“My very own personal fight club. As Tyler Durden has taught us, the first rule of fight club is we never talk about fight club. And I didn’t. For almost thirty years. And now I am. Because fuck you if you’re one of the people who think I shouldn’t.”
James Rhodes is not particularly famous, and as a classical pianist in this day and age I doubt he ever will be. It’s a sad truth that a lot of us these days believe that classic music is outdated, irrelevant, they just “don’t get it” or “it’s just what people had to listen to before The Beatles came along and actually invented music“. I don’t blame them for their opinions in the slightest. After all, that was my stance on the genre too, until James Rhodes.
I went to one of his small, intimate concerts last year for my 24th, my two “bitches” by my side, dolled up with matching red lipstick, front row table and a bottle of wine to make a point. Obligatory selfie done, Facebook updated because pretension, we settled in for an evening of being grown-ups, sophisticated ones, because we have degrees thank you very much. I’ll admit, I’d only ever listened to the one James Rhodes CD I owned for a bit of background music now and then. I liked him, I liked the songs, but I went to his concert out of 60% pretension, 30% trying something new and adult and 10% I like this guy. At the end of the day he was just a pianist to me. Talented as hell, to be sure, but it’s not like he had composed all these pieces. If I close my eyes a Nickelback concert I’ll know if Chad Kroeger isn’t singing, but the hell if I’ll ever recognize the difference between two equally skilled classical pianists.
“There will never, can never, be two identical performances of the same piece of music, even when you’re playing it twice yourself. There is an infinite choice of interpretation, and everyone had different opinions as to what is the ‘right way’, what is respectful/disrespectful of the composer, what is valid, what is exciting, what is dull, what is profound. It’s entirely subjective.”
Yeah, I was wrong of course. Rhodes put on a fabulous show, not just in how he played but in how he talked to the audience as well. it wasn’t just a recital, it was funny and emotional, it was time we shared. Everyone in that room, which was about 40 of us, got lost in the pieces. Emotions couldn’t help but become evoked, memories suddenly sprang up from hidden depths, we all just went to different places in our minds when he played. And afterwards me and my friends were able to discuss what we felt with each piece, we shared memories and feelings. It was such a wonderful evening, and I urge anyone who hasn’t to try a similar experience. I know I’ll never be able to love classical music with the passion that James Rhodes writes about in this autobiography, but it is because of him that I now appreciate the genre. All he needs to do next is convince me of Shakespeare’s merits and I’d call the man a wizard.
So when I found out that he had an autobiography out that his ex-wife had previously filed an injunction against in order to protect their son from the shocking realities of Rhodes’ life, I knew I had to check it out. I only enjoy autobiographies when they are a) the story of someone I am interested in and b) it’s about a life so foreign to my own it’s practically fiction. And, come on, the story of a tortured artist/genius is always one that gets you going.
Rhodes doesn’t go easy on you. His story is messed up, it’s heart-wrenching, it’s powerful, and he goes into enough brutal detail to make his point. He wrote his memoirs to potentially help others struggling with the same things he’s been through, and unfortunately those things include sexual abuse, mental illness, drugs and suicidal intent. Have no doubts, this book is seriously triggering. But it’s so good.
I loved how he wrote, it was frank and to-the-point while still being eloquent. His honesty astounded me, and what he spoke about made me ache. It was one of the most eye-opening accounts of both a survivor of rape and a sufferer of mental illness that I have ever read. It’s such an odd feeling I have towards him; I don’t love the guy, though I respect him I don’t particularly admire him as a person or a musician, yet I feel like I owe him a lot. He opened my ears to classical music and how he’s really opened by eyes to some really deep complexities of the human condition. It made me think about people, think about myself. Though most of my reading experience involved whizzing through the pages thinking “shit, what’s going to happen to this poor guy next?“, part of it involved me wanting to learn from him. Because I truly believe that man is fucking brave. Despite everything, he’s still fighting against his myriad of mental health problems, he’s fighting against himself every single day, and he’s creating a life for himself. A really good one if he keeps going. And though, comparatively, this doesn’t seem as hard, but to be it felt really, really brave to be so upfront about his mistakes, about his stupidity, about bad attitudes. Sure, mental health can play a part, but Rhodes continuously confirms that he made bad choices, over and over. I don’t blame him for making them, and I respect him for talking about them.
“In front of me are two doors. One clearly labelled ‘Good Life’, the other ‘Hell’. And not only did I walk into the dark one, but I did so whistling, all nonchalant, rolling my sleeves up purposefully. I strutted like the biggest cock in the world into Arma-fucking-geddon.”
But this isn’t just a story, it’s an interactive experience. I’m not just talking about the little bit introspective work I totally undertook after reading it, but also the soundtrack Rhodes provides. There is a Spotify playlist (link in the prologue of the book) with a track for every chapter. Similarly each chapter begins with a few paragraphs about the chosen piece and its composer, and Rhodes shares his thoughts on each. It was enjoyable to listen to each track and have a think about why each piece related to each specific chapter, but in the end I couldn’t follow through with the practice as I just have to read in silence. It’s a cool little extra though, and I enjoyed his paragraphs on the composers. They were funny and educational.
“It is the best thing ever, like having a four-handed, naked, hot stone Bach massage.”
I really was hooked by Instrumental, it was an emotional but brilliant read. Even if you don’t know anything about James Rhodes, even if you couldn’t care less about classical music, this is still the kind of book you’d want to pick up to expand your horizons, just like I did when I went to his concert in the first place. If you think you’re up for the challenge, you’ll come out the other side of this story with a greater understanding of and compassion for mental illness, and maybe even an urge to put on some Bach and see where it takes you.