33. Less Than You Think – Wilco
About three years ago, over the course of a weekend, I started experiencing the sensation of fullness in my ears, as if I was sat on a plane endlessly circling whilst it waited for clearance to land at exactly the altitude where pressure builds in the ear drum but you can’t release it. When that sensation abated I was left with a faint fuzzy white noise in my left ear, mostly noticeable at night when everything was still and quiet. It was the start of tinnitus and it has never gone away since. I’ve kind of given up thinking now that it ever will.
My tinnitus almost certainly arose as a symptom of dysfunction in my jaw joint (if you find the place that the two parts of your jaw join you may be surprised just how close to the ear it is). To cut a long story short I was a serial teeth grinder and clencher which, over a sustained period, had effectively forced my jaw to try and compensate for a loss of height in my teeth by sliding into a new position. Finding this out was a mixed blessing I guess – my ears themselves are fine, this wasn’t tinnitus induced by loud noise (as per the infamous Pete Townshend example here) – but the underlying problem turned out to involve quite a lot of pain.
Or maybe I should put that another way. Quite a lot of low level but continuous pain. Nagging discomfort in my face, down my neck, sometimes into my shoulder, sometimes up to my eye socket. Nothing that stops me in my tracks but enough to distract, to act almost as a permanent stop on properly relaxing, or properly being present in any given moment. It kind of takes over, or at least it did for a while. Even writing it now I feel kind of whiney, there’s a part of me that keeps saying “ah just get on with it, there’s plenty worse off than you” and whilst there’s a deal of truth in that it’s undeniable that living with constant pain profoundly affected me.
It’s not coincidence that shortly after this all started that I suffered my worst period of depression. Not the twitchy, slightly hyper anxiety of recent months but just a numb withdrawal from the world, a dislocation from everything because it had become too overwhelming. Neither are much fun to be honest but if you made me choose I’d probably settle for the anxiety over the depression; an over stimulated fight or flight response at least means you still have some fight. I went through a period with no fight whatsoever: I think I’d just had enough.
Around the time that the tinnitus started I listened to a lot of Wilco’s album “A Ghost Is Born”. I particularly remember listening to it on the way to and from my frequent visits to a specialist dentist near Marylebone who helped (for now at least) realign my jaw (the problem being temporomandibular joint disorder, or TMJ for short). I’m a long time fan of Wilco, not quite from the “A.M.” days but I had second album “Being There” shortly after it came out, but had struggled a bit to find a way in to the somewhat more oblique “Ghost Is Born”. There’s melody and songs but there’s dissonance and noise too. It’s not the Wilco record you’d take home to meet your parents unless your parents were Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon.
At the time I don’t think I knew a huge amount about Jeff Tweedy, Wilco frontman and song writer, and certainly didn’t know the circumstances surrounding the recording of “Ghost…”. However, listening to it repeatedly it seemed fairly obvious to me then – and definitely now – that the record had pain as a theme running pretty centrally through it. Not even, funnily enough, necessarily in its lyrical preoccupations but it’s just sonically jarring: there’s almost a constant thread of background distortion and regular slashes of noise. In particular, towards the end of the record, is “Less Than You Think” which starts out as a sombre, quiet thing, Tweedy mumbling about “your mind’s a machine, deadly and dull” before shortly collapsing into a twelve minute drone; a background hum punctuated with pulses and whistles and clicks.
It’s not a comfortable listen but it is a stunning attempt, I think, to capture the essence of constant pain through music or sound. It resonates very strongly for me as a straight articulation of tinnitus, of my TMJ problems, and of depression. To be honest I don’t listen to it that often anymore, I find the early part of the drone quite raw now – in fact I’m sat listening to it now and it’s physically uncomfortable. Takes me back to a time and place that I don’t really want to revisit albeit I think that sometimes, in seeking understanding, that I should.
More recently I’ve dug a little into Tweedy’s history and it transpires that, as suspected, “Ghost” had a difficult birth. He has suffered most of his life with migraines as well as anxiety and depression; he believes the former was probably a manifestation of the latter. Whether some of my physical issues – teeth clenching and grinding – have been manifestations of something psychological over the years I don’t know but there’s definitely a temptation to conflate the two. Tweedy ended up addicted to pain killers before getting clean, this record was written and recorded just before that happened, so pretty much at his lowest point. There’s a long piece that he wrote himself for the New York Times (link here) on his health issues which is well worth a read, from that here’s what he says specifically about “Less Than You Think”:
In particular there’s a piece of music — “Less Than You Think” — that ends with a 12-minute drone that was an attempt to express the slow painful rise and dissipation of migraine in music. I don’t know why anyone would need to have that expressed to them musically. But it was all I had.
He also says this on the role music has played for him as a buffer against pain and depression which largely captures, I suppose, what writing the 42 has been about for me:
On a creative level being able to play music and disappear into something as meditative as music can be has been a real blessing in my life.
So, in some respects this is an odd choice. A song that’s mostly not really a song, it’s an extended collage of sounds that try to represent pain that, by my own admission, I can’t listen to very often. It’s telling that I can’t find a video clip of the full track anywhere – the link at the top of the post snips off the drone entirely. If you want to hear it then you’ll have to go and buy (or stream) “A Ghost Is Born”. There’s a ton of other Wilco songs that I love and listen to all the time. You want straight forward Americana tinged rock and roll ? Look no further (Outtasite). You want a sweet poppy love song ? Here you go (You And I). West Coast sunshine harmonies ? Yep (Nothingsevergonnastandinmyway). And that’s before you even get to the masterpiece that is “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” or the rootsy, stripped back “Sky Blue Sky” or the back to basics fun of “Wilco”. They are a brilliant, brilliant band. But this is my choice because it so specifically articulates a part of my life and it’s almost miraculous to me that it came from a set of circumstances that had such strong echoes of my own. I’m also slightly in awe of how Tweedy, in that state of mind, could express himself so cogently.
Is there a point to this post ? You know, a point beyond my odd need to strip away the façade I seem to have built for myself of being a “strong” person, whatever the hell that means. Stoical. Stiff upper lip. Bollocks to that. I guess the point is just to try and tread lightly, treat people with some kindness: they might be carrying burdens they’ll never let you see.