Thursday, 29 October 2015

The Dead Man's Cake blogs - index

Hi.  My name is David Barrows, an American musician and computer geek, living in London.

When I was six years old, my mother committed suicide.  Many years later I made a music CD where I try to come to terms with this tragic event, and the issue of suicide in general, which I entitled Dead Man's Cake.  I also later blogged about it on this blog site, in a series of posts I call the "Dead Man's Cake blogs."

This page is an index to the entire series:

The "Dead Man's Cake" blogs, issue #1.

Incidentally I was moved today to create this page and recap my blog series by a BBC documentary that came out from UK musician and rapper Professor Green in late 2015, about his own father's suicide.  Here is a piece in the Guardian about it.  I wish to commend Professor Green and thank him his courage for doing this work.  The stigma around mental illness and the topic of suicide needs to be challenged, and people talking about it is the first step.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

The "Dead Man's Cake" blogs, issue #8

It's time to wrap up this blog series.  My CD Dead Man's Cake was released in early 2012, and it's now nearly 2 years later.  It may seem like I haven't done much with the record but I'm still working on a live act, a kind of "one man band with a laptop" thing where I can render the tunes properly in a live environment.

I think it's a good record and I'd be grateful if you'd buy it; either the physical CD, which is a lovely object, or find it on iTunes, Spotify, etc.  It's essentially a creative work written to deal with a traumatic event, an attempt to create beauty from pain, as I've discussed previously.

Part of the proceeds go to mental health charities including the UK charity Sane.

Please see the previous related posts at the home page of this blog.

This post is about Tracks 5 - 11 of Dead Man's Cake.

"Don't Dwell On It David", track 5, refers to something my Dad used to say, after my Mom committed suicide.  It's an idea that has a number of different meanings.  On the one hand, taken at face value, it means what it says:  get over it, it's time to move on.  But the flip side of that idea is about how people don't want to hear about this stuff.  It's about the stigma of mental illness and how suicide is a taboo subject.  Nobody wants to hear about it.  It's depressing and unpleasant.  But if you think that's true for you, imagine how it feels for the people who were close to the person who committed suicide.  And how they'll go through their lives with this memory, this horror, trapped inside them.  Bottom line:  try to treat people with kindness and compassion, because you never know what they might have gone through.

"Black Hole In My Soul", track 6, expands on that idea.  When your loved one commits suicide, it's a scar that will never really heal.  If you're lucky, this new and terrible knowledge, memory and experience might get easier to live with over time.  But it's never going to go away.  Best try and do some creative work, therapy or whatever else you need to do, to try and survive the trauma.  Seek help, and the support of loved ones.

The second half of the CD is about certain times in my life, relationships, or events that happened subsequent to my Mom's suicide.

"Rock Star Dream", track 7, is about a rock band I played with in Los Angeles during the late 70s and early to mid-80s.  Its theme is the yearning for fame and fortune that many artists experience, and how that not everybody gets to live that dream, but how it changes you in any event.

"South American Girl", track 8, is about a formative relationship I had with a lovely person who is still my friend. Incidentally her brother also happened to have committed suicide in 1990.  That was a traumatic and horrifying event which shattered us both, and which relates to the overall anti-suicide theme of the Dead Man's Cake CD.

"Darkest Before the Dawn", track 9, is about a more problematic relationship I had subsequently, a kind of "love gone wrong" song.

"Can't Love You in Moderation", track 10, is a light musical number about having found the love of my life, and resisting the old British adage, "all things in moderation."

"Dead Man's Cake (reprise)" tries to tie up the narrative of the CD and make sense of the incomprehensible.  I wonder what it all means, and conclude it will remain a mystery.

I have known 3 people directly in my life who have committed suicide.  That seems like a lot.  It was such a significant set of events, so devastating for the families and friends left behind, that I couldn't really think of anything more meaningful to write about.  In this last tune, essentially, one of the things I'm saying is, sorry if this is a bit of a downer for you, but there's plenty of music out there which doesn't raise these issues.  If bubble gum is what you're after, there's no shortage of that in the world.  If you don't like this stuff, friend, well... you don't have to listen to it.  Again, in my humble opinion, it's a pretty good record with good songs and good musicians on it.

Bottom line is, I had something to say, and I said it, and I'm glad I got it off my chest.  I think it turned out well.  I've had a couple years to live with it and a lot of people like the record and seem to have been quite impressed and moved by it.  I'm proud of it and glad I did it.

The End (of the "Dead Man's Cake" blog series).

Saturday, 1 December 2012

The "Dead Man's Cake" blogs, issue #7

"Dead Man's Cake" is the title track (track 4) from my 2012 CD "Dead Man's Cake".  It describes the tragic event of my mother Judy's suicide, but unlike track 3, "Judy's Mind", the song Dead Man's Cake presents a different sort of perspective.

The basic facts are that my mother, Judith Friedman Barrows, who, like my father, wrote for Hollywood television shows in the 1960s, on the night of August 19th, 1970, drove to Mt. Sinai Cemetery in North Hollywood where her father was buried, and committed suicide by taking an overdose of pills.

"Dead Man's Cake" is a metaphor for the pills, but it's also a metaphor for suicide generally.  I wrote the piece as a cautionary tale against suicide.  The chorus of the song says, "Don't you eat that Dead Man's Cake.  If you're thinking about taking your life, don't do it."

(Incidentally, if you are thinking about it, I say, don't do it.  Instead, contact suicide prevention now.)

The song looks at the events of that night from a poetic and surrealistic standpoint.  I imagine her meeting her father's ghost, as well as a kind of watchman figure who acts as the gatekeeper to the afterlife, similar to the Greek myth of Charon, the boatman who takes the souls of the dead across the river Styx to the underworld.  Judy has cake and tea with the watchman.  All the while the song admonishes her, "don't you eat that Dead Man's Cake.  Don't you drink that Dead Man's Tea."  But it's too late.  She's shaken her father's hand.  She's eaten the cake, and drunk the tea.

Suicide is a complex issue.

My personal belief is that in cases of terminal illness, assisted suicide should be made legal.  I think it's unethical to force someone to prolong their life if they are suffering terribly and there is no hope for a better quality of life.

But I think for people who are not terminally ill, where mental illness, despair, or some intractable set of circumstances is the reason for contemplating suicide, then I'm strongly against it.  It's utterly devastating to the people left behind, and it's an act no less violent than murder.  There's got to be a better solution.

There are so many reasons to live, and despite all its problems, so many great and beautiful things in the world that make life worth living, I just think suicide is a cop out.  It's running away from your problems.  It's trying to effect some dramatic response to whatever set of issues you're confronted with.

Why not just simply make a change in your life?  Why not pack a bag, take a trip, take some time off, or maybe check into a clinic if things are really bad?  If you're in a bad relationship, why not just leave the relationship, rather than commit suicide?  Surely there must be some better way to deal with your problems.  Surely, although this day seems bad, tomorrow's another day, and things might be entirely different.

Don't you eat that Dead Man's Cake.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

The "Dead Man's Cake" blogs, issue #6

The song Judy’s Mind, the 3rd track on my album “Dead Man’s Cake”, asks the question, what was going through my mother’s mind the night she committed suicide?

This is an eternal question asked by anybody whose loved one has committed suicide, and where the answer is not obvious:  why did they do it?  What drove them to those depths of despair?  Couldn’t they have chosen some other course of action?  The song speculates on such questions. 

Someday I may write a book about all this, but not right now.  Meanwhile, in my Mom’s case, and out of respect for the privacy of myself and my family (because I’ve already revealed quite a lot in making this record and these blog posts, and I’m drawing a line), I’m not going to go into the details here. 

Rather, I’m writing this post to talk about the song specifically, and more generally about the problems addressed by the song.  If you want to know more, may I suggest you buy the record

I’ve spoken to mental health professionals and academics knowledgeable in this area.  One school of thought says that anybody who commits suicide is, by definition, severely mentally ill.

Others disagree and say that actually some suicides are “situational,” in the sense that some circumstances in their life has led them to conclude they need to end it.

I’ve come to the inescapable conclusion that for my Mother, it was the former.  My Mom, tragically, suffered from severe mental illness which led her to commit suicide.

It is terribly difficult to accept that your loved one suffers from mental illness.  It took me years of therapy and reflection to accept that was the case with my Mom.  And it’s not something one typically talks about, because of the stigma that exists around having a loved one who is mentally ill.

This is another major aspect of what I tried to do artistically with this record:  to challenge the stigma around talking about these types of issues.

I did a CD release gig in London in early 2012 around the completion of this CD “Dead Man’s Cake.”  The proceeds from that gig went to the UK mental health charity Sane (as well as part of the proceeds from CD and download sales).

At the moment I am working on creating a live show around this record and I hope to do more charity gigs for Sane.  Making this record has been a healing and cathartic experience for me.  It is about surviving traumatic events such as the one I experienced, and making art as a way of helping the healing process.  It also gives me a focus for this energy, which is to say, I hope my having done this may help people do art therapy pieces of their own or talk about their own stories, but also to suggest to depressed people that they seek professional help.  Having been through my experience, I believe suicide is not the way to deal with one's problems.  It's a horribly violent act and has a terribly devastating effect on the survivors.

I had been thinking about writing about my story for years.  Part of what helped plant the seed for me to make this record was having worked closely with Chilean music artist Quique Cruz on his project “The Archeology of Memory”.  This was an astonishing magnum opus about Quique’s own story of surviving a concentration camp in the 70s in Chile under the dictator Pinochet.  It was particularly Quique’s statement about his work, which is the idea of creating beauty from pain, that helped inspire me to examine my own story.  I also tried, with “Dead Man’s Cake”, to create something beautiful out of my own painful experience.

Musically, “Judy’s Mind” was built around a kind of classically-oriented piano piece I’d been playing around with for years, which has a melancholy mood evocative of my feelings about my mother and her suicide.  The disjointed metric structure (it moves between 5/8, 6/8 and 4/4), and the modulation between several tonal centers, feels flowing and natural, but is actually quite odd, and is intended to reflect the disturbed rhythms of her mental state.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

The "Dead Man's Cake" blogs, issue #5.

The album “Dead Man’s Cake” (2012, by David Barrows) is my autobiographical narrative consisting of 11 songs which generally proceed chronologically from my childhood to the present day.  The first half of the record is about the story of my parents, my Mom’s suicide and how it affected me.  Most of the second half of the record is about how I went on to live my life afterwards.

Track 2:  Hippies On The Ranch

Hippies On The Ranch refers to one of those fateful decisions, around 1966 or 1967, where my parents met a fellow writer at a party in L.A., who happened to be selling his ranch in Cuba, New Mexico.  They were heady from their success of having sold a screenplay for fifty thousand dollars, which was a lot of money in those days.

My understanding is, they thought they could live part time in L.A., and live part time on the ranch, to draw inspiration for writing western screenplays, by actually living in the southwest.  The ranch was on the edge of the village of Cuba which had a population of about 500 people at that time, and was located on the edge of the Navajo Indian reservation.  I think they bought the ranch for around 35K, and probably burned through the rest of the money in a few short years.  The ranch consisted of 300 acres of land, a main ranch house, a duplex, and another small house by the highway in which lived a Navajo man who was the ranch’s caretaker. 

So when my parents decided to move to the ranch, around 1967, we went from living in a house in Beverly Hills to living in one of the poorest and least developed parts of the United States.  We lived there for about 3 years, with a few trips back to L.A. in between.

In the song, I talk about how, essentially, they had dropped out and become hippies.  In retrospect it may have seemed a nice idea to take their newfound money, get out of the Hollywood rat race, move to the country, put on cowboy hats, ride horses and play at being ranchers.  But again, the move foreshadows the impending tragedy, and how “Hippies on the Ranch” were like a failed branch of the evolutionary tree of life, one that would ultimately become extinct because of their inability to adapt and survive.

Musically the song is a kind of grungy rock piece where the horn section parts have tinges of melodies inspired by Indian classical music, as I took inspiration from pieces such as the Beatles’ “Within You and Without You,” a fusion of western rock music and Indian classical music that was happening around that time, and which in my mind has some association with the Hippies. 

On one level, I have a deep affinity for the liberalization of world culture that occurred with the Hippie revolution.  I think many good things came out of the so-called Hippie movement, including an awakening of progressive politics.  The Hippies and their “peace and love” views were, in large part, a reaction to things that very much needed to be questioned, particularly the Vietnam war, and the “straight” culture that allowed that horrific war to occur. 

But in another sense, like Hollywood Sixties, this song also refers to the dark side of a phenomenon; how, if you look at what ultimately happened to my parents, perhaps the whole “dropping out and becoming hippies” thing was not so great after all.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

The "Dead Man's Cake" blogs, issue #4

Dead Man’s Cake:  The Songs.

The album “Dead Man’s Cake” (2012, by David Barrows) is my autobiographical narrative consisting of 11 songs which generally proceed chronologically from my childhood to the present day.  The first half of the record is about the story of my parents, my Mom’s suicide and how it affected me.  Most of the second half of the record is about how I went on to live my life afterwards.

Track 1:  Hollywood Sixties  

Hollywood Sixties is about those years in the mid- to late 1960s when my parents, Robert Guy Barrows and Judith Friedman Barrows, enjoyed a few years of success as Hollywood television writers.  They wrote individually and as a husband and wife team, for a number of famous television shows, including series like Mission Impossible, Bonanza, the Green Hornet, Daniel Boone, etc.  Many of these episodes are available as part of boxed sets of those series, and there are even some complete episodes that exist on YouTube etc.

You can find references to their TV career by searching the web:

Musically, "Hollywood Sixties" is upbeat and funky, with a kind of a film noir undertone, and interspersed with horn section parts that quote Hollywood film and TV theme songs.  It makes reference to the glamour of Hollywood, but also questions our obsession with it, and hints at the high price of fame and Hollywood’s dark side.  The song foreshadows the impending premature ending of my parents’ short-lived Hollywood career, due, as I see it, to a combination of fateful decisions, delusions of grandeur and the tragedy of untreated mental illness.

(To be continued).

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

The "Dead Man's Cake" blogs, issue #3.

Why did I do this?

Why then, you might wonder, would anybody decide to focus on something so morbid as to make a music CD pertaining to their mother’s suicide?  Here’s why.

·      They say you should write about what you know, and this just happens to be my story.  I’ve been thinking about writing about it for a long time.
·      I’m a musician, so music is my medium, and these ideas for songs meant more to me than anything else I could think of.  Ultimately, I just wanted to make a good record.
·      It’s not just about suicide; it’s about surviving that loss, and moving on.  So it’s actually an affirmation of life, and a lot of it is pretty upbeat.
·      I want to use the act of telling my story as an opportunity to speak out about the problem of suicide generally, and join the chorus of voices that continue to call for improved mental health care worldwide.
·      By “coming out” as a suicide survivor, I want to challenge the stigma and taboos that cause people like me to suffer in silence, and that marginalize people who suffer from mental illness, like my mother did.

Dead Man’s Cake:  what it’s about.

The anti-suicide message.

A defining moment of my life occurred when I was 6 years old and my mother committed suicide by taking an overdose of pills.  This was a devastating, life-changing event for me and my family.  As I’ve mentioned, the title of my record “Dead Man’s Cake” is a metaphor for the poison she took to end her life, and for suicide generally.  So one of the main themes of “Dead Man’s Cake” is its anti-suicide message, summarized by the chorus of the title song:

Don’t you eat that Dead Man’s Cake;
Don’t you eat that Dead Man’s Cake.
If you’re thinking about taking your life, don’t do it.
Don’t you eat that Dead Man’s Cake.

Suicide is an incredibly complex issue.  I realize most people who consider suicide are, by definition, suffering from severe mental health problems, and so in many cases cannot be held responsible.   But given my experience, I felt I needed to speak out, strongly, against it, and say, loudly and clearly:  don’t do it.  There’s got to be a better option.  Stay alive, and deal with your problems, or simply choose some other course of action.  There are lots of other things you could try besides that.  There are so many reasons to live, and despite the problems in the world, or problems in your life, it’s still a world full of beautiful things.  Why not stick around?  This too shall pass.

For the survivors, suicide creates as much devastation in their lives as if a family member had been murdered, so it is not only self-destructive, it is an act of brutal psychological violence against others as well. 

On suicide prevention.

From what I’ve read:  people who are suicidal should not be left alone and should get immediate help from medical and psychiatric professionals.  Here are some links regarding suicide prevention.

On the subject of suicide generally.

According to the World Health Organization, every year, almost a million people worldwide die from suicide. 

Suicide rates in various countries are measured by the number of cases per 100,000 people.  So by that measure, it might seem suicide rates are relatively low (although they vary in different countries).  For example in the U.S., according to Wikipedia, it’s around 18 people per 100,000 per year.  So in the year 2006, for example, the number of suicides in the United States was around 33,000. 

So it may not be a lot in terms of the overall population of 7 billion, but as far as I’m concerned, a million people a year committing suicide is a staggering number.

On being a suicide survivor.

When my mother killed herself, I became part of a subset of the population known as “suicide survivors,” or “suicide grievers.” 

We are not people who have attempted suicide ourselves, but lived; those people are known as “suicide attempt survivors.” 

Instead, “suicide survivors” are people who have been directly affected by the suicide loss of a close friend or family member.

It’s believed that for every person who commits suicide, there are on average 6 – 8 people who directly experience the loss of that person.  If these numbers are to be believed, that means in the U.S. alone, approximately 250,000 people a year enter the ranks of suicide survivors annually, and (given the figure of a million suicides a year worldwide), there are six to eight million people around the world who become new suicide survivors every year.

On the stigma and the taboo.

The subject of suicide remains taboo.  There is a stigma around mental health issues generally, and particularly around suicide.  It is not something you can easily mention in polite conversation; it’s considered to be in poor taste to discuss death in general, and suicide in particular.  It’s too depressing and unpleasant in a world where many people seem to be mainly concerned with having fun and being entertained (not that there’s anything wrong with that).  But for anybody who brings it up, there’s a very real fear of being shunned, because nobody wants to hear about it, or be around the person discussing it.

Suicide survivors have experienced something more complicated, and perhaps more traumatic, than when a loved one dies by other causes.  We quickly learn we are supposed to keep quiet about it, sweep it under the rug, generally pretend that our loved one never existed, that everything’s okay, and after a (hopefully brief) period of mourning, we are expected to just move on and live a normal life.

As another suicide survivor friend of mine eloquently said, “we have the shared experience of losing a vital family member to mental illness and then suicide!  It's a loss that comes with added layers of pain.”

So, with respect to all of this, “Dead Man’s Cake” is my way of, in effect, “coming out” as a suicide survivor.  I’m not necessarily going to bring it up at every dinner party I attend, but I made this record partly because I’m tired of being stigmatized.  I’m tired of having spent a lifetime pretending this didn’t happen, and that my Mom didn’t exist.

The art therapy aspect.

In a number of ways, “Dead Man’s Cake” is an art therapy project (in the sense that art-making can be therapeutic).

It is my way of saying, not only, “I have survived,” but, “I will survive.”  

By writing these songs and trying to shape this complex history into a narrative, I actually feel quite a lot better for having done it.  I am thus reaching out to others like me, and expressing a message of solidarity and hope.  It is a unique set of problems that come with being a suicide survivor, but it is possible with time and effort to move toward healing.  (I also recommend support groups and talk therapy, both of which have also been vital in helping me move forward).

I’ve been told by mental health professionals that repeatedly telling your painful story can be therapeutic.  I found that to be true with the making of this piece, and by talking about the piece, and thereby continuing to talk about the story behind the piece, I expect that process will continue for me.  I hope hearing this story may be of some value or interest to others.

Paying tribute to my Mom.

This piece is also about remembering and paying tribute to my Mom.  I wanted to point out that, although, in retrospect, it is obvious she was afflicted with a terrible mental illness which ended up causing her own demise, she was actually a person who walked this earth, gave life to me and my brother, and was by all accounts a highly intelligent, witty and amazing human being.   She was important, worthy, and vital, and had great value, and her loss was profound and tragic.  She is not, for me, some uncomfortable topic to be swept under the rug; she is, in fact, my dear departed mother, and her absence, and the manner of her departure, is something that will remain with me always.  So I really just wanted to say, she may be gone, but she is not forgotten.