Though my mother was bi-polar for most of her life, I thankfully have been spared the ravages of depression. The closest I came was a period of a year or so when I was around 16. I was in the throes of adolescent angst and ennui, some sense of lost innocence, of the magic glitter of my childhood fading unexplainably, of feeling disconnected. It didn’t help that I went to an all-boys school where I didn’t feel I belonged and had no contact with girls at an age when I should have. On the positive side, I used my time studying the Spanish verb-key instead of figuring out how to get some beer and pick up girls. That served me later in life. But it probably wasn’t quite as much fun.
How we cope with life’s sorrows, barbs, attacks of lethargy, teaches us as much, if not more, as to how to be more fully human than our happy moments and successes. Robert Bly talks about how the old Norwegians in Viking times understood that some boys would go through a couple of years of lying amongst the ashes. Instead of shaming them, they recognized it as a rite of passage of such and didn’t yell at them to get off their ass and take out the garbage. At least for a couple of years.
I remember three coping mechanisms and strategies I developed. The first was to shut the door to my room and religiously watch re-runs of McHales’s Navy and Gilligan’s Island from 6:00 to 7:00 pm every night. That bizarre hibernation may or may not have been just what I needed at the time. Definitely not a long-term strategy, but a momentary escape that somehow helped stabilize the emotional landscape. Something I could count on and look forward to and allow to take me away from my body, thoughts and feelings to be immersed in another story. Never mind that they were both as stupid as could be. It just felt like a good idea to get out of my story for an hour at least each day.
And don’t we all still do that? When our actual story gets too intense to bear, too hot to handle, just flick on a switch and give ourselves a break? Again, not a long-term healing strategy, but sometimes a just-right short-term coping mechanism.
My second strategy was to get into it, try out the persona of the heavy, conflicted artist and find some perverse pleasure in being depressed. My soundtrack was Bob Dylan’s 11:22 long Desolation Row. I memorized the entire song (and still mostly can remember it!) and lived amongst the dispossessed, down-and-out characters at that address in my imagination. If Gilligan and McHale were suggesting to run away from it all, Dylan was inviting me to run toward it and accept it and feel its full weight. It was the beginning of glimpsing how art can transform depression as something weighing down on you to something you can lift up and examine and work with.
And then came John Coltrane’s Meditations, with its extraordinary section featuring Pharoah Sanders getting sounds on the saxophone that a squeaky beginner might get, but in full control of their timbre. I put that on full blast and felt the red-hot outrage and anger of that screaming solo not only speaking the horror of the nightly news (this was recorded in 1966), but expressing with no-holds-barred the anguish of simply being a human being. The 40-minute Suite is divided into Five Sections: The Father and Son and Holy Ghost, Compassion, Love, Consequences, Serenity, taking the listener through the full journey of exile and redemption, both building up to Pharoah’s solo and then setting you down from it.
Now this was something else entirely. Not escaping to a fantasy island, not choosing to hang out on Desolation Row, but running full force into the fire and feeling it burn away the dross and bring me to some sense of serenity coming out the other side. Here was art at its most potent, its power to fully express the whole spectrum of human emotion and transform the listener— and even more so, the player. I had already felt the small boundaries of my Leave It To Beaver childhood pushed out by Bach and Beethoven and the Beatles and James Brown, but with Coltrane and that Pharoah Sanders solo, the depths felt deeper and the heights felt higher. And I could hear a specifically American expression that captured the grief of genocide, slavery, sanctioned greed and showed how the lotus could still grow in the muddy swamp, the one they never showed in McHale’s Navy or Gilligan’s Island.
All of this has come to mind because of the news that Pharoah Sanders died today at 81 years old. I actually sat in a living room with him once with a bunch of other musicians casually gathered together, but was too tongue-tied to even know how to talk to him. I should have thanked him for that solo, asked him what he felt when playing it, told him how I made my 8th graders lie down and listen to it to open up a channel for their own budding adolescent confusion. (I really did this. I wonder if any of them remember it.)
Nevertheless, R.I.P. Pharoah Sanders, I hope the Father, Son and Holy Ghost —and the Great Mother—will welcome you and celebrate your acts of compassion and love and grant you the serenity you deserve.