An Alphabet blog - A is for Alzheimer's

When I hug my father we hold on tight.

If he forgets who I am, well that’s all right -

A is for Alzheimer’s.

I had known for some time that something was not right with my father. I had noticed him repeating himself, wondering where he had left things, getting lost in the middle of conversations… But I did nothing about it. My mother was very ill at that time, going through round after round of surgery, and I suppose I didn’t want to face the idea that there might be something ELSE to deal with.

  But it was a lousy strategy. My cousin called me one day to ask if I was concerned at all about my dad’s memory, as she was finding a noticeable change in him. And the walls caved in and I realised, of course, that my head had been in the sand the whole time. Maybe if I kept ignoring it, I must have been saying to myself, his condition would not be real.

  For my family, we began the series of tests that would lead to an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. This part was truly awful – my father was in denial, and he was angry about the whole thing, had some choice names for the doctors, was talking about refusing the go for the tests… And all the time he was getting worse. And he was still driving at this stage. At home, he was beginning to avoid the shower – he was forgetting how to turn it on and off and was too embarrassed and angry to ask for help - and was having real problems with remote controls, the cooker, the radio and CD players.

  One of my worst early moments was sitting beside my father in the doctor’s room when the test questions started – who is the Prime Minister? What month is it? Are you on the ground floor of this hospital or the first floor? And my dad would do his best, but he didn’t answer any of those three questions correctly. The doctor showed him a diagram on a page and asked him to copy it with a pen. He made a reasonable attempt, before the hardest moment of them all:

    The doctor picked the pen up from the desk and held it up between his thumb and his finger.

  - What is the name for that object? he asked my father.

  My father looked at the pen, looked at the doctor, looked at the floor and smiled, looked at the pen… and then turned his big sad brown eyes on me. And in that moment, I seemed to sense everything changing colour.

  Over the course of the three years that followed, his condition worsened and he went through a series of phases. There was a drinking phase… there was a dismantling-the-bedroom phase. A Hiding Things phase. A long, harrowing, Distrusting Everybody phase, and then the one he became famous for, a Walking Phase, when he would leave the house, sometimes three times a day, and walk all the way across Coleraine to his old childhood neighbourhood, and back again, in all weathers. Somehow finding his way home on every occasion.

  Now, he is in care – at The Brook in Coleraine, a warm and welcoming complex, where he is beloved by the staff and seems happy. He has virtually no language left, just a stew of sounds and noises with occasional words or old phrases surfacing occasionally. But he remains very sociable and smiles and laughs often. And in answer to the question EVERYBODY asks me – I don’t know if he recognises me or not. I don’t worry about it anymore. When I walk into the room with a smile and a hug, he smiles back. Sometimes I think there’s a glimmer, but it’s fine with me either way.

  I have a few sad memories of the early times when words began to fail him, or when he realised for a second how confused he was and couldn’t find his way back to certainty. I remember him buying a book one day in Waterstone’s in Coleraine, and I then found it months later, stuffed in a drawer. He had obviously been unable to follow the text, and he had hidden it away and it had never been mentioned again.

  So what do we learn from these experiences? I urge all of you to make plans as early as you can, and have those difficult conversations now, before you get to a day when a doctor holds up an everyday object in front of someone you love, and the word ‘pen’ has fled from their tongue, never to return.

  During the writing of this album, it became clear that I was still processing the loss of my mother and the ongoing decline of my father – and it became clear to me that this situation has become - and remains - the central trauma of the middle period of my life. I am an only child, and we were such a close, happy little trio when I was a youngster.

  In 2015 I had a prolonged ‘dry spell’ – these come and go for anyone who writes for a living, but this one was worryingly long and desperately arid. I would sit for hours with the guitar and the same old licks and chords and moves would come out. The lyrics didn’t have anything interesting to say. I was totally and utterly bored with myself. And I couldn’t see any way out of it…

  Until late that year… I was on the road doing a series of shows as special guest of Barbara Dickson, and I was backstage at the Dunamaise Theatre in Portlaois, waiting for my time to go back on stage. I was strumming a very simple pattern on the guitar, and out of my mouth – like something learned in childhood and wholly remembered years later, like something strange and complete that you would say in your sleep – came the entire first verse: ‘When I hug my father we hold on tight – if he forgets who I am, well, that’s all right. A is for Alzheimer’s’.

  I stopped almost in fright and wondered where it had come from. But I have learned that at times like that you don’t stop and wonder, you just keep receiving. I immediately began to wonder what B would be for, and C and so on. And within the next few days, the other letters of this alphabet began to appear… And that was the first new song in over a year, and the first one to be completed in this body of work. And once that song was on paper, the rest of them followed - sometimes they appear like that, like elephants coming out of the bush, each of them holding the tail of the elephant in front.

Frank Zappa, my first job and a lasting souvenir...

My daughter Sian and I are going to the Beanbag Cinema in Belfast this Saturday night to see the Frank Zappa documentary, Eat That Question. And tonight I’m remembering an old cassette of Zappa tracks that I was given (unbelievably) 30 years ago, and which I still have…

Everybody’s talking about vinyl these days, but few of us seem to miss the cassette – the compact little box which contained a multitude of riches, the mixtape and the occasionally strange bedfellows that cassette recording would make - I have a number of those in mind, Big Star next to Marc Cohn or Elton John on the other side of Steely Dan, for example.

There’s a cardboard box somewhere full of these little boxes that I just couldn’t throw away – many of them had been put together for me by the late Phil Sinclair from his shop in Portrush, who crosses my mind from time to time. So I see his handwriting on old Curtis Mayfield collections, and I just can’t throw them away, even though I have all these tracks on CD now...

There’s one that Phil had nothing to do with though, and it holds a special place in my heart. It’s a TDK chrome tape, 90 minutes, and on the front it says simply one word in Orange felt tip – ZAPPA. No track listing, just that one word.

Here’s why it’s special. The first job I ever had in my life was in Kentucky Fried Chicken in Shaftesbury Square in Belfast. I lasted four days – not because of any fault on my part, but because I ended up getting another job and leaving. The first guy I met, after the manager, was Keith. I remember him as a stocky, reddish-haired guy about my age.

He showed me the ropes – he’d been there for ages and he knew all the angles. And he was good fun. He was my first workmate, when I think of it. He was a hi-fi fanatic, and he once asked me to accompany him on a lunchtime run to Lyric Hi-Fi to look at some separates – amplifiers, speakers, receivers, etc. I remember it was a rain-soaked afternoon, and we got into his mini. The car was a flying machine – he had shoehorned a bigger engine into the chassis, and stripped out everything that could potentially weigh it down and slow it up – so there were roll bars, but no back seats and no carpets. There was a hole in the floor between my feet. I could see the road racing by underneath, and occasionally we sloshed through deep puddles and my ankles would be awash with rain water.

We had a conversation on the way, about music, and he raved about Frank Zappa, as Zappa fans will do to this day. I had only ever heard ‘City of Tiny Lites’, with an extraordinary early claymation video, on The Old Grey Whistle Test (which had transfixed me) and he assured me there were riches galore to be savoured.

On the day that I was leaving he presented me with the cassette, simply with the word ZAPPA on the front. I took it home and was hooked, and have been hooked ever since. There was no way of knowing what was on there – lots of bizarre instrumentals, and no indication of which versions they were. There’s a beautiful version of Peaches En Regalia, for example, but it’s not the original. There’s Trouble Every Day with some INCENDIARY guitar (the hair goes up on my arms as I think of it) and lots more beside – Love of My Life, City of Tiny Lites, Cheepnis, Ship Ahoy, all kinds of wonderful stuff.

It’s made all the more remarkable by the quality of the sound – a good strong signal on a chrome tape is a lasting thing. It sounds as fresh today as it ever did, and it reminds me pungently of that time. And the weird thing is – I don’t really WANT the original albums on CD. I just want to put that tape on again, and NOT KNOW what comes up next.

Tanglewood... a new treat for the fingers

Guitar players will always tell you – you can never have too many guitars.

I was approached earlier this year by the lovely people at Tanglewood, and asked if I would be interested in playing one of their instruments.

(I told them I actually already OWNED a Tanglewood, a beautiful little vintage-styled parlour guitar (see right) that I occasionally play at gigs as a back-up, and for those portions of the show when I play in different tunings – and it’s the guitar on the original recording of ‘The Road to Fivemiletown’)

They were suggesting that I try out a couple of their guitars, and I was delighted to oblige – why not have a couple of extra instruments in the house, after all…? They very kindly furnished me with a couple of beauties: a gorgeous vintage sunburst TW40 SD. It’s Tanglewood’s take on the old bell-shouldered Gibson J45, and a lovely thing it is, too. A big rich, rounded tone that sounds great in front of a microphone.

But they also sent me the Masterdesign TS1 (right), which is one of the more high-end ranges from Tanglewood, designed by the legendary Swedish luthier Michael Sanden. It’s also a gorgeous thing – a solid spruce top with mahogany back and sides. Very elegant and simple in its look and feel, with little touches of flame maple and ebony here and there. It has a couple of interesting design features – the ‘paintbrush’ shape of the bridge is designed to spread the resonance on the bass side a little deeper.

And the guitar also comes with a zero fret, right down at the bottom of the fingerboard, where most guitars simply allow the strings to go through the nut. It makes for a more comfortable playing position for the fingers at the lower end of the neck, and evens out the string height.

I have just had an LR Baggs Anthem pickup fitted to the instrument, and took it out for the first gig, at the Bronte Centre in Rathfriland on Saturday night, and was just blown away by the sound. The guitar has sounded wonderful on its own, when I’ve played it unplugged. The challenge is always how to replicate that sound at high volume in a concert setting, and I’m delighted to say, it sounds as fresh and natural and resonant at high volume as it does in my kitchen. And it’s a beauty to play – comfortable and well balanced and responsive.

The trusty Lowden O-10... since 1993.

The trusty Lowden O-10... since 1993.

My intention is to take the guitar on the road for the long series of gigs I have lined up for November, including the Irish tour with Barbara Dickson.

For a performer so closely linked with a particular instrument, this somehow feels a little like taking up with a younger mistress.

I won’t be neglecting my old faithful, though - my main stage guitar for 23 years has been a Lowden O-10 (left, above), a cedar beauty that I’ve owned and cherished since October 1993.

It has been across the Atlantic and back maybe a dozen times, for trips to Canada and the United States, and has been by my side on ferries to Scotland, and all over Ireland. It has been the guitar recorded on every single album I’ve released, and has been in and out of radio stations all over the place. Over the years it has fallen over on outdoor stages, been scraped by clumsy players who borrowed it (I stopped THAT carry on ages ago…), been thrown around by baggage handlers and has been knocked and banged against all kinds of microphone stands, amplifiers, drum kits, other guitars and all kinds of stage equipment. It was once played by The Jayhawks for a BBC Ralph McLean session. And it has – apart from one night the original EMG pick-up gave up the ghost – never let me down.

For November, I’ll hand her over to my friend Denis Currie, who has done amazing work on my guitars over the years, and ask him to give her the whole ‘spa treatment experience – perhaps a refret and a re-setting up of the guitar, to take account of wear and tear.

And I’ll take to the road with the new Tanglewood – if you’re at any of the gigs, come over and let me know what you think of the sound…



The Road to Fivemiletown - from 2013

I recently came across this film of a performance of 'The Road to Fivemiletown', shot by Adam Frew during a Christmas concert December 13, 2013 at Flowerfield Arts Centre. With the wonderful John McCullough on the Flowerfield grand piano.

From the Journal: Stirling Services, May 1

Roaring an upward diagonal across the map of Scotland, I drift across the white line and find myself here, in this services compound on the approach to Stirling. A chance to call home, to pause for coffee and walk, dazed and bow-legged, among these short tempered pilgrims. I read a newspaper and watch a wall of pines swaying beyond the car park, and think about distances, and about my father.

It occurs to me that his Alzheimer’s is a poor reward from karma for a largely blameless life. I sip my coffee and watch these trees move, deep and green, and I send my love across the distance to him, imagining it arriving with a warm, soft landing (like clouds drifting open). Radio waves, telepathy and prayer.

The road signs tell me I am close to Bannockburn here, the blood soaked fields where history was written. But I’m passing through, rolling eastwardly without a quarrel, leaving behind a litter of crumpled napkins and a dusting of icing sugar.

Shelf Life: Night terrors between the covers

As a child, I suffered terribly from nightmares for a year or so. I can’t be certain about my age then, but in memory it seems to have been shortly after we moved to the house at Hawthorn Place, so I must have been five or six. I had the little box room at the front of the house, and would wake up with the terrors two or three times a week. My mother would come in and find me gasping, and she would sit on the edge of my bed until I calmed down and went back to sleep. We began a long habit of leaving the landing light on.

For a while, we weren’t sure what was causing the anxiety. And then my mother thought she had pinned it down – there was a bookcase in the room, and some of the novels had pretty lurid covers.

My father was working on the night shift at the Sperrin Textiles factory, and he and his workmates would swap all kinds of paperbacks through the week – so there was a revolving library of pulp coming through the house. Mostly thrillers, Desmond Bagley, Alastair Maclean and the like, but occasionally true crime (Helter Skelter, The Boston Strangler), war novels and horror.

There was no room for a bookshelf in mum and dad’s room, so the paperbacks would pile up on the shelves in my room, and I was fascinated by books, constantly examining them and reading the copy on the back. I don’t recall being tempted to read any of them at that age, but I was hooked on novels as objects nonetheless – things to be turned over and examined and wondered about. And since I was only looking at them and handling them rather than reading them, they entered my consciousness visually. For example, I always associate The Exorcist with the shadowy image of the young girl on the original Corgi paperback (see above), an image that predates the film.

Perhaps the worst of them all, however, were a series of covers for Agatha Christie novels. My mother loved Agatha Christie, and for some reason couldn’t seem to be persuaded to reach much else. In fact, in the years that followed, once she had gone through the Christie canon, her appetite for reading seemed to dwindle, and she became more interested in television.

Although Agatha Christie was pretty mild stuff compared to Helter Skelter and the rest, for some reason the cover designs for the Fontana editions – a whole series of beautiful, sinister paintings by Tom Adams - were particularly grim. And my mother reasoned that I had stared at the illustrations long enough to be horrified into nightmares by them.

She could have been right – I have no idea where the nightmares came from. Or where they went – my mother demanded that the books be taken out of my room, and claimed afterwards that the nightmares promptly ceased.

I was reminded of all of this recently when visiting the Foyle Book Shop at the Craft Village in Derry. There on the shelf were a couple of the Fontana Agatha Christies – including Lord Edgeware Dies, (left) which I remember particularly vividly. The letter-opener in the back of the head was especially clear in my memory. And another I hadn’t seen before, A Caribbean Mystery (above). If I’d had THAT one in my room I don’t think I’d have got a wink of sleep.

There was another one – A Pocketful of Rye, which I seem to remember featured a blackbird skeleton, and By the Pricking of My Thumbs had a cracked doll with an eye missing. Murder in Mesopatamia had an ugly, leering clay face and a strangler’s rope. Even today, I can’t imagine a publisher going so far with book designs. They’re a particularly creepy bunch of covers.

Shelf Life: Jan Carson - Children's Children

This was my travelling companion through the recent trips to Scotland and London. What a treat – these stories brimmed with a delightful cock-eyed surrealism and yet were also rooted in gritty reality, many of them set in east Belfast, with some really stunning turns of phrase here and there: ‘She worries constantly. The feel of it is a pain in her ribcage, as if worry is made of sand and the sand has gathered inside her and cannot be shifted while lying down’. And there was lots of humour, but the overwhelming mood was pretty dark, which really appealed to me. On many occasions I was reminded of the engaging, off-kilter world of Paul Durcan’s poetry. The characters - and their situations - really stayed with me, always a good sign.

Scotland March 22-24: bonnier than ever

Driving north east into the brightness after coming off the ferry, there’s a sense of déjà vu – I’ve done this journey a few times for sure, but never with this excited sense of purpose - and I realise, never alone. I’ve always been with the family, or years ago in a van with Trevor Dixon and the country band, or a couple of years ago, with Ben Glover.

Picture by Jonathan Cosens, Moffat

Picture by Jonathan Cosens, Moffat

And it feels good - middle of the afternoon, on the road with three shows to look forward to, arrangements all made for accommodation, tank full of petrol, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young on the stereo.

The towns in the west look familiar – beautiful little sandstone houses with views out over the Irish Sea, until the road turns inland and it’s rolling hills and bridges until we hit the motorway. And then it’s that motorway thing – miles and miles of two lane, overpasses and bridges and trucks.

The road pumps you into the heart of Glasgow before you really know it, and you find yourself on this elevated motorway that appears to run between the rooftops of the city, while you wait for your exit. And then it’s down to street level, where it gets complicated, a maze of one-way streets that suddenly open out into bypasses – the satellite navigation on my phone is a little slow on the uptake, so it tells you to turn left into streets that you’ve already overshot. I miss my turn into the hotel, and end up having to go five blocks north, eventually missing a turn and ending up back onto the motorway. Eventually I pull in beside the hotel, where construction workers are tearing up the street, and find my location, the engine roasted from the non-stop drive from the ferry.

The hotel is close to the top end of Sauchiehall Street, and I walk the whole way down to the Buchanan Galleries, just to stretch my legs after the journey and get a feel for the city. It convinces me that I should walk to the gig – it’s only a few blocks. So later I pack my rucksack with cables and CDs, and set out on foot with my guitar. I’m abruptly reminded of how steep some of the hills are in Glasgow. It’s a uniquely characterful city – a real sense of grit but a very elegant place, lots of beautiful stonework and tall windows and wide streets. I hear ‘Saturday Night’ by The Blue Nile in my head the whole time I’m walking – ‘when it’s cold and it’s starlight, and the streets are so big and wide’.

Live at The Admiral - picture by John Melrose

Live at The Admiral - picture by John Melrose

The gig is a treat – a lovely, low ceilinged basement room at the Admiral Bar, where I’m the guest of the Star Folk Club and The Fallen Angels music club. There’s a lovely support spot from Glasgow songwriter John McMeekin, and an audience who want to listen and engage. Afterwards, there’s a couple of pints a few streets away in the Horseshoe Bar. And then I walk back up Sauchiehall Street at midnight, with my guitar and my rucksack, feeling like a real musician.

Over breakfast the next morning, I rise and pack, check out of the hotel and take my stuff over to the car. And then I go for a walk in search of breakfast, and I sit in the window of a Pret A Manger and finish what I’ve been reading: Bukowski on Writing.

The book started unpromisingly with lots of whining letters to publishers and bitching about rejections, and then settled into something kind of wonderful. The main thing, surprise surprise, is to keep working, to stay honest, not to get greedy, not to get hooked on any kind of fame nonsense, and to stay alive to everything.

‘The secret is in the line,’ he says. ‘And I mean one line at a time. Lines containing factories, and a shoe on its side next to a beercan in a hotel room. Everything is here, it flashes back and forth. They are not going to beat us, not even the graves. The joke is ours; we pass through in high style; there’s nothing they can do with us’.

Closing the book, it’s back up the street, back in the car and on the road south, towards the Borders, where I have a house concert in Moffat. The scenery once I leave the city is kind of breath-taking – huge, rolling fields in shades of brass and gold, the motorway rolling down into the valleys in deep, slow curves, up again through dazzling little showers, the sun moving across the landscape, clusters of pines in the gaps between the hills. I have a sudden desire to pull into a layby and set off across the moor… But I’m hemmed in by heavy lorries and I press on into the early afternoon.

Live at Moffat - picture by Jonathan Cosens

Live at Moffat - picture by Jonathan Cosens

Eventually – and much earlier than expected – I see a turn-off for Moffat, and as I approach the village there’s a car park on the left, with a sign that says ‘River Walks’. I pull in and park. On the ‘main road’ in front of me, a mallard duck flaps down into the centre of the road, shakes his tailfeathers, settles his wings and walks up the centre line, like he’s the mayor. I pull on my walking shoes and head up the river.

The water runs in a straight line through a shallow channel, over pebbles and roots – it’s a very musical accompaniment. Eventually there’s a gate and a path to my right that leads across open country and the main road beyond, back into the village. I take it, and find myself walking through the outskirts – glorious old sandstone houses with white window frames, dormer windows and slate roofs, ivy growing up the front, wrought iron gates and the rest. Absolutely beautiful old properties.

John Weatherby and his partner Mairi make me very welcome, giving over their spare room and welcoming a dozen or so friends into their ‘performance space’. There’s dinner and red wine and some songs and stories. And then more red wine. And eventually, when everyone has gone, John offers me a short single malt tour of Scotland, stopping off at Scapa, Old Pulteney and Highland Park before I navigate unsteadily to bed, my head buzzing.

The next day, the road north east is equally beautiful – more rolling hills and golden fields, and Kirkcaldy is gleaming with bright cold, and I park up and walk down the waterfront and up into the town centre.

Mary and Davey Stewart’s house is a beautiful space - I stayed here with Ben a couple of years ago and I remember it fondly. Nice old furniture, walls painted white and adorned with beautiful original art, the stairs edged by tasteful pieces of wood sculpture or pottery. And once again, I’m in the hands of gracious hosts.

Barbara Dickson joins me for a song at Kirkcaldy Acoustic Music Club

Barbara Dickson joins me for a song at Kirkcaldy Acoustic Music Club

Kirkcaldy Acoustic Music Club is hosted by the Polish Servicemen’s Club in the town, and it’s just like I remember it being on my last trip, filled with warmth and welcome. From the minute I start, the stories and the songs just seem to connect. High point was when Barbara Dickson - who was in the audience, as an old friend of my hosts - accepted an invitation to come up for a song, and we sang a duet on the old Everly Brothers’ song ‘Sleepless Nights’, much to the delight of the audience.

(It was an evening of connection, and there’s no explaining it when it happens. It feels like it all just… rolls forward in solid forward motion. You could do exactly the same thing the next night and it could just as easily fall and lie flat on its back… But all three nights were filled with that sweetness of connection – when the ball hits the centre of the racket)

Thanks to my hosts, there are a few more single malts before bedtime, and the next day, heavy headed and dry-mouthed, I rise to a house brimming with brightness. It’s a wonderful day for heading west to the Irish Sea and home for Easter. I pack the car and make my way across the Forth, up through the midlands and west, the sky brightening at one minute and closing in the next, and showers blessing the landscape along the way.

Shelf Life: Carol Shields - The Stone Diaries

‘Not people die, but worlds die in them’

Yevgeny Yevtushenko

I’m not sure what made me pick up a copy of The Stone Diaries in a second hand bookshop last year – although I remember reading great reviews, and being aware of its stature as a work, I think for many years I had unfairly considered it to be a ‘woman’s novel’. Maybe it's a cover design thing – those pastel colours and the little bouquet of daisies on the front.

I think I also picked it up out of some curiosity – the Shields family were well-loved neighbours of my wife Andrea and her family back in Ottawa in the late 70s and through the 80s, and I must have perhaps thought the book would give me some insight into that world.

But in fact the book delivered an enormous amount more. Essentially it’s a family saga of four generations, told through the life of the central character Daisy Goodwill. It’s a complicated story which I won’t elaborate on too much – her mother dies in childbirth and she is raised by a neighbour, and eventually marries the neighbour’s son. And the book's father figures – her own, her adopted father, her husband – die young, or walk away from their marriages, into thin air. Children accumulate and the story fans out into their lives and then returns to Daisy as she grows old, the central pillar of the story. A story of one woman’s life, told in a fairly straight line – first chapter is called Birth, the last is called Death.

And it’s astonishing – this seemingly ordinary life, this woman who considers herself to be nothing special. Shields gets right under the skin of these everyday lives and reveals the teeming multitude of every human life. The details, the emotions, the unspoken words, the night thoughts, the little mysteries that pass between family members. I found myself completely caught up – Shields (who died in 2003) has a stunning and uncanny way of maintaining a double focus: as Daisy declines in her last days in hospital, Shields manages with great skill to keep the reader inside the minds of both the central character and those who visit her, unfolding the awkward conversations that float around hospital rooms.

All of this struck me hard when I thought of my own mother’s decline, and the long empty days she spent in hospital wards, sleeping and waking and passing the time. As I read of Daisy’s reveries and thoughts, I wondered what thoughts my mother must have gone through, the childhood memories and regrets and joys, as she floated in and out of sleep in the boredom between visiting hours.

‘Her body’s planet with its atoms and molecules and lumps of matter is blooming all of a sudden with headlines, nightmares, greeting cards, medicinal bitterness, the odours of her own breath and blood, someone near her door humming a tune she comes close to recognising’.

But the larger message of the book is ultimately the same one that I cling to time and time again – as Dylan puts it: ‘he not busy being born is busy dying’. The idea of feeling and experiencing and living every moment to its fullest, as the clock ticks:

‘The larger loneliness of our lives evolves from our unwillingness to spend ourselves, stir ourselves. We are always damping down our inner weather, permitting ourselves the comfort of postponement, or rehearsals’.

Shelf life: Patti Smith - M Train

Finished the Patti Smith M Train this morning and have felt strange and disconnected since. It’s a book with no story, no real characters apart from Patti herself, and she’s haunted, sleepless, still grief-struck throughout, looking for signs and meanings in everything.

Patti Smith M Train

The book is beautifully written, and often seems little more than a series of dream journal entries at times, or diaries of pilgrimages to the graves and houses of other artists – Rimbaud, Plath, Kahlo, Genet - where she leaves little tokens of respect. On several occasions in the book, she walks away from a scene and leaves something behind by mistake – her Polaroid camera, the book she was reading, her notebook.

And the narrative disappears, often for days, in tangents and diversions. She goes looking for a passage in a book and it leads her back to childhood - and then back to her early days of marriage, and back to present day. And all around her, things change – her children are grown and gone, Fred is dead. Her favourite café disappears seemingly overnight like it might have been a dream all along.

At the centre of it all she finds a scruffy old bungalow in Rockaway and prepares to turn it into a shelter from the city, a sun-drenched, sand-blown writing retreat. And in comes Hurricane Sandy and pushes all of that invested hope sideways, almost obliterates it. The bungalow becomes a central theme in the book for me – a reminder that all of our plans are at the mercy of the elements, at the whim of forces bigger than all of us.

I finished the book like someone awaking from a fever, from a dream full of portents and symbols, feeling confused, strangely satisfied and not satisfied at the same time. And in a way, maybe that’s its success as a piece of art. Maybe that’s what she wanted all along – to transfer her own restlessness and flu-like confusion to the reader.

‘We want things we cannot have. We seek to reclaim a certain moment, sound, sensation. I want to hear my mother’s voice. I want to see my children as children. Hands small, feet swift. Everything changes. Boy grown, father dead, daughter taller than me, weeping from a bad dream. Please stay forever, I say to the things I know. Don’t go. Don’t grow.’

The deepening coastal shelf of... parenthood

The ghost of Philip Larkin followed me home from Sainsbury's the other day.

Over by the cheese counter in the grey empty middle of a Sunday afternoon, I passed a woman struggling with her two boys. The oldest one had plonked himself down in the pram in place of his tired younger brother – and she was trying to encourage him to his feet, while coaxing the younger one back into the pram.

Eventually the older one got up, but by now the younger one wouldn't sit down. The possibility arose that the pair of them might suddenly run off and roam the aisles in a circuitous, destructive escape bid - while she pushed an empty pram for hours down the canyons between the shelves, calling their names in vain.

-  Will you sit down? She asked – and he complained and refused.

- Please sit down, she implored him.

And still he refused. I saw her shoulders slump.

- If I give you money, will you sit down?

And she began to rummage in her purse for change.

I got through the checkout and headed for the exit. Ahead of me, an enormous woman was pushing a trolley, packed mountainously high with groceries. This was a large woman in her early 30s – with a stern, long-suffering look, about six feet tall, rolls of fat and muscle across her shoulders and torso. Ahead of her, her husband pushed a similar trolley, also packed to the bows with teetering, loose bags of shopping.

He was also large – a big, shapeless guy with swinging limbs and a kind of beaten, defeated look. In front of him, in the little folding seat of the trolley, his little boy was leaning over backwards, attempting to grab tasty items out of the shopping bags. His father, muttering under his breath, was snatching the bags and jars from his grasp, and putting them back into the bags with one hand, and trying to keep the trolley moving with the other.

Between him and his wife, their little girl sat down heavily on one of the chairs near the café.

- Move, you, said the mother to the daughter.

The little girl, tired and with a slightly mischievous look, stayed where she was and thought about disobedience.

- MOVE!! Roared her mother suddenly, the Sunday afternoon shoppers glancing over as they loaded their own trolleys.


And up she got, maybe six years old, and headed for the exit between the trolleys, and back to the family home, to fill the cupboards and the freezer and the fridge, until the same time next week.

Poor Blue - Mickey stands up in public again

The truth is, sometimes you're just a little too late...

 It was so long ago, I could probably fake it, and claim I was right there, at the front corner of the bar near the stage (my feet sticking to the carpet), when the spark of punk set the cobwebs on fire at Spuds in Portstewart.

But the fact is... the Punk thing kind of passed me by, as a live phenomenon anyway. Sure, Rudi and The Outcasts might have played Spuds, but by the time I was just underage enough to blag my way in out of the rain, the circus had already left town.

I was 17, stretched out on the teenage rack of boredom, acne, exams and an enormous melancholy. I took refuge in post-Punk Spuds – The Perfect Crime. International Rescue. The tasty musicianship of bands like Southbound Train, B4, Richmond Hill.

And then I heard The Mighty Shamrocks. And for that year, I caught every gig they played at Spuds. It was the only live music venue I knew. I had virtually no pocket money. But I saved what I could, and once or twice WALKED from Harpur's Hill to Portstewart - and hitched home again in the dark - to hear this band.


The Mighty Shamrocks - pic by Keith Gilmore

The Mighty Shamrocks - pic by Keith Gilmore

It's hard to define in retrospect. I remember shapes they threw - chins jutting, leather jackets, tinted glasses. Skinny ties. A Roland Jazz Chorus amp. A worn-out Telecaster. 

The guitar player sounded like The Pretenders. The rhythm section sounded like Some Girls-era Stones. The singer sounded like Bob Geldof fighting for the mic with Willie De Ville. 

I remember 'Breaking up with Harry' most of all. Like 'Reelin in the Years' being sneered by Blonde on Blonde Dylan. The charts were full of image-conscious New Romantics, preening and pouting. And here, in this seaside pub lounge, was this scruffy quartet singing oblique songs about Mexican fishermen and referencing Coronation Street and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I was hooked these were actual SONGS. Pop had become so rarefied and refined almost out of its own existence by then – we were in a high-altitude world, all mirrors and image and attitude, and the oxygen was pretty scarce. The song structures had thinned out, too - become little more than skeletons. Coat hangers. Skittery little drum patterns and nervy, processed vocals and guitars. 

The Shamrocks seemed three dimensional in comparison. I bought the single - 'Condor Woman & 'Stand Up in Public', and waited for the LP. The band went into Homestead Studios with Mudd Wallace and recorded and album for Good Vibrations. But-

The one and only single... Condor Woman.

The one and only single... Condor Woman.

The truth is, sometimes you're just a little too late...

The taxman came after the label, the project got shelved and the band went their separate ways - bassist Roe Butcher and guitarist Dougie Gough to other musical projects; frontman Mickey Stephens to academia in the United States and Paddy McNichol (until his untimely death) as manager of the fabled venue Connolly's of Leap down in Cork).

Thanks to fellow Shamrocks fan Fran McCloskey, who had a digital copy, the album, now called 'Paddy', was finally released a couple of years ago. There were a couple of celebration gigs, with Paddy's son on the drums, sparks that could have started fires, and the players separated again.

Now here comes Mickey Stephens again, sounding like he's never been gone, with a new project, Poor Blue, and an album You're Welcome. It's not the Shamrocks - and of course, it shouldn't be - what would be the point? But every now and then when he opens his throat and I hear that yelp, I'm transported. 

The swagger remains - he was always a writer blessed with a beautiful reading list and enormous confidence, and on character studies like 'Worth Your Time', he really goes for broke. Top of my list is 'Good for You Daddy', a wonderful lowlife portrait that relies on acoustic guitar and Mickey's delivery.

And the rest of it is laced with brawny Telecaster bite, big drums, Stonesy riffs and memorable turns of phrase. Check out their Facebook page to catch videos and recordings from the band. Copies of the album are available from Head Records and Sick Records in Belfast - and I'm told that copies of 'Paddy' will be available there soon, too, all these years later, You can also download the album from Amazon and you can buy copies by clicking on the CDBaby link here:


 Rewind - back to shortly after where we came in. It's early 1985. I'm a teenage dad, out of work and living on an edge-of-town housing estate, miles from the housing estate I grew up in. I've become distanced from my family and friends. Word from home tells me that Spuds is closing. The Shamrocks are gone, the punks have gone. All the people I went to school with seem to have gone. The bands I wanted to form have all fallen to ruins. On some February nights, when the bedtime stories are finished and my little girl has gone to sleep, I find myself slipping into the spare room, picking up the acoustic guitar and quietly starting to work on some song ideas. For the first six months, every one of them sounds like 'Breaking up with Harry'.

The truth is, sometimes you're just a little too late.

Rock Goes to College, 1983 - The Mighty Shamrocks perform Breaking Up With Harry and Condor Woman.

Goat's Milk - a cause for celebration

Goat's Milk by Frank Ormsby

When I was 12 or 13 (and still kind of friendless) at Coleraine Inst, I would spend most lunchtimes indoors, wandering the shelves of the big library at the school. Like everything else in my first couple of years at that school, the room seemed enormous and complicated to me, with a balcony, and imposing portraits of former headmasters glowering down on damp teenagers hiding from the rain, reading the Daily Mirror.

  I didn’t want conversation – I hadn’t found my tongue yet (that would come later). So I had little to say about football or The Clash, and would avoid everyone by hiding out in the baked-dust gloom under the balcony, near the radiator, in the one section nobody else wanted to browse – poetry.

  I’d read RL Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verse as a youngster, and craved those rhythms, I suppose. Something soothing and comprehensible and bite-sized. Something I could understand and make my own, in a world that seemed about to overwhelm me with its strange rules and unknowable historical significance. And something you could slip into conversation. A name you could drop that would separate you out from the rest of your world. So I would randomly grab slim volumes of poetry from the school library and take them home, and scratch my head in bafflement at the work of poets like WS Merwin and John Berryman.

A Northern Spring by Frank Ormsby

  By the time I left school and found myself in the big bad world beyond, poetry was something I felt I had to leave behind – a luxury that would have to wait, somehow. But in the late 80s, in some second hand bookshop somewhere, I chanced upon a gorgeous thing: a used copy of A Northern Spring by Frank Ormsby. It had a delicious print of a warplane flying over a rural landscape on the front in blue, and simple lettering. It looked inviting and serious and calm all at the same time, somehow.

  The central title ‘suite’ is a series of poems spoken by the dead GIs who landed in Normandy on D-Day, in remembrance of their time spent in Fermanagh, preparing for the invasion. I was completely hooked on the idea that each poem came from a different soul, told a different story, but that all of the stories added up to a larger, enormously sad narrative. It was one of those books you read that you never quite recover from.

  When I first started writing songs a few years later, I was conscious that I could inhabit other souls, like Ormsby had done. I loved the idea of putting my arms into the sleeves of someone else’s coat and telling their story. It became – and remains - a big influence on me, and I recommend it constantly to other songwriters, as a personal touchstone.

  Over the years, I have returned time and time again to A Northern Spring, and I’ve read Ormsby in a number of anthologies – his recent collection, Fireflies, is also a classic.

Anthony Toner meets Frank Ormsby - at No Alibis

Anthony Toner meets Frank Ormsby - at No Alibis

  On Friday past, as I arrived at No Alibis, I noticed a new Ormsby collection on display – Goat’s Milk: New and Selected Poems, published by Bloodaxe. I immediately told David Torrans I was having a copy of that, and purchased it. And as we were setting up for the concert, I recited a couple of poems and announced that I wanted to read a couple of them during the show, and plug the upcoming launch – at The McMordie Hall in Queens on March 25.

  After the soundcheck I went off for a bite to eat, and when I came back, David said: ‘Guess who’s coming to the gig tonight?’ He had called Frank and invited him to the show. And so it was that Frank Ormsby got to be my special guest at No Alibis on Friday evening, reading a couple of poems from the new collection. What a gentleman. What a writer. What an evening – a real high point of my performing life.

  Now... If you like what I do, you’ll love what Frank Ormsby does – there’s a direct influence. I urge you to call at No Alibis (on Botanic Avenue in Belfast) and pick up a copy of Goat’s Milk (which has an introduction by Michael Longley, and which contains many of the delightful poems from A Northern Spring - and some glorious new works, too), or even better, come along to the McMordie Hall in the School of Music at Queen’s on Wednesday March 25 at 6.30pm, when No Alibis will host the launch event. I’ll be there, in continuing celebration of this man’s work, which continues to move and delight me.

  For more details on the Goat’s Milk launch event, get in touch with No Alibis directly on (028) 9031 9601.

Street suss serenade

Cornmarket Busker

Cornmarket, pushing my bike through the post-festive throngs today, everybody in the doldrums, the in-between days of Christmas and the New Year. Suddenly I’m distracted by the sound of somebody singing. That’s not unusual - there are always buskers around that part of the city. In fact, it seems to have become a welcome space for public spectacle – clowns and street entertainers, buskers with Mumford-y beards, little kids with squalling electric guitars, the amazing drummer who plays the empty paint pots, musicians miming to panpipe music, etc.

But this guy was different – he had drawn a crowd. He had set up some kind of MP3 player and an amplifier outside the front doors of British Home Stores, belting out karaoke backing tracks. And he stood out in front of it in a camel coat, with a straw hat on the pavement in front of him, and just... wailed.

I watched him for about ten minutes. Old showtunes, Elvis numbers, 60s hits, he bellowed them all out, throwing his head back, waving his arms and moving around the space he had created. Every now and then a pretty girl would go past and he would gesticulate, offering the performance to her alone. The crowd around him would grow and then retreat, in that unfathomable logic of crowds, where everybody suddenly, wordlessly agrees they’ve stood for too long and they instantly disperse.

But periodically his audience would swell to thirty or forty people, and they would stand in a circle, smiling, just amazed at the energy he gave it. No instrument, no costume. Just his voice. When he didn’t know the words, he approximated them with home-made sounds of his own.

In other words, he was not to be stopped.

I bent over to throw a quid in the hat, and noticed that it was already two thirds full of £1 and 50p coins. Which tells us something, I think – fortune favours the brave. Who dares wins. Something along those lines. I’ve heard a lot of buskers this year – and I’ve made donations to most of them – but this one I’ll remember, because something about his bravado made me smile.

Sliding on Latter Day Sinner

The first time I saw Matt McGinn – who has a lovely new album out that you should buy – was at one of those shows people used to do in the Black Box where a cast of thousands play all the songs from a big album – they had already done Harvest, I think, and Astral Weeks and Fisherman’s Blues, and now it was the turn of The Last Waltz.

Matt McGinn by Joanne Ham Photography

Matt McGinn by Joanne Ham Photography

The afternoon (it was a long affair, this) was hosted by the irreplaceable and much-missed Gerry Anderson, who arrived in a fluster having locked the keys inside his Mercedes. Someone from a garage on the Boucher Road had broken into his car and got his keys and charged him £160. ‘I could have left my car in half a dozen places in Belfast,’ he told me, ‘and got that done for nothing.’

  Gerry started everything off with a rousing welcome and launched into a spirited version of ‘Who Do You Love?’. I was on early, playing a solo version of ‘Such a Night’ by Dr. John on acoustic guitar. I seem to remember feeling very out place, very subdued among the rackets being generated by people like Jackson Cage and Captain Kennedy and co. But the craic was great.

  Anyway, half way through the first set, on came Matt McGinn and tore the place up with a raw version of ‘The Shape I’m In’. I’d heard his name (it’s a great name, blessed with its own rhythm and bounce on the tongue), but it was the first time I’d heard him perform and I thought he was wonderful. Andrea thought he looked like a happy dancing bear.

  Over the years, I’ve come to know Matt well, and we’ve done a few gigs and broadcasts together here and there. On his debut album, Livin’, he asked me to play some slide guitar and I showed up at his house badly hungover and attempted to put some licks down over a pretty complicated arrangement. I went home convinced I had let the side down, but when the track came out, he had cut and spliced something wonderful out of it. I tell you, it bore little resemblance to what I offered him that afternoon.

Latter Day Sinner by Matt McGinn

Latter Day Sinner by Matt McGinn

  It was good enough though, that he asked me back, and I’m thrilled to have been part of his latest album, the delicious Latter Day Sinner. Once again I’m playing slide guitar, on a song called ‘We’re Fine’, with my playing weaving in and out between harmonica licks from the legendary Mickey Raphael. I think it’s the sweetest song on the collection, but then I would say that. There are some harmonies on ‘Fall into You’ that just make me swoon. And I’m not much of a swooner anymore.

  It’s a lovely collection, recorded with warmth and heart and it deserves to be heard by as many of you as possible. Click HERE to order a copy. And click HERE if you’d like to watch a video featuring some selections from the album. And if you’re a downloader and you only want one track, ‘We’re Fine’ is, er... (cough) the one I’d go for...

  And if you'd like to see the man perform in person, and pick up a copy of the album from Matt himself, he's appearing at McGrory's in Culdaff on November 13, at the Downshire Arms in Hilltown on November 15, St. George's Church in High Street Belfast on November 19 and Abner Brown's in Dublin on November 26.

  I can't guarantee that he will dance like a happy bear at any of those gigs, but maybe if you ask him he might oblige.