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