Dave Fanning

DAVE COUSE, A HOUSE AND THE POINT OF EVERYTHING

Irish Times

I’m regularly struck jealous by the capacity of some of my colleagues, friends and peers to devour so much material so quickly and to be so consistently boned up on the latest albums, books, on-line posts, international drama serials and edgy films. I honestly couldn’t tell you where my own time goes, by comparison.

It might be that I’m just a slow reader who wades through far too much of what some now refer to as older, traditional media, when my days might be better spent hoovering up bite-sized cuts, hot takes and ignoring my children instead ? Or perhaps I need to be far less obsessive about the things I like and spread my wings further but less diligently ? But it’s easy, eitherway, to be over-whelmed by the noise levels on the super-highway.

And so I’m always grateful for the good advices of those trusted correspondents who, when they feel my focus isn’t what it might be, point me in the direction of key peaks on the mountain of output I’m missing on a daily basis.

‘You’re not anybody in America unless you’re on TV’, claimed the would-be big shot, Suzanne Stone Maretto, brilliantly played by Nicole Kidman, in Gus Van Sant’s 1995 film, ‘To Die For’. ‘On TV is where we learn about who we really are. Because what’s the point of doing anything worthwhile if nobody’s watching ?’. I’m not sure if ‘To Die For’ always gets the credit it deserves but it’s long been a favourite film of mine and, as someone who’s spent a lifetime working in television, I have real difficulty defining the fiction from the reality in some of its key scenes.

Ostensibly a morality tale about society’s obsession with celebrity and the stupidity that often under-pins it, the film has already gone full circle to the point where it’s long since lapped itself dizzy. Almost twenty five years after it was premiered, and despite the absolute fracture of all media in the decades since, ‘To Die For’ looks more and more prescient by the week. Kidman’s wildly ambitious weather-woman, with her front leg on the lower rungs at a small, local television station might, in 2019, be an Instagram sensation or ‘influencer’ but the core message is as was.

I think of ‘To Die For’ and that incessant struggle to be heard from miles across the valley whenever I’m recommended – and inevitably frustrated by – another lackluster podcast that promises rabbits from hats and delivers aural myxomatosis instead. Our regular readers will know exactly what I mean ;- no doubt well-meaning and often full-bodied social broadcasts that often just add crudely-formed, half-baked opinions to the unsustainable levels of global clutter already out there. [I appreciate, of course, that a similar charge can be levelled at this site].

The journalist Michael O’Toole once memorably described Twitter – on Twitter – as a place where ‘every expert is a clown and every clown is an expert’. It doesn’t always follow, I guess, that just because you have a smart phone, you have anything smart to impart. But we continue to confront the mountain because of the enduring promise of a decent view of the sunrise. And, from time to time, my head will be turned and my ears pricked, as they were by a recent exchange conducted by The Point Of Everything blog and podcast with Dave Couse, the formidable singer and frontman with a revered but long-lost Dublin band, A House. An iteration of which performed live for the first time in over 22 years at the National Concert Hall last weekend.

By the end of its 38 minutes, TPOE’s host, Eoghan O’Sullivan – who I don’t know – has clearly touched a couple of his subject’s nerves, pulling reams of colour and insight from him by simply asking pertinent questions and allowing Couse the space to reflect before responding. Redolent of those long Fanning Show interviews where the guest’s seat in the small radio studio in RTE Radio 2 often became a psychiatrist’s couch – and current, high-profile new media versions like Dion Fanning’s ‘Ireland Unfiltered’ or Jarlath Regan’s ‘An Irishman Abroad’ – this too takes its time to get going and eventually just soars. Its easily one of the more compelling Couse interviews I’ve heard over the last thirty years and, for my troubles, I’ve heard many.

I’m conflicted on a number of levels here, though. First of all, The Point Of Everything is kind and generous enough at the top of the podcast to reference The Blackpool Sentinel as he sets up the context for the interview. Secondly, regular readers will be aware of how dominant the shadow of A House is on much of the ground we attempt to cover here and the respect with which we hold both the band and its frontman. And I’m especially minded, by even thinking as much, of another popular social media affliction ;- the hollow chorus of the echo chamber where you stroke my back and I’ll re-tweet you long and hard in return.

I need to be careful too not to patronize. I’m at an age now where its easy to sound like those labored sports pundits who go on at length about the majesty of sport in the 1980s, often at the expense of the magic flying around their ears in 2019. The good old days, as we all know, weren’t always necessarily as good as we’d like to think.

But all of that apart, to anyone with even the most passing interest in alternative music in Ireland during the 1980s and 1990s, it’s worth parsing TPOE’s exchange with Couse on several levels. On a canvas where speed and opinion regularly trump clarity and consideration, it’s interesting to hear what falls out when the emphasis stays slow and the lights stay low.

And so we’ve re-posted the podcast with permission here, in which the host stays consistently on the right side of the mic and allows Couse the floor. It’s an ancient and reliable way of working, simple enough to get right and easier again to get completely arseways.

I haven’t seen or spoken to Couse in decades but he’s long been an engaging and often uncompromising interviewee that, by the sounds of it, hasn’t been dimmed by either the passing of time or his re-location up the country. The longer this conversation goes on, the more swear words he uses, not for dramatic effect or because he has little else to defer to but because, as with all of the best exchanges, he grows more and more into it as it rolls. And as the interview draws to a close, he sounds as cosy, comfortable and, I think, genuinely grateful as he gets.

On the end of a telephone line from his home in County Cavan, Couse is as cranky, smart and bellicose as I recall him from way back. I’m not going to blow the podcast’s cover and go into the guts of it in any great detail here but, when he refers to his age – he’s 55 now – the implication is obvious enough. Like all of the great entertainers, he’s old enough and talented enough to be as contrary and confrontational as he wants or needs to be.

At the outset the interviewer admits that he’s a generation removed from Couse, A House and the Dublin indie scene of the 1980s from which they emerged and that, ergo, his acquired knowledge of that period might not be what it should be. It’s an honourable and bold concession and a welcome respite from another chronic podcast ailment, especially those that are author-led :- knowallism. Ultimately, it just helps to frame and scaffold the following thirty odd minutes, parts of which sound like a social history tutorial.

When it comes to de-constructing the unprecedented and scarcely believable years from 1985 to 1997, during which Dublin was routinely bannered as ‘the city of a thousand rock bands’, few Irish musicians can sieve it out better than Couse. Six albums on three different labels, two droppings and a stubborn streak that feral teenagers only dream about, A House were the prolific guitar band whose work-rate was matched only by their capacity to shoot themselves in the groin with staple-guns. And even when the good times briefly rolled, there was always another calamity – often self-inflicted – waiting to further derail them and, ultimately, to embitter them further. Indeed one of the recurring themes across the band’s wide catalogue is how easily defeat can be clutched from the jaws of victory.

The Point Of Everything, by his own admission, was born long after A House first took the stage in The Underground Bar on Dublin’s Dame Street during the mid-80s. But Couse is only too happy to talk him through much of the insanity of that period – or, as he’d probably say himself, put him right – even if there’s a real sense of resignation about how he now views his lot. Perhaps he’s right when he says that we may never see or hear its likes again ?

He’s also strong and typically unsentimental about the original A House line-up, laying to rest any lingering sense that the band was anything other than himself and guitarist Fergal Bunbury at its heart and that all and any others who joined the line-up over the years were never more than the sum of their parts. Which may come as a surprise to a couple of notable players among the band’s number who soldiered long and far with them on-stage and off from the get-go. Or maybe not ?

But Couse opens new frontiers when he refers to the economic reality he faced during the twelve years he fronted A House and, more starkly, once the band tired of beating its head off of concrete after the release of its sixth album, ‘No More Apologies’, in 1996. Penniless in their early 30s, there’s something especially grim in such a reveal, even if the image of the struggling artist in penury, railing against the dying of the light, is an old and familiar one. Preferring to deal with the topic through the front door and without the use of code – irreconcilable musical differences was never going to sit well with Couse anyway – I’m not sure I’ve heard an Irish writer of that caliber refer to brutal economics and the break-up of a band with such honesty.

Last week’s live show by Couse, Bunbury and a cast of guest musicians – including, at one point, their daughters – was the culmination of a broader campaign, led by Gary Sheehan, IMRO and The National Concert Hall, to recognise ‘I Am The Greatest’, arguably A House’s best known album, for its enduring excellence. Even if, to these ears, all of the band’s long-players could have sated the basic qualification criteria.

But beyond bringing half of the original A House line-up back onto the same stage at the same time, the last number of weeks have also served to further remind us of just how captivating a performer Couse can be. In a radio interview with Tom Dunne on Newstalk to promote the NCH show, he admitted that he’s still writing songs and, reading between the lines, there’s almost certainly another live show or two in this. Beyond that, who knows ? He tells TPOE that he’d love to play in Cork, for instance, and refers to Microdisney who, this time last year, played the same venue under many of the same conditions.

I wondered, after I saw A House play their last show at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre in February, 1997, if we’d ever see another local band like them again and, in the decades since, I’m not convinced that we have. And clearly, neither does Couse. So, unfinished business, unfinished dreaming or both ?

R.E.M :- THE LOST LETTER

You’d miss R.E.M. all the same, wouldn’t you ? Easily one of the best, certainly one of the most prolific and without doubt one of the most subversive of them all stepped off of the travellator for the last time in  2011, thirty-one years after they’d assembled in Athens, Georgia, from where they launched some of the most breath-taking and influential records in the entire history of popular music. And although the quality of some of the band’s later material definitely tailed off – I’d point to a dilution of structural tension before anything else, if pushed – at least ten of R.E.M.’s fifteen studio albums should, by any standards, reside in any self-respecting music collection.

Once they’d found traction and, literally, their voice, on ‘Fables Of The Reconstruction’, their third album, released in 1985, they remained a real threat until the very end and, as recently as the band’s last elpee, ‘Collapse Into Now’, were freely minting the magic :- ‘Walk It Back’ is easily one of their best ever songs on a record that’s much, much more than a mere swansong. R.E.M. might well have been struggling to maintain the all-killer consistency that had long hall-marked them but it wasn’t overly difficult, after twenty-five years at the crease, to pardon them ;- very few will ever again come close to their batting average.

It’s easy to point to the departure of the group’s chief architect, drummer Bill Berry, back in 1997, as a nail in their tube and the start of a slow puncture. But while the loss of their founder – and maybe the band’s spiritual leader ? – certainly impacted on R.E.M.’s complicated blood circulation system, I’d be mindful of an over-simplistic diagnosis. Berry was certainly an under-rated writing influence and many of the band’s more impactful offensives were launched from behind his traps. But it’s worth considering the following question :- name one band or artist of such distinction and influence – and I include Bowie, Dylan and Neil Young here – whose body of work retained its earlier consistency beyond ten albums ?

There was much about R.E.M. that set them apart during their three decades together, but leaving the stage with the same easy command of their craft on ‘Collapse Into Now’ as they did on arrival, albeit through a far narrower lens, on the ‘Chronic Town’ mini-album and then the ‘Murmur’ album [1983], is one of their greatest definers. During which time they crawled from the south to become the unlikeliest biggest band in the world, ever. And in my more introspective moments – and there have been more and more of those this last twelve months as my children grow older and the world struggles for order – I often think about the damage that R.E.M. might cause were they still actively recording in this, the year of the venal, racist, neo-liberal sociopath ?

Thirty years ago, ‘Life’s Rich Pageant’ [1986] and ‘Document’ [1987], the band’s fourth and fifth albums, were powered on many levels by the darker shadows of Ronald Reagan’s American presidency and the many unsettling, often inflammatory, policy positions adopted by his administration at home and abroad during his term of office. That R.E.M. crossed over into the mainstream during the Reagan years and released its angriest, most insurgent and best records during the presidency of George H. W. Bush, who held office between 1989 and 1993, may not be co-incidental either.

I was a recent college graduate, mooching the streets in search of a start and, like many others like me, was as comforted and confounded by those records as I was informed and scared by them. R.E.M. were taking sharply-informed, highly-charged political and social rhetoric into the arenas and stadia without once sounding like an over-earnest, empty-at-the-bottom rock band in search of a slogan. Of which, during the 1980s, there were far too many, few of whom showed any grasp at all of nuance and subtlety. R.E.M., masters of this sort of carry-on, routinely wrapped nail bombs in the softest of suggestion and allusion.

I’ve obsessively gone back to both ‘Life’s Rich Pageant’ and ‘Document’ over the last six months ;- like David Szalay’s novels or any of the Father Ted episodes, new dimensions still emerge within their work on every engagement. But while R.E.M. brought astute, often implied political messaging, their range carried far higher and much wider. They routinely dealt with the far more complex politics of human engagement too and are responsible for some of the most bewitching love songs in the history of the genre.

Many of which, like the bulk of the band’s canon, have dated extremely well. Even on their first, tentative albums, ‘Murmur’ and ‘Reckoning’ [1984] their shyness – parts of their debut, Michael Stipe’s vocals especially, are buried to the point of being barely audible – there was always a real intent deep within the sound of their silence. Manifest from early on the likes of ‘Talk About The Passion’, ‘Perfect Circle’,and ‘Camera’ and on numerous junctions thereafter.

The more curious among us were well and truly under the band’s spell from the first bars of ‘Radio Free Europe’ onwards. As well as the songs –  most of which were stellar – the band itself was remote and mysterious enough for those who were instinctively dragged to the margins and who preferred their music served at an angle. Myself and my friend, Philip, spent hours poring over R.E.M., particularly their first four albums, which we adored and which were released during that period in our friendship when we lived, pretty much, in each other’s pockets. And during which time we made numerous attempts to decipher some of R.E.M.’s enigma, of which there was an awful lot.

Basic as it sounds, but we spent far too much time trying to work out, from their mug-shots on the back of ‘Murmur’ and ‘Reckoning’, exactly which of them was which. Their names, ‘Berry, Buck, Mills and Stipe’ – always in alphabetical order and briefly, on ‘Life’s Rich Pageant’, with added initials – quickly became embedded in our vernacular, tripping off of the tongue as easily as any of the band’s songs. [A special nod here, for the anoraks, to the mysterious N. Bogan, who received a once-off writing credit on ‘West Of The Fields’]. R.E.M. rarely, if ever, succumbed to the obvious and, on those early sleeves, are deliberately playing with their identity and with how the band fronted-up ;- they look completely different, Berry’s distinctive eyebrows apart, on the first two albums.

Indeed it wasn’t until the band appeared on the BBC music television series, ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’, in November 1984, during which they performed a fully live version of ‘Pretty Persuasion’, from ‘Reckoning’, and debuted a new song, ‘Old Man Kensey’ [from ‘Fables Of The Reconstruction’], that we first caught sight of them behind their instruments and were able to definitively join the dots.

Identity – for R.E.M., for myself and Philip – was often a common puzzle during the years when The Paisley Underground, the flag of convenience under which several terrific American guitar bands traded briefly during the early to mid-1980s, was in its pomp. Many of the key figures in that cluster were involved with, or circling around, several other bands at the same time and some of the associations extended far and wide. And although R.E.M., given their Byrds/Love tenor, were only ever loosely aligned to this party, they quickly grew to dominate it and so, on their prompting, we were soon seeking out new music from the likes of Let’s Active, featuring R.E.M. producer Mitch Easter, The Long Ryders, Green On Red, Love Tractor, the imperious Jason And The Scorchers, Oh OK [featuring one of Michael Stipe’s sisters, Lynda] and Guadalcanal Diary, a powerful guitar band that also took root in Georgia. Some of which was very difficult to locate and for which we depended, for several years, on friends and acquaintances on J1 Visas in the United States, to import for us.

R.E.M. championed their lesser-known – and ultimately just lesser – peers at every opportunity and if Peter Buck didn’t physically contribute guitar to much of this output, then he certainly exerted a serious philosophical influence on it. And by so doing, made a household name of John Keane’s studio, initially a small recording facility local to R.E.M.  name-checked so routinely that it sounded like a magnet around which many largely unreported planets revolved.

We’d recently returned to school during the autumn of 1984 when I wrote to the P.O. box number listed on the inside sleeve of R.E.M’s second album, ‘Reckoning’. I sent a mournful note to the group – the first and only time I’ve done so with any band – explaining just how difficult it was to follow the fortunes of such an important, emerging outfit when, like themselves, I too was based far from the action in a regional outpost. I just knew that they’d understand.

And for my troubles I received, by return post some weeks later, a hand written reply ;- a free-form note on photocopied paper that also doubled as an artily-designed, type-written merchandising list enclosed within Airmail paper, no less, inviting me to their show in Dublin’s SFX later that year. The band would, the note said, set aside a pair of tickets for me on the night and were hopeful I’d be able to join them.

Irrespective of whether or not this was the work of one of the band, an office junior or someone’s fluffer, it didn’t matter. R.E.M. had heard me like, in my head, I always imagined they would do. And with that scrawled note, a lifelong friendship was forever hewn :- I stayed loyal, steadfast and besotted until the end. And long after the end.

That R.E.M. show in Dublin, on December 4th, 1984, has long dominated the colourful war stories of live music veterans in this country. I hear it still referenced to this day, and in the most unlikeliest of settings ;- it’s long been the centre of conversation among a cohort of hardy anoraks  in the small village of Ardfinnan, in South Tipperary, where I gift an annual quota of Corkness to my in-laws.

But in one of the most egregious acts of poor judgement in my entire life – and there have been many – I passed up the band’s kind offer to join them for what would be the first of many subsequent live appearances in Ireland. Given that the show was scheduled for a Tuesday night, far from home and during our final year in school, my formal education was deemed to have been more important and, like the Dublin senior footballers, fatigue and work commitments meant that I didn’t make the all-star trip.

It’s a wound that’s never entirely healed properly and one that’s been regularly salted over the years. To add insult to it, my letter from R.E.M. – in its own right as important a love note as anything Michael Collins ever wrote to Kitty Kiernan – has been long mislaid. Stuck, more than likely, inside an album that was loaned out to some fleeting love interest years ago in an effort to radicalise her, never to be returned.

But I didn’t have to wait too long to see R.E.M. in the flesh. They were back in Dublin the following summer when they appeared at Croke Park as part of the undercard at U2’s ‘A Sort Of Homecoming’ show when, in the late afternoon sunshine on July 29th, 1985, they were greeted with a shower of bottles. Their cause may not have been entirely helped by Michael’s decision to start the band’s short slot with his back to the crowd and, in an overcoat and pork-pie hat, to open proceedings with the very antithesis of stadium anthemry, the jagged ‘Feeling Gravity’s Pull’.

And from our seats high up in The Cusack Stand, and having recently completed secondary school, we marvelled at the size of their necks. The fact that the partisan home support couldn’t find it in itself to extend the hand to them only drove the point home further :- R.E.M. had decent cutting, our instincts were soundly founded and they were far too subtle for the mainstream. I was, of course, far more careful about where and when I saw my favourite groups thereafter ;- once bitten, twice shy, I  always preferred R.E.M. indoors and always resisted the urge to ever see them in the open air again.

I’ve written previously about the profile of the radio presenter, Dave Fanning on RTÉ television’s youth magazine series, ‘Youngline’, that aired in February, 1984 and in which the then late-night disc jockey was shown spinning into his place of work in a battered old beater. He slips a random cassette into the car’s sound system and the life-affirming ‘Radio Free Europe’, the opening cut on R.E.M.’s debut album, ‘Murmur’, comes on. And it was on, and indeed for, those infrequent crumbs that myself and Philip sustained ourselves for years.

A crack Radio 2 squad of presenters that included Fanning, Mark Cagney and B.P. Fallon, were all early R.E.M. acolytes and more or less spun the band off the air as, from the get-go, did the BBC’s John Peel. Fanning and his producer, Ian Wilson, also nailed them for an excellent ‘Rock Show’ interview during that brief 1984 stop-over in Dublin which, far from affording me cold comfort, only succeeded in making my sense of solitary confinement back home seem far, far worse.

But we replayed it back incessantly anyway, our ears and eyes opened by the band’s drawly accents and the manner in which they dropped, as usual, the names of several other emerging groups from within their orbit. Philip took his devotion to them much further and, at some point in the early 1990s, made what was then an unprecedented leap when he attempted to grow what remains one of the worst ever beards known to man. This was just one of his many personal tributes over the years to Michael Stipe, who’d started to experiment with face furniture and body paint. And it remains one of a number of vivid, sometimes bizarre memories I have of my late friend, with whom I soldiered long and hard in the trenches, usually playing the gormless wingman to his ascetic, corduroy-jacketed people’s poet.

R.E.M. were one of a number of compelling, urgent and special groups that we discovered together and through whose many songs we played out the guts of a friendship that was forever as intense as it was complicated. And often at the expense of what we might, and maybe should, have been dealing with instead. But they were easily the most dominant band of that number because, apart from the music, they developed as a force as quickly and as fiercely as myself and Philip were growing up – and moving on – back in Ireland. Twenty-five years after the release of R.E.M.’s most remarkable and most vital album, ‘Automatic For The People’, and I don’t think I’ve ever missed them more. And I don’t think that I’ve ever missed him more either.