Tag Archives: George Best

Commuting with George Best

New sounds from 31 years ago.

New sounds from 31 years ago.

Portland’s music radio doesn’t cut it.

Not the hip-hop, or the jazz, or the country stuff – but the alt stations. I live in a city renowned for its musical impact, and spend hours every week listening to the radio, but have yet to find a solid alternative station.

When I tune in to the Rose City’s best known one, for every interesting tune I sit through repeat plays of decade-old White Stripes’ numbers, Radiohead’s High and Dry (again), or, I kid you not, Blink-182 songs.

To be fair, the nighttime playlists are more interesting. But I listen during morning and evening commutes, when Mumford & Sons doesn’t cut it. (Any chance of James Blake’s ‘If The Car Beside You Moves Ahead‘)

Maybe it’s an age thing. At 40 I’ve been through the wringer of three decades of alternative movements, from grunge to Britpop to landfill indie to whatever ‘Merriweather Post Pavilion‘ was. Maybe I’m tapped out, and the only alt rock I really want to hear is ‘Goo’, or ‘Let Love In’, or ‘Repeater’ (again).

But every now and then I come across a band or a song that blows that theory apart. The thing is, it rarely happens on radio. Unable to handle another listen to ‘Stupid Girl’ last week, I switched to Spotify for the drive home. And a playlist randomly threw up The Wedding Present.

I’d heard of the band over the years, and once endured a serious ‘come to Jesus’ chat from one of their fans. But I’d never bothered to listen to them. Until ‘Everyone Thinks He Looks Daft‘, the opening track on their best known album, ‘George Best‘, came through the speakers.

Here’s what I’d been hunting – a driving beat, jangling guitars, droll lyrics, a seamless blend of punk sensibility and pop melody. All in three minutes. It’s just a pity that it was recorded 31 years ago.

I almost – almost – told myself: ‘they don’t make them like this anymore’.

But I didn’t, because I remain in hope – hope that the next The Wedding Present, whoever they are, will come over airwaves on tomorrow’s drive home; hope that I’m not backing into a cul-de-sac of ageing musical snobbery; hope that – basically – they still make them like that.

We’ll see. Until then, I’ll be enjoying my honeymoon with David Gedge and his crew. As they sang, “everyone thinks he looks daft but you can have your dream”.

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Time to take the booze out of Behan

Brendan Behan at the Jaeger House, NYC, September 10, 1960. Pic: Phil Stanziola NYWTS

Brendan Behan at the Jaeger House, NYC, September 10, 1960.
Pic: Phil Stanziola-NYWTS

IRISH writer Brendan Behan died almost 50 years ago.

The photograph on the right offers some clues as to why.

With a few under his belt (and one down the lapel of his shirt) the writer clasps a microphone stand at a ceili in the Jaeger House ballroom in Manhattan. It’s 1960.

According to the original caption Behan’s just been asked to sing. Again. And that probably wasn’t the last song of that particular night.

Two years earlier Borstal Boy, his critically lauded coming of age tale, had been published to positive reviews.

Less than four years after this photograph was taken Behan would be dead, passing away in a Dublin hospital days after collapsing in a city pub. Diabetes, compounded by years of heavy drinking, led to his demise at age of 41.

In the five decades since his death, on March 20, 1964, the fact of Behan the writer has, slowly and deliberately, been incorporated into the myth of Behan the character, the Irishman, the drinker, the artist living life on the edge and falling off it.

A bit like the millions who claimed to be in GPO on Easter Week every man and his dog, of a certain vintage, had his own beer-stained Behan anecdote.

These slowly slipped into popular culture, to the extent that those who never met the writer – like Shane Macgowan – could dream about their own boozed-up encounters with him.

I spoke to one Dublin author recently who compared Behan to another Irish celebrity and alcoholic (or celebrity alcoholic), George Best.

He argued that it’s time to drop the ‘Brendan the boozy broth of a boy’ myth and return to what established Behan’s reputation in the first place.

'Ireland's own boy-o.' US edition of Borstal Boy.

‘Ireland’s own boy-o.’
US edition of Borstal Boy.

For me this is his 1950s’ writing, specifically Borstal Boy, the autobiography which exposed the mundane pointlessness of terrorism; and the play The Quare Fellow, his humanist meditation on capital punishment.

Both works are full of compassion, anger, humanity and – for want of a better word – Irishness.

One thing they lack is the preoccupation with alcohol which marked Behan’s later works and life.

Official Ireland will commemorate Behan next month with the launch of a stamp in his honour. Expect plenty of media coverage of around the anniversary of his death.

As it approaches the best way to remember this Dublin writer is simply to read his work, the best of which stands with the finest of all Irish writing.

Not least of this is his famous account of arriving back in Dublin after being released from jail, which closes Borstal Boy:

The next morning I stood on deck while the boat came into Dun Laghaire, and looked at the sun struggling out over the hills; and the city all around the Bay…

There they were, as if I’d never left them; in their sweet and stately order round the Bay – Bray Head, the Sugarloaf, the Two Rock, the Three Rock, Kippure, king of them all…

…and the framing circle of the road along the edge of the Bay, Dun Laghaire, Blackrock, Sandymount Tower, Ringsend and the city; then the other half circle, Fairview, Marino, Clontarf, Raheny, Kilbarrack, Baldoyle, to the height of Howth Head…

‘Passport, travel permit or identity document, please,’ said the immigration man beside me. I handed him the expulsion order…

‘A hundred thousand welcomes home to you.’

‘Thanks.’

‘It must be wonderful to be free.’

‘It must,’ said I, walked down the gangway, past a detective, and got on the train for Dublin.*

'The road along the edge of the bay.'  Dublin, April 2013.

‘The road along the edge of the bay.’
Dublin, April 2013.

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*Brendan Behan, Borstal Boy (Arrow, 1990), p 370

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