À la prochaine

“Haitus: Noun, usually in singular; A pause or break in continuity in a sequence or activity.” (OED)

That’s what’s happening today. After six years of weekly posts, though thick and thin, good times and bad, a short break is upon me.

Paris, 2013.

I started writing regularly here back in 2013, for a variety of reasons. The blog, and its years of posts, have helped me achieve some goals – not least focusing on my personal and professional writing.

My scribbles here have also helped me process and progress through some significant life events – career changes, emigration, personal loss, mind-opening travel trips and more besides.

For the foreseeable future, though, posts will not be weekly, as before. But they will continue – not least because this remains a forum for my personal writing, itself a product of all-important reflection and creation.

On that note, I’m embarking on this haitus by re-visiting one of the most-read posts: about a 2013 walk across Paris in the footsteps of one of my literary idols.

Until the next one then, it’s not “au revoir”, just “à la prochaine”.

_____

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Ireland in three minutes

With apologies to Van Morrison, it’s almost (Irish) independence day.

This year, just like the last couple (since I emigrated from Ireland) I’ve been thinking from 4,000 miles away: what song or poem or piece of writing best sums up the Ireland and the Irish?

Not the kelly green, or lachrymose versions of “Danny Boy”, or green rivers, or a million soda bread recipes, or drinking to excess. Though there’ll be plenty of all that this weekend – at least on this side of the pond.

Then it struck me – or, rather, I heard it. As I listened to music at home last night, a song by The Gloaming – the folk/classical/progressive traditional Irish act – came on.

“The Hare” is a version of the traditional Irish tune “The Hare and the Corn” – of which I am totally unfamiliar. The Gloaming’s version is beautiful though, a fiddle performance that is short and plaintive and melodic, and it throws up all sorts of images of the homeland for me.

It may have been some dust, or the light, or a day spent staring at screens, but for a moment I swore I was standing alone, at dawn, on the flank of Mweelrea in Co Mayo, as sun and rain washed over me, with something in my eye.

Well, I was I suppose, in one way.

Here it is then – more Ireland in three minutes than you’ll get all weekend.

_____

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The conversation

The conversation could – of course – have gone another way.
One that didn’t leave him in a daze, sitting outside the office wondering who to tell first. Or what words to use.
Instead, after 40 or so years, he was left with this: five, six months at most.

As he sat there, fumbling for his phone, an older woman sat alongside him. Next in line, probably. Better luck, missus.
He wasn’t surprised that she started talking to him (something about weekday traffic), but he was when he responded.

Shouldn’t he be staring at a void, or consoling his wife?
After all, why keep up appearances when everything else has fallen down?
Perhaps it was her face, or voice, the human connection
That saw him suggesting alternate routes home for her.

There’s a dull safety in the banal, the simple chat.
Or so he thought afterwards, after the calls, and the tears, and the paperwork, and the goodbyes they didn’t want to admit were goodbyes.
When he could think clearly, he thought about that day, and those conversations.

The one that began with a doctor telling him things were not good, and the one that ended with an exchange about freeway routes.
I know which one I’ll take with me, he thought.

_____





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No more heroes anymore – thankfully

Radiohead, 2006. Pic: Drown

Remember when rock bands really, really mattered?

When new releases were presaged by weeks of publicity, when liner notes were pored over, when tracks were listened to dozens of times to figure out just exactly what that lyric was?

A newly-published anthology of writings about Radiohead, “Present Tense: A Radiohead Compendium”, takes me back to that time.

The book, which (full disclosure) features a great interview with the band by my other half, Clare Kleinedler, documents 25 years of journalism about the group, from their earliest incarnation as On A Friday to global pop domination and beyond.

Reading the articles, what stands out less is their substance (although features like Clare’s, and Will Self’s, built on solid interviews as opposed to opinions drawn from lyrical or musical clues, stand the test of time) than their context.

Almost every one, at least those from the “Pablo Honey” era onwards, is written on the assumption that Radiohead matter, that they are necessary, that they have Something To Say. Reading many of these pieces at the time, from defunct (and missed) publications like Select, I’m sure I concurred.

After all, what else was more important in the year 2000 that the release of “Kid A”? Weren’t the scraps from the floor of the studio used by the creators of “Paranoid Android” worth more than the greatest political, sporting or literary achievements of the day?

Well, so we thought. Now, of course, the idea seems quaint. Other music, other writing, other points of view, all of it available online ad infinitum, along with the passage of time, served to place Radiohead within the cultural context, instead of above or before it.

Reading “Present Tense” is as much as act of nostalgia as anything else, then; I felt a warm familiarity with some of the mundane facts in the articles (mundane now, at the time, revelatory – like how the band was named for a song on Talking Heads’ “True Stories” album).

It also reminded me of a period in my life when I had more free time, and less distractions – enough to allow me to spend whole afternoons picking over the inner musical workings of “Lucky”.

I can’t say I miss this (and I’ve long forgotten the arrangement of that particular song), nor will I miss the last era of the Single Important Rock Band – a strangely reductive concept.

But it was enjoyable to read – for a few hours at least – about how things were. Everything in its right place – in this case, the past.

_____

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To The Lighthouse

“What is the meaning of life?”
We ask, we ask, we ask.
Seeking one great answer,
The true face behind the mask.

If there’s one response,
There’s a thousand, of course.
Philosophized, preached or peddled,
So in that case, what’s worse

Than to take it from a novel,
That’s a century old,
About a disconnected family,
And a day trip put on hold?

Virginia Woolfe wrote that
The revelation never comes,
But in its place we watch for
“Daily miracles, illuminations.”

These “matches struck in the dark”
Show us the meaning of life.
No need for one great answer,
One solution to our strife.

That was Woolfe’s take, of course,
Add her to the thousands.
But her small sparks may be easier to find
Than big answers – hollow, if grand.

_____



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Things

There are things I’d like to ask you.
Like how did you do it? How did you get it over the line?
On those days when it seemed that things could go either way.
Were you scared? Where did you find a refuge?
Did you enjoy it, sometimes?

I’d ask, selfishly, because I want to map my progress against yours –
The next generation pushes things forward, doesn’t it?

But I won’t be asking those questions.
I have no idea where you are, though I hope it’s somewhere good.
I try to picture you there and – in moments – I can,
Sitting, reading a newspaper, or reaching for your coat before leaving for town.
But I can’t ask you about these things
That come upon me in traffic, or in the moments before sleep,
Or when walking down a street, halfway lost.

_____

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A night in the house Richard built

The Richard Thompson Electric Trio, Portland, February 2019

No one could accuse Richard Thompson of being on-trend. For almost half a century he’s written songs and played a guitar, rarely rising above the status of cult hero, musician’s musician, or – the most back-handed compliment of all – critics’ darling.

On a snowy February night at Portland’s Revolution Hall, he’s still at it – touring with his band and playing songs from a record he released last year. As for trends, some 850 people have come out, filling the venue to capacity, to hear him do so.

It’s the fourth time I’ve seen the Englishman (at this stage a living folk-rock legend) perform. The first was in a packed tent in rainy field in the Irish midlands more than a decade ago – the stand-out track that afternoon being a version of “From Galway To Graceland“, his song about a Elvis fan who makes that trek, believing she’s set to marry The King.

In 2011 and 2015 I attended his shows – the latter an acoustic set, not unlike a show in Thompson’s living room – at Vicar Street in Dublin. These two gigs had all the traits of the first – blistering guitar work and an acerbic, if not outright sarcastic, stage manner.

Revolution Hall last Monday was more of the same: the guitar and the palaver, underpinned by the songs. New ones too – at least half the set was composed of tunes from “13 Rivers”, Thompson’s most recent release – a stronger, leaner set of songs than his some of his recent albums.

As befitted the time (Monday night, heavy weather, mid-winter), the set leaned toward the ominous on occasion (new song “The Storm Won’t Come” in particular), before Thompson – job done, Stratocaster turned down – produced the classics, the old favorites he’d advised then audience to wait around for, at the start of the show.

These included – most notably – a version of Fairport Convention’s “Genesis Hall”, dusted off and remodeled after almost 50 years, “Beeswing”, “Wall of Death” and – his calling card (and possibly his albatross) – “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”, whose opening riff was enough to justify the audience’s weeknight trip through snow and ice.

The highlight – for me, at least – took place during the first encore, when Thompson performed “Dimming of the Day”, his love song for onetime wife Linda Thompson, solo and acoustic. The performance was simple, stark and clear – no irony, no pyrotechnics. Who doesn’t want a love song – albeit a desperate, pleading one – to end the evening?

_____

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After the snow

The ice – cornered – clings,
The sun above seeks it out.
The earth returns.

_____

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You’ve got to get this into your life

Imagine turning on a TV show and hearing a new Beatles song. Impossible, of course – unless it’s another Abbey Road crate-scaping exercise.

Or so I thought. Until I watched the final scene in the latest episode of “Crashing.” As Pete Holmes strolls into the loved-up distance with his new flame, out bursts a song so catchy, so jaunty, so 1966 Paul McCartney, that it could only be The Beatles – or so it seemed.

But I’d never heard it before. Cue a scramble for my phone, a quick Shazam, and there was the answer. It was “New“, it was McCartney, and it was released in 2013. Yet it sounds more “Got To Get You Into My Life” than, er, “Got To Get You Into My Life.”

The fact that I hadn’t heard “New” until now speaks more to my musical prejudices than the song’s impact, or brilliance. Since when have I thought: “Damn, I better drop everything and listen to that new Paul McCartney album?”

And yet McCartney keeps doing it. Half a century after he wrote “Love Me Do” with John Lennon, he still had enough creative juice to knock out “New”. Which is something of a lesson to creative folks – if you like doing something, never stop.

It’s also a lesson to those of us who give up on artists, or at least give up interest in the recent work. Don’t stop listening – there’s always something new (sorry.)

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The piano player and the perfect playlist

Elton John, Portland, 2019

It must be thrill to create a perfect piece of music, to touch or capture such a elusive thing. Some musicians do it once or twice, some a little more often – very few have achieved it repeatedly, over decades.

I’m not the biggest Elton John fan. For years – probably because of a string of cheesy ‘80s music videos – I avoided his work entirely. That’s long since changed, which is how I found myself sitting – with 20,000 other people – in Portland’s Moda Center last Saturday night, witnessing the man’s last go-round, his Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour.

Perfection was in the air. I’ve attended hundreds of shows over the years, but never one with such a bulletproof setlist.  

As he moved from one classic pop song to the next, I wondered how it must feel to be the guy sitting behind the piano, knowing that you’ve written a bunch of pretty-much perfect popular songs? To play a set so tight that there’s no room for “Honky Cat” or “Sacrifice” – tunes that would be the high point of most other composers’ nights?

Having written two dozen or more great songs, where do you go next? Are you tormented by them, or are they like cash in the bank (in more ways that one), a form of artistic security to be drawn down when necessary? Are you bored? (How may times and ways can you play the piano solo on “Bennie And The Jets”?)

Maybe the burden of perfection doesn’t weigh heavy. Perhaps, like Elton John, you handle it by just playing the songs. He looked like he enjoyed his three hours on stage in Portland. The audience – including this awed listener – certainly did.

_____

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