Today marks the approximate 30th anniversary of the release of “In a Big Country,” the hit single by Scottish rockers Big Country. In honor of the occasion, Mike Duquette of The Second Disc and Popdose shares a deeply personal story of the song’s effect on his livelihood.
In all honesty, I’d never intended to off myself. And if I’m lying – well, my friends, my family, even I wouldn’t have known. Aside from the occasional angry slap to the forehead, I’ve never been much of a self-harmer, and certainly had no well thought-out plans about how to remove myself from the face of the earth.
But my “intentions” of whether to end my own life are merely one piece of my fight against depression, or low feelings, or whatever you want to call it. And, as is the case for so many people, the weapons we have to stave off those feelings sometimes seem like they’ll never work. Worse still, sometimes they don’t work at all.
But, inasmuch as one can in such situations, mine is a story with a happy ending. I’m not merely a survivor but a thriver in the face of depression. And in the end, all it took was ”In a Big Country.”
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Throughout college, I was miserable. I was a talented, studious young man with a knack for writing, but my interests – primarily sounds, sights and styles of generations past – didn’t always jell with my peers. I was also in a years-long relationship with a girl whom I loved dearly – but sometimes felt as if she secretly couldn’t (or worse, wouldn’t) reciprocate the feeling. Not that I wasn’t well-liked, but I was damned slow to catch on, and I could barely get through a week without some sort of impassioned, repetitive assurance from others that no, I was not a failure and yes, I was a really good writer and all of that.
At times when my feelings of self-worth were at their lowest ebb, I’d retreat to the Internet, to the only thing that never judged me: information. I’d digest anything about music, not only how it sounded, but how it looked, how it was released, who wrote it, who released it, who bought it, the whole music-geek gamut. To this day, I can’t explain why I spent most of my twenties breaking down the WHAM! discography instead of sneaking into bars, but when I did, I walked away with more information – and more satisfaction – than I could ask from anyone else.
It was in one such after-hours fugue, through scores of free-associated Wikipedia pages and review databases, that I came upon ”In a Big Country,” that four-minute pop song by the appropriately named Scottish rock band Big Country in May of 1983. I could bore you to death with the details: it was released on Mercury Records, modestly peaked at No. 17 on the Billboard Hot 100, produced by a rising rock producer named Steve Lillywhite, awash with ringing guitars that recall bagpipes keening over a moor.
When you really think about it, nobody needed to know that information, myself included. Unbeknownst to me, what I really needed to know was the lyrics. As someone who can’t parse words in song without the aid of a lyric sheet or a website, the words of ”In a Big Country” could have easily passed me by. But those vocals had such passion that I couldn’t merely sing nonsense syllables every time I queued the song up on YouTube.
So, while cocooned in the song one night, I looked up the lyrics – and stopped dead in my tracks. Lead singer/songwriter Stuart Adamson was singing from an uncynical point of view – a helping hand urging the song’s subject to ”pull up your head off the floor/come up screaming.” But it was the second verse, and that hopeful chorus, that really turned my head:
I’m not expecting to grow flowers in a desert
But I can live and breathe and see the sun in wintertime
In a big country, dreams stay with you
Like a lover’s voice fires the mountainside
Clearly, someone knew something I didn’t. Here was a message to press on, to shake off the irrational fears of whatever-the-fuck-it-was-at-that-moment – to not ”stay here with every single hope you have shattered.” In the age before celebrities took to social networking channels to tell scared, insular teens ”it gets better,” here was a song telling me I was going to get through these irrational but no less haunting feelings of self-doubt.
Those are some pretty heavy feelings for an MTV-ready track. But there’s a postscript I’d soon discover that adds another, darker layer to the track. In 2001, drunk and reportedly distraught over the collapse of his second marriage, Adamson hung himself in a hotel room in Hawaii. Big Country, who’d strangely never replicated the success of ”In a Big Country” in the U.S., had broken up two years prior.
Here was a voice, some 25 years out of time, cautioning a young man with lots to give the world against the danger of rashly throwing those gifts away, who ultimately could not heed his own brilliant advice. The cold irony shook me to my core. ”In a Big Country” turned from a feel-good anthem to a mantra – a song I’d immediately refer to if those unfounded feelings of inadequacy came bubbling to the surface.
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And like all good mantras, eventually the message of ”In a Big Country” took hold without the need for further repetition. That doesn’t mean I don’t get incredibly giddy when a Facebook friend references the song (it happens more than you think) or a radio station happens to spin the tune. That also doesn’t mean that the song did all the work; in the end, it’s you who has to believe that you’re going to be okay. (Not that I would ever deny credit to the awesome, awesome friends – many of whom are Popdose writers – who’ve helped along the way.)
Really, nobody ever entirely kicks the feelings associated with depression. But all these years later, after a lot of self-discovery and hard work, I’ve enjoyed a streak of personal and professional highs. Those seemingly weird, information-obsessive tendencies are now used for both financial gain and cultural good, at a job I’m head-over-heels in love with. There are days I’ve simply found myself smiling for no reason other than how happy I am. That girl is no longer part of my life, which hurt for quite awhile, but that void has been filled by the love and respect from a dozen or more other faces – some familiar, some new, all wonderful.
It’s not a perfect life all the time – there are still flashes of anger and stress that knock on the skull of anyone with a deep passion for anything. But when those lows come calling again, all I have to do is think of Big Country – of Stuart Adamson, gone but not forgotten, and the promise held by those ringing guitars.
And I stay alive.