As Shakespeare wrote, "The man that hath no music in himself, nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils; the motions of his spirit are dull as night and his affections dark as Erebus. Let no such man be trusted." These words prove a damning indictment of Shylock, but fortunately he is the exception among homo sapiens. For the rest of humanity, music can rescue us, even from depression.
Listening to Brahms' Alto Rhapsody helped William Styron snap out of a deep melancholy, as he indicated in Darkness Visible. For me, it's the Rolling Stones, whose African rhythms appeal to me at a primal level. It is as if they tap into the origins of music with their highly danceable beat and often unintelligible lyrics.
In May, the Stones released a digitally re-mastered version of Exile on Main Street, one of their classic albums from the early 1970s. The band is also featured in a new documentary, Stones in Exile, which will be released on DVD on June 22.
On a recent trip to the Bay Area, my wife and I listened to the album, a two-disc set, numerous times. I had been feeling quite depressed, more so than usual, and was in no mood for the haunting notes of Leonard Cohen, nor even the sublimity of Bob Dylan, who can have a wistfulness to his work. No, I wanted cheerful, upbeat tunes, and that's what I got with Exile. What rock critic Dave Marsh once called Keith Richards' "slash-and-burn" electric guitar, coupled with Mick Jagger's voice, always layered with wit and irony even when I could not understand the lyrics, created a sonic fusion, chaotic as it was, for my soul.
Played at a high volume, the music, beginning with the supercharged riff that opens "Rocks Off," not only enlivened my cortex, it lifted my mood, undoubtedly penetrating my amygdala, an emotional center of the brain.
I was reminded of Oliver Sacks' book, Musicophilia, in which people who have been struck by lightning or had seizures develop a passion for music, which they never had before.
I have never been struck by lightning, had seizures, or lacked music in my life. I took piano lessons in the mid 1970s, when I was a boy, and could play simplified versions of Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer" and "The Maple Leaf Rag," in vogue following the release of The Sting. I liked the jazz standards and George M. Cohan numbers in the Warner Brothers movies from the 1930s and '40s, which I watched as a kid.
But I have never connected to music the way I do with the Stones, whose songs I first listened to on the school bus in the late 1970s. Before then, I typically heard AM music (Neil Sedaka comes to mind) or the news in my parents' car and Donovan's soundtrack to Midnight Cowboy at home.
Though I have little sense of rhythm and can barely dance, I, like many people, often hear songs in my mind.
Fragments of a tune like "Monkey Man" from Let It Bleed, an album I may like more than Exile, can soothe me when I am reading. That is true even when the fragments include Mick screaming, "I'm a monkaaay," followed by a guitar lick that is akin to a down-shifting of gears in the car.
The Stones might have even reached the essential distinction between psychosis and psychopathy when Mick sings, "I hope we're not too messianic, or a trifle too Satanic." For a depressed or psychotic person, it is a thrill to be relieved of your symptoms, such as a lack of pleasure or desire to do anything, and to enjoy activities like reading, writing and sports.
The Stones help me get there on Exile and Let It Bleed, whether it's the soulfulness of "Let It Loose," the fury of "Monkey Man" or the exaltation of "You Can't Always Get What You Want."
Of course, sometimes you can get what you want, a double-dose of the Stones on those albums. As Shakespeare wrote in Twelfth Night, a less venomous play than The Merchant of Venice, "If music be the food of love, play on." Play on, indeed.