In a dilapidated rural village in Ireland in the 90s my older brother raised me on In Utero and Incesticde. He sold mixed tapes and second hand singles from his bedroom and I had my own home-recorded radio station next door in mine that didn’t actually air outside those walls. I graduated from Celine Dion and Michael Jackson fandom to a fully immersed baptism of fire in grunge at the tender age of nine. I cut my teeth on Live Through This and my aunt Catherine watered my foliage with Babes In Toyland and The Pixies. I lived and breathed this music. I clung to songs like they were the branches of the trees I climbed to get away from the monsters below.
When Kurt Cobain died, I remember my brother climbing onto our roof as if he’d jump to join him. Luckily, our roof wasn’t that high, and he wasn’t that serious but I’ll never forget it. Music ignited a passion in us both, a drive and a fire that we had for no other avenue.
Our home life wasn’t always happy so we found solace in our ever-growing cd collections. Marilyn Manson, The Smashing Pumpkins, Hole, Led Zeppelin, Megadeth, Nirvana, Nirvana, Nirvana. We wanted to hear it all, every record ever cut. It was as if every artist was an old familiar friend who would know how we felt when no one else did. We didn’t really have many close friends in real life but in the sound frequencies and radio waves we felt connected to the greats.
I got through my school years dreaming of an escape to the hubs of rock history. I constantly felt like I was being trailed through academia when I just really wanted to run away and soak up the melody in the airs of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle. These places were completely romanticized in the music I listened to and the books I read. I longed for a more tangible view. But I didn’t have the money. I didn’t have the planning skills either, no experience, no strategy. I was trapped. So I made do with what I had and lived out a rock fantasy where I was- dressing like I’d just stepped off the ‘Almost Famous’ set and drinking like I could keep up with Lemmy.
Pressure mounted at school, I drank so much coffee to get the work done and then I couldn’t sleep, so I started smoking pot daily which was very available in the town nearest to where I lived and I’d tried it a few times before enough to know what it did. It gave me some respite from the constant churn in my head that never stopped. I got my first job working in a bar and I started to find my people- other people who were weird and liked music obsessively and who questioned their sexuality and religion like I was doing. Open minds were very welcome in my life right then.
The war in Iraq loomed and I, being a sensitive soul, was traumatized by the idea of this. For someone who could not sit in the room where Schindler’s list was being watched, the notion of an actual war going on, and our taxes contributing to it, really weighed heavily on me. I joined Youth Against War and I wanted to make a difference.
But after rallies, and networking events there was again a lot of drinking. I was fifteen, I was meeting a lot of people who were interested in the same things as me and having been lonely for a long time I couldn’t resist the colourful company I now had the option of.
Around the same time, my parents sat me down, my mum crying and my dad coldly explaining that he was having another affair and was leaving to be with his younger lady. I’m pretty sure this event was the tipping point between dabbling with drink and drugs to becoming quite reliant. My world was turning upside down. My parents proceeded to get back together and split up repeatedly for a few months, each time as bad as the last. I buried myself in my music, work and the anti-war effort, and inevitably the drinking.
I partied with my new hippie music fan friends. We went to a lot of gigs and started a make-shift commune after the war began anyway and our exams finished. I had my own ‘summer of love’. It was all an escape from reality for me. I don’t think I had a moment of happiness in any of it that wasn’t induced by mind-altering substances. The same could be said for the years that followed. Inside I wasn’t really, truly happy for a long time and eventually it would show.
When I went to uni I wasn’t ready. I was really deeply troubled. The previous two years of a-level studying, working, and living in the countryside with my, at that stage suicidal, mum, had really taken its toll on me emotionally. The more I worried, the more I had needed to drink to cope- music alone just wasn’t cutting it any more. I lay on the floor of my room in halls on the first night there and wondered if I should kill myself.
I was lonely, strung out, and had no way to get inebriated. That was the main problem. It was withdrawal and thankfully the intensity passed and I went back to being in a manageable state of hopelessness. My dad sent me a card at the time that said ‘hang in there’ and I wondered if it was a prompt to hang myself. I mean, that’s a fucked up thing to deduce from a little card that is meant to mean ‘I’m thinking of you, stay strong’..but the choice of words struck a nerve in me, and I clearly thought my father was a sick bastard by that stage. After everything he’d put my mum through I didn’t know if the good guy in him still existed.
All I really wanted to do was play music. I wanted to be surrounded by it, to live it, and just immerse myself in music culture. I remember telling my dad once what I wanted and he was very angry. He raged at me to ‘take my head out of the clouds’. To be fair, I didn’t have an alternative concrete plan of direction but I felt like I belonged in the music world somewhere. Not the boring classical music world we learned about in school, but in rock ‘n’ roll. That was my real home.
The thought of more academia just killed me, but it seemed like the direction I was being led and pushed, and I did have the grades and brains for it, so they and the exam scores said. But I was so broke and ill-prepared that I lived on rice and peas for most of that year. My uni expenses were just another thing my parents could fight over so I was afraid to ask them for help. I found out years later that there had been a uni fund for me but my dad had cashed it in and likely bought flashy cars. He had obviously had some kind of severe mid-life crisis. Funny he never really recovered from it.
I got by on the student grant anyway but I didn’t get much work done. I couldn’t settle or engage in the classes. I felt like I didn’t belong there. I did a little work but then just cut classes and played guitar and listened to music. Neither my head nor heart was in it. I tried to join a band but the first audition didn’t go great and I was really pissed with myself for failing at the one thing I really wanted to succeed at.
I wasn’t feeling healthy, inside or out. I came home in the summer and didn’t go back. I couldn’t afford to, and I wasn’t fit to. My mum would call me crying all the time and I was so stressed out at being far away that I couldn’t concentrate. I really didn’t want to live with her again but I couldn’t be so far away either. So, I moved into the nearest town to her and I did immerse myself in music as much as I could. I worked for my dad for a little while to try and wrap my head around where he was at, but it made me again want to kill myself and I just about finished up my contract there. I remember screaming at him and slamming the car door on the last day because he was telling me about his holiday plans with his girlfriend while he dropped me off at our old house which mum could no longer afford on one wage and couldn’t manage to sell either. She was dying inside and he was going on holiday and couldn’t give a shit.
After that, I didn’t have a job, or a course to sink my teeth into, and every relationship I had had seemed to end with me being cheated on which was really, really, not what I needed at that time. My confidence was totally shattered and I was miserable and in a rut. I started to shut down around people and in general. There were a few friends I had that I really valued, but mostly I didn’t trust anyone and I started to push everyone away again and retreat back to my songs and my own company. I wasn’t much company for myself either.
The next few years were a haze. The unhealthy habits continued although I gradually struggled to wean them down. For a while I felt too messed up to work, too confused. I went on benefits for a while to give myself some time out. I did some free lance theatre and events work and I hung out with local musicians and music fans, but mostly just I hid from the world and i tried to pick myself up again internally. There was a lot of silence in me.
Eventually I got tired of being too broke to eat so I took the first real job I could find. It wasn’t an ideal job for me, but it paid a steady minimum wage, which was better than I could get free lancing in events or entertainment work at that time, without qualifications or a driver’s license, and it actually was probably the best thing for me. It was easy, apart from some of the difficult people I had to work with, and I gradually relearned how to be me again. I started to have some money coming in which helped pick me up. Eating well and getting exercise contributed massively to my recovery, and I would never drink on the job, or go to it hungover, so I did wean down the bad habits to weekends only. I could afford to go to the gym for the first time ever and I felt in a good enough place to go back home to my mum’s and do some saving so I could learn to drive and get my first car. My mum was getting better too by then.
I made a lot of mistakes and I lost sight of my dreams. It happens so easily, a slippery slope, when things get tough and you start living day to day or you start living for other people. For a long time all I aspired to do was to get myself and my nearest and dearests through the current hell, there was no space for dreams. Until, not quite suddenly, but eventually, there was time again, and there was money, with which comes opportunities and choices that I hadn’t seen before.
I realised, when I remembered who I was again and started to come back to life, that I was actually kind of a rocket before all the drinking and depression started, and I could do a hell of a lot better than where I was, in a dead-end, minimum wage job with bosses who treated me like crap. I remembered that I was once a force to be reckoned with and I started to stand up again. I studied again. I made some friends who helped me to build my confidence back up and I played guitar, a lot. After five years, I left the dead end job and I joined a contracting firm where I could climb the ranks.
I was so ashamed of what I now call my hazy years that I forgot all the value in them for a long time. I resented them for where they took me and maybe I needed to do that to move forward but when I pick up my old cd collection now, a 360 disc case, and I caress my way through the pages, I have so many memories that part of me can be thankful.
When I pick up Babes In Toyland’s ‘To Mother’ album I remember being fourteen in a nice kitchen in Liverpool where my uncle is cooking egg fried rice and my aunt is telling about seeing Kat Bjelland and the band play live, and Kat is in a frilly dress and red patent shoes looking like a little doll, but screaming her lungs out, and I remember imagining this and being euphoric at the vision. When I pick up Bon Jovi’s greatest hits album I remember being at their gig in Dublin and I bounced, high, from one end of the stadium to the other, continuously until the show was over. Afterwards I busked in Temple Bar to let the busker go for a break. I even made him a few punt with a cover of ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ and the typical ‘Wonderwall’ rendition.
When I pick up Counting Crows album I remember a friend no longer with us. I remember their album playing in the car as we drove to Dundalk to go drinking once. I remember dancing down the street with him, laughing and joking around. Stopping so he could roll a spliff on a windowsill.
As much as I can look back and be ashamed that I lost my way and I feel sometimes that that’s what I should do, in a way I’m glad too. I shared a lot of nice moments with a lot of nice people over some very nice music. There were good times in all the bad and the main thing is I got to the other side eventually and am in a place now where I have control over my own life again and I can find a way, (and afford!) to follow my dreams once and for all.