Long read: The Sound of Silence – How Music Saved Me During Lockdown

By Phil Scarisbrick

I can’t get my head around it; I keep feeling smaller and smaller…’

Scrolling mindlessly through Facebook for the umpteenth time that day, I came across a post comprising of a collection of screenshots of ‘feel good’ tweets. It is the most wholesome, yet saccharine stuff you could imagine, and would never normally pique my interest. What else am I doing though? So I look through these stories of random acts of kindness. The school teacher who visits his cancer-stricken student in hospital to recap lessons, the grave of a deceased baby turned into a sandpit, so his big brother can still play with him, and so on. In the background, I have The National’s Trouble Will Find Me on, and the song I Need My Girl starts. Before I know it, I’m a blubbering mess. The soundtrack, the visuals, and the weight of eight weeks of lockdown combining to leave me completely helpless to control what I’m doing.

Lockdown has meant different things to different people, but it amplifies everything. The highs, the lows and everything in between feel more profound. I am very lucky in my situation. Due to chronic illness, I have had to remain away from my NHS job, but I am at home with my fiancé and my son. I know many more people are not as fortunate, and are alone or dealing with the loss of loved ones. My NHS colleagues are fighting this horrendous virus every day to keep us safe, and the emotional and physical toll it is taking on them cannot be quantified. We, as a society, are picking at the scab of the disease – hoping that it will be as it was before underneath. Maybe it will be. Maybe we will take it away too soon, releasing a fresh stream of blood leaving us fighting to heal it once more. Maybe the scab will reveal a scar that can never heal – just a skewed impression of what existed before.

These unknowns leave a weight on everyone. We have one foot on the land mine, one wrong move and the consequences will be devastating. All we can do is put our trust in the experts and hope that they can deliver us from this purgatory as unscathed as possible. This emotional turmoil has made art more important than ever. From a purely practical point of view, it is there to fill the abundance of free time we now have. But its purpose is far more vital than simply filling hours in the day. It is our comfort blanket, our access to information, our emotional outlet – and for those who are alone – it is company.

For the first couple of weeks of lockdown, I only wanted to watch and listen to things that were fun. I focussed on comedies. Step Brothers, The Office, goofy Seth Rogen films, I ingested the lot. Comedy podcasts also featured heavily in my daily schedule. It was pure escapism, but once they were over, reality flooded back in. This temporary plaster did the job for its duration, but had no real lasting effect on me.

As I’ve already said, I am very lucky in my situation. I don’t for one minute want to give the impression that I feel that I am being hard done to, or have it worse than anyone else. The mental impact it has had on me though is like nothing I have ever felt before. Due to my illness, I receive treatment which suppresses my immune system. Because of this, I am categorised as moderate to high risk when it comes to Covid-19. That means that I am at no greater risk of catching it, but if I do, the chances of it being fatal are much higher than for the average person of my age. It is impossible for that kind of information not to weigh you down when it is the only thing anyone is talking about, apart from that bitch Carole Baskin.

Nobody wants to experience sad events, but people like to listen to sad songs. That’s the beauty of music…’

Music has held my hand throughout this whole experience. It has cheered me up when I needed it. It has made me cry uncontrollably when I’ve needed to let it all out. It has helped me contextualise my feelings when they have felt unfathomable. It has got me out of bed in the morning when all I’ve wanted to do is stay switched off from the real world. The old favourites evoke memories of the nights out with friends – of the ecstasy of great gigs and of a myriad of other life events that fill me with joy. Dancing like a maniac to Stevie Wonder’s Superstition at The Ferret in Preston with my mates and a pint of Strongbow. Experiencing the greatest album ever made – Darkness on the Edge of Town – live in full at Wembley Stadium, for what is still the best gig I’ve ever attended. Listening to Van Morrison’s Moondance with my new born son, as I try to fathom how I could love anyone so much: a question I am still yet to answer to this day.

That boy is Dylan, named after music’s greatest wordsmith, and his namesake’s work has also featured heavily in my rotation. Like the comedies I described earlier, his music is pure escapism. It leaves a more indelible mark on me once I am finished though. It isn’t just a sugar rush, but a fulfilling and life-affirming experience. As a young man, I always said that Highway 61 Revisited was his finest record, but with age I’ve come to realise that Blood on the Tracks is really deserving of this accolade. It is a record about love, but doesn’t try and paint it as anything simple or straight forward. It is a tug of war, and nobody conveys this better than Bob.

Every Monday, The National have held a global communal event on their YouTube channel. This is generally a live performance from recent years streamed in full. Once again, it gives me license to be transported to another time and place with the best band in the world. Whether it’s the slow-burning build to euphoria of England, the rollicking exhale of angst and anger of Mr. November, or the poignant expressions of affection of Light Years, the band have every emotional cornerstone covered. They feel like old friends now. I’ve never met them – apart from an up-close-and-personal experience of mobbing singer Matt Berninger during a gig with his side project El Vy – but it always feels like they’re performing just for me. It always feels personal, and I will always love that.

The hunt for new music has also featured heavily in my daily routine. It is a difficult time for artists to release new music. The usual promotional routine of live dates, in-store performances and meet-and-greets, and press interviews are either impossible or made significantly more difficult. Fortunately, as somebody who writes about new music, I have access to whatever is coming out and have a greater opportunity to discover the gems that may otherwise evade me. I’ve never been too bothered about Laura Marling’s music, but her new record – Song For Our Daughter –  is a wonderful collection that has forced me to re-evaluate her back catalogue. Damien Jurado’s What’s New, Tomboy? took a little time to click, but once it did, I became entirely hooked on it. And Fiona Apple released Fetch The Bolt Cutters, which received reviews that were very difficult to live up to, but after repeated listens it is certainly making hay in doing so.

There have also been those acts who I didn’t know or knew very little of. Forever Honey’s Pre-Mortem High EP is a great early look at a band for whom I’m excited to hear a full album from. I Break Horses’ Warnings is another one that I’ve been very much enjoying. The best record I’ve listened to though is Eve Owen’s Don’t Let The Ink Dry. No album has touched me so profoundly for a long time. It has soundtracked my early morning coffee in the garden, my daily exercise through the Welsh countryside, and my late night solitude while my family sleep upstairs. In all settings, it has sounded nothing less than stunning, and has been one of my favourite lockdown companions.

Nobody knows when this pandemic will end. We use phrases like ‘when all this is over’ on a daily basis, trying to project ourselves into a future where we can hug our parents or loved ones again. Where we can eat at a restaurant, go for a pint with our mates, or just pop to see someone for a brew and a chat. For those of us for whom music holds such a profound place in our lives, we also want to be able to return to our favourite record shops and flick through those beautiful racks filled with a million dreams and ideas. We want to return to a place where we can pack into a sweaty venue to listen to a band or artist in their purest form. We want to reconnect with the community who share our affinity for these sonics companions. Most of all, we want to feel alive, but it is important to remember that we are while many others are not so lucky. So while we’re living in the ‘Upside Down’, don’t dwell on what we had before, or what feels so out of reach right now. Drop the needle on a brilliant record, take a chance on an album or artist you may never have listened to otherwise, or simply fill your days with whatever makes you happy. We are all in this together, and nothing connects people like music. Stay safe everyone.

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