Wednesday 18 September 2019

Troubadour back on the road learning lessons of life

Harmonica virtuoso Don Baker is performing again after 15 years learning even more about music, writes Liam Collins

Celtic bluesman: Don Baker at the Priory of St John the Baptist near his home in Trim, Co Meath. Photo: Frank McGrath
Celtic bluesman: Don Baker at the Priory of St John the Baptist near his home in Trim, Co Meath. Photo: Frank McGrath

Most musicians go back on the road when they run out of money, to maintain the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed - but it's different for Don Baker, among the most accomplished harmonica players in the world.

He virtually disappeared for 15 years for no other reason than he felt the need to learn the piano and read music, skills he never needed to become a blues guitarist and harmonica virtuoso.

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Fifteen years! I exclaim incredulously. How could he afford to do that?

He looks at me with an impish smile which belies his 69 years, and does a Kerryman on it: answering a question with a question.

"What do you call a musician without a wife?" he asks.

What, I reply.

"Homeless," he answers with a grin.

He's now married to financial controller Maureen O'Reilly and they own and run Brogan's Hotel in Trim, Co Meath, where he has a studio and put together his new double album which showcases a long, highly successful but sometimes tortuous musical journey.

Baker's CV reads like a history of modern Ireland. Born into a reasonably well-off family, he ended up on the streets. Sent to Daingean Reformatory in Co Offaly for thieving, he was abused and mistreated. He joined the Army but eventually left to follow his dream as an itinerant blues musician, playing one-night stands but always on the move.

He "drank everything and anything" until he gave up alcohol in 1983.

But, apart from his sojourn learning the piano, he's never stopped working. His is a career that has seen him play and party with the best of them and attain legendary status among fellow musicians. Still looking cool, he is wearing a colourful shirt and jeans when we meet. He answers whatever I ask, and in the answers there is a stoicism and even good-humoured acceptance of life, past and present.

Now well-past most people's retirement age, he still has a voracious hunger for music and spiritual learning.

It's almost as if he's trying to make up for the missing years by packing the present with uncommon energy. Already that morning he's done a two-hour guitar lesson and, despite his widely recognised musical expertise, it's something he does every day in furtherance of his talent.

"I started working on myself when I was 33, going the road less travelled," he says. "I have learnt from doing things right in my life, I learnt from doing things wrong."

Originally from Whitehall, the family moved to the city centre when his parents broke up. He ran away, becoming a feral child of the streets. "I became a petty criminal and was sent to Daingean, where I was badly abused by the Oblates," he says matter of factly.

"I always played harmonica. I got the TB at the age of seven and it was the only instrument the family could afford. But a curious thing happened to me. I was helping my mother down the steps with the pram one day when it slipped and I lost a bit of this in the accident," he says, sticking out his tongue. Only later did he realise he could now get the tip of his tongue right into the grooves of the harmonica and play it in a way that nobody else can.

He did three years in the Irish Army with the intention of getting into the Army No 1 Band and was stationed in Cathal Brugha Barracks. But at the time you had to enlist at the age of 16 to get into the band and he was 24, so he left.

"It was brilliant and I learnt a discipline that has stood to me all my life," he says.

"Then I became manager of the Railway Bar in Sheriff Street. It had to be the toughest boozer in Dublin. I stood behind the bar with a baseball bat, the guards were in and out all day, but it was a laugh and part of growing up."

After a friend introduced him to the great blues musicians such as Elmore James, Sonny Boy Williamson, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, he read Woody Guthrie's book Bound for Glory and, like Bob Dylan, embarked on a nomadic life busking in the Netherlands, Germany and wherever the road took him.

"It wasn't necessarily to become famous, just to become a good musician," he says.

"There is a rebellious streak to me, so the music suited my nature."

Along the way came the long, hard nights drinking. "Yeah, I hit the bottle hard, I didn't do it consciously, I just felt better when I drank, then it caught up on me and I quit in 1983."

Thinking back, he sums it up: "I have lived three lifetimes - I have five children and they're all friends of mine. All in all, I am not a bad guy, I was just a bit wayward."

After years on the road he settled down when he married Maureen in Zanzibar a few years back.

"She has a great head, she's a great businesswoman and I have every faith in her."

They bought Brogan's, a small hotel in Trim which had been closed for four years and which they renovated and re-opened in 2016.

His wife runs the business and he operates the top floor, which has been turned into a concert hall with a stage and grand piano where he has hosted many of his friends such as Finbar Furey, Paul Brady, Eleanor McEvoy and Christy Dignam and is looking forward to his friend Liam O Maonlai and the Hothouse Flowers in September.

"I am something of a legend in the harmonica world. As a young fellah I stole a music book from Walton's and now I've written eight tutors on the instrument for them. When I got my first royalty cheque I went in and told them and said they could take the money for the stolen book from the royalties."

He laughs at the memory. "God works in mysterious ways," he said, getting into the 'spiritual groove' that has now become part of his life.

"Do I believe in God? I try to live a spiritual life. The Ten Commandments should be called the Ten Commitments," he says. "Truth is relentless and truth is starting to come out now. There is a difference between spirituality and religion. In this country we are still trying to get there. I am not a bad person, trying to get good: I am a sick person trying to get well.

"Giving up drink was the toughest thing I did in my life, but it was also the best move I ever made. But I am constantly thinking about it, so I don't have drink around me. I don't tolerate it."

Now there is a spirituality that comes with gigs. He's not preaching but in conversation he comes up with pronouncements like "all neuroses are a substitute for legitimate suffering" and "feelings buried are buried alive - to deal with them you have to reconnect with your emotions".

It is a dimension that goes down well in his shows. But in the end it is always the music that takes centre stage with his love of the blues shining through everything he does.

When I ask about the faint blue tattoos smudged into the skin of both his arms he reveals he tried to have old tats removed. The treatment cost €10,000 - but he stopped when the job was half done.

"I couldn't stand the pain. Getting a tattoo is bad, but getting one taken off is worse."

In the end, we return to his sojourn learning the piano.

"It exhausted me, but I got so much out of it, being able to arrange my own songs and I got a huge understanding out of it," he says with animation. "It was like I always played in a dark room because I couldn't read music. It was like trying to read with the light off."

Back writing, recording and performing while he continues his spiritual journey, the return of Don Baker is the re-birth of one of Ireland's great troubadours.

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