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Essay: The work of music keeps me on track

Writer David Perry, a self-described "adequate rhythm guitarist."
Writer David Perry, a self-described "adequate rhythm guitarist."David Dyer-Bennet / Courtesy David Perry

by David Perry

May 02, 2019

When I was five, my parents started me on violin. What happened next is a little hazy, but my memory is that my big sister soon switched from piano to violin and was better at both than me within weeks. She's now the concertmaster of the Omaha symphony, so I suppose I ought to let that one go. I stumbled along with choir (I had a really pretty boy soprano voice) and piano, had a great time being an average teenage classical bass player, and picked up the guitar as I headed towards high school graduation in Nashville. I learned to mimic James Taylor's voice and adequately finger-pick some of his songs, laboriously memorizing chord charts from a songbook. I kept at it in hopes it might help me pick up girls, because trying to talk to them as a pudgy weird nerd didn't seem to be going so well.

Last fall, I started a new band. It's going pretty well, in part because in the twenty-seven years since I graduated high school and today, I've learned two key things. One, as a musician, you gotta box your weight and just play what makes you feel good, rather than aspiring to be something you're not. I actually figured that one out in my 30s. The other revelation is more important, coming to me as I climbed my way out of a severe mental health crisis — it's the work of music, as much as the music itself, that keeps me steady.

My weight class: I'm a good singer, an adequate rhythm guitarist, and a solid basic rock bass player. I prefer to play my acoustic-electric bass, deploying a bow for the deeper resonance and simplicity. I like engaging with the audience when things are going well. I get sulky when the sound technology goes wonky. It helped when I figured out I could do something that was good without trying to be the best guitarist in the room (in any room I'm in, that's usually Adam Stemple, who not coincidentally is in my new band).

The second part, music and mental health, has been more complicated. A few years ago I quit my job as a history professor and moved back to the Twin Cities. It was the right move for my family, but involved turning my back on a decade of teaching and the dream of a tenured full professor job. I also had to quit my Chicago-area band, losing not only the gigs, but the friendships. I knew that in the Twin Cities I'd have lots of other musical friends to jam with, which I did and I do. What I didn't know is that I need the work as well as music in order to be happy.

I spent 2017 and 2018 sinking deep into a joyless fugue. I've had them before, but powered my way through with liquor, friendship, and denial. This one was tougher to crack, even when my wife found work and the winter gave way to spring, I couldn't locate any joy even at the best of times. Even when playing music. One day in June, I woke to the news that the writer Anthony Bourdain had killed himself. I had just read a report from the CDC on spiking suicide rates, especially among middle-aged white men who had never received any mental health-related diagnosis. "That's me," I thought, and went to the doctor. It's been almost year. I'm still here and doing a lot of work as I get better.

Last October, my friends Dee and Ann started working with me on a new band. We had no goal. We had no gigs. We just started the work. Later, Adam joined. Along with therapy, drugs, more exercise, less booze, and better communication with my loved ones (nothing is ever simple), practice, rather than just jamming with friends, clicked a final piece of my recovery into place. In the work, building a setlist, teaching songs. I'm still loving jamming with friends, but I need the work of music to keep me on track.

This essay is not a prescription. Your art may fill or leave voids in ways different from mine. I highly recommend working mental health professionals (to which everyone should have access as a basic principle of health justice). But the second and third set of my last gig, at the Dubliner Pub the day before St. Pat's, had a kind of magic. Every song, every note, even the ones I missed, was perfect. The work and the joy came together to keep me fully in the moment, but not in a drugged or absent way. It was me, whole. It's good to be back.

David Perry is a freelance journalist covering politics, history, disability, and education. He is also the Senior Academic Advisor to the History Department of the University of Minnesota. You can find him @LollardFish and His band Purgatory Creek play The Dubliner on Saturday, May 4. The show is free.

Call to Mind and Minnesota Public Radio are undertaking a month-long series of special programs and activities designed to foster new conversations to increase understanding of mental health.

David Perry
David Perry performs. He writes "It's the work of music, as much as the music itself, that keeps me steady."
Katie Alaimo / Courtesy David Perry