April 26, 2011
Let’s go therapy style right back to the beginning. You were born in Wexford
town right? (How was your life outlook influenced by being a Townie rather then a Culchie or a Dub? – was it an important distinction to have been from Wexford
Wexford town was a very special place. It was cut off from the rest of the country and looked outward from its harbor. More people had contact with London rather than Dublin. There was huge emigration to the UK but little to Dublin in my formative years. That’s changed quite a bit now. Wexford also had the merchant marine influence – my father was one of those. Most Wexford sailors had been around the world and brought that worldliness home to the narrow, claustrophobic streets and lanes of Wexford. They also brought back their music. My father was into Calypso and Tango music. He was a great dancer.
Wexford was really influenced by teddyboys and early Rock & Roll – Eddie Cochrane, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, pre-Army Elvis, as so many young people emigrated to London and then brought back modern music on their Christmas and Summer holidays. There was a very loud jukebox in Nolan’s Ice Cream Parlor on Wexford’s Main Street. We children could hear the reverbed/echo-plexed sounds of Fender guitars and Rockabilly voices leaking out as we passed by or snuck in for a peek at these brightly plumed teddyboys.
But my grandfather owned two big farms – one just outside the town, the other down by the Atlantic Ocean, so I got a culchie upbringing, of a sort, too. I heard many of the very old songs from the laborers on the farm and in the surrounding areas and was influenced by those also.
We were music mad in Wexford. Music, of all sorts – opera, jazz, folk, rock & roll, was a huge part of our lives. I explain it all in detail in my memoir, Green Suede Shoes.
Were you raised in a musical family? Was traditional Irish music something that
you had a lot of exposure to as a child (or was it something to run away from)?
My Grandmother played piano but had given up by the time I was a boy. There were really no family influences though I was related to John Kirwan, a locally famous opera singer. Traditional music – like jigs and reels – wasn’t something that was heard much in Wexford. But the long-song form was very important – something like the Sean-Nós in Gaelic – but in English in our area – tales of battles and heroes. I would later adapt that form in songs like James Connolly, Bobby Sands MP, etc.
Being from the per-MTV generation what was your first exposure to
rock’n’roll and at what point did you go this is what I want to do with my life.
Was there a plan to escape Wexford to NYC and form a band or was it something
you fell into. How was that seen in Wexford?
I was into adventure, rather than making plans. I guess that was the way the 60’s and 70’s influenced you. You just kicked convention and did what you wanted. So, I never really made plans. I just got on a plane one day and landed in NYC – basically to see what would happen. As I’ve just said, the early Rockabilly guys were big influences. I did want to get out of Wexford at a certain point, although I loved it dearly, and still do. I just couldn’t see myself living there all my life. There was also the chance to reinvent yourself in NYC. In Wexford you were always going to be seen as the same person. I saw Midnight Cowboy in the Capitol Cinema in Wexford one night and said, “I want a piece of that.” And that was that. I saved my money, bought a ticket and took to the streets of NYC.
What was your first musical love and who were the bands that made you want to pick up a strat and turn up the volume?
I took up the Strat because Hendrix, Dylan and Buddy Holly played it. That was good enough for me. I still adore Strats. I have a very fancy and beautiful Epiphone – the same one that Lennon used on the roof of Apple for Get Back or Let it Be, but I very rarely play it. I guess I’m a Stratman! Those three guy were big influences as was Lennon, Strummer, but a whole host of others too. I’m not sure I’d go into music right now if I was starting off. Back when I began music was at the cutting edge socially. Now, for the most part, it’s spectacle or entertainment. I also don’t really like “Rock Music.” But I love Rock & Roll – that magic moment when everything comes together and it’s cathartic, like sex. That’s why we change the set every night with Black 47 – to enable us to hit that peak – that electric high. Merely getting out there and performing songs is really nowhere for me. It’s the jolt, the rush that happens when a great band and an audience goes somewhere else, that’s what I’m after every night. The rest of it doesn’t really interest me. I know how to perform and go through your paces, and can with the best of them – but it’s dragging the audience into the electric circle and going somewhere none of us has been before – that’s what music is all about for me. I guess I never really cared too much about success either – though I was lucky, worked hard and achieved a certain amount of it. But it was never the main deal – the high was everything!
In Ireland politics is often a form of conflict, debate and entertainment.
Growing up was your present out look influenced by family views?
Sure, I had a very political upbringing. I was raised by an old Grandfather who had lived the politics of the early 20th Century in Ireland and I ingested it all from him. My parents were actually apolitical. I was a companion to my grandfather – the eldest son in my own family, that’s how it was back then, you went and lived with whatever grandparent had been made a widower. From a very early age he treated me as an equal and would force me to defend any political thought or view that I had. He had seen or known Connolly, Larkin, Michael Collins, DeValera, Sean MacDiarmada and told me all about them. He had left school at 14 and was self-taught but very educated. He had a big house in the old part of Weford and had stocked an actual library of books – he used to buy them at auctions in the old houses of Co. Wexford. So I could study history to my heart’s content. But more importantly, I stored his memories in my brain and can still hear his opinions of say James Connolly – “a little Scottish troublemaker, upsetting the workers.” I loved Connolly though, and still do. I believed in the rights of the working people because I saw the poverty in Wexford and the gulf between rich and poor, educated and un-educated. And those values have stayed with me.
So, emphatically, yes! We’re all a product of our early upbringing – and I probably more so because of the experience of being raised by an old man with a real sense of history.