Monday 23 April 2018

Music festival keeps Kevin beyond the norm

Kevin Jennings' punk/squatter days back in the Seventies still serve as his guiding principle, says Hilary A White

MIXING IT UP: Kevin Jennings has assembled bands which would not normally appear together
MIXING IT UP: Kevin Jennings has assembled bands which would not normally appear together

Hilary A White

Some people just have those faces that wear life experiences like clothing. Had you passed Kevin Jennings in the street, you would probably begin to think up a life for a face of such character.

It would be unnecessary, however; the sound engineer and organiser of the upcoming Beyond The Bookshelf "micro-festival" has done much with his time on Earth, a life styled by music, books and political conviction.

"A leftist loony on a learning curve," he describes his youthful self at one stage. "A man who the Jesuits didn't quite get," at another. "Bourgeois" is used now and again too, usually alongside a laugh that is a riot of teeth and a hysterical cackle.

He's bad with years, he admits, but was in London when punk kicked off (1976). The son of bookish and politically savvy parents, Jennings had "escaped" there from Rathfarnham suburbia after dropping out of English and philosophy at UCD.

"The world was pulling hard. I'd read enough to form me own theories and decided theory wasn't enough and practise was the way forward. Existentialism and I linked arms and roared off into the sunset," the last line barely making it past rattling giggles.

London acted as a HQ from which to explore Europe. With the DIY ethos of punk coming to the boil amid Thatcherism, Jennings began opening licensed squats for addicts, single mothers and others who had "fallen though the net".

"The deal there was you broke into a council building," he explains, "never private -- which suited my bourgeois sensibilities; criminal but not against your own kind!" He hung around blues clubs and played guitar in a few punk bands. Before long he was getting work as a session musician, and crossing paths with the likes of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood.

His political leanings were quickened too. "There was a lot of dirty street politics and I got a bit involved," he recalls. "I never hurled a brick or wielded a cosh but I knew people who did ... people were visceral and got stuck in."

He witnessed the Notting Hill Carnival race riots in 1976, as well as the 1990 Poll Tax riots. "I got out of the way of that, I can tell you; those rugby days in Gonzaga paid dividends that day!" He went to rallies, and gravitated towards causes, from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament to the Soil Association, the latter resulting in Jennings helping set up one of the first organic restaurants in London.

Along came Anne, a Londoner of Kerry stock ("The love of my life. I picked her up in bar; I quoted a few Phil Lynott lines to her and that was that!"). The pair decided to open their own store, The Organic Shop, adhering to the "same old kind of punk-squatter sentiment". With the help of friends, they kitted out an old derelict building without going near a bank.

Being Irish was never a big problem, he says, bar in the aftermath of the Horse Guards bombing in 1982. His name did, however, match that of a wanted IRA man, leading to regular pulling-asides at UK borders. When police raided their Acton Lane home one morning, turned the place over and manhandled Jennings away to a cell for eight hours, he feared he'd become another Gerry Conlon. "It was life-changing. Totally put the crap up me," he stresses. It turned out to be part of an investigation into a notorious con-artist for whom Jennings had innocently briefly worked for a couple of years previously.

With The Organic Shop sold and Jennings now a full-time musician, the couple held a very rock 'n' roll wedding that involved Kevin fibbing to local authorities in Chelsea, a warrant for his arrest for non-payment of Poll Tax and the blessing by three Buddhist monks in Battersea Park. Recording commitments took him regularly to France, but when Anne gave birth to Hannah and issues of schooling arose, the couple relocated to Dublin.

Thus, it's probably no coincidence Beyond The Bookshelf is taking place in a bookstore known for socialist titles. "I played with my band in the New Theatre at the back of Connolly's Books. We talked loosely with the owners of doing something and decided to give it a go. The idea was to find bands that normally wouldn't be put together -- folk, avant-garde jazz, classical compositions, rock 'n' roll, live orchestral film music, there's even a possibility of a small Buddhist choir.

"Everyone's doing it for the love of it. There's no money to be made from it. I think to do something like that where the main motivation isn't to build a career around it or fill a field full of drunken kids, why not? There is no reason not to do things like this."

Beyond The Bookshelf runs from April 25-30 at the New Theatre, East Essex Street in Dublin's Temple Bar. Tickets, €10. www.beyondthebook for more details

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