Music Helped Madness Drummer Dan Woodgate and his Brother
In the late Seventies a teenage Dan Woodgate was in the early stages of a meteoric rise to fame as “Woody”, the drummer in chart-topping band Madness. However just as his career was about to hit the heights, his younger brother Nick was beginning a terrifying descent into the depths of mental illness.
One was on a journey towards musical stardom the other on a nightmare ride towards schizophrenia, regular hospital admissions and failed suicide attempts. Now 35 years on, the brothers are closer than ever and have united in a campaign to overhaul the public and media perception of mental illness.
Woody has become an ambassador for the charity Rethink Mental Illness and the pair have formed a band called Magic Brothers and recorded an album to showcase the musical talents that schizophrenia prevented songwriter and guitarist Nick from exploiting as a young man.
“Nick and I have found ourselves again,” says father-of-two Woody, 53, from south London.
“We used to be inseparable and always got on well but in the past three or four years it’s like we’ve come home to each other again.”
Childhood was spent living with their divorced father in a big house in Camden Town, north London, cared for by nannies.
Woody says: “We were really close and spent every hour of every day together. When Nick was about 10 dad realised he had a real talent for playing the guitar. I couldn’t play a thing so I took up the drums and we formed a band together called Steel Erection.
“We did gigs in schools and pubs and that’s how we got to know lots of other bands on the scene at the time including The Invaders, an early version of Madness.”
However Nick’s behaviour began to change after he experimented with the hallucinogenic drug LSD at the age of 13. “From the age of 13 to 17 I lived in a haze of panic and anxiety,” says Nick, who lives with his partner Yvonne, 54, in Romford, Essex. “Every atom in my body seemed wrong somehow. Everything seemed broken.”
As he became more erratic Nick would often just turn up at Madness gigs across the world leaving Woody to try to care for him and perform.
At one point he starved himself so his body shrunk to skin and bones in the belief that it might help his deteriorating mental state.
“It was frightening to watch,” recalls Woody. “He wouldn’t even drink water. He was like a skeleton and his lips were stuck together.”
Nick was first sectioned at the age of 27 after twice trying to take his own life, once with an overdose and then by slitting his wrists.
It took a long time to find a combination of medicines that would control his schizophrenia and keep him stable enough to live in the community.
His official diagnosis is schizoaffective disorder, where sufferers endure the psychotic episodes that go with schizophrenia but also the mood swings often seen in bipolar disorder or depression. “When I’m unwell I don’t hear voices as such but I do see messages,” he says.
“If a driver toots the horn as a car passes by it’s like the car is communicating with me, telling me I should or shouldn’t be doing something. Or when the news comes on the TV I believe the newsreader is in the room talking to me. Even if the neighbours make a noise I can become convinced they are sending me a message to kill myself even though they are probably just doing DIY.
“Music however has been a major salvation. It keeps me busy and has given me positive goals to aim for as long as I can cope with the pressure.”
Any suggestion the new album called The Magic Line is simply a “project” to keep his brother’s mind occupied is dismissed by Woody.
“Nick is an amazing songwriter and guitarist. If I am going to make an album I want it to be musically credible. His mental illness makes no difference. In fact we want people to think schizophrenia is a chronic disorder that you can live with, a bit like asthma or diabetes.”
The brothers agree that when it comes to breaking down taboos that surround mental illness things are changing for the better, albeit slowly. “Schizophrenia never used to be talked about,” says Woody. “When it was, it was always in the context of a ‘crazed knifeman’.
“Fear is such a big factor in the way people perceive schizophrenia yet violence is not a common symptom.
“We all have to be a lot more open to education on mental illness and that’s why we got involved with Rethink. It all started when Nick said he couldn’t pretend to be something he wasn’t, he wanted to be able to say openly that he has schizophrenia.
“It works for us and it works for Rethink because they wanted to raise the profile of mental illness.”
The journey through any mental illness can be lonely and for some devoid of hope. Nick knows he will always have his affliction. Yet with the right drugs, strong support from family and friends and his love of music, he has learned to enjoy life once more.
“Every birthday I think it’s great to have lived another year and it baffles me why some people fear getting old.
“Most people in my position want nothing more than to make a good recovery and enjoy the normal things in life such as jobs and marriage, that we can only pray for when we are not doing well.”