It’s five o’ clock in the morning. Birds are singing. Somewhere far away I can hear church bells ringing.
These are things of beauty to someone else, I know. But in my sleepless brain, they’re just another form of cruelty.
Or, as John Lennon put it: ‘I can’t sleep. I can’t stop my brain. It’s been three weeks. I’m going insane.’ (I’m So Tired).
I don’t expect you to take a sudden interest in insomnia, but it’s interesting that if you Google “songs about insomnia” most people’s choices are songs about sleeping. Ruminating on ignorance like this keeps me awake at night.
The worst thing about insomnia is that it stops you from sleeping. The best thing about insomnia is that it stops you from sleeping.
On the one hand, it can literally be painful. Unchecked, it will lead to serious mental illness.
But on the other hand – all those extra hours in the day to get more things done!
My insomnia started when I was eight years old. I know why it started, and I’m not going to tell you about that.
But I had just learned to read, which was a nice coincidence. Inability to sleep meant I had extra hours to devour books under the bedcovers, illuminated by a night light I can still picture. I can even summon up the way the light felt in my hand, and the little button that clicked it off if I heard the wicked stepfather approaching.
When I went to London aged 17, I took to leaving the house at one in the morning, taking the night bus from Brixton to Waterloo, and walking along the Thames, calmed by its relentless movement.
A year later, I was in the thick of the music industry whose night-owl habits suited me fine. But a year after that, I was married with a child on the way (we didn’t hang around in the 60s, y’know).
Through my 20s and 30s, insomnia was my friend. I would do a day’s work, leaving the house around nine in the morning, getting home anywhere between 8pm to 2am the following morning.
If I got home early, I’d see my kids, have some dinner and then go straight into my ‘studio’ (the front room of my house, furnished with a piano, a tape recorder and a microphone).
When everyone else was tucked up in bed, that’s when I would write my songs and make my demos. God knows what the neighbours made of these strange goings on floating through the window at all hours.
Later, when the music career had gone, a combination of a manic episode and insomnia proved to be seismic. I could do anything I put my mind to – more energy and more time than the next guy.
And then, aged 42, the insomnia left me. Just like that.
I’d go to bed. I’d go to sleep.
That was novel.
In some ways, I felt bereft. How was I going to cope without those extra hours? Eventually, though, it just felt normal to be asleep by one am, or even before, and get six or seven hours.
About ten years later, it came back with a vengeance, all the crueller for having allowed me a taste of ‘normality’. If insomnia and a manic episode could be seismic, insomnia and depression combined to be, well, even more fucking depressing.
Having previously felt like a friend, a co-conspirator in getting things done and achieving dreams, now it felt – still feels – like an enemy.
And you get unwanted – and unwarranted – advice.
“Just get into bed, lie down and shut your eyes. You’ll soon go to sleep”.
No I bloody won’t!!!!!!
Al Pacino portrays it brilliantly as a detective in 2002’s Insomnia, with Robin Williams and Hilary Swank. He’s not helped by being up in Alaska, during a season of perpetual daylight. Watch the scene where he tries to black-out his room. It’s sheer torture.
Tonight, if I don’t take at least half a sleeping pill, I’ll still be awake at six or seven tomorrow morning. It’s a given. Which brings me back to Googling ‘songs about insomnia’.
The Beatles I’m Only Sleeping features a lot. But that’s a song about sleeping and dreaming, and not wanting to be woken from a pleasant experience.
Others that turn up – Asleep by The Smiths, Sweet Dreams (Patsy Cline), California Dreaming (The Mamas & The Papas) – show that insomnia is woefully misunderstood.
In penance, I think the people who chose those songs should all be forced to listen to Insomnia by Megadeth, turned up to 11, until they beg for mercy.
But I’ll let you off lightly by directing you to my own song on the subject, One AM.
It’s more country rock than death metal, and it has no references to ‘the guilty past I’ve buried’ or ‘my swollen bloodshot eyes’ (© Megadeth, 1999).
But if you listen closely, you’ll hear that the first lines of this post are the third verse of the song. And the backing vocals were arranged by the very wonderful John Howard, the first time we’ve worked on something together since 1975.
Sleep well tonight.