By Ralph Brown
A Chequered musical quilt of an autobiography, in song-shaped episodes. My Pop Life takes one moment in my life and looks at it through a piece of music. Sometimes the piece of music fits that moment really well, other times not. It is not a list of my favourite songs. It is my look back at an eventful, dysfunctional, random musical life. It is therapeutic and hopefully without regret. There is no plan. Here is one entry.
…when I was young, oh so much younger than today,Help! The Beatles
I never needed anybody’s help in any way
but now these days are gone I’m not so self-assured
now I find I’ve changed my mind I’ve opened up the doors
1965, Selmeston, East Sussex. Andrew is nine months old and things are not going well with Mum. Later she would blame the amount of air & gas she was given by the midwife during the birth, but who knows why she felt she could no longer cope with life in a small village with three young boys? The world collapsed when she was admitted to Hellingly Hospital suffering from a mental breakdown. I didn’t know what was going on, or what that meant, so what chance did Paul and Andrew, my younger brothers have? Andrew went down to Portsmouth to be cared for by Aunty Valerie, Mum’s sister. Nan came in the opposite direction, travelling up from Portsmouth to help my dad, who still had to go to work every day, teaching kids English in Falmer School near Brighton. Nan was my mum’s mum and kindly, with a tough edge. Her favourite swear word was “sod”. As in “ooh, he’s a bloody sod”. I can’t remember who the sod was, but there were a few around. mainly on telly I think. I cannot remember the date when mum was admitted, but it was during school term, possibly February 1965.
The following day and for about a week, I went to school – a fifteen minute walk up the village – in my grandad’s black hat, which kind of fitted me. I was 7 years old. Miss Lamb, the venerable headmistress didn’t say anything until the end of the week, when she had a quiet word in my ear and asked me not to wear it the following week.
We (Dad, Paul, me) visited Mum in Hellingly a few times, stressful, strained occasions where the effects of whatever medication they were administering were obvious – she was tired and lethargic, but always happy to see us. Some of these memories survived in my first screenplay, for the film “New Year’s Day” (2001) which is very loosely based on my youth.
We didn’t know how long she’d be in there. She was given ECT at least twice – Electro-Convulsive Therapy where they strap you to a couch put something on your tongue and shoot electricity through your brain giving you an induced seizure. I’ve seen a documentary on the procedure since then with Jonathan Miller talking about how little they know about why it works – when indeed it does. Did it work on Mum? I don’t think it did, no, but who knows what she’d have been like without it.
From that moment on, my mum would be the subject of various new treatments and theories which abounded in the 1960s regarding how to treat depression. Usually some new drug appeared which would be tested in the field on her and all the other women (and men) going through the same thing. Her doctor at Hellingly was Dr Maggs. He diagnosed manic depression and prescribed her Largactyl, a massive downer, and Valium. Later she would be given Stellazine. Mogodon. Also Lithium, and, confusingly, Librium. I got to know all of these drugs years later, both from our kitchen cupboard – I never sampled anything, ever – and later when I worked as a nursing assistant at Laughton Lodge. For now, I was a seven-year-old boy wearing my grandad’s hat to school, to cover my dark abandoned scared feelings.
My mum was in Hellingly for 9 months. A gestation of a new life for me, for all of us, without her. Things would never be the same after that.
Help! is a John Lennon song through and through, one of his best. So dramatic and hooked with feeling. Later he would describe it as a release from being bottled up in the Beatles glass enclosure for years, the pressure of success, being holed up in hotel rooms under siege from press and fans, of having to explain every detail of every element of your life, your songs, your clothes, your haircuts. They dealt with all of it really well, I almost remember the press conferences from that era better than the songs: the jokes, the verbal sparring, the deflection of any difficulty or awkwardness with scouse wit and quick-thinking and solidarity. But by 1965 the strain was beginning to show, the answers less smart-arse, more weary :
Help! is a glimpse of the world beneath those likely lad grins & chuckles, the cry of a young man floating in space without anchor or centre of gravity, who was supposed to be happy because it was all going so well. A breakout from the shell of protection, the rictus grin of appearances, the secret heart exposed : camouflaged as a great pop song.
For me 1965/66 was the year when I created that shelter, day by day stitched together a carapace around my heart which would protect me from further pain, started to create a protective layer of survival. I felt capable of doing that. After removing the hat I had to walk up that little village road exposed to the sky, and I learned to enclose my feelings, my pain and distress, erect a wall around a boy who got on with it, who coped, who survived. Who looked after his younger brother Paul. This new resilient, private character took over my entire being over the following 15 years as things progressed, deteriorated, wobbled and left me exposed with unsteady regularity. I would look after my brothers, and the house once Mum and Dad were divorced, but that was a year away, after Mum came home. The story of her coming home is frightening, but I’ll save it for another song.
My real and true feelings escaped just as I went to sleep at night upstairs with Paul alongside me in his own bed. We’d talk in the dark for a bit. Did it for years. Then a natural silence. That’s when large inchoate shapes would start to appear in the top corners of the room, like Play-Doh blobs of grey, heavy bulging clouds of unnerving malevolent solidity which moved closer toward me until they were shapes around my eyes that were all I could see. I don’t remember telling anyone about that.
I love Ringo’s drum roll before the first verse, I love Paul and George’s backing vocals especially the harmonies over help me get my feet back on the ground, but mostly I love John Lennon’s voice : grainy, gritty yet melodic and true. The last harmony on the vocals at the end of the song (me – ee – ee – oooh) is unfeasibly sweet. They were at the height of their power, where they would stay for another 4 years. I was at the depths of my weakness, and forever afterward lived in fear of repeating it. I built my heart’s castle wall from the mud of Selmeston village. I wouldn’t start to unravel it until I was in my mid-fifties.
And now my life has changed in oh so many waysHelp! The Beatles
My independence seems to vanish in the haze
But every now and then I feel so insecure
I know that I just need you like I’ve never done before
Ralph Brown is an actor, writer and musician who lives in Brooklyn, NY. He has worked in the West End, Broadway and Hollywood and his writing has been translated into French, German, Italian, Spanish and Japanese.