Tag Archives: 1990s

Borne back endlessly into the past

Mercury Rev, Portland 2018

Mercury Rev, Portland 2018

I’m now at the age where the albums of my youth are turning older than I was when I first heard them.

Hardly a day passes, it seems, without a social media notification that a record I love, or bought and liked and perhaps forgot about, or thought was overrated at the time and always planned to return to, is 20 or 25 or 30.

“Daydream Nation” – 30. “Siamese Dream” – 25. “Surfer Rosa” – 30. “Rid Of Me” – 25. “Deserter’s Songs” – 20. It goes on.

The last in that list really struck home recently. Not only did “Deserter’s Songs“, Mercury Rev’s beautiful, elegiac album about loss, recovery, nostalgia, life, the universe and everything, turn 20, but I was lucky enough to see the band perform it live.

The show, at Mississippi Studios in Portland, reminded me how listening to certain albums  – live or in their original recording – offers a direct portal to a particular times when the music played a central role in my life.

So it was with Mercury Rev. When Jonathan Donahoe sang the opening lines of Endlessly, the third song on “Deserter’s Songs” (“Standing in a dream, weaving through’ the crowded streets, leaving you again endlessly”) I was transported back – to multiple places.

The song put me in a room above “Botany Bay” in Trinity College, as I took breaks to listen to the music while studying for my finals; it brought me to my old family home in Athlone, Ireland, where I sat in front of the fireplace and listening to “Deserter’s Songs” during the Christmas of 1998; it landed me to a highway, somewhere in Utah or Colorado, as friends and I drove late at night (where to, I can’t remember, though we eventually ended up in New York).

I felt happy and older and nostalgic. Carried along by the music, for the first time in a long time I felt connected to myself in those memories: I wasn’t just recalling event, I was among them, back there, for a little while. It was a fleeting feeling, a song long, then I was back. And being back was fine, because the now is where I live and listen.

Also, 20 years onm “Endlessly” hasn’t aged a day.

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Bob’s boots were better from a basement

The weird mystery.

As a crate digger back in the 1990s, with a pretty deep interest in Bob Dylan recordings, there were bootlegs and there were bootlegs and then there was “Blood On The Tapes“.

I clearly recall first reading about this pirate release, which was recorded in New York in 1974, in an article in the Irish Times – in which it was cast as buried treasure from a golden period in Dylan’s songwriting. The 11 recordings were solo first drafts of songs that Dylan would later re-record in Minneapolis with a band and which would make up his famous “Blood On The Tracks”.

The New York songs were rawer and closer than the re-made versions, most of which went onto the official release of Dylan’s famed marriage break-up album.

I also recall travelling from Athlone, where I was working as a reporter on a local paper, to Dublin on a 1990s midsummer Saturday afternoon, solely to visit a basement record shop on Wicklow Street and pick up my £5 cassette of the bootleg.

This led to a probably-not-wholly-healthy period of listening to and learning to play all the songs, an activity which occupied most of the rest of that summer and probably didn’t leave me in the sunniest state of mind. I’ve kept the bootleg close to hand ever since – buying it on CD, pushing copies into the hands of friends, and generally regarding it as 40 minutes of peak Dylan.

Last week’s news then, that the songwriter is now set to release an exhaustive haul of “Blood On The Tracks” outtakes, alternative versions and forgotten takes (essentially “Blood On The Tapes” on steroids), should be a cause of celebration.

But it’s not. After my initial excitement at reading the news, my heart sank. A piece of esoteric musical history, a little-known-of Pandora’s box known only to the faithful, will now be cataloged, opened and exposed. The air of weird mystery that saw me spend weeks teasing out every nook of the recordings, learning every cadence and breath and bum note and cough, will evaporate.

The New York recordings will still be great, but they will be buried amidst many others, and the wonder of the 11-song artifact that was “Blood On The Tapes” will be lost. Except to those of us who have the old cassette or CD, though, and who know just when those coughs and bum notes pop up.

 

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The dirty dream of the nineties is alive in Portland

Belle and Sebastian, Oregon Zoo, June 2018

Belle and Sebastian, Oregon Zoo, June 2018

Much time has passed since I first heard the Scottish chamber pop outfit Belle and Sebastian.

I have a vague recollection of seeing the video for their 1998 song “Dirty Dream Number Two” on MTV, back in those ancient days when music television was a thing. I remember a college housemate singing the praises of the album that song featured on, “The Boy With The Arab Strap“.

But my listening interest was truly sparked when I picked up a copy of their debut album “Tigermilk“, likely in Tower Records on Wicklow Street in Dublin (now gone the way of MTV), and played it endlessly through fourth year of university.

For a number of years after that I dutifully bought Belle and Sebastian albums on their release, always intending to see them live one day. I never did of course, as the fates and my best laid plans conspired against it. In time, though no reflection on the quality of the band’s output, I eventually gave up buying the latest B+S album.

Stuart Murdoch. Pic: Amy Hope Dermont

Stuart Murdoch. Pic: Amy Hope Dermont

But ageing and perhaps nostalgia and – more likely – distance from Europe has recently led me back to seeing bands from my 20s, acts who heydayed in the late nineteen nineties and early noughties. And so, in the past year, I’ve seen live performances by Teenage Fanclub, PJ Harvey, Nick Cave and Lloyd Cole, to mention four.

All of which is a convoluted way of explaining how, on a sunny Saturday evening last weekend, I sat amid the toddlers on the grass, the 40-something indie kids and a family of bored elephants, watching Belle and Sebastian perform at the Oregon Zoo in Portland.

The music was – as I expected – wonderful; bright, melodic and witty, it was easy to link the best of the evening’s songs to their writer, front man Stuart Murdoch, who himself looked just as he did in the MTV videos of my memory.

That was the charming thing about the evening. Belle and Sebastian didn’t sound or feel like they’d aged. Nowadays, when I look at pictures, or read cards, or reminisce about the nineties, my reaction is usually: “God, we were so much younger” or “what the hell happened to that guy?” or “I wish I’d time to read that book again”.

But for a couple of hours in a zoo in Portland my knees didn’t feel the ache of an old running injury, and my hair didn’t appear as gray as usual in a photograph. Nor did I have to fight through the mental distractions of everyday life just to focus on the music.

Twenty years later Belle and Sebastian were there and so was I. Ain’t that enough? And they even played “Dirty Dream Number Two”.

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Tom, Sean, and me

Sean Hughes

Sean Hughes

I’ve spent plenty of time in the early 1990s recently, pulled back there by the deaths of Tom Petty and, yesterday, Sean Hughes.

Both men were sides of a coin – or squares on a Rubik’s cube (this was the Nineties, after all) – to a teenager like myself, growing up in a smallish town in Ireland which seemed a million miles from Mulholland Drive or the Edinburgh Festival.

Reading tributes to and – more immediately – watching clips of both performers from 25 or more years ago, led to mixed feelings, some nostalgic and some of – ‘was it really like that?’

Sean’s Show ran on Channel Four, one of the nine or 10 channels we had at home back then. Not owning a CD player, I listened to Full Moon Fever on tape – so much so that I wore out the frail spool. It was one of about 20 cassettes I possessed.

After digesting the obituaries and watching the YouTube clips, and spending too much time chasing teenage memories, I was left with an unanswered question: what the hell did I do with the rest of my free time in 1992?

Tom Petty. Pic: Takahiro Kyono

Tom Petty. Pic: Takahiro Kyono

Nowadays it’s often a struggle to carve out 30 minutes to listen to a piece of music or watch a TV show; back then it seemed that I was the lord and possessor of vast amounts of time, some of it spent playing soccer, some with my head in Tolkien or Thomas Harris, and none of it linked to anything digital.

Was it a better time? Or a happier or healthier one? Who knows? I can’t really remember. Then again, I can barely remember the album I listened to yesterday on Spotify, or the last long article I read, because both have already been drowned out by the online noise I surround myself with.

Watching an episode of Sean’s Show last night, I was struck by its feeling of space, the slower pace, the unfilled moments devoted to a confused look, a wry glance, or a cut scene. There was nothing pressing about engaging with the show, it was easy to slip into its pace.

An hour later, I made it barely 15 minutes into an episode of Family Guy, because the jokes weren’t coming fast, or funny enough. Maybe it’s me? Or maybe it’s what I’m watching?

Tom Petty sang that ‘the waiting is the hardest part’. I’m not sure that 2017 me would have the patience to sit through some of Sean Hughes’ quirkier set pieces, or the filler cuts on late Eighties Heartbreakers’ albums.

Perhaps that’s no bad thing. But I still have a feeling that – minor as it is in the face of mortal news  – something’s been lost.

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An afternoon with the Timbers Army

Providence Park, Portland

Providence Park, Portland

I blame Kurt Cobain.

More specifically I blame his ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, the song that launched a cultural movement and, on a slightly smaller scale, ended my teenage obsession with soccer.

Before I heard that song I was a Liverpool FC-obsessed kid, growing up in the late 1980s and following every move of the double-winning Reds team of that era.

Saturdays were spent building up to soccer (Saint and Greavsie) in the morning, watching a game on TV in the afternoon, and then poring over the results on Match of the Day that night.

Then, one afternoon in late 1991, I walked into the old Virgin Megastore on Dublin’s Aston Quay and bought the seven-inch single of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’.

That was it for the football. The single led to an album which led to more albums. Before I knew it, I was spending my Saturday afternoons trying to decipher Pearl Jam lyrics and saving for a CD player.

Cheers and beers

Cheers and beers

The one nod I made to my former football obsession was a less-than-glamorous one. On Friday nights throughout the early 1990s I would stand on the terraces at the old St Mel’s Park in Athlone, usually freezing through the winter soccer season, watching the local Athlone Town FC.

That ended when I left home for college in Dublin. With the exception of the one or two Irish international games, which were more of a social occasion than a sporting one, it’s been a long time since I stood on a terrace shouting at a group of men chasing a ball.

Until last weekend, when I found myself doing precisely that at Providence Park in Portland, in the midst of the Timbers Army, a well-oiled and loud group of Portland Timbers supporters.

Parts of the evening brought me back – the standing on concrete for hours, the shouting, the echoing hum of a few thousand people on a covered terrace.

I was never much of a singer at St Mel’s Park, but someone handed me a sheet with Timbers’ chants. Beer in hand (something else I never encountered back in the Athlone days), I gamely lashed into ‘Rose City, Whoa-oh’. I even chowed down on the plate of steaming tots – not unlike the steaming chips you’d get for IR£1 from a battered van in St Mel’s Park back in the day.

I’m not sure if Kurt Cobain would have approved, though he’d surely have been comfortable with the number of plaid shirts on display. Which led me to think –  watching soccer in the Nirvana frontman’s spiritual heartland of the Pacific Northwest? Perhaps the whole thing’s come full circle.


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Morning glory – but life’s a different story

NME - August 1995.

NME, August 1995

Is it 25 years since Britpop emerged? Yes, as BBC’s Radio 6 Music has persistently reminded me in recent weeks.

My first, immediate, thought on being reminded of this is: what the hell happened to the last two decades? It seems like only yesterday that I bought a copy of Blur’s “Parklife” as a birthday gift for my sister, and only a couple of months since “Don’t Look Back In Anger” was released.

But no. We’re as far from the heady days of “Animal Nitrate” and Ocean Colour Scene now as we were from The Beatles back then. And to be honest, given the output of some Britpop bands (that’d be Ocean Colour Scene again), 25 years isn’t far enough away.

While I listened to, and liked, some Britpop, it was never truly my thing. For every spin Elastica got, the first Radiohead album probably got three. Damon Albarn’s pubs ‘n’ dogs Essex stories paled in comparison to what I considered to be, at the time, much more important – the po-faced politics and visceral sonic stab of “The Holy Bible“.

Not being inclined, then, to listen to hour-long ‘wish you’d been there documentaries’ on the part of various English journalists and DJs, it recently occurred to me – what’s my one quintessential Britpop song? What single tune summed it up for me?

There could be only one, a release that towered above the rest. It has it all – the middle-class obsession with property, city dwellers who are “successful fellers”, Benny Hill-esque models falling around haystacks, and Damon Albarn’s vocals. The video was even directed by Damien Hirst. What could be more 1995 than all that?

Not to mention the fact, 20 years older and supposedly wiser, I still kind of like Blur’s “Country House”. Even if that “reading Balzac, knocking back Prozac” line gets stuck in my head for days afterwards, every time.

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And through it all the river, clearing the heart

River Shannon, Athlone, January 2015. Pic: Cormac Looney

River Shannon, Athlone, January 2015.
Pic: Cormac Looney

A place to start.

Maybe it’s Jeff Buckley’s voice at 2 o’clock in an almost-empty Sean’s Bar: Iheardtherewasabrokenchord – broken like the afternoon.
The sun of that day, July of ’98, hanging high over the Shannon, sifting, and the green-topped Peter and Paul’s.

Or a June morning, 4am and sleepless, sitting with my mother on the porch, the light already up.
I’d trade 100 other early mornings for whatever that conversation contained. It remains, somewhere.

Then the fog, always always the fog, murk in summer, freezing in winter.
Friday nights at St Mel’s Park and no idea what was coming from the white, the dirt floors of the stands, the roars.
Feet frozen eyes blinded. Fog there and fog home.

And when there was no fog and no rain the sky, huge above the flatlands and the river, a canvas for stars, for purples and reds, marked by high cirrus and vapour trails.
When people left that’s where they went.

‘I just can’t recallll San Francisco at alllll’ sang Bob one summer, all the month long before I left the town for that city.
The afternoon I left spent with my best pal in a pub on the Left Bank, ‘one more for the road lads one more we’ve time’.

Or further back, to years sinking away from me into the Callows. 1,000s of days of childhood, classrooms, soccer, tree gum on hands, bicycles and books.
Churches, halls, pitches, paths. Chilly Christmas Eves in a hotel on the main street of a town that was the only town.

And through it all the river, clearing the heart of that country. Taking it all, all of us and all we were, west – carrying us to open water.
And I was carried too. But there I was, at the start.

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