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Gimme Shelter (and Social Distancing): What the Beatles and Rolling Stones Can Teach Us About Coping

May 13, 2020

By H. Steven Moffic, MD
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The opinions expressed by Psychiatry & Behavioral Health Learning Network bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone and are not meant to reflect the opinions of the publication.

We are certainly not lacking for expert opinions about how to cope with this coronavirus pandemic. Some colleagues even feel they are overdosing on them (and mine), and won’t read them anymore. Maybe, then, we need a change of pace, to hear from our popular entertainers from the past. Did they have anything useful to tell us in a different way?

Let’s take the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Why them? They were the most popular in an era when we were going through another period of social upheaval, the 1960s. If you weren’t there, Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass” is a musical theater piece of the times, first shown in 1971, the year I graduated from medical school at Yale. It is being shown on the PBS television series “Great Performances” on May 15.  

Secondly, the Beatles and Stones seemed like competitive opposites, almost like we have in partisan politics, another kind of culture wars, today. The Beatles tended to be viewed as the “good boys” of rock and roll, with the Stones as the “bad boys.” Yet, both groups played early shows with Little Richard, who died this past weekend.

So, here are some of their most famous and enduring songs from the ’60s, and why they are particularly relevant and complement each other right now. Who knows? Maybe you have been playing them recently.

THE DISASTER

The Beatles: “A Day in the Life”

This complex song starts with “I heard the news today, oh boy” and that a lucky man “blew his mind out in a car.” We perhaps can recall when we first heard that the coronavirus was so serious that we had to shelter at home unless we were essential workers. As the deaths keep climbing, one of them sticks out for us in psychiatry—the emergency physician who died by suicide.

The Rolling Stones: “Gimme Shelter”

This song starts with: “If I don’t get some shelter, Oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away...”

That may be a sentiment of our frontline workers, at the most risk for getting infected. For us sheltered at home now for two months, it may feel like we are fading away at home. The music has a claustrophobic feeling and builds toward a manic apocalyptic climax.

THE CALL FOR HELP

The Beatles: “Help!”

I often wear a Beatles tie with the word “Help” all over it. The song conveys why we in mental healthcare are needed, especially more and more now. The ending of the song smacks of some desperation: “Won’t you please, please help me, help me, help me, ooh…”

What is different nowadays is how much we in healthcare need each other, not only because we have already been burning out at epidemic rates, but if we are seeing patients live, our lives are at risk. Fortunately, helplines are springing up. Here is a free one for physicians: 414-409-0141

The Rolling Stones: “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”

What practical advice in this song for those who have had to follow social distancing, let alone experiencing financial pressure:

“You can’t always get what you want

You can’t always get what you want

But if you try some time you just might find

You get what you need.”

THE STRESS

The Beatles: “A Hard Day’s Night”

Those on the front lines of our hospitals report exhaustion from the hours and stress of their work, feeling something like this:

“It’s been a hard day’s night, and I’ve been working like a dog

It’s been a hard day’s night, I should be sleeping like a log

But when I get home to you, I’ll find the things that you do

Will make me feel alright”

But what if you can’t come home to your loved ones because you can potentially infect them?

The Rolling Stones: “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”

This song portrays how such hospital workers might feel driving home:

“When I’m riding in my car

And a man comes on the radio

He’s tellin’ me more and more

About some useless information…

I can’t get no satisfaction”

THE GRIEF

The Beatles: “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”

We’ve lost so much, including live music, in this pandemic, but the practical needs seem to push aside the painful need to mourn and grieve. No wonder that Dr. Kubler-Ross listed denial first in the stages of grieving. Songs like this can help bring out the tears in the immobilization of grief, as in these lines:

“As I’m sitting here doing nothing but again, still my guitar gently weeps”

The Rolling Stones: “Paint It, Black”

The lyrics of this song seem to tell of the situation of a person who is frustrated and in the “blackness” of depression, as in the lines:

“I look inside myself and see my heart is black...

I see my red door, I must have it painted black

Maybe then I’ll fade away and not have to face the facts

It’s not easy facing up, when your whole world is black”

INTERVENTIONS

The Beatles: “With a Little Help From My Friends”

Although we physically distance at home, we can and need to socially connect, sometimes with telepsychiatry.

The Rolling Stones: “Mother’s Little Helper”

This Stones song suggests that some will turn to street drugs and medication instead, as in:

“Men just aren’t the same today...

They’re so hard to satisfy,

You can tranquillize your mind”

Then, it tended to be Valium, now the increasingly available marijuana.

***

The Role of Art

Besides these words, consider a listening session of these songs, the unadulterated joyful music of Little Richard, the PBS show, or some other music of your choosing. These are examples of how art can uniquely comment on life in both timely and timeless ways. Music can be a healing force in these strident times.

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