Instrumental – James Rhodes’ haunting autobiography


Subtitled “A memoir of madness, medication and music“, this is a quick, but not an easy, read.  The introduction contains a warning about triggers for compulsive behaviour.  That warning is timely.  Take note of it.  I landed up doing a bit of compulsive overeating while reading the book (well, in the dinner break between chapters).  I wasn’t eating my emotions.  I was eating his.  So take his trigger warnings seriously.

The author states in the introduction “I am a bit of an asshole. … I’m a vain, self-obsessed, shallow, narcissistic, manipulative, degenerate, wheedling, whiny, needy, self-indulgent, vicious, cold, self-destructive douchebag.”

He recommends that one shouldn’t read this and then expresses his hopes that one will (and won’t).  It is that kind of book all the way through.

What follows is his story.  It uses the words “fuck/fucking” often, it tells a tale of childhood sexual abuse and adult addictions and insanity.  It is openly vulnerable, and that is its charm.  One feels compassion and sympathetic anger (yes, it does trigger a lot of negative emotions).  One feels irritation and frustration at the author and then one somehow nods in an wave of conspiratorial emotional empathy.  I love that Rhodes never describes the sexual abuse.  He doesn’t want other people to get off on it.  That is admirable.

The author has chosen a sound track to accompany each chapter.  These are available online, free.  I don’t have a Spotify account so I YouTubed them.  Each of these pieces of music is given a history and a context.  It makes for compelling listening.  The first piece is the Aria from the Goldberg Variations by Bach played by Glen Gould on piano in 1955.  It speaks of insomnia.  The second piece is the Evgeny Kissin rendition of the Finale of the Piano Concerto No 2 which was written by Prokofiev after the suicide of a friend.  It speaks of “rage – disgust, despair, mockery and defiance ...” He goes on to say: “It is the most accurate musical depiction of helter-skelter madness I have ever heard.”  The third track is the second movement of the Piano Trio by Schubert played by Ashkenazy, Zukerman and Harrell.  I found the comment “… this is the soundtrack of a man so depressed he started out his student days training to be a lawyer” most amusing despite its topic.  It speaks about Schubert’s premature death aged 31 and ends evocatively “Stupid syphilis“.

The fourth work is the Busoni transcription of the Bach Chaconne played by James Rhodes himself. This is central to the book.  It is the relationship between music and Rhodes.  It will be of particular interest to anyone who studied the piano.  Remember those lessons where the teacher worked out the fingering for you?  This gives some of the reasons for that, why and how the easiest fingering isn’t always the best for interpretation.  It is also a relief from the general angst of the previous three “tracks”.  It is also the only time he suggests his own playing.  This chapter also marks the turning point from despair to hope.  The book becomes easier to read.

Talking about the only time he recommends his own playing for Track 17, Rhodes says we may not be able to find the recommended pianist.  I was delighted to find that Just Instrumental had uploaded a copy to YouTube – unnamed.  I wonder if it was James Rhodes?  I preferred the Brendel recording which I also found on YouTube.  Anyway, I digress from the narrative order.

The next chapters focus on recovery, slow, not always sure, but recovery nevertheless.  The final few chapters spout on about current life philosophy – interesting, but the message does rather get rammed home.

What puzzles me is the Americanisms in the whole book.  Why?  Some of it is so English, yet the work is littered with American expressions.  I can’t offer a solution to it.  It didn’t irritate me.  I did notice it, however.

I would imagine that one can read the book in its entirety in one sitting.  I didn’t.  I listened to the music.  I read the chapter.  Sometimes I listened to the music again with more educated ears. I dwelt with it for a while.  Only then did I move on.  I am fighting my own demons.  Some of them came out to taunt me during the reading of this book, as shared in the first paragraph.  However, I did finish the book in one twenty four hour period.  I wanted to know how Rhodes’ story unravelled. It is emotionally gripping stuff, notwithstanding (or perhaps because of) the feeling that one is eavesdropping on a private session with a therapist.

All round, one of the things that gives me pleasure in reading a book is deciding to whom I will pass the book on once I have read it.  I am nervous of this one, though, and still undecided as to its who its next reader will be.


  • Title:  Instrumental
  • Subtitle:  A memoir of madness, medication and music
  • Author:  James Rhodes
  • Publisher:  Canongate (available from Penguin Random House in South Africa)
  • Year:  2014
  • Genre:  Autobiography about recovery from child abuse, addictions and eating disorder
  • Softcover

About moirads

Clergy person, theatre and music lover, avid reader, foodie. Basically, I write about what I do, where I go and things I love (or hate).
This entry was posted in Classical Music, Health, Music and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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