R.E.M

R.E.M. AND 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.

EPIC SOUNDTRACKS, KEVIN JUNIOR and NIKKI SUDDEN

 

You may not recognise all of the characters but you’ll almost certainly recognise the story, or at least the darker parts of it. At its core are three men with a love of the same kind of music in common, liberated from time to time, I suppose, by the magic they heard around them, some of which they produced on their own, other times with one another. All three of them are dead now and none of them saw the age of fifty.

All three tended almost always towards the hard shoulder and never really threatened the popular market, like many of the artists and lots of the music we’re drawn to here. But I’ve tried not to be too pious in the telling and I’m not being wilful or deliberately obscure: if the story strikes a chord, then I’ve listed some records below that you might like to check out. The complicated, fractured lives of Epic, Kevin and Nikki – and the music they made – only really make sense that way. And so …

Kevin Junior’s death earlier this year went relatively unmarked over here, and understandably enough. The American singer, guitarist and producer died five days after David Bowie, on January 15th last and, outside of his circle of friends, family and those who had loyally supported his bands, The Rosehips and  The Chamber Strings, and his various other side-projects over the years, his name will be unfamiliar. I spent the guts of fifteen years talking him up to anyone I met and, from a distance and with the benefit of the internet, followed his moves, wished him on, watched him vagabonding in several guises, car-crashing his way sidewards and downwards.

As is the case with Epic Soundtracks, with whom he wrote, toured, recorded and performed, Kevin is rarely cited as widely as his talent, flawed as it was, maybe deserves. But he leaves behind him a decent canon of work that, uneven as it is, captures a restless spirit at work, hinting at what could have been and that, on occasion, is up there with the best of them. When Kevin had his head straight and his body clean, he was capable of real alchemy: like many before him, his songs were maybe all he really ever had but, in the end, not even those were enough to save him.

Folk of a certain age and of a particular leaning will remember Epic and his brother, Nikki Sudden: they buttressed Swell Maps, an urgent punk-art outfit that flourished briefly during the late 1970s. Born in Solihull, near Birmingham, in the English midlands, and raised as Kevin and Adrian Godfrey respectively, they recorded a pair of opaque albums with Swell Maps who, years after they folded, were name-checked fondly by the likes of R.E.M. and Dinosaur Jr. Indeed R.E.M. backed Nikki on his 1991 single, ‘I Belong To You’, which was recorded at John Keane’s famous studio in Athens, Georgia and which derived from a three-month period the previous year during which Nikki had moved into Peter Buck’s house.

Epic Soundtracks passed away in 1997 and Nikki Sudden died in New York city nine years later: Kevin’s death last January completes that circle and, on one level, wraps up a little known side-story in the modern history of alternative American and British pop music. Kevin spent many years soldiering long and hard with both Epic and Nikki, lurching from place to place, song to song, crisis to crisis, barely keeping on. When he re-located to Berlin to accompany Nikki during the 1990s, he fell quickly into a period of chronic drug use: it had been the same story earlier in Los Angeles. And in New York. And back home in Akron, Ohio.

Epic Soundtracks and Kevin Junior wrote and played from the heart and the records they’ve left behind are, almost without exception, simply executed and remarkably personal. Kevin believed that Epic actually died of a broken heart: he’d struggled with depression for years and an intense relationship had ended in the months before he passed away. In Kevin’s case it seems as if, after thirty odd years spent clinging to the ledge, his own heart simply gave out too. Nikki Sudden died in New York in 2006 and, while the cause of his death has never been clearly determined, he too was defined for years as much by his drug use as by his music. If it was their hearts that first bound them and bonded them, it was their hearts that failed them all in the end too.

Akron, Ohio features prominently in the colourful and often bizarre history of Stiff Records, and the story and spirit of the label – that boasts among it’s leading players the likes of Dave Robinson, Jake Riviera, Madness, Ian Dury And The Blockheads, Nick Lowe, The Damned, Devo, Rachel Sweet and numerous others – is captured in detail in Richard Balls’s terrific book, ‘Be Stiff: The Stiff Records Story’ [Soundcheck Books]. It was in Akron that Kevin was born Kevin Gerber in 1969 to a pair of music loving, free-thinking parents: as a child he was baby-sat by Chrissie Hynde and, as Bob Mehr mentions in a fine profile for The Chicago Reader in 2007, ‘he attended Firestone High School, which produced such future stars as Hynde, Rachel Sweet and members of Devo’.

Kevin moved to Chicago in his mid-teens and cut a skeletal shape from the get-go in his trademark Johnny Thunders do and sharp jackets, almost always stylishly adorned with a silk scarf and a pair of decent winkle-pickers. Like Nikki and Epic, Kevin was an advocate of the old school, long influenced by T-Rex, The New York Dolls, The Beach Boys, quality R and B and The Monkees. From where Kevin looked, in order to sound good it was vital to look good first and he covers this ground in detail on an efficient, low-budget documentary, ‘Chamber Strings – For A Happy Ending’, made for the Glorious Noise website.

It was Keith Cullen at Setanta Records who first turned me onto Epic soundtracks, back when we worked together in London in the early 1990s and during which time I would often kip down in a hammock strung across his kitchen in a squat in Camberwell. I was trying as best I could to make a positive contribution to an emerging independent record label, while free-lancing for a couple of music magazines to turn a coin. With the Setanta roster developing nicely, Keith needed dependable, day-to-day office help: most of the time I just got in the way.

I’d often put myself to sleep with a primitive Walkman clung to my ears and, for a while, Epic’s music was what I’d hear last thing at night. Himself and Freedy Johnston, another favourite during that time at the Setanta office, were affiliated to a vibey New York-based label called Bar None, run by a Limerick man called Tom Prendergast. Tom’s apartment in Hoboken often hosted Setanta’s bureau chief and Bar None and Setanta shared a philosophical and business arrangement, on and off, for years.

Bar None’s substantial and varied catalogue also boasts releases by the likes of They Might Be Giants, Peter Holsapple, Carlow’s David Donoghue/The Floors and a host of others but it was Epic Soundtracks’ 1994 album, ‘Sleeping Star’ for the label that remains, to these ears, one of the most affecting records of the decade. It was because of Tom Prendergast’s relationship with Setanta – and the regular exchange of stories and music between the labels – that I first started to tease back through Epic’s lineage and, for a while, I became obsessed with his story. Tom Prendergast’s own history, it should also be said, is one of the great, largely untold stories from the fringes of Irish alternative music history from the early-1980s onwards.

Kevin Junior recorded two excellent albums with his band, The Chamber Strings – ‘Gospel Morning’ [1997] and ‘Month of Sundays’ [2001] – both of which betray his long infatuation with the likes of The Beach Boys, T Rex and the more tender aspects of The New York Dolls. But despite consistently good notices, the band found it difficult to generate any forward momentum: Kevin’s short life was largely spent on the hoof and he led a temporal existence, moving onwards and sideways until, as was often the case, drugs just moved him out.

He alludes to this on the remarkable liner notes he wrote for ‘Good Things’, the posthumous Epic Soundtracks album released in 2005, eight years after Epic was found dead, alone, in his ground floor flat in West Hampstead, London.

Plaintively written, Kevin vividly paints a number of key scenes from an incredible few months in his long friendship with Epic and transports his reader and listener back into the belly of the small flat in which the pair of them recorded that record between November 21st and 27th, 1996. It was a record, like much else in their lives at the time, that they hadn’t planned. Indeed both men found themselves together in London by accident and only after a tour of Europe, on which Kevin was due to lead Epic’s backing band, had been cancelled at the last minute. Rather than put his plane ticket to waste, Kevin fetched up in West London with his then girlfriend, some primitive pieces of kit and not a whole lot else.

He found Epic living from hand to mouth and struggling badly: it had been years since he’d released new material, his personal life had come asunder, he’d had difficulties gaining entry into the U.S. and his long-standing label had gone cold on him. And yet Epic’s love of music was undiminished: Kevin recalled that he would rather survive on cereal [‘his beloved Sugar Puffs’] if it meant he could afford to purchase records and CDs from London’s second hand stores. [One of the many photographs that adorn the inside of ‘Good Things’ captures Epic in a white towelling robe, vinyl in hand and posing, in his flat, in front of a vast library of elpees and compact discs].

And still, between them, they knocked out a series of rough demos of a host of new Epic material, using the most basic techniques to tape onto Kevin’s Tascam Porta Two four-track recorder that he ‘bought in the 1980’s for $150’. As Kevin writes: ‘Instruments included Epic’s W.H. Barnes upright piano, a Fender Twin amp and the best acoustic guitar I’ve ever played, my $75 Mitchel, a nameless organ, some half broken pieces of percussion, a digital delay pedal and a few guitars on loan from friends.

‘We had to constantly deal with the problem of low batteries that we couldn’t afford to replace and the blasts of train whistles that pierced through the garden window and into the floor. There was no way to punch in or overdub parts that didn’t feel like the musical equivalent to a game of Twister’.

And ‘Good Things’ bears all of those hallmarks. It’s far from Epic’s best record: it’s a series of brittle, lo-fi recordings, some of which are barely clinging to life. And yet, as tends to often be the case, some of it is truly enchanting. But Kevin wasn’t merely Epic’s co-writer and co-producer:  over the course of the recording, and a subsequent two-handed tour of Europe, he’d become his primary carer too. Epic had few friends and no real supports to summon in London. He was, Kevin reckoned, in an awful state.

Once the recordings had been complete, and once Epic and Kevin – and Kevin’s girlfriend, Karen Kiska – had completed a short, acoustic and hastily-arranged series of live shows around Austria and Germany primarily, travelling light, cheaply and often simply booking dates as they went, the party went it’s separate ways.

‘Epic phoned the day after we arrived back in Chicago’, Kevin’s liner notes reveal. ‘He said some nice things about our friendship and then said that what would really make him happy at that moment would be for the three of us to go see a film’. Two weeks later, Epic Soundtracks was found dead in his flat. ‘It’s been said that a man can die if he simply loses the will to live’, Kevin writes. ‘I don’t care what anyone else says, I believe Epic died of a broken heart …’. He was 38 years old.

‘Good Things’ finally saw the light of day in 2005 and, featuring the songs recorded in Sumatra Road in West Hampstead years previously, mixed and finished by Nikki Sudden and Kevin’s evocative notes, is the final farewell from one of the most beguiling and genuinely fascinating British songwriters of the 1990s. It’s a record I go back to time and again because, often, the saddest things are also the most beautiful things.

And so, if you get the opportunity …

For more about Epic, Kevin and Nikki :-

Jane From Occupied Europe’ by Swell Maps [Rough Trade Records, 1980]

Sleeping Star’ by Epic Soundtracks [Rough Trade Records/Bar None, 1994]

Red Brocadeby Nikki Sudden, backed by The Chamber Strings [Chatterbox Records, 1999]

Gospel Morning’ by The Chamber Strings [Bobsleigh Records, 2000]

Good Things’ by Epic Soundtracks [DBK Works, 2006]

U2, LIVE IN CROKE PARK, 1985

Well, the Jacks are back. And what an All-Ireland we have for you tonight’.

As opening gambits go, Bono’s introduction to the partisan hordes at Croke Park just after 8.30 p.m. on a sticky June evening in 1985 had a familiar peel. Eight years previously, Phil Lynott had marked Dublin’s All-Ireland football semi-final victory over Kerry with a similar line from the stage at Dalymount Park, where Thin Lizzy were headlining a bill that also featured another emerging local act, The Boomtown Rats. Trip forward through the wires to Dublin 3 and U2’s singer had recently turned 25 years old and now, four albums in, his own band was on the cusp. They’d come very far very quickly and, just four summers earlier, had nervously opened for Lynott’s Thin Lizzy at Slane Castle. Croke Park was easily U2’s biggest Dublin show yet, marketed with an almost reluctant brand of hoopla and fanfare as ‘a sort of homecoming’ and yet, very clearly, marking the end of the beginning of the hero’s journey too. The release of ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ in October, 1984, had carried U2 onto the Rubicon but now, however fleetingly, they were back from the far-away and returned to more familiar turf.

Myself and my friend, Michael, had been enticed by the late addition of R.E.M. onto the support bill, where they joined In Tua Nua, The Alarm and Squeeze. We’d travelled up from Cork that morning and, I guess, were half-hoping that the headliners too might find it in themselves to put on a show for us. Young, dumb and drunk on cool, we’d had a long day in the sun ;- by the time U2 took to the stage we’d already been in the old stadium for an eternity. Our thoughts were already drifting to the journey back to whatever part of Dublin we were staying in and, in many respects, our £12.50 tickets were wasted on us. We were really there in name only and, thirty years on, recall the aftermath far more vividly than the main event.

I took a job the previous summer in the Roches Stores supermarket on Patrick Street in Cork ;- into my final year at secondary school, it was high time I got out from under my mother’s feet and started to contribute a few pounds at home. On my first morning in the standard issue blue house-coat, I was assigned to an experienced staffer who understood well the vagaries of the biscuit aisle and a whole lot else besides. He told me pretty quickly that he’d only recently been ‘inside’, although he didn’t elaborate on either where or whom. The clues – had I not been so clueless – were dotted in Indian ink all over his arms ;- these indeed were the hands of a fired man. I made my excuses and quietly went to work on the gang-packs.

It was during breaktimes with my work-mates in the cavernous store-rooms at the back of Roches that I first saw U2’s broad appeal up-close. I frequently heard tell, in obsessive detail, of the emerging Dublin band’s genius and of it’s many connections with Cork. One of my new colleagues was especially smitten ;- he’d seen them twice in 1982 in The City Hall and had heard about a bit of hand-bagging with one of the support-acts, a local shower called The Unknown Wrecks who, I was told, didn’t appreciate U2 acting up on someone else’s manor.

I had a basic working knowledge of U2. Themselves and Pat Benatar seemed like constants on MT U.S.A., the Vincent Hanley/Bill Hughes music video-show that dominated Sunday afternoons on RTE Two television and, consequently, I now knew Bono’s Red Rocks schtick by heart. Dave Fanning seemed just as unnaturally infatuated by them as any and his nightly show on RTÉ Radio served them well and regularly. As did Hot Press who, someone said, was keeping Ireland safe for rock and roll. To be fair, I thought that ‘New Year’s Day’ was pretty ace but thought that ‘Sunday, Bloody Sunday’ was chronic. I preferred ‘Under A Blood Red Sky’ to ‘War’ which, I thought, was clumsy and over-weight and, other than that, U2 were merely close to fine. In my mind, other bands like R.E.M., The Smiths and New Order especially, were better, a bit more adventurous and far more curious.And I wasn’t slow to say so. U2’s case wasn’t helped either by the fact that so many others – like Dallow, Spicer, Pinkie, Cubitt and the others back in Roches – loved them so unquestioningly and so blindly. The irony was lost completely on me :- U2 were simply too popular and I was just a snob.

I’d sometimes head out around town during my lunch break and would often drift into the Golden Discs shop on Patrick Street or Pat Egan’s place in The Queen’s Old Castle. It was there that I bought the In Tua Nua single, ‘Coming Thru’ – which now sounds like a failed social experiment but which, back then, was loaded with promise – and happily shared it around the store-room. Bizarrely, while some of the lads had scant knowledge of the band almost all of them had heard of the label, Mother Records. And this was just more of it ;- U2 were everywhere and, on one level, it just seemed unpatriotic not to swear blindly by them.

Before we left school for good in June, 1985, one of the longer-serving and better teachers advised us to take a hard look around the class. There were lads in our year who, we were told, we’d never see again and others that we’d never want to see again. I can’t remember us ever discussing the complexities of male friendships and how, over time, boys become men and how their relationships develop – and often implode – accordingly. This, after all, was an all-male school in a working class part of the Northside of Cork city where, presumably, this kind of carry-on was a bit quare.

Decades on and some of us, but not many, are in touch just as often now as we were then. Somewhere beneath the surface, a shared love of guitar bands, books and films, hurling and our beloved hometown has helped to keep Michael and myself in touch ever since. We sat together in the old A.G. building every school-day for five years, where the conversation was routinely dominated by music, sport and television. By The Byrds, The Beatles, The Beach Boys and R.E.M., by records we’d inherited from our parents and new songs we’d picked up along the way. By tales of derring-do down in The Glen or up in Na Piarsaigh and Delaney Rovers, by names like Spriggs, Connery, Cummins, Coutts and Hackett. We were infrequently touched by celebrity and glamour too :- we had a female teacher one time and, on another occasion, the late broadcaster Liam Ó Murchú paid our class a visit. He’d been parachuted onto the Fianna Fáil ticket in Cork North Central in 1982 and, in his fancy cravat and stacked heels, was canvassing the wide voter base in his old school and promising that he’d repair the swimming pool up by the monastery. And that, really, was that ;- when it came to music and arts, we were pretty much on our own and were happy out for that.

Some of us had seen The Smiths in The Savoy in 1983 and 1984 and Depeche Mode in The City Hall in 1982 [and, by default, the last part of a raucous, discordant Microdisney support set which, in the great traditions, has become far more than the sum of its parts in the many years since]. We’d started to explore and gather widely, and it wasn’t just new music either. From out of nowhere, one of our number saw our Prefab Sprout and raised us his ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ and ‘Rubber Soul’. Someone else produced a Joy Division album and my desk-mate trumped it with a Byrds tape. A copy of ‘Back Again In The D.H.S.S.’ by Half Man, Half Biscuit was distributed far and wide and, in one corner of the yard, vinyl was swapped on a daily basis.

Talk of The Beatles led us down a couple of other avenues. One night, two of us fetched up at a Transcendental Meditation information session in the meeting rooms in The Metropole Hotel. But on scanning the room and determining the affair a bit too illicit and weird, we made for the exit quickly and ended up playing a couple of frames of snooker instead.

One of the early evening television magazine shows on RTÉ had featured a short film report about Dave Fanning’s radio show. In one of the sequences, he gets into an old Renault 5 and, exactly as I’d imagined, slides a cassette into the player on the dash :- R.E.M.’s magnificent ‘Radio Free Europe’ comes on. This, to me, was where the bar was set ;- shortly afterwards I wrote to the P.O. Box number cited on the liner notes of the band’s second album, ‘Reckoning’, earnestly insisting to whoever was on the other end just how difficult it was, living in Ireland, to keep up to date with events in Athens, Georgia. Where, I imagined, R.E.M. cavorted freely and frequently with the likes of The Meat Puppets, The Long Ryders, Let’s Active, Guadalcanal Diary and Green On Red.

When, the following year, I saw that R.E.M. had been added to the support bill for U2’s home-coming show in Croke Park, the decision to travel more or less made itself. The timing was sweet too ;- we’d completed the Leaving Cert a couple of weeks previously and, having stayed honest and earnest until the very end, had earned our right to make the trip. With another of my recent favourites, The Alarm, also added to the bill, and with an opportunity too to see one of the great British pop bands, Squeeze, the fact that this was U2’s biggest headline show in Ireland to date didn’t matter and was conveniently lost in the wash.

I’d been to Croke Park twice previously and had been unfortunate enough to see Cork’s hurlers wiped out by Kilkenny in the All-Ireland finals of 1982 and 1983. On both occasions I’d travelled by train with another friend of mine, Brendan O’Sullivan from Great William O’Brien Street, and his older, sports-mad brothers, Anthony and Dom. In 1982, Cork were given an education on the field and, as Christy Heffernan announced himself as the definitive agricultural full-forward of his time, so too were we given a life lesson of our own up in The Canal End in our rain-soaked Lord Anthony duffle coats. Before the throw-in, the stellar Cork forward Tony O’Sullivan, then a gifted teen who’d been a couple of years ahead of us in school, was reduced before the National Anthem had started. The mood of the day had been set and, while I have a vague memory of the game itself, I can vividly remember the dank atmosphere on the torturous train journey back to Cork. But at least I’d been inside the great old ground and, by the time we’d returned in 1985, I felt as if I knew the venue intimately. Showing like we owned the place and anxious not to miss a single note, we were in situ in Croke Park long before the hawkers had even unfurled the first of the U2 headbands.

All of these years later and I can remember the riots and the support bill with far more clarity than I remember U2’s set. Michael and myself had negotiated the first part of the trip – from Cork to Dublin by train – handily enough and, on arrival, were greeted by our host, a cousin of his who’d ventured in from the suburbs to meet us at Heuston. We’d made plans to meet him again after the show, whenever and wherever and however :- we had a vague idea where we were staying and it never once struck us to note an address. We had better and far more important business to be minding.

The day of the concert was exceptionally hot and, from our seats high up in The Cusack Stand, we took a fair amount of heat. R.E.M. had blown away Dublin’s S.F.X. the previous year when they’d powered their way through the best parts of their first two incendiary albums, with an odd nod to the debut IRS mini. But ‘Fables Of The Reconstruction’ is a more difficult and far more considered record and plugging it here, out of doors and battling both the elements and a typical support act’s sound mix, they were melting before us. In a long over-coat and panama hat, and with his back to the audience, Michael Stipe intoned the off-kilter ‘Feeling Gravity’s Pull’ ;- it was far too subtle for the four-albums-a-year set and it wasn’t just the sky that was up in arms. Almost immediately a barrage of bottles rained down on-stage, pulling a drawly response from Peter Buck. It was absolutely terrific and, the more the band confronted and battled the crowd, the sound and the scale of the venue, the more we loved them.

Comprehensively stealing the show that afternoon were a big-haired, fast-paced four-piece from the best and worst traditions of punk rock, a band that had paid it’s dues, worked the clubs endlessly and who now, obvious to all, were on the brink of a serious popular cross-over. We left in awe, heads turned and brains melted ;- nothing was going to stop The Alarm. I never understood why – or, rather, I never wanted to fully understand why – The Alarm were so maligned. Fanning had played ‘Unsafe Building’ and ‘The Stand’ off the air and now, with ’68 Guns’, they’d cracked the Top Forty ;- ‘they’re after you with their promises, they’re after you to sign your life away’, they railed. And beyond their well-intentioned, Dylan-tinged sentiment were, to my ears, the kind of simple, unsophisticated mega-choruses that were important and valid because, unlike so much of what we were all listening to, required no de-construction. The Alarm, in their own way, dealt as emotive and direct a hand as The Smiths and yet were everything that The Smiths weren’t.

They dominated the bill that afternoon, no question. The hands were in the air from the off, an over-load of call-and-response to the guts of ‘Declaration’, the band’s excellent debut. The Alarm left a pretty serious footprint behind them at The Canal End, going out in a blaze of glory indeed. And were we ever to form a band, we’d be taking our cues from Mike Peters and Dave Sharp, and that much was certain.

Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook had already written some of the finest and most perceptive British pop songs of their generation and, with the clock now counting backwards to the arrival of the main deal, their band did exactly what was required of them. Scheduled in the tea-time slot, Squeeze kept the score-card ticking over without ever threatening a knock-out blow. Their gorgeous melodies and smart word-plays were largely wasted across the vast spaces but at least they kept shuffling their feet, and with no little swagger. Too subtle and clever for the great outdoors – where the crowd had now swelled in numbers and had gotten noticeably noisier – Squeeze had earned their corn as U2’s fluffers.

I know that U2 opened with ’11 O’Clock Tick Tock’ and not, as you’d think from the Windmill Lane documentary clip on YouTube, ‘I Will Follow’, which was the second number on the night. But beyond that, I remember little else of the detail. Yes, I know that ‘Bad’ was as sublime as I’d hoped it would be, worlds removed from the under-cooked album track that barely registered on ‘The Unforgettable Fire’. Here, as was standard during this period, it provided the meat in the middle-order. I was transfixed then, as I still am, by Larry Mullen :- to this day, he consistently appears as if he’s playing to exactly the same rhythm all of the time and yet, on ‘Bad’, he owns all ten minutes, chaperoning it from humble, shy beginnings and delivering it as one of the most intense live music experiences I’ve been fortune enough to witness. Edge’s guitar solo – back- boned and enabled from behind the traps – takes the song into some kind of wonderful, even more profound than I’d ever imagined.

There were other moments too. They did Springsteen’s ‘My Hometown’ as a first encore, back-to-back with ‘Out Of Control’, and made several other detours during their eighteen song set, notably ‘Ruby Tuesday’ and ‘Give Peace A Chance’. Following the last post – was it ’40’ ? – and as the crowds began to drift out into the night and onwards, Michael and myself stayed behind to catch the shafts of green, white and gold light cross-beam the masses as Clannad’s ‘Harry’s Game’ sounded out over the P.A. We left Croke Park wondering why The Alarm hadn’t played for another thirty minutes.

Following the crowds across the city, down past Barry’s Hotel and then The Gresham Hotel and into the middle of O’Connell Street, we eventually found Grafton Street and, to round off the day, walked straight into the first of the baton charges. For whatever reason, the Guards were flaking wildly as, all around us, shop windows were put in and a real scene was kicking off. The air was thick with Northern accents and loose talk ;- someone remarked that some of the Guards had removed their numbers from their shoulders and were pulling with abandon. Michael and myself were even separated for a while, re-united much later somewhere up around Saint Stephen’s Green. We’d missed our bus and, on foot, asked for directions to Stepaside ;- we could have been asking for directions back to Fair Hill, and we just kept walking onwards.

There was an incident with a telephone directory in a booth somewhere along Baggot Street. We gave Liam Mackey a royal salute when we saw the then TV GaGa presenter striding out past The Shelbourne Hotel ;- and he waved back. It was about the friendliest exchange we’d encountered since we left Cork that morning. In the days long before de-regulation and on the night of a couple of serious events, a taxi ride home was out of the question too ;- it was 4AM before we were finally picked up by a fanatical cab driver who, with little prompting, insisted on driving us around past the corners where some prostitutes were gathered. Silently, I wished I was at home with my mother.

To this day, Michael and myself remember the prologue and the aftermath in far greater detail than we do U2’s performance as we roamed, more Adam and Paul than Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, directionless and gormless around Dublin. The narrow streets around where I’d grown up had produced a mind which, betimes, could be just as narrow and, far from the comforts of what I knew, the whole experience was more a rude awakening than a spiritual awakening.

In hindsight, Croke Park was a last refuge for U2. We saw, for instance, a hat- less Edge. We saw what was, quite possibly, the last great U2 tour without an over-reliance on smoke and mirrors :- exposed on a huge, Spartan stage, the band had started to boost their sound with sequencers and tapes and yet, for all that, the core sound was still an unsophisticated one. And we saw the machine at work at close quarters :- if REM sounded tinny and slight, U2 were vast and heavyweight. If The Alarm were stealing the show, it was Squeeze who went home empty-handed and with their pockets picked.

But more than anything we saw a master showman borrow shamelessly from left, right and centre to claim another big home win.