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Listening to Tom Waits gave me a new dream

An ambition of mine was newly discovered this week, while listening to a Spotify playlist compiled from some songs that stood out and brought my roving and restless mind to peace.

Late Date on RTE Radio 1 has been regular company these past few months.

Cathal Murray, one of the presenters, has a particularly eclectic taste in music that seems to tick many of the my criteria for great music. (Admission: I have never set out what these criteria are, and I still haven’t. He just … picks music that seems to resonate with me, no matter what mood or frame of mind I’m in.)

During the pandemic, Murray has created his own little recurring tagline for the show:

“Escapism through music”

I like that. Music can transport us away in ways that few other things can. Call that escapism, or transcendence, or a mystic train through lands of wonder. Whatever it is, it is a moving and joyous experience to have songs selected, and given slow air-time to unfold, without the intense pressure of ads or the news cycle that torments so much of radio. (It’s no coincidence that the shipping forecast is aired during this late night show…)

One of the songs played not that long ago was “Downtown Train”.

Now I — and maybe you too — only remembered “Downtown Train” as a poppy Rod Stewart hit single from 30-odd years ago.

It was only lately, via Late Date, I realised that the song was written and recorded by Tom Waits for his 1985 album Rain Dogs.

Listening to the Waits original, and watching some of his old performances on YouTube, made me think a lot about how we spend our time.

And I realised, with some force, that it is an ambition of mine to do something, anything, in life with the all-in, screw-all-onlookers temperament of Tom Waits as he sings “Downtown Train”.

Here’s a live version he recorded at a festival in Italy in 1986.

And here’s the original.

Aside 1: YouTube comments are often a sewer-pipe of the Internet, but the original includes maybe the best YouTube comment I’ve ever read:

“Tom Waits writes songs about wounded people with just a few drops of dream left.”

Aside 2: I’ve previously written about a previous Late Date presenter, Maxi, here.

One song could change your life

I watched some old footage of U2 recently. It was an interview from Irish television in 1986.

They were already a big deal by then — they had played a great set at Live Aid a year before — but it was before The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby and about a dozen songs that would make them one of the greatest live bands in history.

At this point they were still young Irish lads in their mid-20s, talking about Irish music and Irish life. The Troubles were still going on in the north, unemployment and emigration were sky high and Jack Charlton and the World Cups and the Celtic Tiger were still to come.

Bono was asked by the presenter, “What advice would you give young Irish bands?”

I loved his answer.

“There’s one thing. It’s taken me seven years to learn this. People in the band business talk about managers and agents, and how important that is, and indeed it is important.

“But writing one song… That song could manage you. That song could be your agent. That song could change your life.

“A three and a half minute song. You could write it on two strings. ‘I Will Follow’ was written on two strings of a guitar. Two or three chords. ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door was written on four chords. Most of the classic songs ever written were written on three or four chords.

“It’s the songs. U2 came to the fore on a sound. The songs are the most important thing.”

That advice.

A song can manage you.

A song can be your agent.

A song can change your life.

It’s exceptional advice, and not just for young musicians, either, but for creators of any age.

Create art. Let the art sing.

I thought about Bono’s words again today when I heard a new song.

It was a song that ripped straight through me, that made me want to sing the chorus at the top of my lungs.

From the first few chords I felt like I was listening to a song from twenty or thirty or forty years ago, from America, probably, or maybe, maybe there was a hint of something European there — a little poppy-electronic French, or moody Scandinavian, or the sort of song that made up the soundtrack for the brilliant German spy thriller series Deutschland 83.

So good I had to look it up.

(This rarely happens. My Shazam app is a barren place…)

So what was this classic song from decades ago from foreign lands?

It was “All For the Best” by Bleeding Heart Pigeons.

Released a month ago, by a three-piece band from Limerick, Ireland, who are so new there’s not even a Wikipedia page yet. (Expect that to change soon…)

So well done Mícheál, Cathal and Brendan.

With one four-minute song, you’ve done Bono and the rest of Ireland proud, and hopefully, it will be your manager and your agent for many years to come.

Give it a listen, see what you think.

Oasis B-sides, memory and the synapses of the brain

As I was got into the car to set off for the day at shortly after 6.30am the other morning, I idly flicked on the radio.

I’m not a regular radio listener, not any more. These days I’m more a hummingbird type, hovering and flitting until I find a bit of nectar to sustain for another while, before flitting away to somewhere else, somewhere new.

(When I write this now, I realise I probably have this hummingbird habit in a lot of ways, not just my radio listening.)

The car radio was set to Today FM and the Vampire Weekend song, “White Sky”, was playing. It was pleasant and upbeat and had the effect of increasing a little bloodflow and generating a little optimism, but while the melody was enjoyable, it didn’t run deep. That song might mean the world to someone else, but overall, it triggered no emotional responses in me and meant nothing more than an enjoyable 3-minute diversion.

When it ended and the presenter started with the between songs high-energy-nonsense-chatter (the thing that most makes me flick from station to station is high-energy-nonsense-chatter), I changed the dial.

RTE Radio 1 was next up. Rising Time, the early morning music, short news updates and gentle chat — it’s gratifyingly low on the high-energy-nonsense-chatter scale — has been an occasional companion to me for 20 years or so.

I first listened to Rising Time in, I think, the early 2000s when I was bus commuting to Dublin every day for college and work, and when Maxi presented.

(Short aside on Maxi: For much of my late teens and 20s, it felt like my sleep habits were moulded around wherever Maxi was on the radio schedule. For a number of years Maxi presented Rising Time from 5.30am. For several other years, she was on duty on Late Date, the show that started after 11pm at night and went through until 2 in the morning.

I remember several mornings and several late nights when I was ready by the radio from the start of Maxi’s show, won over by the gentleness of her voice and the music choices that often surprised and usually delighted and by the sense of unseen community around the show — these were days before the community-everywhere Facebook age — as Maxi read text messages from Joe on the night-shift in Ennis, or Patricia who’s driving across the midlands with the radio as company.

It’s seven or eight years since Maxi was forced to retire due to battles with severe exhaustion, no doubt brought on at least in part by the burn-at-both-ends time-slots of her shows. I realise now that Maxi created a space of calm for me during early adult years when internal calm and a sense of who I was were both elusive to me. I greatly miss her voice and her music choices and the space she created.)

Anyway, back to the other morning.

The song playing when I flicked on to Rising Time I recognised instantly as Oasis.

Whereas many of Oasis’ big hits were of the rockstar mode, heavy guitars and confrontational lyrics variety, they have a number of songs that are gentler, mellower and much deeper.

The beauty of Oasis’ B-sides

“The Masterplan” is one of those. It was a B-side on the single of “Wonderwall”, probably still their most famous song. In the shadow of “Wonderwall”, it was easy to miss “The Masterplan”, but its appeal grew and grew over time. Indeed, Noel Gallagher has said it is one of the best songs he has ever written and later regretted its B-side release.

The song playing on Rising Time was “Half the World Away”, another of Oasis’ initially overlooked B-sides (it was released on the “Whatever” single in 1994).

Music has the ability to transport us to a different time and place and set of emotions. Music has the ability to send us half the world away, and half a life back in time.

“Half the World Away” had that effect on me.

It inveigled its way through my senses and into the synapses of my brain, bringing several happy memories and nostalgia-laden emotions streaming back to the forefront of my mind.

The first was that it was Oasis itself. During the mid-1990s I loved the so-called Britpop revival, led by the likes of Oasis and Blur. (Indeed, for a while the pressure was on to choose which camp you were in. I loved Oasis but I also loved Blur. They were both unique and appealing and wonderful in different ways, a new joy to me after several years of early 90s trance and dance and rave. I was three months short of my 18th birthday when I went to see REM at Slane, and left having enjoyed Michael Stipe and Co but having been completely won over by the support act, Oasis. Hearing Oasis again the other morning, at 41 and a bit years of age, I was transported back to my late teens and early 20s when everything was confusing but everything was possible.

The second memory/emotion that “Half the World Away” brought to me was The Royle Family. The song was the theme song for the BBC sitcom, which first arrived on our screens 20 years ago this year (1998).

Like Oasis at Slane in 1995, I was immediately won over by Jim and Barb and Denise and Dave and Antony and everyone else. The Royle Family made you laugh but it made you laugh by what was true as much as what was funny. While they were in Manchester, UK and I was in Navan, Ireland, I recognised everything about their existence, and I guess that was the root of its appeal — because their existence was almost universal across vast swatches of suburban and provincial and small-town and housing estate UK and Ireland, the setting where so many of us lived and breathed.

All those memories and emotions — happy, sad, bittersweet, nostalgic — cascaded over me in the first five seconds of hearing “Half the World Away”.

Music and the senses

Music can do that to us. Music gets into our senses and rushes through the synapses in our brain, bringing to the surface stuff from deep in our past that we might be unable to surface on our own.

The music that does that to me will be different to the music that does it to you, but that’s the beauty of life and living, that the differences are in our own minute, individual, unique experiences, and how where we are and what we’re doing at a certain point of time can be recalled in all its glorious, emotional detail 20 years later when we’re driving our car and we hear the first bars of a song we once loved.