Friday 18 January 2019

Beyond country, beyond pop, beyond even mad pop

Cartoonist: Jim Cogan
Cartoonist: Jim Cogan
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

I think it was the proprietor of one of the great dancehalls of Ireland - the Sound of Music Club, in Glenamaddy (to which there are of course "four roads") - who once divided all the music he had witnessed into three categories. There was "country'n'western", there was "pop", and there was "mad pop".

The "country'n'western" would have Big Tom at the top of a very large pyramid; the "pop" would probably be the likes of Gina, Dale Haze and the Champions; and the "mad pop" would be Horslips, who were in the dancehalls, but who were not of the dancehalls.

So it was somehow appropriate that the first I heard about the death of Big Tom was from the Horslips drummer Eamon Carr on Twitter. "The big man is gone… and not just up the road to Carndonagh," he wrote.

Which had a resonance on a few levels for those of us who had grown up in "rural Ireland" with both Horslips and Big Tom in our lives, the difference being that at the time we wanted more of Horslips and the better world that they promised, and less of the Big Man and all that he represented.

And yet we also knew that the line about "the road to Carndonagh" was taken from an amusing reference in the sleeve notes of the first Horslips album, Happy To Meet... Sorry To Part.

Eamon was sorry to part, indeed anyone with the slightest interest in the culture of this country over the past 50 years, on the day that Big Tom died, would have been sorry in some way, to part.

But we'll stay with Eamon and his band for a moment, because much of this article so far says as much about Big Tom and his world, as it does about Horslips. That first album of theirs had things that no Big Tom album would ever have, and not just the amusing sleevenotes: it had tremendous creative ambitions, the ludicrously expensive concertina-shaped design of the cover was a statement in itself - and it was even recorded on their own label.

And a Horslips gig would have things that no Big Tom gig would ever have, such as a terrific loudness and loads of their own material and these creatures called "roadies". In fact, Big Tom didn't do "gigs", as such, he just did whatever he did.

So that looking back, you might be hearing an echo of the famous line attributed to Richard Nixon as he gazed at the portrait of John F Kennedy - when we looked at Horslips we saw what we wanted to be, when we looked at Big Tom we saw what we are.

Ah, but who is this "we"? And if there is a "we", who were "they"?

"We", broadly speaking, were the people who sought the meaning of life in the pop and the mad pop. And we were not wrong to look for it in those magical places, there was meaning in it, there was greatness in abundance.

"They" were not so inclined, it seemed that they had already found the meaning of life, and they had not needed to go beyond the nearest ballroom to find it. If "they", as the saying goes, were "the sort of people who had their dinner in the middle of the day", then "we" were the sort of people who would sit down to listen to a Neil Young album, or maybe a 12-inch single on blue vinyl, in the middle of the day.

For them, the people who had always loved him and his music, Big Tom was a portrait of Nixon and a portrait of Kennedy combined, he was what they were and what they wanted to be.

They had found this authentic superstar among their own kind, they didn't need any of the other great music of the world that some of us craved for the sake of our very sanity in "rural Ireland". They didn't need the mad pop.

"We" have no mental image of the Big Tom fan sitting down at home listening to one of his albums, if anything in the mind's eye the music was more perfectly stitched into their daily routine, going chinka-chinka-chinka-chinka-chinka on the famous eight-track tapes as they drove around the locality, transacting their mysterious business - mysterious to us anyway.

"We" were glad when the dancehalls went into decline, because their culture had been the dominant one for a long time, and ours was obviously much better in every way. But they were a very hard enemy to engage with, because while we may have been against them, they weren't really against us - it was much worse than that, they didn't give a fiddler's about us. And the ultimate symbol of their detachment was the immoveable Big Tom McBride.

Indeed as a child, on holidays near Dundalk, one of my first visions of the glamour of showbusiness, was when a girl down the road was engaged to a member of the Mainliners, who drove a Mercedes.

I would look at him and at his massive car in awe, and part of me is still in awe at the empires that such men built, how well they made that thing of theirs work.

There's hardly a dozen writers who can make a living in this country from their books - whereas at one time there were several dozen country'n'western musicians in one small part of Monaghan alone, apparently living like Etruscan princes.

Yes, Big Tom would be "country'n'western", though in truth that category could never really contain him. Country'n'Irish wouldn't do it either, because typically that tended to combine the worst of country music with the worst of Irish music - and Big Tom was better than that.

Big Tom was stranger than that, which always made him somewhat interesting to connoisseurs of strangeness - we can believe the story of Mick Jagger showing up backstage at some Big Tom event to pay his respects to the phenomenon. We can even half-believe that a crowd of girls looking for Tom's autograph were ignoring Jagger, who eventually introduced himself to Tom, and was greeted in a friendly if somewhat doubtful tone: "you look just like him too".

But the music itself was strange enough in its own way - paradoxically the more real it got, the stranger it seemed . When we hear the song that started it all for him, Gentle Mother, we realise that there is very little like it in the modern world, that there are very few artistes willing to make a straightforward declaration of sorrow that their mother has died. Which may merely demonstrate the strangeness, not of Big Tom but of the modern world, how it was far more comfortable with Jim Morrison and The Doors howling: "Father... Yes son? I want to kill you. Mother? I want to..."

You know yourself, it takes all sorts - but it was the utter conviction with which Big Tom would sing about loving his mother, in a culture which was exploring more, shall we say, Freudian options on that front, which distinguished him from the more cynical purveyors of mere country'n'Irish.

He may not have had the songs of a great country artiste, but in some peculiar way, he had the integrity of one. He believed in what he was doing, his people could trust him completely.

I think of a beautiful song by Jinx Lennon called 300 Pianos, which was shared a lot last week: "There are 300 pianos in Castleblayney/ to give you hope when hope is gone/ there are 600 cowboy boots over in Keady/ and in the cars they play Big Tom."

And at the end there is no "we" and "they", there's just a man who took the hard hand that he was dealt and made music out of it, made himself a mansion with his name on the gates.

Sunday Independent

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