Editorial

First Published September 2021

MUSIC, ‘LIVE’ EVENTS, AND A GOVERNMENT THAT NEVER CARED

Anyone who couldn’t have foreseen the current government’s appalling treatment of the music and ‘live’ events sectors simply hadn’t been paying attention. The signs were on it right from the moment Catherine Martin T.D. was handed a portfolio that included responsibility for tourism, culture, arts, the Gaeltacht, sport, AND media. 


The argument can rightly be made that each of these areas needs and warrants a department of its own, given the importance of each to Irish life. At the same time, however, realism, pragmatism -and, in fact, the constitution – dictate that not every area of significance and consequence can be afforded the luxury of a department in its own name, given that our government can have no more than fifteen members (Article 28), including the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, and the Minister for Finance. So in effect, minus the aforementioned, only twelve seats – at most – ever remain to be filled in the cabinet. 


That fact notwithstanding, however, the decision to ask one minister to take on responsibility for six sectors which, each in their own right, play such prominent roles in Irish life, seemed crazy at the time. And nothing that has happened since has shown otherwise. Now, to be clear here, I understand that there’s seldom a perfect way to do anything in politics, and that no matter what any government – or minister – might do, there will be someone on hand straight away to say why they should have done the opposite. That, unfortunately, is the way of politics in general, and certainly in Ireland.


Moreover, when it came to the easing of restrictions, it’s perfectly understandable that a phased approach had to be taken, and that whatever such approach was decided upon, it would end up with some group or section of society having to bring up the rear. A phased approach makes sense. But a phased approach could still have included all stakeholders to some extent. 


What this situation has also revealed – laid bare in no uncertain terms, in fact – is that politicians – for the most part, there have been some exceptions – simply have no idea how the music or ‘live’ events sector. It’s not a matter of turning a key, opening a door, and hey presto…back in business, back to normal all in one move. There are very, very few music or ‘live’ events of any nature that happen without the need for a lot of advance planning. A lot of planning from a lot of people. Artists, their management team, their PR team, venues, sound and lighting experts, ticket outlets, and more. Everything needs to be coordinated on multiple levels. 


To be able to plan ahead, you need to be able to see ahead. And yet, as I write this, with September only a couple of sunsets away, no line of vision on a return to normality for the music or ‘live’ events sectors has even been hinted at in any detail, let alone laid out in black and white. 


For a profession so fond of hiring advisors, the ability of most politicians to communicate is worse than abysmal. A politician’s job, no matter what anyone says or thinks, is incredibly tough. There’s no doubt about that. Yes, they’re well-rewarded, but most of the people who only or primarily focus on that fact wouldn’t put up with the abuse that comes with the job for even a day. And to be fair, if they tried working as a councillor, a TD, or a minister for a week, they’d quickly find out that most in those roles – most…not all – more than earn their living. And that’s across the board, politicians of all parties and none.


A quick word on abuse, while we’re here. While frustration and anger, and a lot of other emotions are all understandable given where we are in this time of Covid, and everything that we’ve already had to deal with and come through, resorting to name-calling – sometimes in a way that’s really vile, vicious, and completely unnecessary – is not to be condoned. That’s just bad manners, childish, reflects extremely badly on those who do it, and it helps absolutely no-one in any way at all. Anybody who acts like that, regardless of who they are, doesn’t deserve to be a part of finding any way through this. 


However, there are many things that politicians could so easily do to make their own lives easier, and the lives of their constituents better. Communication is top of that list.  And right up there with it, is respect. And respect is not shown to anyone by running a so-called ‘pilot’ concert in a way that precisely zero events without further government funding could ever run in the real world. And respect is not shown by overseeing a grants process that sees several artists awarded more than one, while hundreds more received no help at all. That is not respect. Of course it was impossible to make sure that everyone who applied for funding of some kind got something that would help them. But what was always completely within the power of those who ran that operation to control, was making sure that no-one received multiple grants. Simple. 


Anyway, respect is what takes me right back to my opening point, that how little this government thought of the arts was evident from the moment the Green Party’s Catherine Martin was tasked with heading up a department that included six portfolios; tourism, culture, arts, the Gaeltacht, sport, AND media. 


Now, as far as Minister Martin herself is concerned, I admire her for having the courage to take on such a workload, and I have nothing but sympathy for the mess that she’s found herself at the centre of as far as the return to normality of the music and ‘live’ events sector goes. Even at the best of times, in a ‘normal’ Covid-less world, Catherine Martin would still have only twenty-four hours in her day, and seven days in her week, all to be divided between the six different portfolios for which her department has ultimate responsibility. Even at that, her task is monumental. Throw in Covid and its complexities, and it’s not just one magic wand she’d need, it’s a new one for every hour of every day of every week! 


The gov.ie website currently lists eighteen official government departments, and only one really comes close to Catherine Martin’s in terms of the spread of its duties, the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, overseen by Minister Roderic O’ Gorman, although there are clearly more obvious links between each of those. There are some departments, which, understandably and for obvious reasons, must stand alone. Health, Foreign Affairs, and Justice. But surely, back when this government was being negotiated, more thought and care could have been given to the overall balance of things? I, for one, believe so. And have done for a long time. The madness and mayhem of the mess that has been the government’s treatment of the music and ‘live’ events sectors over the last number of months have only served to reaffirm that belief. 


So, what could have been done differently then, back when this government was formed? What would have given Minister Catherine Martin a fighting chance of representing artists and musicians with all of her might, which I genuinely believe she has always sincerely wanted to do? Well, let’s have a look…


The Department of Transport, as important as it is, could surely handle something else too. Tourism, perhaps? And do we still really need a Department of Finance AND a Department of Public Expenditure and Reform? Make them one! And, would not the Department of Rural and Community Development be a fitting and natural home for the care of the Gaeltacht as well? These questions give us somewhere to start from. 

With the Department of Finance becoming the Department of Finance, Public Expenditure, and Reform, that immediately frees up one department. The portfolios of Higher and Further Education should also come under the watch of the Department of Education, full-stop. That would mean that we then have a stand-alone Department of Research, Innovation, and Science. From the burden that rests on Catherine Martin’s shoulders right now, let’s actually go ahead and move Tourism to the Department of Transport seeing it become the Department of Transport and Tourism. As mentioned earlier, have the Department of Rural and Community Development become the Department of Rural and Community Development and the Gaeltacht. Now, Catherine Martin is left with just Arts, Culture, Sports, and Media in her charge. But, we’re not done here yet…


By making the Department of Finance become the Department of Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, we freed up a department. This can now become the new Department of Sports and Media, taking two more briefs away from Minister Martin. A possible step further even, make it the Department of Sports, Media, and Communication, leaving us with a Department of Environment and Climate as well, because that’s a portfolio that will certainly need as much time as possible devoted to the growing challenges it will continue to face in the years to come. 


And we’re not done even at that, because there’s one more move which would also make sense in two ways. If we take Heritage from the current Department of Housing and Local Government and Heritage, and move it to what Catherine Martin still has on her desk, we end up with a Department of Housing andLocal Government (and as with a Department of Environment and Climate, a Department of Housing and Local Government will have more than enough on its plate!), while Minister Martin heads up our Department of Arts, Culture, and Heritage. 

To my mind, this paints a much more balanced overall picture. But crucially for the music and ‘live’ events sectors, Minister Martin would, right from the get-go, have been in a significantly better position to champion these sectors. There’s just no question about that. Her workload and areas of responsibility would have been literally cut in half. The time and energy that she’s had to put into dealing with the tourism, Gaeltacht, sports, and media briefs since taking office could all have been devoted to her efforts on behalf of the music and ‘live’ events sector, as part of her Arts, Culture, and Heritage brief. There’s no way in the world that this wouldn’t have made some difference to things, and perhaps even enough for these sectors to – at last – be looking beyond Covid. 


So why would any government in its right mind even attempt to wedge six portfolios – each one so important in its own right, let me stress that again – into the department of one single minister? 
Well, it has to be said that the answer looks simple enough at this stage. For those of us who work in the music and ‘live’ events sectors, the problem isn’t just that this government has been acting like it doesn’t care right now. It’s that now, at last, maybe it’s becoming clearer to see that they never really cared at all. 
This government has already sanctioned the return to Croke Park of 40,000 fans for the All-Ireland hurling final. At the time of writing, public transport is set to return to full capacity next week (from Monday, August 30th), and schools are also due to reopen, if they haven’t already done so. But the music and ‘live’ events sectors? Still waiting on a ‘road-map.’ 


Just to be clear as well, very few who work in or are involved in the music or ‘live’ events sectors have any problem at all with the return of crowds to Croke Park or any other sporting occasions in large numbers, if it can happen safely. No problem at all. More luck to all involved. The point is, the exact same thing could already have been happening – in some shape or form – for concerts, festivals, and theatre too, as well as smaller ‘live’ music occasions. And the fault for that not being so, for this delay, and the embarrassing absence of clear communication on all of this, lies, ultimately, with the government. Not with Nphet as some would like us to believe. Throughout this whole pandemic, Nphet have been doing their job, which is just to advise the government. The final call rests with the government. 


And that’s who thought it was a good idea to ask one minister to take on the portfolios of the arts, culture, tourism, the Gaeltacht, sports, and the media in the first place. Those same decision makers are why the music and ‘live’ events sectors are still waiting on a ‘road-map’ instead of being well down the road to some kind of normality again. 

~ This week’s column can also be enjoyed in full at the official OTRT website, www.ontherighttrax.com 

ENDS

Stephen Travers

First Published June 2021

A GENT AND A GIANT

July 31st will mark the 46th anniversary of one of the darkest nights – in every meaning of that term – in Irish history. The Miami Showband Massacre. Even as a child, when hearing those words mentioned for the first time, without knowing any of the details, without having any context in which to place them, they chilled me to the bone. A showband? But they’re musicians, right? How could musicians become the victims of a massacre? And how could it happen here? In Ireland? It didn’t make any sense to me. 


It doesn’t make any sense now either, of course. Even less so now that I do know so many details, now that I realise the horrible, heartbreaking context. Nor did it make any sense on that summer’s night, not long after 2am almost five decades ago. What doesn’t make sense is HOW such an atrocity could be allowed to happen. How some people could actually sit down and plan for something like that to happen. How some people were prepared to live out the remainder of their own lives forever accompanied by the knowledge of what they had been part of. None of that makes sense. Nor will it ever. And it shouldn’t, because for it to do so, you’d need to have an understanding of evil that could only leave the darkest of imprints upon your soul.

 
However, we can understand WHAT happened on that night because – by the grace of God, surely – there were survivors. While Fran O’ Toole, Brian McCoy, and Tony Geraghty perished in a torrent of unprovoked violence, Des Lea and Tipperary man STEPHEN TRAVERS managed to escape the same fate. Getting to and revealing the truth about what unfolded on the Buskhill Road that night, as he and four of his famed and adored bandmates simply endeavoured to make the journey home from a show at the Castle Ballroom in Banbridge, is something that Stephen has dedicated his life to. 


That work, and the events of the night of July 31st 1975 itself, are stories unto themselves, and they more than warrant any time and attention you can give them. A few years back, when Stephen was getting close to embarking on a nationwide promotional tour in relation to some projects in this regard, I had the pleasure of spending some time in conversation with him ahead of the announcement of those dates. However, as can happen from time to time, unforeseen circumstances lead to that tour being rearranged, and as a result, our chat was never published. 


But now, in honour of Stephen and the work he has done to make sure the truth about that night is known to all, and indeed, as a tribute to his fellow survivor Des Lea, and to his bandmates who never made it home – Fran O’ Toole, Brian McCoy, and Tony Geraghty – we are finally sharing that chat with our OTRT readers. So it is, ladies and gentlemen, our privilege to present this conversation with Stephen, not just an inspirational musician, but an inspirational human-being, and a gentleman of the highest order. 

When we spoke, I began by asking Stephen about how his own interest in music first began to arise and develop? 


“Well, I was born in 1951, so my formative years musically would have been the sixties. And they really only began in 1963 with the Beatles, with that whole musical and fashion explosion that happened. So that hit me right between the eyes when I was twelve years of age. There were an awful lot of young guys picking up guitars, and of course the showbands were there, so all of the stars aligned and came together and I decided to give it a go.” 

I wondered if there happened to be any one particular moment that hit Stephen right between the eyes and made him think, ‘Right, I know what I want to do with my life from here on…’? 


“There was actually. I was in school, and every year that school would put on an operetta. It was the Christian Brothers school in Carrick-on-Suir. They’d put on a show for all the parents. One of the lads in my class, a lad called Jim, his mother was actually a choreographer, and she came up to put us through our paces. I can’t remember what the name of the operetta was. Anyway, her son, Jim, had been learning drums, so she got him to bring along the snare drum. When he started to play it I was fascinated by the fact that a young kid of my own age could do this. And I thought, you know what, I’d like to do it as well because everybody was dancing to his tune as he was playing. I think it was ‘The March of the Toy Soldiers’, or ‘The March of the Tin Soldiers’, something like that. It involved the lads in the play marching around and doing their thing, and I was fascinated by it.” 

Stephen mentioned the fact that so many people were picking up guitars back in the sixties. It happened to be the bass guitar that he reached for himself. I wondered if there was a particular reason for his choice? 


“Yeah, my schoolmates had formed a little group, they had about two years start on me. I had a guitar at home that I never bothered with, but I went to hear them rehearsing and I was fascinated that they were playing The Shadows and the Beatles, and all that kind of stuff. And they said to me, ya know we need a bass player? I didn’t really know what a bass player was, but I found out pretty quickly! [Laughs]. At that time, a bass guitar would have had four strings, so I thought well this will be easy enough! But that’s not the case! Anyway, I started to play bass, and happily it was MY instrument, ya know. It’s the one that, to this day, I love to learn more and more about all the time, even though now I play a five and a seven-string bass. I just love it. And then, of course, Paul McCartney I consider to be the greatest bass player that ever walked the face of the Earth. He was such a cool character. So it was no problem playing bass in a band! If it was good enough for him, then it was good enough for me.”

Stephen joined the Miami Showband when he was about twenty-four, and they were already massive at that stage. Was becoming a member like landing a dream-job, or as a musician, was it just another job, albeit, a pretty cool one all the same? 


“I had served my time in country bands, and what they called big bands, jazz bands. From day one I was very interested in blues and jazz. Of course, the only game in town if you wanted to earn a living was – back in the late sixties – country, when it began to become very big, as it is today. That’s when I went and joined a country band called The Cowboys. One of the lads that had been in the earlier group, Gay Brazel, later went on to become the band leader with Tweed, he was in The Cowboys. And Billy Byrne, my friend. So I learned my chops, learned my trade in bands like The Cowboys and in school, in young beat groups and that. But when you need to earn a living, or buy a new car, or put a deposit on a house, you join a showband. So I set my sights on the one that was going to pay me the most money! I got a call from The Miami Showband in September 1974, to ask me if I’d like to go up and meet them to talk about joining. As it turned out, I didn’t join them. I waited until the end of May 1975, and I took the job then. I quickly realised that these guys were phenomenal musicians. Tony Geraghty on guitar, it was arguable whether he was more influential than Gary Moore when he was playing in his rock days. He had gone and joined a showband because he was getting married, and the usual thing, he wanted to buy a car and a house. Fran O’ Toole, I think everybody knew, was one of the most sensational vocalists as well as being an incredible keyboard player, a great jazz player. So when I joined, it was a bit of a reality check that I was among guys who were every bit as good – if not better! – than myself. This wasn’t just about joining a band to earn a few quid. It was an honour to play with these guys.”

I didn’t want to get into what happened to Stephen and his bandmates in the Miami in July of 1975 without first showing the courtesy and respect of asking if that was something he would be comfortable talking about. I knew it was something he’d been asked to talk about on countless occasions before, and regardless of how much detail any of those conversations might go into, even going back in time to that fateful night to any degree must bring with it memories that none of us will ever be able to comprehend. Displaying the generosity of spirit for which he has always been known, however, Stephen agreed. 


What happened on that July night almost fifty years ago now, changed the course of Irish music history. I don’t think there’s anyone who doubts that. I asked Stephen how he thought Irish music would have developed had that tragic night not come to pass…


“Just referring to what you said there at the beginning of your question, that night didn’t just change Irish music history. In fact, it had very little effect, a temporary effect, on Irish music history. But it changed Irish history [itself]. And the reason being was that it was an attempt by a neighbouring, so-called friendly government, to influence Irish politics. They felt that security was lax on the southern side of the border, so they set up a plan – a brilliant plan, even though it was evil – to make it look as if all innocent Irish people should be suspects. And had they succeeded in doing that, the whole world would have shrugged its shoulders and said let the British deal with the Irish whatever way they want to now, because every one of them is a potential terrorist. So had we been successfully framed as terrorists when they attempted – unbeknownst to us – to put a bomb in our van, nobody would have known about the road-block, and we subsequently would have blown up fifteen minutes down the road, and been accused of being terrorists. So thankfully, Des Lee – or Des McAlea, as his real name is – and I survived to tell what happened, [because] that had the potential to turn Ireland into another Gaza. Our young people, instead of having a friendly nod from Immigration in Australia or wherever, as they do now, had we been successfully framed as terrorists, then like the Palestines today our young Irish people would be called aside at every airport, or searched vigorously or whatever. So that was a massive, massive thing to happen. So it’s wrong to think that it was just something that happened to a band, or a small story. And this was pointed out to me when we were doing the screenplay of the movie by a world renowned director. He said, ‘This is not just a story of a local band, and a local terrorist attack. This is an international crime.'” 

“Apart from that”, Stephen continued, “from the musical aspect of things, it caused a temporary lock-down, a close-down, as George Jones, the musician and broadcaster in the north said [at the time], ‘You look at a ballroom and expect to see tumbleweed.’ As to the development of Irish music, the showbands had had their day. When I joined the Miami, it was called The Miami, it wasn’t actually called The Miami Showband. They had shortened it, they didn’t want to lose the value of the name. But it was more a pop group than anything else. Along with a number of other bands, the Miami was writing its own material. I think the Miami is probably the link between the old and the new. We’re frozen in history for this. Fran would have gone on to be a singer/songwriter in America, because it was planned to take him out to America. I think he would have perhaps written for lots of other people. Because he wasn’t a kid anymore, he was twenty-eight, and that in the pop business – even then – was getting on a bit. So I think he and Des would have concentrated on their writing. Tony Geraghty and I would have formed a jazz/rock group, I think.” 

Stephen had mentioned the screenplay of the movie about his life, upon which pre-production had begun at the time we were speaking. I asked him how that project was progressing, and, on a project like that, how involved does Stephen himself get to be? Or at what point does he have to hand over artistic control of what happens? 


“Well, I was very careful with that. We’ve been doing this now for five years. And that in itself, apparently, isn’t too long when it comes to the making of a movie, I believe. Great films like ‘Lincoln’, and other Oscar winners recently, have taken up to ten, eleven years to make. But we had the screenplay done almost three years ago now. When we met with some directors from Hollywood to talk about it, we became aware that it was much more than just a local event, so we went back to the drawing-board. About last September, we finished that screenplay, and now they’re all very, very happy with it. They’re now in that phase that’s pre pre-production really, because the finance is together now and a lot of other things. So we expect to be full hammer-and-tongs at it within the next two or three months. And hopefully it will be filmed. The actual filming of any movie only takes about six weeks, that’s the short part. It’s all the work that goes on before and after it. With regard to artistic license, that was something I was very careful of. I have a great responsibility to the truth, and for the portrayal of the lads. This is one of the reasons that we asked the producers to do everything in their power to keep this an independent movie. What they call an independent movie, rather than handing it over to a studio. Because once you do that, then you don’t have any control over it. Whereas in an independent movie, and because I was part of the screenwriting team, I have an official credit, which means I can remain on-set and can keep an eye on things and make sure they don’t lose the run of themselves and make it into something that we’ll find either objectionable or embarrassing.” 

I wondered if Stephen still taught bass guitar, as he did for a while?


“I did, I was a bad teacher! I expected people to know what I knew. Whereas a good teacher doesn’t have to be a great player, but is somebody who’s methodical. Having said that, I had some great students. One in particular stands out, which I just recall now as we mention it. John Walsh, the original bass player with Stockton’s Wing. John would have been a star pupil for me. And also I had some very interesting encounters with Aubrey Oaki from the Hugh Masekela band, called Kalahari, that I met in the UK. He would teach me a lot about Africian music. His guitar player, in fact, is the same guy that you see on the Graceland tour with Paul Simon. I would teach him jigs and reels on the bass, would you believe! This was at a time when he was recording with Peter Gabriel, who left Genesis and did the thing with Kate Bush. So Aubrey would leave the studio and we’d meet up and trade licks and all that. So, apart from teaching, there’s still an awful lot to learn about bass guitar for me. As I say, the great master will be there every time I turn on a Beatles number, when I hear the immaculate playing of Paul McCartney. He’s just a man who knows the right note to put in the right place. I have great heroes as well, people like James Jamerson that did all the Motown music, and Joe Osborn that did all of the early American California stuff by the Carpenters. Just beautiful people, beautiful bass players. I’ll teach, but I learn as well. I learn far more than I teach now.” 

Given the journey that Stephen has travelled in his life and music career, I couldn’t possibly have brought our chat to a close without asking him if there was any advice he’d pass on to someone who might be starting out in the music business today. Were there any words of wisdom that had always stood him in good stead? 


“Yeah, play with guys that are better than you. It’s difficult if you join a band and you’re all starting off at the same time. Because you’re only going to progress at the same speed as the slowest person in the band. This is one of the great tragedies that the showbands aren’t around anymore because it was the best apprenticeship that you could possibly get. I remember, for instance, when I joined the Mick Delahunty Junior Orchestra. His father was Mick Delahunty Senior, and he was a very famous band leader. But when Mick Junior started the band, he had the cream of his father’s band when he retired and all of these guys were much, much older than me. I learned more from these fellas than you could if you went to university. These guys were street-wise. They knew every twist and turn that it took to be a professional musician. They were fabulous players, world class. Young fellas should beg, borrow, or steal an opportunity to get into a band with seasoned musicians, or guys who know more than them. And learn from them. The other thing would be to play a pure style. Something like country or blues or reggae, something like that that teaches you what a bass guitar actually does. As opposed to learning gratuitous sort of riffs from rock or pop numbers. To learn the basics is very important. And I suppose finally, learn how to read music, that will definitely stand to ya in good stead.” 

~ The documentary, Remastered: The Miami Showband Massacre, is available on Netflix. 

ENDS

Natalie Maines

First Published July 2013

CHICK, FIGHTER, MOTHER

Thirty-two words. That’s all it took to turn Natalie Maines from a dixie darlin’ to a Saddam supportin’, America hatin’, devil in disguise. At least, that’s what happened in the eyes and ears of country music radio and a large number of country ‘ fans ‘. Fans for whom, it must be added, the subtleties of irony and the intricacies of reason and logical thinking – even common sense, perhaps – were as much a foreign language as any other found beyond the shores of their good ole U.S. of A.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against America or country music, far from it. In fact, I’ve spent some of the most memorable days and nights of my life under the blue of a ‘Buckeye’sky in Ohio, and country music defines a massive a part of who I am. But even now, a decade on, how Natalie Maines and the Dixie Chicks were treated back in 2003 still gets me shaking my head in disbelief. There truly are times in this life when no matter how much you love something, you can still find yourself almost diametrically opposed to everything that something seems to stand for or represent at that moment in time. And 2003 was one of those times.

With the release of Mother, Natalie’s first solo record last May, it’s worth remembering how this Dixie Chick spoke her mind, stood her ground, and fought back when lesser souls would have shattered in face of the storm that engulfed her and her bandmates, sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison.

It was London, 2003 at the Shepherd’s Bush Theatre. The world stood just ten days away from yet another war as the U.S. and Britain prepared – despite huge anti-war demonstrations – to invade Iraq in search of the ‘weapons of mass destruction’ their intelligence services had confirmed beyond a doubt existed. That was the message being relayed to the world by then President George Bush, his Vice-President Dick Chaney, their Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. For the greater good of the free world, war had to be waged, they argued. But a lot of people disagreed with that assessment, Natalie Maines among them.

The Chicks were on the European leg of their Top Of The World Tour. Their album sales were in the tens of millions. They already had eight Grammys to their name and their count of CMA Awards topped that by a further two. Their cover of the Stevie Nicks classic Landslide was riding high at #10 on the Billboard Hot 100. Just three years earlier they had performed the national anthem at the Super Bowl, the sporting and television highlight of the American calendar. But then Natalie Maines spoke from her heart. And thirty-two words changed everything. As she was later to sing, “The top of the world came crashing down.”

“Just so you know”, she began, “we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”

Now, in the same way as I’m not attempting to run down America as a country or all Americans, or everyone who’s a country music fan, or who was involved in the industry then, I’m not saying that Saddam Hussein was basically a good guy, a bit of a character who was misunderstood and suffered a bad reputation because of that. Absolutely not. He was a tyrant, a dictator. A brutal, arrogant, selfish narcissist. But was the invasion of Iraq and the grief it brought upon so many the way to deal with him? Again, in my opinion at least, absolutely not.

As soon as word reached the States of Natalie’s comments while on stage in London, the fallout began. And the nature of the attacks on her, Martie, and Emily were deeply personal, vicious, founded mostly in the flag-waving bluster of patriotism as defined only by flag-waving and bluster. As mentioned earlier, all argument and rationale was as far removed from the subtleties of irony and the intricacies of reason and logical thinking as Bush et-al always were from those ‘weapons of mass destruction.’ Unquestionably, no male band would have been vilified in the same manner.

Maines and the Chicks were accused of supporting communism. One radio caller suggested, in total seriousness, that Maines herself should be strapped to a bomb and dropped on Iraq. Bill O’ Reilly – renaissance man that he is – referred to the band as, “callow, foolish women who deserve to be slapped around.” In the ultra-conservative world of O’ Reilly’s middle class America just ten years ago, it seems that while opposing war was a big no-no, encouraging violence against women was an acceptable form of free speech.

Other protesters labelled Maines, Maguire and Robison as  ‘bimbos’ and ‘dixie twits.’ “Free speech is fine”, remarked one man, “but you don’t do it outside of the country and you don’t do it publicly.” Another reasoned that, “Being ashamed of our President means being ashamed of our country.” One couple even offered this sage advice, “Keep playin’, keep makin’ music, and keep your mouth shut.”

Within a week Landslide had fallen from #10 to #43 on the Billboard Hot 100. And within two weeks it had crashed out of the chart completely. Country radio all but banned the Dixie Chicks in response to the frenzy of country ‘fans.’ Many stations even went as far as to set up bins outside their offices so that ‘fans’ could publicly dump their Dixie Chicks albums. In some cases, the public destruction of their albums was encouraged and even arranged by having tractors drive over them to crush them.

Even President Bush himself commented on the controversy, although this time he was perhaps pointedly missing the point and the bigger picture as opposed to just not getting it, as was so often the case. “They shouldn’t have their feelings hurt”, he opined, “when people don’t want to buy their records.” Bush, of course, like the Chicks themselves, is a native of Texas where he served as the Lone Star state’s 46th governor between 1995 and 2000.

On May 1st, 2003, Bush held court aboard the USS Lincoln, a banner behind him proclaiming, ‘Mission Accomplished.’ He stated at the time that this signalled the end of major combat operations in Iraq. In December of 2011, President Obama oversaw the final withdrawal of the last remaining US troops from Iraq. There have been almost 4,500 US casualties in Iraq, nearly 4,000 of them since President Bush’s ‘mission’ was ‘accomplished.’

In 2007, Taking The Long Way, the Dixie Chicks’ first album since the top of their world came crashing down, claimed five Grammys. Among them, the awards for Album Of The Year and, for their defiant, fight-not-flight anthem Not Ready To Make Nice, the awards for Single and for Song Of The Year. Upon its release, Taking The Long Way debuted at #1 on the Billboard Top 200 and the country charts, despite receiving next to no support from country radio. Clearly and thankfully, however, the band retained the support of their more liberal, contemplative fans. Even if, to their eternal shame, a significant number of their fellow country artists distanced themselves from the Chicks in every way possible. But they were not without allies among big names in the music world as both Bruce Springsteen and Madonna were vocal in support of the Chicks’ right to express their opinions freely.

Even country legend Merle Haggard could see through the bluster and past the flag-waving. “I don’t even know the Dixie Chicks”, he stated, “but I find it an insult for all the men and women who fought and died in past wars when the majority of America jumped down their throats for voicing an opinion. It was like a verbal witch-hunt and lynching.” 

Mother is not a Dixie Chicks album. And it’s definitely not country, so don’t expect either one. But it’s doubtful that any labels like country, pop, rock – or whatever else – were even discussed by Maines and her producer Ben Harper when they began work on this collection of songs. And in truth, what ‘kind of’ an album it is doesn’t really matter.

What matters is that one of the most powerful, expressive and emotive voices of the last fifteen to twenty years, a voice that has been too long gone, has gifted its vocal dynamism to the world once more. As it happens, though, Mother (whose title track comes from Pink Floyd’s The Wall album) IS an excellent debut. Among the standout offerings are Natalie’s graceful embrace of the Jeff Buckley classic Lover, You Should’ve Come Over, and Come Crying To Me, a Maines co-write with Dixie Chick band-mates Martie and Emily.

Last week the US celebrated the fourth of July, its Independence Day. If anyone can claim to have truly lived in the spirit of what that day is supposed to recognise, then it’s Natalie Maines.

And long may she continue living that very same way.

ENDS

Lorraine Keane

First Published February 2020

LORRAINE’S FASHION RELIEF RETURNS

(Part 1) 

Lorraine Keane

It’s probably something that we’re all guilty of to some extent from time to time. We think that because we can’t do something huge there’s no way at all in which we can help those in most need around the world. But thanks to LORRAINE KEANE and her FASHION RELIEF event with OXFAM, thoughts like that should never cross our minds again. The reason why is simple. From Lorraine’s own personal experiences of visiting some of the most impoverished places on Earth – countries like Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Somalia, Haiti, Guatemala, and more – she came to realise that in such places even as little as €20 can feed a family for a week. Just take a moment to think about that… €20 can feed a family for a week…

That knowledge was the spark from which FASHION RELIEF was first born a couple of years ago, as Lorraine and Oxfam combined to create an event where designer, pre-loved, and celebrity donated items can be purchased for as little as €20 in many cases. So even one sale like that will do a world of good that most of us, please God, will never be in a position to need. To date, FASHION RELIEF has raised in excess of €200,000. This year’s Galway event takes place in the Galmont Hotel on March 1st, and will be followed by a full weekend in Dublin’s R.D.S. on March 28th and 29th.

Ahead of those dates, I had the pleasure of catching up with Lorraine last Friday evening. We began our chat by going back to late last year when Lorraine visited somewhere that, hopefully, most of us will never come close to experiencing…the largest refugee camp in the world, Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh…

“Like all of these trips that I do, and I’ve been doing them once a year for the last ten years, it was just very difficult. I’d like to think that they get easier, but I think they actually get worse, to be honest with you, because you know what to expect. These people are living in extreme poverty. When I’m there, yeah, I get a little homesick, I miss Peter and the girls, and my family. But when I come back, it kind of stays with you for ages as well. You meet these people actually face-to-face, you hear their stories, and see how they’re living, and the conditions they’re living in. And they’re so grateful. That’s the really sad part, when they’re thanking you for helping them and thanking Oxfam, and asking you to please tell the Irish people how grateful they are for giving them shelter. And that’s just a very basic tent they’re talking about, made from tarpaulin and bamboo. And also for giving them clean, safe drinking water, and food, and other supplies. I mean, all of these people were living in what were certainly poorer conditions than any of us would ever have to experience in this part of our planet, thank God. But they were still self-sufficient, they had farms and land, and homes. But they [the Rohingya] were literally just thrown out of those homes and off their own land, and their houses were burned down.”

 

Lorraine continued, “If it wasn’t for the Bangladeshi government being so generous – because they’re not a very wealthy country themselves, they’re already struggling to look after their own – but they opened up the boarder to a million refugees. And that’s a huge example to the rest of us. All these people want to do, remember, is to go home. Because they’ve been there now for two years, and it’s at about four times the capacity of people for the space that’s available, and according to what the U.N. recommended capacity is. But at least while they’re there, they’re feeling safe. And we’re trying to keep them healthy. Oxfam provide health -workers and have little clinics and things like that. And because of where they are, like so many places in the developing world, extreme climate is a huge part of the reason that they are impoverished. We worry about climate change on our little island, but my goodness! Our part of the world is doing all the damage, but their part of the world is suffering all the consequences, ya know.”

 

There was one woman in particular, Nalia, who told me about herself”, Lorraine said. “She had four children and was pregnant with her fifth when she was trying to leave Myanmar, to escape to Bangladesh after her house had been burned down. They escaped in the middle of the night, but they were caught, and her husband was shot dead in front of her. So, at eight and a half months pregnant, she struggled to get to Bangladesh. And then, just as they got to the boarder, her son was also shot in front of her, her eldest child. And her other children witnessed that. She went on to give birth to a little girl, and now that little girl is being brought up in Cox’s Bazar, the largest refugee camp in the world. Nalia has become a leader within the refugee camp for women, and for girls. It’s a very strict culture, and religion, so it’s very restrictive for them living in those kind of conditions. They have no privacy. And yet, their culture and religion insist that they are very private, stay covered, and all the rest. It’s very tough. It would break your heart.”

 
 

Lorraine’s first Fashion Relief event of 2020 was just over a week away when we spoke, so I asked her how hectic was life as she took care of all the final preparations for Galway, and of course, continued to get ready for the two Dublin shows in the RDS at the end of March, also?

“Well I was just down in Galway for the last couple of days delivering by hand our leaflets around shops, and cafes, and restaurants, and boutiques, anybody that would take them! Just to publicise the event on the ground, at a local level. Then the lovely Keith Finnegan had me on with Jon Richards on Galway Bay FM, who is a friend of Peter’s for a long time because he’s been a big fan of The Devlins [Lorraine is married to Peter Devlin, of the band The Devlins], he would have had the band on performing ‘live’ over the years. And they’re running ads for us all next week for free, it’s just amazing, the generosity of people, what they’ll do to help. So maybe it does help to make a difference, the fact that I get to travel to these countries and then show everybody the difference that the money raised makes, ya know. Irish people, as we know, are some of the most generous people in the world. Nobody has said no to me. And that’s anybody from well-know, high-profile celebrities and sports personalities, like Miriam O’ Callaghan, Rob Kearney, Norah Casey, Mary Kennedy, Rosanna Davison, all of these fabulous people, the list goes on and on. I just had a text message there from Vogue Williams to say she was posting over some items, and Vogue donated last year as well. Roz Purcell was in touch this morning saying the same, so was Holly Wright, and Holly Carpenter. But apart from that, it’s the people who I wouldn’t have known, in AV (audio-visual), and staging, and events, things like that, they’re all providing it for free too. And that’s worth thousands and thousands of euro. But they want to help. I think most Irish people want to help, but they just don’t know how or what to do. So I’ve given them that outlet.”

Thinking back a few years to the moment when Lorraine first knew that she needed to do something to help these people, and then arriving at the idea of Fashion Relief with her husband Peter, did she have any idea at all at that time that this would become something which, as Lorraine has since said many times, she feels like she’ll be involved with for the rest of her life?

“Ya know what? I didn’t even know if the first one would work! You have to take some risks in your career. And I thought this was a risk worth taking. So we said we’d try it and just do our best. I mean, when you’re out there, in these countries, and you see that €20 would feed a family for a week, gosh, even longer, I knew that no matter what we raised it would help in some way. And it’s all been because of people being so generous. But no, I really had no idea. To go from one event in year one, and then last year having five events! And this year, we’ll probably have five or six altogether. It’s been great. And we’ve now raised over €200,000 which I never imagined we’d do, because Fashion Relief is not even two years old, although we’re on our third lot of events.” 

ENDS

Tommy Tiernan

First Published March 2016

IMPOTENCE, VINEGAR, FIRING-SQUADS, & FLAT FEET!

Tommy Tiernan

Tommy Tiernan brings his Out Of The Whirlwind tour to Tullamore on Saturday, April 2nd, for what will actually be the final night of the Irish leg of this tour. I had the pleasure of catching up with Tommy again recently, and believe me when I tell you, chatting with Tommy is like getting a private show all to yourself! You end up laughing so much that you have to remind yourself to focus on the ‘work’ part of what you’re doing! Hopefully this week’s headline offers a good indication of what I mean, given that the above were all topics we touched on! As you’ll see when you read on….

When we spoke, the general election was still three days away. And yet, as I prepare this column to go to print, we still don’t have a government! But that’s an argument for another day. Coming up to the election, Tommy, on his Facebook page, had declared his support for his local Green Party candidate in Galway. I asked him if politics was something that would normally get his attention, or with which he would engage?

“Well, I joined the Green Party a year ago, just to try and get some info. I live on the edge of Galway Bay and there was talk of a massive salmon farm being opened, just off the coast of Inisheer. And there’s stuff like that that I’m not too informed on, ya know. So I thought I’d join the Green Party to see if I could get some information on what was happening. I was asked by the local candidate to give him a bit of a push, which I was delighted to do, cos’ he’s a great man. And Galway gets five T.D’s, so I think at least one of them should be Green! I mean, you probably wouldn’t want the five of them to be Green! [laughs]. But at least one of them should be. But the irony of it now is that I’m not actually going to be in the country on election day! Which is kind of weird, and I wouldn’t say I’m the only one who isn’t in Ireland on the day, because of work or whatever. So I have no vote! I’m impotent when it comes to change! [laughs].”

While preparing to interview Tommy, I read through some of the comments people had left under that Facebook post referred to in my opening question, and some just couldn’t resist having a go at Tommy simply because he shared his opinion. I put it to Tommy that even the slightest passing remark about politics or politicians seems to be enough to get some people spewing all kinds of bile and undirected, or improperly directed, anger these days. I asked him if he thought it was fair how we, society, seem to treat politicians now?

“Well, I think politicians are probably quite deserving of our anger! [laughs]. I didn’t really read any of those comments, to be honest with you, Anthony. I think the internet is a safe place for bullies, cos’ they can snipe at others while they remain kind of protected [as they do so]. So I wouldn’t pay too much attention to it. There’s an awful lot of vinegar out there, oh my lord! A fierce amount of bile, and snideness. And it’s in the press as well, more so than on the radio. Rarely in the local press, in fairness, but it’s very prominent in the national press. There’s men and women in the national press who must do nothing but drink vinegar! They’re just the bitterest…..! They’re raised on lemons. They’re toxic, and they don’t bring anything of worth to the table. But look, they’re there, and it’s against the law to shoot them! [laughs]. But when Sinn Fein get in we’ll line them up against a wall and riddle them all! [laughs]. I think taking shots at politicians is fair enough. Sure it’s a bit of craic!” 

Staying with politics, but turning our focus to the United States where their marathon Presidential election process is underway, I asked Tommy about Donald Trump. Is he just a gift for comedians, or possibly, the man who will actually destroy the planet?

“Well I’ll tell ya, if he’s the man to destroy the planet, he’s not alone! There’s a few other crazy f**kers out there. Would you trust Putin? Would you trust whoever’s running China? Would you trust your man in North Korea? Would you trust Michael Noonan? The list is endless! [laughs]. 

Tommy has been a top-class comedian for over twenty years now, and I wondered if comedy was like music in the way that there are cycles. For a while, it’s all about boybands, then it’s guitar bands, then singer/songwriters, and so on. In comedy, is it necessary to change with the times to any degree in order to stay popular?

“You have to keep evolving, but you don’t evolve with an eye on the marketplace. You don’t say, o.k, whoever’s selling out the 3Arena, I’ve got to be more like him. That would actually drive you insane, by not following any kind of natural energy or instinct. You’d be trying to copy something out of desperation and that’s not a recipe for laughter. This show I’m doing at the moment, Anthony, ‘Out Of The Whirlwind’, it finishes in New Zealand in April. And the next tour is called ‘Playtime’, that’ll start next October. So I’m in the process of gathering ideas for the ‘Playtime’ show, but it’s not about trying to copy Russell Howard or John Bishop, it’s about trying to find the adventure in your imagination. And hoping that connects with people. I think if the adventure is authentic, and not some part of a commercial plan, it just naturally connects with people. Like, my young fella is in a band, and at the moment they’re all sixteen or seventeen, so they’re playing all cover versions. You feel like saying to them, it’s o.k. playin’ cover versions as long as you f**k it up! Because it’s in the f**king up that things get interesting! Do you know what I mean, though? There’s any amount of carbon-copy cover bands and they’re fine, sometimes that’s what people want. But if you want a career as a musician, then you have to f**k things up! [laughs]. And I think it’s probably the same with comedy. It’s not through copying that you become original. Which is obvious in it’s own way anyway. Samuel Beckett had this great saying, ‘Fail again, fail better.’ Which isn’t ideal advice for a young fella doin’ his Leaving Cert, mind you! It’s kinda like, make a mess of things, and then REALLY make a mess of things! [laughs]. And it’s through that, that originality happens.” 

Tommy said once that he felt completely comfortable on stage. I wondered if that was still true?

“Well, I feel at home on stage. It’s funny, and I don’t know why this is coming into my head, but I was in a hotel foyer in Dundalk last weekend, after doin’ a show. And country people were coming up to me and throwing their arms around me for photographs. This one fella, he threw his arms around me anyway, and there was a few people there takin’ photographs, and he turned to me and he says, ‘I bet ya feel like Joe Dolan now!’ [laughs]. There’s always a reference point for every stage of your career! So I’m goin’ through the Joe Dolan phase of my career now, whatever that means?! But yeah, I’m very comfortable on stage. The thing you have to fight against is becoming complacent. I suppose you could look at the Kilkenny hurlers, and Brian Coady, and how every year he ramps them up. Now they don’t win the All-Ireland every year, but every twelve months he’s able to ramp them up to give their very best. The same is true of stand-up. Every year you’ve got to give it your best shot and not become complacent. If you do become complacent, then first of all you become your own tribute act! So there’s no excitement in goin’ to see ya, cos’ you’re just repeating yourself. And there are some comedians that do that, and some people like seeing it. I was talking to this lady one time, and she was goin’ to see Michael McIntyre. Now I think Michael is a fine man. But this lady, she says to me, ‘I WANT to see the material I’ve already seen on tv.’ That’s what she wanted! So there’s always gonna be a market for that. But my thing is more that I want to keep the adventure alive. For myself. And then, as I was saying earlier, my presumption is that will naturally connect with an audience.” 

I read once that Tommy used to not do his homework in school because he felt it would make the next day more interesting. As he’s also done a tour which was completely unscripted, and hosted a chat show where he didn’t know who the guest was going to be until they walked out in front of him, he clearly has a particular fondness for the unexpected! But is there a side to him that’s the exact opposite of that in some way? Where things have to be done in a certain way, and that’s just how it has to be?

“Ya know, a lot of performers would be control freaks, so yeah, I suppose there is. Sometimes, there wouldn’t be a whole lot of difference between the artistic and the autistic. With autism, it’s often the security of the same thing happening over and over and over again, that’s needed. Anyone who’s really good at something has the ability to obsess. And sometimes that ability to obsess is very natural to them. I think one of the calling-cards of autism is that ability to obsess about something over and over and over again. So I’m not sure that artistic ability is that far removed from being somewhere on the spectrum. Like, I’m a great man for talkin’ about freedom on stage, but I can be a bit obsessive, too! I’m sure the people who live with me would tell ya, yeah, daddy’s a bit of a control freak! [laughs].”

The last date on the Irish leg of Tommy’s Out Of The Whirlwind tour is in Tullamore. How does Tommy usually feel when a tour comes to an end? Is it happiness? Relief? A touch of sadness?

“I used to work maybe forty-eight, fifty weeks of the year, so what would happen is you’d release a dvd and then you’d have three months to get a new show together. But you’re performing over those three months, too. So there was never a big, clean break of four or five months off, and then start again. But this time there is. And the night in Tullamore is the last night of the Irish tour, and I have relatives around Tullamore so we’re lookin’ forward to a big party night there! [laughs]. I’ve worked really hard over the last fourteen months doing stand-up, so the show is very ‘fit.’ So yeah, now I’m lookin’ forward to meeting my wife in the jacks of the Bridge House Hotel! [laughs]. Just havin’ a bit of craic and lettin’ go on that night, cos’ the Bridge House is always a great venue for us.” 

Having learned in that very recent past that Nathan Carter can click every bone in his body (so he tells me!), that Mario Rosenstock doesn’t drive, and that Colette Fitzpatrick is double-jointed, my final question to Tommy was this: Is there anything like that, kind of unusual, weird or strange about him, of which his fans may not be aware?

“I’m colour-blind, I’ve got flat feet, and I’m tone deaf! You can actually buy glasses in America…[pauses]….or was it Italy? Jaysus, I’d be an awful explorer! [laughs]. But they fix colour-blindness anyway. But as far as being tone-deaf and flat-footed goes, they’re not fixable! It’s not enough to claim disability, but it’s tough to live with! [laughs]. 

ENDS