Showing posts with label irish rock. Show all posts
Showing posts with label irish rock. Show all posts

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Harry Browne's "The Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power)": Book Review

When Bono sells charity, should we buy his good intentions? As with Barack Obama, his savvy equals his threat. He imitates an activist, but he supports the powers that be. Tellingly, Obama's 2008 campaign played U2's "City of Blinding Lights" for the candidate's entrance. Bono peddles ideas for helping the poor to those such as the President, his donors, his cronies, and fans of both men. Logically, Bono gains plaudits from not only his audience, but politicians, philanthropists, and the wealthy. Without denying the practical good achieved by some of his projects, Harry Browne, a Dublin-based "activist and journalist", criticizes Bono's cozy neo-liberal, market-funded loyalties. Justice cannot be increased, Browne argues, without confronting this pampered elite.  Browne denies that aid, debt relief, or even altered trade agreements will fundamentally alter global poverty for billions of its recipients. Bono makes peace with power.

Taking his subject "very" seriously but with a touch of Irish self-deprecation and "light relief" as Bono would himself his own self, Browne cautions us against any expectations of a hatchet job. Sure, many assure us that Bono means well. Browne, however, as one better placed than most of Paul Hewson's admirers, knows the reaction by fellow Dubliners to Ballymun's earnest lad turned icon. Irish begrudgery cuts down those judged to have climbed high.

Bono advanced by Browne's estimation to "true greatness" by his own sly but genuine merits, but does this success grant him a free pass to peddle the schemes of technocrats, bankers, and arms dealers? Browne says no. Rather than rehash U2's musical impact or Bono's lyrics (unless relevant), Browne analyzes Bono's political success. He shifts Bono from a "bleeding-heart" left-liberal to a "conservative, Western-centric, and pro-capitalist" allegiance; this polemic joins a Counterblasts series against "apologists for Empire and Capital" Thomas Friedman, Michael Ignatieff, Bernard-Henri Lèvy, and Christopher Hitchens. The Frontman aims at Bono as a celebrity target.

Browne dispatches neatly the mythic origins assumed by gullible audiences of any street-smart cred, given U2's relatively posh origins despite their geographical residence as teens growing up on the purportedly working class northside of Dublin.  They sought success early. Browne touches upon a key force: the evangelical Christian beliefs of The Edge, Larry Mullen Jr., and Bono Vox. Their ambitions matched with a sly, ruthless manager, Paul McGuinness, who "was and is a traditional Irish Catholic, which is to say a man without a shred of obvious, let alone ostentatious, Christianity". 

U2's emotional justification, to use music as "self-expression" to reveal revelation, countered a comparative lack of early skill, in Browne's estimation. Schooled in stagecraft, passionate, charming and well-connected within the Dublin music scene and soon abroad, "Bono talked a great gig".

But as in "Sunday Bloody Sunday" Bono's lyrics distanced themselves from ideological precision; they evoke charged Irish republican and nationalist themes without targeting responsibility for the cycle of violence perpetuated by more than one faction. The band's nimble manipulation of Irish identity led to American acclaim but this led U2 into being "appropriated" by Irish "politicians and pundits as a reason for the nation to be cheerful and encouraged" during yet another jobs downturn. Their stance elevated U2's "not-being-in-Ireland" attitude during the 1980s, as their self-righteous singer served as international spokesman for his homeland--if in an apolitical, unthreatening form. 

Ireland's generous incentives allowing the creative classes tax breaks on their published works fortuitously afforded U2 the opportunity to invest their quarter-century of profits in an opaque series of holding entities and start-ups, few of which flourished on paper. By 2006, the Irish government enacted a limit of 250,000 euro on untaxed earnings; U2 sent its money off to the Netherlands. Bono tried to argue that the band never broke any laws, but in trying to revamp the band's "tax avoidance" as "an act of patriotism" Browne blames Bono for his characteristic evasion. Promoting the "priorities of global capital" while attempting to represent himself as an "outspoken advocate of conventional wisdom," Bono from "Do They Know It's Christmas?" to Band Aid to Self Aid to Live Aid draws himself increasingly into the status quo even as he tries to stand out as a celebrity humanitarian. 

"His capacity to speak the language of global justice while advancing policies that do little to advance it might be regarded as the central political fact of Bono's subsequent career." Browne in part two explains how African debt relief, albeit an admirable cause, when backed by global banks does not generate domestic infrastructures within poor nations, but eases entry for foreign investment by multinationals. While $15 billion earmarked for anti-retroviral drugs to fight AIDS creates tangible change, as Browne credits via Bono's successful pleas to George W. Bush, this program emboldened the Christian Right to dictate its own moral guidelines for which African supplicants received priority care. Such reliance by Africans on First World aid perpetuates the Third World's dependence on charity as epitomized by the patronizing programs such as (RED) and ONE endorsed by Bono. 

(RED) shares with U2 a consistent lack of transparency in tracing precisely where its funds go. (Browne pegs Bono's personal wealth at half a billion dollars.) "Charitainment" fuels First World consumption, often of high-end baubles, fashion, and gadgets by First World consumers. Nike, Amex, Converse, Apple sign on, under contracts that betray the restricted amounts dispensed. A small share may go to worthy causes, but what Browne labels as "pitching pennies" to the poor faraway adds up to comparatively little. The past six years show, as far as can be ascertained, $200 million raised by (RED). U2's latest two-year tour added $736 million to their Dutch accounts. 

Meanwhile, 2010 advertised Bono with his wife, Ali, clutching $1000 limited-edition Louis Vuitton bags as they looked, in an artfully altered setting, as if they had just landed in an African grassland. Their prop plane's wheel was sprayed with mud. The air glows gold, shot by Annie Leibowitz. 2012 found Bono backing the NGO Invisible Children, responsible for the Kony video tied to a right-wing Christian spokesman whom Bono defended. His tangled ties to the continent keep digging deeper.  

Part three shifts from Africa to the rest of the world, as in its enclaves Davos and Pebble Beach, or wherever the G8 summits or World Bank's tycoons convene. By now, Browne cleverly borrows another messiah's prediction: "Wherever two or three are gathered, there too shall you find Bono, telling them how good they are." Tony Blair or Gordon Brown, Bill Clinton or George W., Obama or Oprah huddle with him, along with lesser-known but greatly influential figures such as Kennedy scion Bobby Shriver, who speeds Bono's access to neocon hawk Paul Wolfowitz and shock doctrine economist Jeffrey Sachs. Mark Zuckerberg, Bill and Melinda Gates, and George Soros also bend their ear to what Bono suggests. What he advises appears to bolster more injustice rather than justice.

Browne never claims that Bono's endeavors do not pay off by creating some good. Bono for all his jibes at his own image relishes the chance to use his prominence as U2's frontman to improve the lives of others. But his critic insists, as fairly as he can, that Bono does so not with much of his own money, but by encouraging the powerful to distribute their own funds. True, these may alleviate suffering, and minimize hunger. These funds from the elite nations and the affluent, however, go far less often if at all to assisting those who would shout out hard questions about wealth inequality, lack of education, or capitalist fidelity to the economic disparities which most of humanity labors under. 

Bono's appeal carried him far in the past thirty-odd years. Browne observes that "while mere photo-ops with Bush had earned Bono the anger of many US (and Irish) liberals, his lavish praise for Obama put him firmly in their company". Still, this journalist concedes that while his musical career may still hold surprises, his activism may find a less gullible hearing from those who connect Bono more closely with "Washington's powerful elite" over the past two decades, no matter which party.  

This critique nears its conclusion, in what is a slightly wearying (Browne rarely questions the tropes of radical rhetoric but then, would Verso have published this otherwise?) but often astute analysis, by reminding us of how a rock star's hubris may await Bono's next career move. It's a supposedly "post-recession" recovery, we are told by those with whom Bono partied and politicked. The best albums of U2 appeared quite a while back. Mephisto McFly buzzed away. Bono buys stock in Facebook. 

"A decade ago, one might arguably have suggested that he stood outside the system, bringing some moral authority to bear on questions of global poverty and disease and what to do about them. Today, as a high-profile multimillionaire investor, as part of a band of notorious tax-avoiders who assured us that financial innovation was the route to success, as the man who dressed a bunch of multinational corporations in the favoured shade of (RED), as the Blairite who applauded when the world's war-mongers pretended to lavish some relief on a few poor countries while saddling them with more neoliberal conditions -- today, he is hard to see as anything other than one of Them, the elite 1 per cent of 1 per cent." Nobody expects Mick Jagger to give away his millions, I suppose. But the Rolling Stones never aspired to position themselves as arbiters of a global conscience. Browne cannot discern how much Bono himself donates to charitable causes. (That estimate may be lower than that of some others equally graced with enormous funds tucked away, Browne avers.) This impenetrable labyrinth of financial fronts for the frontman and his bandmates in U2, abetting the charities Bono urges upon his clientele and the luxuries for us as consumers, may lead readers to wonder what U2 is up to. U2 naming its own financial holding entity Not Us Ltd. appears up to more than name games.

This book's cover photo, of Bono shaking hands with George W., will never gain the iconic kitsch status of Elvis meets Nixon. But the collusion between celebrity and conniver grows more blurred. Neither an American president nor an Irish pop star appears willing anymore to play the court fool. Browne's sharply drawn depiction of superstar humanitarianism and rock star philanthropy, personified in Paul David Hewson's rise to a status never attained by a previous member of a band, certainly diminished the King's pretensions to world domination by comparison. Elvis may have sought to rule the stage, but Bono and his friends in high places seek to rule us, by gradual stages. Taking care of business, indeed. (PopMatters 7-31-13. In shorter and altered form to Amazon US 7-12-13)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

John Waters' "Race of Angels: Ireland & the Genesis of U2": Book Review

An intellectual's heap of his highbrow reading, interviews with three of the band (where's Larry?), and big ideas on Irish identity in an alienated, globalized pop culture. It's a book that must have, when it came out in 1994 after "Zooropa," bewildered fans wanting another tell-all lightweight read about their idols.

I confess to a weakness for big ideas on Irish and musical and intellectual concepts. So, their combination here intrigued me. Waters, later known more for his socio-political journalism (and for his custody battle with Sinéad O'Connor over their son), brings his energy to the page. Looking back on this after 15 years, it may have worked better in the blog form not yet invented. It skips from a workmanlike term-paper feel citing Guy Debord and Jacques Attali, Daniel Corkery and Umberto Eco, Richard Kearney and Franz Fanon (source of the title, and if some or all of these names are obscure, it's indicative of the rarified audience for this work) to a chapter suddenly extolling the origins of "One Tree Hill." There's no chronological account of the band's formation or their discography; it starts rapturously recounting a Toronto Zoo TV concert that on the page left me nonplussed.

Waters may be at his best eking out connections between his own thinking and the band's own explanations of how they responded to the British punk movement as music meant "for," rather than "to" or "about" themselves. Waters labors to insist that the Irish punks out of which U2 formed their concepts, necessarily distanced from the rebellious stances more easily assumed by the masters in England rather than their colonized subjects in Ireland, could not have aped Johnny Rotten exactly. (It's a shame this came out the same year as John Lydon's "Rotten: No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish" as Waters' case might have been severely altered if he'd been able to read Rotten; he also skimps over Shane MacGowan's bicultural upbringing.)

He compares Fanon's three-stage trajectory out of colonial subjection to a provocative defense of the much-derided showbands of the 1950s-60s, and of the often also unfairly derided Horslips of the 1970s, as cultural predecessors for the breakthrough that U2 found itself able to make in late '70s-early '80s Ireland. Waters wonders if in Ireland, with its 70 million abroad claiming a share of the oul' sod's bloodlines, if its World Cup team's makeup might be more representative of the true lineage of today's nation. He finds in its "human incontinence," the way Ireland has dribbled away to other lands its best brains and deepest talent, however, a cautionary reminder of how it squanders its energy and heritage.

He cites Professor Mike Cooley, a technological philosopher, in the delusion of the West's assertion of "the One Best Reality" as our tower of Babel, and Waters suggests that Ireland may represent an alternative vision of meaning. He warns of diversion by emigration, attention, by the same media that Zoo TV celebrates and mocks and subverts. "The original form of colonisation simply told their victims that they were worthless, and would have to live with it. The modern form of colonisation tells us that we are only worthless if we remain where we are; it bombards us with images which devalue our own place, diminish our psychic gravity, and lure us away. We are all angels now, rootless, restless, horizonless, homeless." (277)

Waters wrote this a decade and a half before a more diverse Ireland emerged and U2 released "No Line on the Horizon." It'd be interesting to have him and the band reflect on what they've learned since then that supports or weakens Waters' arguments here. They may be difficult ones to parse and this book may lack its own center, but it does stretch towards intellectual horizons in innovative, if uneven and erratic ways. These may be Irish, for the spiral rather than the linear, the "both-and" rather than the binary "either-or," has been suggested often as a characteristic of the unpredictable, utopian, and philosophical Irish mind, here seen in its divergent directions on paper, as it tries to track a band's own sound. (Posted to Amazon US 11-22-09)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

My review of Eamon Carr & Ben Howard's poetry

This appears in Estudios Irlandeses, Number 5, 2010, pp. 187-189. The pdf is on line at "Irish Studies around the World". I compare two new collections of poetry that emphasize Japanese, Zen, and cultural connections between that milieu and Ireland/ Irish America. And one expands into soccer the fated year of Roy Keane & Mick McCarthy, the other upstate New York academia. Not sure which arena of conflict is more harrowing for these two survivors, urbane, witty, wise.

In case you wish to track down them down: (1) The Origami Crow: Journey into Japan, World Cup Summer 2002 by Éamon Carr (Dublin: Seven Towers, 2008).ISBN 978-0-9555346-5-2 (case bound); 978-0-9555346-6-9 (perfect bound). 75 pp. (2) Leaf, Sunlight, Asphalt by Ben Howard (Cliffs of Moher, Co Clare: Salmon Poetry, 2009) ISBN 978-1-907056-13-0 (paper). 69 pp.

I finished the review originally on Carr the day I found out about Howard's book, and I had to revise my article immediately after opening Howard's collection and hearing such resonance. Professor Howard also has a blog, The Practice of Zen: One Time, One Meeting. This is his sixth verse collection. Information from press: "Salmon Publishing"

As the blurb goes for "Origami Crow,"-- "Chronicling the wild World Cup Summer of 2002 in Japan, Carr follows the fellow spirit of medieval Japanese poet Basho on a journey that is both movingly personal and exceptionally universal.." These prose-poem reflections are Carr's first volume (unless you count his contributions to the pioneering late-'60s Tara Telephone collective and the broadsheet "The Book of Invasions." Perhaps that name, and his, sound familiar?

That album is one of the classics of modern Irish music. Carr was the drummer and lyricist for the 1970s electric folk band Horslips, Later, his sports commentary, and/or his journalism on the air and in print via Dublin has kept him in the media spotlight. More about his book can be found via the publisher: "Seven Towers". The image of Carr's from a video of his reading a selection from the collection, at "Eamon Carr@Balcony"

Friday, June 27, 2008

My wife, Siouxsie, Shane & Vice Magazine.

It's not only thirty-three or so years since the first flush for punk's pioneers but since I heard that music's first waverings via a few import 45's my high-school pal (born in Co Durham) had finagled along with an in-depth NME cover story on the emerging malcontents of '76. Leo gave me a copy of an apparently American Apparel-sponsored magazine that he picked up at a street fair in now trendy Los Feliz, "Vice." Issue 15:5 "The History Issue" breaks the in-house rule of no-celebs on the cover with our former student from Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins' old public school, the distinguished edifice built, suitably, on the ruins of the Carthusian foundation that somehow fit into the middle of London town, and where Thomas More had tried his vocation in that most ascetic of Catholic monastic regimens, then as now. I admire the sons and daughters of Chartreuse, as one of the few orders who refused any compromise with the political powers in their quest for simplicity, discipline, and commitment. It's a life nearly unimaginable, but that's the point.

Drawn in that mix, mirroring the first sights of punks, by fascination and vertigo, I opened the issue today to stave off a mid-afternoon, early vacation nap. Shane's iconic image prefaced Vice's array of the expected hipster assault of ads for fashion that revealed nearly nothing about the product, ads of bands I'd not heard of, reviews for the same with one I had leading this month's picks, The Black Angels. The laudatory acclaim may be more to said record enabling some afternoon delight with his main squeeze than the contents, but that's the verve of This Nation's Saving Grace (Shtick). No space given to The Fall despite my reference in last sentence.

No sex column, to my surprise, but wittily snarky captions to shots of scenesters in various stages of candid debauchery and sartorial offense. John Cheever gets a long excerpt from a bio and a photo shoot of louche sixty-somethings amidst leafy tracts for men's suits in suburbia. Bridget Cross (whom rock geek me recognized immediately as ex-Velocity Girl and Unrest) is now on the long comedown in Alaska; Sammy Davis, Jr. flirted with the Devil; Norwegian black metal, as a segue from Sammy; and the erotic element may be vitiated but not extinguished thanks to earnest Chuck Palahniuk's "Snuff" (soon to be a major motion picture I am sure) hyped here in a prosy teaser with decidedly non-stimulating drawings. Messalina-like Annabel Chong gets a shout-out, I might add, on pg. 85. Real name Grace Quek. I guess that's why even grad students and situational artists get porn names these days. MacArthur grants follow in time. Yeah, I'm jealous.

Along with such pop-cult chaff, unexpectedly appealing interviews, brief as they are since Vice gives as much space to pics as to print, with such as Howard Zinn, Lewis Lapham, David Wallechinsky (I bought both editions of his co-edited, trivially stuffed "The People's Almanac" around the time of punk's explosion), and Thomas Cahill, he of "How the Irish Saved Civilization." Along with Romans, Greeks, and Hebrews; more tribes pending future installments-- or half-repulsed with the same mixture of morbid fascination that drew people to gawk at the early safety-pinned, spiked, and sometimes swastika'd (heil Siouxsie before she issued the single "Israel") dressed to "epater le bourgeoisie." I find myself in the same position as another urban-raised lad of Irish Catholic descent, one John Lydon-- Ó Liodain being a good West Conamara name rooted around Roundstone/ An Clochan Mór. That is, not fitting in to one's exiled place of birth, but never being able to go back home and fit in. Johnny even tried to pick up a bit of Gaeilge on his visits to the folks back in Connacht, only to be ridiculed.

What sparks this regression? Siouxsie, born the same year more or less as Shane, Johnny (New Year's Eve '56), and my wife, tells in a typically thoughtful remark to Steve LaFreniere about her late guitarist, whom I greatly admire, ex-Magazine's John McGeoch. He characterized the band not as cartoon Goths, but "as more the tension of blood splashed on a daisy in the sunshine." (131) What a metaphor. Siouxsie speaks well of him, a musician whom I never thought got the acclaim he deserved in either band's contributions to post-punk's most intelligent evocations of walls of sound that created seduction, menace, disdain, and beauty all mingled into some fevered, bound, and post-coital melange.

In a 30th anniversary large-format "Punk" volume (like Vice, more to look at than to read) that our friends, whom we will see again in a couple of days, Bob and Chris gave Leo on a birthday two ago, Siouxsie's bassist Steve Severin (that name itself an homage to Masoch's "Venus in Furs" protagonist) summed up punk as "the sound of being sixteen." I turned 16 in 1977, the summer that the movement finally began to reach even six thousand miles away. If Shane and Johnny had been mired in their parental West Tipperary hamlet or West Conamara farm, they'd probably not have heard the music except with a snippet in a British tabloid or a censored clip on RTÉ's news. It took me and my classmate from Durham about as long to hear anything, either.

Siouxsie talks of a common experience for those of us scattered pre-Amazon, pre-Virgin Megastore, pre-MySpace. "It was through being fans of music that we got hints of literary things." (132) You had to go seek out the books alluded to in lyrics or NME conversations with the latest rock cognoscenti. Siouxsie explains that was how you met up with like-minded outliers. "Of course back then you thought you were totally isolated and the only freak in the whole world." By connecting with those who became even today her friends, by concerts or by books, this cemented her own determination to succeed, despite no voice lessons, only raw talent and drive.

She laments today's youth, who having grown up with computers as that upon which I type this and you read this, may have lost links to the actual world of experience. I think of another misfit, Pauline Murray in the far north of England, Co Durham in fact, who insisted in her band Penetration's rousing song, "Don't Dictate." Today, as I suppose soon happened with Malcolm McLaren & Vivienne Westwood's Sex shop on Kings Road in Chelsea, it's all a commodity. But, this happened in 1977 as much as in 2007, albeit not in every mall as Hot Topic or American Apparel now dictates.

The key, she reminds us, is to connect if one wishes to create; the age of 14-15-16, as her bandmate noted, turns crucial for innovation, "when you're starting to form opinions and notions of where you wanted to go." For these innovators who blended looks and sounds and attitudes into what passed for the generation of my wife and myself as our version of youthful enthusiasms, the counterculture had taken a novel turn. Layne tells me that, in Fulham that year studying film, she went to see Tir na nÓg but not the Pistols in Soho. She still lived in London as punk burst practically oblivious; I only gained distant hints of tremors from reading the L.A. Times or hearing a song or two on what was then a fledgling start-up station ten miles away from me in Pasadena, KROQ. Who, I recall that year, played Steeleye Span's commercially catchy "All Around My Hat" and Fairport's earnestly tedious "Bonny Bunch of Roses," the only time I ever heard either group on the Angeleno airwaves. So, perhaps the perceived gap soon to open up between hirsute electric folkies and tartan-clad pogo-ers one can credit to marketing rather than style. Soon, Shane did what Horslips could not, and bridged said chasm, which as any fan of either Irish band can tell you, was a failure of imagination and clumsy P.R. anyway.

MacGowan, like Philip Chevron, Gavin Friday and others unjustly forgotten (read Neil McCormick's memoir "I Was Bono's Doppelganger," reviewed by me on Amazon US) who were floating around the Dublin-London club scenes, knew that both factions allied to a tradition that renewed itself by looking back and forth, to the past and to the present, and punks soon grew restless anyway with "one chord wonders" and began rummaging into the archives, whether rockabilly or sean-nos, in search of other subversive sounds. Pogues shotgun married their influences; Siouxsie and friends created art-punk-cabaret that mixed German expressionism into their awesomely metallic sheen, their gloriously crimson palettes. Lydon and pals dived into dub and Teutonic drone; members of Horslips went on to help jumpstart U2, homegrown Irish rock's infrastructures, and the foundations for I suppose punk-folk groups like Dropkick Murphies or Flogging Molly today. Play "The Scream" or "Metal Box" or "The Mekons Story" or "If I Should Fall From Grace With God" today and you hear, as with Horslips' '72 début, "Happy to Meet, Sorry to Part," the voices of young musicians eager to take on earlier styles and make them new again.

These records never fade, never sound dated. Can't say that for many from the supposedly fresh later 70s. Like The Mekons or The Fall, the longest-lived bands from that class of '77, they invigorated their music with intelligence. They buried clues into their music, their liner notes, their interviews for us to follow in libraries and bookstores, a "secret history" unearthed in every generation by the restless and the iconoclasts. They knew that much in the British histories and Celtic chronicles fit into later rebellions into style, sound, and shapes.

Greil Marcus overshot his critical acumen when, being the Ph.D. in PoliSci from of course Berkeley, he wrote "Lipstick Traces" as if a twenty-year-old J. Rotten consciously drew in his lyrics from the (original) Diggers, (non-crustie) Levellers, and Christopher Hill's "The World Turned Upside Down." But, there's a more generally defensible reaction. As every cultural trend hits the highway to platinum chartbusters, a few hop off the glitzy bandwagon. They veer onto byways worth pursuing, record sales or packed stadiums be damned. They may get lost, or they may survive to send us back messages coded on small labels and import releases. So, cult favorites preached to a few of us stranded introverts and dispersed devotees. Simon Frith expounds in "Art into Pop" about all this with a truckload of theory for the British rock scene; Britta Sweers in "Electric Muse" did this for 60s-70s folk insular parallels. My interests, of course, fall in between both camps. Marxian Mekons, the autodidact Mark E Smith, and clever Éamon Carr of Horslips, like owlish Ashley Hutchings of Fairport and Steeleye, did their research diligently, and constructed links for their music that threaded intricately into their lyrics and chords and riffs. None of them turned down a fiddle for an arrangment, either.

I realize in retrospect that such ideas as I was exposed to in haphazard reading and listening opened up glimpses of attitudes, arguments, and philosophies that undermined my Catholicism. (In one example of inexplicable tangents, my classmate went on to be ordained, and died suddenly last year. He was a good priest, in a Church that needs such men.) I wonder, flipping to Shane's ramblings on Irish history in these same pages, if I can find any confirmation of similar transformations out of faith into doubt (what Salman Rushdie in "The Satanic Verses" which I finally started posits as the true juxtaposition for the human condition, as solid disbelief is merely another form of devotion) from our drop-out Carthusian. Outside of a nice phrase that DeValera "did what Stalin did, but without killing all the people, know what I mean, yeah?" (128) and a dubious summation that RFK "also got shot because he was an Irish Catholic immigrant," (129) there's little new to a professional Hibernian the likes of meself. But, he was playing (presumably one of those RTÉ video compilations) trad folk music from broadcasts during the 50s and 60s while he talked, white wine with vodka in a mug labelled "Morphine" and chain-smoking hash, from the comfort of his home in comfortable Donnybrook. This may account for the brevity of what could be salvaged from such a conversation.

Briefly back to our hostess. Siouxsie Sioux looks, I add admiringly, true to her well-maintained public image, stunning as always in a catsuit, bettering for her brains and her poise any lightweight woman half her age. (Second sexiest woman born that Year of the Rooster, runner-up to my devoted spouse. I think she and the former Susan Dallion would get along like a house or two on fire. From what I've heard about Shane, if I could understand what he mumbles, I'd like to have a long chat (with subtitles?) about whatever with him. He made a slight mistake in that Vice interview; the IRA ceasefire after their failed Operation Harvest Northern campaign happened in 1962, not '64, for the very few who counted themselves in its depleted ranks back then.) Siouxsie adds that as an artist, she may have some influence still in getting listeners younger than she is to "leave the virtual world." Not to mention her own make-up skills; these are duly noted in the acknowledgments. Siouxsie: "You can only inspire someone to do something they wouldn't have before. With me it was getting into music, and specifically the type of music it was had a big effect."

Credit another Co Durham tie-in: miner's son Bryan Ferry's concert tour promoting Roxy Music's "Siren" was when, in 1975, Siouxsie met her future bandmates. Just like me, it took some distantly felt, faintly art-school pairing of music with image, style with idea, to sell the avant-garde to council tenancy sons and daughters, suburban trendsetters in Bromley, and two Southern California boys tired of hearing endless rotations on rock radio in supposedly the global capital of cool. To think we in El Lay had half a dozen stations playing Kansas, Boston, Chicago, and that group-- made up ironically of Yank army brats in Britain-- that stole the best imperial name of all in the name of counterculture sold back to us masses, America.

I never Vaselined my hair, and I never had a suit to slash. My interest in punk remained less obvious on the surface. Looking at me, it was not my exterior that changed, and we had a rule against long hair (touching the ears) at our school anyway. Still, I welcomed a movement that beneath its posturing and commercialism encouraged individualism and intellectualism. This often becomes overlooked with the manufactured outrage and the calculated commodification that overtook punk as it had the beats and flower children, but as Shane and Siouxsie attest, it allowed them to force an entry into such moribund terrain as Irish trad and Weimar schlock to marry the rebellion of youth with the freshness of subversive times too long stereotyped. My generation may not have succeeded in overturning the hype machine that wound up with their own marketing innovations such as grunge, the just-raped look of Flashdance, Vans, Emily's Strange, Bust and Bitch on the news stands, Riot Grrls, and Nu-Wave KROQ marketed as a format as predictable as Jim Ladd or Westwood One's once-hippie FM.

But, then I think about my students today from the barrio. They stroll into class, wearing shirts from the latest tour of The Cure, tying Morrissey lyrics to the poetry we study, or prancing about with facial hair and mascara. Last spring, a woman older than me was a transgendered post-op, son of an angry Navy vet. With both sexes multiply pierced, men and women from all over the world into rap, hardcore, or techno, I wonder what Oscar Wilde, not to mention later Irish-British layabouts who got off their taut asses to shake music up for my teens, barely out of teens themselves, would make of them all. I think he'd be amused, taken a bit aback, and flattered.

Photos: No, that's not the missus. It's the striking cover of Siouxsie's new album "Mantaray." Sydney O'Meara's snap of Shane, circa 1977 reading his own fanzine "Bondage," as the cover of Joe Cleary's "Outrageous Fortune". It's the only way I could download this shot.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Tony Bailie's "The Lost Chord": Book Review

Phil Lynott's swagger combined with Rory Gallagher's blues: while Gino Morgan's story's filed under fiction, it reads like fact. Not a novel so much as one of those rock-star biographies penned not by the star, but by one who knew him or her back when. And now, when the money's low and the fame's dimmed for the groupie, the sidekick, or in this case the rhythm guitarist, it's time to cash in what memories can be resurrected from the drug-addled informant. This novel reads as if such a true-- taken with the proverbial grains of coke-- story of life on the road with one more famous than one's self, often penned by a ghostwriter if not written entirely by a journalist or a hack, out of the taped transcripts and the press kit clippings and the bleary pub crawls.

An Irish journalist, Bailie provides an intriguing framework for this milieu. Manus Brennan alternates, as the novel begins, his current fate, literally washed-up on the shore, looking for wrack to light the fire that keeps his boozy body warm. He had joined Duil, a hard-rock Irish band who reminds me of Thin Lizzy's hard rock with a dash of Horslips' progressive folk. Seven years after the band's dissolution, Manus begins to narrate his tale, blended with his reply to what the few who bother with asking him anything really want to know: where's Gino?

This attendant status, Manus admits, makes him "a second-rate guitarist in a first-rate rock band." Nobody cares much about him, actually. Anyone interviewing him wants to know what he knew about Gino, six-foot-five, swarthy, sexy, and shapeshifting. While eager biographers already have published books on what might have happened to Gino-- who at the peak of debauchery vanished on tour in Germany-- the mystery of his disappearance fuels only improbable rumors that remain uncorroborated.

Into this miasma, Martina Lucas, a Californian with an "expensive" accent (as a less-affluent native of the Golden State myself I'm still pondering this adjective), enters Manus' aimless existence. His wife's left him, he's practically a recluse, and any music he tries to make with a band after Gino comes with an inevitable tag: "Manus Brennan (ex-Duil) on lead guitar." Even when he tries to establish his own talent, he's only hired for his past brush with fame, in the figure of Gino. Gino's fate fuels gossip among fans and tabloids. Martina's own interest in Manus appears only another manipulation of the servant who once waited on the fabled lord.

Speculation draws Manus towards Martina, who in turn seeks to use Manus to draw out the other members of Duil. She's keen on promoting her own tale to peddle to the press about Gino. Perhaps Martina's scamming the band, as her appearance's timed with Duil releasing old tapes and passing them off with their manager's connivance as Gino's contributions mailed in after his vanishing act seven years before. The mythmaking process enchants not only fans but the press and Duil's other members, who silently collude in their own desperate attempts to pay their debts and live off of their only meal ticket, Gino, after he goes missing. If he's not there, his mystique must do. Bills need to be paid. Complicating this state of Duil's predicament after Gino left them with their creditors calling, Martina suspects that Gino arranged his own departure, and that his junkie chic comedown was more a pose than an affliction. Her theory of monastic intrigue impels a doubting Manus to follow. He wonders if her search will be better substantiated than the earlier reports purporting to solve Gino's fate.

Bailie explores the experiences of a type of protagonist little attended to in fiction. Adding to its interest, the novel enters a place once and long relegated to the margins of British popular music. There's no overt time period to betray the immediacy of the action, but Bailie, by keeping the plot clean of any real-life band comparisons, wisely allows us to think of this quest occurring within a time less linked to a particular trend or era, pixellating magnification capabilities aside.

The island's rock scene itself gains little overt attention, although the clash of Irish trad with arena power provides quite an appealing subplot. It's an Irish novel more in its matter-of-fact presentation of traditional musicians, brief snatches of scenery, or the passing observation.
"The evening is heavy with rain as we leave the sodium lit distortion of Belfast behind us and climb up to where the city peters out in the foothills of the Black Mountain. Bundles of houses appear now and again, separate from the suburban sprawl but with no real identity of their own. The road I drive is narrow and twisting and made dangerous by the floods of rain that pound it." (171)
The precision of the detail, sparely given, echoes Bailie's poetry. He's a local, who gives us what we need, and moves on.

A non-Irish writer would have likely ladled in more garish color. Mercifully free of whimsy, light on the emotions, and efficiently paced, the story moves with more direction if as much economy as its feckless teller. We get the backstory of Gino and his bandmates through the straightforward, more serviceable than striking prose style that fits its speaker, an observant but not unconvincingly eloquent man down on his luck whose only way back into fortune is his link to his former semi-celebrity days.

I'm not sure if this was Bailie's intention, but reading this I found a tonal harmony. Parts of Manus' narrative fall into that rather stolid evocation of one who recollects in tranquility one's barnburning days. Less as a prime mover and more as a rolling stone, Manus found himself with an offer he could not refuse. He joined Duil when they were already famous, and he after a concert of theirs.

The dutiful details emerge parallel here in fiction to how many rock-star stories are told in fact. It blurs and bores a bit at times, as Manus seeks to align his wavering existence against the energy of the magnetic personality, Gino. Manus was recruited by him at 19; now 33, he already feels as if he'll be living in the past, the few years with Gino will be Manus' only success in the decades to come. This verisimilitude makes sense. Manus lacks the charisma of the lead singer. It's always Gino's tale the hearer wants; Manus must endure as a means to this end.

The supporting character to the star never grabs, of course, the spotlight. Yet, Bailie's oblique strategy allows us to witness fame at this slight but persistent remove. Gnosticism, the appeal of the resurrected hero, and the veneration of idols all enter this book lightly, but offer a thoughtful gloss on the rock-star milieu that perceives its legends emerging, if we entered another dark age, via oral transmission. Two thousand years from now, what saints might elicit our prayers? We invent deities no less than the early Christians, seeking to recover the light that Sufis, rabbis, and lamas saw. This meditated perspective, at a half-turn from one who first worshiped the band as a fan before joining Duil, gives us a Gino less mundane than Manus witnessed in his first incarnation. "His gaunt craggy face could twist into the grimaces of a thousand agonies before settling into the smile of benign sainthood." (15)

Therefore, in Gino's after-life or half-life as attested to by those who were his eyewitness apostles and those who report on the messiah second-hand, the novel gently shifts gears into in an energy more mysterious. Perhaps Gino's appeal lay not only in his riffs or his songs, but in his aura? How, exactly, can one explain a celebrity's charisma-- perhaps in the root meaning of that word? In this evangelical register, unlike its earlier emulation of the many rock-star biographies written by others who knew so-and-so, "loyal acolyte" Manus' tale betters so many half-awed, half-jaded accounts of gods made flesh on stage. Duil, which is a word never defined (perhaps as this home-grown novel comes from Belfast's Lagan Press), means "desire," that strong lure that pulls you along. You may not realize you're hooked.

Available directly from: The Lagan Press, Belfast
. Posted belatedly to British Amazon 11-8-09 where oddly it is not there anymore, so re-posted 6-1-12; cross-posted to "Not the L.A. Times Book Review" for my longer reviews.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Tony Bailie on NI Punk

A couple of weeks ago, a journalist from Co. Down posted a comment on my entry here about The Fall. He noted, to my delight, that he'd found me googling for at least the fourth time: about the shamanistic philosopher the late John Moriarty, the very much alive Donegal fiddler Oisín McAuley, the restlessly searching novelist the late Francis Stuart, and finally, somehow muddled between warhorse Irish prog-folk-rockers Horslips and The Fall, the band led by Mark E. Smith all these decades. Tony had to end the endless happenstance and come out of his lurk mode. I'm glad he did.

We've been sending a few letters back and forth since. It's another serendipitous example of how the Net can link me to people with an amazing amount in common, who I'd have next to no chance of ever meeting in person. Especially given my distance from Ireland and many of my esoteric passions. The few of us who share so much find each other through blogs and search engines: surely a blessing of this technology.

Like Fergal O'Doherty, from Derry city (see his blog "Fairy Tales" at my links), Tony grew up in the punk era in the North. Thirty years on, he interviewed not only John (Seán) O'Neill of the Undertones, the most famous band from the period (and one of my favorites; even their swansong, the flawed but ambitious LP "The Sin of Pride" has grown on me more the past few years), but Terri Hooley, who founded the label that issued the band's first songs, Good Vibrations. He also reminds us that the history of the scene does not begin and end with the 'Tones and Stiff Little Fingers. I append his three articles. The last discusses the memorably named new group, Shame Academy, including members of two pioneering Northern outfits, the Outcasts' Greg Cowan and Rudi's Brian Young.

There's a book out from Reekus Records (who signed The Radio, which features a member of one of my all-time favorite neo-psychedelic outfits-- who sound what the Virgin Prunes might have evolved into if left a decade or two on-- Rollerskate Skinny) in Ireland, although I could not find it last time in Belfast, "Makes You Want to Spit." In lieu of that, a pithier survey for youse. With Tony's permission, I am putting up below his three pieces for the Irish News, as otherwise you'd need subscriber access. He's published a book of poetry, "Coill," and a novel about the music scene, "The Lost Chord." I'll investigate these in upcoming reviews. Tony also told me about John T. Davis' video history of the NI punk scene that can be viewed in its entirety on You Tube in 6 separately catalogued parts.

Blame me, three decades behind from the days of cassettes if not dying 8-tracks, indeed. Punk as nostalgia-- for an age that, contrary to Pete Shelley's 1978 lyric, has come and long gone. And to think that once we laughed at the hippies. Now, the neo-hippies look like 1972, impressively hirsute with vintage or imitation faux-bohemian couture at the age of twenty. Just wait, young folks: commodification's driving the freak-folks no less than the spiked hordes. At least they're not playing hip-hop like every one else in my household.

Shellshock Rock, part 1 (of 6)Derry hey!

Information at : Irish Punk & New Wave Discography

Articles by Tony Bailie from the Irish News:

Thirty years ago this month, Belfast punk label Good Vibrations put out its first single.

Tony Bailie speaks to the label’s founder, members of early punk bands and Undertones guitarist John O’Neill who wrote the iconic track Teenage Kicks.

THE words punk and explosion often sit side by side but the actual date when punk first exploded depends on who you are talking to.

In England it is generally accepted that the Sex Pistols were to the forefront of the movement but their early success and notoriety in 1976 was more of an angry fizzle driven by the use of naughty words on television.

It wasn’t really until the summer of ‘77 when they released the provocative single God Save the Queen, in which the British monarchy was described as a “fascist
regime” and whose cover had a picture of Queen Elizabeth with a safety pin through her nose, that they really exploded onto the scene.

There were punks in Northern Ireland from the start of the movement and dozens of bands were formed in 1976 and the following year, but for many it was 1978 when
punk really exploded in the north when the record label Good Vibrations was set up.

According to the label’s founder Terri Hooley, it came into existence almost by accident.

Hooley was running the Good Vibrations record shop in Great Victoria Street in Belfast city centre where many punks had begun to gather to listen to records
and occasionally even buy the latest releases from Britain.

“I went to see Rudi and the Outcasts in the Pound. I loved Rudi but hated the Outcasts – which was ironic because a year later I was managing the Outcasts and
releasing their records,” he said.

“I asked Rudi if they fancied putting out a record. We were initially going to make a flexi-disc which we could give away with fanzines but then it turned out that it would only cost 6p per record to release a proper single.”

The release by Rudi was followed up by a host of other bands including Victim, The Outcasts and Protex.

“I wanted to try to put Northern Ireland back on the musical map. At that time the only thing that Northern Ireland was known for was the Troubles,” he said.

“The whole label was run on a shoestring but within months we were getting demos from all over the world.”

One of those tapes came winging its way from Derry from a band called The Undertones and it would ultimately give Good Vibrations its best known release.

“I got the demo through a friend and listened to it for about two weeks. I kept playing it to other people and bands but no-one else seemed to get it,” Hooley

“I had to make a decision between signing up the Undertones and another band, because I didn’t have enough money to put out records by them both.

“Then someone told me that the Undertones were about to break up so I decided to bring them on to the label– I’ve always felt sorry for the other band.”

The Teenage Kicks EP was recorded in Wizard Studios in Belfast, behind the Duke of York bar.

It was recorded in a day. There were four tracks – Teenage Kicks, True Confessions, Smarter Than You and Emergency Cases.

Hooley said despite the subsequent international success of the title song it did not immediately set the record industry alight.

“I took it over to England and persuaded one of the hippest independent record labels of the time to distribute 500 copies, even though someone on the label told me it was the worst record he had ever heard,” he said.

“I also took it to other major labels but they just threw me out. Then John Peel got a hold of the record and the rest is history.

“A senior executive for Sire Records heard Peel play it and immediately wanted to sign up the Undertones and release Teenage Kicks in the States.

“The next day other record labels were on to me asking if I had any more bands that they could sign up.”

Hooley is still running a record shop, Phoenix Records, in Haymarket Arcade off Royal Avenue and there are plans to make a film based on his life story, with an impressive production team.

“Snow Patrol singer Gary Lightbody and David Holmes (record producer and DJ) are executive producers and the script is being written by (novelist) Glen[n] Patterson and (poet) Colin Carberry,” he said.

“I was a bit worried at first because people might actually finally find out if I’m a taig or a prod but they have told me that they won’t mention that.”

A concert celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Good Vibrations record label will be held in the Mandela Hall on Friday April 25.

Headliners will be The Undertones and supporting will be ‘punk supergroup’ Shame Academy, which includes former members of The Outcasts and Rudi.

Tickets cost £20 and are available from and

By Tony Bailie
TEENAGE KICKS has endured for 30 years as one of the best known songs to come out of Ireland but it took less than an hour to write.

Undertones guitarist John O’Neill was 18 at the time and while he acknowledges its place in popular culture, he doesn’t actually think it is the best song he has written.

The Undertones were formed in Derry in 1976 by O’Neill, his brother Damien, drummer Billy Doherty, bass player Mickey Bradley and singer Feargal Sharkey.

“I was strumming on my guitar and was trying to write a song in the style of the Ramones who were our big influence at the time,” John O’Neill said.

“The whole chord structure is in the style of a 1950s rock song by Eddie Cochrane or the Shangri Las. Once we had the chords in place it all came together fairly quickly.

“When we first played the song it probably took about 10 minutes to find the right key to suit Feargal’s voice.

“The Undertones had actually been on the verge of breaking up when they were signed to the Good Vibrations label by Terri Hooley.

“We sent demos to different independent record labels and they were either rejected or else we got no reply. Then a friend of ours who knew Terri Hooley offered to take him a copy of the demo.

“We owe everything to Terri Hooley.”

Teenage Kicks was the fourth single to be released by Good Vibrations and The Undertones and Hooley set about trying to get it some radio play, with little

It was drummer Billy Doherty who set in motion a series of events that would change the lives of The Undertones and ensure that the song would forever also be associated with one of Britain’s best-known and most influential radio DJs.

“Billy sent John Peel a copy of Teenage Kicks and rang him up to say we had released a single and asked him to play it,” O’Neill said.

“I don’t know what he thought of these weird Irish people who kept ringing him but he played it on his show and, famously, immediately played it again.”

Peel always maintained that Teenage Kicks was his favourite songs and when his death was announced on BBC Radio One in 2004, it was the first song played immediately afterwards.

O’Neill and other members of the Undertones attended Peel’s funeral.

“It was very sad and strange because there were so many famous people there. Robert Plant (singer with Led Zeppelin) was sitting behind us and Jack White (from the White Stripes) was in front,” he said.

“There was some great music played during the service but then when they were carrying the coffin from the church they played Teenage Kicks.

“It really gave me goosebumps.”

Following the success of the song, The Undertones went on to record four albums and a handful of successful singles.

In 1983 the band split. Singer Feargal Sharkey went on to have a successful solo career and the O’Neill brothers formed That Petrol Emotion.

However, in 1999 The Undertones reformed featuring four of the original members and with fellow Derryman Paul McLoone taking over as vocalist. The band has continued to tour and released two new albums.

O’Neill said he had written dozens of songs since Teenage Kicks but doesn’t resent being remembered for something he did when he was 18.

“I think the songs that I wrote for That Petrol Emotion were better than the ones I wrote for the Undertones,” he said.

“I don’t think Teenage Kicks is one of the greatest songs ever written but it does have a great atmosphere and somehow everything clicked together. I think that
is what appealed to John Peel.”

Punk outcasts finally hit the big time

By Tony Bailie
FAR too often the vibrant Northern Ireland punk scene of the late 1970s is summed up by name-checking just two bands, the Undertones and Stiff Little Fingers.

However, there were hundreds of other groups playing at the time some lasting barely a few days but others who gigged regularly and put out records.

Two bands who were also tipped for major success were Rudi and The Outcasts. Both released singles on the Good Vibrations label.

Shame Academy, who will be playing at the record label’s 30th anniversary concert at the end of this month, features members from both bands and their set combines their best known songs.

Brian Young was guitarist with Rudi and Greg Cowan was bass-player and vocalist with The Outcasts. Another punk veteran Petesy Burns, who played with Stalag 17, is on drums.

Young was 18 when he and a group of friends formed Rudi, the first band to release a single, Big Time, with Good Vibrations in April 1978.

“The music being made by bands here was much more original than bands in England,” he said.

“There were no bands coming here to play so we couldn’t go and see them and when it came to writing a song we just made up our own rules.”

While Young agrees that the music was an important aspect of punk, he said the attitude and self confidence it generated for thousands of young people during the worst decade of the Troubles has often been overlooked.

“I don’t want to be too naive about hands across the barricades sort of stuff but there were people coming together and sharing something in common. Maybe if it
hadn’t been for punk they would’ve got involved in some organisation or other,” he said.

Young now plays with rockabilly band the Sabrejets, with Shame Academy being dusted down for the occasional gig.

Greg Cowan from The Outcasts hadn’t played for more than 20 years until he agreed to join Young and Burns in Shame Academy.

He was bemused that his musical comeback should be with associated with a band he once derided.

“If you had told me that 30 years ago that I would be playing in the same band as a member of Rudi, playing their songs and that I would still be playing Outcast songs, I would have laughed at you,” he said.

Cowan formed the The Outcasts with his brothers Martin and Colin and guitarist Getty after they heard the Sex Pistols in 1976.

“It was more a case of ‘Right, we’re going to be in a band’. We couldn’t actually play any instruments,” he said.

“People still ask me how we got that strange slightly out of tune effect on our guitars for our first album. They think it is a sort of punk thing when really we couldn’t properly tune our guitars.”

Cowan agrees with Young that punk helped a lot of people define who they were.

“Nobody could have imagined that decades later we would be sitting trying to analyse the music and its effects on society,” he said.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

On First Listening to Horslips, 1978.

Lee Templeton at Come Back Horslips and a related small media empire of informative and celebratory endeavors on this 1970s Irish electric folk-rock band asked me, to connect with her own reconstruction of the band's 1978 American tour, to share any memories I had about the scene for music
in Los Angeles at that time. Perhaps I'm the only one on the current CBH network outside of the five players and their roadies who might have any "native" knowledge of my hometown at the time, yet I admit that my own recollections remain limited.

I would have been still in high school then, ending my junior or beginning my senior year. One of my classmates, born in Co. Durham, brought back '45s from the Pistols and a copy of "New Musical Express" recounting the rise of punk. Word of mouth or a stolen glance at a newsstand's magazine's spate of monthly reviews: that was about it for publicity as far as it reached me. Furthermore, I knew nobody as interested in critically listening to, and analyzing, music as I was, or at least as open to eclectic styles. I wished I could play; those classmates kept to themselves.

The radio had many rock stations back then in L.A., but only one played regularly what one day would be called logically if dully "alternative." Concerts weren't an option. Even punk, curious as I was personally, acted itself out in distant suburban dives and skanky bars faraway. It too depended on the California tyranny of the auto, disaffected postures of its carefully displayed dishevelled denizens notwithstanding. They'd likely have borrowed mean ol' daddy's wheels, but these were not offered to me. With no car, little opportunity or tolerance for what nightlife a shy teen could attain, and obviously underaged even by more liberal 70s alcohol laws, I'm no regaler of any clubbing short stories or backstage tall tales. My first "real" concert did not happen until the following year, when the Clash played the Santa Monica Civic. I bummed a ride. My hearing has never been able to withstand amplification, so I rarely attend-- and cannot truly enjoy-- rock concerts.

So, what can I tell you? Better to re-create the isolation that a bookish rock geek sustained thirty years ago. I'd read about Horslips well before I heard them, first in (NME editors) Nick Kent and Bob Woffinden's "The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock," bought in 1977 for all of $7.95. Completed in May 1976: so, it's an indelible visual and textual artifact from the Anglo-American scene immediately before punk broke, or was hyped, by the same NME! Skimming it now, I find each page frozen still in my photographic memory. I pore over what now looks like a hodgepodge of grainy publicity shots, oddly chosen LP covers, and concert snaps. At the time, however, before video and when you'd never see reproductions of album art outside of the record store and its posters, this brought the hedonistic representation of the corporate rock world into my distant hands.

Three out of many of its pictures that remained in my mind: the cover of Carly Simon's "Playing Possum" (could have been named "Playing Pussy" with that come-on); a Barrett & Gilmour-era publicity photo of Pink Floyd that taught me "saturnine;" a caption under the LP sleeve for "Red Rose Speedway": "Wings' second album; too bad there was only room for McCartney in the cover shot." This in true "High Fidelity" form segues indirectly, as I learned many years later, closer to Horslips, for indeed this LP had a veteran of the folk and especially blues-rock Northern network, Henry McCullough join Wings. John Kelly in his semi-fictional novel "Sophisticated Boom-Boom" tells of his mother watching Wings on tv and casually remarking that she knew him-- he grew up on her street. The teen (Kelly's five years younger than me) was gobsmacked that his mum could have such a brush with (pre?-post-) Beatles-levels of fame. Such is Irish three-degrees-of-separation, as many of us have found out.

Like Kelly, I acquired a small melange of disparate rock records. I painstakingly saved up on a weekly allowance and later a minimum-wage summer job. Although I never cottoned to blues and avoided jazz, and while my folk interests developed unlike Kelly's at a considerable remove from the sources, I did share his timeframe when it came to the music. Although he was more precocious or I was more laggard. We began listening seriously around the glam era, when the hippie come-down thanks to, well, groups like Wings, softened the edgy acid and agitation of the Sixties into a mellower, pot-hazed mood enhancer. As Macca influenced so many others, into a pop-friendly acceptance that led musicians in the 1970s to embrace older traditions that their immediate rabble-rousing predecessors, while they may well have grown up on the same tunes, had not been able to openly admire then due to their street cred.

Same effect for the punk scene, when it became trés un-cool to credit such art- or prog-tainted bands as Horslips. British folk-rock, as with Fairport and Steeleye, still flourished when Kent & Woffinden published their tome. But, even a year later when I would have read their text, the market for such medleys of Celtic lore and British tales with electrified beats and glossier production had plummeted. I've written about this in my recent article that cites Pat McCabe's "The Dead School" with its hapless protagonist Malachy, whose rise and fall, I argue, follows that over the Seventies for Horslips, the band he admires and whose tatterdemain and hirsute look he cannot give up by the time the Clash dominate the trends of the Picadilly boutiques and the assaults on late-decade London airwaves.

He was too drunk, too destitute, and too demolished as he cried into his pints, but Horslips, as the campaign for "The Man Who Built America" that I reproduce above in its red and black graphics and determinedly New Wave design seeks to convey, sought to keep up with the airwaves and boutiques. Unlike Malachy, the tresses of all five band members were shorn--even Johnny Fean's--and they adapted (art student Charles O'Connor being in the vanguard much earlier, more pub-rock by even 1975) a harder production and a slicker sound. More radio-friendly, but I admit I never heard them played on the radio even on KROQ, which around '78 had found its niche in L.A. as the station championing Devo, Blondie, Talking Heads, the Pistols, and the newest rarities that only three or four import shops in our metropolis carried.

On pg. 111, the entry for Horslips in Kent & Woffinden lists the LPs to date, but ends at "The Unfortunate Cup of Tea." The five paragraphs dutifully summarize the discography and trajectory of the band. After the triumph of the "Táin," the editors concur with what had been the judgment of many critics (if not fans on such sites as CBH): "However, the band have not yet succeeded in building on this remarkably successful opening to their career, possibly because they have abandoned their Celtic music influences in favour of a rock-based approach." This sort of journalism must have goaded the band, and I'm sure the next edition of the book would have acclaimed the next LP "Book of Invasions" as a return to splendid form.

Until the summer of 1980, however, I never found that LP-- in the import section of Tower Records. And that took a two-hour bus ride. Probably the only place in L.A. that would have carried it. On its sleeve and that for TMWBA I learned my first words beyond "Erin go bragh" in Irish; BoI's liner notes by Eamon Carr explain the three ancient modes of storytelling, while the quoting of Máirtín Ó Direáin's verse captured the theme of exile that unified the band's latest concept LP. As I played it later in my college dorm, another student bounded into my room excitedly. He astonished me with the news of how he'd seen the band on TV, on a late-night appearance perhaps. I wonder if any CBHers can trace that allusion! Until that classmate, nobody I met ever heard of them; until I found CBH on the Net, this sonic lacuna gaped for nearly twenty-five years. Speaking of exile.

I'm not sure how I would have known about the release of TMWBA. Perhaps I had seen a mention in "Trouser Press," or had flipped through the miscellaneous "H" at the only store a bike ride from my house, the chain Music Plus. The promo copy, being from a band with the majority as admen, artists, and poets themselves, also cleverly reminds the reader that before Radar, Stiff, or Chiswick, true DIY pioneers could be found among the quintet. They kept control, in proto-punk form, of their product all the way up to its delivery to the conglomerate that packed it up, dutifully and deftly, to ship out to me thousands of miles away. So, they too tried to stay true to their own countercultural roots, despite-- as so many of their peers then and now-- having to nod to the idols of the marketplace in order to sway the Yankee masses.

Their big-label distribution deal, as the text I reproduced takes pains to explain, allowed them a chance to finally get their records out to the American hinterlands where I lived-- if all of fifteen miles from Hollywood. There they hoped, under the rather unlikely match of producer (Blood, Sweat & Tears) Steve Katz, to nail down "those silver bars" into that big West Coast production sound "that's gonna take 'em to the stars" that Barry Devlin and Jim Lockhart admired. And, on that same left coast, I finally found my first, if not their first, Horslips LP.

Here's a snap from Lee's archive of a billboard on the Sunset Strip, at Kings Rd., suitably, for the medieval-themed arrival of the band with the equivalent of their name in lights. Minutes away from the famed import racks of Tower Records. The tattoo parlor may now be a burlesque house if it's on the south side facing the lights over West Hollywood. The taller building may be today either the garish hipster hotel The Mondrian or just another dull concrete & glass media conglomerate's fortress.

Promo for Horslips TMWBA: Weasy 8 Archives ca. 1978

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

My article on Horslips!

Here's the abstract for "Horslips in Irish Musical and Literary Culture," in the peer-reviewed online journal of Irish Studies, Estudios Irlandeses 3 (2008): 132-42. Scroll down at Issue 3 at this site, and you can read all 7000 words via htm or pdf formats. My thanks have been expressed at Come Back Horslips to its movers and shakers. Guaranteed jargon-free, unless I quote some know-it-all critic with tenure.

Abstract. This essay examines the literary impact of a musical electric-folk band. Horslips combined psychedelic, and hard rock with Irish traditional motifs and Celtic narrative themes. Spanning the decade from 1970 to 1980, their success and decline followed the trajectory of the countercultural movement, which came late to Ireland. The band’s revival of mythic characters and historical events drawn from the Irish past attracted fans from all over the island, as well as the diaspora; many young people gained an appreciation of their Irish heritage for the first time, as Horslips became the first electric folk-rock band to fuse disparate genres, and to succeed as an Irish-based independent collective who controlled the graphics, marketing, distribution, and promotion of their music. They inspired the likes of U2 and the Irish punk and new-wave rock musicians who followed them, and without the pioneering efforts of Horslips, Irish music and culture today may never have reached its current success, three decades later.

Keywords. Horslips, Irish popular music, Irish traditional music, Cheryl Herr, John Kelly, Patrick McCabe, Paul Muldoon, Gerry Smyth.

My Horslips article

Photo: Horslips in 1972

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Horslips meets Irish academia

I gave two papers on Horslips and literature, that only overlapped about two sentences! (I have amassed about 12,000 words of notes so far out of which I had to hack out two 2,800 word, twenty-minute talks for entirely disparate academic audiences). The first was at the 21st Irish Conference of Medievalists at Mary Immaculate College, a teacher-training institution now under the aegis of the University of Limerick. It has the usual horrid 60's-70's-era concrete around a charming, Hogwartsian century-old Edwardian hall where I gave my paper. The trouble with any such presentation on a topic less familiar to an audience of Old Irish specialists is that half your allotted time you must spend on background, and I reasoned few out there would know much about the band and their two relevant concept LPs. But, I entertained and edified, I hope, and at the end a couple people asked me where they could buy Táin & BoI-- I directed them to the band's site.

One man recalled hearing Barry on Irish radio last year telling how they were treated (poorly) by a club owner aghast at their sound and look; another told me of his own teenaged love for the band, and started chanting the chorus to ""Charolais." I hope that my paper in Limerick roused up interest; the director of the conference told me she at MIC teaches the Táin and introduces it with some of the songs from the album.

At University College, Dublin, I gave the second paper to the International Conference for the Study of Irish Literatures, IASIL. This attracts hundreds each year from around the world to give papers, drink free wine (well considering the exorbitant reg fees, not exactly on the house) at book launches, and regale each other with obscure arcana from texts far-flung. While paper one pitched the band's use of medieval themes made relevant-- I argue while other critics tend to dismiss the band as a-political, that the band "back-dating" conflict into ancient times allows them and their audiences to participate as if the struggles then related to the tensions in the 70s-- the Dublin talk featured the band's pioneering grassroots attempts to make the material fresh and iconoclastic. While the original paper sought to concentrate on the band's resurrection via CBH and how that site uses user-generated content and social networks to spread the influence of Horslips across the diaspora in virtual space and real time, the fact that my 14-year-old son sabotaged my iPod's files (now I get a message that they are corrupted or unreadable-- if anyone can solve this version of doomsday, I beg your intervention) the day I was leaving for Ireland made the paper less hi-tech.

Instead, the discovery in the publication in Sean Manning's new book (Da Capo, 2007) "The Concert I'll Never Forget: 50 Writers Relive Their Most Memorable Gigs," of Paul Muldoon's essay purportedly on one (he does not remember which of the three dates although his essay is dated April 1980) of the final Whitla Hall Belfast Gigs shifted my paper into a direction that I figured would play to the lit-crit crowd better within the limits of my time frame. I did use basic tech after all, but had little time to set-up even a Net hookup, as I do not believe in Power Point on stodgy principle anymore than I never liked overhead projectors...yet the band's own site with the album covers (which are kinda dinky, and where's the interior shots of inner sleeves I thought were there for such as HTMSTP?) failed to do justice to their contents. I also showed the home page for CBH and explained its features.

Of course, as Miss T. guided me, I re-read (after ten years) the whole of "Dead School" (reviews on Amazon and my blog at dutifully followed). I link the three mentions of Horslips to the co-protagonist Malachy's own rise and fall from countercultural rebels to old fogies disdained by punks (well, back then I was the exception to that rule!) within the arc of the 70s and the changes in Irish culture. Using McCabe & Muldoon as well as Gerry Smyth's critiques of the band in his books "Beautiful Day" & "Noisy Island," I then briefly surveyed the DVD, the exhibition, and the CBH & HorsLit sites before wrapping it all up with how the Belfast Gigs LP neatly summed up the band's trajectory. Muldoon perversely stops his essay at the moment the band took the stage, so he actually never tells of the "gig that he never forgot" explicitly!

I do not wish to name-drop, but scholarship served, I must tell of Cheryl Herr's own work that used Horslips in her keynote lecture that closed the conference wonderfully. A renowned Joycean at the University of Iowa, she had listened to my paper and asked a question for myself and the previous presenter (graduate student at UCD Barry Shanahan gave a great paper on a 2004 story, "Home to Harlem," published in Metro Ireland in Dublin and in McSweeney's in the US, which Roddy Doyle wrote about Declan, half black, half Irish, in New York City's hip-hop scene) how we, removed directly from the respective milieux we critiqued (in my case as an American Irish examining Ireland, in his as an Irishman analyzing America), could speak as outsiders authoritatively about the somewhat "foreign" contexts we were studying. A great question, but time prevented me from responding after Barry. I guess I'd say along with the Rabbi Hillel, if not me, who, if not now, when?

Professor Herr, whose influential critical analysis published about fifteen years ago on the music-hall, melodrama, popular culture, and sermons underlying "Ulysses" was a study so engrossing I wound up xeroxing it all when I only needed, I thought, one chapter years ago in my research, gave a talk, "Stories for Boys," that examines how rock-n-roll works within post-WW2 Britain & Ireland to liberate adolescents. I believe a book is forthcoming.

She told of McCartney & Lennon stringing up wires to hear Radio Luxembourg, of this same station's allure in other films and books fictional & factual, of the amazing to me incident that critic Nik Cohn grew up in of all places as a secular Jew in Derry and heard Elvis for the first time when he ventured outside the Protestant enclave (where such wordly influences were proscribed) to hear the King played in the Catholic ghetto, and of the tendency for boys of a certain age to stay in their bedrooms, often in their skivvies (like John L.) to hear the rapturous sounds extracted from the static half a Continent away.

Best of all were film clips. One from a movie by Martin Duffy (British from a few years ago?) "The Boy From Mercury," contrasting the older brother's Quarryman-type quiff with the younger lad's SF obsession as music marks the gap between the two youths; "All Things Bright & Beautiful," Barry Devlin's 1984 BBC film that seemed rather autobiographical, if not the part I presume about "Barry O'Neill" having a spurious Marian vision (I won't spoil the results), also fixated on the power of radio changing the ten-year old (born Professor Herr charts around the same time as Mr Devlin, circa 1944) as he too hears a certain station; and tellingly, as she argues, the Mork-like I don't wanna grow up robotic nu-wave contortions of jerky marionette mime Bono, backed by Adam in a lime-green neon top and the Edge with a haystack rivalling Ian McCulloch's on a 1980 "Late Late Show" appearance that after a while she turned off with a wry "I think we've had enough."

(Cross-posted, mostly, on CBH & HorsLit for maximum reproduction!)
(Image from Slipkid's site with other self-designed album sleeves for downloaded gigs, with some of Horslips both vintage and fresh from radio/TV shows in 70s and 2006. Too bad the albums themselves cannot be downloaded as the wife prevents such forays by me. )

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Shane MacGowan, wheelchair & all:

Proud am I of having in July-ish of 1986 on the Pogues' first visit to LA to say I at the center of the front of the stage, having got there first, shared a drink-- plastic cup of the black death indeed-- with the great man himself as he passed it around to some of us punters pummelled by the crowd of hundreds at our own backs at, I guess, the Palladium. My spouse with her Paul Westerberg hero-worship (another alkie genius singer-songwriter of the non-James Taylor ilk although Paul for her is even to my unbiased eye still a more-enticing cuddle than is Shane)-- He, her and him, the three of them all the same age within a year or less. Jubilees! ) I won't mention Mark E Smith, whose boyish mien collapsed due to ravages of drink & drugs. He's a month younger than my dear spouse. Who looks worse now, Mark or Shane? Both are undeniably talented singer-songwriters in that same self-destructive, autodidactic mode. They both should learn from Brendan Behan & Dylan Thomas' trajectories & flame-outs. Luckily, my wife's neither a singer (ha) nor a songwriter, just a calmer, wonderful collector of wisdom about songs, and a great writer to boot even if she's not from the oul' sod, sod it.

March 17, 2007
(NY Times) Editorial Observer

How Close Is Too Close to Shane MacGowan and the Pogues?

The other evening I was doing a very grown-up thing, ironing an oxford cloth shirt for work, when my youth reared up and punched me in the mouth. On the television, a Cadillac commercial about a stylish family’s morning rituals was accompanied by the jaunty melody to the song “Sunnyside of the Street,” by the Irish folk-punk band the Pogues.

This has to be an instrumental, I thought, just as the lead singer Shane MacGowan’s sandpaper voice sang the garbled words I knew so clearly from repeated listening, “So I saw that train and I got on it, with a heart full of hate and a lust for vomit,” while the perfect parents in the ad drove their children to school in their shiny Cadillac.

I can report no urge to buy a car, but I did rouse myself from years of largely dormant fandom to see the Pogues (best known for their Christmas hit “Fairytale of New York”) play at the Roseland Ballroom in New York as part of a tour scheduled around St. Patrick’s Day.

As is often the case for a band with a self-destructive front man, their first attempt on Wednesday night was canceled, due this time to a knee injury for Mr. MacGowan. But true to the promise posted on the band’s Web site, the musicians made it onstage on Thursday — with Mr. MacGowan sitting in a wheelchair, an old Keith Richards joke come to life.

For better and quite often for worse, this man was my role model from junior high through college. His powerful songs — the more grotesque are the lyrical equivalent of Francis Bacon paintings — were my soundtrack.

Not coincidentally, the band I played in covered the Pogues’ songs and mimicked their instrumentation, right down to the penny whistle. When we recorded our own music on a four-track cassette in the basement, we chain-smoked cigarettes in the boiler room in a vain effort to gravel up our choirboy vocal chords to sound more like Our Shane.

This kind of dedication may be familiar even if you’ve never heard of the Pogues but spent your teenage years memorizing the canon of Bob Dylan or poring over the Martin Scorsese oeuvre on VHS tapes. For me, the Pogues’ manic mix of mournful dirges and hard-edged thrashers seemed to map the chaos of my suburban teenage mind.

The fact that there was substance in there, a long Irish musical tradition coupled with references to literature and legend, was what allowed my relationship with the Pogues to blossom from passing fancy into obsession. To steep yourself in the Pogues requires you to read James Joyce and Brendan Behan, to listen to both the Clash and the Dubliners, and to take up some, but, I hope, not all, of the legendary bad habits of our latter-day Baudelaire, Shane.

The ultimate experience, then, would be a face-to-face meeting, a wide-ranging, soul-searching discussion of music and the written word. That was not quite how it unfolded for me when it finally happened, during the summer I turned 20.

Hanging out after a show in Washington in 1995, I found Shane MacGowan alone, confused and locked out of both the club and his tour bus. Pale and unsteady, his words unintelligible, he clawed feebly at the door of the bus. There would be no discussion of “Ulysses.” I pounded on the bus door until the driver woke and let him in. Though this audience lasted several minutes, the only words of my hero’s that I could make out were “Cheers” and “Thanks.”

Until this week, I hadn’t seen him play live again. At first I felt removed, as if I were having coffee with an ex. For the better part of the concert, I stood where no hard-core fan belongs, near the back, feeling a little uncomfortable about singing along. Though I listen to the records infrequently, every last word to every last song was still branded deep in my brain. The band was on top of its game. Although Shane was either inert or muttering incomprehensibly between songs, he roused himself for each number, nailing the heartbreakers and glass-smashers alike, through a long set and two encores.

By the time the band launched into the rousing “Sally MacLennane” from its second album, I was right up front, colliding with the youngest and most boisterous members of the audience, who were happily moshing as the man in the wheelchair shouted, “And we sang him a song of times long gone, though we knew that we’d be seeing him again.” No more than a dozen feet apart, Shane and I were separated by a railing, a bouncer and the height of the stage. And that, I realized, was just about right.