A Million Miles Away

A Million Miles Away: A Personal Reflection on the Power of Music During COVID-19
By Dr Lauren Alex O’Hagan, University of Sheffield

Ever since I can remember, my life has been marked by two constants: anxiety and music. Anxiety sits uncomfortably in the pit of my stomach every day and I’m never quite sure when it’s going to rear its ugly head and unleash uncontrollable feelings of panic and fear within me. Yet, whenever I feel at my lowest, music is always there as a healing force to bring me hope and help me out of that dark space.

In fact, I can mark key moments of distress in my life by certain songs and musicians that helped pull me through. The day my brother was admitted to hospital with appendicitis, it was Thin Lizzy’s Do Anything You Want To that gave me comfort; the years I was bullied at school, it was Def Leppard’s Yeah! album that kept me sane; my first job interview, it was Tom Petty’s words of wisdom in I Won’t Back Down that spurred me on.

And now 2020 – the year of COVID-19, the year I lost my granddad, the year I changed jobs three times, the year my mental health took its worst beating to date – it was Rory Gallagher who became my guiding light, my pillar of strength, my source of motivation. To put it simply, the smile of this beautiful Irish man with the checked shirt and battered Strat gave me a reason to get up every morning and keep facing the world.

🎵 “I’m only living for the moment, When I hear your voice”🎵

My whole lockdown experience has been guided by Rory. His rich back catalogue of music and versatile style means that, however I’ve been feeling, there’s been a song to support me.

On days when I’ve felt like the only thing I want to do is lay down and have a good cry, Edged in Blue, Easy Come Easy Go, Wheels Within Wheels, What in the World and I Fall Apart have provided me with much-needed cathartic relief.

In contrast, on days when I’ve needed to get my act together and go to work, there’s been nothing better than the heavy combination of Shinkicker, Bullfrog Blues, Souped-Up Ford, Shadow Play and Messing with the Kid to inspire me.

And for days when I’ve just needed to calm down and put the brakes on my racing thoughts, nothing beats acoustic Rory: Out on the Western Plain, Pistol Slapper Blues, Too Much Alcohol, Don’t Know Where I’m Going, Barley and Grape Rag. Even just listening to his soft-spoken voice in interviews has had the most soothing effect on my mind.

🎵 “You light up the darkest night, Like a pearl out of the sea” 🎵      
But with Rory, it goes far beyond the music itself. Just having him in my life has been so enriching in many other ways. I’ve read so avidly about him over the past year, consuming all sorts of trivia and facts, that I could make him my specialist topic on Mastermind and the subject of a second PhD.

And the more I read about Rory’s life, the more I realised he was the opposite of everything a stereotypical rockstar should be. He was extremely shy, humble, well-mannered, polite, intelligent, perceptive and sensitive to the world around him. Not only that, but his personality, hobbies, beliefs, fears and life philosophy were so similar to my own that I felt a deep connection with him in a way I’ve never felt with any other musician. He truly is my kindred spirit.

So, as corny as it may sound, if you ask me how I spent lockdown, I would say getting to know myself better through Rory.

Over the past fifteen months, the power of Rory’s music has inspired me to write poetry and stories – creative hobbies that I forgot how much I enjoyed and hadn’t done since I was a teenager.

His great passion for hard-boiled crime fiction also got me buying heaps of books by Dashiell Hammett, Patricia Highsmith and Raymond Chandler (his favourite authors) and binge-watching The American Friend, The Samurai and Odds Against Tomorrow (his favourite movies).

Rory’s encyclopaedic knowledge of music also encouraged me to take an online course in the history of the blues and discover fantastic early 20th-century musicians like Blind Boy Fuller and Scrapper Blackwell, as well as to branch out from my narrow classic rock interests into other genres like jazz, country, folk and rock ‘n’ roll.

During this time, I also joined the Rory Gallagher fanpage on Instagram and made friends with a fantastic group of girls who have been another lifeline for me. Our daily conversations and laughs have made me feel much less isolated from my family and friends who live faraway and given me a form of social life at a time when nobody was able to go outside.

Okay, so spending hours scrolling through Pinterest and gathering 10,600 *ahem* photos of Rory was perhaps a less productive use of my time, but if you can’t engage in frivolous acts of escapism during a pandemic, then when can you? To misquote a famous movie, I’m gonna need a bigger hard disk drive!

🎵 “I’m getting lonesome, I’m getting blue, I need someone to talk to…”🎵   
But going even further still beyond music and hobbies, Rory has helped me, above all, to come to terms with and accept my own anxiety.

Rory suffered hugely with anxiety and depression throughout his life and for all his musical virtuosity, he had extreme self-doubts about his talent. His quivering voice, shaky hands or nervous strumming in interviews often gave away the discomfort he felt and he frequently admitted to lying awake at night worrying. He had a massive fear of flying (yet continued to tour all over the world) and was also a notorious perfectionist and workaholic, often to the detriment of his own health. In later years, he also battled with obsessive compulsive disorder, agoraphobia and even thoughts of suicide.

In my own struggles with anxiety, I’ve tried to hide the way I feel from those around me for so many years, partially out of embarrassment, partially not to make a fuss and partially because of the awkward way that people often react or don’t understand. But this has often led me to feel guilty when I let people down by cancelling at the last minute or making excuses. Being a working-class woman in academia, I’ve also had my own issues with imposter syndrome and frequently question my own skills and accomplishments.

Over the years, there’s been particularly low times when I’ve felt like I’ve been swimming in an ocean with no land in sight or that I’m colourblind despite everybody telling me how colourful the world is. Knowing Rory felt all these things too yet never let them hold him back and still managed to achieve so much gives me the strength every day to do my best, keep facing my fears and try to succeed in all I do.

🎵“Where have you been so long, My tears have dried and gone”🎵  

Although I never knew Rory personally, I ache with sadness today for his loss as a musician, but even more so as a person, a friend, a confidant, an all-around decent human being. In fact, I was so overwhelmed with gratitude that I wrote to his brother Dónal to tell him just that. Little did I expect that only one week later, he would write back to me with a personalised card and letter! His words were so kind and it’s a memento that I treasure dearly.

Like many others, since lockdown measures relaxed a few months ago, I’ve been finding it very hard to adapt to this ‘new normal’ and get back to doing things that I haven’t done for so long. For someone with social anxiety, lockdown was actually a welcome relief for me – a chance to escape situations that made me nervous without making excuses and not having to face many of my everyday fears. But now it’s hard. So, when I go back out there into the world, I wear my Rory t-shirt and a locket around my neck with his picture inside and inscribed with “an-bhuíoch go deo” (eternally grateful in Irish) as protective amulets. And Rory, having been as incredibly superstitious as he was, I’m sure would appreciate that!

So, I’ll never ever be able to thank this Celtic angel enough for the transformative impact he has had on my life, but as soon as I get the chance, I’m hopping on the first plane to Cork and heading to St. Oliver’s Cemetery to try.

🎵“I have not disappeared, I am just over here”🎵

Sidenote: I call this piece A Million Miles Away because it’s my favourite Rory Gallagher song. Its lyrics speak openly about feelings of social anxiety and depression, those moments when you’re in a room full of people yet you feel totally alone; it resonates with me so strongly. In the context of 2020, the title also has so many additional meanings: being in lockdown separated from family and friends, having to adhere to social distancing, sensations of surrealness, the need for escapism, lost in thought, daydreaming.

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