First Published January 2014
MORE THAN A MEMORY…AGAIN
The door of the walk-in closet in my old bedroom at home in Lusmagh is kind of like a scrapbook of my life up to a certain point. Little reminders of people, places and times in the shape of stickers, photos, pictures cut from magazines and newspapers, and tickets to various events, all act like an always visible time capsule of sorts!
Looking back now from a distance of almost two decades, it’s funny, but somewhat reassuring too in their familiarity, to see who and what mattered most in those ‘bygone’ days.
There’s the newspaper cutting of a smiling Eric Cantona on the day he joined Manchester United from our then great rivals, Leeds. Similarly, there’s one of Roy Keane in one of his earliest appearances for the Red Devils. There are stickers of Mick McCarthy, Ireland’s captain at Italia ’90, and of Andy Townsend, the man who led us out in the U.S.A. 4 years later. As a keeper myself back in the day, pride of place was also afforded to images of the net-minders I strove to match for madness; Peter Schemeichel, Neville Southall, Peter Shilton, Tony Coton and, of course, our own Packie Bonner and Shay Given.
Resting among all of those is the reason why the New England Patriots are the NFL team with first call on my heart when the search is on for Super Bowl glory: a giant, bright silver foil sticker of the team crest that came in a Christmas stocking from my grandad back when my birthdays were still in single figures!
And, in the middle of all those sporting bits and pieces, a sticker of….Madonna! I guess her, ahem…music, had a big influence on me when I hit my teens!
In the late summer and early autumn of the nineties last year, I fulfilled a dream by paying a visit to Nashville, THE place to go or be for any country music fan. While there I had the opportunity to visit the Grand Ole Opry twice, once for a regular Saturday night show and then again for the final dress rehearsal of that years 33rd annual CMA Awards, where I sat transfixed as I watched the likes of George Strait, Alan Jackson, Shania Twain and Brooks & Dunn go through their set ahead of that evening’s live televised show. Tickets to both those nights are still treasures that bring back so many memories every time I glance at that door in my old room.
But, there’s one more ticket on there, one that simply stands miles and miles of memories ahead of all else. It’s fairly faded now, as you’d expect, I guess, after 17 years of daylight shining in on it. But if you stand close enough you can still quite clearly read what it says: GARTH BROOKS, CROKE PARK, PITCH STANDING, SAT. 17TH MAY 1997.
Now folks, if you were to go by some peoples’ reaction to the recent news that the above-mentioned Mr. Brooks is set to return to these very shores this summer, you’d swear it was the second coming they were expecting. Which, of course, it isn’t…
Because it will, in fact, as any dedicated and true disciple of Garth will know, be the third coming!!
Due in no small part to his own self-imposed retirement so that he could spend more time with his children while they were still young and growing up, it’s now been a long 17 years since the Oklahoma native last tipped his hat to an Irish audience. Back then, in an Ireland that was only just beginning to hear the first stirrings of a murmur from the Celtic Tiger that would be allowed grow up to devour us, Garth held court over 3 glorious nights that have since gone down in legend! A sea of Stetson wearing, stars ‘n’ stripes waving fans greeted him with a welcome on the Richter scale and, when they weren’t hanging on his every word, they were singing along to every word with him!
Even though he’d experienced these same phenomena during his run of 8 sell-out nights at The Point, the effect of it on a scale as large as Croke Park genuinely seemed to surprise and move him. So much so, that he promised if we’d wait for him, then when the re-development of Croker was a done job, he’d come back to us again for more of the same! Few at the time – himself included in all likelihood – could have imagined that wait would turn out to be the larger part of two decades.
But now that the wait is nearly over, none of that matters. No-one is looking back anymore. Since last Monday week all eyes are focused forward and the countdown to 2 nights in July has well and truly begun. Garth is becoming more than a memory again.
That fading ticket pinned on my closet door is so much more than just a reminder of a concert. Not least of all because it was my very first time in Croke Park (I know, I know, shame on me as an Offaly man, I can hear some of you tut to yourselves! Well, don’t worry. I’ve been back since…once, for Take That a couple of years ago! Another never to be forgotten musical extravaganza! So mock at will, I’ll take the blows, it was worth it!). Another reason is because it was just 2 days after my 21st birthday, so in more ways than one that May night was a milestone event for me. A Garth Brooks show, you see, is so much more than just a concert! It’s more like a big party with the kind of host who just wants to make sure that EVERYONE there has fun and goes home smiling and hoarse! And yet, it’s even more than that too…
For me back then, as a young ‘wannabe’ songwriter (as opposed to now, say, and being a somewhat older ‘wannabe’ songwriter!), the moment that defines the memory of the night came when Garth walked out to a little platform a ways out from the main stage and more in the middle of the crowd, and sang Unanswered Prayers and If Tomorrow Never Comes by himself with just his guitar for accompaniment.
One man. One voice. One guitar. And over 80,000 people held in the palm of his hand.
To this day I have never witnessed as masterly an example of the power of music. On one level, of course, it was a professional entertainer at work. But on another, it was what it was, and no more than that: a dude who loves to sing, singing some truly beautifully crafted songs. And that, I’ve always believed, is the key to ‘getting’ Garth Brooks. To him the songs really matter. They come first, always. They have to. And from there everything else, whatever it may be or become, has a chance to happen.
He said on this subject once, “If I’m driving down the road and something comes on the radio and it makes me think, and it upsets me – that’s good! If you’re upset after a song, that’s good. It’s as good as crying after a song, or it’s as good as changing your life after a song. As long as it brings an emotion then you know you’re living.”
Sometime, somewhere, I want to see someone hold 80,000 fans under a spell while singing a song I wrote. That’s a dream that was born that night back in ’97, one I owe to Garth. That’s the power of music, a power Garth knows he has.
Speaking even before his first Irish shows at The Point, he stressed that, “Music is a very, very powerful thing. Passion and emotion. So even though this thing, my career, could all end tomorrow – and I must live it like it might – I also have to rely on my first goal, and that is to consume that power, to try and emote people to do things that they wouldn’t have done, to take people out on the edge that have been playing it safe. Because I think that when we all extend ourselves, only better things come.”
To some, Brooks has never been more than either an overly emotional, American showman, or a shrewd and canny marketing whizz who has always had an eye on the bottom line. But what, exactly, is so wrong with someone getting emotional from time to time anyway? People often forget that Brooks is a very talented songwriter too, and as such, he’s bound to be more in touch with his emotions than those in other jobs or professions. No right or wrong about it, it’s just how it is. It goes with the territory.
The very first track on his self-titled debut album, Not Counting You, for example, is one of his own songs. He’s also co-written hits like If Tomorrow Never Comes, Much Too Young(To Feel This Damn Old), The Thunder Rolls and What She’s Doing Now, to name but a few from back in the early days.
Similarly, where’s the big problem with his having a sharp business brain and a competitive instinct? After all, he studied marketing and he has a strong sporting background. If neither area came into play in his career, THEN something would be wrong! But no, folks, if you judge him by the hat, the tears or the numbers, then you’re missing the point. To ‘get’ Garth Brooks, you only have to listen to the music.
People often forget that while albums like No Fences and Roping The Wind sold well into double figures millions-wise, his first album, Garth Brooks, moved only 20,000 copies to begin with. Over time, though, that too pushed close to the 10 million mark. And the reason has nothing whatsoever to do with any kind of marketing magic. It was all down to the music. While it’s probably true to say that later albums, Sevens and Scarecrow in particular perhaps, did suffer from some material that doesn’t carry quiet the same emotional punch as earlier releases, every other collection has been built with album tracks that are every bit as deep, strong and true-to-life as the hit singles have been.
Garth Brooks had If Tomorrow Never Comes and The Dance, but it also had Alabama Clay and I Know One.
No Fences had The Thunder Rolls and Friends In Low Places, but it also had Victim Of The Game and Wolves.
Roping The Wind had Rodeo and The River, but also Against The Grain and Burning Bridges.
The list goes on. Even Sevens had its own gems in I Don’t Have To Wonder and Belleau Wood, and Scarecrow had The Storm and Thicker Than Blood.
Lest there be any doubt about it at this stage of the game, let me just state it for the record, so to speak: I am a huge Garth Brooks fan. I’ve grown up listening to his music, and I’ve grown listening to his music. I’ve lived life to his music. I’ve learned from and been inspired by his music. And I have no doubt that all of the above will continue to be so.
If I’m lucky enough to get my hands on a ticket for July, I know Garth won’t have any reason to tell me apart from any of the other thousands of faces that will be smiling back up at him. Just like he didn’t know I was there looking up at him, awe-struck, in ’97. But, just like in ’97, I ‘ll walk away knowing I’ve enjoyed something amazing and very, very special indeed.
The kind of night from which dreams – big dreams – are born. And, why not? And, from July on, please God, there’ll be a new addition to that old closet door at home, something to remind me why Garth has always been more than a memory. And why he’s more than a memory once again.