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Brian Kennedy: ‘I’ve had three Cs – cancer, cardiac arrest and now Covid. What else can I bloody get?’

From living in squats and growing up gay in 1980s Belfast to gigging with Van Morrison, the singer knew well the rich, challenging tapestry of life. But nothing could prepare him for cancer, a quadruple heart bypass and recovering from Covid – none of which have dented his “eternal optimism”

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Brian Kennedy recalls being beaten at school for being effeminate. Picture by Steve Humphreys

Brian Kennedy recalls being beaten at school for being effeminate. Picture by Steve Humphreys

Brian Kennedy. Portrait by Colin Davidson

Brian Kennedy. Portrait by Colin Davidson

The show must go on – Kennedy may have had hard knocks of late but he’s touring this month and next. Picture by Steve Humphreys.

The show must go on – Kennedy may have had hard knocks of late but he’s touring this month and next. Picture by Steve Humphreys.

Brian Kennedy during the 2006 Eurovision

Brian Kennedy during the 2006 Eurovision

Brian Kennedy and Ronan Keating performing on the 'Late Late Show'

Brian Kennedy and Ronan Keating performing on the 'Late Late Show'

Brian Kennedy with fellow 'Voice of Ireland' judges Kian Egan, Sharon Corr and Bressie

Brian Kennedy with fellow 'Voice of Ireland' judges Kian Egan, Sharon Corr and Bressie

Van Morrison and Brian Kennedy in the mid-1990s

Van Morrison and Brian Kennedy in the mid-1990s

Brian Kennedy with 2006 Eurovision winners Lordi, the Finnish heavy metal act

Brian Kennedy with 2006 Eurovision winners Lordi, the Finnish heavy metal act

Beating on – Brian Kennedy admits to being an eternal optimist, despite what life has thrown at him. Picture by Steve Humphreys

Beating on – Brian Kennedy admits to being an eternal optimist, despite what life has thrown at him. Picture by Steve Humphreys

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Brian Kennedy recalls being beaten at school for being effeminate. Picture by Steve Humphreys

Brian Kennedy is pondering the imponderable, a ridiculous – and unfounded – rumour that goes as follows: in 1999 he and fellow popstar Ronan Keating were in bed together when the Boyzone singer’s then wife Yvonne came home and caught them, and smashed up Ronan’s new Peugeot with a baseball bat.

You seem to have missed out the word ‘allegedly’,” Brian says.

“I feel like Marianne Faithfull and the Mars Bar myth.”

He is referring to an urban myth dating from 1967 when police raided a party at Rolling Stone Keith Richards’ mansion in Sussex and supposedly found Mick Jagger involved in a sexual act with Faithfull and the chocolate bar.

“Both stories seem to say more about the people who want it to be true rather than the actual truth. It’s FUF: file under fiction. Of course, it’s laughable,” he says, laughing, “but it’s more bewildering.”

It is a measure of singer Brian Kennedy’s spirit that he can laugh at all as he is recovering from Covid 19.

“I’m not great,” he says. “But what a f**king few years I’ve had…”

In 2016 he was diagnosed with rectal cancer. He underwent months of chemotherapy and radiation. Then in 2018 he had a nine-hour operation in London.

“My specialist was a guy called Ian Jenkins who turns out to be the Queen’s surgeon too. I thought that was hilarious – from one Queen to another queen like me,” he says.

In 2019, he got the all-clear. But in June of this year, he had a massive heart attack and went on to have a quadruple bypass at St James’s Hospital, Dublin.

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“Where the f**k did that come from? I was just turning a corner with cancer. I was down to one scan a year. That was all going well. I was a very lucky man.”

Then, last month, on September 22, he played his first gig in 19 months at the INEC Arena in Killarney, Co Kerry.

Three days later, he started to feel ill. “I felt a bit weird but the medication I’m on for my heart makes me feel strange anyway.”

The next morning, his condition worsened. “I felt really bad. I went and got a test, and I was told I was positive for Covid. I was like, ‘Oh, f**k, this is the last thing I need.’ From then, I started getting really unwell.”

The good news, he says, is it would have been much worse for him if he hadn’t been fully vaccinated.

“Obviously having done six months of chemotherapy and radiation for cancer, I was considered enough risk. I made a good recovery. I should have had a colonoscopy last month, but it has been delayed now because of Covid and because I am on blood thinners for the heart condition.

“So here I am,” he says, chirpily.

“I call it the three Cs – cancer, cardiac arrest and now f**king Covid. What else can I bloody get?” he laughs. “I am the eternal optimist. There is a robustness about me that comes from my childhood on the Falls Road.”

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The show must go on – Kennedy may have had hard knocks of late but he’s touring this month and next. Picture by Steve Humphreys.

The show must go on – Kennedy may have had hard knocks of late but he’s touring this month and next. Picture by Steve Humphreys.

The show must go on – Kennedy may have had hard knocks of late but he’s touring this month and next. Picture by Steve Humphreys.

Brian was born on October 12, 1966. “I was the only child of six to be born in the back room of the wee house we lived in at the time in Walmer Street close to Ormeau Park.”

The family moved house, and he grew up on the Falls Road, Belfast, with his four brothers, Bap, Jim, Stuart and Paul, and sister Marian. His mother Lily, from whom he inherited a blunt wit and a stubborn hairline, worked in the Conway Linen Mill.

“I remember her sewing mountains of dufflecoat parts together at home until later she became a home help. I often accompanied her on visits with various pensioners that she looked after in the area.”

From his father James, Brian jokes that he inherited his passive aggressiveness and an interest in sport – his dad ran the local running club as well as working in the post office.

Brian was 10 when he bought his first record, ABBA’s Dancing Queen. “The clues were there early,” he says of his sexuality. He sang in the local choir and crooned along to records.

“Singing, I think, saved my life,” he says.

It needed to. At the Catholic St Paul’s Primary School for Boys, and then at the local secondary school, he was beaten up and bullied relentlessly.

“I was picked up by two lads and they smashed my head into the wall outside the school. I woke up in the principal’s office. They beat me up because I was effeminate, because I was not like the rest of the boys. I was called a ‘fruit’ or a ‘freak’. That happened from the age of 13 onwards.”

When he was 14, he and the family upped and moved to relations in Newcastle upon Tyne. north-east of England, to escape the escalating Troubles. Less than a week later, however, they were all back in Belfast. By then, though, they had lost the family home.

“So, we all moved into Granny Nelly’s tiny house until we heard a local old woman had suddenly died,” he says. “We squatted in her house – during the night through the back door when her body was removed, changed the locks and eventually, my mother went on bended knee to the local priest who owned the rent book.”

After long negotiations, the Kennedys finally got hold of the official rent book and slowly began to make the house habitable.

“It was freezing cold and the six of us slept on a double mattress upstairs on the bare floorboards,” he says. “It was overrun with all kinds of vermin, and I became chief exterminator because I wasn’t afraid. We were working-class Catholics and the council didn’t apply to people like us, even if you get could get on a housing list. We were not prioritised. The late, great John Hume eventually changed all of that.”

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Brian Kennedy and Ronan Keating performing on the 'Late Late Show'

Brian Kennedy and Ronan Keating performing on the 'Late Late Show'

Brian Kennedy and Ronan Keating performing on the 'Late Late Show'

Those were different days. In his teens, he saw things that still haunt him. “I saw this man come running around the corner on Beechmount Avenue and not too far behind comes a couple of British soldiers and one of them jumped into a stance and fired a load of shots into his back. Killed him right in front of us.

“His body was 15ft from me. I was probably 12. He was in his early 20s. A couple of doors up, a woman runs out and loses her shit, thinking it is her husband. She turns him over and it is not her husband. She stood up and walked back to her house.”

He also remembers the army stopping him and his grandfather Johnny Elliott and ordering them to take off their shoes and socks and coats in the rain one winter’s night. “Imagine how humiliating that was for my grandad?”

On May 5, 1981, when IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands died in the Maze/Long Kesh, Brian recalls, “I was 15. I remember every terrifying second of it. Those times were horrific. My Da’s running partner was a guy called Mick Doherty and his brother was Kieran Doherty who died on hunger strike [on August 2, 1981].

“So, we were careful anytime he visited us. We also had to get out of bed anytime one of the fellas died, when the whole area took their bin lids and beat them off the ground outside our houses. It was deafening and terrifying.”

He also went to school with Seán Savage, one of three IRA members shot dead in Gibraltar in 1988 by British SAS soldiers. “He was an A-level art student in our O-level art class,” Kennedy says, referring to how smart Savage was. “He mostly sat apart from us because he was a wee bit older. He was pretty quiet.”

So was Brian Kennedy but for different reasons. He was hiding in plain sight as a young gay man in a culture where being homosexual was both unthinkable and illegal. “The only way that men, straight men, could touch each other was at a fight or a funeral,” he says of those times.

“We didn’t have Paddy and Johnny who lived up the road and were bachelors and lovely pillars of the community. Those people didn’t exist.

“We had lonely, bitter old priests who told us from the pulpit that we were going to burn in hell,” he says. “I think heterosexuals had a hard enough time, never mind homosexuals.”

When he was 17, he heard a rumour that there was a gay bar opposite St Anne’s Cathedral in Donegall Street. He walked there one night. “A very dangerous thing to do in 1980s Belfast,” he says, “but going there was a defining moment. I’d finally found a scene that made sense to me, albeit one that was scary and, of course, illegal.”

He walked on to the dance floor and met a man there who was a year older than him. “Suddenly, I had a secret boyfriend in Belfast. He was lovely. I kept in touch with him for years.”

The friendship became more intimate but that was not without its difficulties as Brian was living with his granny Nelly at the time, and his boyfriend lived with his mother in west Belfast.

“There was nowhere to go… I ended up with him in his single bed upstairs. We never did the full sex. That’s how innocent we were.”

Around that time, he sang at his sister Marian’s wedding and his brother Bap asked him to join his band, Ten Past. Brian performed live for the first time with them in Kelly’s in Portrush, Co Antrim, when he was 17. “It was wild. We stayed up all night on the beach afterwards drinking disgusting, cheap vodka.”

A year later, he and Bap moved to north London where they lived in a squat in Tottenham. “We literally had a rat in the kitchen, like the song. We were constantly hungry with no money... and it was very overcrowded. I slept in a sleeping bag on the floor for a long time.”

For the first two months, he had no permanent address and found it difficult to get social welfare payments. He says he ate nothing but bread, and stole bottles of milk from people’s doorsteps in the morning.

“If the house looked posh, then we would do it,” he says. “Hunger makes you do desperate things, and you can’t sleep. So I was always wide awake very early before most people were up.”

At the weekends, he would busk outside tube stations. He was often on the receiving end of verbal and sometimes physical abuse.

“I got loads of threats from skinheads who hated my Irish accent especially if there were IRA bombs happening. I even got [anti-Irish abuse] at the airport a lot before I became well known and could pull a cassette or a CD out of my bag to prove I was a singer and not a terrorist in training. My previous address on file was, of course, the Falls Road so they were convinced I was up to no good.”

In 1987, he was guesting with a band called The Dead Handsomes in north London when fate intervened. “All the girls from 19 Management came along and reported back to Simon Fuller about me singing ‘Kiss’ by Prince.” The impresario, who managed Kylie and went on to create the Spice Girls, rang Brian a few days later.

“I hung up because I thought it was a joke. He was good enough to ring back and we met in his office the following week where I sang and played guitar for him, He offered to manage me then and there.”

In 1990 he put out his debut solo album The Great War of Words and, less than four years later, he was singing with Van Morrison on his Night in San Francisco album among many others. The pair performed before the visit of US president Bill Clinton to Belfast’s City Hall in front of 60,000 fans. “Van was extremely generous on and off stage to me,” he says, “He is private, loyal and supernaturally talented.”

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Van Morrison and Brian Kennedy in the mid-1990s

Van Morrison and Brian Kennedy in the mid-1990s

Van Morrison and Brian Kennedy in the mid-1990s

Over the years since then, he has released albums such as A Better Man, Now That I Know What I Want and The Essential Collection – with one of the stand-out tracks – a duet with Boy George called ‘Christopher Street’.

He represented Ireland at the Eurovision in 2006, and mentored Richie Hayes on the RTÉ talent show The Voice of Ireland, but he decided against returning for a second series. He was too busy putting out A Love Letter to Joni, his tribute to Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell.

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Brian Kennedy with fellow 'Voice of Ireland' judges Kian Egan, Sharon Corr and Bressie

Brian Kennedy with fellow 'Voice of Ireland' judges Kian Egan, Sharon Corr and Bressie

Brian Kennedy with fellow 'Voice of Ireland' judges Kian Egan, Sharon Corr and Bressie

In November 2016, his big brother Bap died in hospice care in Belfast from pancreatic and bowel cancer, the same year Brian himself found he had cancer.

Despite this, he released Live at Vicar Street and later that year the Christmassy album.

Looking back, is he amazed he has survived it all?

“I don’t tend to look back too much,” he says, “I’m kinder to myself when I hear old recordings. I just don’t enjoy seeing myself from years ago. The vanity of it all.”

Does he believe in God?

“Yes, I have all her albums. You mean, Joni Mitchell, right?” he jokes.

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Brian Kennedy. Portrait by Colin Davidson

Brian Kennedy. Portrait by Colin Davidson

Brian Kennedy. Portrait by Colin Davidson

Covid permitting, Brian is to play at the Grand Opera House this Thursday as part of Belfast International Arts Festival and to help celebrate Dervish’s 2019 album, The Great Irish Songbook. After that, he has an Ireland-wide tour scheduled.

He is clearly not one for easing himself back into work.

He now lives on his own far from his Belfast roots in Kilmainham, Dublin. He enjoys the solitary life. “I adore it. I could listen to myself all day.”

What about love?

“I have yet to meet the love of my life.”

Brian Kennedy will also appear at Royal Theatre, Castlebar on Saturday; Whelan’s, Dublin on October 28; Crescent Concert Hall, Drogheda on October 29; Bishops Gate Hotel, in Derry, on November 21; briankennedy.co.uk


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