The following appeared in a book called ‘My Generation’, published by The Lilliput Press in 1996. Amongst the other contributors were Roddy Doyle, Hugo Hamilton, Dermot Healy, Pat McCabe, Frank McGuinness, Joe O’Connor, Anne Enright and Elgy Gillespie.
Psychologists say our conscious selves inhabit only a brief moment of the present – a little moving slot of individual time six to twelve seconds long that we carry along with us all our lives. The present cannot be instantaneous, or we would not be able to make the connections between words or music or other stimuli that transform them into coherent experiences.
– by John Boslough, The Enigma of Time
I have this crazy theory that the real meaning of life is the past and the sensation of epiphany we experience when we touch the quintessential past, those promontories of innocence, melancholy, suffering and love. No other stimulus is greater than music to bring back those exquisitely painful times.
I am 16, the nights have become dark and cold. Angela, the girl I think about constantly since I kissed her in August, loves Pat, my boring but best-looking friend… It is Sunday evening and I am listening to Alan Freeman’s Pick of the Pops. He introduces a new LP. Within seconds I know it is incredible! Quickly, I switch off my lamp, stand up and – my bedroom softly illuminated only by the beads of light from the back of my old valve radio – I become a member of Led Zeppelin.
‘Way down inside. Honey.
‘You neeeeed Lovvvvve!
‘Wanna Whole Lotta Love…’
I buy the album, Led Zeppelin II, and inflict it on my family who just don’t understand my Robert Plant persona. The LP steers me through the winter of 1969. Later, Pat’s mother sends him to the USA to avoid the Troubles and there he joins the Air Force. Angela marries another mutual friend and is happy. (I bumped into her a few weeks ago and for an hour we had a laugh at my seriousness and what we thought of things back then. ‘What is and What Should Be’.)
Our old music teacher, Tommy Cooney, carried a strap which he never used and so his pupils tortured him. Asked to play a note on the recorder that a monkey could grasp the class would produce a cacophany of veritable Schoenberg. Asked to produce a simple uniform hum and forty hysterical bees would be abuzzing around the room. When he became angry it was impossible to keep a straight face. He taught music because he loved it: it was his life. He had began his musical career at the age of 16 with the BBC Northern Ireland Symphony Orchestra where he played under such famous conductors as Elgar, Henry Wood, John Barbirolli and Hamilton Harty. One day he came into class with … oh no! Not another record he’s going to ask us to listen to and analyse! Half the class reckon this is their cue for a nap. I’m considering writing a love letter to Angela or reading Anna Karenina. He places the disc on the player. I don’t know where he got Abbey Road – it has just been issued! The class becomes alert, electrified, as he explains the Beatles’ music, takes us through ‘Something’, ‘Here Comes the Sun’, and compares ‘Because’ to the second movement of Vivaldi’s ‘Autumn’. He is so taken by our response, by the questions, by our interest, that he is grinning at the end of the class and we are impressed by how he changed our point of view and are talking about him for a long time afterwards, and acknowledging him, me now, years after he has passed away.
It is a Saturday morning, February 1970. My brother Ciaran is a formative 15-month-old baby and I take him into bed and force him – ‘hothousing’ is the modern expression – to listen to music as part of his cultural education. Dave Lee Travis announces a radio exclusive – the first broadcast of Bridge Over Troubled Water, and he plays every track! I can hardly move. ‘I’m the only livin’ boy in New York.’ ‘ I do declare/There were times when I was so lonesome I took some comforts there.’ ‘ So long, Frank Lloyd Wright.’ To illustrate the eponymous lead track, Top of the Pops uses a film of a ballerina dancing alone – so vulnerable.
‘If you need a friend
‘I’m sailing right behind
‘Like a Bridge Over Troubled Water
‘I will ease your mind.’
On St Patrick’s Day I and my girlfriend Angela (another Angela) queue with hundreds for entry to the Radio 1 Road Club in the Romanos Ballroom where that song and ‘Cecilia’ are played. We arrange to meet again at 8 o’clock outside the Bee-Hive pub. At 20 past 8 I realise I have been stood up…
It is 1994 and Ciaran, having been sentenced to 26 years, is with me here in the H-Blocks. He hands me a letter from my friend Chrissie. She has met Angela in Switzerland and taken her to task for ditching me! She writes that Angela says that that night back in 1970 she couldn’t get out of the house until half eight and that she showed up! Very interesting! Angela became an opera singer, is married to a German musician and lives in Munich…
I am out of jail. After 25 years we meet again. She has just performed ‘Song to the Moon’ from Dvorak’s Rusalka, and Gluck’s ‘What is Life to Me without Thee’ and I’m absolutely moved. And guess to whom she dedicated them? Yip, her husband Nico! Ciaran tells me not to worry, the sea is full of opera singers.
Pat’s cousin Tony introduces me to Fleetwood Mac’s Then Play On but it is months before the hormones are ready though I’ve been practising suffering and self-pity for some time. Then I’m struck down with the blues and until the end of time Peter Green is a god. I repeat, Peter Green is a god. ‘Without You.’ ‘Although the Sun is Shining.’ ‘Coming Your Way.’ I shall feel forever the deep loss of a woman I’ve yet to meet.
Therese is demure and intelligent and middle-class. I walk her up and down the Falls Road like a greyhound… Right now, I can’t even remember if we held hands, but I doubt it… I want to explain the Troubles to her, the recent curfew, why there’ll be a war, but all she is interested in is my friend Noel, what does he eat for his breakfast, is he the lonely type, has he ever mentioned her… Agggh! Have your ever heard of Leonard Cohen, she asks casually. Leonard who? I borrow her LP Songs from a Room as a clue to her soul. Goodbye Therese, Hello fuckin’ Leonard Cohen!
‘And why are you so quiet
‘Standing there in the doorway
‘You chose your journey long before
‘you came upon this highway.’
I am driving fast through England through the night with my girlfriend. We can see the stars in the sky. She is reassuring. The car heater is on and Radio Luxembourg is coming in on the radio, then fading for a few seconds. The last time I heard Stevie Wonder was in early 1970 when he sang, ‘Yester-me, Yester-you, Yesterday.’ It’s his voice again but the song is long and in two parts.
‘Mary wants to be a superwoman
‘But is that really in her head
‘But I just want to live each day to love her for what she is.’
‘Spring will fill the air and you will come around
‘But is it summer love that will let me down
‘Where were you when I needed you, last winter, my love?’
… I am in Long Kesh Internment Camp, alone out in the transline hut with the radio, cold early Sunday morning, January 1973, thinking about everything, dead friends, the dead, the long future, and ‘Superwoman’ comes on the radio and I’m ‘back’ in England with her by my side though we’re no longer together but have created a future. And the moment is caught in amber because even now I am looking into that moment and I am there…
It is now Nottingham, England, 1974, and I am sleeping on the floor of my future sister-in-law and I am listening to Music of my Mind.
‘I’m happier than the morning sun
‘Because that’s the way you said that it would be
‘If I were to bring you inside my life.’
My wife and I honeymoon on the Norfolk Broads and Stevie is still going through my head:
‘Little girl it seems, in all my dreams
‘Your happiness is due
‘But still they last, they’re in your past
‘Events that make you blue.’
Seven years elapse. Marriage, fatherhood, separations, reconciliations – later, divorce, but before that, the longest seven months in history, the heroic H-Block hunger strike of 1981. It is beyond discussion or dispute, it is so huge. That autumn Gerry Adams asks me have I heard of Moving Hearts. No. I hear the album in a flat in Dublin where we have retired after producing An Phoblacht. A fusion of Jazz, Rock, Protest, Traditional. It says things I want to sing and lose my head to!… I am in the Baggot Inn with my girlfriend, it is 1982, and Moving Hearts are playing. I have never heard a live performance like it. So we go back two nights in a row to be intoxicated, to be moved.
‘So let the music keep your spirits high
‘Let the buildings keep your children dry
‘Let creation reveal its secrets by and by
‘ By and by
‘When the light that’s lost within us reaches the sky.’
My girlfriend and I are sleeping. I wake up and switch on the radio. That’s a good song, I say. She murmurs. We can’t catch the name of the group. It’s the same the next morning but this time a different song. There’s a unique alchemy at work. Here. There.
‘You’re the best thing that I’ve ever found
‘Handle me with care.’
‘I’m so tired of being lonely …’
Roy Orbison’s plaintive voice? We fall in love with the Traveling Wilburys. On Friday nights when the dance is over, we go home and continue the dance to ‘Not Alone Anymore’ and ‘Tweeter and the Monkey Man.’
‘And the wall came down
‘Never saw them when they standing
‘Never saw them when they fell…’
Drinking in a club with my Da, all eyes on the TV, complete silence, watching Israeli soldiers break the arms of a Palestinian youth. The Intifida. Then Roy Orbison’s death is announced. The meaning of life is the past living into the present, our little moving slots of individual time… Watching the video for the song, ‘End of the Line’, the rocking-chair, Roy’s, is empty, but it still rocks. It still rocks.
‘Well it’s alright
‘Even if you’re old and grey
‘You still got something to say.
‘Well it’s alright… remember to live and let live…
‘the best you can do is forgive.’
1994, I buy from the prison tuck shop Debut by my Icelandic beauty, Bjork, and promise that as soon as we meet I’ll bowl her over with an offer of marriage and she can lullaby me throughout our nights with ‘Big Time Sensuality’ and she can growl and yelp and nip. I walk the exercise yard singing ‘Venus as a Boy’ and ‘Come to Me’, and it is generally believed that I’ve flown over.
Freedom. I have wangled four VIP tickets for REM at Slane. At Kennedy Roundabout, Belfast, the driver of our bus falls off his seat and out the door. There is still some blood in his alcoholstream and he is answering to the wrong name but so does everyone in this life. To revive him he is given more drink. He comes around, addresses me and says, ‘You better drive’. I drive.
‘What if you rocked around the clock
Automatic for the People is blasting out the speakers. I look down the aisle which is full of Martians singing in strange tongues and it is great to be alive. They drink Dundalk dry then we speed off to ‘The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite’. Slane village becomes global. It is an asylum but there is no aggression. We find our position on the embankment, part of a natural amphitheatre, and the numbers of people innocently enjoying themselves is breathtaking. Night falls. Michael Stipes is illuminated on stage and enlarged on a video screen. As he begins, thousands in the valley below us hold up their cigarette lighters and there is one anthem. It is of solidarity with the lost and lonely. I look at my sons and my niece and we smile and all stand and join in, one huge swell of humanity.
‘When the day is long, and the night, the night is yours alone
‘And you’re sure you’ve had enough of this life
‘Don’t let yourself go,
‘’cos everybody cries
There is only one generation – this one. And the meaning of life is our individual little moving slots of time, often converging in or forged in joint experiences, which we look back upon with a sigh, ten minutes or ten years or ten thousand years later.
…My sons and I are at a special reunion and my eldest and I discover each other, our affinity with Peter Green, with Fleetwood Mac, ‘Before the Beginning’, and we dance with each other and we look into each others eyes saying, ‘Welcome Home’.