(Photo by Anthea Leyland)
My name is John Doran and I write about music. The young bucks who run VICE’s website thought it would be amusing to employ a 42-year-old who finds himself absent-mindedly admiring James May’s shirts.
In case you were wondering or simply too lazy to use urban dictionary, "menk" is Scouse/Woollyback slang for a mentally ill or educationally subnormal person, and is a shortened version of mental. As in, “Your Sergio Tacchini trackie is sick la, look at that menk Doran, he can’t even afford a Walker trackie. Let’s hit him with a brick and push him in the canal."
MENK 63: IF YOU TOLERATE THIS, THEN YOUR CHILDREN WILL BE NEXT
"Daddy. Daddy. I had a bad dream. I was on a train. There was a terrible accident."
I stopped taking anti-depressants for the first time in eight years a fortnight ago, and to say that this has catastrophically harshed my mellow is something of an understatement. As part of my ongoing, ten-year plan to fix myself, I started weaning myself off my daily dose of SSRI drugs about three months ago. I went from 30mg a day to alternating between 30mg a day and 25mg a day, then to 25mg a day, etc. And I kept a very precise record of where I was up to in a diary. My scientific method involved using a scalpel to divide the tablets up and not moving on to the next phase of reduction until I felt I had acclimatised to the one I was on. And while I could tell that something odd was happening to me, it didn’t become really unpleasant until I went from taking 5mg every other day to taking nothing at all.
The experience has been sort of like falling out of a plane, in that the falling bit is more weird and uncomfortable than anything else; it’s the last few metres and hitting the floor that is utterly objectionable.
The first day I realised that I hadn’t got away with it – about three days after taking my last ever pill – I was on my way to a wedding in west London. My friends Ros and Simon were tying the knot in Hammersmith and having a reception in a nice working men’s club near the river. As soon as we left the house at 6PM, Little John – who is now two and a half – became vocally concerned that the trip wasn’t part of his daily routine. As I was pushing him toward Seven Sisters tube station, he started shouting, "Oh no! Daddy! It’s dark! Where are we going?!" I tried to reassure him that we were going to go on a train – his second favourite thing to do after going to see the dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum – but this didn’t reassure him at all. "NO! Not a train at night time!" he started shouting instead. To be honest, I shared his suspicion of the journey ahead.
When I interviewed Nicky Wire from the Manic Street Preachers recently for Noisey, he said something about fatherhood that had chimed with me. When talking about the song "This Sullen Welsh Heart", he said he really worried about the effect his ruminative personality would have on his kids. I told him that I believed that the people who really fretted about this stuff were the kind of people who made great parents. That said, I identified with the song’s opening lyrics ("I don't want my children to grow up like me / It's just so destroying, it's a mocking disease / A wasting disease").
The Manic Street Preachers' James Dean Bradfield performing "This Sullen Welsh Heart".
And it’s been playing on my mind recently as I’ve lost count of the number of times this year I’ve gone into John’s room at 7AM to get him up and dressed for the day, only to hear him say: "I had a bad dream… I was on a train. There was a terrible accident." Each time I dig my nails into my palms and think: 'This is normal. All children have bad dreams… you haven’t poisoned him. This isn’t your fault.' And I scoop him up and say brightly: "Never mind, mate! It’s only a dream! It can’t hurt you. Let’s go and read your dinosaur book…"
There wasn’t an accident when we got on the tube, but something uncanny did happen.
On the Hammersmith and City Line, I realised that despite packing spare clothes, books, toys, Spiderman pyjamas and plastic dinosaur models, stupidly I'd forgotten food. By the time we reached Great Portland Street, he was looking forlornly at an empty packet of sultanas he’d found in the pushchair.
A kindly looking man in a tweed jacket asked: "Does he like oranges?" When I nodded, he fished one out of his rucksack and handed it to me.
"That’s very kind of you. Say thank you, John."
I started to peel the orange slowly. The skin was tough and weirdly proved quite difficult for me to get to grips with.
One of the main side effects of stopping taking anti-depressants has been an aggravating increase in my tinnitus and a sensitivity to certain types of noise. I’m now constantly aware of the sound – which is not so much like ringing in the ears as brain piercing squalls of feedback and jagged waves of nauseating power electronics in the ears – and it doesn’t take much in the way of stress to ratchet it up a few notches further. The whistle and scrape of the old train clattering along steel rails, the whine of its engines and my hearing impairment seemed to be combining in an evil three-part harmony. The environmental noise seemed to be producing actual music. I don’t mean musique concrète; I mean that the train was making what sounded like the noise of a piano or a string quartet playing a slow, drawn out drone.
My head went south immediately, flooding with a chemical that made my eyes go cold and my mouth start salivating.
"Orange", said John. I tensed and the application of extra pressure caused my thumb to press straight through the pith into the flesh, squirting a geyser of juice directly into my eye. With blurred vision and a swimming head, I pulled out a couple of segments of fruit and handed them to the boy. I felt faint, so leant my head against the pole I was holding on to.
The second my head touched steel, the musicality got much more noticeable and undeniable, as if a second similar instrument had joined in. I looked round the packed rush hour carriage, but it was obvious that no one else could hear the music – or, if they could, they were completely unconcerned by it. I looked at the manual brass ventilation grille on the wall.
'Subliminal music is being pumped through the ventilation ducts on underground trains on the Hammersmith And City Line by Transport for London,' I thought. 'But why?'
With shaking hands, I reached over and slid the grille shutter switch from the "open" to the "closed" position, but it didn’t stop the drone.
'In the same way that they play classical music in Zone 3 and 4 tube stations to repel teenagers looking for somewhere to shelter from the rain, it is obvious that the fuckers are now playing avant-classical drone music on rush hour tubes at near subliminal levels to stop people from… to stop them from… what?' I wondered fretfully.
I looked up at the inviting, bright red passenger alarm handle.
'Oh God! I’ve become one of those mad people who has panic attacks on the tube and has to pull the handle between stations,' I thought. 'I could do with getting off this tube. Maybe I should just pull the handle and worry about what happens later…'
"Tim Hecker!" I said out loud, jubilantly.
'It’s Tim Hecker!' I thought. 'Or is it early Growing? Or Ben Frost? Or is it Nils Frahm… OF COURSE IT’S NOT NILS FRAHM!' I thought, angrily, mouthing the words.
I took a deep breath, handed John some more orange and rubbed my temples with my free hand: 'It’s Tim Hecker. But why are they playing Tim Hecker on the tube? Is it to stop people from freaking out?'
"It’s not doing a very good job if that’s what it’s for!" I hissed to myself.
"In the Fog" from Tim Hecker's Ravedeath.
I looked round, now in a near panic. Why couldn’t anyone else hear this? The track was more like an outtake from Tim Hecker's Ravedeath, 1972 – perhaps it was from the piano based follow up EP that he released the same year – and not something from Virgins; it’s not as annoyingly ecclesiastical and pompous – this is a looser, braver piece of drone music. The musician has more trust in his audience, giving the notes enough space to fill the…
"Dropped Pianos!" I muttered triumphantly when I remembered the name of the EP. But the triumph was short lived.
'Wait. What am I doing?' I thought to myself. 'Am I reviewing a piece of music – that may or may not exist solely inside my own head – under my breath on a packed commuter tube train?'
"Madness!" I said sharply.
"Orange, daddy", said John. I handed him more segments.
I kept on waiting for the sound to fade away, but instead, by the time we passed through Latimer Road, there were several notes of acousmatic music playing in unpleasant polyphony, combined in a weird chord structure that I didn’t recognise. 'Hmmm, probably non-Western,' I thought to myself. It was throbbing in time with the engine and the repetitive clattering rhythm. It was building remorselessly – but to what? I looked at the black tunnel walls outside the tube windows. How long had I been down there? How fast were we going? Where were we actually headed? Had I ever been anywhere else? Had I always been down there?
Another note joined into the weird chord, I could taste something metallic in my mouth and two terrible cog wheels slid together. 'Oh God. I’m having an acid flashback. Please. Not here. Not now…'
The flashback – the most pathetic of the self-inflicted psychological leisure injuries.
A small rivulet of sweat the consistency of hot olive oil flowed down my face, along my nose and then dripped to the floor. 'What is in the orange? What did the man put in the orange? Why is the music coming through the vents? Why did I bring the boy into this never-ending tunnel of terrifying music? Why didn’t we stay at home and watch Dinosaur Train?' I looked round the crowded carriage but everyone was reading the Evening Standard or their Kindle or chatting to their neighbour.
Except there was one person, a young nervous-looking man in a wax jacket. He had headphones on and his eyes were closed, but it was suddenly clear that something had happened. His eyes snapped open, his mouth gaped in shock and he reached slowly down for the zipper on his big grey canvas holdall. 'A pump action shot gun? What can I do to protect the boy? WHY DID I BRING HIM HERE?' I thought.
When he unzipped the bag, the music got louder, and this time people did register it, looking up in surprise. In the bag was a Dr Marten’s boot on a large store-bought synthesiser. It still took me another two or three seconds to process what was going on. "Oh dear!" said the young man in a flustered manner, taking the boot off the keyboard and then fumbling to turn it off as the polyphonic synthesised racket died down to nothing. An elderly lady laughed and her companion said: "What are the chances of that? I wondered where the music was coming from!"
The young man tutted: "I can’t believe I left it switched on. The batteries will be half flat now!"
Everyone laughed apart from me. I gripped the handle on the tube until my knuckles turned white and eventually we reached Hammersmith.
Out in the street, the air was cold and fresh. I ran into my friends from Rough Trade East and told them about the synth and we laughed.
After a few minutes, I realised that this isn’t what happens because of taking acid when you’re young. This is what happens when you never leave the house for 12 days at a time, only sleep for five hours a night and only listen to odd music. Perhaps I should think about going out more often in the evenings, not less. And it’d only been three days without the medication – it’ll probably calm down in a week or two.
There were lots of other children at the wedding and John joined in with their playing – tentatively at first, but soon building up a head of steam. They charged round the perimeter of the dance floor before diving onto their bellies, howling with laughter each time they made the circuit of the room and hit the deck. He ran round faster and faster, and the energy and light that poured out of him, momentarily, seemed brighter than a thousand suns. And then, at 9PM in the back of a black cab, dressed in his Spiderman pyjamas, tucked into his lowered pushchair, he fell into a deep, contented sleep immediately, unaware of the neon signs, the ambulance sirens, the street lights, the motorbike engines, the car horns and the chaos of London on a Friday night all around him on the streets outside.