Instead of Sheep

It’s funny, the things that stay with you. You can hear all kinds of things in any given week. Profound things, funny things, angry-making things but it’s always hard to predict which thing will stick in the recesses of your brain and take up residence there. 

This week it was an old song that climbed in there and refused to budge. I only heard it once (well, twice if you’re being picky) and it didn’t start to play on repeat in my brain immediately. It was actually some days later when it showed up and commenced to kick the inside of my cranium. 

I mentioned it very briefly in passing last week. I went to see Castlebar Musical and Dramatic Society  do their annual musical production. This year, it was ‘White Christmas’ and very good it was too. There was the song, right there in the middle of all the proceedings. Ronan Egan is a lovely singer but, even more than that, he get ‘get across’ whatever song he is singing. He can engage you in it and he can rather convince you that he believes what he sings. In one scene, his character meets the little girl, late of an evening, and learns that she is having some trouble getting to sleep. He has some advice for her.

“When I'm worried and I can't sleep
I count my blessings instead of sheep
And I fall asleep counting my blessings.”

Irving Berlin has always been good at writing with the ‘little drop of blood' that I’m always so keen on. So many of his songs are permeated subtly with that element of real sentiment and emotion. It’s no accident that the song ‘White Christmas’ can touch us on some subliminal level when the sentiment floating just below the surface of that tune is one of separation and longing and hope.

From reading up on it a bit, I see that Berlin visited his doctor to discuss his terrible stress and insomnia and his doctor asked him had he tried counting his blessings. From that came the song. And if you want a bit of random trivia that I picked up along the way to this post, Berlin is the only person to ever open an Academy Award envelope and read his own name out.  

When I saw the song performed on stage, the week before last, I pretty much thought it was the high point of the show. Sweet and very touchingly-done. I enjoyed it and then I moved on. Or so I thought. I didn’t expect it to stick around as it has. And, boy, it has.

You’ll expect me now to say something like how I’ve now started to count my own blessings when I’m trying to fall asleep but that’s not quite the story here. For me, the song didn’t suggest that I do something new. Rather, it reaffirmed what I have already been doing for quite a few years now. 

In bed at night, I read my book until the words start to sway and the story starts to intermingle with dreams and then I put the book down. In those potentially troublesome moments when the day’s failings or tomorrow’s stresses can start to seep back in, I always turn my brain to think about how damned lucky I am and I run through some of the myriad reasons why I am so fortunate. That pretty much ends my day. The rest is sleep.

It works too.

And you may well say, ‘Look at that jammy git, he’s got so many great things going on in his life that he’s fast asleep before he’s finished running through them and I do, I really do. But we are all given a mixed bag, aren’t we? I could just as easily start listing off all the uncertainties and concerns that line up down the lane alongside all of the blessings. But that wouldn’t get me to sleep, would it?

Oddly enough, there’s not a single word in the song's advice that applies literally to what I do. I don’t ‘count’, I just sort-of think about things. Neither do I think of them as things that somebody or something has ‘blessed’ me with. I tend to think of the good things in terms of how fortunate I am. So, yeah, I sort of ‘list my luck’ rather than ‘count my blessings’ but even Ronan couldn’t sing that one. 

So thanks to the Castlebar Crew for such a lovely and memorable musical this year. I’m still singing your song in my head and I’ll continue to take the very good advice contained in there for as long as I can. 

A Slight Embarrassment

In a few weeks, it will be ten years since I started writing on this blog. I think I might celebrate by having a crisis of confidence in the whole business. How does that sound? Good, eh?

I can see the signs. Round about now is the time of the week when I sit down and bang out my first draft of the next blog post. A thousand words or so, on something that has occupied my mind in some shape or form through the previous week. That’s the brief. Easy-peasy. There’s inevitably some block of modelling clay in my head already and I just need to throw a little shape on it. And the actual writing of it tends to do most of the heavy lifting in that regard. 

But this week, I’m looking around for excuses not to write anything. I have some good ones too. I’ve covered some miles this week and I’m tired and my eyes feel strained. I’m a bit achy too, I could just stretch out on the couch like that American guy on the adverts. Also, what the hell do I write about? 

I could write about the Castlebar Musical and Dramatic Society production of ‘White Christmas’, which was lovely, but it will be finished its run by the time this goes up, nobody will read it, and I’m bound to leave somebody out of the blog who would deserve a mention so, yeah, probably best not.

I could write about ‘Let The Right One In’, which Sam and me saw at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin last night. A fabulous production. Go and see it, if you can. I actually jumped at one point and I never jump at anything. 

So, yes, there’s things I could write about. There always is. It’s just I don’t really want to. I could do anything with my little bit of free time. I could take a walk around the lake. I could watch something stupid on Netflix. Why write another blog?

Why write yet another blog post?

Well, Ken, there are a number of good reasons. Because you enjoy it. Because you feel better after you’ve done it. Because it helps keep your ‘writing muscle’ trim and exercised. Because, damn it, it’s just a thing you do. 

So why don’t you want to do it?

When I look back over what I’ve already typed here, I think I see at least part of the answer lying half-buried in the text. ‘Nobody will read it,’ I said. That’s kind of a ‘thing’ isn’t it? The fact that nobody will read it. Go on, admit it. 

Okay, it’s kind of a ‘thing’. Nobody’s read the stuff for quite a while, several years in fact. I know this. And, just to qualify the statement a bit, I know you’re there, right now, reading it and, Lord knows I appreciate that. Thanks for stopping by. When I say ‘nobody’, I really mean to say ‘not many at all’. You are a member of an elite group that contains ‘not many at all’. I’m sorry that I don’t have a badge for you or anything.

I bleat on about it. One day, not too long ago, Social Media discovered that we would accept, almost without question, having the stuff we see filtered through to us. I’d say the powers-that-be were delighted at how easily we gave up the right to see everything and anything. Maybe we shouldn’t have lain down so easily but we did and there ain’t no going back from it. So Social Media now invariably directs our eyesight to the great and the good, to the lowest common denominator, to the loud and the colourful. In fairness, they believe these are the things we want and need to see and they are only serving us well by cutting out much of the background noise. In further fairness, if they didn’t, it would be a noisy place. If we saw every lunch photo and every lost hamster plea, we would be mired in the mundane and the everyday and we wouldn’t see the big picture, the overview, the summary, the prĂ©cis, the… truth. They mean well, these Guardians of the Social Media Galaxy or at least we must comfort ourselves that we believe they do. 

The point is, a blog post like this one, with its funny little website link and its tacit implication of built-in mundanity, is what that bad cop in Blade Runner would have called ‘Little People’. To show it around too much would be to add to the white noise that clutters the 'message', the perceived truth. Best not do it. Give it a limited release, like some wacky home made movie. Keep things tight.

This is more an elegy than a complaint. I long to see everything much more than I long for everything to see me. I wonder which of my friends has just shared some meaningful thought or experience that I will never see, just because some committee who neither of us knows, has decided that it doesn’t fit the algorithm. Back in the day, not too many days ago, when I was allowed to see everything that my friends said, I managed okay. I had my own little filter and it seemed to work just fine. I also had the comfort of knowing that the truth I was distilling from the information I received was my own truth, pure and cold and clear. Not some dubious liquid that had already been pissed through several kidneys.

So, when I write my blog post now, it is mostly for my own benefit.

I don’t need readers. I’ve proved that already. I’ve done this for years on the back of a handful of nods and smiles and I’ve enjoyed it. The problem is not a need to be seen. The problem is quite a new one, actually. I don’t think, I’ve mentioned it before. Although I know that not very many people are seeing what I do, there is always the sneaking feeling that they are actually seeing it. That everybody is seeing it and they are just looking the other way.

This brings the new feeling. The not-very-nice one. 

A growing, gnawing, sense of embarrassment. 

It’s like having a simple trick, a coin-vanishing move, and it’s great and cool the first time you do it and even the second and third time. But you keep doing it and doing it. And people smile and nod politely, ‘Yes, I’ve seen that, it’s good.’ And still you keep doing it and doing it. And now, you’re not sure, but you start to feel like people are saying, ‘Shit, here he comes again with his fucking coin trick. Where do I look? What the hell am I suppose to say to him this time?’

I can write and write for ever and I love to do it. I would actively hate it if there was anyone out there who felt they had to read what I write. It would be as bad as someone feeling they had to reply to every damn tweet I ever sent. I love the idea of someone happening past my scribblings now and again and perhaps seeing something they liked. That is my dream. I don’t dream of the ‘constant reader’. I’m not really ‘constant reader’ material because I am stylistically quite unwavering and I tend to mine the same little quarries over and over (‘quod erat…’ etc.). 

I could quit but that’s actually something I find very hard to do. I always struggle to give up on anything. I wear shoes until they fall off my feet. I use an ancient iPod and I won’t stop until it does. I don’t really ever give up. Somewhere in my mind is a loop that says to give up is to fail. 

So when I do finally stop doing this, whenever that is, fear not. It won’t be because Twitter wouldn’t share my posts or because Joe Blogs (ha, ‘Joe Blogs’) didn’t come to read my musings any more. It will be because I finally came to fully believe the subtext, the niggling voice in my head telling me its own truth. That I had far-outstayed my usefulness. That I had become a slight embarrassment.

A big embarrassment, I think I could handle. That actually sounds pretty okay to me. 

But a slight embarrassment might just be too much to bear. 

Shout Out to Jamie

On Wednesday, I drove my younger son Sam and his friend Freya to see Mac DeMarco play at Vicar Street in Dublin. 

If you don’t know who Mac DeMarco is, don’t worry, you won’t be alone. He is, in fact, a very talented and interesting musical artist who seems to have gathered the bulk of his following from younger twenty year olds and older teenagers. I think this is pretty remarkable in itself, given the general laid back, ‘almost jazzy’ feel to his work. Projecting a strong image of a warm but world-weary sensitive slacker, Mac has an admiring fan base among his demographic and not without very good reason. 

Tickets for his single Dublin gig in the intimate Vicar Street setting were sold out from day one and were much pleaded-for and not found. I managed to get hold of two by being eagle-eyed on Twitter for quite a while. So, on Wednesday, off we went.

Sam and Freya went into the gig when doors opened at seven o’clock and got themselves a place two rows from the stage. I had a loose idea a to try to get an extra ‘face-value’ ticket outside if I could and if I couldn’t I always had my car seat, my Kindle and my warm coat. 

I had resolved to give it a half an hour outside the venue, to see what I could do about a ticket, but people tend to fascinate me, and at nine thirty, I was still there, wandering up and down the alleyway, chatting and smiling at anyone who seemed receptive to a chat or a smile and generally having my own rather odd version of a pretty good time. At half past nine on the dot, just as Mac was due to go on stage, I gained access to the show and had a really good time at the back, watching the gig. I don’t think I can tell you how I got in, as that isn’t really ‘blog material’. Next time we have a coffee, I’ll tell you.

But that’s not what I want to write about anyway.

I want to give a shout out to Jamie, who I met outside. Let me tell you about Jamie but, first, my mission.

I had a mission, you see. Sam was very keen to get on stage to drum with Mac DeMarco and his band and so he drew up an A3 sheet with a plea that had been carefully written out in his lucky Death Grips marker. I also thought that a hand delivered note, dropped in at the stage door, might appeal to Mac’s famous sense of live improvisation and general mischief. So Sam also drafted a card, in which he placed a one euro coin with a note which said ‘this is a bribe’. My mission was to drop this note in at the stage door. Nothing to it. 

Except there was something to it. The stage door at Vicar Street is not a stage door at all but rather is a stage steel double gate securing a yard where the band’s transport park securely. The gate was locked shut and nobody was manning it. There was nobody to give Sam’s note to. 

I would have given up quite soon if it wasn’t for Jamie. As I said, this is a shout out to him. Jamie was the only other person apart from me at the locked steel gates. Less than fifty yards from the pre-concert throng, there was just Jamie and me, waiting, assessing the situation, and getting completely drenched in some of the worst rain that Dublin had seen all year. 

Jamie was a tall thin guy with an evident passion for his music. Jamie was on his own mission too. He had arrived at the steel gates at three o’clock that afternoon and had been waiting ever since for Mac DeMarco, who he greatly admired. He had no ticket for the show and no money to buy one. All he wanted was for Mac to sign his guitar. The second signature that would appear there, if he could only get it. 

Jamie and I got chatting, we had similar missions and I had no wish to crowd him or reduce his chances of an audience with The Man. There was a gap in the gate about six inches wide and every now and again Mac would appear in the yard for another of his famous smokes. (He eulogises his favourite brand in one of his best known songs). At those moments, Jamie would call in through the gate and Mac would wave and acknowledge him but he wouldn’t come over. I didn’t call out, advising Jamie to maintain that he was the only one there and only wanted a quick autograph. But Mac still did not come over to the gate. I don’t blame him for this. The life of a music star must be a life of constant call-outs and requests and they cannot all be met. If Mac had known of Jamie’s commitment, I have no doubt he would have responded but he didn’t. To him he was probably just another faceless voice in the dark and there was a show to get done. 

In between Mac’s smoke breaks, Jamie and I chatted a bit. I told him about my note and how keen Sam was to drum. I told him about my own stage door experiences which included Tom Waits and the famous Death Grips encounter.

Jamie showed me his guitar and the neat, artistic, signature there and he told me the story of how ‘Liam’ had come to sign his guitar and it was then that I realised that I had seen Jamie before and that he was a bit famous in his own small way. Jamie had been one of a small cohort of guys who, back in June, had met Liam Gallagher on the street in Dublin. The signing of Jamie’s guitar is captured on a piece of video that was widely shared in the media at the time. Liam signing and chatting and then, realising that the lads had no tickets, returning to put them all on the guest list. At the time, there was a feeling that this might have been staged but Jamie was clear that it was not and his attendance at tonight’s gig in the torrents of rain seemed ample confirmation of that.

Most of the time, there was nobody about in the backstage yard and I left Jamie to it from time to time to wander up through the pre-gig crowd to see about a ticket for myself. To be honest, I would have bought two if I could have found them and let Jamie go in to see Mac play. It seemed clear to me that Mac could not come to the gate and sign the guitar because show time was drawing nearer and nearer. But there was no tickets to be had, not by me anyway. Although I saw three separate occasions of tickets being handed over for nothing by people who had extra ones, I could not get hold of any myself. I didn’t mention this to Jamie, ‘what ifs’ have very little value in a rainy night-time Dublin alley. 

Eventually, all the lights in the stage yard went out and Jamie and I knew that our missions were over and could not succeed. Jamie shook my hand and smiled a broad smile and headed off home in the rain, disappointed but glad he tried. 

Some time after, I went back to the gate and the lights were back on and there was a band member there who I called over and who promised he would deliver Sam’s note to the man himself. 

And I got to see the show. 

Sam didn’t get to play on stage with Mac but he had a great night.

Jamie didn’t get his autograph or an invite to see the show, which I sense he would not have refused if it came.

Both tried though. Both pushed hard for what they wanted. The two guys didn’t get to meet but they were similar in ways. Similar in ways that many of the young people I meet are similar. I grew up in a small town, with small town ways. The young people I meet have all grown up in the Entire World and this knowledge of the world entire has instilled in them a fearlessness and a tangible ambition that may yet carry them far.

We, the older generations, are leaving them a huge challenge as we go. Foolish, dangerous elected leaders. Oceans of plastic. They may be able to make it better though, if we don’t do too much more. 

Because they try hard and they smile when they fail.

And then they try hard again.