Tag Archives: Athlone

Just a little bit of rain

Karen Dalton

Karen Dalton

After the ice, the rain. Endless sheets of it, sweeping up the Willamette Valley and over Portland. An occasional break, a lightening of the sky, is just a tease – here comes another chilly band. And the next, and so on, rinsing the city, and repeating.

It’s a good thing I’m mentally prepared for rain in February. I was born in this month, and as a child growing up in Ireland I remember birthdays bookended by drenchings, with huge, pregnant rain clouds sweeping on Spring westerlies over east Galway and Roscommon, and down on Athlone.

Oregon is no different at this time of the year. The winds are a little colder, maybe, and the heavy rain lacks the subtlety of the misty, wind-whipped showers that sweep over my home country from the Atlantic, but it’s all of a piece.

This morning’s early downpour kept me indoors, tinkering with my guitar and staring out the window. And thinking of rain songs. Not the obvious picks, Gene Kelly or Rihanna or Creedence Clearwater Revival, but something a little more blue, something that befitted a cold midwinter morning.

And so I came to a song I hadn’t heard in 15 years, when I used to play more acoustic guitar. Back then I learned it off a Fred Neil album, but, after playing his version for a couple of years, I heard Karen Dalton’s cover.

Dalton’s version of “Little Bit of Rain” (she drops Neil’s indefinite article) conjures up a deluge I never want to encounter, a flow of raw regret, the voice of a woman about to quit her lover, desperately trying to comfort him before she walks out. No reason is given for her departure but, like the rain, it’s coming, if not today, tomorrow.

Karen Dalton encountered more than a little rain on her life journey. Having recorded one of the folk revival’s great records, life and circumstances conspired to ensure that she never fully realized her talent. She did leave behind “Little Bit of Rain” though. Next time you find yourself watching drops slide down the glass, put it on – and be thankful for what you have.

_____

 

 

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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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Meeting The Beatles (again)

The Beatles at the start.

The Beatles, 1964.

The Beatles have always been a part of my life.

Like rain. Or the sun. Or the colour yellow.

I devote little attention to the music. It’s just there, in the background, always three skips away, or on some Sky Arts documentary.

Like most people under 50 I’ve no recollection of the first time I heard one of their songs. It was likely my mother humming Love Me Do when I was still in the womb.

The band itself was long defunct by my 1980s childhood, of course. Despite this, the first cassette I ever stuck in my Walkman, as a kid flitting down Athlone’s Ballymahon Road, was a Beatles’ best of.

The years passed and the songs would pop up or creep in here and there.

As a teenager I learned basic guitar chords in order to play Fool On The Hill. I have vague recollections of nights in bars in San Francisco’s Mission district, where a pal and I would load the jukebox with dollars to play Abbey Road end-to-end.

Fifteen years after that I was back to playing Beatles’ tunes, this time back on guitar at my sister’s wedding.

But in recent years the music slipped out of reach. I drifted away, wandering the outer reaches of Eno’s Ambient series, or trying to follow Monk solos.

The Beatles, near the end.

The Beatles, 1969.

Last May I came close to seeing a Paul McCartney show in Japan. Circumstances conspired to prevent that from happening and afterwards I meandered on, with a vague, guilty notion that I really needed to listen to more of his solo albums, or go back to The Beatles.

But I didn’t. Until last week.

Sifting through the racks at a Dublin record store I came across a copy of Let It Be. It occurred to me that – despite knowing the melody of almost every tune on it – I’d never actually owned a copy of it.

That night I put it on, listened to the opening track Two Of Us and, for the first time in a long time, I heard, really heard, the greatness again.

Two Of Us is The Beatles.

Written by McCartney, it lacks some of the Lennon bite. But this is balanced on the album, as it follows a skittish vocal outtake of Lennonesque nonsense.

The song has all the classic Beatles’ element.

Paul and Linda McCartney. Pic: Corvin

Paul and Linda McCartney.
Pic: Corvin

It’s lyrics are a brotherly you-and-me-against-the-world, the you and me McCartney and Lennon (as Ian McDonald surmised*) – despite the former’s claim that the song was written about Linda Eastman.

The pair’s Everly Brothers-style vocal harmony harks back to their early days playing together in Liverpool.

It’s impossible not to tap your foot to the rhythm, or hum the descending C to A of “hard-earned pay”.

It’s not all swiftness and light though. The song’s brightness is subverted in its six-bar middle section, as McCartney shifts to a melancholy B flat.

This is resolved as we move into the verse again, but the closing lyrics point to divergent paths ahead: “Two of us wearing raincoats, standing solo, in the sun”.

Recorded at a fractious time, as their group began to fall apart and amidst tension between Lennon and McCartney, Two Of Us is, in three and a half minutes, all that made The Beatles great.

It’s why some Beatles’ songs are close to pop perfection.

And it’s why I should listen to them more often.

_____
*Ian McDonald, Revolution In The Head (Pimlico, 1994), p 268

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Starting at The End – How I Became A Journalist

THE first rule of journalism? Find the gravedigger.

Put all that talk about holding the powerful to account, the virtues of the Fourth Estate and Woodward and Bernstein to one side. And find the gravedigger. I’ll explain below.

I work as a journalist for a daily paper and website in Dublin, Ireland. I edit a lot and write a little. Like Mencken I’ve had more fun doing it than any other enterprise. I started my career 18 years ago, not by chasing gravediggers, but in a somewhat-related field: as an obituary writer.

I had joined my local weekly paper from school and must have showed a raw talent for lachrymosity – or an ability to spell a list of names correctly.

The Westmeath Independent's obituary writer-in-chief, 1998

The Westmeath Independent’s obituary writer-in-chief, 1998

Because I found myself, every Wednesday and Thursday, scouring the death columns for the names of the locally recently departed.

This was followed by an awkward cold-call to a grieving relative with an offer of writing a piece about their loved one. I was often answered by sobbing husbands or wives, sons or daughters.  More than once I was asked: “Is this going to cost me?”

But, almost without fail, people recounted anecdotes about their loved ones and produced the necessary Sunday best picture.

These were the lives of ordinary people in a small Irish Midlands town at the latter end of a busy century. There were farmers who had rarely stepped away from their few acres, nurses who worked for 50 years before becoming old spinsters, barmen and brickies born in Athlone who’d lived and died in Brooklyn and Birmingham.

Occasionally you’d get a local worthy, a politician or priest, but most of my hours were spent distilling the lives of very ordinary people.

Each article was a life lived, some better or worse than others. And most had at least one nugget, a well-worn story or family legend that made the piece worth writing and, I hoped, reading.

Later I went to college where, for years, I was taught to ignore the gravedigger and focus on the Bigger Issues. But Gods make their own importance.

I doubt many of the articles I wrote in subsequent years – acres of crime writing, accounts from All-Ireland winning dressing rooms, op-eds on Miss World – were read as closely as those obituaries.

How does this relate to the gravedigger then?

The link comes by way of a legendary 1963 article written by the New York Daily News journalist Jimmy Breslin.

It’s an account of JFK’s funeral. Avoiding the usual roll-call of names and solemn prose it’s instead a story told from the point of view of the “$3.01 an hour” cemetery worker who prepares JFK‘s grave.

The burial of JFK at Arlington Cemetery. (Pic: USNPS)

The burial of JFK at Arlington Cemetery.
Pic: USNPS

It’s an Ordinary Joe’s account of an extraordinary day, a piece which puts a regular guy to the front of history’s parade. Reading it this week it put me in mind of my formative days in the trade and dozens of people whose everyday lives, like Breslin and Clifton Pollard, I briefly did my best to bring front centre.

My reports weren’t in the same field as Breslin’s tribute to the common man but the ground rule was, and is, always the same. Find the gravedigger.

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