Sunday, 13 July 2014

Dyslexia Blog - How the Ramones saved my life

For those of you who haven't read my dyslexia blogs before, here is a little preamble and introduction, so you know who I am and what I do and why I write this stuff. For those of you who know the story, skip to the end of the paragraph for todays installment. Let me give you a bit of Background so you know who I am and what I do. I was born in 1962. I didn't start talking until I was 4 years old (at all, not a single word). My parents thought I was deaf. My reading age at eleven was 5. When I was fifteen I started a rock and roll band called the False Dots, the band is still going strong. When I was 16 I started a business called Mill Hill Music Complex (although then it was simply called the studio), a rehearsal studio, as we had nowhere to rehearse. The business has grown into a very successful enterprise, one of Londons biggest and most well respected independent studios. We now have 16 studios and a music shop and also have a photography/video studio and a dance studio. I also have done IT work, mostly on a freelance basis since 1983. In 2012 I also moved into film production, producing two highly acclaimed documentary films, both of which had screenings at the House of Commons. When I was 31, a friend suggested I had a dyslexia test. To my surprise I was told I was moderately dyslexic. This made me interested in the subject. To my amazement, what I have learned over the years is that my lack of educational aptitude, my feelings of anger and injustice and the core of my personality have been formed by the fact I cannot read words in a linear fashion. In 2013, I have set one of my objectives to use this blog to let dyslexics know they are not alone, to suggest that people who think they may be dyslexic to get an assessment and toget people who have dyslexic children or siblings to understand the issues that they face.

St Paul was on the road to Damascus when he had a mystical experience which changed his life. He had been going down one path and all of a sudden, he was changed. Whatever happened to him, it had a massive bearing. How many of us have such a moment in our lives? How many of us have an experience which stands everything we thought we knew about ourselves on our head, makes us reevaluate our life and change?

Well that is what happened to me on the 6th June 1977. I was 14and in the final weeks of my fourth year at Finchley Catholic High School. Summer was coming and I was drifting. My grades were starting to improve. I'd struggled in to O level groups in my chosen subjects, although in truth I wasn't motivated by education. My dyslexia had made me very content with poor grades. I viewed a C like brighter children viewed an A. I thought if I could scrape through, I would be Ok. As for my social life, this mostly involved playing football at the park with my mates (something which I've always enjoyed but have no particular aptitude for), walking my dog and riding my bike. My Dad had bought me an ultra light German racing bike and I'd go on massive cycles 3-4 times a week. Popular destinations were Hatfield, Stevenage, Aylesbury and Hemel Hempstead. I would put my head down and cycle so hard that it hurt, for hours and hours. I developed an unhealthy relationship with pain, whereby the more it hurt the better I felt. I later realised that this was due to endorphines. Every day at school was a trudge and I'd sit there planning a route. I was quite obsessive and bought maps, to ensure I took the fastest route possible. A couple of times I was stopped by the Police on Motorway Hard shoulders. I'd simply claim I took a wrong turning and they'd let me off. I used to play chicken with cars and Lorries. No one wore protection or high vis in those days. I lead a charmed life really. The sad truth though was that I didn't really care. I wasn't trying to become a professional cyclist. This never even crossed my mind. If I was out and I saw another cyclist, I would burn them off. If they were good I would still burn them off. I don't recall ever not being able to overtake and leave anyone behind and I enjoyed the challenge. But socially that was it.

June 1977 was a strange time. The country was falling apart and there was an explosion in Punk rock. I'd seen these strange creatures swearing on the Bill Grundy show (the Sex Pistols). They seemed like my school mates only a million times more extreme. Our class 4b was full of troublemakers. Sadly most of them were into prog rock, which simply did nothing for me. So I assumed music wasn't my thing. A couple of friends of mine started a band. They were both good musicians. It never occurred to me to even try, especially as I couldn't play anything. The worst time was bed time. I hated the loneliness of nights. I was plagued by all manner of dreams that I didn't understand and feelings i couldn't control. Being raised in a Roman Catholic household, no one ever sought to explain that "nighttime discharges" were normal for boys and I found mys elf terrified and confused by them. It never for one second occurred to me that this was just normal and wasn't proof I was evil (as my teachers had helpfully explained). I found that no matter how many Hail Mary's and Our Fathers I said, as soon as sleep overtook me, all those filthy thoughts I'd tried so hard to suppress came flooding out. In short I was desperately sad. That was why extreme cycling offered some help. I was so cream crackered that I would actually sleeep through. The trouble was the more I did, the fitter I got, so the less knackered. Being at a boys school, the opportunities to mix with girls were few and far between. In many ways, I simply retreated into a world of my own and no one really noticed.

Then one day, my sister said to me "I've got a spare ticket to see the Ramones, do you fancy coming?". I didn't know who the Ramones were or what sort of music they played, but it seemed like a better night out than watching Stars on Sunday at home with my folks. We arrived at the Roundhouse as Aussie band "The Saints" were playing. They looked like a bunch of blokes who had come on a bus from Kilburn after a heavy night out. They were a wall of unkempt noise. I found them interesting, but they didn't really do anything for me. Then we had the Talking Heads. I found Tina Weymouth fascinating and David Byrne seemed like a lunatic. This was confirmed when they performed Psycho Killer. As my sister rather thoughtfully bought me a beer, I started to think "This is alright". Then the Ramones took to the stage. Just as St Paul saw the light on the Road to Damascus, I saw the Light in Chalk Farm. From the first second they took to the stage, till the last Gabba Gabba Hey of Pinhead, it was like being beaten with a musical sledgehammer. There were no solo's, no anecdotes between numbers, just Dee Dee shouting 1234 and the od thank you. Guitarist Johnny played no lead solo's, Tommy on Drums played no fills. It was just the most inspiring wall of noise imaginable. The crowd went bonkers and I knew what I wanted to do.

Within a week I'd bought the Ramones first two albums. I started buying the NME, and going to as many gigs as possible. Then I started to realise that there was more to the Punk rock scene than just noise. I read in an article that Ramones Bassplayer Dee Dee had been a junkie rent boy. FCHS in 1977 was an overtly homophobic institution. It would quite literally been suicide to come out as Gay then. Even the slightest weakness would have you labelled as a "Poof". So how did this square with Dee Dee Ramone being my hero?

In the song 53rd & 3rd (about a notorious street corner in New York where rent boys cruise), Dee Dee sings about his experiences. The last verse sings "Then I did took out my razorblade, then I did what God forbade, now the cops are after me, but I've proved that I'm no cissy!".  I don't know if there has ever been a starker song about alienation ever. Not being Gay, it I didn't associate with everything in the song, but I got the concept of doing something terrible to prove to everyone that you are not what you are perceived to be. I suspect that in many ways, that is what causes many of the High School massacres in the US. I've never been a violent person, so it wasn't the violence that appealed, in many ways I found it repulsive, but the song made me realise that you could express your innermost dark thoughts in music in a way that you couldn't possibly in any other way. Punk songs were full of the most horrible lyrics, however at the time I felt them uplifting. I saw it as people working through their pain. I realised that I had to form a band and I had to express myself as well.

I started writing extremely dark songs and I then found that they worked even better if the music was perhaps a bit mellower than the sledgehammer Ramones style. We formed the band and started experimenting. And all of a sudden, I found I wasn't overtaken with misery anymore. If I felt miserable, I'd pick up the guitar and start writing a song. In fact the more mioserable I was, the more creative I became. I found that when I had girlfriends and was enjoying myself, the songs dried up.

As 1978 unfurled, I became more engrossed in the Punk scene. Although only 15, I was going to gigs every week, buying vinyl and the NME and devouring every aspect of the subculture. From being shy and withdrawn, I became loud and argumentative. The culture was one of two fingers up to authority. My parents noticed that I'd become very different. As the youngest of six, they put it down to being "a phase". They were being driven nuts by the waifs and strays I'd bring around and the rack we'd make, so my Dad allowed my to have use of the derelcit caretakers cottage on the site of his business, to play music. That was where Mill Hill Music Complex started. It soon became a centre for local musicians and I found I could earn pocketmoney renting it out. This meant I was either playing music, at a gig, in the pub or just chilling with friends. I had found what I thought was my place.

One of the great things about writing songs is that Dyslexia is not an issue, in many ways it is a bonus. You see patterns no one else sees and you rhyme things that don't rhyme. The minimalist lyrics of the Ramones lead the way, but soon I started to want to write more and better things. I started to read poetry for inspiration. This was largely inspired by Punk Poet John Cooper Clark, who seemed to say the things that had been sloshing around in my brain trying to escape. Another great thing which came out in 1977 was the comic 2000Ad featuring Judge Dredd. Wheras the 40's had produced wholesome hero's such as Superman, Dredd was a fascist cop who was only interested in applying the law, with no mercy or heart. Although set in a post apocalyptic America, it was very British. I realised that for Dyslexics, Graphic Novels are far more entertaining than books. I also develolped a love of comic art. That lead onto an interest in Modern Art and from there I became someone who can spend hours looking around galleries, studying particular styles of artists.

Sadly the two things I enjoy most, music and art were things which offered me nothing at School. I have wondered whether we actually need a completely different sylabbus for dyslexics. So many of my studio customers, brilliant musicians and artists are dyslexic and have fallen into the creative field through the cracks, not through being guided. I doubt many teachers are dyslexic and I've met very few non dyslexics who get it. What is interesting is just how many parents of dyslexics don't get it. They have read lots of books and been to seminars and conferences, but they just have o comprehension of what it is actually like or how a dyslexic thought process works.

I think dyslexics need teachers who understand them and mentors who can guide them,

I was inspired to write this article by the sad Death of Tommy Ramone, the last surviving member of that band I saw in 1977. After I was slung out of Finchley Catholic High School, I went to Orange Hill School. I was asked to do an O Level in General Studies. I had to do a major project and I chose "The New Wave". Chapter 3 was "The Ramones as an example of a New Wave Band". I got a B in the O Level, which was a unique event. My Teacher gave me his assessment after (Thanks Mr Phillips). A couple of key comments leap out "The student has presented his material reasonably well despite his rather unattractive handwriting and crowding together of material". Another interesting comment was "Considering the difficulty of the subject matter and the ease with which the project could have slid into facile fan club praise of an individuals favourite 'pop' group, I believe the student has done reasonably well overall."  What does this show? Perhaps that if you get a dyslexic to study a subject they are interested and knowledgable about, they might surprise you. worth thinking about

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