Aural Fixation: The Musical Hands

Progressions, Prog-Rock And Piano

August March
4 min read
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The hands have it. For musicians and writers, they’re the primary means of transferring creative output from the mind and out into the world. For me, my hands, like the rest of my body, are a blessing and a curse.

Listen: The path I trod materialized, gritty and grueling. The trail was like a bloody crease in the Earth. I walked that road anyway, and unshod too—though it was littered with broken bottles. When I managed to fall asleep, I’d wake up feeling like the tin man after a hard rain in the Land of Oz.

That’s my poetic précis on the effects of the autoimmune ailment I acquired after exposure to malaria. Though delivered in a rambling, dreamlike tone, you get the picture.

But thanks to the geniuses at BASF and Amgen, I’m okay. Human monoclonal antibodies allow me to continue playing, writing and walking. When properly configured and introduced via subcutaneous injection, these genetically engineered molecules effectively inhibit inflammation, commanding the white blood cells in my system to stop attacking my nerves, organs and joints.

Ironically, long-term use of these miracle drugs may result in unusual forms of cancer.

If you wanna know what all of that has to do with music, please continue reading. Don’t expect what follows to be particularly linear. Don’t expect it to be a sympathy-seeking soliloquy either.

The progression of my condition initially resulted in two personally, perfectly ridiculous side effects: I couldn’t practice the piano and had difficulty manipulating a computer. My hands just wouldn’t have it. They hurt like hell and were prone to a sort of swelling that caused me to resemble a cartoon character—or even worse, Captain Kirk under the influence of the Melvaran mud flea vaccine.

Here’s where music comes up. While waiting to see my rheumatologist, I read an article in
Rolling Stone. It was an interview with Phil Collins. In it, he despaired not being able to use his hands due to a battle with nerve damage. That distressed him. Besides being unable to drum, Collins implied his condition prevented him from performing certain hygienic tasks too.

His blunt admissions seemed an act of redemption to me. I forgave him the celestial-sized sin that enabled him to convert a mysteriously abstruse prog-rock ensemble into a gated-reverb-using, hit-making machine.

His humility touched on my deepest fears. After my appointment, I revisited his work, coming to the conclusion that long before his starstruck visions guided Genesis from obscurity to stardom, he was and always will be a damn fine drummer. With the rest of the blokes from the Charterhouse School, Collins performed percussive magic on compositions like “The Return of the Giant Hogweed.”

Collins’ dramatic precision, embedded in Peter Gabriel’s tale of disease and apocalypse, reflected a struggle in which I could find an immediate connection. Listening to the driving rhythm and complex melodic structures in “Hogweed” gave me hope and provided the musical mojo I needed to fight my own battle. Eventually, I got back to using my hands.

I made the realization music is curative; the joy it elicits is profound. More than any fancy 21st-century medicine, sound and stories about sound saved me from becoming hopeless.

So even as nature fixes her unforgiving gaze on us, even as the stuff I squirt into my own fragile framework does its dangerous work, I’m writing and playing a lot now. When I’m done with this column, I’m going to grab an old manuscript of Bartók’s
Out of Doors—try and tumble through the first 16 bars. Then, I’ll have a listen to the jazz Phil Collins made with Brand X. I’ll worry about the mass doctors found in my abdomen some other time, when the curvy road I’m on straightens out a bit, when the music’s over.
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