43 The Perfect Gig

The perfect gig can come from unexpected places, like one we stumbled into in Rhode Island in 1998.

This story was first posted on slaid.com in 1998.

We were tired.  Charles “King” Arthur and I had just done a quick sound check for an afternoon show at the Greenwich Odeum in East Greenwich, Rhode Island.  The rooms we had requested didn’t come through, so we just sat in the car on Main Street, staring through the windshield.  It was our default location.

This would be our tenth show in the past eleven days.  We had left Austin, Texas, in my ’74 Dodge Dart Sport, driving straight over to Florida, then up the coast to Vermont before heading south that morning for RI.  We had seen our share of bland, sterile chain motels in the last two weeks, and the thought of driving around to find one more was not agreeing with me.  We were so used to hurrying along on this tour that we didn’t know what to with this moment of inaction, so we just sat in the car and stared ahead.

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146 Growing Up

This story was originally published in Lone Star Music.

Growin’ Up

Slaid-Rod-Magic-Rats-300x203

The Magic Rats in Dick Picott’s garage, 1981. From left: Jonathan Roberge (bass), Slaid Cleaves (keyboards), Wayne Hutchinson (drums), Rod Picott (guitar and vocals), Jim Wolcott (vocals and sax)

I was 9 years old the day I sat down next to Rod Picott on the school bus. We hit it off right away, two sensitive artist types in a little dairy farm and shoe factory town an hour north of Boston. I recall our first conversation being pretty exotic, considering our location: something about wanting to be actors when we grew up. We were buddies for a few years, riding our Schwinns to each other’s houses, less than a mile away, playing Beatles records and spinning our Evil Knievel action figures down the driveway. Although we bonded over our shared interests and our low social status in school, we were quite different as well. I was the teacher’s pet and Rod was the rebel. I was precociously bright and eager to learn but not yet able to think critically. Rod was intimidatingly intelligent, small-town stifled, and way ahead of his time. I recall a few years later, as I started sixth grade, I was watching Happy Days and enjoying “Love Will Keep Us Together” on the radio while Rod was into Monty Python and Born to Run. This was in 1975 and he was in the grade behind me. He was not only way ahead of the other kids in our school, he was ahead of most of the adults in South Berwick, Maine.

When I moved up to junior high and then high school, we were separated for a time. We both struggled mightily during those years, trying to find a place to belong amid the frightening slow-motion storm of puberty. I became painfully shy and unconfident, uncomfortable in my skin. I had thick glasses and braces. I was trying to be “well-rounded” for college, where, my mom kept telling me, things would get better. I took classical piano lessons. I joined the yearbook committee. Math team? Check. But I didn’t feel I belonged anywhere. I didn’t have any close friends. I wasn’t even sure who I was.

When Rod entered Marshwood High School in 1979 I was a sophomore, and on the bleachers of gym class we re-established our friendship. Gangly and uncoordinated, we were invariably the last two picked for teams. We’d often end up on the sidelines together, talking about the mysterious and powerful world of rock ’n’ roll. While I had spent the past few tumultuous years obsessing about my grades, winning science fairs and going to astronomy camp, Rod had been hanging with an older crowd, driving to New York City to see the Clash, dating girls and drinking. He seemed so cool, above the silliness of high school, older and experienced. And yet we still shared the bonds of music and childhood friendship.

Rod unknowingly became my mentor and guide into another world as I aspired to become a whole new person, with new interests, new friends, new priorities. I wanted to be respected. I wanted to belong to something I believed in. But mostly, I suppose, I wanted to be noticed by those mysterious, untouchable, tongue-twisting creatures that surrounded us throughout the school day. Within a year I got contact lenses, cut my hair, stopped wearing Toughskins, and traded in my telescope for an electric piano. Rod turned me on to the Ramones and got us tickets to see the Who in 1979, right after the Cincinnati tragedy. Our parents almost didn’t let us go. It was at the Boston Garden, an ironically named, dank, decrepit arena where only mildew would grow. But Pete and the boys poured gasoline on that crowd of disaffected youth and then threw a match that ignited a seething explosion of energy I haven’t felt since. We drove through a snowstorm to see Springsteen’s four-hour show there the next year (35 years ago this month, in fact). My transformation was in full swing. At a college prep summer school adventure I kissed a girl, fell in love. Even as it was happening I thought of 1980 as the year I left childhood and became a “person.”

With a couple other classmates Rod and I formed a band called the Magic Rats. In his father’s garage, much to the dismay of the neighbors, we banged out flat, rudimentary versions of Bob Seeger, J Geils, Tom Petty and Bruce, our hero of heroes. Over the next year or so we developed a creed that put music ahead of all else in life. As people that age do, we focused in on something that gave meaning to our dull lives, trudging to school on dark frigid mornings, dozing through classes on subjects we thought we’d never need in our unfolding lives. The romance, the drama, the cause to believe in, we found in Springsteen’s and Petty’s songs and personas. Rod and I vowed we would never give up on our band. With naive grandiosity we told each other we would sleep in the street to preserve the dream, and we promised that we would never sell our songs to commercials — despite the fact that we hadn’t even written any of our own songs yet. We worked after school in a G.E. factory in gritty Somersworth, N.H., cleaning bathrooms for two years to raise funds for band equipment. We hung out at Daddy’s Junky Music Store, enthralled by road stories told by the part-time up musicians who worked there. We stole Hood Dairy milk crates from the greasy back alleys of Cumberland Farms convenience stores to make a drum riser. We tried to make stage lights out of old paint cans. I remember drawing stage designs and logos for the Magic Rats on the brown paper bag covers we were all required to make for our school books. Everything we did revolved around our band as we emulated our heroes. With its boardwalk and arcade, York Beach was our Asbury Park. Our matching, rusted out, hand-me-down wrecks were our “Hemi-powered drones.” We longed to find our “barefoot girls sitting on the hood of a Dodge, drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain.”

Sometime in the winter of 1981, we heard that the Stompers were coming to Durham, N.H., a college town not far away. The Stompers were a popular bar band out of Boston at that time who seemed, to us anyway, poised to join our heroes on the national stage. They had local radio hits and played the kind of yearning, passionate and gritty rock ’n’ roll that thrilled us and promised us a way out of our weak, dull lives. We even played a couple of their songs in the Magic Rats. It doesn’t seem so dramatic now, but in 1981 in a small town in Maine all we got on the local radio seemed to be Andy Gibb and Air Supply and Christopher Cross. Schmaltz. Live music in our town was nonexistent. We HAD to go see the Stompers. There was only one problem. The show was at a bar, and we were sixteen.

After much discussion and hand-wringing it became obvious that we must get fake IDs. Rod quickly procured one that said he was 26 and had an unpronounceable Polish name. He spent some time memorizing his new birth date. Believe it or not, Maine drivers licenses at the time had no picture and no lamination. You just got a piece of thick yellow paper with your info typed onto it. Rod convinced me that we had to alter my newly acquired license. It was the only way. Here’s where the differences between us showed themselves: I was still the goody-two-shoes and Rod the devil on my shoulder (or the Eddie Haskell, at least). After much cajoling and argument and hesitation, I assented. We carefully rubbed out the “4” of 1964 with a pen eraser. Of course it dug into the colored paper pretty obviously. It didn’t look good. We soldiered on though, and carefully drew in a “1” to make me 19, which was old enough at the time. The ink of the ball-point pen blurred into the roughed up paper. It looked terrible. But we convinced ourselves it was our only hope. “It’ll be dark. They’ll just glance at it.”

We arranged for the use of my parents’ Ford Gran Torino that night, and we piled into that station wagon full of anticipation: Rod, his “barefoot girl” Tracy, her little sister, Sue, and myself. Rod was always one to savor the excitement of an upcoming show. For days, weeks even, he would be counting the days, predicting how great it would be, pumping us up for an unprecedented experience. Little did we know our first hurdle of the night was lurking just around the corner. Not two miles from my house, we passed a local cop at an intersection. We had nothing to be afraid of. We weren’t drinking or doing anything wrong. Except I was driving with a forged license. That little bit of fear when you see a cop flashed through me for the first time. We’re fine. Calm down. But the cop turns to follow us. Then the blue lights come on. Damn!

I’m shaking now. Rod’s cool, though. He keeps me from panicking. He says calmly, “Just tell him you forgot it at home.” Right. Mister head-of-the-class is going to lie to a law enforcement official now. But that’s what I did. The officer asked my name and went back to his car. With amazement, we noticed about that time that Bruce Springsteen’s “Growin’ Up” was playing on the radio. To hear this song on the radio was an extremely rare event in our town in the pre-Born in the USA era. And to hear it while we were embarking on a clandestine adventure to a forbidden world seemed like a sign. It calmed us down a little, and gave us the feeling we were on a righteous mission. The cop came back with a warning, saying I should have dimmed my high beams at the intersection where we had passed him (a lesson I learned for good on the spot that night), and a request to come down to the station with my license within 48 hours. Then he let us go. Whew! . . .

It was a mixture of great relief, but also apprehension, that I felt as I pulled back onto the road. The incident proved that we didn’t really have faith in my altered license after all, and there was no way I was going to use it to try to get into the show.

We headed on to Durham, though, not sure what we would do. Scope out the situation, I guess. See how tight security was. We parked the car then hung around the door for a while, watching people go in. Everyone was getting carded. Damn. I wasn’t about to use my butchered ID. Tracy had been hoping to just waltz in on “Joe Cziembronowics”’ arm, but Rod and only Rod had a shot at getting in. He went to the door and they stamped his hand. I don’t think they even carded him. Rod looked a lot older than 16. He’d been buying six packs at local convenience stores for a while, even back then. I stayed outside with Tracy and Sue. Our brains were spinning: how can we get around this? It’s so unfair. We don’t want to drink. We just want to see the band. A couple of concertgoers asked us what we were doing hanging around the club. When we told them, they were sympathetic. One said we should just rub a little mud on our wrists — to fake a hand-stamp. That sounded pretty far-fetched.

Rod came back a half-hour later when the band was on break, telling us how great it was in there. He wanted me to use his fake ID. But I didn’t look 26. I’m sure I didn’t look a day over 15. We took a look at his hand-stamp and discussed faking our way in. Worth a try, I guess. What can they do? Emboldened by Rod and by our frustration and by that 16-year-old blood that is ready to take some chances, the girls and I stooped down for some cold, hard mud, and rubbed it into the backs of our wrists in the shape of an X. Then we all walked right in, looking straight ahead and holding up our hands with feigned casualness. We made it past the door man. We made it into the bar. Rod led us to a little spot where we squatted down right in front of the stage. I was waiting for the hand on my collar but it didn’t come.

The place was packed, smoky and sweaty and buzzing. And we were in. Soon the band came out, and there were our heroes, just an arms length away, pumping out a righteous, rowdy, romantic rock ’n’ roll. I had been to a few rock concerts before, in huge arenas, where the band is a hundred feet away, awash in theatrical lighting, and the sound is loud but somehow distant. But this was something totally different. We could see and hear and feel everything; the stomp of their boots, the sun-lamp warmth of the lights, the sweat pouring off as the guys put their all into it. Every chiming chord, every drum beat, every shout from the heart was happening just a few feet away. As the music poured through us we made eye contact with the band, just a bunch of guys from down the road, a few years older than us, and we started to believe: this could actually happen. If we keep the faith and work hard, we might be able to do this someday, just like them.

And so a dream is born.

Rod and I did keep the faith. Through many trials and disappointments and setbacks we kept working at our craft while trying to support ourselves however we could. The band broke up. We graduated from high school. We drifted apart and each joined or started new bands for a while. They weren’t good bands, no matter how hard we tried. The romance faded away some, and then some more. Our limitations slowly became evident. But we kept on; a little faith is all you need to keep going on … and a little delusion, maybe. We moved out of Maine, found niches to survive in. I’ve been in Texas 24 years now. Rod’s been in Nashville almost as long. We get together a couple of times a year to write – via email. One song Rod brought to me in 1998 was almost complete. I just changed a couple of lines and straightened out the melody a little bit. “Broke Down” got played on radio stations across the country, and I got to go out on the road with a tight little combo and play in the lights, just like my heroes. It wasn’t the sweaty exuberant rock ’n’ roll of my youth. It was a more subtle, gentle, literary connection I made on stage. But it felt just as true, just as important. It made me feel like I was doing something worthwhile with my life, and I still feel blessed that I’ve been able to achieve such an improbable dream. A dream forged in a childhood friendship.

You never know who you’ll be sitting next to on the bus.

0 Bonus Tracks, vol. 1 – liner notes

Slaid Cleaves – Bonus Tracks, vol. 1

I’ve built up a motley collection of stray recordings over the years – demos, early versions, out-takes, live tracks, obscure covers, etc. – and I thought it’s high time I start releasing the more interesting items.

OK, maybe I’m stalling for time here while trying to come up with enough new songs for a new album. But I do hope some of my fans might find these interesting. This will be the first of an expected handful of volumes.

The process of writing and recording Still Fighting the War took about three years, and it entailed a lot of trial and error, false starts, dead ends and ugly stepchildren. On earlier records, I would narrow down the 12 or so best new songs I had written and just record those, so there wasn’t much on the cutting room floor. But when it came time to start recording Still Fighting the War I had 17 songs to work with. I recorded 16, thinking I’d pick the 12 or so that fit together best on the album. So there was quite a bit left over when the record came out. Some of these out-takes were offered as exclusive bonus tracks on Amazon or iTunes for a while. Back when I was writing songs, some never make it past the demo stage. Some eventually evolved into something very different, leaving a failed, though interesting (maybe), early version behind. Some songs on this collection came via previous projects; I was trying to rework them to see if they’d fit on this one. Some recordings came out fine, but just didn’t fit thematically with the collection that coalesced into Still Fighting the War. Also in this release I wanted to focus people’s attention onto the production, the players. Pay no attention to the singer! Better yet, let’s strip him out of the mix and listen how each player contributes just the right part, and how the parts are so subtly woven together, by the musicians, producers, and engineers.

Here are some thoughts on the individual cuts, along with detailed credits.

1 Uncle Ted by Slaid Cleaves, based on a short story by Machelle Dunlop . . . Magic Rat Music, BMI

Machelle Dunlop was a friend and passionate supporter of Austin musicians for many years. In 2008 she sent me a folder of material intended to inspire as I headed out on a songwriting trip. Among the CDs to check out and articles to read was a story she wrote about her Uncle Ted. I was intrigued by the characters and the story and so I worked up a song. I actually recorded it back then, but Uncle Ted didn’t make it onto the record I was working on, Everything You Love Will be Taken Away. It was so close, with gorgeous fiddle courtesy of Gene Elders, but it wasn’t quite right. Years later, after a couple of lyric tweaks and some digital re-arranging, I’m happy to include it here. Tragically, Machelle suffered debilitating heath problems over the ensuing years and passed away in 2014.

produced and recorded by Gurf Morlix at Rootball
additional recording by Fred Remmert at Cedar Creek Recording
digital edit and re-mix by Fred Remmert
drums: Rick Richards
bass, field organ: Gurf Morlix
fiddle: Gene Elders
2 The War to End All Wars (demo) by Slaid Cleaves . . . Magic Rat Music, BMI

The first working title of this song was Unsinkable, as in “The Unsinkable Ship.” I was feeling, like much of the country in 2008, a sense of having been swindled. Retirement funds were shrinking while bankers got bonuses; foreign wars were draging on while their original rationales faded into thin air, soldiers were coming home, after having put their lives on the line, to a country that wasn’t doing enough to help them back into society. I worked on several versions of this song before I realized I was trying to fit too much into it. (New drinking song: take a shot every time you hear a swindler’s homily). I decided to focus in on the most poignant and topical angle – the soldiers coming home. Discussing the idea with my friend Ron Coy (see Wranglin’ Ron below) he told me about a Viet Nam vet friend of his named Brian Fuller who had recently passed away. Brian’s experience in Viet Nam was so searing that he never fully adjusted to ‘normal’ life. Ron said, “All these years, it’s like he was still fighting the war.” I knew instantly we had our tag line for the new song. I spent some more time on it, getting inspiration from Craig Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning series for the Denver Post. So The War to End All Wars went into the junkyard file. It’s an ungainly curiosity but it’s much better than most of the stuff in my junkyard, so I decided to share it here.

3 Small Town Downfall by Slaid Cleaves . . . Magic Rat Music, BMI

It’s a compilation of some of the gossip that drifted down from Maine, where my wife Karen and I grew up, to Texas, where we live now. The first verse came from Karen’s family: An uncle of hers was at one time the chief of police. Later in life he held a job that held considerably less prestige. I never found out how that actually happened, so I made up a goofy story. The second verse is well documented – just look up Kennebunk on Wikipedia for all the salacious deials. The third verse came from my mom, quoting a colorful young neighbor. (Maine people have a subtle way with words. See Bert & I). I had to fictionalize the story after the person I quoted was upset (understandably) at being identified. But she did allow me to continue using the quote. Why didn’t this song make it onto Still Fighting the War? Well, it’s fun to do in New England, where people get the references, but it felt a little too goofy to be on a record full of wounded warriors, dashed dreams, dementia and such.

produced and recorded by Lloyd Maines
additional recording by John Silva at Cedar Creek Recording
mixed by Fred Remmert
drums: John Silva
bass: Kevin Smith
guitar, mandolin and Dobro: Lloyd Maines
harmony vocals and harmonica: Terri Hendrix
4 The Pain of Love (demo) by Slaid Cleaves . . . Magic Rat Music, BMI

I worked hard on this song, over a long period of time, but I was never quite happy with it. I lifted the bridge from a tombstone of a seven-year-old girl buried on a ranch in south Texas, where a friend let me stay and write for a few days. Why am I putting it on this record? As a curiousity, I suppose; to show that for every song that makes into the studio and onto a record, and maybe even onto the airwaves, there’s many that just aren’t quite up to par. They’re almost there, but not quite. You never know: someone might think this is the best thing on the album. Probably not.
5 Another Man’s Wealth by Slaid Cleaves . . . Magic Rat Music, BMI

I wrote the first version of this song in 1993, sitting in a 1974 Dodge on the side of the road out in the Texas Hill Country. 20 years later I looked at it and thought I could improve it, being that I was now a much more seasoned songwriter. Is the new version any better? I don’t know, maybe. It sure was fun to play it in the studio with old friend Kevin Smith (he played bass on Life’s Other Side in 1992 – and now he plays in WIllie’s band) and the legendary Lloyd Maines.

produced by Lloyd Maines
recorded by John Silva
mixed by Fred Remmert
bass: Kevin Smith
Dobro: Lloyd Maines
6 Hometown USA (instrumental mix) by Slaid Cleaves, Jeff Elliott, Mike Morgan . . . Magic Rat Music, BMI / Sojourner Music, BMI

I get tired of hearing my own voice sometimes, but it’s always a thrill to hear what my musical colleagues contribute to these songs. Think of the years of practise and experience and sensitivity they have developed over the years to come up with the parts – bass, drums, guitar – that make this track so enjoyable. Oh, yeah – that’s me on the Hammond B-3 organ, trying my best to sound like Benmont Tench.

produced by Scrappy Jud Newcomb
recorded by John Silva at Cedar Creek Recording
instrumental mix by Fred Remmert
drums and percussion: John Chipman
bass: Harmoni Kelley McCarty
electric guitar, acoustic guitar: Scrappy Jud Newcomb
Hammond B-3: Slaid Cleaves
7 Wranglin’ Ron by Slaid Cleaves and Jeff Plankenhorn . . . Magic Rat Music, BMI / Spike Steel Music, SESAC

Ron Coy is the kinda guy who will leave his cozy home in an ice storm to come and pull you out of a ditch. When I met Ron he ran a bar/marina called Ski Shores. Later on he managed a small herd of cattle, hence the moniker. After that he worked for an oil company in Colorado, then on an oil exploration ship off the coast of Africa. Before Ski Shores he made jewelry in Mexico, and before that he was a bouncer at a topless joint in Corpus Christi. I want to make a movie about Ron someday, but I don’t know where to start.

produced by Scrappy Jud Newcomb
recorded by Fred Remmert at Cedar Creek Recording
drums and percussion: John Chipman
bass: Harmoni Kelley McCarty
electric guitar, lap steel guitar, percussion: Scrappy Jud Newcomb
8 Gone (demo) by Slaid Cleaves and Nicole St Pierre . . . Magic Rat Music, BMI / Fauxk Music, BMI

Nicole St Pierre is an old friend from high school. She taught language arts for a while, and comes up with great ideas for songs. If I don’t immediately pick up her suggestion and run with it, she’ll write some verses and send them to me. My role is to provide the melody, and massage the words into a meter, a rhythm, to make them more singable. Then we pass drafts back and forth via email, trying to make every line as compelling as possible until it’s ready to go out into the world. Here’s a glimpse at an early version.
9 Every Sunrise (demo) by Slaid Cleaves . . . Magic Rat Music, BMI

Maybe this will only appeal to fellow writers. I think we are all at times mystified by the creative process. This collage of audio scraps shows how it’s often just a matter of trial and error, of pluggng away and trying new ideas until things start to sound good.
10 I Bet She Does (instrumental mix) by Slaid Cleaves . . . Magic Rat Music, BMI

Another showcase of the skills of the musicians I’m so lucky to be able to work with. All I do is show up with the words and the chord changes. They come up with the rest. Scrappy Jud Newcomb produced most of the songs on Still Fighting, and came up with so many cool parts to this song. You almost don’t need lyrics.

produced by Scrappy Jud Newcomb
recorded by John Silva at Cedar Creek Recording
instrumental mix by Fred Remmert
drums and percussion: John Chipman
bass, background vocals: Harmoni Kelley McCarty
electric guitar, background vocals: Scrappy Jud Newcomb
11 Welding Burns (demo) by Slaid Cleaves and Rod Picott . . . Magic Rat Music, BMI / Welding Rod Music, BMI

Another glimpse at a work in progress here. Rod Picott sent me some verses several years ago. I sent a melody and some lyric ideas back to him. Pretty soon we had a song in the works. We batted it back and forth over email for a long time. Rod has an incisively critical ear; he can spot a line or a word or even an attitude that sounds ok on the surface but offends the soul of the song somehow – makes it internally inconsistent. He shot down dozens of lines I proposed, with a full explanation, and he was right each time. I was still working on the song when he recorded his version. I loved the core of the song but I needed to keep at it, if I was going to be able to sing it myself. This is a version somewhere in between Rod’s final and my final.
12 Welding Burns (instrumental mix) by Slaid Cleaves and Rod Picott . . . Magic Rat Music, BMI / Welding Rod Music, BMI

Again, I thought it might be interesting to some listeners to see the contrast between the bare-bones, working-out-the-lyrics demo to the finished, studio-quality instrumental track. Lyrics on their own can be hard-hitting. And music on it’s own can be, too.

produced by Scrappy Jud Newcomb
recorded by Fred Remmert at Cedar Creek Recording
instrumental mix by Fred Remmert
drums and percussion: John Chipman
bass: Harmoni Kelley McCarty
electric guitar, papoose, piano, background vocals: Scrappy Jud Newcomb
13 Rust Belt Fields (instrumental mix) by Slaid Cleaves and Rod Picott . . . Magic Rat Music, BMI / Welding Rod Music, BMI

One more instumental, I think my favorite sounding track. Hats of to Scrappy Jud Newcomb, who came up with so many subtle, evocative parts to add atmosphere to the track, and to Fred Remmert who so deftly mixed all the elements into something so rich and complex but not cluttered.

produced by Scrappy Jud Newcomb
recorded by John Silva at Cedar Creek Recording
instrumental mix by Fred Remmert
drums and percussion: John Chipman
bass: Harmoni Kelley McCarty
electric guitar, piano, synthesizer, background vocals: Scrappy Jud Newcomb
14 Texas Love Song (dance hall mix) by Slaid Cleaves . . . Magic Rat Music, BMI

I asked Lloyd Maines to produce this song. Can’t get more Texas than Lloyd, right? I just sent him a file of voice and guitar and he added all the rest while I was doing the Summer Tour. This is the first version. Though I loved it, I felt there was a little too much going on; it was too big – it was too Texas. I asked him to strip it down a bit to fit the album I was making. I like the stripped down version a lot, but some days I like this one better.

produced and recorded by Lloyd Maines
additional recording by John Silva at Cedar Creek Recording
mixed by Lloyd Maines and Fred Remmert
drums: John Silva
bass: Kevin Smith
fiddle: Richard Bowden
acoustic guitar, pedal steel guitar, and bajo sexto: Lloyd Maines
harmony vocals: Terri Hendrix

298 30-year chip

Ireland

Cold and lonely. That’s how I started my nine-month adventure in Ireland. I’ve told the gist of this story many times – it comes up when I’m explaining how I got my start in the music business – so I might as well write it all down. I got my start as a street singer – a “busker” is what they call it over there – in Cork City on November 18, 1985. How did I end up in Ireland? Well, I’ll tell you.

I was following a girlfriend. She dumped me on the plane.

I was 21. I was in wide-eyed, pledge the moon love with a fiery, dramatic 19-year-old from Fairfield, Connecticut. She was the daughter of an Italian dentist father and an Irish mother. She was volatile, unpredictable, rebellious, fun, pathologically Catholic, a beautiful, scarred and spoiled product of 1980’s middle class suburban America. Diet Coke, shopping malls, Bennetton, bulimia, Tufts. That’s where I met her, in our freshman year. We were in a co-ed dorm together, Bush Hall, it turns out, a sterile 1960’s cinder block barracks at the bottom of “The Hill.” I was trying hard to advertise my feeling that I didn’t fit in with all these spoiled, suburban, New York, New Jersey preppie types. I wore a leather jacket and biker boots and drove a ’72 Duster that was bondoed, primered and spray painted with punk rock graffiti (“The Clash” and “SLF”). We noticed each other, in the dorm, at the requisite safe sex lectures, in the cafeteria, we even had a couple of classes together. Our eyes would meet, not entirely uncomfortably. One day while carrying her tray through the cafeteria to join friends, she stuck out her tongue at me, and I was thrilled at this sign of interest, this invitation.

My roommate hooked us up, as I did with his love interest, for the “Screw Your Roommate Ball,” some stupid local college tradition (you’re supposed to hook up your roommate with someone they don’t like). Thus began a highly emotional, sexually charged, hang-a-clothes-hanger-on-the-doorknob teen romance. I got the beautiful nymphomaniac and she got a dangerous (looking) boy to scare her conservative father and piss off her controlling mother. We discussed names for all our children and mapped out our blissful lives. It was all very childlike. I was devoted, ruled, totally dependent, and thought it was the greatest thing that had ever happened to me. We were together constantly. We’d go home to each others’ family, sneaking sex quietly in the night. When we were apart it was endless phone calls (“No, you hang up first. Ready, one, two”). And when I couldn’t get a hold of her, I always thought something was wrong, maybe she was leaving me. I was insecure, but had some kind of childish faith that nothing would tear us asunder. We had fights and breakups, almost always coinciding with her wildly emotional periods, which were, like clockwork, always mended a few days later in hormonal bliss.

After a year or so, in our sophomore year, she started toying with the idea of spending her junior year abroad in Ireland. Her mother’s parents came from County Cork, and her father, though his family had come to America from Italy, was supposed to have been descended from some rebel Irish knights who had had to flee the island centuries ago and hide on the continent. She found a program, not just a semester but a full school year, at University College in Cork. I really had no interest in going to Ireland. I was a big U2 fan (and James Joyce, too), and I’d heard about “the troubles”, but that was about it. The whole idea seemed beyond my scope, too complicated, too much work. But she was inspired and laid it out like a big romantic adventure. I couldn’t fathom being without her, so I reluctantly agreed to go along with the idea. She’d probably lose interest after a while anyway.

But she didn’t lose interest. We applied and were accepted. My family was skeptical till they found out how much cheaper tuition was in Ireland, then it was “See ya!” We finished up our sophomore year then got a house to share with a bunch of students for the summer. I think there were 8 or 9 of us. She and I shared a room, and I think it was $100/month. It was a dump. Dirty dishes and parties. We stayed there in Medford for the summer and worked our summer jobs, mine at the Somerville House of Pizza and hers at an Irish aid society in Boston. Throughout the summer, though, she became distant. I wrote it off as a “mood.” She said she was worried that her mother might find out we were having sex and forbid her to go. What? She was getting postcards from a “friend” back in her Connecticut hometown, whom she never talked about. Then she came out and said it. “Maybe you shouldn’t go.” What? After all the paperwork and preparation? The naive, childish faith in me said – it’s just a mood, she’s nervous, it’ll be all right. But things got tense, and we went home for a few weeks to get ready for the big adventure. I was getting a little worried. I tried to call, but she totally avoided me. I was terrified, but in denial. I didn’t know what to do, so I just kept on like everything was OK. My parents drove me down from Maine to JFK for the flight to Dublin. It was an exciting, tense time. In the terminal, I saw her socializing, getting to know our new program mates, the other Americans heading over for a year abroad. She was bubbly and excited. She totally ignored me, like she didn’t even know me. I was confused and scared. I was paralyzed. I didn’t want to meet new people. I wanted to be with her. I was moving to another country for a year to be with her and she was pretending she didn’t know me. In the 747, as we taxied down the runway, it all hit me. What am I doing? I’ve put my faith in this girl, in this plan. And now I can’t get out. I won’t see my parents, or anyone else I know, for months. I wanted to get out of that plane, but I knew my fate was sealed. All the way across the empty Atlantic I waited for her, but she never came over to see me.

In Dublin, our program directors guided us through the city and deposited us at a little hotel, where I was put in a room with bunk beds and some of my new fellow Americans. I was wracked, miserable, didn’t want to talk to anyone but her. I went and found her, said, “We need to talk.” I got her to my room alone and asked her what was going on, and she said, “Don’t be so stupid.” That much I remember well. Then it gets blurry. I guess she said she’d been trying to dump me for months but I just wasn’t getting the message. “Don’t be so stupid” rang in my ears.

So the first week of my big adventure was spent walking alone, listening to Hank Williams and Buddy Holly on my Walkman and crying my eyes out. I stayed with a family outside of Dublin for a week of orientation, but they were about as interested in me as I was in them. I got the impression they took on exchange students solely for the stipend. I met a couple of my fellow Americans, and a few seemed like people I might be friends with. Then there was an interminable train ride, on which I suffered a miserable cold, across the country to Cork. We were set up in our apartments, spread throughout the city. Months ago she had made sure we were in the same building, 6 Lancaster Quay, nicely located between city center and the college. There were 7 or 8 apartments in the building, not all students. I was on the ground floor, in a “bedsit.” That is, one small room with a bed, an armoire, a table, a chair, a gas heater, a tiny, cold water sink, two gas burners, and a coin operated gas meter. She was up on the 3rd floor, past the communal bathroom (with coin operated shower) and the ancient, inscrutable telephone.

It was October, gloomy and cold. I soon learned that there was a general depression in Ireland due to the fact that the recently concluded summer consisted of exactly three sunny days. Now winter was approaching. It wouldn’t be too cold, I was told, but it would be long and dark and wet. But I would have one more confrontation with my ex- that would make my blood boil, and provide some needed relief, before settling into the long gloom of winter.

Within days of arriving in Cork, most of the Americans were out pub crawling, getting to know each other and meeting the locals. I was too despondent to be sociable. I bumped into her in the hallway a couple of times. She acted polite, like she’d never known me. One night, as I sat in my bedsit reading, I heard her arrive at the front door with someone. A guy. They were giggling and smooching. It made me feel sick, tortured. And it went on and on. I saved up my saliva so I could spit into her face as she walked by my room up to the stairs, but they kept at it, making out and laughing. I was shaking, shivering with rage. Finally they parted. He went home and she skipped up the hallway. I missed her. I wasn’t sure if I really had the nerve to spit in her face. I was a little relieved that the moment had passed. But I was also unfulfilled. A few minutes later, on my way to the bathroom, I passed her on the telephone, talking to her sister back in the states. I heard her cooing about her new beau, how beautiful this Irish lad was: “He looks just like Bono!” She was so happy. A minute later, on my way back to my room, she had finished the call, and passed me on the stairs. She looked up at me and smiled. And I let loose with a mouthful of spit. Right in her face. She let out a little scream, froze for an instant, then ran up the stairs. I got back to my room, shaking even more now, the adrenaline coursing through my veins. I was emboldened. I had finally done something about it. I felt good for the first time in several weeks. She came down to my room an hour later, wanting to talk. I said, “Get out, you slut! You slut! Get out!” I didn’t let her speak. It was my turn to be in control. I knew I was being mean. But I had to do it. It occurs to me now she probably could have had me kicked out of the program. I wonder if she considered it. If so, I thank her from the bottom of my heart for not turning me in, because what was about to happen was one of the richest, most influential periods of my life.

I settled into my bed sit. Half of my Samsonite was filled with cassettes. I had recently discovered my parents’ old record collection and had diligently recorded a treasure trove of mid twentieth century American music. It’s funny, but being in another country for the first time made me think about America and what it means to be an American. I remember seeing the jet engines blast the green grass beside the tarmac as we taxied at Shannon, my first few minutes in Ireland, and thinking that there’s so much of America I hadn’t seen. I’d never been to the West. A great wanderlust struck me. In the suitcase was Hank, Woody, Buddy, Everly’s, Cash, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. Plus I had lots of “my” music: Bruce, Tom Petty, Tom Waits, Credence, Replacements, the Clash. And I had a guitar, thank god. A gift from her, ironically. I was just learning to play. It was a hollow body electric, good for practicing. The school year starts gradually in Ireland. The students, and even the teachers, joke that nobody does much of anything till after Christmas and then nothing strenuous until exams in the spring. So I had a lot of time on my hands. I had no friends, no family, no job, no TV, no car, no phone, very little money and no girlfriend. That last item consumed most of my thought for many weeks and months. I wrote in my journal. I tried to write songs. I began learning songs. I eventually talked to her and we agreed that we’d just try to stay away from each other. As I began to explore my new location, I came across an array of street performers. They varied greatly in talent, ranging from the usual singers to harpists, flutists, even as escape artist. Cork City in the 1980’s hadn’t seen the changes that had affected most American cities: the flight to the suburbs, malls, and the resulting death of the downtown area. Cork City Center was vibrant with pedestrians bustling to department stores, markets, movie houses, restaurants, shops, and, of course, pubs. A few pedestrian ways were ideal for setting up a “pitch.” I was inspired particularly by a scrappy student who belted out folk songs for change on Princes Street. I would walk the streets in the evening, sussing out the busking scene, and would usually end up watching this student, and I struck up a conversation. His name was Richard Hennessey, he was in his final year, studying computer programming, and as soon as he got his degree, he vowed, he would never busk again. I learned the basic etiquette from Richard, and in my heart made a vow that I would join his ranks someday soon. I wrote home for some extra money – to buy a guitar. I found a new Yamaha for 130 Irish Pounds. That was a lot – more than two months’ rent.

I began to learn songs from my collection of tapes. I learned a song a day. I wrote their names down in my journal. I practiced them, memorized the words. I had never sung and played guitar before. I reasoned that playing on the street would be a good way to develop my skills and gauge my progress. If I was at first terrible, which I fully expected, people would just walk by, and as I improved, people would begin to drop coins in my case, and maybe even stop and listen. I set a date for my debut: November 18th. It was 2 years to the day since my first date with her. I would re-devote my life, my passion, to this new cause, this love, the love of music, that had been faithful to me all along, since I was 4 years old, playing scratchy Beatles and Hank Williams records in the late 60’s.

On the chosen date, a Monday, I made my pitch on Patrick Street. It was cold and damp and my fingers were stiff. I chose as my first song to play Buddy Holly’s hopeful, innocent “Well . . . Alright.” Most people walked by, but a few stopped for a bit. And I brought home enough change for a pint and some deep-fried potato balls. I was on my way. The busking did help to develop my skills to a certain point, I learned a lot more songs, and I eventually started writing songs. I made new friends in Ireland, friends that I am still in touch with. I picked up new musical influences, including The Pogues, Billy Bragg, and Christy Moore. I switched from an English major to Philosophy. I became very fond of Ireland and the Irish people. And a few years later, after some false starts and backward plunges, relationship struggles and attempts to live a normal life, I began to make music for a living, found my future wife, Karen, in a bar in Portland, Maine, and became the happiest man on the planet.

busking in Cork

Busking in Cork. That’s Bill McCann on penny whistle, and Tony (our poteen connection).