James Rhodes: ‘Find what you love and let it kill you’

My life as a concert pianist can be frustrating, lonely, demoralising and exhausting. But is it worth it? Yes, without a shadow of a doubt.

James Rhodes

‘Isn’t it worth fighting back in some small way?’ Pianist James Rhodes. Photograph: Dave Brown 2012

After the inevitable “How many hours a day do you practice?” and “Show me your hands”, the most common thing people say to me when they hear I’m a pianist is “I used to play the piano as a kid. I really regret giving it up”. I imagine authors have lost count of the number of people who have told them they “always had a book inside them”. We seem to have evolved into a society of mourned and misplaced creativity. A world where people have simply surrendered to (or been beaten into submission by) the sleepwalk of work, domesticity, mortgage repayments, junk food, junk TV, junk everything, angry ex-wives, ADHD kids and the lure of eating chicken from a bucket while emailing clients at 8pm on a weekend.

Do the maths. We can function – sometimes quite brilliantly – on six hours’ sleep a night. Eight hours of work was more than good enough for centuries (oh the desperate irony that we actually work longer hours since the invention of the internet and smartphones). Four hours will amply cover picking the kids up, cleaning the flat, eating, washing and the various etceteras. We are left with six hours. 360 minutes to do whatever we want. Is what we want simply to numb out and give Simon Cowell even more money? To scroll through Twitter and Facebook looking for romance, bromance, cats, weather reports, obituaries and gossip? To get nostalgically, painfully drunk in a pub where you can’t even smoke?

What if you could know everything there is to know about playing the piano in under an hour (something the late, great Glenn Gould claimed, correctly I believe, was true)? The basics of how to practise and how to read music, the physical mechanics of finger movement and posture, all the tools necessary to actually play a piece – these can be written down and imparted like a flat-pack furniture how-to-build-it manual; it then is down to you to scream and howl and hammer nails through fingers in the hope of deciphering something unutterably alien until, if you’re very lucky, you end up with something halfway resembling the end product.

What if for a couple of hundred quid you could get an old upright on eBay delivered? And then you were told that with the right teacher and 40 minutes proper practice a day you could learn a piece you’ve always wanted to play within a few short weeks. Is that not worth exploring?

What if rather than a book club you joined a writer’s club? Where every week you had to (really had to) bring three pages of your novel, novella, screenplay and read them aloud?

What if, rather than paying £70 a month for a gym membership that delights in making you feel fat, guilty and a world away from the man your wife married you bought a few blank canvases and some paints and spent time each day painting your version of “I love you” until you realised that any woman worth keeping would jump you then and there just for that, despite your lack of a six-pack?

I didn’t play the piano for 10 years. A decade of slow death by greed working in the City, chasing something that never existed in the first place (security, self-worth, Don Draper albeit a few inches shorter and a few women fewer). And only when the pain of not doing it got greater than the imagined pain of doing it did I somehow find the balls to pursue what I really wanted and had been obsessed by since the age of seven – to be a concert pianist.

Admittedly I went a little extreme – no income for five years, six hours a day of intense practice, monthly four-day long lessons with a brilliant and psychopathic teacher in Verona, a hunger for something that was so necessary it cost me my marriage, nine months in a mental hospital, most of my dignity and about 35lbs in weight. And the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is not perhaps the Disney ending I’d envisaged as I lay in bed aged 10 listening to Horowitz devouring Rachmaninov at Carnegie Hall.

My life involves endless hours of repetitive and frustrating practising, lonely hotel rooms, dodgy pianos, aggressively bitchy reviews, isolation, confusing airline reward programmes, physiotherapy, stretches of nervous boredom (counting ceiling tiles backstage as the house slowly fills up) punctuated by short moments of extreme pressure (playing 120,000 notes from memory in the right order with the right fingers, the right sound, the right pedalling while chatting about the composers and pieces and knowing there are critics, recording devices, my mum, the ghosts of the past, all there watching), and perhaps most crushingly, the realisation that I will never, ever give the perfect recital. It can only ever, with luck, hard work and a hefty dose of self-forgiveness, be “good enough”.

And yet. The indescribable reward of taking a bunch of ink on paper from the shelf at Chappell of Bond Street. Tubing it home, setting the score, pencil, coffee and ashtray on the piano and emerging a few days, weeks or months later able to perform something that some mad, genius, lunatic of a composer 300 years ago heard in his head while out of his mind with grief or love or syphilis. A piece of music that will always baffle the greatest minds in the world, that simply cannot be made sense of, that is still living and floating in the ether and will do so for yet more centuries to come. That is extraordinary. And I did that. I do it, to my continual astonishment, all the time.

The government is cutting music programmes in schools and slashing Arts grants as gleefully as a morbidly American kid in Baskin Robbins. So if only to stick it to the man, isn’t it worth fighting back in some small way? So write your damn book. Learn a Chopin prelude, get all Jackson Pollock with the kids, spend a few hours writing a Haiku. Do it because it counts even without the fanfare, the money, the fame and Heat photo-shoots that all our children now think they’re now entitled to becauseHarry Styles has done it.Charles Bukowski, hero of angsty teenagers the world over, instructs us to “find what you love and let it kill you“. Suicide by creativity is something perhaps to aspire to in an age where more people know Katie Price better than the Emperor concerto.




I was a little surprised when Neil Young published his memoir, “Waging Heavy Peace,” because he is the only artist I have ever encountered who is proud of not reading. Reading would distract him from writing songs, he once told me, meaning interfere with whatever mechanism supplied him with his melodies and lyrics. I am not suggesting that I know better than he does what methods are appropriate for him, but I wonder what else he might have written if he had sought the company of writers such as Tolstoy or Dickens or Chekhov or Kierkegaard.

I am not especially well read but reading means a lot to me. Reading is the only means I know of to enter intimately into minds remote in time or place from my own—from the ancient past, for example—or to feel broadened by the thoughts and experiences other people very different from me have had. I can try sympathetically to understand and absorb the lives around me, but I can include the world as it was and is if I read. (In the case of the distant past, something essential is lost in the process of translation, of course, so the intimacy is approximate. We might read Plato and regard him as modern, but that is from the translator’s being closer to our period than his. We have no way of knowing how ancient people sounded; it is lost to us, like some religious knowledge.) Books are a means of enlightened conversation, of being affected by people we would not otherwise meet. Reading also binds people together, by making a commonality of the experiences of the human heart and mind. Reading strengthens us; it makes us larger than we are and gives us the capacity to be selves we might not have been in the absence of profound and stimulating ideas and feelings.

Of course, writing can be coarsened and corrupted—that is always a concern of a free press—but writing that is felt deeply and that is truthful is not usually corruptible, and if it is corrupted the discussion becomes, What made it possible to happen, what was the appeal? One idea replaces another, that is, and the conversation continues. Pete Seeger says that a piece of writing may be read only once, but a song is sung over and over, and so he regards songs as more powerful tools of resistance than writing, but popular songs don’t (easily) embody complex ideas. They provoke and instruct and entertain, they even clarify, but a deeper means of thinking can often be expressed better in a story, a poem, a play, or a novel. I am aware that such a position is, perhaps, essentially romantic, but I believe in the church of writing and reading.

I bring this up because I have just read Young’s book, which is a strange, rambling, cramped, sometimes goofy, sometimes sentimental, and sometimes moving document. It consists mainly of talk about cars and advanced audio equipment, episodes of his childhood and life as a young man, a couple of medical emergencies, his working practices, and recollections of people he knew, some of whom he has outlived.

My longest encounter with Young was several years ago, when I wrote about him for another magazine. I had read “Shakey,” the fanatically specific biography of him written by Jimmy McDonough, and had encountered the remark made to McDonough by Young’s manager when McDonough had asked to spend time with Young. Neil doesn’t hang, McDonough was told. The magazine I was writing for had arranged for me to receive the engagement Young offers to journalists. A driver delivers you to the parking lot of a restaurant in the hills south of San Francisco. (The restaurant, when I arrived, was closed for the season.) Redwoods surround the parking lot and tower over the restaurant. Shafts of light come through the tops of the trees, and the trees are so tall that the scale of what you can see seems altered, so that you feel the disproportion of size that a child feels in a room where a table, occupied by adults, seems to loom above him or her. Eventually an old jalopy shows up with Young, who collects and restores old cars, especially cars from the period of his childhood, at the wheel. Over the course of about two hours, he drives you in a circle that goes down to the Pacific and along it, through a couple of small towns and back up into the hills, past the house where Ken Kesey lived in La Honda and the early acid tests were held and the sixties began, and a bar where Young used to play with his band Crazy Horse, where he would announce to friends in the afternoon that they would play that evening, and the place would fill up mostly with people the band knew. What Young is doing is driving you around the borders of his ranch, which run from the redwoods down toward the water.

On the ride Young told me that he didn’t read, but I might have guessed anyway. He was a reserved and slightly grave figure, and talking with him was like being trapped with someone whose mind had no reach. He could only talk about what he felt or had seen or thought. I couldn’t respond to one of his remarks by raising an idea it had made me think of and have him make some connection to some other thought and then respond to that. A part of him seemed to have been arrested at a very early age. I am, of course, accustomed to meeting people I don’t feel able to talk to, or who aren’t interested in talking to me. I hadn’t expected, though, to find that someone whose work had ranged so widely had no curiosity about such an obvious possibility for enlarging the imagination, or to have been so indifferent to it. He seemed like someone who had worked at the same factory for years and years without ever wondering what lay to the left or right of the gates. Finally, I asked who he liked to read, and he said he didn’t read, and I thought, Bingo.

After the ride it occurred to me that his lack of reading accounted for some few of his lyrics being insipid or sentimental. He apparently had no examples of language carrying complicated thoughts or feelings, the way they are carried in the poems of writers such as Philip Levine or William Butler Yeats or the prose of a writer such as Isak Dinesen. The words Young writes fit his songs, often aptly and forcefully, but they are nothing like as elegant as his melodies. He has a superb sense of melody, perhaps even an underappreciated one. Some of his songs seem to be urgent bulletins from the deeper regions of the psyche—I am thinking of “Helpless,” but only because it is the first one that comes to my mind; there are many, many others. He has been an explorer, claiming territory that wasn’t on the map before or had only been hazily illuminated, and the simplicity of his writing is sometimes partly responsible for the music’s deep effect. I’m not talking about him here as a musician. I’m talking about his presence on the page. Dylan’s memoir, “Chronicles,” has a succinctness and a complexity of thought and narrative that is the result of literary technique, of compression, of placement and juxtaposition, and of shrewd and penetrating judgments. He expresses himself capably, even handsomely, because he reads and thinks. He has ranged more widely than simply within himself.

Young’s writing is earnest and in the best moments has something unguarded like the tone of “Catcher in the Rye” or “Huckleberry Finn.” Those, of course, are examples of careful prose used to convey dramatic and complicated states of intention and being. Young’s is merely artless. “There is a reason why I am telling you so much about my shoes and my feet,” he writes. This follows a paragraph in which he says that he has new hiking boots that “kick ass.” He is sensitive to a degree that he has to protect himself from the multitude of impressions that bombard him. Until he met his wife, whom he loves deeply, he seems never to have been completely himself around girls. He strives to be a good father and husband. He appreciates his success. He cared deeply for the men and women who helped him, several of whom are dead, and he writes sentimental elegies for them. At his doctor’s insistence, he lately quit drinking and smoking pot and is uncomfortable with the version of himself that he now confronts. Without any alterations to his consciousness, he finds himself unable to write songs. His handsome and unpretentious simplicity is appealing for a while, but it becomes stultifying. He says of a friend that he “had a way with words, an amazing vocabulary that he used poetically and to great effect always,” and what provoked this remark was the friend’s using the phrase “ragged glory” and Young’s apparently not realizing it was a cliché. Some of the vignettes have their own design and are obscurely fascinating as descriptions of a notable and singular existence, but their simplicity isn’t in the service of succinctness or dramatic effect. He just seems lost and mute when he might have brought a scene or a person to life, as if there were nothing more to prose writing than listing and noting. His stubbornness in clinging to the surface of things has a savant-like quality.

Thelonious Monk said, The man is a genius who is most himself, and Young has exemplified the remark. His thinking is restricted and sheltered, however, and his writing is aimless. Should it have been otherwise? How could I know? I am reminded of E. B. White’s telling James Thurber that if he practiced his drawing and got good at it, he’d probably just be ordinary.

Photograph by Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns.



Neil Young is a musician. He is uniquely talented artist weaving word sounds and the various elements of music together in a new form of music, for its day: rock n roll, country, blues, folk, hard rock. To expect him to be a storyteller or somehow a literary person is to disrespect the artisan. If a writer wants to compare and contrast then he should be compared with his peers – other musicians. When writing about Carl Jung I do not draw on set designers or photographers except to perhaps reflect a ancillary refraction. Listening to Cinnamon Girl, Old Man, Helplessly Hoping and Down By the River, one hears and feels the musicality and once in a while sees an image but the words selected are unrelated to linear meaning, certainly not literary meaning, and storytelling. One does not get stories by listening to Neil Young. Young is considered a great songwriter, but his does not translate into a great storyteller nor does it confer the ability to tell a story verbally other than a music story. Young’s music stories do not have a literary meaning, they have a musical meaning that is more in tune with emotion, symbolism and mathematics. This includes the fact that Young is a brilliant pragmatist, showing an ability to weave strands of delicate material together such that the weaving produces more than its constitute native faculties standing alone: lyricism – yes; logic, rationality and a literary sensibility – no. Young’s kind of music lives closer to the irrational and the unconscious – it opens that door a bit and enables us to see in and it therefor gives expression to that which we all know so well but have little in the way of skills to express. I would not expect Young to be a reader, I expect him to be closer to a poet, to be listening to his internal landscape and in some sense to be an scribe to the musical spirits. R. L. W Whidbey Island, WA

POSTED 10/24/2012, 4:17:48PM BY RONSEA2009

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