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Adventures of a Waterboy


  • Published 6 June by Lilliput Press, Dublin.  UK publication by Jawbone Press to follow in August.

From Chapter 10, MANSION OF MUSIC. The time is early summer 1988 and down at Spiddal House, on Ireland's west coast, the Fisherman's Blues album is almost completed.

As we approached the end of the sessions, spring gave way to summer and a spell of gorgeous weather enfolded the west of Ireland. This and the long light evenings impacted on us like a draught of magic and turned us what in older, more innocent times would have been termed fey. In this mood we embarked on our biggest project, the musical arrangement of W.B. Yeats’ faery poem ‘The Stolen Child’. The basis of the music was my rolling piano, over which Steve and Anto played long chords and wave-like swells. But for the lead instrument I invited a young Scottish musician to join us. We knew Colin Blakey as the flute and whistle player of We Free Kings, and I loved his Panlike flute sound. I asked Colin to give ‘The Stolen Child’ an otherwordly quality and this he did, concocting an exquisite set of melodies that rang like a summons to an older world.

The sense of enchantment deepened when Galway drummer Padraig Stevens came to play percussion. Padraig was an earthy hippie in his early forties who wore hand-knitted pullovers and thick spectacles, lived in a place with the stone-age name of Ugool, and struck me as an Irish version of Stig of the Dump a crafty, capable fellow somehow displaced from ancient times into the modern age. Sitting behind drums in the bay window, the sun’s rays splitting against his stocky silhouetted frame, Padraig held a string of little brass bells in each upraised hand and at judicious points throughout the song shook a pealing from them like the rustle of tiny silken curtains being parted; the sound, I imagined, of the faeries ushering the stolen child into their kingdom.

Tomas Mac Eoin at Spiddal House

Tomas Mac Eoin at Spiddal House

Finally we needed a voice to recite the poem. I’d already sung the choruses, with their ‘Come away, human child’ refrain, but I didn’t like the way my voice sounded speaking the verses. In the Spiddal general store a few months earlier I’d bought a cassette by a local Gaelic singer called Tomás Mac Eoin. Tomás, whoever he was, had a matterhorn of a voice, a sound hewn from rock yet full of a warm broken humanity. I could easily imagine him reciting ‘The Stolen Child’, and I loved the idea of engaging with the local tradition. According to the cassette inlay card Tomás lived in the village of Carraroe, twenty-five miles up the coast, and one evening Trevor and Anto drove there to seek him out. They tracked him to his cottage where, mystified by these hairy creatures and their talk of ‘vocal overdubs’ but recognizing the famous name of W.B. Yeats, Tomas agreed to do whatever it was they were asking.

If Colin and Padraig brought a tantalizing echo of an older time, this guy was the whole symphony. Tomás walked into Spiddal House like a punchline, six feet three inches of Dickensian magnificence, the kind of old world character that has long disappeared in Britain yet lingers in Ireland. He was handsome, with a long-brimmed blue cap, an ambling limp and a quavering high-pitched speaking voice in which he delivered self-mocking statements like, ‘I’m nothing but a nuisance’ or, running his hand ruefully over his balding head, ‘There used to be waves, now there’s only the shore!’ (This humour could also devastate and deflate. A year later I heard a loud-voiced American boast in a dressing room about how he could, ‘git in mah car in the morning, drive for twenty-four hours and still be in Texas!’ Tomás, overhearing this, interjected in tremulous tones, ‘Oh japers, I had a car like that once.’)

It wasn’t easy recording Tomás getting his performance on tape was like squeezing the Matterhorn into a jiffy bag. He was willing, certainly, and had the awesome powers of concentration common to people raised in an oral tradition. But because he was a Sean-nós singer (a performer of unaccompanied slow airs) and a native Irish speaker for whom English was a second language, Tomás was far from comfortable reciting Yeats’ elegant, tongue-twisting lyrics in time to a piece of music.

The session was a spectacular failure. Tomás couldn’t find the beat within the music and his pronunciation was poor, with many amusingly mangled words. And he’d never worn headphones in his life. But our new friend was no quitter. He insisted on a second session a few days later and went back to Carraroe determined to practise the poem until he could speak it like a natural. When we tried again there was a huge difference. Tomás had probably been reading the poem aloud every waking moment since we’d last seen him, and he had his delivery nailed. But we still had the timing problem. Dunford and I were racking our brains wondering how to solve this when Tomás suggested a solution would I sit with him in the studio and cue him for every phrase?

We went into the studio, the rock ‘n’roller and the Sean-nós singer, and sat facing each other across the gulf between our different worlds. I felt like a whippersnapper before this emissary of a venerable tradition, and didn’t relish the job of cueing him. But Tomás was putting himself in my hands and I realized that if I wanted to bridge the gulf and bring back the fruits of the older world, I had to stretch out a metaphorical hand and meet Tomás halfway; we had to be the bridge. So I bit the bullet and when the music started playing I gave Tomás a gentle signal with my hand a split-second in advance of where I imagined each line of the poem falling. And he responded, his giant of a voice rolling out the rich syllables on cue like an old god pouring wine down a mountainside. Verse by verse, line by line, signal by signal, Tomás delivered and soon we had the poem fastened snugly to the music, worlds merged and job well accomplished. After a celebratory cup of tea in the kitchen, Tomás, his blue cap tilted at a rakish angle, was chauffeured back to his cottage in Carraroe, a relieved and happy man.

The experience of listening to Tomás’ voice invoking the haunted islands of ‘The Stolen Child’, interwoven with Blakey’s enchanted flute, hour after hour, day upon day, increased the spell that descended on us that last week at Spiddal House. We seemed to need less sleep, time was slowed down and the playing of the band was shot through with sweet longing. The house itself seemed to have become charged with magic, and walking through its rooms and halls in the long evenings was like passing through gold light. But not everyone was affected benignly.

Mike Scott at Spiddal House

Mike Scott at Spiddal House

After eight weeks of being a tarot card in Spiddal Jimmy Hickey was close to snapping point anyway, but the oncoming midsummer madness tipped him over the edge. One night while we were working on ‘The Stolen Child’, Jimmy got dirtily drunk on whiskey, went into the jamming room, sat behind the spare drum kit and for the first time in his life began to play. The noise was diabolical, like an army of orcs bouncing garbage bins on an iron roof. All work was impossible so our production manager, a mate of Dunford’s called Jake who’d been brought in to steady things after the shotgun incident, was despatched to stop it. Five minutes later the din was still going on, only now with schoolboy bass-playing added. I stepped into the room to find Jimmy looking like a distant caveman relation of himself, with bloodshot eyes and blue skin, viciously bludgeoning the drums. I knew Jimmy’s nickname among the Dublin roadie fraternity was ‘Captain Muck’ muck being an Irish term for hedonism, high jinks and the robust consumption of alcohol but this was Field Marshall Muck, all arms and gangly legs too big for the drum kit, spittle slithering down his chin. The World’s Greatest Roadie had reverted to a pre-civilized state. Backing him on bass was Jake, who feebly claimed, ‘I thought playing with him was the best way to calm him down.’ Only Dunford knew how to play Androcles to Captain Muck’s lion, and so he it was who gently coaxed Jimmy into coming out from behind the drums and convinced him to leave the studio. ‘He’s Spiddalled, man,’ was Dunford’s expert prognosis, and the next morning Jimmy was banished to Dublin, to the tender attentions of the one person who could soothe him, his patient wife Ceppi.

Two days later, with peace restored, ‘The Stolen Child’ was completed and on the last night of recording we invited friends for a jam session. There was a feeling in the air that something special would happen; perhaps one of those amazing sessions where the band was swept up in the moment and played one after another master-quality performances in first takes, snatching complete records out of the air. But in fact our last hurrah in Spiddal House was a quiet anti-climatic affair; our energy was spent and the magic, having dwelt among us, had moved on. We drank champagne then made gentle music all night. I remember Dylan’s ‘Buckets of Rain’, some Bo-Diddley-ized Irish reels and a Robbie the Pict composition called ‘The Pictish National Anthem’, until at 8 am a gang of brawny humpers from Galway arrived to pack up the gear. As they dismantled the mixing desk and hauled it onto their truck I stood in the garden, Artist-King of Spiddal House for a few last golden minutes while the sounds and shouts of working men filled the air and a morning breeze blew in from the sea. That night we had a wrap-up party which began in Hughes’s bar, moved to someone’s back garden and finally wound up at Steve and Anto’s bungalow. The last scene I remember before I went to bed was a chorus line of Waterboys and Spiddalfolk kicking their legs in the air in a kind of west of Ireland can-can, all of them shouting, smoking reefers and looking like they were in severe danger of being happy.

We returned to Dublin the next afternoon and it was like being flung out of Eden back into a crazy land. Within days I could feel the city’s frantic energy scouring the wildness off me and undoing the west’s enchantments. A more serious cultural decompression followed a week later when Dunford, Pat McCarthy and I flew into Britain to mix the album at Rockfield Studios on the Welsh/English border. By God, rural Britain was dull: all high hedgerows, straight-laced towns and sensible fun-free pubs. Rockfield at least was a decent studio, one I knew from earlier Waterboys records. It occupied the courtyard and outbuildings of a farm and I liked the owner, an eccentric Welsh chatterbox called Kingsley who made his rounds each evening, looking in on the bands as if he was checking the cows in the stalls. But faced anew with the job of sifting through the maze of music we’d recorded since 1986 my vacillation returned and the perennial curses of the residential studio isolation, boredom, absence of stimuli and inspiration, set in. Slowly, crawlingly, the song selections and mixes were done until, at last in late August 1988, thirty-two months after breaking ground in Windmill Lane, I finalized the album and called it Fisherman’s Blues.

Chrysalis released it that October with a cover picture of band and crew outside Spiddal House. But the twelve songs, six from Spiddal and six from Windmill Lane, told only a fraction of the story not just of the music we’d made but of all that had happened since I’d come to Ireland three years earlier. We’d recorded nearly a hundred tracks and twice as many outtakes, probably the largest body of work ever for one album; and the stylistic and personal changes the music documented were as deep and manifold as some bands go through in whole careers. Fisherman’s Blues could and should have been a double or triple album but most of the Dublin recordings, including many of our best moments, would remain unfinished for another decade. Three hundred and seventy four master reels, piled floor to ceiling and wall to wall in a room at Windmill Lane, waited for the day twelve years hence when I’d return to complete the work.

We didn’t even understand the story ourselves yet. Time and the west of Ireland had changed us. Steve’s marriage disintegrated on his return to Dublin; Anto would come back later to raise a family in Galway; and Trevor would leave The Waterboys in a couple of years and became a full time trad musician, never to play in a rock ‘n’roll band again. Meanwhile, in the months we’d been riding the winds of the old world, rock had discovered raves, ecstasy and sampling. Fisherman’s Blues would become the biggest selling Waterboys album but at the moment of its publication our trajectory couldn’t have veered further from the rock mainstream.

As for me, I figured music wasn’t worth the air it occupied if it didn’t change both its makers and its listeners, but I was altered by my adventures to a degree beyond my comprehension. I stood looking back over the three years, wondering what the hell had happened. Unable to articulate the contents of my mind I decided to give no interviews, and did the one sensible thing I could and took The Waterboys back on the road. We called up Jay Dee Daugherty, Vinnie Kilduff, Colin Blakey, Roddy Lorimer and Tomás Mac Eoin and went out mob-handed on a sell-out forty-five date tour of Britain and Ireland. It was a storming comeback, almost my ‘colourful travelling musical explosion’ band-vision made real. But not quite. The last missing elements, whatever they were, would soon appear.