Adam Duritz, frontman of the roots-rock group Counting Crows, is standing 50 feet in front of me singing “Miami” in a packed farm field near Nashville on a Saturday afternoon.
But in this moment, I’m inundated by a riot of guitars and percussion and fans singing along. Each time Jim Bogios pounds the bass drum, it feels like a punch going straight through me. The louder everything gets around me, the quieter it gets in my mind, which is typically a pretty noisy place. I’m not just here for the entertainment. I’m here as part of a self-prescribed program to fight depression.
Building a mental catalogue
The restorative power of music was probably first noted by someone sitting in a field listening to birds sing as the wind rustled through growing reeds. About 2,500 years ago, Plato wrote about the importance of music to the soul and specifically compared it to medical education.
These days, certified therapists use music to help patients deal with physical rehabilitation, post-traumatic stress disorder, aging-related issues, learning disabilities, substance abuse and other conditions. Studies suggest that music can be effective in reducing anxiety in hospital patients, relieving stress and lessening disruptive behavior in people with dementia. A common theme through many of the studies is the effect of music on depression. Nonprofit organizations, including Musicians on Call and Songs for Kids, make it their mission to put musicians in health-care facilities to help with healing.
There are as many iterations of depression as there are people that have it. It’s normal, and it’s deeply personal. For me, it starts with that little voice everyone has in their head. Except mine is no little voice. It’s a lot of loud, relentless noise. It’s a nonstop stream of screaming.
Mostly, it’s unidentifiable voices yelling unintelligible things, an incessant droning that I equate with the soundtrack of hell. It’s never the simple encouragement to do better that another person might hear from the little voice in their head. It’s more like the audio of tense moments from my past, reminding me of failures. Or minimizing successes. It ratchets insecurity. It’s an emotional wrecking ball. And it can overwhelm me to the point that I sometimes don’t hear people talking to me. Sleep can be nearly impossible. It’s exhausting.
But I can distract it.
I first figured that out when I was a teenager and discovered that music could drown it out. So I spent every cent I earned on stereo equipment, stacks of vinyl and CDs.
Then I started spending my money on concert tickets. Listening to AC/DC play loud, obnoxious heavy metal for two hours provided a visceral memory I could dial into anytime I needed it. Live music was an amazing tool, and I spent years building a mental catalogue of shows to keep my brain occupied in quiet moments.
Amping up the message
It was the 1980s, and my playlist included a mix of subgenres of rock ranging from pop to heavy metal. Anytime it was peaceful enough for the internal cacophony in my head to start, the memory of seeing the metal band Twisted Sister perform “I Am (I’m Me),” helped me chill. Yes, I know I’m probably the only person who finds Twisted Sister — a band known for aggressive, defiant anthems of teen angst — soothing. But I did (and still do).
When school was over and real life started, with its lack of discretionary income or free time, I stopped going to shows regularly. I didn’t realize how loud and distracting the noise had gotten in my head until a night in 2016 when I went to Wolf Trap to see Pat Benatar perform. She helped me turn down my volume so much, so fast, that after the concert I immediately realized I never should’ve stopped going to shows. I started looking for more to go to. I mapped out at least one a month. Mostly I looked for old bands from my youth, but I also decided to familiarize myself with new bands. Sometimes I’d go see someone I didn’t really know or care about. Didn’t matter. It worked.
For me, there’s the cathartic effect of being in the middle of all the energy of the performance. There’s the physicality of feeling enveloped in sound in a way that will never happen with songs streaming into ear buds. There’s the connection that comes with knowing you’re among a few thousand people with whom you have at least one thing in common. And almost every show includes a lyric that jumps out at me, as if it’s a message delivered at a time that I needed to hear it.
The punk band Green Day told me everything wasn’t meant to be okay. Train, meanwhile, convinced me it wouldn’t take much effort to make everything all right. Contradictory, sure. And very general. But generalities let you apply your own specifics, and they each gave me relief in the moment.
Pop-rock artist Pink told me we weren’t broken, just bent. Matchbox Twenty said virtually the same thing a couple of months earlier, and repeatedly suggested that everything shouldn’t be so complicated. I tend to complicate things. It was good to be reminded.
Lady Gaga sang: “Head stuck in a cycle, I look off and I stare. It’s like that I’ve stopped breathing, but completely aware.” Very specific, and an excellent description of my early 20s. And Billy Joel correctly pointed out that I can see when I’m wrong, but not always when I’m right.
I’d heard all these artists say all these things before, sure. But being in the room — or the arena, or the stadium — with them when they say it somehow makes it more real. It makes it feel more personal. It makes me feel more understood.
The view from the stage
The Counting Crows have helped me quiet the noise since the early ’90s. I identify with their brand of moody lyrics and introspection, and I’ve seen them play about a dozen times. I’m fascinated with the art of songwriting, and in listening to an episode of “Underwater Sunshine,” a podcast Duritz hosts with writer James Campion, I was struck by a line where Duritz was talking about writing:
“You’re only ever trying to feel something and help other people to feel it too.”
That seemed so right. Beyond music being my distraction, I’m using it to fight numbness. And apathy. So before the Nashville performance, that’s what I wanted to talk about when I got a chance to interview a few members of the band, including Duritz.
Guitarist David Immerglück said he completely buys into the curative power of music. He recalled how he was spent at the end of a recent, grueling tour. But instead of staying away from arenas, he hit seven shows by some of his favorite acts in less than two weeks. He says he came away revitalized and ready to go right back on the road.
Bogios, the drummer, said that every rough patch he can think of has been soothed by music. When he joined the band 15 years ago, he was dealing with the death of his grandmother and the end of a long-term relationship. The shows and the music helped him get through.
Duritz, who has written about his own mental-health issue, a dissociative disorder that he says makes him feel untethered, like things aren’t real, said it can almost be the reverse for him: Every time he goes on stage, he’s revisiting the deeply personal origins of his songs. “It’s an act of emptying myself out for people publicly, and that’s a hard and scary thing to do sometimes.”
He says that music is his job, and it’s a good job. And if he had to choose between a bad mental-health day and a bad mental-health day where he wrote a song, he’d take the one where he wrote the song. He gets plenty of benefit out of music, he just isn’t convinced therapeutic value is part of it.
Hearing the perspective of the guy on stage is enlightening. But from the audience, the therapeutic value of his music remains clear to me.
As the Crows closed out the song “Miami” at that Tennessee show, the words of the song have given way to the thud of the drum. I realize that it doesn’t actually feel like a punch. It feels like more like a pulse.
It’s making me feel alive.