Music & Grief: A 13 Year Journey

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A personal blog post from our MD, Neil Gardner

November 3rd 2003, Sunday afternoon – my best friend, Peter Barnes, was playing Gauntlet with me on the PS2 in our shared front room (we shared a flat in Croydon). Suddenly he started losing control of the left side of his body. A race to the local hospital and a few hours later and he started fitting violently. A few more hours later he was, to all intents and purposes, gone. Stroke had hit. A fit and healthy, non-smoking, light drinking, non-drug taking man had been wiped off the earth by a tiny blockage in a tiny blood vessel in his head. Just like that, my best friend of 16 years, my brother-in-arms, was no more. The doctors and nurses at Reading specialist stroke centre did their best for a couple of days, but by Nov 5th he was too far gone down that road we all have to travel. With his parents, we took the heart-breaking decision to switch off the life support. With a bravery that stunned me, his parents opted to allow him to be part of the organ donation programme…over the following days Pete helped save many, many people. He’d be so proud!

I’ve written about this several times over the last 13 years. Of how it was the singularly most destructive and traumatising moment of my life. Of how the following years were a dark, lonely place. Of how the guilt I felt consumed me. Of how the pain slowly receded, but the memories and remorse grew in power and effect. To this day, I think of him every day, and consider everything I see and do from the perspective of how Pete would have reacted to them.

Over these many years, I’ve thought a lot about how he would have loved the technological changes…the Star Trek future in which we live. Smartphones, Netflix, 3D films, wi-fi that works and so much more. No one would have been more excited by the new Star Wars films. And no one would have been more anoraky about me working on Doctor Who!

But the one thing I’ve not noticed until recently, was how the music I listen to and love has been affected by Pete’s death. We spent 16 years as best friends loving music…mostly agreeing but having some amusing battles over things like Prince vs Michael Jackson. We started out together in Hospital Radio, programming music shows, building a career in commercial music radio. We shared albums and singles, went to record fairs and endless concerts. When I became a Head of Music in local radio, he was my wingman at music industry events and gigs. It was a true friendship…sharing everything and having a blast doing it.

After his death I lost my love for music. Not completely…I didn’t burn my collection or banish all music from my life. His parents had left me his copious music collection. Hundreds of CDs, minidiscs and other music ephemera. It was stacked in boxes hidden in wardrobes or under the stairs. I couldn’t bring myself to look through it. But I also couldn’t throw it away. Here was a catalogue of the musical life of a person who no longer existed. It meant everything to me, but at the same time it made me tearful. From his love of movie soundtracks to his first attempts to create CD-R collections, it was all in those boxes.

Music was a part of my day to day life as I was producing music documentaries for BBC radio. And in our office, my friend Lee was always challenging me to 80s music play-offs (it must have driven our office colleagues mad!) But at home I rarely, if ever, chose to listen to music. On my commute every day I would usually listen to a podcast (thanks to Ricky Gervais, or LBC). Over the years, as I became more insular and withdrawn I started to discover a liking for darker music, gothy stuff. But even then, it was rare for me to indulge in listening to a whole album. Music hadn’t disappeared from my life, but it no longer held a place of joy for me. I completely stopped playing bass guitar and let the poor things get dusty and musty in the corner of my living room. I finally found the courage to go through all those boxes of Pete’s music and donate 90% of it (with nearly all of my own collection) to local cat charity shops (along with so many DVDs it is ridiculous!)

As the years progressed and I fought my way out of my crippling depression and self-hatred, music began to reassert itself. I couldn’t go to gigs anymore, but I did start to find new music I enjoyed. Don’t condemn me, but modern country acts like Sister Hazel really helped at this time. Positive songs with great stories and amazing musicianship. I began to revisit some old favourites such as prince, Bowie, Iron Maiden, Eagles, Matchbox 20, Level 42, Muse and far too many 80s albums! Bit by bit my days started to include music as a regular ‘happy’ place.

And now, over the past 3 or 4 years, music has reasserted itself as my main passion. I’ve wholeheartedly embraced the hi-def music phenomenon, and found myself re-purchasing many CDs or their HD digital versions. I now aim to listen to a new album every week, to improve my knowledge and enjoyment of music. In fact, I don’t think I can imagine a life without music. It sooths me and teaches me. It is such a joy to listen to the creativity of so many people from around the world. And the real revelation is re-discovering those albums from my past that Pete and I enjoyed so much, or always wanted to own. Yes, it is bittersweet and I find myself terribly lonely and depressed at times, but I am always happy to have music back in my life.

Having said all that, there’s been one band who I’ve found it impossible to listen to over these past 13 years. One band who meant the world to Pete, and who we travelled across Europe to see live, many times. Over the years I’ve tried to listen to their albums, but have failed to get through a single track. Each time the tears flowed and I had to stop the music. The memories were too painful, and with the memories came the guilt. Why hadn’t I noticed the warning signs? Why hadn’t I insisted on better care for him? Why hadn’t I shouted and screamed that the hospital scan him immediately on arrival, instead of being fobbed off with the old Sunday-evening nonsense? Why? Why? Why?

Well, that’s the guilt I carry with me every day, and whilst I can box it away, it is always there in my mind, screaming at me like a demon. Maybe one day I will meet Pete again and he will forgive me.

But…an interesting thing happened a few months ago. THE BAND came on by accident (it is Def Leppard if you are wondering), and before I knew it I’d listened to 3 songs and not had to turn it off. The songs flowed, one after another, and yes, the memories flowed too. But they didn’t overwhelm me. I wasn’t washed away on a tide of sadness. Melancholy, yes, but not overwhelming pain. An hour or so later, the entire album had played and I had a smile on my face. I’d recalled our Paris trip, our time at Milton Keynes Bowl, the trip to New York, the car drives to London. A lifetime of brotherhood had swept through me and whilst I desperately wanted my buddy back, I wasn’t enfeebled by the emotions.

Since then, I’ve started listening to more albums that meant a lot to us. Using the music to rediscover the happy memories. The loneliness still comes, but it is wrapped up in warmer feelings now. And sometimes, not always, but sometimes I feel Pete with me, bopping along. It’s almost as though we were back together, talking nonsense and loving the tunes.

And newer bands and musicians are something I give thanks for. Florida Georgia Line, Grafton Primary, Shinedown, Panic at the Disco, The Shires, Patrick Robinson, Madeon, Rob Thomas, 2 Cellos, Fall Out Boy, Barenaked Ladies, Hootie & the Blowfish, Breaking Benjamin, Luke Bryan, Imagine Dragons and so many more.

So, 13 years on, and for the next few days I will be sad, and upset, and melancholy, and contemplative. But I will score these days with music that we shared and loved and played. I will embrace the memories these songs will empower, and I will give thanks to all the musicians who helped build my friendship with Pete. Headphones blaring, hi-def files playing…rock n roll forever, buddy!

Strokes affect everyone, of all ages, not just older people. Pete was just 30 when he died from stroke. There are signs to be aware of, things you can and should know. The Stroke Association works tirelessly to help those affected by strokes, and lobbies for further funding and research. Please, if you have time and a little to spare, please visit the site below to learn more about strokes, how FAST can help you, and how to donate whatever you can afford.

https://www.stroke.org.uk

FAST test

The FAST test can help you to recognise some of the most common symptoms of a stroke:

  • FACIAL WEAKNESS: Can the person smile? Has their face fallen on one side?
  • ARM WEAKNESS: Can the person raise both arms and keep them there?
  • SPEECH PROBLEMS: Can the person speak clearly and understand what you say? Is their speech slurred?
  • TIME TO CALL 999.

If a person fails any one of these tests, get help immediately by dialling 999.

 

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