An Off-Season in the Half-Life of a Bi-Polar Quasi-Musician in Semi-Lockdown

Our roving neurotic, Darren Johns, offers his personal reflections on four months of weirdness, misery and soul-searching...

Darren Johns for DMS - 24 Jul 2020
For The Record

It's been the hedgehog summer of love. Quite literally. Due to lockdown-reduced traffic, the spiky seducers have been living wild and free, resulting in a baby boom that could significantly reverse their declining numbers. It's not every day I feel jealous of the most ill-conceived mammal on the planet but these are bizarro times we're living in.

We're now entering the next arbitrary phase of the pandemic. Which means: masks in shops, permitted care home visits, yet more relaxed social conditions, squashed hedgehogs and some semblance of live music if the pilot schemes are 'successful'. But, for me, psychologically speaking, Lockdown Syndrome has firmly set in. I don't want to see more friends. I don't want to go to pubs peopled with annoying drunks. I don't want to cycle on busy roads. I want to stay in my safe bubble, binge-watching Schitt's Creek and Seinfeld, strangely relishing the orderly supermarket dynamic, not drinking alcohol (for five months now), shopping less, sleeping and eating better, despairing of both the neighbour-snitchers and the rule-ditchers, and pretending that I'm not a professional musician any more. I did, however, attend the Black Lives Matter protest in Plymouth, with my cognitive dissonance working overtime. It felt so strange to go from seeing hardly anyone to rubbing shoulders with a few thousand. Some things simply can't wait.

If you're anything like me, for the past four months you've been waking up at 7am and instantly devouring ream upon ream of bad and badder news about the socio-economic impact of the virus upon various parts of the world, especially your own quaint corner of it. And then you would make lots of comfort food, watch lots of comfort TV, listen to comfort records, go for a bike ride, lay in the sun, message with friends, read anything, do crosswords, do NHS volunteer tasks, and eventually go to sleep in the early hours of the morning, sometimes when the sun was rising, with the same dread that you woke up with. A third of a year dealing with the cold reality of this situation has taken its toll.

One thing I physically couldn't do was work on music. Or lyrics. I tried to reach down for some spark of creativity but there was nothing. When every activity is illuminated by the half-light of anxious resignation, it's impossible to muster up the will power. To ignite the fire in one's belly there needs to be a specific set of circumstances. Lockdown may seem like the perfect opportunity – and for some lucky people it was – but for me, it brought way too much neurosis to the surface. I couldn't face dealing with things in any creative form. I live alone, so self-doubt and self-motivation are uncomfortable bed-fellows at the best of times, but isolation and fear of the unkown have shone a light in places that don't fare well under close scrutiny.

I can't imagine how hard it's been for the millions of people in far worse situations. Mental, physical, emotional, social and financial health is fragile enough for many of us at the best of times. I've had a glimpse of it while doing the volunteer work. Meeting and helping individuals and families whose daily lives were already tough, whose minds were already troubled, whose sense of security was already shaky. It doesn't take much to tip vulnerable people over the edge. And with a government whose ineptitude was matched only by their hypocrisy, is it any wonder so many people feel lost and hopeless.

I've only started picking up my guitar, banjo or bass regularly in the past month. Along with dipping into my 4,000 or so recorded fragments of music, stored on my computer, to try and piece some ideas together. I have made an effort. But with so much time to think, to ruminate, to worry, I still find myself regularly reassessing and re-evaluating my place and purpose in this world. Am I good enough at what I do? Have I ever been? Why didn't I push myself more? Do I still want to be a musician? Should I reinvent myself? Could I? What do I have to show for my life? Will I ever let anyone love me? Will I ever grow up? Has my whole adult life been one long false start? Answers: No. No. Lazy. Maybe. Probably. Unlikely. Depression. Unlikely. No. Yes.

Image: theaureview.com

When everything came to a halt, my main band, Crazy Arm, only had to cancel six bookings. But I also had three major tour driving jobs cancelled. So within the first couple weeks, when lockdown was fresh and almost exciting, I enthusiastically applied for all the support grants available. I received £500 from Help Musicians (thanks!), £200 from PRS For Music (cheers!) and £80 from BigCartel (ta!). And I was eligible for the self-employment grant from HMRC, who should be rolling out the second wave of payments this month (August) for those still affected. I couldn't be bothered with the Arts Council's needlessly complex application system.

To try and raise more funds, I was tempted but haven't performed a single livestream show. I found them interesting for about a week but then I avoided them like the, er, plague. They just seemed to reinforce feelings of desperation and separateness. I did enjoy the Gary Numan one, though. I was a massive fan of Tubeway Army when I was young and to see him very nervously chatting, strumming and crooning while his daughter hummed along was endearing. But, as time went on, I found it more beneficial to avoid most things happening online in real time.

There was one brief moment, however, when I did feel a true sense of purpose and accomplishment. To mark Crazy Arm's 15th birthday on 25th May, we streamed our brand new, unreleased album for 36 hours, to give people a sneak preview; a little something in lieu of any live performances. I even built a DIY website to host the stream (alongside our Bandcamp page). The response was amazing, reminded me that yes, this is what I was born to do, and we raised enough money in donations to finish the record. I did, once again, consider doing a livestream solo performance to tie in with the anniversary. I did, once again, poo-poo the idea.

Of course, the irony in all of this emotional turmoil is that my life, my thoughts, my fears and my crippling neuroses are almost identical to what they were before the pandemic. If anything, I found comfort in knowing that millions of hitherto stable people were now having the same dark, existential wobble that I've been having since I was 15 years old. I wanted to shout, "See how you fuckers like it!" but I've never been one for schadenfreude. It's far better to help (most) people than mock them. Sharing is caring, after all.

Alas, all good and bad (or good dressed as bad) things come to an end. The hedgehog summer of love is over. Littering and violent crime have returned with a vengeance. Brexit-talk will soon be back in fashion. And, sooner or later, we all have to return to our former selves unless, of course, you developed a new one that was substantial and rewarding enough to warrant sticking with. If there is a second wave (spoiler: there is), suffice to say, for me, the human winter of discontent can't come soon enough.

Crazy Arm live at Hoborock 2020. Image: Greenbeanz Photograph
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