Monday, 22 May 2023

Martin Amis R.I.P.

So, Martin Amis… 

Can’t say he was my favourite of the British batch which came to prominence in the 1980s: I’d rate Rushdie, Barnes, McEwan all higher. He certainly wasn’t in the same league as his avowed heroes and influences, Nabokov and Bellow. That was just trying to establish greatness by association. Literature isn’t just about knowing and deploying dictionary words, although it can help. But it was his snobby public schoolboy attitudes that marred much of his work, and was really off-putting. Working class characters (e.g. Keith Talent) exist only as figures of fun and the butt of jokes. Football fans at a match he attends ‘look like crisps’. Granted, aspirational middle class characters are satirised too – but with them, it’s an inside job, talking across rather than talking down, much less condescending and more 'empathetic' - as they say nowadays. But that’s the English class system for you. Time’s Arrow is the best of his novels of those I’ve read. However, as with many novelists, I much prefer reading his journalism and essays rather than his fiction. It is as a social commentator, and as an explorer of his own consciousness, that I would suggest he will be best remembered. R.I.P.

Sunday, 19 March 2023

Pelé, and the World’s Best Dad

On March 5th last, I had a piece on RTE Radio 1's Sunday Miscellany. Here's a slightly fuller version of the text I read then. You can listen to the original broadcast by following the link below. 

Pelé, and the World’s Best Dad By Desmond Traynor 

On February 26th, 1972, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known to the footballing world – and far beyond it – as Pelé, came to Dalymount Park in Phibsboro. He lined out in an exhibition match for his club side Santos against a combined Bohemians-Drumcondra XI Selection. This was quite a media event, as the Brazilian legend was then widely regarded as the greatest footballer the world had ever seen. In many circles in the game, despite tough contemporary competition, he remains so. But what makes this occasion resonant for me is that, aged eleven, I was there, brought by my often unavailable father. 

    My Da worked long, unsociable hours as a bus conductor to keep us in the relatively frugal comforts his efforts had encouraged us – my mother and myself – to feel we were entitled, mainly through copious amounts of overtime. The Ma – often irritated by the last minute phone calls to inform her that he was doing a double day – complained that we never saw him, little realising that in his mind he was just keeping the show on the road. Providing for us was his way of showing his love. As he used to say, “I reared two gentlemen, and a lady” – these being my elder brother, my elder sister, and myself.

    Pelé, from equally humble origins, through three marriages and several affairs, fathered seven children. Santos were a club of modest means and, realising they had a prize asset on their hands, began gruelling tours all over the world, arranging friendlies against any local team that would do a deal with them, in order to milk their cash cow. Santos rejected all transfer offers for their superstar, and the Brazilian government of the time even passed a bill declaring Pelé ‘a national treasure’, effectively blocking him from ever departing The Land of the Holy Cross for a more remunerative top-flight European side. Thus, his appearance with his teammates at Dalymount.

    As an indentured workhorse with an exhausting schedule, Pelé did not have a lot of spare time for family life with his kids. A son by his first marriage, Edinho, was jailed for thirty-three years in 2014 for laundering money from drug trafficking, reduced to twelve years on appeal (although his famous father always maintained that this was a miscarriage of justice). For most of his life, Pelé never acknowledged his eldest daughter, Sandra Machado, even after her death in 2006, nor her two children, Octavio and Gabriel. She was born of an affair the star player had in 1964 with a housemaid, Anizia Machado. However, shortly before he died, he requested to meet his grandsons, and he recognised all seven children in his will. Another of his affairs, from 1981 to 1986, was with Brazilian TV host Xuxa Meneghel, twenty-three years his junior, whom he began dating when he was forty and she was seventeen.

    My father did not go in for multiple marriages or, to the best of my knowledge, affairs – extramarital or otherwise. His staunch Roman Catholicism – which led to a growing distance between us during my teenage years – would have forbidden him from doing so. However Pelé, too, was a practicing Catholic, albeit evidently of the à la carte variety: he never let his religious beliefs stop him from getting around. He finally left Santos at the age of thirty-four, past his competitive prime, signing for the New York Cosmos, where he played from 1975 to 1977. In New York he enjoyed the high life, becoming a regular at Studio 54, and earning more during his three years with the Cosmos than he had in his entire career at Santos. My Dad, in contrast, didn’t get to kick back until he retired aged sixty-five, claiming the statutory old age pension, and a small annuity from C.I.E.

    The Dalymount match itself was, according to contemporaneous newspaper reports, no great spectacle, with the Sunday Independent headline dubbing the star attraction ‘the Phibsboro flop.’ The lethargic performance was due, no doubt, to Pelé and Co.’s fatigue from constant touring. My eleven-year-old self remembers it rather differently. The fulltime score was 3-2 to Santos, but two incidents stand out in my memory. The first was when a Santos defender, facing his own goal, chose to head the ball against the post, before turning to clear the rebound away. This was true exhibition stuff, worthy of the Harlem Globetrotters. No player would be trying such a move in a match with anything at stake. The other was when a shot wide wound up in our area of the stand behind the goal, and a dozen hands stretched out to touch the ball that Pelé had touched. Mine was one of them.

    My father did bring me other places when I was a child: to Tora, Tora, Tora, an epic war film about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour; and on an annual busmen’s pilgrimage to Knock Shrine which he organised (that fervent Catholic devotion again!), where I was the only boy among a coachful of middle-aged men. My grandfatherly father was forty-six years old when I was born, causing a school friend to remark, “Your old man really is an old man”. However, when I challenged him much later – during my disaffected adolescence – about not seeing enough of him when I was growing up, his immediate response was, “Didn’t I bring you to see Pelé?”

    Perhaps Pelé was and, arguably, remains the best footballer the world has ever seen, even if he was not always the World’s Best Dad. Maybe my father was the World’s Best Dad, despite his enforced absences, and even if there are millions of drinking mugs which proclaim this slogan for countless numbers of men. Like Pelé, my father worked hard and did his best. Within the boundaries of one’s allotted talents and the opportunities that present themselves, isn’t that all anyone can do, for their children?

    Thanks Dad, for everything. Most of all, thanks for bringing me to see Pelé.

Wednesday, 1 March 2023

Song of the Faithful Departed

I recorded two versions of 'Song of the Faithful Departed' by Phil Chevron of The Radiators during lockdown, for a podcast Stefan Murphy was doing. The first song which 'got' post-independence in a nutshell, and the best. Slow one: Fast one: Thanks.

Friday, 27 January 2023

The Banshees of Inisherin - The Debate Rages

A debate seems to be brewing about the merits of Martin McDonagh's The Banshees of Inisherin. I got into a bit of a spat with someone on old codgers' FaceBook, who is insistent that Banshees is a masterpiece, and that anyone who thinks otherwise is ignorant of film studies. Here's an extract of my opinion, in response to that individual (who, let it be said, I otherwise admire).

'Accolades and nominations mean very little, or mean precisely as much as people are prepared to invest in them. You, more than many people, should know how the PR machine works. I have worked as a film critic - not that I think that's what qualifies me to have an opinion on any film I see. I wrote on this forum at the time I saw Banshees: 'I enjoyed this, for the most part. Sparkling dialogue and great actorly performances. However, I prefer Martin McDonagh's non-Irish set movies - Three Billboards and In Bruges - to his typically 2nd generation London-Irish stage Irishry plays and films. To echo John Coltrane's remark to Miles Davis, I don't think he knew how to end it.' I've never fully bought into McDonagh's Western Gothic (the west of Ireland, that is), which lacks an emotional core. 'Let's laugh at the grotesques and their tragic lives.' Banshees will play well in the U.S. - thus the 'accolades and nominations'. Some Americans probably think that's exactly what Ireland was like. Like lots of films and TV shows I see now, production values and performances are impeccably high. It's the writing that leaves something to be desired.'

Saturday, 17 December 2022

Pussy Riot: Riot Days / Cruel Sister - Opium Rooms - 15/11/2022

Everyone is by now familiar with the history of punk activist collective Pussy Riot, formed in March 2011, whose most famous guerrilla socio-political intervention was their performance of ‘A Punk Prayer’ inside Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in August 2012. For their trouble, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina were convicted of ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’, and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment, a portion of which was served in a Mordovian penal colony. This experience was recounted in Aloykhina’s memoir Riot Days (2018), and it forms the basis of this touring theatrical show. The fact that Nadezhda and Maria (Masha) now live on opposite sides of the Atlantic and perform separately – while both retain the original group name and accommodate a revolving door membership – only testifies to the truth of their slogan: ‘Anyone can be Pussy Riot.’  
  This is a confrontational evening of well-choreographed, visceral physicality, underpinned by the throbbing electronica and percussion of Diana Burkot. Unfortunately, the video element was absent due to technical difficulties, but the English subtitles of the Russian text projected onscreen helped keep track of the protest poetry declaimed by Alyokhina, flautist Taso Pletner and documentarian Olga Borisova, which culminated in a vagina-baring pissing on a portrait of Vladimir Putin – a gesture guaranteeing that the participants won’t be going home to Russia anytime soon. 
  The encore, an ode to the bombing of Mariupol, brings us right up-to-date, and makes you realise how long these women have been campaigning against Putin’s authoritarian regime, with its brutality to dissidents and the LGBTQ+ community. You can’t say you weren’t warned. 
  A shout out too for appropriately chosen (she’s got the right attitude) support act Cruel Sister, who played material from the excellent Girls My Age EP. Faith Millar’s immaculately executed, hard-edged shoegaze recalls a young Kristin Hersh’s angular endeavours with Throwing Muses.  

Tuesday, 6 December 2022

Doctor Millar - Interview - September 2022

Ace singer-songwriter Seán (Doctor) Millar has just released his sixth solo album, Ruining Everything, having endured not only pandemic lockdown, like the rest of us, but overcoming some personal health issues as well. Here he chats about the making of the record, his influences, and what else he has been up to.

So Seán, congratulations. Nine years in the making?

Well, it wasn’t really nine years. It was it was two-and-a-half years, I suppose. I mean, I started demoing songs, and I’ve got a pile of songs ready to go. I would say I’ve got at least thirty songs that I’m happy with putting on a record. I mean, I’ve written hundreds over the last nine years, but I suppose I’ve just been doing loads of other stuff, the theatre stuff, and it’s the logistics of getting it together to do an album. It’s so difficult to balance the financials, and the time frame. Also, what happens is that it takes me so long to gather the wherewithal to record, in terms of my own time, energy, commitment, and money for studio time, that by the time we go to do it I’ve moved on myself personally. But with this one what was really good was I just I reached a point where I wanted to make something really raw and sort of acoustic and roots-based, and that’s relatively cheaper to do. And because of COVID I wasn’t doing anything else, so it meant this became my focus, and I got it done and got it out. I’m working on another one already. 

It was Les Keye, at Arad Studios?

…as producer, yes, and he was much more ‘the producer’ on this. Like, normally when I make records, I’m co-producer. I generally work very closely on arrangements, you know, because that’s one of my skills, I guess. In fact, I’m much better at arranging music than I am at playing it. For this Les did a lot of donkey work, and he brought in Donal Lunny, and Bill Whelan the banjo player. There was a lot of his methods, no click tracks were used on the record, and huge amounts of them are single takes. So that was an attempt by Les to try and capture a sort of authentic Dr. Millar experience, and that kind of mixture of absurd post-punk and roots music that I am.

Some people are calling it your rootsiest, folkiest album.  How intentional was that, or did you arrange songs to fit the concept? 

It’s very much intentional. I see this as me making a statement about who I am, or certainly who Dr. Millar is, anyway.

He’s this rootsy, folksy guy?

Well, I suppose it’s because I came from that post-punk environment, there were certain ways of doing things that I always rejected. I always thought of myself as folk musician, but I never signalled that in an obvious way. I’ve always tried to sing in voices that would be natural to me, that wouldn't be too out of step with my spoken voice. But everything’s a choice, and you mediate yourself through those choices, the way you speak and the way you sing. Because I’ve never gone for an Irishy, tragic-folky way of singing, I think maybe I’ve never been really seen as that, even though that’s what I see myself as being.

But you’re interested in all kinds of different genres of music. 

Personally, I really am. I mean, The Velvet Underground are my favourite band. They’re not just my favourite band, it actually feels wrong to say that, because there are other bands I enjoy listening to as much or more than The Velvet Underground. But I think The Velvet Underground were the most important band in my life. And the reason for that is because I had to change in order to like The Velvet Underground, and that act of changing my thinking about what was good was so radicalising for me as a musician, and as an artist, that it has affected every single thing I’ve done ever since.

Ageing is a theme on the album?

It’s very much the theme: ageing and dying. I’m always doing the same thing, I suppose. I’m always either talking about myself or telling stories, one or the other. ‘Communion Money’, for example, is just a song about family. It’s very simple, it’s just a dream that I had where I was floating in a boat out to sea with my siblings, and I felt really, really happy and safe and secure, and loved. 

A lot of the songs are very narrative driven. Stories, as you say, like ‘Danny McCoy’.

Yeah,  I met a guy that I was in school with, I wouldn't have seen him for twenty-five years. Cool guy, very musical. Accidental meeting, I walked into a bar and he was having a chat with someone else I knew from school, and he told me about his life and I was going ‘Wow’ all the time, what a life you’ve had, his life was so strange and eventful, dramatic and full of adventure and incident and interest and love. Afterwards I was thinking – apart from how much I liked this person – how you kind of know people and don’t know them at all. If you’d asked me about that guy, I’d have told you that he lived in Bray, and it turns out he’s had this incredible epic life. So, it’s about assumptions, and the assumptions people make about me as well. 

Could you could imagine any of these songs being done in radically different versions?

Yeah, I could. I suppose what it is, is I’m so bored with contemporary music production. If you work at it, especially my other job in theatre, I get to explore different styles. But there’s so much ‘nothing’ in contemporary music production, and I listen to a lot of production. They’re being seduced by the software, essentially. I mean, I love electronic music, absolutely love it, but there’s an art to everything, there’s an art to folk and there’s an art to electronica and there’s an art to heavy metal, there’s an art to all these different genres. And right now what I feel is, if I’m making an album, I want to actually make an album that has something real in it, that has something that is a moment of my time, that is a genuine ‘something’, that’s a drop of my blood. I want to basically pour a cup of my fucking blood into this recording, so people get something when they buy it, they actually get ‘some thing’, not just me arseing around with keyboards and stuff like that. I had to try and do all those guitar tracks, and it took time to get some of them right. It was actually hard, you know, trying to get vocals that sound like they mean something, not just me singing. I mean, I sing all day, but a vocal that has some sort of integrity, some sort of expression. That’s what I was trying to do with this. So every time I play, everything sounds a little bit different. Because I don’t try and play the album live, ever. I just try and play the songs live with the musicians who are there, for the audience that’s there. 

Garret “Jacknife” Lee - Telefís - Interview - August 2022

Following the death of revered Irish singer-songwriter Cathal Coughlan on May 18th this year comes the release of the second album by Telefís, his groundbreaking collaboration with world-renowned producer Garret “Jacknife” Lee. The pair had completed “a Dó” earlier in 2022, with an album release planned for September. With the approval of Cathal’s family the album will now be available on October 7th. Des Traynor spent an hour-and-a-half on Zoom to Garret in L.A. recently, where the Dubliner now lives and works. From a wide-ranging, generous chat, here are the Telefísed highlights.

You would have known Cathal when you were living in England in the 90s?

No, I met Cathal once. I didn't remember it. In The Underworld in Camden in probably 1992. He remembers it. When we were talking before doing the album, I said I haven’t seen you since Ireland. And he said, ‘No, we met.’ We were all taking a lot of drink at the time. So I didn't remember Cathal. Once he said it, I vaguely remembered seeing him. I think he had just played a gig. I went up to him, and we talked for a while.

But you knew him in Dublin in the ’80s. 

Yeah, we played gigs together.

You reconnected through Luke Haines?

I was mixing a record for Luke. And he was with Cathal one day. And he said, ‘I’m with a friend of yours.’ So I said, ‘Introduce me.’ And Cathal said, ‘I hear you did a record with Luke, and he likes it, which is a first, ’cos he doesn’t like anything.’ And then I said, ‘Well, should we make a record?’ And he said, ‘Sure.’

Cathal said somewhere that it was beneficial that you were in different places, because you were out of each other’s way. But was it strange being on opposite sides of the world, bouncing audio files back and forth?

No, I've worked this way for quite a while, since COVID, with different artists. You know, if an artist is on tour, they can’t come here. And then a lot of times people are doing extra tracks, or need a single edit done or are just recording a single. So I've been working this way anyway. And obviously working with U2, I can’t go over there every other weekend just to record a vocal, so I decided that a good way to be working was just to get my own space. And it means that I can work on a number of things in the one day. If I have an artist here it can get a bit ‘intense’. So for Telefís it was it was easier for both of us because I think Cathal had been working by himself for a long time. And I know from my own history, when you’re doing everything, it’s a lot of pressure and you don’t know when to let things go. So, Cathal doing music, and then the vocal production, the engineering that he had been doing, just took him a long time. So by me sending tracks, I think it was more fun for him. And also, you were coming at it from a different perspective. A lot of Cathal’s work is based on the drama in it. Aside from the lyric, it’s chord based, so we’re motoring along the verse, then we’ll have this chord and then it will force him to write from another perspective, or lyrically, there has been an event, or something. So without those things, he was forced to come at things in a different way. And I think he liked the challenge of it. So I’d send him a track that was mostly finished. And then he would send an idea back, and then I’d be working on that, and I’d send it back to him with his vocals manipulated in some way. Up to that point, a lot of the vocal manipulation had seemed gratuitous or gimmicky to him, when it had been done on other records, but this didn’t feel that way. So I think it excited him. So it was easier for him. And it was easier for me to work on music when somebody’s not here. 

  Like, I was doing a record with Open Mike Eagle, who’s a very respected rapper in LA. He asked me to work on his record. And I tried stuff out on his vocals, that if he was here, he wouldn’t have licenced it, because it can be time consuming. It can seem like a waste of time to try this dumb experiment. Also, he may not have liked it. But in context, it kind of works. And also, the way Cathal wrote his words, it took time. So had we been together, it would have been more musical – but this way, he was just given a set and asked to fill it, and it wouldn’t be a set that he would have designed himself. So there was a kind of thrill to it for him. I didn’t really get involved with words. He says I did – I mean, I would say things, or I’d sing something and then send it back, and I’d have crappy words – that I would have been happy with – but obviously, he’d say ‘I can’t sing that’, and he was right.

Did you know Cathal was seriously ill during the making of the first album, and how did you deal with it subsequently?

Cathal’s dying was always a part of these songs. Not literally, but his reflections and explorations of where he came from examined from this perspective. After his death we could have waited to release the album, and I accepted that we might have to, but now I just want to celebrate Cathal. I want people to know that he was active and working up to the last few days of his life. We were working on more Telefís  - writing and planning. I know that might have been something to just take his mind off his illness, but that was the way he dealt with the situation and I want to honour that. There are many layers to Cathal Coughlan. The mischief, the tenderness, and the profound melancholy. Such a sweet man. It’s all here, and it’s some of his best work. Writing these songs during his illness, knowing what lay ahead of him, shows his commitment to words and ideas. It’s his life.