I think I remember my first true experience of the power of music in theatre. It was during the mid 80’s while I lived in Dublin pretending to be a student of Philosophy , Psychology and Archaeology. All this was a front for what I had been doing all along, being a musician, but I was in denial. Being in a band meant that I could pretend that I was just playing music as a hobby. We lie to ourselves only when that lie is truly pointless. Then what seems to be folly becomes truth. Then truth becomes an unavoidable necessity. Eventually truth becomes a thing which cannot be denied.
I was asked to join a punk band in Dublin with some guys that I had met through my time in Art School, (I had previously pretended to be an Art student, but that’s another post entirely).
Then one day the guy who I shared a house with told me that he had two tickets to see Salome in the Gaiety theatre, starring (and I think directed by) Alan Stanford. It was a wonderful experience for me. My only previous experience with theatre was in secondary school when I somehow managed to get the part of the Reverend Chasuble in a production of The Importance of being Earnest by our school and the girl’s school next to us. I hated acting. I could, even at that age, get up in front of any amount of people and sing or play, but acting, or pretending to try to act, terrified me and I vowed never to have anything more to do with it again.
But when we went to the Gaiety that night I was transfixed. It was another Wilde play and I knew I would like it, but what got me was the fact that the music for the show was provided by a piano player who was the only person who was on stage throughout the entire performance. He wasn’t even in the pit. He was right there on stage the whole time. I wish I could remember who this great musician was, because for me he was both invisible and glaringly visible. He was there, but you didn’t see him. His music was haunting and evocative, lending emotions to the dialogue that acting alone could never have rendered. It changed me. That’s what great music, and indeed, great theatre, is supposed to do. Transform you in some way.
I began to wonder if this was something that I could do. I, however, had no formal training in either music or theatre, so I wrote these thoughts off as a kind of mad pipe-dream.
Then on my return to Galway that summer something bizarre, beautiful and transforming seemed to place itself before me, almost as a challenge.
My first conundrum on arrival home was trying to decide how to tell my parents that academia was not for me. My immediate choice of action was to go for a few early pints with a friend from Art school, Dara. He mentioned, around pint number four, that there was a parade taking place up the town by the Galway arts group, Macnas, based on Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, with a huge inflatable of the man himself (Gulliver, that is, not Swift) being walked down through town accompanied by music, dancing and general mayhem.
It was the music that got me. It sounded to me like it could be music from another world, Lilliput or Brobdingnag or another planet. It was recognisably melodic and catchy. I instantly knew that I had to be part of this sort of thing somehow, though I had no idea what my next move was.
As I may have related in previous blogs, I was successful in getting a place with Macas through a Social Employment Scheme. The person who was Musical Director for Macnas, and a man from whom I think I may have learned much, was John Dunne. John would later go on to play on some early recordings with a then up-and-coming band known as the Saw Doctors.
Mr. Dunne was, and probably still is, a deep man. A true composer and artist. I had the joy to play in John’s theatre band in Macnas for about five years on and off, doing some great shows. Then I got bored again and longed for Rock and Roll, so off I went.
But during my time in Macnas I had met Little John Nee. If you have not experienced this man I strongly recommend that you look him up and try to see some of his shows. While he defies description, I shall attempt to describe him nonetheless. Picture a multi-layered hybrid of Buster Keaton, Johnny Rotten, Stan Laurel, Tom Waits and some guy from Letterkenny whom you may think you get, but trust me, you don’t.
LJ, (for thus he is known by those who know and love him) was and is a Punk, a street theatre performer, a musician, an actor, a writer and man who can just make things happen. I had done some shows with him, playing music to back his anarchic, improvised kind of stand-up performances, when he asked me to travel with him to Washington, DC for a one-man play called ‘The Derry Boat’. It was a show that dealt largely with the cultural connections shared between Donegal and Scotland. Nobody else could have written this show because LJ was born in Glagow yet brought up in Donegal. While many people, both from Scotland and Ireland could relate to the story, only LJ could ever clearly tell it. When I first agreed to do the show, he grinned widely at me, saying, “well, Duffy, at least I know your Donegal passport is up to date”!
I, as usual, was filling in for another musician on this gig, a fellow called Fergal Gallagher, and I thought that that would be it. Then, not long after our return from the US, LJ began to speak of his ideas for the next show. It was to be called “The Ballad of Jah Kettle” about a punk who had traveled the world jumping trains and having adventures. Our Hero had lost his best friend and was trying to get to grips with the loss. It was a show that I knew that I had to do, and I told him so. To my surprise, he agreed.
I think that in this performance I ended up playing about ten different instruments, usually at LJ’s insistence. He might arrive into rehearsals in the morning with some strange, new musical contraption and say “here, Duffy, see what you can do with that!” I always loved the challenge and we were both of the opinion that perfection was less important than the feeling which might be evoked by a different sound, another texture.
Also, Little John had previously been involved with a Hindu religious organisation. He was no longer a devotee, but what with the nature of our work he thought it inspirational to keep a small shrine to the Goddess Sarasvati in the rehearsal space. If you don’t know about Sarasvati, she is a Goddess who is responsible for all artistic and musical inspiration, amongst other things. She is often depicted with many arms most of which hold a musical instrument.
One morning I arrived in to rehearsals clearly shook, and not for the usual dipsomaniacal reasons. He could see my distress, and like the boss that he is he asked me straight out what was bothering me. I had to be honest. I had, I confessed, had a dream about Sarasvati the night before. She had been very impatient with me. With every one of her multitudinous arms she was presenting me with a different musical instrument, clearly frustrated with my inability to keep up with her. Eventually she seemed to smile at me, but to me it was not a “good man yourself” kind of smile, but rather a “YOU ARE MINE NOW AND NOTHING YOU CAN EVER DO WILL CHANGE THAT” kind of smile. Still freaks me out a bit when I think of it.
So who am I to argue with a Goddess?