Madonna’s onstage fall at the Brit Awards demonstrated, all too painfully, one of the occupational hazards awaiting the performing musician, but there are many more – even for those of us not cavorting around in capes and high heels, surrounded by troupes of dancers in intricately choreographed routines.
Last year I developed a debilitating condition in the achilles area of my left foot, which became not only swollen and sore, but as it got worse I found I couldn’t place my foot flat on the ground and so ended up walking with a limp. This led to me progressively over-compensating with my right leg, in turn leading to sore hips and back pain, leaving me hirpling around like a cailleach* and having to cling to the banister in order to manoeuvre downstairs sideways.
If this conjures up a particularly unflattering vision then, believe me, it was exactly that. And the cause of all this misery? Tapping my foot too hard on the floor when I play (and, I confess, at times stamping). I started out as a child with classical piano, where under no circumstances do you tap your foot in time to the music, but on moving into the much more relaxed folk world, I developed the ubiquitous foot-tapping habit. It became not only automatic but vigorous – to the point of injury.
Diagnosed by the phsyio as Tendinopathy, it was months of exercises and a pair of particularly unattractive, ‘old-wifey’ sandals later before I was cured (though my thickened achilles tendon never did fully recede), but I now consciously and constantly monitor those wayward feet of mine when I’m playing.
Were Health and Safety Inspectors to do risk assessments for musicians they might also highlight: Repetitive Strain Injury; Lock Jaw; Cubital, Carpal and Tarsal Tunnel Syndrome; Tendinitis; Tendinosis; Tinnitus; Bursitis; Dermatitis; de Quervain’s Syndrome; Garrod’s Pads; Myofascial Pain Disorder; Ganglions (caused by tight straps – no, not S&M, but the accordion variety); Temporomandibular Joint Disorder and last, but by no means least, Trigger Thumb.
These medical textbook conditions, which for me conjure up something of the gothic and grotesque – visions perhaps of an archaic anatomy museum, glinting with ancient speciman jars of rubber-white, coiled and convoluted scraps of humanity – refer to the slightly less formal, but equally colourful, fiddler’s neck, bagpiper’s fungus (nothing to do with feet or genitalia, but is a lung disease caused by inhaling fungal spores from inside the pipe bag), flautist’s chin, horn player’s palsy, harpist’s cramp, cellist’s dermatitis, trumpeter’s lip, singer’s nodules, and a host of other afflictions, including shoulder, neck and back injuries, mashed and bleeding lips, burst eardrums etc.
Those are the basics but then there are all the random threats to life and limb lurking in the stage wings. When pigeon poo fell to earth from a bird enjoying (or maybe not?) a Kings Of Leon performance from its perch high up in the rafters, and landed in the mouth of the bassist, the St Louis concert was abandoned as “Too unsanitary to continue.” Whilst not pleasant, throwing in the towel three songs into their show might be regarded as lightweight by the hardy breed of rockers that includes Otto Schimmelpenninck – bassist (is it something about bass players?!) with Dutch metal band, Delain – whose testicle was ruptured by an onstage confetti cannon, but who soldiered on and finished the concert despite immense pain and discomfort.
The indestructible Keith Richards was electrocuted and knocked unconscious, Patti Smith broke her back tripping on a stage monitor and falling 14ft, Frank Zappa escaped death when a fan fired a flare gun at the ceiling during a Swiss show and burned the venue to the ground. However Zappa was not so lucky on another occasion when he sustained multiple injuries after an audience member sneaked onstage and pushed him into the concrete orchestra pit.
If you are Tom Jones then all you risk having flung at you is female underwear, but what are fans thinking when they chuck bottles, lollipops (one of these got lodged in David Bowie’s eye socket), urine bombs, deckchairs (50 Cent took the hint and ended his show at that point), coins, etc? Occasionally musicians suffer freak accidents and pay the ultimate price: when orchestral conductor Jean Baptiste Lully’s baton flew from his hand, it pierced his foot – bad enough, but he later developed gangrene and died.
Even if we manage to dodge projectiles, avoid injury, evade personal attack, and sidestep serious medical ailments, there are still a number of ‘biggies’ stalking the unsuspecting musician: alcoholism, stress-related depression, performance anxiety, substance abuse, penury and broken marriage – and not necessarily in that order.
So why, you may ask, do we do it? Well, personal safety, financial security, sanity and longevity may well be at risk for any gigging musician but what is definitely guaranteed is the most fun, creative satisfaction and joy imaginable. And, as the plucky Madonna so conclusively illustrated, the show must go on!
* Cailleach – old woman (Gaelic)