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2017 Grateful 2

Some of us have defining Christmas moments, that exact time when we realise that it’s Christmas. It can be shopping on Christmas Eve, the first eggnog, the first piece of Turkey. Perhaps it’s not till Christmas morning that the penny drops or maybe it’s the office party. It could be the arrival of the first Christmas card or the opening of the first box of Cadbury’s Roses. For me, it’s when I hear Fairytale of New York for the first time. The original version by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl.

I have memories from years back of SN, home from NY, getting up on the couch and belting it out in Northbrook. I have memories of AMcC doing something similar. I have mental images of stopping still in London as it came over the airwaves or giving it gusto, turning the CD up full blast as I drove the Richardson Highway in Alaska. But until this year, I never knew the story behind it. The bet behind it.

Over annual Christmas pints with old friends from the Bank, DS explained that Elvis Costello had bet Shane McGowan that he couldn’t write a Christmas duet to sing with Cait O’Riordan (Costello’s future wife and then bass player with The Pogues), a song that didn’t mention Santa Claus or presents or Christmas trees – or any of the usual stuff that goes into Christmas hits. That’s the version I like (and the one Shane McGowan tells too). But there’s another version. Accordion player James Fearnley says that back in the day, manager Frank Murray suggested that The Pogues do a cover version of Christmas Must Be Tonight. But, he said: “It was an awful song. We probably said, fuck that, we can do our own.” I prefer McGowan’s story.

This year, I heard Ed Sheeran’s attempt to cover the song with Anne-Marie – and I cried. It was tantamount to blasphemy. And he rewrote the line ‘you cheap lousy faggot’ to ‘you cheap lousy blaggard’. When Ronan Keating and Maire Brennan mangled their version, they changed the line to ‘you’re cheap and you’re haggard’. Why? Why? Why? If I could give a present to the world this year, it would be context. Forget sanitizing or rewriting history – it was what it was in the time that it was. Let it be – just don’t forget the context.

Released for Christmas 1987, and billed as ‘an unreal fantasy of 1940s New York dreamed up in 1980s London’, this classic makes my Christmas. BBC Arts did a number on it last week and I learned that the title is nicked from JP Donleavy’s novel A Fairytale of New York. I hadn’t realised that Christy Moore had covered it, on his own, too, in the 1990s. And that version, apparently, Shane likes.

But for all the times I’ve heard it, for all the times I’ve sung along, I’ve never quite realised how sad it is… and perhaps that’s what appeals to me. A little bit of realism at a time when the world is caught up in the commercialism of it all, the TV version of Christmas.

“Fairytale Of New York”

It was Christmas Eve babe
In the drunk tank
An old man said to me,
Won’t see another one
And then he sang a song
The Rare Old Mountain Dew
I turned my face away
And dreamed about you
Got on a lucky one
Came in eighteen to one
I’ve got a feeling
This year’s for me and you
So happy Christmas
I love you baby
I can see a better time
When all our dreams come true
They’ve got cars
Big as bars
They’ve got rivers of gold
But the wind goes right through you
It’s no place for the oldWhen you first took my hand
On a cold Christmas Eve
You promised me
Broadway was waiting for meYou were handsome
You were pretty
Queen of New York City
When the band finished playing
They howled out for more
Sinatra was swinging
All the drunks they were singing
We kissed on the corner
Then danced through the night

The boys of the NYPD choir
Were singing ‘Galway Bay’
And the bells are ringing
Out for Christmas day

You’re a bum
You’re a punk
You’re an old slut on junk
Lying there almost dead
On a drip in that bed

You scumbag
You maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God
It’s our last

The boys of the NYPD choir
Still singing ‘Galway Bay’
And the bells are ringing
Out for Christmas day

I could have been someone
Well, so could anyone
You took my dreams
From me when I first found you
I kept them with me babe
I put them with my own
Can’t make it all alone
I’ve built my dreams around you

The boys of the NYPD choir
Still singing ‘Galway Bay’
And the bells are ringing
Out for Christmas day

That last verse gets me every time.

Christmas 2017 dawned for me on Thursday night, in the Shakespeare in Dublin, when the song came over the air and the company embraced it. There might have been 40+ years in the age span from old to young, but nobody noticed. And while I might have been grateful the next day had someone pointed out that I’m not as young as I think I am, I wouldn’t have thanked them on the night. ‘Tis good to know that when the occasion calls for it, I can still find the wherewithal to keep pace. And for that I’m grateful. And that I don’t have to make it alone… well, that’s another reason to keep singing.

 

2017 Gratefuls 10 and 9

I ran into Bono one night back in the early 1980s, in the TV Club in Harcourt Street in Dublin. I hadn’t a clue who he was. He didn’t impress me then and doesn’t do much for me now, either. But for years, other than occasional one-sentence comments made in passing with Nicholas Cage, Martin Sheen, and Mark Harmon, that conversation was as close to fame as I’d gotten. Fast forward a few decades to my first month in Budapest. I was invited down to the Balaton to see Bródy János in action. My friend was driving him down and I was going along for the ride. After the gig, in which he wowed young and old alike, we had dinner with the village mayor. English was as scarce as goose liver was plentiful. In my mind, I reckoned Bródy was the Hungarian version of Irish singer Christy Moore, both of whom use their music as a social commentary. [Am thinking Oblivious, which was, of course, written by Mick Blake, and They never came home – one of a few songs of his that were banned.]

Back in the 1970s, Bródy wasn’t at all backward about coming forward, speaking out again Communism with a nuance of innocence. His tongue-in-cheek approach was all the more effective for its implicitness.

In June 10, 1973 at a massive beat event in Diósgyőr, Bródy turned to fans and said “We also wish to thank for the work of the police forces. Yes, I’m serious, as there was many of you who already came here yesterday from Miskolc, many of you who couldn’t sleep anywhere, wanted to spend the night out in Avas. For them, the police provided shelter, even if not as comfortable as the bed at home, and let them out today morning, asking them if they slept well, and wishing them fun for tonight.”

I’ve run into him occasionally over the years. He even dropped by my birthday and sang for me a few years back. I had few favourites, like Szabadnak születtél  (Born to be free) and Egy hétig tart (It lasts for a week), both appealing to the hum-along in me. Last night, I went to see him in concert at the Budapest Kongresszusi Központ – an early Christmas present.  Me and almost every pensioner in town had made the journey, it would seem. The average age had to have been 60 – and it was brilliant to see the crowd lapping it all up. He’s a powerful performer.  Okay, so his voice has seen better days but he still has that presence., that almost grandfatherly sagacity that lends itself so well to  being heard.

His latest album Ráadás (Encore) has gone platinum (he accepted an award for it last night) has plenty to say, with tracks such as Magyarok közt európai (Hungarians are European) and Felföldiné estéje (It’s a nightmare); the latter really hit its mark.

Had the Hungarian lyrics not been running across two big screens on either side of the stage, I’d have been lost. But there was enough for me to make a guess at what the songs were about. As for the between-song commentary, that I had to judge from the audience’s reaction. I sensed, though, that one song – Birkaország (Sheep Country) might have struck a raw nerve, ‘A birka burka ára drága, Hát büszke légy, ha birka vagy’ (sheepskin is expensive, be proud to be a sheep).

To Bródy and Christy and Ripoff and all those musicians who write lyrics that ring true, give hope, and speak out, I’m grateful.

And, at the end of what have been a manic couple of weeks in an equally manic couple of months, I’m doubly grateful that I’m beginning to see the light. I have a lie-in scheduled for 10 November and so far, all going to plan, that’ll be the start of two glorious weeks in the village where the sum total of decisions I have to make will amount to little more than deciding which book to read or what movie to watch.

A reminder of what the Grateful series is.

 
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2014 Grateful 21

‘Do you mind if I bring along a couple of musicians to your drinks thing this evening’, he asked? ‘They’re happy to play a few tunes.’ I think it was just about then that the night, the penultimate celebration in what has been a memorable birthday week, took on a life of its own.

Birthdays are great excuses to get people together. My life is quite sectioned and it’s good to occasionally get a mix of people in the same room and see how they hit it off. And I get to catch up with some I haven’t see in person in a while.  Thankfully, my lot are quite self-sufficient and don’t need minding so even those who’d arrived knowing no one were soon in the thick of things. Some couldn’t make it; others showed up unexpectedly; more still were absent because I forgot to tell them. My bad.

brdy2We’d taken over one corner of Grund’s inner courtyard and when said musicians arrived, we moved a couple of the pool tables and set them up. As Gary (on guitar) and Fionnuala (on flute) played to a mixed crowd of all ages from eight countries, I gave silent thanks for those who had taken the time to celebrate with me.

Surprises were the order of the evening though, as not only was I meeting my cousin (another Mary Murphy) for the first time (not surprising that… I have 70 first cousins still living), one of my oldest friends in BP, the inimitable SzE, walked in with Bródy János in tow.

I first met the man back in 2007 and was thoroughly smitten. To my mind, he’s Hungary’s answer to Christy Moore – an amazing performer and a lovely lad. I watched him woo a crowd aged 2 to 90, reaching everyone at their level, and was mesmerised. While I didn’t understand the lyrics, I was more than taken with the music and the sincerity with which he played. I’ve met him a couple of times over the years and listen to his CDs regularly. And seven years later, I’m still smitten. Back in the 1970s, when Hungary was under Communism, Bródy’s lyrics were open to interpretation and often could be read as being critical of the regime. Censorship was alive and well back in the day, and one album of songs that he wrote for singer back in 1973, discs of Koncz Zsuzsa’s album Jelbeszéd,   was withdrawn from sale and destroyed. Today, at as he moves well into his 60s, the rebel is still alive and well.

He said his voice wasn’t in good form so if he sang, he’d sing for me, not for the garden. Borrowing Gary’s guitar, I pulled up a chair, and sat, rapt, as he sang the first song I ever remember him singing – Egy hétig tart egy sezerelem (Love lasts a week). It charts the course of a relationship over a week and for some reason, even though I’ve never seen the lyrics translated, it resonates. I was well impressed that he showed up and even more impressed that he sang for me.

As one manic week draws to a close and another equally manic one beckons, I’m grateful for old friends and new; for those who live nearby and those spread around the world. I’m grateful for the birthday wishes, the birthday cards, and the birthday presents, too. To pass through people’s minds and linger long enough for them to wish me well is a lovely feeling. To have fate conspire to introduce new people to a life already full of good fortune is one of the best presents I could get. And to be sung to by the man himself …. priceless.

 

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