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During my adolescence, in what I now realise was a dysfunctional family that left me deeply traumatized, rock music was the San Andreas fault between my father and I. I was a shy, sensitive, unconfident teenager: my rebellion was of the ingrown toenail kind that turns upon itself and festers unseen. By contrast, my father was an assured, almost bombastic figure who seemed to have a strong grip on the tiller of life. But instead of nurturing me to make my own decisions, I was assaulted with predetermined outcomes that never quite worked. My father loathed rock music with a vengeance. He used to bellow with laughter when recounting a story about the one-time organist of Bristol cathedral who had been asked what he thought of modern music. This paragon of wit replied that he thought nothing of it, as it wasn’t music. When this trouser-wetting morality tale failed to curb my appetite for rock, I was issued with a classical guitar and sent off for lessons. I can still feel the humiliation I endured strapping the guitar in its oblong cardboard box to the back of my motorcycle – another bone of contention – and careening through the streets, carrying what appeared to be a small coffin, for a few painful lessons before the guitar was mercifully reemployed as a dust-gatherer.

I felt completely alienated from my family. My school grades, once so promising, tumbled; I never made it to college. The only thing that resonated with me and my friends – themselves all battling dysfunction at home – was music. It was the mid-1970s and the rock scene bristled with a new generation of stars. From England came Queen, Rod Stewart and Pink Floyd. Fleetwood Mac blended British Blues with sun-drenched SoCal soft-rock. From across the Atlantic came Neil Young, Jackson Browne and Tom Petty. Billy Joel’s literate piano ballads counter-pointed Bruce Springsteen’s dispossessed working class rock. It was all grist to my mill. Listening to the radio, way down low, in the dark of my room; or getting drunk at a party, eyeing the girls to whom I was completely invisible, rock music was my lifeline.

Naturally enough, I tried to emulate my heroes. I began writing song lyrics as a way of journaling the pain of daily existence. I bought an electric guitar. I became the archetypal bedroom songwriter: sitting on my bed, surrounded by chord sheets and “half a page of scribbled lines,” as Pink Floyd put it, strumming an unplugged electric guitar and mumbling incoherent vocals. Some years later there was a band, its brief existence terminating in a cloud of marijuana smoke and bad blood. The guitar went to the pawn shop but the lyric writing continued; to date there are over 750 of them.

Despite my love for music, I always found the actual process of playing an instrument and singing to be incredibly tiring. After just 10 minutes of playing I felt too exhausted to continue; consequently I never mastered either my instrument or my voice. At one point a music club sprang up which promoted original songwriters. At last it felt like there was a home for my quirky guitar style and half-choked vocals that made Bob Dylan sound like an opera singer. I dragged myself in front of a microphone and in front of an audience for the first time in my life. ‘Dragged’ is the operative word: my feet were leaden, my throat parched, my bladder bursting despite four visits to the toilet in the last hour. Every strum of my guitar required herculean effort. Every word had to be squeezed out of a pair of lungs that, no matter how deeply I breathed, defied Nature with their vacuum. I staggered through a brief yet interminable set where I experienced a very close approximation to dying. Someone clapped, probably because it was over.

I could easily have given up. But one thing my father strongly modelled for me was the belief that, in the face of failure, you grit your teeth. “To succeed, you simply have to outlast failure,” I read somewhere. Time after time I hauled myself off to the music club, my stomach a pit of butterflies, and gouged out a few songs. On occasions I lacked the emotional courage to show up; I beat myself up for that. Other times I went and played abysmally; I beat myself up for that too. The music that I loved to my core was also a source of profound pain.

But somewhere along this masochistic path, I learned how to write songs. Despite my technical shortcomings, the other songwriters in the club were genuinely encouraging. I redoubled my efforts. I took singing lessons, but to no avail: I could hit the notes during practice, but as soon as I was in front of an audience I couldn’t breathe. I had voice training, emitting ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ for hours on end. Nothing changed. I abandoned live playing once and for all.

Half a decade passed. Then a breakthrough happened. I caught up with an old music friend. She was deeply into the New Age movement and said, “I love your songs but I can never understand a word. It might be a throat chakra blockage.” She sent me off to a woman who laid me on a massage table and performed some strange hand gestures. Slowly but surely, the seizure I felt in my throat whenever I sang began to dissipate. But my guitar still felt like it weighed a thousand pounds. It wasn’t enough to entice me back onto a stage.

In parallel with this sorry tale, the rest of my life was equally unsuccessful. I became profoundly interested in personal development and experienced some massive breakthroughs, particularly around my sexuality. This led me to an awareness of shame and the unseen role it plays in crippling our lives. It also led me to Sarah Biermann at ImagiCreation. For all the progress I had made in clearing out negative beliefs, I still felt walled off from true, free-flowing expression. I had a session with Sarah and the one-and-only St. Germain; in the following weeks I had a series of insights into specific shames that had been trapping me all my life. One of these was a massive shame about presenting myself in public. As soon as I became conscious of this shame, I felt a millstone fall from around my neck. I knew instantly what it was. Out came the guitar, dusty from long disuse. It felt light in my hands. My voice soared. My head swam. Old lyrics and chord sheets poured off the printer. On went some shiny new strings. I practiced… fifteen minutes, thirty, an hour; for the first time in my life it was effortless. For 30 years I had been trapped in an invisible web of shame for daring to believe that I and my creations – my songs – were good enough to stand up in public. Invisible as it was, that shame was stronger than reinforced concrete. And now it was gone.

For the past few months I have been out, playing at open mic nights in the local pubs, loving every minute of it. My experience is the total opposite of what it used to be; I’m confident, my playing is smooth, my voice clear. I engage with the audience and they respond in kind. At 48 years of age I have finally reached the place I should have been when I was 18: happily playing my own songs to appreciative audiences. But the road, this long road through the darkness, has not been a waste. I know my muse now, its name is Shame, and I have it in my sights:

THE CROSSHAIRS OF DISGRACE

She sat on the stairs, tears on her face
Square in the crosshairs of disgrace
Made to feel small all of her life
For being a lover, not being a wife
Made to feel small for being her self
Made to feel small for the hole ‘tween her legs
Made to feel small for lacking the right stuff
For being too pretty or not pretty enough

When we gonna learn, people are people?
When we gonna learn it’s really that simple?
You run what you brung, you’ve got your own space
Lower your gun with the crosshairs
The crosshairs of disgrace

He lay on the bed, pain in his face
Square in the crosshairs of disgrace
Made to feel small all of his life
He held out his wrist; laid in with a knife
Made to feel small for showing his face
Made to feel small for touching that place
Made to feel small for taking a chance
Not wanting to fight but wanting to dance

We shame and blame and shame and blame
Then bury it all ‘neath a layer of pain
We wander around lost and confused
Is it any wonder we’ve got the blues?

When we gonna learn…

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