Some recollections have popped up relating to Kill or Cure, a CD I put together in 2007-8, which I thought I would share.

In the summer of 2006 many people I knew were either turning forty or getting married. I had been a grateful recipient of Gordon Brown’s government’s Incapacity Benefit for two years. I was getting migraines for as many as five days a week. Sometimes these came with a rash. I rang NHS Direct (the helpline of the UK’s National Health Service) once and they thought I had leukaemia. On another occasion I had to get off the bus at Hall Ings in Bradford and stand over a drain while my nose bled into it for fifteen minutes.

But doctors were less inclined or able to treat migraines and more eager to add me to the large number of mentally ill people in the problematic city. I recall going for an interview at one of the offices at Bradford City Football Club for an Incapacity Benefit check-up. The junior doctor asked me if I had dressed myself that morning and if I watched a lot of daytime soap operas. He also enquired

“So how long have you been depressed?”

“Oh, about twenty-three years” I replied, without thinking about it too much.

During the first part of 2006 I had already overcome several psychological barriers to do gigs in Lincoln, London and Ipswich. I had played at a couple of weddings while all I wanted to do was stay in bed and watch Columbo. But at certain times of year, people neither want nor expect you to be depressed, so when it was my turn to relieve my mum, who was caring for my dear dad at the time, I went back down the motorway to Suffolk. My dad had early dementia and needed someone around to cook and help him remember things.

I started reading self-help books by The Barefoot Doctor while taking a break from caring duties. He recommended Tai Chi as a cure for depression, so when I got back to Bradford I started learning about that at North Bridge Leisure Centre in nearby Halifax. The only trouble was, this was martial Tai Chi, which involved throwing imaginary attackers to the ground and/or breaking their fingers off.

The bus stop where I waited for the 576 after the class was right outside a place called the World Peace Cafe, and in the window was a sign saying ‘Introduction to Meditation, 7-9, Mondays and Wednesdays.’ After getting my Level One certificate in Tai Chi I started going to the World Peace Cafe, which was really an outlet for the teachings of the New Kadampa Tradition of Buddhism, which was founded in 1977 in nearby Hebden Bridge and is now a worldwide operation.

Still doing gigs at this point, I was beginning to see through the mythical holy trinity of ‘live reputation’, ‘touring’ and being part of a ‘music scene’. Unless you are a teenage prodigy ripe for massive investment from the industry, these are the foundations you are supposed to have in place in order for your record to be taken seriously, at least that’s the kind of stuff the British are conditioned to believe.

‘Live reputation’, though not an imaginary phenomenon, did seem to be a conditional one in the grassroots music events that I witnessed in mid 2000s West Yorkshire. The listening environment was usually alcohol-based, and among solo performers the guitar wizards were the ones who went down well. As far as singers went, it was normally females who were valued. (It was also females whom male rhythm section players were willing to accompany.)

My strength was singing but I was only complimented on that if I was doing covers. I thought my lyrics were half-decent but getting them across in a room full of distracted boozers was a bit of a lost cause. It was just people being people though, and they meant no harm.

The people I knew who were ‘touring’ were either in receipt of grants from publicly-funded arts organizations, able to dazzle any audience with guitar pyrotechnics or members of, as a friend put it, ‘young indie bands playing for nothing’.

The third component of the fake triumvirate for getting your recording taken seriously, being part of a ‘music scene’, is the one I think is the biggest red herring. Perhaps it is only fabricated by the media AFTER they have created a success, a bit like when a subject is ‘trending’ or ‘going viral’ nowadays when really it’s thousands of fake social media accounts making the ‘decisions’ to click on links, not individual people.

The ‘music scene’ always seems to be somewhere other than where we actually are. In Britain you’re brought up to believe it’s in London. When you actually move to London you find yourself not in Bohemia but in some cultural wasteland dominated by sound systems and lowest-common-denominator values. There are a few pay-to-play venues in the West End but that’s about it. In Suffolk, where I grew up, established traditions of folk and blues continue in pubs and house parties. In West Yorkshire it was as I have described.

Shortly after some particularly savage heckling at a pub in Bradford, I made a conscious decision to stop doing gigs. Considering the migraines and depression it was probably the right time to regroup. Fortunately the government’s compassion, as demonstrated by Incapacity Benefit, and also a low income top-up scheme my partner was getting called Tax Credits, meant I could be ill when I was ill and do music when I wasn’t (a pretty good argument for Universal Basic Income, if you ask me.)

Without worrying about ‘live reputation’, ‘touring’, or ‘music scene’, I was able to assemble a group of songs and plan some sessions with musicians I knew in Leeds, London and Suffolk. This was partly paid for by selling my Fender Rhodes electric piano, which I had had since first getting depressed in 1983.

When the CD was finished, one magazine I sent it to ignored it. When I hired a publicist to send it to the same magazine, they announced that the Kill or Cure album ‘consolidated’ my ‘reputation as a bit of an underground star’. Another journal – courtesy of the same publicist – said I’d ‘been on the folk scene for over 10 years and played gigs all over the world’. Turns out I had a live reputation all along.

What I have recounted will I hope have demonstrated the fickle nature of the media. I believe our perceptions are also constantly changing, according to circumstance. But just last week I received a message from a friend of a friend saying he still uses the CD to demonstrate his hi-fi system to visitors. And at least four of the songs that were recorded are still in my setlist. So I would say it was worth it. The whole experience was a lesson in self-reliance. There was no producer. It was a team effort. The outside world could not give us affirmation, but the inside world might.

Background to an EP

2 comments on “The Benefits of Incapacity

  • Great blog entry, Ben! The thing that stands out for me here is not to much the fickle nature of the media, but the sheeplike brainwashing or mysterious capitalist forces that mean most audiences would rather hear some jackass cover “Stairway to Heaven” than hear really good original songs that might expand their experience and consciousness.

  • So true! Fortunately you did not get permanently discouraged by the early experiences you had.
    I enjoy your singing and your recordings very much. And now I can also appreciate your writing!
    Looking forward to the next post!

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