Entertainment Music

Sunday 21 July 2019

The Irish rock legend you've never heard of

Fergus O'Farrell was a musician of remarkable talent, and even more courage. As frontman for Interference, he was an inspiration to Glen Hansard, Mic Christopher and a generation of Irish bands. But for all his genius and charisma, success never properly followed, probably because of the muscular dystrophy that left him in a wheelchair from his early 20s, and finally killed him last year. A fighter to the very end, his legacy is a handful of remarkable songs - including 'Gold' from the Oscar-winning film 'Once' - and the indomitable love of his friends and family

Glen Hansard with Fergus O'Farrell
Glen Hansard with Fergus O'Farrell
Fergus O'Farrell and his wife, Meng Li in Times Square
'The ultimate duet - one man blowing up another man's lungs to help him sing' - Fergus O'Farrell and Glen Hansard recording in Fergus's home in Schull, Co Cork in January 2016
Interference at their base, the Winstanley Shoe factory, circa 1989
Fergus O'Farrell in 1987

Emily Hourican

'I was born with a silver spoon," sings Fergus O'Farrell in Gold.

"Hell I'm gonna be me/I'm gonna be free." It's a beautiful song, made all the more so by the poignancy of those lines. Because Fergus wasn't free, except in his mind. He was physically debilitated by muscular dystrophy - confined to a wheelchair from his early 20s, and almost entirely to his bed for the last years of his life - and dependent on others. By any normal standards, diagnosed at eight years old, Fergus was not born with a silver spoon. And yet such was his gift, for music and for life, his determination "to be me", that he refused to accept the flat denial of the many things he could not do. He achieved a freedom beyond the confines of his wasted body in a world of the mind, and in the minds of others, where his remarkable voice and talent will live on, despite his death in February last year, aged 48.

From Schull in west Cork, Fergus was the lead singer and driving force behind Interference, the greatest Irish band who never made it. His was an explosive talent - a golden voice and rare musical ability - coupled with the kind of single-minded determination, as well as good looks and charisma, that should have taken him anywhere he wanted to go. Except that he was shackled to a failing body, with a life expectancy that he defied by nearly 20 years, and still didn't live to see 50.

"It was a postman in Kinsale who I used to have a drink with, who said it first," Fergus's dad, Vincent, tells me. "He said, 'I've been watching your little boy walking home' - there was a steep hill beside our house - 'and there's something funny about his walk.' I said, 'What do you mean? He's got a bit of an unusual swagger.' Now, I'd been watching him playing football and he wasn't getting up to the ball as quickly as the others, and I'd been shouting, 'Get a move on . . .' so we then started taking him for tests, and finally a specialist said, 'It's muscular dystrophy'." Fergus was eight at the time, and the specialist's prognosis was, 'He'll be in a wheelchair by 12 and gone by 20'," says Vincent. That was 1975.

The specialist was wrong - there are many variations of the disease; it causes progressive weakness and loss of muscle mass and has no known cure - and he specified the wrong one. But, also, he hadn't reckoned with Fergus's remarkable willpower. "Fergus comes from a very stubborn line of people," says Vincent. "He was determined to do everything he could. All his whole energy was going to go into his music and songs. Nothing was going to get in the way of that."

Fergus himself once said, "I'll give 150pc. I always wanted to be so good that it'd never be this pity thing." And he was that good. It isn't pity that makes his music remarkable. The music stands by itself, and although knowledge of his suffering adds a particular resonance, that is a very different thing to pity.

There's a story Fergus used to love to tell about going to a faith healer. When he was in his late teens and already using a wheelchair, he was taken by his very devout Aunt Mary. "I remember him putting the hands over my head, and a feeling, the equivalent of an orgasm; this complete and utter electricity through my body, and I was going, 'Oh my God, I've been healed'. And, in fact, for the first seconds after the healer moved on, I was afraid to move a muscle, in case it hadn't happened. And then I went to stand up, and of course it hadn't happened."

His aunt was so disappointed, so disbelieving, that she went back afterwards to meet the healer and complained that Fergus hadn't been cured. The healer, Fergus recalled, "put his hand on the side of my face, and he said, 'There has been a miracle, it just hasn't been what you expected'." To this, Fergus's response was: "That's when I knew it was music. Music was my miracle." Later, he said that at that time he believed that he had been "chosen by God to do music. That's the kind of faith I had."

Fergus went to school to Clongowes, where he won the Aloysius Trophy for 'courage and determination'. The school, back then, wasn't adapted for students with disabilities, and so Fergus's friends would carry him up and down the stairs; he could still walk, but climbing was increasingly difficult. Unable to play sport, music became his thing, soon to the exclusion of all else. "We'd been pushing him to do accountancy," his father says, "but Fergus told us told us, 'No, it's not for me'. I tried to fight him on it, his mother tried even harder, and he said 'No'; he was going to do it his way."

Fergus formed Interference, a kind of musical collective, while still in Clongowes, with two friends, guitarist James O'Leary and poet Malcolm MacClancy. Straight out of Clongowes, he moved up to Dublin, to the old Winstanley shoe factory in the Liberties that his father had just bought, and which eventually became Mother Redcaps.

"It was just an old shoe factory," says Vincent, "but we built an apartment for Fergus there, with two or three bedrooms, and the lads used to lift him up the stairs. They had all that space to bring in bands and rehearse. The Hothouse Flowers were in there, The Black Velvet Band were in there; all just young kids. It must have been the hottest scene in Dublin," he recalls, "and Fergus was at the heart of it."

It was around this time that director Michael McCormack, who spent over 10 years filming with Fergus for a feature documentary about Fergus's life, Breaking Out, met him first. "I first saw them play when I was 14. I was working at a Self-Aid charity gig in Blackrock, and all these different bands were playing - The Dixons, the Oliver Brothers, and then this band came out, Interference, and they just had this confidence about them. The singer was holding on to the mike, in what I thought was some kind of mad, rock-star pose. Later, I learned the mike was actually holding him up. His voice hit me straight away; the emotion that he put into every word."

Fergus himself later admitted that far from feeling confident, "for the first seven years I gigged, I threw up before every gig. I love being on stage. I hate going on stage. The nerves - well, pre-stage energy is a better term for it. But once I start singing, it's great."

After Fergus came off stage that night, Michael watched, astonished, as this charismatic young singer sat himself back into a wheelchair. "I went over to him. He couldn't escape from me, and I poured forth about how amazing they were. After that, I went to all the gigs, even the soundchecks. I was obsessed. And I began to realise very quickly that I wasn't alone. All these other young guys who were in the audience regularly with me were forming their own bands: Mundy, The Frames, Kila, The Mary Janes, all the young musicians, and they looked up to Fergus and Interference, because they knew this band was something special."

Anyone who heard them knew this was the real thing - that fragile combination of talent, charisma and drive. At a time, there was huge energy and excitement on the Dublin music scene. Big record companies were actively looking for the next U2, and in that scene Interference were so obviously the ones to watch; the break-out stars. It felt as if it was only a matter of time. Their gigs were few and far between because of Fergus's condition, but those that happened became events - shows in the old Beal Bocht near Ranelagh, and a near-legendary series of gigs in Whelan's of Wexford Street.

There were appearances on television, including a music video directed by Gerry Stembridge for RTE, and Interference were again and again tipped by the music press as 'most likely' and 'the next big thing'. But it didn't happen. To the astonishment of fans, the various A&R men who came and watched their gigs went away with words of encouragement, but no record deals followed. "We can market blindness," one said, with uncharacteristic if devastating honesty, "but we can't market a wheelchair."

"They played far less than other bands," McCormack says. "Fergus thought he'd be dead by 20, then dead by 30 - he was trying to protect his voice, so they played less than they should have. But when they did, it was like going to Mass. People hanging on their every word. We all believed they'd make it, and were shocked that they didn't."

No one was more shocked then Fergus. His belief in his own success was absolute. "Much worse than the muscular dystrophy," he once joked, "was the fact that I had megalomania."

And all the while, Fergus's disease was progressing. Bit by bit, he lost his strength and his ability to do the kinds of things the rest of us take for granted. "The disability was coming on all the time," recalls Vincent. "Everything was slowly taken away from him." He developed nodules on his vocal chords, which meant he had to severely limit his singing for a year, and after a while he could no longer hold and play his guitar. But still Fergus persevered.

"He never let the condition define his life. Though it denied him the ability to play the guitar, and then the piano, and was continually attacking his voice, he kept finding ways of turning it to his advantage. He constantly found ways of tuning into what mattered. People sustained him, and, in turn, he made them - us - realise what mattered. He inspired so many musicians to never give up on the dream, because despite what he was going through, he never did," says Michael.

Vincent recalls that "he never showed really to anybody what he was going though. He never moaned or complained, he was always fun and cheerful, but in the songs he wrote, you can see the emotional trauma he was going through at times."

After waiting and hoping in vain for a record deal, and now permanently in a wheelchair, Fergus decided to simply forge ahead and record their own album. With input from musicians including Donal Lunny, Liam O Maonlai, Maria McKee, Maurice Seezer, Honor Heffernan, Maria Doyle Kennedy, and Glen Hansard, Interference recorded their eponymous first, and until now, only album, released by Whelan's in 1995. (The second, The Sweet Spot, was finally released just a couple of months ago; some of Fergus's friends joke that if he was still alive, the album would still be 'in progress'.)

The first album immediately became a cult classic, but the breaks still didn't come, and a year later, Interference called it a day. The band broke up, went their separate ways, and Fergus returned to Cork, where he went to work in the family hotel, waiting for the next stage of his condition and the revelation of what that would mean for his music.

And then he got a bad bout of pneumonia. He had been told that once the pneumonia started, he probably only had a few years left; that a slow endgame had begun. In fact, Fergus lived another 20-odd years, but with a steadily increasing dependency on others, and - maybe worse - without any hope of getting better. He believed his life was slowly drawing to a close, and that his musical career was finished. Even for a man as brave as Fergus, those must have been very dark times. He went to Cyprus, to recuperate in a warm, dry climate, and had a relapse that landed him in hospital. There he met Meng Li, a Chinese nurse who had arrived barely a week before, and had just two words of English: 'Hello' and 'pain?' Fergus borrowed a Chinese-English dictionary, and began talking to Li, and, very quickly, fell in love with her.

"She's like a controlled nuclear explosion," Fergus later said of Li, who became his wife. "She is from outer space. She is my happiness." Her name, he explained "means 'beautiful'. Actually, depending on the way it is inflected, it can also mean 'jasmine' or 'strong', all three being appropriate descriptions."

He knew time was, at best, unpredictable, and that they may not have very long together, but said, "If you fall in love, you fall in love. You can't worry about it", and, later, "The longer I'm with her, the more I love her". For Li, Fergus was "my power. You think he is in a wheelchair? He is real power for me".

She moved to Ireland and they became a unit that lasted for 22 years until his death, a unit that gave each other what they needed to exist.

Love, just the way he had always dreamed of it, was his, but a music career was still elusive and hope was dwindling fast as his physical disintegration continued. In fact, Fergus believed that meeting Li was in fact the signal for the end of his hopes - "God saying 'give up the music, here's Li in recompense'."

But if Fergus had a talent for music, and love, he also had a talent for friendship, and the many who flocked to him during Interference's heyday were loyal still. Particularly Glen Hansard, who talked John Carney into including a scene with Fergus singing Gold in Once, the low-budget film of a romance between two musicians.

Fergus, initially, said he couldn't be bothered to go up to Dublin for the day's filming, and even when he did, presumed the film would end up being shown on a wet Tuesday night on RTE2. Instead, of course, Once went on to win a bucketful of awards, including an Oscar for the song Falling Slowly. Once again, Glen wanted his friend to taste some of the success, inviting him to play Radio City Music Hall in New York on the post-Oscar tour. And Gold became the song that kept giving when Once became a Broadway musical that won eight Tony Awards; it was the song chosen for the Tony Awards ceremony. The New York Times, in a review of the soundtrack album from the Broadway production, singled it out: "Musically, the most breathtaking moment is an exquisite a cappella reprise of Gold, sung softly by 11 singers".

For Fergus, it was recognition at last. A touch of the glory that his abilities deserved, but in many ways, it came too late. Although proud and pleased, he was also despairing. His health was so bad that, while he could enjoy the success of Gold, there was no way he could really build on it. There was a whole world out there, finally ready for him, and he couldn't get to it. Not only that, but he was more and more locked inside a body that wouldn't function.

As Vincent, his father, recalled with such pathos: "He was just a lump really, that physically you had to push and shift, get him out of bed, get him on the toilet. These were all, from a personal point of view, humiliating things to ask your parents or your wife to do. But he never showed it. He was a very courageous man. He made a joke of it. He was an inspiration really, in the way he put up with it. And Li was just wonderful."

But for all his desire to look for the good, Fergus was honest, too, about the hard times. "When I found I couldn't play guitar any more, that was a killer, but I still had piano. When I found I couldn't play piano, I got very depressed and put myself into the mental-health system."

He began painting rather than playing music, in bad need of an outlet for his imagination and creative energy. Some of his paintings were made by playing his music through the surface he worked on, so that the sound vibrations caused the paint to shift around; a kind of visual representation of the songs. Even so, he felt he was "left alone with the depression", confined to bed, to the house, able only to look out at the world through his windows. But somehow he continued to write, using an iPhone; doing with his thumb what he had once been able to do with his whole being.

His lung capacity had dwindled so much that the left one was the size of a small balloon, but even then, Fergus looked for the positive, and found it. "The great thing with singing is that it's all about expression," he said. ''My lung capacity is very small. But it's not about the air. It's about what you can do with it. If anything, I can say that in an odd way, it's made me a better singer."

A week-and-a-half before Fergus died, Glen Hansard and The Frames made the trip to Schull to record with him for what everyone understood would be the last time. They set up and stayed for a week, desperate to get the new songs down properly before Fergus lost his ability to sing completely, desperate to help him finish the second album that was so long overdue. Li and Fergus's parents served up delicious meals, and the sessions lasted late into the night.

But for all the goodwill, the sheer determination to make it work, it wasn't working. "We could all feel it," McCormack, there to film the sessions, recalls. "The magic wasn't there." Fergus was using his oxygen machine, breathing in between lines. His efforts were heroic, but the results were somehow flat. Then Fergus mooted a strange idea he had been researching - the use of an orange rubber hose, bought for him by Vincent, from a hardware shop. The idea he had come up with, thanks to hours of online research, was that someone who knew his voice, knew how he sang, could breath into one end of the hose between lines, and he could suck the air out of the other end. Quicker and neater than the oxygen mask; more intimate.He had even found the person who was to do the breathing - Camilla Griehsel, a Swedish opera singer, married to Colin Vearncombe, who sang as Black (his song Wonderful Life was a huge hit in the late 1980s). She had sung with Fergus many times over many years. Camilla had agreed, but fate intervened to stymie the plan. A few days earlier, Colin, Camilla's husband, had been involved in a car crash, and was now in the coma from which he would not recover.

And so Glen Hansard stepped in. Glen blew air in one end, and Fergus breathed it from the other - "the ultimate duet," as Michael recalls. "One man blowing up another man's lungs to help him sing." And weirdly, it worked. This strange length of orange rubber hose. It worked, the magic was back.

Ten days later, Fergus died. After so many frantic trips to hospital, sometimes on icy roads, and dramatic near-misses, in the end he died quietly - and, for all his years of suffering, unexpectedly - at home. It was, for his many loved ones, and despite the pain of his passing, something of a merciful release.

"The only sad thing from my point of view, is that I wasn't there when it happened," says Vincent. "He was on his own; that's what kills me. I would have loved to have been there."

Earlier this year, two celebratory concerts in Fergus' honour were held on the anniversary of his death, at the Cork Opera House and Vicar Street, with many of the musicians who were his friends and collaborators in life, present to remember him. McCormack showed a trailer for Breaking Out, with some of the remarkable footage shot over 10 years with Fergus. He also launched a crowdfunding campaign to help with the completion of the film, and the response has been overwhelming, with over half the target collected in just a couple of days.

"The story is like a modern fairytale, and at the heart of it is this wonderful love story," says McCormack. "This film became Fergus's ultimate performance, and those who got to know him and his music should be involved, because his story is all about people. And friendship. What he got from people and what he gave to them. It's a story that needs to be told and I intend to finish it for him."

Because for Fergus, it was all about the music, always. "It'd be great if I was able to wave a magic wand, and - bang! - I could walk," he once said. "But, to be completely honest, if I had the choice between being able to walk again and losing my musicality or artistic nature, I'd keep up the art. I really would."

To support the campaign to complete the film 'Breaking Out', and view the trailer, see indiegogo.com/projects/breaking-out-music-film

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