‘My days of allnight parties are over’

Youngman

Passport photo, 1998

As my 40th birthday approached this week, I found myself casting about for an insight or a lesson or a fear to impart, as I slipped into my fifth decade.

Nothing pretentious, or too light-hearted, or egotistical, of course. It wasn’t easy.

And then I came across a Roger McGough poem, which – as my days are, thankfully, “rarely unruly” – summed it up better than I could.

 

Not for Me a Youngman’s Death

Not for me a youngman’s death

Not a car crash, whiplash

John Doe, DOA at A&E kind of death.

Not a gun in hand, in a far off land

IED at the roadside death

 

Not a slow-fade, razor blade

bloodbath in the bath, death.

Jump under a train, Kurt Cobain

bullet in the brain, death

 

Not a horse-riding paragliding

mountain climbing fall, death.

Motorcycle into an old stone wall

you know the kind of death, death

 

My nights are rarely unruly. My days

of allnight parties are over, well and truly.

No mistresses no red sports cars

no shady deals no gangland bars

no drugs no fags no rock’n’roll

Time alone has taken its toll

 

Not for me a youngman’s death

Not a domestic brawl, blood in the hall

knife in the chest, death.

Not a drunken binge, dirty syringe

“What a waste of a life” death.

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For the week that’s in it…

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Of reeds and rhymes and religion

Saint Brigid of Kildare

Where I’m from, Spring began today. Where I live, it won’t start until March 20.

In the Celtic calendar, February 1 is known as ‘imbolc’. The midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, it’s seen as the first day of the earth awakening from winter.

In Ireland it was, and is, Saint Brigid’s Day, a celebration of the pagan (later Christianized) St Brigid of Kildare, a patroness of medicine, arts and crafts, cattle and other livestock, and sacred wells.

The sacred bit is important. As a schoolkid in Ireland, we’d make St Brigid’s Crosses from reeds – a plentiful resource in my then-hometown of Athlone, on the banks of Ireland’s longest river. The crosses would be pinned up at home – a religious talisman of sorts, ahead of the spring season.

Today I’m a long way from the River Shannon, or from spring – that won’t happen until late March in Oregon.

But, after the dreary month of January, I’m trying to get in the spring mood. So I’m seeking out seasonal verse.

St Brigid was known as “the goddess who poets adored”, but I’m not aware of Philip Larkin’s thoughts about her. However I do know – and enjoy – his take on spring, which contains the wise call, despite some cynicism, to “begin afresh, afresh, afresh”.

The Trees

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

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He was irate, peeved – The Fall in Dublin

Mark E Smith, 2008. Pic: Kirsteen

Mark E Smith, 2008. Pic: Kirsteen

I don’t remember much about the one time I saw The Fall live.

I doubt Mark E Smith does either. It was 1997 and he was in the midst of an alcohol and drug period. I was in the midst of a crowd of sweaty punters in Dublin’s Mean Fiddler.

It was dark, it was loud, with the hip priest pacing a small stage. His band was promoting their latest record but – not being hugely familiar with any of their material then – most of the set was new to me. Looking back on it now all I can remember, apart from overpriced lager and the clouds of dry ice (somewhat inexplicably, for The Fall), was one song, ‘Totally Wired’.

I’d like to say the show blew my mind, or altered my way of thinking, or pushed me to start a band, but it didn’t. In the following 20 years I rarely listened to The Fall (until I put on ‘This Nation’s Saving Grace’ in the lead up to Christmas, as an antidote to enforced seasonal goodwill).

Now Smith is dead, and some music critics are touting the old ‘we shall not see his like again’ line. Which, in this case, is possibly true.

Irascible, frustrated, staring, scowling, and delivering machine gun lines on whatever took his fancy – that’s the way Smith was that night in Dublin, and that’s the way he usually was, it seems.

As he sang in the Mean Fiddler:

My heart and I agree. My heart and I agree.
I’m irate, peeved, irate, peeved,
Irate, bad state. bad state.
’cause I’m totally wired. 

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A man you don’t meet everyday

Shane MacGowan. Pic: Redadeg

Shane MacGowan. Pic: Redadeg

“Will MacGowan make 40?”

That was the question buzzing around among my music-listening peers in December 1997. Former Pogues singer Shane MacGowan had cancelled a pre-Christmas show with his then-band The Popes at the Olympia.

Days shy of his 40th birthday, it was rumored that the songwriter had collapsed, or was gravely ill, or on bender of some sort. Whatever the reason for the no-show, the consensus was that the Tipperary man had been lucky to make it this far, given his voluminous consumption of drugs and alcohol.

Twenty years later MacGowan is still around. What’s more, he’s still performing – albeit in a short bursts. He took to the stage at the National Concert Hall in Dublin last Sunday night, closing out a show staged in his honor.

MacGowan sang ‘Summer In Siam’ with Nick Cave and then performed a version of ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’, rounding out a night which saw performances from the great, the good, and the ‘well, maybes’ of Irish and international music.

It sounded like a good evening, albeit one far removed from the merry, beer-stained chaos of any Pogues show I’ve attended – then again, it’s a long way from the Pindar of Wakefield to Earlsfort Terrace.

Plenty of classic Pogues’ songs got an airing, of course, including that Christmas one. But one composition that didn’t – as far as I know – was a song MacGowan wrote but never himself recorded.

‘The Dunes’ is a song of horror, a Famine survivor’s account of the burial of bodies in the sand dunes of a Co Mayo beach. Children play among the grave mounds, the bones of the dead are revealed, and grieving relatives pray.

Forms of the dead rise and dance on the sand. The singer, enraged by the deaths, shoots a bailiff and a landlord. He blames them for stealing food from the dying.

As verse, it has a simple, arresting cadence. To hear it performed – or declaimed – by Ronnie Drew is a whole different experience.

Shane MacGowan wrote a number of songs that will go down in the canon, but none of them are tragic, as angry and as chilling, as ‘The Dunes’. I can think of few others who could have written it – which is probably what makes MacGowan unique. Now, is it too late for him to record it?

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Whatever makes you happy, lads

Can you hear it? Thom Yorke. Pic: Yasuko Otani

Can you hear it? Thom Yorke. Pic: Yasuko Otani

Reports that Radiohead’s publishers plan to sue Lana Del Rey for plagiarizing the song ‘Creep’ are – like the band themselves – a bit rich.

Not least because ‘Creep’ was written – not by Radiohead – but by two Seventies’ songwriters, Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood.

Or parts of it, at least – specifically the parts that led Hammond and Hazlewood to themselves successfully sue Thom Yorke and Co. in the Nineties, alleging similarity to their soft-rock classic ‘The Air That I Breathe’. (The pair later secured themselves a spot on the song’s credits.)

Just as there’s little new under the sun in music, so there appears to be little new in music litigation – with Radiohead now adopting the Hammond/Hazlewood playbook to pursue Del Rey, claiming her ‘Get Free’ uses “musical elements” found in ‘Creep’.

For their part, the Oxford outfit – or their publishers at least – have refuted reports of a lawsuit per se, but have confirmed that they have been in “discussions” with Del Rey’s representatives since last August. Read: we’re seeking a few bucks.

If Del Rey feels like coughing up in this regard, perhaps she should skip the alt-rock middlemen altogether and throw a few dollars the way of the two original songwriters? Just a thought.

That’s unlikely though, as the singer says her people will deal with the matter in court. And how much does it cost to ‘Get Free’? Given that similar settlements have run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars it could be an expensive outing.

Accentuate the positive, though. If nothing else, this minor side-alley music spat has brought me back to The Hollies’ version of ‘The Air That I Breathe’  – a perfect AOR start to 2018. And, thanks to YouTube, effectively free – but that’s another conversation.

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7am, January 1

Ainsworth Street, Portland

Ainsworth Street, Portland

Walking on New Year’s morning

and what’s changed? The sun still rises,

The pavement is the same damp concrete,

And the 8 bus creeps across Ainsworth, as it always does.

A new year? Well, the dogs go on with their doggy ways,

A car engine starts, the leaves lie in same piles, and Portland wakes

Like Portland always wakes.

Renewal, rebirth, starting anew – I don’t feel much of all that

In this morning half hour.

The clocks have not been reset. Things tick on, good, bad, indifferent.

And what’s wrong with this?

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What will survive of us

From Dad to Anne. Powell's, Portland, Dec 2017.

From Dad to Anne. Powell’s, Portland, Dec 2017.

Fifty-five years ago a man sat in a diner somewhere in the United States, pulled a book from his pocket, and inscribed a short, touching note to his daughter on the first page.

As he did so, did it occur to him that a person not yet born, in another place in another century, would one day read his words? Or that the book he inscribed would travel from that counter top on a journey that would see it end up, in 2017, on the shelves of a used bookstore in Portland, Oregon?

“Anne,” the man writes, “waiting for lunch in the Olympic Grill I have been looking through this book I just bought, and it is so much your book that I have decided to give it to you, even though it isn’t Christmas or birthday or even Easter.”

He signs off with a simple, “Dad”.

Whatever became of Anne? Or her father? Were they close, a dad and daughter who knew each other well enough to know that one would enjoy the Dylan Thomas book that the other had just bought?

Or were they distant, or becoming so? Is the absence of a sign-off simply the sign of a less emotionally-open age, or a clue to their relationship?

Re-reading the note, as I stood between the shelves in Powell’s this week, I wondered how far the book had traveled. I can’t locate an Olympic Grill in Portland in 1955. Perhaps the man sat in the still extant Kelly’s Olympian, nearby in downtown Portland, or in another establishment in another part of the country.

The place is likely gone, like the man himself and, quite possibly, his daughter. But his small gesture remains, on the opening page of a crumbling $5 book that – perhaps because of the note inside – I couldn’t bring myself to buy.

“What will survive of us is love,” wrote Philip Larkin. I hope that I held a small piece of it that afternoon.

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All I want for Christmas

All quiet. Alberta Park, Portland, Dec 21, 2017

All quiet. Alberta Park, Portland, Dec 21, 2017

Here’s my Christmas wish: peace and quiet.

An absence of bad news – or indeed any news – for 24 hours.

Phones turned off. Conversation, of course, and some downtime with a book too. A decent glass of whiskey, a nice serving of Christmas dinner (whatever’s served, Christmas dinner always tastes great, in my experience), a good, strong coffee – all important.

A little, but not too much TV. Perhaps a board game (after all, it is Christmas.) A walk in the afternoon, fresh air between the raindrops.

And family, of course, far and near. Whether they’re 4,500 miles away or in the next room, they always feel closer at this time of year.

And, above, under, and throughout it all, peace and quiet. Silence. Everything and everyone turned off. A perfect holiday, for one day.

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Spies, sex, and snow – a new ‘Fairytale’

'Fairytale of New York'

‘Fairytale of New York’

It’s December 13 and I’ve yet to hear ‘Fairytale of New York‘. Is that a record? (Sorry.)

After 30 years of the song every Christmas, this is probably not a bad thing. Over the years I’ve heard it often enough – at Pogues’ concerts, in convenience stores, badly sung in crowded bars, blared out in taxis, whistled by a guy at a bus-stop, and so on.

The fact that I now live in a city where the song is rarely played on radio (in my experience, at least) or in a bar, and is unknown to most people I encounter, has been something of a relief. There was a time when it wasn’t Christmas until I heard those first piano notes but, away from Ireland, they’ve become less, not more, resonant.

Of course, as an Irish immigrant in the U.S., this surely amounts to a form of treason. After all, there are few songs of the last 30 years that speak so specifically to one particular aspect of the Irish-American experience. (A gritty, mid-century, Irishman in New York experience that seems a million miles from what’s sold nowadays to planefuls of shoppers by Aer Lingus, it must be said.)

Much as I still admire its craft though, Shane Macgowan and Jem Finer’s song doesn’t speak to my experience. But that also doesn’t mean that I haven’t been seeking out voices from home, and so, in recent weeks, I’ve been listening at length to another emigrant Irish songwriter.

Seamus Fogarty

Seamus Fogarty

Seamus Fogarty is a Mayo man based in London, who writes songs about bodysnatchers, Vincent Van Gogh’s ears, working on building sites in England, missing a bus and sleeping in a church in Carlow town, the health of Irish traditional music, and burial at sea, among other topics.

Luckily enough his new album, ‘The Curious Hand’, also contains a Christmas song, and – joy to the world – it’s not a million miles removed from the beer-stained, exhausted mood of ‘Fairytale’.

‘Christmas Time On Jupiter’ begins with the singer waking on Christmas Day in a Chicago hotel room, to find a Mexican spy he’s spent the night with rifling through his wallet.

From there – with a touch Shane Macgowan would be proud of – things go downhill.

I struggled out her door, into the winter snow,
I was alone with my thoughts, my feet were crunching away,
I was sitting by a fire on Christmas Day.
‘Mented from the drink, a shadow from the night before,
When I got into my house I was offered more.
And we sat around, a momentary family, raising a brief glass to our asylum…

As family Christmases go, it’s hardly traditional, but – as much as ‘Fairytale’ three decades ago – Fogarty evokes one type of immigrant life at Christmas, where casual friends and booze might be just enough to keep the loneliness or the homesickness at bay.

It may not prove as enduring as the Pogues’ song but it updates it, and so it’s taken the ‘Fairytale’ spot on my Christmas playlist. Not that – thankfully – I’m likely to hear either in the store tomorrow.

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