James Rhodes has, in his professional career, never hidden the fact that there’s baggage, that his music, writing and documentary work is an outlet, a motivating force, a way of making sense of the world and of keeping him focussed yet with the chance, momentarily, to live outside his own head. And if anyone thinks that his kind of openness has been the secret to his success one of the many things this extraordinary (and extraordinarily self-aware) memoir does is remind/clarify that it’s been a hell of a price to pay. A living hell.
Part of that battle ended up being the fight to see his words printed – his ex-wife seeking to ban this book on account of the fact that their son (he has Asperger’s, dyspraxia and ADHD) would be distressed if he ever read his father’s story. Rhodes won out with the Supreme Court lifting the temporary injunction and, as would seem reasonable enough, was allowed to tell his own story.
Rhodes is somewhere between Glenn Gould and Nigel Kennedy in the classical world – closer though to Gould (his hero). He has an unconventional approach, a clear talent, a deep passion for the music and the stories around it and wishes to break down the snobbery and stuffiness – so that’s in here. That’s part of his story and therefore part of this book.
But Instrumental isn’t just about the music. The music is salvation. Instrumental is really about the journey. The long, difficult journey – the ongoing journey.
James Rhodes was raped repeatedly from the age of five. He describes the situation – a gym teacher who groomed him with gifts and then held him back and eventually held him down after class. Rhodes’s bleeding legs, sullen and withdrawn persona, detachment, terror and learning difficulties were not enough to give away the game. Teachers protected the coach, or at least told the young Jimmy Rhodes to toughen up. He kept the physical and emotional scars. And he kept the secret.
Candidly, Rhodes reveals the full extent of trauma, the lifelong battle to escape, to seek refuge from shame, and to blame himself continually.
Cue giving up (on) music, cue addiction, self-harm, detachment, insomnia. There were surgeries – and time spent in institutions. He is, as he tells us in the book, “only ever two weeks away from a locked ward”. And it’s with that direct, unvarnished language that we learn, and are constantly reminded, of the life-long difficulties that come when someone steals your childhood. Cue very nearly giving up.
There are various new lows – including attempts at taking his own life, strange highs from cutting and drugs and the loss of self inside (a temporary) faux-euphoria.
Eventually James Rhodes finds music again, finds fatherhood, finds a new version of himself. And this is the redemption of the story – even if it’s a concept in constant need of renewal, always on notice.
The brutality of Rhodes’ life is told in clear, frank detail. And then his love of music is also a thread through which we learn about this life. The exuberance of Rhodes’ prose when he is discussing the great pieces and composers serves to remind us of the claustrophobic mind he battles inside, fights with and against. It shows us that he is open to beauty, hopeful to seek and find it, to share it and aware, in that way that Neil Young articulated in On The Beach that although his problems might seem meaningless (to others) that don’t make them go away. I kept thinking of Neil’s lyric there – it seemed to sum up the career that Rhodes has chosen, or been chosen by: “I need a crowd of people/but I can’t face them day to day”.
Here he faces up to his demons, his past, admitting also to all of his bad tendencies and character traits – and even when through the very worst he probably has the best excuse for some of his behaviour – this is a book about the most human of battles: the hope to one day hold head high, the private struggles (made public), the place of art as part of the escape, the need – however momentary – to be in some other place, to be good, be doing something good. And how even in that place, and for however long, it is all of the baggage from the past, we carry with us, that allows us to not only get there, but shapes the person we are if and when we break away, break free for a moment, keep head above water, or at least above ground.