James Rhodes, the classical pianist with rock’n’roll swagger, is a prodigy-level player that’s not there to please the purists but is – in his love of the music and his ability as conduit for it – far closer to being a purist than any of the snobs he might bug. He also carries with him the deep psychological and physical trauma of having been repeated raped as a young child. He told so much of that story – and his musical career and the ongoing struggles to get anywhere near something approaching a balance, a ‘normal’, in his tough-but-wonderful 2014 memoir, Instrumental.
The fallout continues though. His ex-wife tried to have the book banned, worried about the psychological impacts and distresses it might cause their son. Rhodes eventually won, set a legal precedent, has a clause named after him in the courts now, and continued to make more music, recording, touring, even writing another slim volume, as well as turning out newspaper columns and continuing the battle of living.
He returns here with a travel diary-styled memoir. It’s brutal. It’s bleak. But there’s a heart, full to bursting, that is there on nearly every page. There’s an honesty, often close to unbearable for the reader so one can only imagine what it’s like for the author. Self-loathing and anxiety and frustrations around medications and processes and memories and insomnia and the angst of others…
Rhodes is in the middle of new divorce proceedings – a second marriage has crumbled, he’s crippled by shame and down on his abilities, he can’t escape his own head. He swims in thoughts. He pours them out on the page.
What makes this not just worthy – but remarkable – is his abilities as a writer, his resilience, dark sense of humour, his commitment. He continues to turn up. His version of working hard might not be yours or mine, it might not measure up, or might dwarf us, but whatever you think – and whatever Rhodes thinks – his work, on paper, in the notes and in-between the notes he makes is only about 20% of the battle for him.
His psychological scars forever haunt. His nagging self-doubt, the ominous threat of his low self-esteem continues to taunt.
And yet there’s art in his life. There’s huge heart in his world.
He finds humour and good grace. He’s also a narcissist, a grump, a prick. He is deeply flawed. And only ever frustrated, hurt and embarrassed by the fact that he has the lifelong burden of a ‘good’ reason to be any of these things.
Fire On All Sides is devastating. Brutal. Beautiful. Shots fired from the heart. All in the name of art. All with the aim of explaining the madness and music that swirls in his head, that topples up over and all through his world.
That it’s so readable, containing chuckles and interesting biographical details of some of Rhodes’ heroes, building on Instrumental, circling it as if an ostinato, is only part of the wonder and complexity of this man and this book.
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