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The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics

ISSN: 2472-7318

Lucy in the Sky without Diamonds: Sobriety and Classic Rock during the Pandemic

K. Shannon Howard

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Keywords: addiction; recovery; music; cultural appropriation 

Categories: Revisionings of Teaching, Facilitation, and Professional Leadership; Disability, Illness, and Survival (When the World Doesn’t Want You To)

Content warning: addiction

This is a story about addiction—addiction to things that harm us and addiction to things that heal us. We don’t tell these often in academia. In our field of Rhetoric and Composition, I can name the monographs and articles written about recovery on one hand, even though the rhetoric of recovery and addiction has become more important than ever. We need only check out the abundance of pandemic Tik Tok videos of white women day drinking and celebrating live on camera. Facebook posts encourage stressed moms dealing with homeschooling to consume their Chardonnay and post a selfie of “wine o’clock,” whatever the time or place may be. 

I am no different from those women, though my path is on a different chronological trajectory. My addiction took on a life of its own in my thirties, about ten years ago. This meant I was always under the influence of something in graduate school, whether it be pills or alcohol. Some days I don’t even remember the drive home from seminars. My father died during my first year in the PhD program, and I was determined not to show weakness, so I just took more substances. And more. I was intoxicated daily, but I never asked anyone for an extension on a paper. I thought that made me a hero. I got sober several years later when I discovered I wasn’t a hero; I was just sick.

Shortly after I started recovery, I found a job and a new sense of stability in my first tenure-track position. While I worked hard, nothing was as hard as navigating graduate school while under the influence, teaching fifty students, completing three seminars, preparing for comprehensives, and recovering from intense grief. I am one of the lucky ones; I not only received a job right after graduation but also gained tenure a few years back.  The biggest bonus was that it felt easy compared to where I’d been previously.

I picked up a five-year medallion just a few months ago to celebrate my time in sobriety. And it truly felt like a celebration because it happened between the two most intense and overwhelming periods of Covid—I picked it up on July 31, 2021. I was vaccinated and unmasked that night, just before the Delta variant took hold. I’m now wearing masks again to meetings. I still feel grateful I was able to pick up the medallion during the apocalypse, that I was able to say I never celebrated wine o’clock during a pandemic. I occasionally thought about it, though.

You see, during Covid, I couldn’t depend on meetings and group support. There were no meetings during lockdown. We held them on Zoom instead. Most of those were helpful, but living alone became tricky at this time, with only two small dogs for company. Some people struggled because doctors reduced their hours and their in-person options, but others, who don’t speak about it as much due to protecting anonymity, struggled because the meetings that kept them sober and well were no longer in session. For the first time in forever, the doors on my favorite buildings were locked. Still, I tried to make it work on my computer by logging in to meetings that way. I remember the first Zoom bombing while reciting the Serenity Prayer. The screen was covered in expletives, and I saw images of things burning and words of hate tattooed across my screen, a darker and more sinister version of what multimodality could be and how others could wield it. After that night, I stopped going to Zoom meetings for a long time. For the first time in years, I stayed on the wagon alone.

Because I didn’t attend regular meetings in 2020, I did something entirely unexpected: I substituted them with an obsession for classic rock. I learned how to fix a broken turntable after hours on YouTube, and I bought LPs of the Beatles, the Who, Led Zeppelin, and all of the 80s bands I loved as a child. My collection of records grew as cases of Covid multiplied. By summer, some meetings started holding regular hours again, but almost no one in central Alabama wore a mask to them. I felt unsafe, so I went back home to my record player and alphabetized my LPs. I ordered book after book on the Beatles breakup because I thought that if I could figure out where THEY went wrong, I could figure out what I was supposed to do next.

I did write something. I wrote about music and the history of white musicians capitalizing on Black talent. I drove to Macon, Georgia (the only trip I took that year) to visit Little Richard’s childhood home. I talked to the caretaker there, asked some questions, and put my name on their mailing list. I drove home and wrote more about Little Richard, Paul McCartney, and Michael Jackson, trying to make sense of those relationships and how they reflected our current moment with Black Lives Matter. My exploration centered on Michael Jackson’s purchase of the Beatles catalog and how Black Twitter reacted to that sale on the day of Little Richard’s death in May 2020. Many people argued that Jackson purchased the Sony catalog in order to make reparations to artists like Richard, who were exploited by white producers in the early days of rock and roll.

My obsession grew in intensity and became its own form of multimodality when I wore Beatles masks in the grocery store and then came home to revise my work. I eventually sent the article off to a journal. Feeling lost, I read more books about popular music, racial justice, and the Fab Four, and I avoided the news. When I exercised, something I did obsessively during remote teaching days, I listened to podcasts about the Beatles. I also added their songs to my playlists so that I could improve my running speed on the treadmill (Lennon’s “Nobody Told Me There’d Be Days Like These” was particularly apropos). When I drove to my favorite hiking spot, I listened to the Beatles Channel on Sirius XM. At this point, my entire body was experiencing the high that music can bring when you’re learning about it for the first time. From podcasts to masks to books to writing, I found comfort in both living and creating within the umbrella of music history. If anyone would have told me in 2019 that I would soon love running and classic rock, I would not have believed them. I’m not the same person after two years of a worldwide pandemic. Today I’m thankful that my love for music kept me company when recovery meetings could not.

It’s not surprising that my current composition course is themed around music. I told my students at the beginning of this semester that discovery, inquiry, and research are, on their best days, fun and exhilarating. I couldn’t see their faces clearly behind the masks, but I think a few of them may have believed me. At the start of my academic career, I thought research and inquiry was supposed to be joyous, obsessive, and fun. Alcohol and drugs took that from me for years. I know students who still believe that people write better when they’re drunk. They grew up learning about Hemingway and other white men who sat down at a typewriter and took gulps of bourbon just to put words on a page. I share this piece because I want graduate students who are in trouble, particularly during this horrible time in history, to know there is joy and healing on the other side. It’s the same joy I saw on footage of fans at Shea Stadium when the Beatles visited the U.S. for the first time. It’s on the amazed faces when Little Richard screams and pounds on a piano.  It can come in many forms: a recovery meeting with friends, a moment of spiritual peace, or on a record player that you repair with your own hands.

Most people are unaware that the Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is essentially a multimodal family text--it includes lyrics based on a picture John Lennon’s son Julian drew to describe a classmate of his named Lucy. There are those who refuse to believe it’s about anything other than LSD. It’s easier to glamorize drugs and alcohol than the drawing of a child, particularly during a worldwide lockdown. I add this song to my title not because it’s my favorite Beatles tune or because I idolize Lennon. It’s there because it reminds me that there is magic in creation and learning, especially when it’s done sober and especially when it’s characterized by curiosity and wonder. 



K. Shannon Howard is an associate professor of English at Auburn University Montgomery. She publishes work about the physical tools and spaces that shape a writer’s world. Before the pandemic began, she wrote Unplugging Popular Culture: Reconsidering Materiality, Analog Technology, and the “Digital Native,” now available from Routledge. 

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