Tuesday, September 27, 2005

It's Alright Ma, I'm Only Dylan

"I knew a man, his brain's so small,
He couldn't think of nothing at all,
Not the same as you and me.
He doesn't dig poetry.
He's so unhip that when you say Dylan,
He thinks you're talking 'bout Dylan Thomas,
Whoever he was.
The man ain't got no culture,
But it's alright, Ma, everybody must get stoned."

Paul Simon, "A Simple Desultory Philippic," 1966.

By the time the wide world over realised that Bob Dylan was a prophet, Dylan had moved on from the prophet business. By the time Blonde on Blonde came out in 1966, the Dylan mythos, so neatly parodied by Paul Simon on Simon and Garfunkel's Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, released a month or two before, had begun to cannibalise itself. When people went to record stores the Bob Dylan they were looking to buy was the spokesman-of-a-generation Dylan, the Dylan that wowed Newport in 1963, the God-on-our-Side Dylan, the Dylan that was blowin' in the wind. That Dylan wasn't there anymore; it's hard to say if that Dylan was ever really there in the first place.

The great Liam Clancy made the point in that marvellous Martin Scorsese documentary on BBC2 last night that in the early sixties folk scene, Dylan acted as a lightning rod for that folk movement's hopes, fears and ambitions, and people saw in Dylan a reflection of just what they came looking for in the first place. How much of anything other than people's own reflected ambitions was ever in Dylan in the first place is very difficult to say, but a reasonably educated guess might posit: not much.

It is entirely possible that the Voice of a Generation went to New York like a many footlight-dazzled youth before him - he didn't know what he wanted to be exactly, except that he wanted to be a Star, and he knew that he had to go to New York for that to happen. He didn't sign up for preaching, he was just there to the play the guitar and sing.

Dylan writes vividly of the picaresque adventures of his arrival and early years in New York in Chronicles, the memoir that came out last year to the acclaim of the Dylan generation, who had heard news from Elba at last and received it ecstatically. The most fascinating thing we learn about Dylan from reading Chronicles is just how much Bob Dylan despised being in the Bob Dylan business; by the late 'sixties Dylan himself was thoroughly fed up with the whole thing, and admits making awful records that his Church would then waste kilowatts and kilowatts of mental energy trying to figure out, recounting with glee just how many brain cells they'd burn just trying to figure out the title of his 1970 record, New Morning, actually meant. What is Bob trying to tell us now? Where is our message?

It's in the phrases that Dylan's strongest claim to greatness lies, and as a phrasemaker Dylan has few equals. However, by the time Dylan had been crowned the spokesman of his generation, he had less and less to say to anybody. Dylan's greatest message song is God on our Side, a song that stands out in any company - the two most famous of his message songs, Blowin' in the Wind and The Times They Are a Changin', are so simplistic that even a bearded and sandaled hippy priest would have his doubts about including them in a folk Mass for the Young People. Those songs are lyrically poor in the extreme. Dylan's great songs of his golden period in the mid-sixties, the eighteen months that spanned the release of his three greatest records, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde, all sound fantastic but very few people know what they mean. An Spailpín Fánach, for one, hasn't a rashers, and he's willing to bet that old Bobby himself hasn't much of a clue either. But they certainly do sound pretty.

Desolation Row is one of Dylan's great songs, chiefly because it's a electric-folk song that sounds like it's slumming it from a opera - there are not many of those around. But what makes Desolation Row as a song isn't the lyric; it's those two lovely guitar riffs, the Spanish-sounding climbing one at the start, and the one that comes in at the end of each verse, that makes you feel like you're being slapped, but in a good way.

In the lyric, the imagery sings beautifully and sounds gorgeous (for what is a song but a collection of sounds?), but the words make no sense at all. A very great man and a friend of An Spailpín used to include Desolation Row in his sets when he took his guitar up on stage, but he told me it was practically impossible to remember the words, as nothing followed anything in any sort of order.

The talking heads on Mark Lawson's Newsnight Review couch last Friday were all aquiver at the thought of a Dylan documentary "by" Scorsese, but it struck me that that nice young Mr Friction was only being polite, while the more elderly members of the panel were desperately hoping that their youths were not in vain. They turn their lonely eyes to him as the nation did to Joltin' Joe but Dylan has long ago moved on. The Voice of a Generation is actually its Cheshire Cat, with nothing left but his simile. The carpet, too, is moving under you, and it's all over now, baby blue.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

The All-Ireland Final, 2005

Tyrone 1-16
Kerry 2-10

For the past three weeks, the nation has been hearing that this All-Ireland final was to be Kerry's coming of age. Kerry hadn't faced a Northern team in their 33rd successful All-Ireland campaign last year - Derry don't count, you know - and so, by dispatching Tyrone, Kerry would once again be returned to their undisputed and regal throne.

Except for the fact, of course, that nobody seems to have told the Nordies that this was the agreed script. The first six minutes were as advertised, with Kerry slashing through the Tyrone backs, brave Cooper leading in the van. As well as a typically effortless point, Cooper set up Dara Ó Cinnéide's opportunist goal - a goal the under-rated Ó Cinnéide did very well to score, with a Tyrone man attached to his back like a limpet - and the gloss was beginning to return to the Kingdom's ermine.

And then, slowly and inexorably, Tyrone started to reel the Kerrymen back. The time between Kerry's last score and their next grew longer and longer, as Kerry found it harder and harder to find their men, and their men found it harder and harder to find the posts. The swarm defence was in full operation, as the Tyronemen mercilessly and clinically choked the life out of the Kerry attack, just as any defence aspires to doing. Sometimes Tyrone had only three men in the Kerry half of the field, the rest having retreated to bail water where-ever the pressure was at its utmost among their rearguard.

And then, with the game past the half-hour, came a mortal blow. Owen Mulligan jumped high to flick a ball back and into the path of the onrushing Peter Canavan. Goal. Kerry got a point back, through Dara Ó Sé I think, to give themselves hope, but they still went in at half-time three points down and with much to ponder.

In the half-time radio analysis, Ray Silke implored Jack O'Connor to put someone in at centre-half forward to act as a focus of an attack that was now getting swamped and smothered, but it seems that O'Connor was not as inclined to tune in to Radio One as An Spailpín Fánach. No change was made in the Kerry divisions at the half, but Mickey Harte took off Canavan for Tyrone. Canavan had been outstanding, and Harte was always going to bring him back for the last ten minutes. It's hard to go into battle without your best guy, but Harte knew that effectively losing a substitution by taking off Canavan to bring him back again made more sense than for the Canavan to ask for one more effort from his 34 year old limbs in the sixty-eighth minute, and for his limbs to be unable to reply.

While Canavan watched from the Hogan Stand shadows, the Kerry attack was looking increasingly forlorn. Mike Frank came on with twenty or twenty-five minutes to go, but no ball came to him - the fight was being lost further out. Tomás Ó Sé scored a fortuitous goal with five minutes to go to give Kerry a lifeline, but this too was shredded and cast to the winds by a Tyrone team who really wanted it more than Kerry did. Kerry thought since their win last year that they had caught and passed the Ulster Revolution; the fact is that Ulster have moved on further again from where the Kingdom had mentally marked them, and the greatest football county in Ireland is off the pace once again.

As I stood on the Hill watching a Tyrone win become more and more inevitable, I wondered if this was what it was like in 1960, when Down outgeneralled Kerry and shut down Mick O'Connell, the greatest midfielder in the history of the game. We are now on the verge of a new epoch in the game, and it's now time for the GAA, the President of the GAA, the DRC, the Central Council, Liam Mulvihill, Congress or who-ever it is that's supposed to be in charge to decide how they want the game of football to be played in the 21st Century. As it's played now, with this strange nether-world existing between what's foul play in the book and what's foul play in actuality, someone is going to get seriously hurt because no-one can agree when a punch is a punch.

Tom O'Sullivan of Kerry got a yellow card for punching Tyrone's Brian McGuigan in the second half. Striking or attempting to strike is a sending-off offence - why didn't O'Sullivan walk?

Several reasons. Firstly, it seems that a punch isn't actually a punch, a punch qua punch if you like, if the player "didn't really mean it," or "isn't a dirty player." The other reason is the "what goes around, comes around," school - after five or ten minutes of play, just when Colm Cooper was threatening to tear Tyrone a new botty just as did Mayo this time last year, he was stretched at the foot of the canal end posts, literally under the nose of the one of the umpires. If a Tyrone man had lamped Cooper, then it's jungle justice for a Tyrone man to get belted as well, and the referee to ignore the second belt if he didn't punish the first. So what happened the Gooch?

Ray Silke speculated with Pete McGrath and Jimmy Magee on the radio that Ryan McMenamin may or may not have struck Cooper - ! - and went on to adumbrate the usual platitudes (with one eye to the laws of libel of course) that it's a man's game, anything can happen, and besides, if Cooper had indeed been struck, he had been struck under the noses of the umpires and therefore he couldn't have been struck, because - are you still following this? Good - if he had been struck, then surely the umpires would have drawn the referee's attention to this. An argument that would draw applause and cheering for William of Occam, Thomas Aquinas and all those other medieval scholastic metaphysicians, who argued about counting angels on the heads of pins. An Spailpín shall be watching the Sunday Game very carefully - just as carefully as the RTÉ lawyers are no doubt boning up on the libel laws even as a type.

If Ricey did clock Gooch - and An Spailpín Fánach's own legal team would like to point out that neither An Spailpín Fánach himself, his little corner of cyberspace, nor any of his associates, does not claim for one second that Ricey did indeed lamp Gooch - then that box was the trigger for the Tyrone revival. When you read in the papers tomorrow that the Tyrone players would have done anything for the jersey, don't forget how broad a church that "anything" covers. And platitudes about "a man's game" will not cover this shameful behaviour. Either punching is legal or it's not. The current series of exceptions, where a man isn't sent off for striking, as he didn't really mean it, or he isn't really a dirty player, or perhaps even that particular punch didn't really hurt, are shameful and cowardly evasions of duty on the part of the GAA, and An Spailpín has to wonder who's going to have to get crippled or worse before they take action.

And before I'm accused of soft Southern anti-Northern bias, could your correspondent point out that this duality about the acceptability of striking and violent play has been raised in this forum before? Thank you.

It's a good thing that Tyrone won, because the handy narrative of brave Kerry restoring the natural order by putting beastly Tyrone back in their horrid box has been broken up, and perhaps we'll now get a bit more intelligent analysis about the state of the game and the way it's currently played now that the easy explanation is denied the pundit community. It's going to be a long winter, and we could do with something to warm up debate during the long dark nights.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Oh My God! They're Killing Kenny's!

The Emerald City
An Spailpín has to confess mixed feelings about the news that Kenny's Bookshop on High Street in Galway is to close, moving its business to the badlands of the Liosbán Industrial Estate to trade solely in cyberspace through the machinations of that dreaded Internet.

People are inclined to get precious about Kenny's - the Irish Times report this morning about the closure reads like a monody, while Tom Kenny's remarks about still being "passionate about the business" is Morketingspeak at its most pernicious - and this is an over-reaction. An Spailpín has never, to his memory, bought a single book in Kenny's, and he is a man that both buys a lot of books, and is one of those blessed or cursed unfortunates who have never quite got Galway, that Emerald City, quite out of their blood.

From An Spailpín's time loitering without intent in and around Galway's Latin Quarter, I associate two words with Kenny's bookshop, and they are "expensive" and "tourists." When one gets away to the West, when one "does" Galway, one "does" Kenny's as a matter of course. Well, yes, darling, we did visit Kenny's - yes, it is quite marvellous, and so olde worlde, don't you think? Yes, I think so too - one just doesn't see that kind of shop any more, and it's such a pity. It's so like Shakespeare and Company in Paris, near Notre Dame, so chic, so je ne sais quoi. Our youngest boy, Uirlis, was there while he was finding himself touring Europe and he said it was just wonderful, and so on and on and on and on.

No wonder the Kenny's closure was able to squeeze at tear out of Modom and the gals on D'Olier Street.

And yet, at the same time, the demise of Kenny's is a source of sadness, because it's always sad to see any bookstore go, and because we can never quite be sure what will rise in its place. Galway already has plenty of skinny-chinny-whinny-chino bars that will serve you some panini and salad and charge you nine yo-yos for the privilege, and should another develop in the vacuum left by Kenny's the city will soon reach critical mass.

While Kenny's was never the spot to buy the Grapes of Wrath for a buck-fifty, it did set a Certain Tone in the city, and in our vulgar age, there's a lot to be said for that. I'm sure many's the feckless student in leaking Doctor Martens boots and a sopping-wet overcoat wandered about Kenny's cramped spaces and twisty stairwells, looking at the signed photos from John McGahern and Edna O'Brien and Brian Friel and dreamed someday, someday. Having the launch of one's collected "web logs," or "blogs," - half bound in leather and marble paper, in octavo, bring your own booze - on the wilds of the Tuam Road just won't be the same.

The Book Trade

There was a rather depressing interview with Scott Pack, head buyer of Waterstone's bookstores, in last Sunday's Observer. Scott believes it's all about product, just as Ray Kroc did, bless him.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Roisín Bungle, Queen of the Galaxy!

Those of you whose weekends are regularly blighted by the horrors of the Irish Times' Saturday magazine should take a peek at the "web log," or "blog," of one Roisín Bungle, who leads a fabulous life in the amazing city of Dublin the early years of the 21st Century. Fantastic, on-the-money, and surprisingly vicious.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Pucking the Sliothar in Boston, MA.

Oh, for a muse of fire!An Spailpín Fánach made his way into town on Sunday night to soak up the atmosphere after the All-Ireland Hurling Final. While lowering convivial pints of Mulligan's strong black porter your faithful chronicler got talking with a dude who told him a terrific story that gives a marvellous insight into how the Irish are perceived by others. Unfortunately, the porter was so strong that the miserable Spailpín has completely forgotten who his informant was; however, I retain a strong suspicion that it's a man that knows a lot about American novelist Philip Roth. If so, then Goodbye, Columbus, and please forgive me.

The story:
It seems that at some stage during one of the those student summers a group of young men - Corkmen, almost certainly - were abroad in beautiful Boston, Massachusetts, trying to turn a dollar, as many an Irishman had before them and many an Irishman will after them. But it wasn't all work - at the weekend, it wasn't unusual for these young men to spend a happy hour or ten slugging down bottles of Sam Adams' fine Boston beer (or beah, as the locals say) and discussing world events and happenings.

Anyway, this one particular night one of the boys filled himself up to the brim with Sam Adams' fine Boston beah, and made his merry way home, happy and content with life. But not everyone was happy and content with life that night in New England - our innocent Corkman was spied by a local who was most discontented with life, and planned to ease this discontent, this ennui, by mugging and robbing a drunken Corkman. And this is exactly what the local proceeded to do.

As those of you who have been in the United States during the summer months will know, the place gets as hot as the very hob of Hell, and windows are left open at all times, as the only hope of preserving Irish life. And while these windows are left open, all the sounds of the street can float up and in, and the heat-stricken Irish can thus keep up with all the news.

On this particular night, the news wasn't so good. First, the boys in the house heard the sound of a rumpus; nothing particularly unusual in that for that part of town, I believe. However, as the rumpus continued, they noticed that one of the voices involved - the one shouting for help, specifically - had that certain lilt that is not found in Boston, Mass, but in that city that holds the pig's humble crubeen as superior nourishment to the bowl of chowder; that is, the city of Cork.

Suddenly, the penny dropped - "Jaysus lads, Timmy isn't home yet - someone must be bating the shite out of him outside! Come on!"

If it took a while for the initial penny to drop, these young Cork men wasted no further seconds. Stopping only to grab those hurls without which the true Cork man never leaves home, they stormed down the stairs and out the door, roaring into the night, waving the ash above their heads.

The result was immediate and gratifying. Exeunt mugger, pursued by several bears.

All very well and good, but the story, as all good stories should, comes with a coda; the tale has a tail, if you like. Later that week one of that Cork number was on the wrong side of the tracks, taken there by his work, and he heard a ragamuffin describing his week to a ne'er-do-well of his intimate acquaintance. In a moment of the most serendipitous synchronicity, the ragamuffin was the very man involved in the ruckus, and he took a very dim view of it:

"I couldn't believe it man. All these crazy fucking Irish came out of nowhere, waving these big wooden spoons - I never saw anything like it!"

Friday, September 09, 2005

GAA Writers Could Learn from the Warne of Attrition

Marvellous writing by Simon Barnes in this morning's London Times on Shane Warne's imperious day's play for Australia against England on the first day of the final Ashes Test against England at the Surrey Oval. The GAA writers of Ireland could worse than take note - after they had all gone overboard on the supposed wonders of Dublin's draw with Tyrone a month ago, they suddenly realised that they had used up their store of superlatives with still over a month of the summer to go. If Sunday's All-Ireland turns out to be the finest in living memory, which is entirely possible, how the scribes can possibly find the words to top what they've already written earlier in the summer? What word is better than best?

An Spailpín Fánach's considered view is that when these men are writing their pieces there's always a little voice in their heads saying, bizarrely, that they have to somehow defend Gaelic Games; they write on the defensive all the time. It could be they spend too long at home in the winter nodding their heads in stupor at the relentless hyping of the Sky Sports Premiership Propoganda. If so, they ought to haul the cable out of the wall, dash the television set onto the sharpest of the rocks on Dollymount Strand, and escape the Pale straightaway. They've turned shoneen.

Simon Barnes feels no such need to protect cricket from criticism, real or imagined. Barnes is, in fact, sufficiently confident in the game that he starts by drawing a basketball parallel, before going on to expertly outline how Shane Warne has bestrode the cricket world like a peroxide colossus for a decade and a half, and may even be on the verge of his greatest ever feat on English soil. Irish papers, please copy.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Comic Book Movies in a Comic Book World

An Spailpín Fánach yields to no-man in his admiration of 2002's Spider Man and this year's Batman Begins as highlights of the last three years of cinema. Both were tours de force of their genre, made with ultimate effort, commitment and vision by all the cast and crew. Each movie is tinged with flair, élan and genius, from the initial casting of Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst as Peter and Mary Jane, the archetypical boy and girl next door in Spider Man, to Tom Wilkinson, Cillian Murphy and Liam Neeson collectively realising in Batman Begins that really, this ain't going to be a subtle one, and adjusting their performances accordingly.

But while there is nothing wrong or misguided in being impressed by and thrilling to those fine examples of the comic book movie genre, it is a sad fact of our 21st Century that if the highlight of your cultural year is a comic book movie you're not really living the life of a fully rounded adult, are you? Paul of Tarsus told the Corinthians that when he was a child he thought as a child, he spake as a child, he understood as a child; but when he became a man he put away childish things. When An Spailpín Fánach, now going slowly but inevitably grey in hair and whiskers, is queuing up to see the new Batman movie, he has not put away childish things.

While the childish thing might remain the chief delight of An Spailpín Fánach, at least it does still stimulate. We mightn't consider Dr Johnson's well-made table great art as such, but we retain enough of the Doctor's critical apparatus to realise that a movie that pretends to be for grown-ups but is merely pretentious and mind-numbingly boring, such as the recent Assassination of Richard Nixon, is not the sort of table we'll be using in the dining room anytime soon.

Peter Biskind's recent book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls was a both a paean to the American cinema of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the period that we may loosely understand as after The Sound of Music and before Jaws, a period that Biskind considers the golden age of American cinema, and a visceral condemnation of the cinema that came after it, which to Biskind is anathema. Biskind was well answered by Tom Shone's Blockbuster published two years ago, where Shone makes the point that a movie might be terribly worthy and made with great vision, but if nobody can sit through it for two hours without being their minds being numbed to the point of insanity by the sheer boredom and utter confusion of it all, it's probably missing a little as regards its entire aesthetic. The first requirement of any work of art is that the work must stimulate and not bore - can that really be said of The Conversation "by" Coppola, or of McCabe and Mrs Miller, "by" Altman, where the commitment to naturalism is so great that nobody can hear what's being said on the soundtrack? Perhaps when one talks about an artist's vision, we ought to distinguish between those visions inspired by the Muse and those visions inspired by the Marrakesh Express. Stoners are not noted for going the extra yard or completeness of vision.

But despite all of the forgoing, a recent appearance of the venerable US film critic Roger Ebert on NBC's Tonight Show with Jay Leno made An Spailpín reflect that we may be over-doing it as a culture on the comic-book movie front. Ebert was complaining - rightly - about dumbing down and the infantilisation of movies. Only recently, said Ebert, he was inundated with letters and emails from people complaining that they couldn't bring their eight year old children to see a big summer release. "What about people whose mental age is higher than eight?" thundered Ebert. "Who's making movies for them?" All this met with roars of approval and "you the man!" from the studio audience.

Which is all well and good. Not only is it good for the culture to have adult themes explored at adult depth in the cinema, the studio audience reaction indicates that there is an audience hungry for this sort of thing out there. The only fly in the ointment - or bat in the belfry, if you like - is that the movie Roger wanted as adults only was Batman Begins. And if the kids can't go see the Caped Crusader, they're hardly going to be bowling along to some Bergman retrospective in the Screen on D'Olier Street either. Which means in turn that if the grown-ups are watching kiddy movies, then the movies watched by kiddies will be pitched at a still lower intellectual level again. Which then means that you can forget about reading your Spailpín Fánach anymore, because pretty soon cyberspace will be as empty as it was before the metaphorical apple fell on Tim Berners-Lee's head, and society will have gone back to cave-paintings. And that would not be a good thing.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

A Spéirbhean Caillte ag an Spailpín Fánach

Brídeog Ní GhathaTá deireadh tagtha ar m'aisling gheal. Ní n-éireoidh go deo deo anois cothrom eigin idir an Spailpín Fánach agus a spéirbhean mílis, an amhránaí Meiricéanach Brídeog Ní Ghatha, nó "Britney Spears," chun a sloinne sclábhaíochta a úsáid. Is docha nach bhfuil fios ag Brídeog riamh go raibh spailpíní sa domhain, fiú amhán spailpíní fánacha, ach ní mbíodh ins an spéir os comhar ceann an Spailpín ná an t-aon réalt amhán, agus Brídeog Ní Ghatha ab ea í.

Ach tá an deireadh tagtha, agus ní féidir ceachtar againne athrú a dhéanamh. Dorcoídh mé an choinneal im' fhuinneog, togfaidh mé síos a pictiúirí ó mo bhallaí, stopfaidh mé litreacha a scríobh chuicí, seo é deireadh na ndánta a scríobhfainn in ómós dí. Lasfaidh mé tiné eigean i gcúl an tí i lárdhubh na h-oíche agus cuirfidh mé a ceirníní ann. Ní cheannoídh mé faic phopcheoil as seo amach - ní bheith le cloiseal anois sa bhaile agam ach an Máimín Cajun Band.

Tar eis ocht mbliana fada agus an Spailpín Fánach craite briste i ngrá gheal léi, ón chéad uair riamh ar iarraigh sí air buaileadh uirthi an chéad cheann eile, tá an feall déanta ag Brídeog Ní Gatha. Feall dubh dorcha, feall nárbh fhéidir le fear fanacht leis. Léim anois go bhfuil ainm aici don bhábóg atá á rugadh aici, agus tá sí ag tnúth "London" a chur ar an mbuachaill bocht.

"London," príomhchathair an tImpire a d'fhág a chos fola crua ar bholg na hÉireann le h-ocht gcéad blianta, an tImpire céanna a chur muintir na hÉireann chuig Ifreann no chuig Connachta, an tImpire ar fhág a mhéarloga fola ar fud an domhan, ón Astráil suas go dtí an Afganistáin agus thiar arís chuig ár n-oileán glas gleoite bocht. Nách breá an sloinne "Baile Uí Fhiacháin Federline," má tá ainm bhaile ag taisteal uirthi? Nó "Mainistir Fhear Maí Federline," b'fhéidir.
Ach is cuma. Tá an Spailpín croíbhriste buartha, agus tá deoch mór ag taisteal uaidh. "London" - go bhfoire Dia ar mo Bhrídeog bhocht.