Thursday 21 September 2017

Musical acts of war

From having a war of words with his piano teacher as a boy, to helping highlight the involvement of Irish people in the First World War in a new version of The Silver Tassie, songwriter and Pogues member Philip Chevron has always fought for what he believes in -- and this belief stems from the theatrical, discovers Barry Egan

STAND OUT PERFORMER: Philip Chevron says he realised he was gay when he was six years old. He remembers it was at the exact moment he thought Marlene Dietrich was great
STAND OUT PERFORMER: Philip Chevron says he realised he was gay when he was six years old. He remembers it was at the exact moment he thought Marlene Dietrich was great

He has the look of the well-read artist type, does Philip Chevron. This immaculately turned out fop of a certain age sipping afternoon tea at a window table of the Shelbourne Hotel could be from another time and place; another era, another century. He was actually born -- Philip Ryan -- in the Rotunda Hospital, Dublin, on June 17, 1957.

He attached the Chevron name to himself many years ago. "I suppose I wanted to impress American hotel concierges or receptionists that my father was a big oil millionaire or something," the Pogue joked once to an American reporter. "And maybe I thought it would get me a better table at restaurants, and if that's the case, it certainly hasn't worked."

It doesn't surprise me unduly that he was writing tunes on his toy piano at the age of three, or that there was a war of words with his piano teacher at every lesson because the young genius wanted to compose rather than learn scales.

Fifty years later, he has written the music for the new Druid production of The Silver Tassie, which is touring Ireland, and he does a fabulous raconteur-ish job of talking it up. I want to go and see it immediately after spending two hours listening to The Chev eulogising Sean O'Casey's famous play about the First World War.

"There's a sense that we don't have a history of the First World War anywhere in our culture," he says. "And partly that's because -- I found out researching this -- that if you go back to the last century, the dead of the First World War were commemorated around Ireland all through the Twenties and Thirties," he says.

"It was only when the official Ireland of its day felt that 96,000 people -- including my great grandfather -- should be wiped out of the story. They were written out because it doesn't fit with the narrative of 'this is what was happening in 1916'. It is inconvenient for that narrative, which, at the time of the creation of the State, the Irish government needed to cling to, rightly or wrongly.

"But the First World War," he continues, "was just forgotten by Irish people. It was elbowed out in favour of a different narrative."

One of the things that was quite moving at the performance of The Silver Tassie in Galway, he adds, was that before the first act, these kids read out the names of the Connaught dead of the First World War -- of which there are many -- in alphabetical order. You only get to about C when it becomes apparent that it is going to be a long list. They don't do the whole list, but something happened that night in the west, which, says Chevron, was incredibly emotional. And as the list faded out and the lights came up, the audience spontaneously applauded.

"I think it shows that the reconciliation that this play is a part of did exist: that Irish people did die and it was as ghastly a war for the Irish as it was for the Australians or the Brits," he says. "These people had never been applauded before. Ever. Suddenly, 100 years later, this reconciliation is taking place in people's hearts and minds, and you sense that in watching a piece like The Silver Tassie. So for all those reasons, I got involved".

Chevron's title is music consultant on The Silver Tassie, which is directed by Garry Hynes. Music consultant is a term that covers a multitude of sins. Essentially, what Chevron does, he says, is "find an overall governing thing. There are different strands of music in this because we are using traditional Irish and Scottish tunes, which O'Casey had in there. There are also some American vaudeville First World War songs because, of course, these are distinguished by the fact that they coincided with the first gramophone records.

"These are the first recorded war songs ever. So some of them are quite interesting. And some of the anti-war ones are quite interesting too. In addition to that, there is a specially written score for the second act written by a guy called Elliot Davis. I have kind of guided him in the writing of that. My job is to find overall and overarching context for the music that made it all work."

And is it difficult to make it work? "No, no. In a sense, O'Casey himself draws from so many sources that you just have to trust that it is going to sit in with the drama. If it doesn't, you take it out and try again. It seems to be working quite well. Essentially, my job is to take a lifetime of musical experience and knowledge and, to some extent, encyclopedic capacity, and apply."

Where did that encyclopedic capacity spring from? "Just sheer abject curiosity from the moment I ever remember hearing music."

The first music he can remember hearing is, he laughs, "probably How Much is that Doggy in the Window? "From the moment I became aware of music, I wanted to know how it was made, why it was made, why one piece of music is different from another, what the context was, why some people make different music to

others," he says. "I always had a curiosity for music."

Asked why was that curiosity there for music, as opposed to football, he throws a question back at me. "Why do some people become footballers? One day, they pick up a ball and realise they are good at it. I became a musician for much the same reason. I enjoyed doing it and figured out if I could get away with making it my livelihood, it might be quite a cool thing to do rather than having to settle for the civil service."

He is just back from Russia with his other job, The Pogues. Lest we forget, Chevron wrote possibly one of The Pogues' best-remembered songs, Thousands are Sailing, about the coffin ships that tried to escape the great famine in Ireland to America. (Chevron was also in the seminal Irish band The Radiators from Space.)

Chevron says he first realised he was gay when he was six. It was at the exact moment he thought Marlene Dietrich was great. He also thought in later life that Agnes Bernelle was great, too (he first heard Agnes in 1974 on the radio during a lunch break from school). He eventually met her at the Project Arts Centre in Temple Bar. She invited him out to her house in Sandymount, where the Berlin-born demi-goddess gave the young Dubliner a crash course in Weimar cabaret music. "And all of this," he laughed, "while propped up on the pillows of her bed."

Nearly three decades later, after Aggie had passed away, Chevron put on Songs in Her Suitcase, "performed live" by the late Agnes Bernelle at the Project Arts Centre.

But his love of the arts was implanted in him years before that pillow-case evening of magic with Ms Bernelle. His father Philip B Ryan, was heavily involved in Dublin theatre in the Forties and Fifties (and later in life wrote biographies of both Jimmy O'Dea and Noel Purcell). Chevron says that his father left the arts world to get a proper job and bring up a family. "He had to go the day-job route."

Looking back on his father's life now, Chevron believes his dad's illness around 1989 was one of the best things that ever happened to him. It allowed his father, he says, to concentrate on writing books. It also forced him to take early retirement from his "poxy job" as catering manager of the Mater Hospital. "He was a great man," he says, "full of boundless energy for life and the arts." The apple, as they say, doesn't fall far from the tree.

Chevron lives the life of a Renaissance man in Nottingham. He seems happy. He has beaten the throat cancer he developed in 2007. The Chev survived the chemotherapy and he was soon back in fighting form. Not only that, but in March 2008, he toured America with The Pogues and sang Thousands are Sailing every night. His da would have been proud.

When Ryan Snr's last book The Lost Theatres of Dublin was unfinished when he died in May 1997, Chevron kept the deathbed promise he made to his father. He edited and finished the book. "In this loving testament to live performance, Ryan communicates the vitality, glamour and sometimes tawdriness of popular theatre, and variety in particular," ran the Daily Telegraph review.

His father took him when he was three to see an O'Dea pantomime, Robinson Crusoe. He refused to leave the theatre after the performance. "I innocently got the bug," he laughs at it now, adding that he cried and stamped his feet when the curtain went down. They had to get the usherette to promise him that if he was a good boy and went away and had his tea, he could come back afterwards. He accepted this bargain and left the theatre.

In a sense, Philip Chevron -- through his performances with The Radiators from Space, The Pogues, various productions across the world, including The Quare Fellow with Kathy Burke and now The Silver Tassie -- has never left the theatre.

"My father engendered a curiosity in me by taking me to shows," he says. "All of it happened very naturally. But it never left me. It is just as strong now."

And we're all glad that it is.

The Silver Tassie will run at the Gaiety Theatre from Tuesday to October 10, as part of the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival. It will then tour to Cork, Portlaoise and Tralee. See www.druid.ie for full details

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