.

Suddenly I had become a problem case – one of the “bad boys”, receiving treatment I thought only juvenile delinquents got. Suddenly, Lennon-McCartney lyrics that had just started to become meaningful became much more so. Songs like Help! and Yesterday, both quoted in the title of this piece (though I turn my nose up at the latter nowadays), were my real therapy. It really had become the case that I was not so self-assured, my independence was vanishing in the haze life was no longer an easy game and I needed a place to hide. Written by John and Paul respectively – Paul the promising student, John the rebel constantly marked down for insolence etc. Previously I had polarised everybody as either Menaces or Softies thanks to my love of Dennis the Menace and other strips in the Beano where the bullies and the wimps were polarised (today’s autistic kids seem to do the same with Perfect Pete and Horrid Henry). Now I saw that in real life there was no need – the rebel and the student had formed the most popular band of all time together and written two equally vulnerable lyrics. You didn’t need to be plonked in front of a psychoanalyst to “talk about your feelings” as I had been on and off in those pre-diagnostic days when the then powers that be thought my problems were likely to be purely emotional. All you needed was a record and singers and writers who felt the same way and had committed it to plastic with a little help from their guitars.

And if I needed a stroll back to childhood innocence again then I could do it without the aid of the Munch Bunch or other juvenilia – all I needed was to listen to something like the White Album where a psychotic suicidal song like John Lennon’s Yer Blues sat snugly between Paul McCartney’s more all-age friendly Birthday and Mother Nature’s Son. A pop/rock song took about as long to listen to as a children’s picture book being narrated, was just as entertaining and nobody could accuse you of being juvenile for liking it. The TV series The Rock n Roll Years opened your mind up to the political unrest going on at the time and to other music too so all in all I was enjoying innocence and experience all in one.

The year got better as it went along. Although it took time to learn the difference between me misbehaving and others misbehaving (they weren’t having to see the shrink!), the letter home which had caused such hurt was burnt up and washed down the sink by my mother who had sensed my ongoing distress and need for full closure. I even became the notorious Beatle freak of the class – when our music teacher announced that her Beatles songbook had gone missing there was a cry of “Give it back Stobart!” from across the room. Surprisingly enough, I knew it was only a joke.

There were more adventures to come and rock would be there throughout them all, defining and shaping my worldview, giving me an outlet where previously there had been little and an escape route that no-one could deny me.

More to follow soon…

 

Higher Ground or Reasons to be Cynical: Rock, pop and disability

If the disabled prodigy is ever to remain in the limelight for the long haul then an increasing degree of independence and confidence is essential, along with perhaps the ability to mock the stereotype.

DISCLAIMER: Images are imported from Wikipedia based on their fair usage guidelines. All copyrights hereby acknowledged.

Just recently a talent contest for autistic kids was brought to my attention. On the video an old school buddy shared with me about it was a band consisting of three teenage kids with autistic disorders plus two of their dads and a carer/frontman.

Admittedly my sense of fierce independence was rather shaken to begin with. But when I saw that they’d played a number of festivals, gained interviews in national newspapers and even been joined onstage by Tom Jones at one point, my cynicism melted somewhat although I still sense they’re adding to a generic image that people with autism of whatever form need Mummy and Daddy’s help with everything.

But it got me to thinking – about parental involvement in one’s musical career but also how rock and pop have previously proved a grand arena in which one’s own disability can have the back of one’s middle finger shown to it in no uncertain terms.

Paul Weller was managed by his father John until the senior Mr Weller’s death in 2009. But onstage he was always very much his own man. OK so the old boy may have emceed him at times but Paul was the singer, the writer and the star and musically always very sure of himself and unafraid to step into virgin territory with no musical assistance from Dad at all.

Disability in itself need not be a barrier. From J S Bach to the late blues guitarist Jeff Healey, blindness has given countless musicians a heightened use of their other senses. But while disability is not something to hide, it is sad that it should be used as the chief means to plug an artist now that the days when you had to call yourself Blind Lemon Jefferson are long gone, except possibly to silence the naysayers.

Exhibit A: Stevie Wonder

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The most obvious example is Stevie Wonder. While people’s initial response to the teenage prodigy might have been amazement at his ability in the face of blindness, this is not the same as having an especial enjoyment of Wonder’s music in its own right. Indeed his greatest achievement is not so much his having mastered an array of keyboard and percussion instruments in childhood despite disability let alone achieving a No 1 hit with Fingertips (Part 2) at the age of 13 but in standing up to Motown for his artistic rights.

In its 1960s heyday, Motown had very specific roles for everyone – there were singers, players, writers and producers. Wonder’s UK breakthrough hit Uptight (Everything’s Alright) gave him a minor writing credit for the central brass riff but TV appearances show him lip syncing without even a keyboard to complete the image while some hits like Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday were written for him.

But the former Stevland Morris was not to be deterred. He fought for complete creative control and by 1969’s My Cherie Amour album had the sole production credit. Two years later, Where I’m Coming From saw him co-write every track with his then wife and on its follow-up Music of My Mind, Wonder played all bar two instruments. The stage was set for a commercial renaissance and Talking Book, released in October 1972, was an across the board smash. Yes there were two other producers and some co-writers and even guest appearances by the likes of Jeff Beck but these were Stevie’s choices – he wasn’t Motown’s docile servant anymore and with hits like You Are The Sunshine of My Life and Superstition, began a run of smashes that made him probably their biggest money-spinner of the 1970s.

Whether the younger half of The Autistix will go on to achieve more than simply proving that autistic people can do it remains to be seen.

Exhibit B: Ian Dury

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Before you all begin your nostalgic chorus of Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick, let us remember that Dury (1942-2000) contracted polio at the age of seven and despite being at a caring special school in early years, was forced into grammar school at secondary age and tormented for such unhelpable crimes as soiling his bed as well as being forced to learn epic poetry for lesser offences – mercifully a kindly member of staff made sure this was put a stop to.

Dury went to art college and trained under Peter Blake of Sgt Pepper cover fame and eventually got into the music scene with his short-lived band Kilburn and the High Roads but success eluded him until the age of 35 when What A Waste became a Top 10 hit and his debut solo album New Boots and Panties became a cult classic.

Dury was not churning out crap in the name of being cute or a disability poster boy. He wore his calipers without shame despite the fact that they didn’t generate any image of cool to deceive those none the wiser, unlike Stevie Wonder’s dark glasses, and anyone slightly bemused by such a sight on Top of the Pops would quickly have been distracted by his observant spoken word poetry ably backed by the Blockheads. He wrote quality lyrics sung or spoken in his cockney/Essex accent about life as a common lad nicking porn mags from the newsagent or showing his age by nostalgising over Gene Vincent.

But the best thing Dury or anyone on the rock/pop scene ever did for the disabled ‘community’ was the release of Spasticus Autisticus in 1981. I say release – the song featured on his Lord Upminster album that year but the single was quickly withdrawn for fear of causing offence. But the song had in fact been recorded after Dury had been asked to do something for the International Year of Disabled Persons. While not against making needs more widely known, he refused to be paraded as an exhibit (like the Conjoined Fetus Lady in South Park in later years) along the lines of “Look – he’s disabled” and instead recorded an iconoclastic rap taking full advantage of the way the word ‘spastic’, previously an adjective for one suffering from cerebral palsy, had degenerated into a playground insult.

The fact that Polydor Records wouldn’t release it and DJs wouldn’t play it just goes to show. This was a member of the disabled ‘community’ making fun of himself and thus disarming the detractors. This would have meant that kids in the playground with cerebral palsy or undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome could turn it back on their persecutors.Said persecutors were aided in their sick cause far more from the unlikely source of Blue Peter when Joey Deacon, an elderly disabled man who relied on one person to read his communications, another to type them up and yet another to read them out, appeared on the children’s magazine programme. It wasn’t long before everyone from the kid who gave a wrong answer to the weirdo with no diagnosis (like yours truly) got dubbed “Joey”. I suffered years of “Joey”, only coming to understand it when I attended a seminar about disability in which the speaker asked for insulting terms which he wrote on a flip chart.

But Dury… he avoided such patronising exhibitionism. People of all disabilities would be well advised to do the same.

That said, if ever the lead guitar/bass/drums line-up at the back of the Autistix go on to become well established in their own right with their parents and carer out of the picture, then the latter will have done a sterling job.