My Time In Ireland
Ireland is a wonderful rainy wet, wind blowing, long and endless kind of a place. It’s a place with living ancestors and thousand year memories. It’s been hideously romanticized and assaulted by pirates; it has produced many of the world’s greatest poets and supplied New York City with some of its “finest policemen.” It can dig a hole a hundred feet deep and fill it with angels. It’s been bandaged together more times than anybody can count and it still comes back fighting. It bleeds deep and shouts for the joy of it. It’s the stuff that we all come from. And it’s only a mystery because it’s so obvious.
I first went to Ireland in the summer of 1979. I was invited to play the Ballisodare Festival by Kevin Flynn who had seen me at Cambridge. We took the boat across from Wales and landed in a town whose name we couldn’t pronounce and took the train for Sligo. As a performer I was booked into a hotel on the edge of town but would have to make my own way to and from the festival itself which was a couple of miles out. The line-up was intimidating to say the least: Planxty, The Bothy Band, Clannad, Paul Brady, Martin Carthy, De Dannon, Scullion.
I remember going out to the road with my guitar to hitch a ride out to the grounds. I had slept late because of a near all-nighter, figuring I would need my energy. There were a lot of hitch hikers out there and I was way down on the list so I started walking, figuring either I would get lucky or it was a lost cause. Maybe somebody would have pity because I had a guitar. Anyway, after a while a tractor came along and everybody let it go by. I was way ahead by now, ‘cause I’d been walking, so I figured if nobody wanted it I would take it, and I put out my thumb. The guy grinned and pulled over.
He only had the one seat so we would have to share it. It was a big metal thing and he slid over to make room for me. The edge of it cut me right down the middle. It went real slow. I don’t remember if we talked much but I do recall that when we got there I was completely numb down the one side of me and when I stood up I almost fell over. I caught myself by the festival fence and had to stand there in agony while my numb side came back to life. Then I made my way inside.
My set that day was okay – at least they didn’t boo me off the stage. Then I found out that there was a big anti-nuclear movement in Ireland and that there was, in fact, a major gathering planned for the following week. So I figured if I could get an encore in my second set, the next day, I would play “Hiroshima-Nagasaki Russian Roulette.” It worked. On my way up to the stage I got a little nip of whiskey to calm my nerves and settled into things. I don’t remember what my last song was but I got my encore and did the Hiroshima song. The place went wild and I was brought out for another song. I was invited to the anti-nuclear gathering coming up at Carnsore point, and changed my return ticket so I could go to it. The door had opened…
My first national tour was opening for Planxty, a wonderful four piece folk band with Christy Moore, Donal Luny, Andy Irvine and Liam O’Flynn. It wasn’t until the second show that I had sense enough to get nervous. Planxty were like the Rolling Stones of Irish music. The gigs were great – high energy and always wild. We wound up doing an incredible unrehearsed version of Hiroshima at the end, and they had me playing guitar on some reels. Somewhere there’s tapes, and I hope they stay there…
I began touring the country on a regular basis. My agent used to hitch hike to the gigs. Hardly anybody had a car but nobody minded so we just went around as best we could. Buses, trains and dependable thumbs.
One day I rolled into Kilkenny to visit a girl friend – it was a Sunday and I had the day off. As I walked down the street an electrician’s van pulled up and a fellow got out asking if I was playing in town anywhere. “No,” I said, “just visiting.” “If I put a gig together would you play?” he said. “It’s already three o’clock,” I said, “there’s no time.” “Come on, what have you got to lose?” We went into the Bridge Hotel where he asked the barman if anyone was playing that night and if the sound system was still in the closet. No and yes was the reply, and we sat at the bar having a pint and drawing up posters – four 8×10’s on white paper with felt pens. “Leave it to me,” said my friend, “you just show up. At least we can have a few pints.” I went off to my visit and came back to the hotel about 8 o’clock and the place was packed. I don’t remember how I played but we all had a blast…
Christy Moore was itching to do something daring. He and Donal had been brain storming about an electric band and they formed an ensemble called The Moving Hearts. It was a totally amazing group with the pipes, electric bazouki, electric guitar, keyboards, drums, bass, sax and Christy’s acoustic guitar. The songs were almost all political and they supercharged the air everywhere they went. The hunger strike was going on up North and people had a lot on their minds. The first singles they released were Hiroshima and another song of mine called “Landlord.” Hiroshima had this amazing pipe and sax duet in the middle of it that made it an instant classic. I practically stopped playing the song after hearing it. Landlord was severely re-arranged but I got used to it – it was like a halloween piece instead of the blues thing I had made. The folk process…
I remember sitting in the Baggot Inn one night when they were playing. They played there two nights a week for ages. The place was jammed like always. I was talking with a traditional singer friend of mine. “How do you like the band,?” I asked her. “I don’t like them,” she said, “politics and music don’t mix.” I didn’t say anything, just nodded. The place was packed every time they played there. Their album was released at number one. Politics and music seemed to be mixing very well.
The Hearts lasted with Christy for a couple of years and then began to mutate, changing singers and eventually becoming an instrumental band. Christy re-established his solo career and became the biggest selling artist in the country.
I was playing almost constantly. I had a couple of musician friends that I would work with from time to time – Declan MacNelis and Jimmy Faulkner. We traveled about a bit and hung out a lot. But I was used to playing solo and I changed chords when I felt like it. It must have been frustrating for them. We made some good music though.
The Meeting Place was where we all hung out. It was owned by Shay, Sean and Paddy Spillane. Shay and I became good friends. He passed away in the late 80’s leaving a big hole.
So here’s one for Shay
What can I say? Say that he kept things going when they would’ve stopped on their own? Say that he was a skinny little guy with a big life? Should I say that everyone knew him and he knew everyone back? I could say, personally, that he showed me the whys and the why nots of the Irish music scene. Generous to a fault, maybe you could say – like he didn’t know when to quit when it came to keeping things going….
Many nights we sat up all hours getting obliteratedly drunk, talking the world into pieces and back again. Oh we had arguments alright, but that was okay with Shay.
Shay would only eat porridge and brown bread with a soft-boiled egg for breakfast. Shay would only eat steak and potatoes for tea – though sometimes smoked salmon would be alright. One time I made chili and Shay wouldn’t go in the kitchen for days – even the smell of it was too much. That wasn’t one for Shay. Shay was raised above the pub he ran into his last days. Shay was the pub. He was the hub of the wheel, the heart of the matter. Where else could a criminal and a guitar player and a college student all find themselves in mutual company? They called it The Meetin’ Place and that’s exactly what it was. I met a lot of people there myself. The music upstairs was incredible. The scene downstairs was unbelievable, but you had to believe it because there it was and there you were and you couldn’t doubt your senses – not after so many times.
I once watched a heavy come in and sell an obviously stolen mandolin to a local musician who was having a pint at the bar. The musician didn’t have enough money on him so he asked Shay, who was tending bar at the time, for a loan. Shay opened the cash register and gave him the money. The musician gave the money to the heavy and the heavy left. Everybody knew, but it was okay. So there’s one for Shay.
They called him “Skinnier” because he was. He had one suit. It was white. It was his wedding suit, but it was also the suit he used to go to court. Every once in a while the Meeting Place would get busted for one thing or another and Shay would put on his one white suit and go before the judge to plead his case. He looked like a different person in it. The Meeting Place never stayed closed for long.
Rotten it was, moldering and half gone. I remember one afternoon walking outside and seeing the street filled with dust. I thought maybe they were working on the road or something. I crossed the road, turned around, and saw that the building next door to the pub had spontaneously collapsed moments before. An old apartment building, it was luckily vacant at the time. But such was the condition of the Meetin’ Place. Held together by good times, it was doomed to a finite molecular destruction at some point in the unforeseeable future. When Shay quit he put the place up for sale. Molecular destruction can take many forms.
Inside of its arms it became a pocket of reality in which the outside world disappeared completely. All you could see, hear, or know about was a slightly damp, partially dark universe of character faces, smoke, drinks on the rise, music, and endless talk. The talk never stopped. I don’t necessarily believe in ghosts, but I do believe in molecular memory as transferable to otherwise unsensing objects. And I think if you could interview the Meeting Place you would hear the most amazing stories. Christy Moore, Stockton’s Wing, Freddie White, Trionna Ni Domhnaill, Red Peters, Mary Black, Scullion – they all played on that small stage. The wood was soft, the stone was damp. The air was a living mixture of hanging tales, introductions, seductions, hot comments, unreliable advice, bad timing, killing jokes, unrequited love notes, bad tunings, well-made songs, bestial beguilements, good intentions, first loves, last divorces, great gigs, unsurpassable moments of communal reverie – everything and anything that the human and superhuman psyche can imagine or plan was played out inside those walls. They go with him now. Gone like the ruts of the old road. Like the way it used to be before things changed. Like the mystery of history written in the secretive pockets of ancestral shadow. Gone, yes, but saturated and soaked into the blood stream of those who come after. For people have to have something to stand on. Some point of reference. And whether they know it or not, those who go before provide for those who come after. So it has always been and so it is now.
…The next morning is a great wind, like it would blow away his soul, like it would shake us all up, as if to say a great change has come to these times. The sound of a distant doorway closing down a long hall. A wrecking ball on the skeletal remains of the landmark frame. A garden of rubble. A last word. A mark of laughter on the wall.
A woman alone with her son. Fatherless/husbandless now. A woman alone with all of her closest friends. Alone with a shadow that hasn’t yet had sense enough to quit. Whose strength is the will of the roses. Whose eyes are the ways of the rain.
Once when I was on tour in Denmark I found myself playing the same club with an English DJ. He was in the disco room and I was in the live room. We had a drink together before things got started and he asked me where I was living.
“In Dublin,” I said. “Oh,” he said, “I love the Irish, but they’re dense.” He was serious. And he told me a story to prove his point. He said that his brother had been working on the road crews around England doing maintenance work and there were always a few Irish there. One day the foreman told this particular Irishman to go across the street and get him a pack of cigarettes. “What kind?” asked the Irishman. “Rothman’s,” was the reply. “What if they don’t have Rothman’s?” The foreman was getting pissed off at this and he snarled, “Just get me anything!” (Dumb shit!)
A few minutes later the Irishman came back with a small potted plant. The foreman hit the roof! “What the fuck is this?!” “Well you said I should get you anything…”
I don’t know about the Irishman in the story but I figured the guy telling it to me wasn’t very bright.
Email from a friend:
This is excellent! Thanks for contacting me back. I recently wrote a personal account of my relationship with music down the years. I thought you might like to read to little extract below. Do you remember this occasion?
“The years ’81 & ’82, my last 2 at school, were just choc-full of gigs – lots of Scullion, Freddie White, Paul Brady (solo & with band), John Martyn (likewise). Also Rory Gallagher in the Parkway (I still have diminished hearing in one ear after that but…. yeah … it was worth it!), Thin Lizzy in Dromkeen! Good gig but the locals must have imposed some volume restriction cos it just wasn’t loud enough! Me ‘n’ the lads (the lads being Paddy, Jude, Billy Macken, Neil Kelly, Diarmuid McNeill & John something) go to the Parkway [this is in Limerick] to see Jim Page. We’re not allowed in cos it’s over-25s or something. We retreat to the bar where we actually see Jim himself. Me and Diarmuid are delegated to inform him of our situation and he spends 15 minutes arguing with the hotel manager about our exclusion to no avail. So, half-an-hour before he’s due on stage he plays an impromptu gig in the lobby just for us! What a wonderful thing to do for this motley group of 16 & 17 year-old kids! He improvises a talking blues song on the spot about kids being treated badly and rioting in the streets as a consequence – I call it the Talkin’ Parkway Hallway Blues. A treasured moment. Where are you now Jim Page?”
Just to illustrate how big a deal that was, here’s my list of what I call my ‘spinetinglingest’ moments related to music which I appended to the account:
“15 Spinetinglingest moments of 30 years listening to music
1. Van – Summertime in England – Gaiety – October ’82
2. Dylan – Earls Court – June ’81. Particularly when he hits the chorus of the first
song – “how does it feel!” he snarls and white light blasts the crowd. Spine-tingling? My spine nearly exploded!
3. Scullion – Greg Boland – guitar solo on Eyelids Into Snow – many occasions
4. Elvis Costello’s Imperial Bedroom – 1983
5. Bob & Van sharing the stage at Slane ’84 – musically nothing particularly special but as an occasion unmatched.
6. Jim Page’s private concert for my friends and me at the Parkway – probably ’81, maybe ’82.
7. Springsteen – RDS – 1987 – every word of the hype about his live performance is
8. Sinead O’Connor – Nothing Compares 2 U – Windmill Lane, 1990. Explanation:
I worked in Windmill Lane for a year. One day I’m in the control room which is a buzz of activity. Somebody’s running off a copy of the video for Nothing Compares 2 U which has just finished editing. I become transfixed and, gradually, every person in the room stops what they’re doing and just listen and watch. Remarkable!
9. Andy Irvine – Lisdoonvarna, 1980 – sunshine – Manassa’s Green Glade
10. Janis Ian – Savoy, 1982 – Jessie – powerful – Really!
11. The Layla riff – gets me every time!
12. Van – side 4 of It’s Too Late to Stop Now! (’80 or so)
13. The Beatles – Rock’n’roll Music – 1976
14. Horslips – that rumbling intro to King of the Fairies live
15. The Last Waltz – Royal Cinema, Limerick – 1978
When you were around Ireland a good bit in the early ’80s my good friend Paddy managed to get hold of 2 of your albums – any back-catalogue stuff still available?
– particularly the album with Hiroshima, Fireside and the funniest talkin’ blues song ever, The Poodle Song (I haven’t heard it for nearly 20 years but that line ‘That little white puff-ball poodle aint hardly a dog at all’ is always jumping into my mind!!)
This e-mail is really a wonderful thing!
Take care and thanks for that moment in ’81