Tuesday, August 08, 2017

The Things that Come Into Your Head

While out on my usual ramble around the town this morning, I found myself thinking about dead musicians. Elvis, John Lennon, Frank Zappa, Liam Clancy and David Bowie. Why those five? God knows, but maybe because they were all, more or less, of my generation.

I never had any real interest in Elvis and always saw him as a cover artist whose fame came as much from his pelvis as his larynx. While there’s no denying his social importance, I would submit that his musical influence extends no further than pub singers and your Dad murdering The Wonder of You at your wedding. It always irks me when the mid-1950’s are referred to as The Birth of Rock ’n’ Roll, and Elvis crowned king of the genre. The music existed years before Alan Freed decided to christen it, and I’ve always felt that the real Kings of Rock ‘n’ Roll were the mostly black performers who were ripped-off and then consigned to the bargain bins of history.

Since the 1960’s, the Beatles have been my favourite band and I still listen to them regularly. Lennon and McCartney are immortal songwriters (and let’s not forget George Harrison whose great talent is often obscured by the brilliance of the other two) but, except for his 1970 album with the Plastic Ono Band, nearly all Lennon’s post-Beatles work leaves me cold. Is there, for instance, a more hypocritical song than Imagine? A multi-millionaire and one-time IRA supporter warbling about no possessions and giving peace a chance! Double Fantasy? Apart from one or two tracks, it is, I think, a middle-of-the road collection of little or no lasting interest. When it comes to life after the Beatles, give me McCartney and his four or five brilliant albums any day.

By one biographer’s account, Frank Zappa was not the kind of parent or spouse anyone would want, but as composer and musician, he was one of a kind. My head is full of his music and I count some of his original vinyl albums among my prized possessions. But Zappa, being Zappa, always forged his own path, and sometimes that path led him into lyrical territory at best juvenile, at worst grossly obscene. Occasionally, he concocts a perfect blend of humour and music (Moving to Montana, Sofa No.2, and the album We’re Only In It For The Money) but, mostly I like him best when he shuts up and plays his guitar.

Like most Beatles fans in the early/mid Sixties, I had no interest in the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. Some years later, when I heard of Bob Dylan’s regard for the group – in particular, Liam Clancy – I checked out the latter’s eponymous first solo album. I loved it then and I still love it now.

More than forty years later, he released The Wheels of Life. It's not perfect: occasional murky production and saccharine arrangements detract from it, but transcending these reservations is the sheer quality of Liam Clancy's singing. I never thought anyone could surpass Kate and Anna McGarrigle's version of Talk To Me of Mendocino but, into a mere four minutes here, Clancy distils a whole universe of emotion. The way he sings those lines about the Rockies will stay with you forever. Even better is his version of The Broad Majestic Shannon. Here, the addition of a single extra word (Shane) transforms what is already a brilliant song into a magnificent elegy, a heartbreaking caoineadh for a great songwriter who has, temporarily I hope, sadly lost his way.

Over the years, I was lucky enough to see Liam Clancy perform live four times; the last occasion shortly before his death when he was visibly unwell. A few years ago, we visited his grave in An Rinn. I was moved by the sight of the small mouth organ someone had left there, but upset to see that the grave had obviously subsided and the memorial to this great man standing at an angle.

The nearest I ever got to David Bowie was an extraordinary gig in the Olympia in 1997, but he has played a huge part in my life. I have all his albums, spent hours in pre-internet days, figuring out his chords (Life on Mars drove me round the bend), read every article I could get my hands on (I still have scrapbooks of stuff from the 1970’s) and every book he recommended. But I stopped short of aping his sartorial versatility. At the Dublin premiere of The Man Who Fell to Earth, surrounded by wannabe Ziggy’s and Thin White Dukes, I was certainly out of place in my denim jeans and two-tone platforms. (I wore the same shoes on my wedding day and I’ll never forget the look in herself’s eyes as she approached the altar. I can’t believe you would wear those yokes!)

It would take too long to name all the Bowie songs I love, but two perennial favourites are Ashes to Ashes and Word on a Wing. There is, in fact, very little I dislike about David Bowie. Well, there were a few albums in the 1980’s and ‘90’s, and that Hitler Youth haircut and apparent Nazi salute in 1976 did have me asking myself ’what am I doing worshipping this guy?’

So, there you have them, the things that come into your head when you’re out and about. In the words of my nearest and dearest; aren’t you lucky that’s all you have to think about. And she’s right. I am, and I realise I am.

A Horse Walks into a Bar

Cast in the form of a club performance by an outspoken stand-up comedian (more Lenny Bruce than a smug, crowd-pleasing Tommy Tiernan), this is one of the most unusual, provocative and haunting novels I’ve read in ages. As you’d expect, there are loads of jokes, both terrible and brilliant (every time I recall the one about the parrot, I find myself smiling again), but this is a serious book that tackles serious issues head-on: family dysfunction and its effects on an only child; heart-rending grief and pain; the current volatile situation in the Middle East.

The writing is so vivid that I felt I was part of the audience; one minute reacting to the protagonist’s taunts; the next, feeling genuine sympathy as he cowered in a corner of the stage. No novel is perfect, of course, and I thought that the account of a truck journey was far too protracted, but for every such criticism, there was so much here that had me stuck to the page.

Like To the End of the Land, David Grossman's extraordinary 2010 novel, this is definitely not easy reading, but I think you'll find it more than worth your time and effort. And you’ll never forget that parrot.