How Radiohead Saved My Life (Post #408)

Most of what I write is not as autobiographical as this. This piece of writing is complete autobiography told in stages according to Radiohead album releases. It encompasses the period of my life from 1995 through present day. Due to the release of Radiohead’s new album tomorrow, I decided to self publish this today. This is a longer piece than what  I now normally publish on this blog. I apologize to those of you who have written me asking if I can write shorter pieces. Didn’t mean for this to be so long. You might want to skip this one if you are looking for a quick fix.

Pablo Honey

I completely missed this one. Was not hip enough at the time. Was too troubled and self-involved. Or maybe Thom Yorke’s voice just put me off. Maybe I just did not get it. No that is not what it was. It was that song “Creep.” It was so popular and all over the radio and MTV that I was initially turned off. I thought Radiohead was just another passing pop rock sensation. I don’t think I have ever been more wrong about anything.

The Bends

1995? 1996? Can’t recall. I had several roommates at the time this album came out. I was living on the ledge of the ghetto in Oakland, California. Since I had grown up wealthy this was a difficult transition for me to make. I felt abandoned by my parents whom I felt lived steeped in riches and because they worked hard for everything they had, they demanded I do the same. I had no idea what I would do. I was angry. Anxious. Worried. I was traumatized by the gun shots and bullets that seemed as if they just missed my window. I was always cold because of the heater that refused to work. There was poverty all around and black people that disdained white, artsy gentrifiers. But I wanted to be an artist. I wanted to be nothing like my business man dad. I knew this is what it was going to take. Most artists began poor.

One of my roommates was obsessed with Radiohead. I could not understand it. She lost credit in my eyes for this obsession but she was cute, hip, cultured, in art school and she was a very good kisser. So I decided to give Radiohead one last try. One evening, at Tower Records in Berkeley, I noticed that Radiohead’s new album was on the new music listening station. I put on the headphones and pushed play. That was the beginning of a deep relationship that has lasted to this day. It was like meeting someone who reflects what you feel and is able to articulate so many things that are stuck deep down inside yourself.

OK Computer

I don’t know if I got this album the first day that it came out or the first week. Doesn’t really matter. I was now living on the second floor of the building that I was living in with the cute, artist girl who kissed well and was obsessed with Radiohead. I was moving up. Now the bullets would have a harder time finding me. I still heard them but felt more confident that they would not come inside. This is one luxury afforded by being higher up. I grew up high up but forgot about all the luxuries it provides. I lived in a large house that was at the end of a very long and steep driveway. The driveway was so steep that certain cars I owned over the years would not make it all the way up. I never appreciated living high up at that time. My most persistent fear was split between my fear of my father’s anger and my fear of getting hit in the head by a stray golf ball while playing outside.

Anyways, I was higher up again. Not that much higher, but higher enough to feel slightly better about myself. After all, isn’t all human success judged by how high up a person can get? (I wonder if Thom Yorke lives high up now?) It is always the people who live lower down that suffer the highest degree of economic duress, illness and mortality rates.

I don’t remember what year it was. I was maybe 27 or 28 or 29. I was working as a bartender at a pub in Oakland and no longer had roommates. I was living with my highly intellectual and artistic girlfriend who wore black and refused to show me her belly button. We were able to afford our own place (as long as that place was in or near the ghetto) and when the place above me came up for rent, we snatched it up.

I was now more accustomed to life on the other side of the affluent world that I grew up in. I was broke but I was a committed artist. Being broke was how it was supposed to go. This is what I told myself anyways. When I first heard OK Computer I knew that becoming an important and relevant artist was going to be a lot harder than I thought. Radiohead raised the creative standard a hundred thousand feet. I like to imagine that most up and coming painters, writers, sculptors, musicians, performance artists (am I forgetting anyone?) had to put so much of their creative output into question the moment they heard Ok Computer.

I bought the cd at a record store (Rasputin Records) and played it in my car on the way back to my apartment. “What the fuck is this?!” I thought this over and over and over. I rushed into my house with the cd in hand and ran into my girlfriend’s room (we had separate rooms) and she immediately pulled her shirt down so that I could not see her belly button as I yelled, “You have got to hear this!” I probably came off as being a bit unstable in that moment but Radiohead would serve the purpose of stabilizing me from that day on.

My girlfriend was into less popular and more experimental music at the time but I forced her to sit on her bed with me and listen to Ok Computer. (Her opinion of Radiohead was where my opinion was years ago before I met the cute, good kisser who was obsessed with Radiohead). Side by side, we lay on our backs, staring up at the ceiling, smoking cigarettes and listening to the album all the way through. She liked it. Thought it was really good. I was blown away. I had never heard anything this good ever before and I sat down at my desk and wrote Radiohead a letter letting them know this.

I was depressed about my life circumstances at the time. I still thought that depression was something that should go away rather than something that a person just needs to learn to live with. I was dealing with terrible panic attacks. Once a month I would end up in the emergency room. My parents filled me with worry and contempt. They seemed perpetually disappointed by the choices I was making. “Go back to grad school,” they would often say. When I heard Ok Computer for the first time I had this sense that, much to my parents consternation, I was on the right path. There were other people out there doing what I wanted to do. Ok Computer became a compass, pointing me in the direction that I wanted to go. I just had no idea how steep of a climb going in this direction was going to be.

Kid A

I wasn’t even aware that it had come out.

I had broken up with my girlfriend, partially because of the stress caused by her inability to show me her belly button. I just couldn’t understand and she couldn’t explain why. It felt like an important aspect of our intimacy was destroyed by a reclusive belly button, which refused to come out.

I had just quit a traumatizing job at a mortuary where it was my responsibility to pick up people who had recently died. I was subletting an apartment from a friend in Oakland when I decided to leave it all behind and go live with my sister in Washington DC. Why not? I was young, unmarried and without too many shackles around my ankles. If I was going to do something like this, now was the time because as we grow older we grow into shackles in the same way we grow into our graying hair.

I was too afraid to fly and did not have enough money for a train ticket. I stole a Gold American Express card that had my name on it. I found it in my mothers desk drawer. For many years it had been mine. My parents let me use it for various expenses. But since I had moved to the ghetto and decided to become an artist- they took it away. My parents view of the world and their moral ideas about how life should be lived had cost me a lot of my own personal freedom to become the person I wanted to be. It seemed only fair that I charged the cost of a train ticket that I thought would set me free. When a young man wants to run from something that is holding him down, there is very little in this world that can hold him back. Even moralistic beliefs about right and wrong are not strong enough. At least I put the card back in the desk drawer after I had finished charging the transaction.

My sister had a temporary spare bedroom in her apartment. I took up residence there for a bit. I brought with me a bag filled with clothes and a heavy suitcase filled with books. My sister got me a job waiting tables at a restaurant that went against my more punk rock values. I smoked a pack a day, drank too much and smoked a lot of weed. I was depressed and anxious. I knew no other way to be. But I had broken free from parents and California. For the first time in my life I was living out of state. I was also living deep, deep inside my head, which made creating any kind of independent life for myself nearly impossible.

Obviously, once the romance with a new place wore away, I was back in bed with depression, anxiety and despair. I hated being a waiter. What was I going to do with my life? Maybe I should call it a day? I felt defeated and desperate. I hid in books. I was angry at my parents who were not helping me at all. I hated society because of all the anger I had towards myself. I was drinking in the afternoon and sleeping in the evenings. Then it happened. On a freezing cold walk around some neighborhood in DC, there it was in the window. Kid A, OUT NOW. What? I didn’t even know it was coming out. Immediately I forgot about my depression and despair. I felt a kind of clarity and focus I had not felt in months. I went into the record store and bought the cd. I put the cd in my cd player and continued walking.

I got on the Metro (DC’s subway system) that was filled with people who looked liked they had been tricked into playing some government game that could never lead them to a place of genuine human happiness. I stayed on the Metro as all these people in suits, military uniforms and government uniforms got off. I missed my exit. I missed my exit again. I did not want to move. I was having a religious experience in a sterile Washington, DC subway car. My brain was oscillating inside my skull. I could feel new neural pathways forming. I had never heard anything like this before (or since). I was slightly worried that I could have a stroke.

How I listen to music. What I look for in music. How I look at art. What I need from art. The kind of books that I read. What I expect from literature. The kind of art that I make. How I write. How I perceive the world around me. Everything was changed for me that day that I first listened to Kid A.

I even decided then that it was time to return home.

Amnesiac

Back in the ghetto again. The thing about living in a ghetto that most white people do not understand is that once you breathe in that ghetto air it is very difficult to get it out of your lungs. The ghetto is like a colorful infection that refuses to go away. I was committed to being artist and assumed that the ghetto was where I would live for the rest of my life. Other artists also lived around me so this helped give me a sense of a half-baked community (literally).

I was without a job, not writing or making art as much as I thought about writing and making art, drinking too much and living in my ex-girlfriend’s extremely small closet. I guess you could accurately say that I was fucked. I managed to fit a small futon and desk into the closet and every night I feel asleep beneath her hanging dresses, pants and shirts. I was living in a closet, in the ghetto. I was 30. My parents gave me continual grief even though I am sure they thought of it as the kick in the ass I needed. What the hell was I going to do with my life?, was the question that was never out of my mind. It became an obsession without an answer. How could I be an artist in the world? I grew up at the end of a long driveway in an exclusive country club and was now calling a small closet my home. I had reached an end.

I bought Amnesiac the day it came out. I bought it at Amoeba records in Berkeley. I had been looking forward to this day for weeks. My soul was hungry. I needed help and was hoping to find some semblance of what Kid A had given me in Amnesiac. The transformation of my despair into something beautiful and creative. This is what Radiohead was able to do for me. With Amnesiac, I did not get those new neural pathways carved out in my head but I did get the cathartic release that I believe ended up keeping me alive. In my small closet, as the rain kept coming down outside, I danced, I cried, I sat with my head in my lap and I paced back and forth as I listened to Amnesiac on repeat for weeks.

Hail To The Thief

Something that I never expected to happen, happened. My grandfather died and left me with enough money to move out of the closet. Suddenly I loved a man who I didn’t like much for most of my life. Strange how money can make even the most hurtful people seem good.

He left me enough money so that I was able to move miles away from the ghetto but not far enough away that my surroundings turned plastic. I moved into a one bedroom apartment in a nicer part of Oakland (Rockridge) and felt so lucky that I could not stop having parties at my place every night. I was still desperate to figure out what I was going to do with my life, but having my own apartment provided me with enough human dignity to get rid of so much sulking.

Even though a lot of my sulking (bemoaning the unfairness of my life) vanished, most of my bad habits did not. It is a testament to Radiohead that every time they put out a new album they are able to completely align themselves to where a person that they do not even know exists, is at in their own life. It was not my favorite album but man- it was a soundtrack for where I was at. Drunk in bars. Hanging by a thread. Falling in and out of love. Sex obsessed. Wearing depression like a cape. Enough self hatred to keep a small electrical plant generating electricity 24 hours a day. Strangely enough I was also a thief. A petty thief, but still a thief nonetheless. How had Radiohead known? I was a full-fledged kleptomaniac. This is what I did for fun. Hail to the thief.

I was an excellent thief. Radiohead helped me feel less guilty about my thieving. I stole paint supplies, plants, notebooks, incense, pens, shampoo, conditioner, shoes, jackets, shirts, vitamins, herbs and on and on. Whenever I stole I would wear my nicest clothes. Who would suspect a well dressed white guy? Once, while wearing a tie, I walked out of a Walmart with a really large house plant in my arms. I presumed that everyone thought I had already bought it.

When Hail To The Thief came out, I felt like I was finally being recognized for all the hard and under appreciated work I had done. Being a thief was a lonely life but Radiohead felt like brothers in arms. Fortunately not to long after the release of that album I decided to give thieving up. I suppose I had received the recognition I needed. Hail To The Thief! I also realized that being a thief would not end well. Despite thinking that I was undermining evil corporations by stealing from them, I owe Radiohead for helping me realize what a creep I was being.

In Rainbows

Everything that I did before the age of 35 was a complete failure.

I was apprehensive to get back into Radiohead at first. It had been awhile since I had listened to them. Radiohead’s music reminded me of darker periods in my life. I was hesitant to get back in. I was married now, living in a nicer place (but still in the Oakland ghetto) and felt a bit more financially secure. I was teaching at an inner city high school, where placing a gun on the desk was a common occurrence. But I was good at my job and given a lot of responsibility as a result. I taught courses on non-violence and mindfulness to full-fledged thugs who would punch most people for talking about the stuff I talked about. But they listened and asked questions. The school had never seen anything like this before. The school district asked me to start a program. I did. But I was not making art or writing much and this kept me down. I still was not where I wanted to be in my life. (Is one ever?)

But it was Radiohead. Missing the new album was the equivalent to missing a favorite holiday. And besides, they released the album (at first) on-line. You could pay what you want so I paid a buck (I figured they were rich enough). Here is what I wrote in my journal on that October day in 2007:

Feeling really good today.
Going to meet family for dinner
in Walnut Creek. Not too much
anxiety today. Listened to Radiohead’s
new album In Rainbows. I was
hesitant at first. Dark past.
I really like it. Surprised. Its a
mature work that has elements of
experimental music along the
lines of Brian Eno. Good stuff.

It might sound like I was not that enthusiastic but I was. This album took a bit to settle in. It was a more mature album. Between teaching and starting a new school program I did not have the space and time that is needed to let a work of art settle in. But on breaks and weekends I made time. I was figuring stuff out and so was Radiohead. It seemed we were all growing older and maybe even a bit more refined. The me that first listened to Ok Computer and Kid A would not have been able to appreciate this album, but youth was ending and something else had taken its place. Maybe it was because of entropy or because of In Rainbows (maybe both), but for the first time in my mostly backward moving life, it felt like I was moving forward.

But it was King Of Limbs that would push me over the edge.

King Of Limbs

I was living in a decent home in the suburban/farming/bohemian/college town of Davis. I had not had sex in years. My wife was getting a graduate degree in Art at UC Davis. I had quit my teaching job and was trying to figure out what to do with my life. Several months were spent just drifting around. Reading and writing. Meditating. Walking. Thinking. I wanted to be an artist and writer but had no idea how. I wrote a lot. I made a lot of art but none of it was going anywhere. I was spending a lot of time around “real” artists who were in a prestigious graduate art program. Who was I to think I could make it as an artist? Look at these guys. They work all the time! “You need to get real,” was what my wife often said.

I had a choice to make. Continue to teach, continue to work low-level jobs while working on art and writing or go to graduate school and establish a serious vocation. I was 37 and time felt like it was running out. Through a long process of intensive psychotherapy, I decided to take the safe route traveled by many. I went into debt, I went back to graduate school and decided to become a psychotherapist. I was giving in, selling out but at least I knew I could be good at this. I knew all about suffering and was a specialist at finding a way out. (At no time during this brief autobiographical account have I mentioned the numerous self-help books I’ve read, the silent meditation retreats I went on, the certification in mindfulness that I received and the intensive amount of individual work I did with various meditation teachers along with the thousands of dollars spent on classes and workshops. All in an effort to rise above all the turmoil that was constantly present in my life.)

While in graduate school I met my current wife. Very unexpectedly I fell in love. Wallah! It happened just like that. I had sex again. I felt things that I never imagined that I would feel again. I knew that I had met my life’s partner and I am happy to report that I was right. I just wish that someone else did not have to get so badly hurt in the process. My first marriage was a sinking boat. It was not good for her or I to be aboard that boat. We had to jump, despite all the fear. I would have to go first.

As I dangled at the edge, too afraid to jump, Radiohead released King Of Limbs. The day the album came out, the woman who would become my wife and myself both downloaded the album onto our iPhones. We planned to go for a walk and listen to the album simultaneously. She lived in LA and I in Northern California at the time. I texted her, “Ready?” She texted back, “Yes.” “Ok, push play now,” I texted and began walking.

I walked out to a wide open field. There were storm clouds out. Kind Of Limbs opened me right up. I cried. I laughed. How was this happening again? How did they know? It was as if they knew that this album was just what I needed hear. But of course they did not. They were out there living their own lives without any idea of mine. However, like minded souls go through similar developmental processes and I was fortunate that once again their process was aligning with mine.

“What did you think?” I texted her when the album ended.
“Wow,” she replied.
“I know, wow is right. Fucking genius,” I wrote.
“I know, that was incredible.”
We were both deeply moved.

It was then that I knew that I needed to jump off the edge. I jumped and eventually my wife and I played songs from King Of Limbs all throughout our wedding.

Radiohead’s New Album

I am out of the closet now (although often still worry about going back).

I own a house that belongs both to my wife and I. It is a nice, humble home with everything that I need in it. I have a large backyard with a beautiful garden that my wife and I created, a studio to write and make art in, 3 dogs, a giant library, a record collection, comfortable chairs to sit in and a soft bed to sleep in. I actually have my own home now. No one saw this coming. It is on the edge of a ghetto, but that is ok- some things I realize never change. Like I said before, once you breathe in that ghetto air it is very difficult to get it out of your lungs. Besides, I appreciate things this way. I live in just the right mix of conservative, middle class suburb with a seedy ghetto spice.

Tomorrow Radiohead is releasing a new album. It is their first album release in years. I’ve heard a few songs from it already but am suspending all judgement until I hear the entire thing. I’m 44 years old, almost 45 and I am still trying to figure out what I am going to do with my life. I am happily married and have a job that I find meaningful but that itch to be an artist, writer and completely independent creative person has not gone away. Does it ever? I have yet to completely figure it out. Maybe I never will.

As I type this, in the salt water fish tank beside me, one of my beloved, punk rock fish is dying (I bought him because he has a mohawk). He is just about lifeless, with his head pointed down at the sand. I’ve been watching him off and on while writing this piece. The other fish in the tank does not leave the dying fish’s side. It just hovers there above the fish, trying to push it along, trying to lift its head out of the sand. It is all he seems to be able to do to keep his mate from dying.

It might seem ridiculous to you, but in a sense this is what Radiohead has always done for me. Even though we have never met in person, their music has always been there, just hovering around me and nudging me along in whatever direction I need to go. Somehow they manage to keep me from completely burying my head in the sand and giving up. Ultimately we all are facing the same fate as my dying fish. No one has found a way out from this. Maybe the best that any of us can do for any one else is to just nudge each other along, just hang out by each other’s side so we can keep each other from putting our heads in the sand. And if this is not the point of any good art form or relationship, I have no idea what is.

A new Radiohead album is always a significant event in my life. Now I am old enough to be able to look back over the many years and see just how true this is. I am curious where the next nudge will take me. Because if there is one thing I know for certain, it is that all these nudges from Radiohead have saved my life.

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