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A Journey in Song: reminiscences of a ragged balladeer (part 2)

In part two of his Journey in Song, HOT columnist Sean O’Shea gives an account of his days in London.

I’m on the train into London now and as we approach the city centre I’m nonchalantly surveying the large billboards by the trackside amongst which appears Mick Jagger’s face advertising vodka. A fellow traveller watching me looking at the billboard spits, “Traitorous fecker, Jagger – wasn’t Rock & Roll supposed to be about soul music, not about selling your soul?”

As I cross the River Thames I recall the words of the poet Edmund Spenser:

Sweet Thames run softly, till I end my song.
Through discontent of my fruitless stay
Of idle hopes, which still do fly away
Like empty shadows, did afflict my brain
Walked forth to ease my pain
Along the shore of silver, streaming Thames.                                           (Prothalmion)

First priority on arriving here is to wet our lips, so we head for The Crown pub in Cricklewood, which is home from home for many Irish emigrants.

Now the craic was good in Cricklewood and they wouldn’t leave the Crown.
With glasses flying and Biddies crying ‘cause Paddy has come to town.
Oh mother dear, I’m over here and I’m never coming back.
What keeps me here is the reek of beer, the women, and the craic.

Mc Alpine’s Fusiliers, by Dominic Behan

We are well oiled now and it’s time for dancing, so we head for the National Ballroom in Kilburn. While Dublin was being taken over by the discos and rock bands, in London the days of ballroom dancing were not over yet and showbands with names like Big Tom and the Mainliners, The Drifters, and The Miami were still catering for a nostalgic immigrant community.

I wonder should I go or should I stay,
The band had only one more song to play
And then I saw you at the corner of my eye
A little girl alone and so shy
I had the last waltz with you
Two lonely people together
I fell in love with you
The last waltz should last forever…

The Last Waltz was written by Barry Mason and Les Reed.

My musical tastes are widening now and becoming a bit more cosmopolitan, but I don’t wander very far beyond the melancholy Irish folk canon.

While in London I spent time working in a psychiatric hospital, “keeping the loonies on the path.” This was very much a matter of a poacher taking up a temporary role as gamekeeper. A song that specially reminds me of those times is the Pink Floyd lyric Brain Damage by Roger Waters.

The lunatic is on the grass
The lunatic is on the grass
Remembering games and daisy chains and laughs
Got to keep the loonies on the path.

And if the cloud bursts thunder in your ear
You shout and no one seems to hear
And if the band you’re in starts playing different tunes
I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon.

Also, while in London I occasionally hung out at the Black Cap pub in Camden Town where they staged regular cabaret acts, and which was a favourite haunt for artists and musicians. The ambience at this pub was a bit like what I imagine the cabaret clubs in Berlin might have been like before the war. Hitler eventually closed down all such establishments because their satirical acts posed a threat to the rising power of the Nazis. A talented actor called Sparky Malone, a lovely man with a great voice, did very plausible drag performances as Marlene Dietrich at The Cap. One of my favourite songs from Dietrich’s repertoire is called The Boys in the Backroom.

See what the boys in the backroom will have
And tell them I’m having the same.
Go see what the boys in the backroom will have
And give them the poison they name.
And when I die, don’t spend your money on flowers and my picture in a frame
Go see what the boys in the back room will have
And tell them I sighed
And tell them I cried
And tell them I died … of the same.

Another song from my cosmopolitan period is the Tower of Song written by the famous singer and songwriter Leonard Cohen – him of the golden voice. This song is a kind of summing up in which Cohen shares with us his experience of growing old and pays tribute to one of his own folk heroes, Hank Williams.

My friends are gone, my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play
And I’m crazy for love but I ain’t coming on
I’m just paying my rent now in the tower of song.
I said to Hank Williams, “How lonely does it get?”
Hank hasn’t given me an answer yet,
But I hear him, coughing all night long,
A hundred floors above me in the tower of song.

Leonard Cohen, who is now 78 years old, has had to go on the road again. Whilst he was spending five years in a Buddhist monastery, his business manager swindled him out of his life savings. He is a welcome addition to the working class and to our anticipated future of working until we drop.

To bring to a close this short musical reminiscence I couldn’t find a more appropriate song than The Parting Glass.

Now all the money I ever had,
I’ve spent it in good company.
And all the harm I‘ve ever done,
Alas, it was to none but me.
And all I’ve done for want of wit
To memory now I can’t recall,
So fill for me a parting glass,
Good night and joy be with you all.                                  (Probably of Scottish origin)

Thank you and goodnight. Go neiri on bothar libh…that the road may rise to greet you.

August 2012

In Part 3 of A Journey in Song Sean O’Shea will interview some of Hastings’ songwriting talent.

Posted 18:43 Thursday, Aug 9, 2012 In: SOS

Also in: SOS

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