Instrumental by James Rhodes – Book Review.

Title: Instrumental

Author: James Rhodes

Rating: 4/5

Genre: Memoir, Autobiography, Musician Autobiography, Social and Health Issues, Survivor Literature.

“So I looked for distractions. I looked for a way out that didn’t involve homicide or suicide. And all roads led to music. They always do.”

The first time I heard James Rhodes, I was doing a late night trawl through YouTube, and stumbled upon him playing Greig’s ‘In The Hall of the Mountain King’. How I got here, I’m unsure of. And what happened after the 2 minute 15 seconds were over, I’m not sure of either. I just knew that I had found a musician that was going to become my favourite.

Now, one thing to know about me, is that I love classical music. I grew up with my grandparents constantly having Beethoven playing, and now, listening to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, I am transported back to being a little girl again and dancing around the living room, pretending to be Sleeping Beauty or Odette. My iPod has equal amounts of Ravel and Mozart against Lana Del Ray and David Bowie, and I frequently find myself tuning into Bach on train journey’s. But in my opinion, breaking into this industry as a young fan can be met with snobbery and disbelief that you’d rather be listening to Rachmaninoff rather than Rihanna. So, when I found this pianist, who wears trainers and t-shirts on stage, swears and gives the audience little insights to the composer’s life, and then goes onto to play such electric music, I was instantly hooked.

And this year, for the second time, I’ll be seeing Rhodes play. And excitement doesn’t really begin to explain my sheer anticipation for this event.

But when I heard his was writing an autobiography, I knew I’d have to have it, devour it, reread it and just learn from it. Because like the composers he talks about, Rhodes’ life has been a rollercoaster of staggering lows, and extreme highs. And in this memoir, he talks how music literally saved his life.

Starting from Rhodes as being a, as he describes himself, ‘a dancing, spinning, gigglingly alive kid who was enjoying the safety and adventure of a new school’, the author reveals that, through an after-school boxing club, he was repeatedly raped and abused by his PE teacher, a man named Peter Lee, for years. Now, not only does this harrowing account tug at the heartstrings of everyone reading it, Rhodes also gives the reader the straightforward fact that issues that surrounded the rape, such as multiple surgeries, scars that are both physical and mental, a host of depression and other mental illnesses and later on, significant drink, self-harm and drug problems, have plagued him through his life, destroyed relationships that he had, been the reason for numerous admissions to various psychiatric hospitals and centres around the world.

Image courtesy of

So, this is a pretty brutal read. There is no way to flip it around. This novel could be considered too upsetting and harmful for some people, and Rhodes acknowledges that within the first few pages, and also gives trigger warnings when he can. Now, this addition was something that I found particularly clever and meaningful. A lot of books don’t do this, and a lot of people can be caught out unawares. So, kudos there. And as a memoir, it doesn’t hide anything behind a curtain of shame. His story is black-and-white, out there, and for you as the reader to digest as its gritty self. Rhodes writes about having friendships, being in love, being a father, getting divorced, re-finding love and ultimately having undying love for his son and his now-wife Hattie.

But alongside the memoir, this is a love letter to classical musical. Rhodes writes about how music inspired him, saved him and started to help him become whole again. And through a friend smuggling an iPod into him whilst Rhodes was in hospital, rediscovering the piano and the constant companion of Bach’s Chaconne, the deep scars inflicted on him start to knit together. At the beginning of each chapter, there is a piece of corresponding music that relates to the next few pages, and Rhodes gives the reader a short introduction to the composer and who they were, which I found to be one of my favourite parts of the books. Also, as all the pieces are available to stream and listen too, you get taken on a journey through the music itself, as well as the book. Rhodes also spends a lot of time addressing how stereotyped and warped the genre of classical musical has become, and how, by big labels and the music industry of today, how damaging they can be towards the progression of classical music as a reputable and popular genre. As, as a reader who doesn’t know much about the music industry, it was interesting to hear it from an actual musician who has an insider’s perspective.

Now, in actual publication sense, Instrumental almost didn’t see the light of day, as a vicious court battle ensued before release between Rhodes and his ex-wife, over a ban being slapped on it as, allegedly, the content could cause psychological damage to their son. But, in a Supreme Court hearing overturning the ban, this has not only garnered up mass support and media interest for the book, but also on how freedom of speech is accepted in modern-day society.

So, to sum up, in my opinion, this is an incredibly important book. Yes, it’s not the best written, and sometimes it goes on tangents, but the reader gets instantly sucked into the world of music, madness and medication. It gives Rhodes a voice to properly tell his story, and it sheds light on the sometimes forgotten world of classical music. And through his words and through the Supreme Court hearing, it may just be that book that could offer support and help for anyone suffering in the way that Rhodes did. So, please. Go and buy it. And sit down with some good headphones and a copy of Beethoven’s Symphonies.

Photograph: Susannah Ireland/Rex Features


To buy the book – Waterstones/Amazon.

James Rhodes’ Website – Click here.

The Supreme Court Hearing – Click here

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