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Radio review: Absent D'Arcy lets us shine a light on Louis' darker side

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Ray D'Arcy.

Ray D'Arcy.

Ray D'Arcy.

Well...this is all rather awkward and embarrassing.

You’re here, I presume (or hope), to read critical(ish) and/or vaguely-amusing(ish) words on the subject of the week’s radio. Trouble is, though, I’m not sure I have any (of such words I mean).

Why? Ray D’Arcy. “That’s a name, not an explanation!” says you, which is fair enough, but it’s still my best and only answer. That’s what comes of non-productively spending the week focused on an absence of D’Arcy. He who’s neither here nor there yet. But, sort of, amorphously surfing the waves of radio’s ether (which makes him seem a tad more interesting than usual).

The moment he and his new Radio 1 gig take shape and become solid, of course, my temporary fascination will doubtless evaporate faster than...a thing that evaporates super-fast (liquid helium?). But, for now, the ‘story’ of his non-presence remains mildly distracting (by the modest standards of national radio).

Mildly distracting enough to make me waste the week trying to confirm exactly what shape his new show might take. Rectangular? Ovoid? Rhombic? I’m still none the wiser, and now find myself frantically scrabbling around to find something non-D’Arcy shaped to review. So, er, if you wouldn’t mind flicking (or clicking) to, say, the sports section while I dig something out. Cheers. Talk to you in a bit.

And...we’re back! A hasty rummage through the week’s podcasts has happily revealed treasures galore! OK, ‘galore’ might be pushing it, but I did find several gems. Well, a handful. A few. Um...two. But that’s two more than we had a paragraph or so ago, so quit yer bellyaching.

Gem #1 could be found on Sunday’s Talking History, which treated listeners to an extensive portrait of a “melodic genius” and a “ground-breaking musician”. “We are talking history tonight,” said host Patrick Geoghegan, “and we...have all the time in the world.” An introduction that clued us in to the identity of the “genius” in question – Louis Armstrong, in case you hadn’t guessed – while also pointing to the programme’s key strength. Its (ahem) length.

For, length-wise and time-wise, a full hour is really the bare minimum that the life/career of a figure like Armstrong demands (discussion-wise). Radio land doesn’t often, of course, afford a single subject even that (documentaries aside), so kudos to Talking History for allowing listeners to wallow and luxuriate in all that luverly time (and length).

Something Geoghegan and the panel returned to frequently was this tension between Armstrong’s public persona as an avuncular, beaming, mainstream entertainer (particularly in his later years), versus the pioneering/revolutionary energy of his earlier music. “The mainstream came to embrace him,” suggested Laurence Bergreen (one of his biographers), but “there was always a very subversive side to Louis Armstrong.”

Bergreen mentioned his affection for “prostitutes and scam artists”, his “lifelong embrace of marijuana” (he apparently planned to publish a memoir “about himself and marijuana”, only for his manager to destroy it), and, less subversively perhaps, his addiction to “herbal laxatives”.

But what of the music? Journalist Colin O’Hare described him as “the very first front man” in popular music. One who shifted jazz from (as Geoghegan put it) “an ensemblist’s music to a soloist’s art.”

Irish jazzer Ronan Guilfoyle eloquently described how Armstrong helped transform the “rhythmic phrasing” of popular music, from something “really on the beat”, to something altogether more syncopated.

Through devotees like Bing Crosby, Guilfoyle added, Armstrong’s innovations “spread out into mainstream American popular culture”, and “revolutionised music in the 20th Century.”

The week’s second gem also concerned a subversive character, albeit a more overt one. Friday’s Lyric Feature – Counting the Milestones – told the absorbing story of “Dublin-born Jim Phelan: rebel, convict, tramp and author”.

Through dramatic readings of Phelan’s writings, renditions of his songs (performed by Ralph McTell), and interviews with relatives, scholars and admirers – Phelan’s extraordinary and peripatetic life came into something like clear focus.

There were stories of the open road, of the “contemplative” life of the tramp, of straitened circumstances (he once wrote a humorous but desperate letter to George Orwell, an admirer, asking for a few bob), and of prison life (he narrowly escaped being executed for his part in a botched post office robbery).

Compelling stuff, and a welcome ‘revival’ for a writer who, despite publishing thirty or so books, has now lapsed into relative obscurity. Based on Counting the Milestones he deserves far more of my attention. Unlike Ray D’Arcy.

Talking History, Newstalk Sunday

Teh Lyric Feature, Lyric FM, Friday


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