Monday, July 30, 2012

Stuck Inside These Four Walls - Why is Everyone So Down on McCartney?

The generally unkind reaction on Twitter to Sir Paul McCartney’s appearance at the Olympic opening ceremony is further evidence that familiarity breeds contempt. McCartney’s dyed hair is reaching a Ronnie Reagan level of ridiculousness and his unrepentantly ‘sixties peace-and-love, man, persona is out of time in the edgy decade of the 21st Century. But, as Paul Gambaccini once remarked, every time Paul McCartney leaves a room the correct reaction is to think “there goes Mozart.” That can never be taken from him.

A post-revolutionary world finds it difficult to imagine life in a pre-revolutionary one. John Lennon said that before Elvis, there was nothing, but he could say that because he was John Lennon. It was like Sinatra saying Tony Bennett was the best crooner in the world. We all know they’re only saying it to be nice.

The Beatles revolutionized music to such a degree that the revolution is now the establishment. Classical music had disappeared up a blind atonal alley by the 1950s and 60s, from which its never fully returned – The Beatles reminded the world that harmony and melody still have a place and, although the classicists themselves would be loathe to admit it, may yet play a play in the return of that high art. Check out Howard Goodall’s excellent discussion of this on You Tube. It’s superb.

Without The Beatles, rock music would have been limited to three chord tricks and twelve bar blues. The Beatles opened it up to a whole new world of depth. Without The Beatles, there could never have been a Bohemian Rhapsody. The Beatles blazed a trail for all to follow.

The Beatles were many bands rolled into one. Magpies who, to borrow a phrase from Mike Scott, heard the Big Music. They looked on all imposters just the same, and drew no distinction between Franz Joseph Hayden and John Lee Hooker, Ravi Shankar and Sir Arthur Sullivan. It all went into the pot.

In five years, The Beatles went on a learning curve from Rubber Soul to Let It Be that is unprecedented in popular music, and will never be matched because that’s not now the music industry works any more. Now, music is made like sausages, in factories.

The rock’n’roll ethos that rejected Tin Pin Alley has itself been consumed by Stargate and Xenomania. Pop has eaten itself. Hit records are made the same way as toasters and tricycles, with ISO 9000s and nothing left to chance. The commercialism is so successful that within six months it’s safe to use the songs in TV ads. The only thing missing is the humanity.

McCartney has never been forgiven for writing anything as good as Yesterday in the past quarter-century. Westlife’s Flying Without Wings isn’t as a good as Yesterday either, but it sold over 200,000 copies in the UK alone. Nobody’s calling for Mark Chapman to shoot them, even though the case can certainly be made.

There’s a movement to intellectualise pop music, not least because the exponents of pop’s golden era, the ‘sixties, are in the autumn of their days and everybody likes to look back on a life and see footprints.

There’s a strange deification of the Beatles that exists outside of the music too, that’s part of the continuing narcissism of that ‘sixties generation. But chances are Freddie Mercury was right when he said that pop songs were like disposable razors – you use them for three minutes, and then you throw them away.

McCartney is still big. It’s the music that got small. Modern music is something that plays in the background while you’re hoovering, and that can be used again to tell you about a great deal on life insurance. But in the centuries to come, when people look back to see peaks of musical achievement in the west, they will see men after whom music was never the same again. Beethoven at the start of the 19th Century, Richard Wagner at the end of it and McCartney in the middle of the 20th. That’s who that hoarse old guy with the funny hair was at Olympic opening ceremony on Friday night.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises: A Bit of Craic, Despite Itself

Roger Ebert, the Yoda of US film critics, was a guest on the Jay Leno show when Batman Begins was released in 2005. Ebert loved it, and was scathing in his criticism of those who were disappointed Batman didn’t have a PG rating. “I want a Batman for adults,” said Ebert, to general whooping and cheering among the audience.

Nobody stopped to ask what the children were expected to watch if Batman was adults-only. Hard to see them sitting through McCabe and Mrs Miller.

Comic book movies should sing to the child within. Leave the heavy lifting to Ingmar Bergman. The Dark Knight was overly bleak, with Heath Ledger’s Joker being just a little too real, and the dirty politics of the ending too close to home, to provide proper escapism. The Dark Knight Rises returns a bit closer to admitting that these are kids’ films, and there are two actors to thank for this.

The first is Tom Hardy, who plays Bane, the villain. Bane is a hard chaw given to philosophical expression while throwing his (considerable) weight around. If he were to exist in real life, he would be a composite of the actor James Robertson Justice, the actor, and Brian Moore, former hooker for Northampton, England and the British Lions. Pomposity mixed with a tremendous capacity for violent action. Hardy is wonderful in a role that was never going to be The Dane.

But the real star of The Dark Knight Rises is Anne Hathaway, who plays Catwoman. The New Yorker's Anthony Lane is typically witty about her role; your correspondent can only settle for a paraphrasing Mr Sinatra and remarking that if you don’t like Ms Hathaway in The Dark Knight Rises, you don’t like ice cream.

This is almost certainly accident rather than design from Christopher Nolan. He is producing the new Superman, and the trailer suggests it’s being made as an homage to the cinema of Ken Loach. It’s so disappointing.

These things are meant to be fun. That’s the reason that the “new” Star Wars movies were all rotten. They were taken too seriously. They were made for fanboys, rather than people who don’t care which one is green and which one has antlers – they just want to have a good time.

Yoda is emblematic of the problem. In the Star Wars movies, Yoda has a thing that distinguishes him from the rest of the characters. Backwards he speaks. Wise to show he is. A pain in the neck it gets, after a very short while. They keep it up in all three movies. Religiously so.

But here’s the thing. When Yoda first appeared, in The Empire Strikes Back, he didn't always talk like that. “That is why you failed,” he tells Luke when Luke refuses to finish his training. Recognisable Queen’s English there for a vital plot point, because the plot point was more important than loyalty to a fanboy article of faith.

The best comic book movie of recent years was the remark of Star Trek, and there’s a scene at the end that illustrates just how well its writers understand the genre and realise that if the thing is going to work, it has to have broader appeal than people to make dead threats to movie critics online.

In the final minutes of Star Trek, Nero is about to meet his Waterloo when Kirk surprisingly offers to save him. This is the dialog that ensues between Kirk and Spock:

Kirk: This is Captain James T Kirk of the USS Enterprise. Your ship is compromised. You're too close to the singularity to survive without assistance which we are willing to provide.
Spock: Captain, what are you doing?
Kirk: You show them compassion, it may be the only way to earn peace with Romulus. It's logic Spock – I thought you'd like that?
Spock: No, not really. Not this time.

Spock cracks a funny. The fanboys should have been up in arms, because as a Vulcan Spock a, shouldn’t be able to see the funny side and b, should agree with Kirk’s reasonable point that peace with Romulus is more important than revenge on Nero. But guess what? There is no Vulcan, or Romulus! This is just a game – launch photon torpedoes! Blow them out of the sky!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Mayo Among the Contenders Again

The criticism of the football in the Connacht Final has set your regular correspondent wondering when the last good Connacht Final actually was. 1989 was the first date that flashed into my head, but there have been some pretty good ones over the years when you think back. The Broken Crossbar Final in 1992. The ending of the Tuam Hoodoo in 1997. Tuam 1999. 2001 in the Hyde. Salthill 2003. Castlebar 2010.

Those were all great days. Last Sunday in the Hyde didn’t measure up, for a variety of reasons. That said, Eugene McGee was let down by his subeditors a little in yesterday’s Irish Independent – the headline referred to “Dismal Efforts in the Connacht Final,” but Eugene’s own analysis was much more measured.

As has been remarked by some commenters on the excellent Mayo GAA Blog, while the Connacht Final was a poor game of football, it was a tremendous game to win from a Mayo perspective. Mayo’s heart has been questioned down the years, but that’s a little too superficial a generalization. There was any god’s amount of dog in John Maughan’s teams over his two reigns, whatever else might have been lacking. And Horan is very much Son of Maughan in that doggy sense.

It was ironic hearing Maughan speak on the discipline issue that occurred in the lead-up up the game – Maughan never had the name of a Conciliator himself, being very much of the My Way/Highway school. But it’s again a superficial analysis to say that a missing player had an effect on the Mayo performance, to suggest a player’s absence haunted the Hyde like Banquo's ghost in The Scottish Play.

The problems in the forwards have been clear since the start of the League, as Horan hunted for a combination that would click. He didn’t find it, and he’s still looking. This is normally the time for the Mayo support to rend garments and commence wailing, but Horan has time on his side. The Mayo forwards have to click sometime. If it takes until the third Sunday in September for Horan to unlock the combination, so be it.

If Mayo continue to struggle for scores they will not win the All-Ireland. Even in this hateful defensive era, the ability to score is still what separates the wheat and the chaff. But if Mayo can solve that conundrum, if they can find the balance between tactics, personnel and application they will be a force in the land.

Midfield is more a spaghetti junction in the modern game than the quiet country crossroads it was in the days gone by, but there isn’t a mouth in Mayo that doesn’t water at the prospect of Barry Moran and Aidan O’Shea i lár na páirce. When O’Shea came on as a sub against Galway, a friend of the blog turned to me and said “he’s like a prize bull in a paddock, isn’t he?” When O’Shea then went and caught the first ball near him, it was all An Spailpín could do to not bellow “Mooooo!” at the top of my lungs.

There are two rounds left in the qualifiers, and then the quarter-finals. Mayo will appear the weakest of the four provincial Champions, but they will be the team nobody wants to play. Win, and you beat nothing. Lose, and you're out.

Mayo, bizarrely, now find themselves in the ideal position in any race, just off the shoulder of the pace-setter. If Mayo can hit the gas as the bend rounds into the straight, they win. If the gas isn’t there, so be it. You can't ask for more.

As for which team Mayo will draw in the quarters, An Spailpín has already been in touch with a certain whiskered party. Please Santa, let it be Kildare. I’ll be good on account for the rest of the year. Let it be Kildare.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

1975 - Was It Really Mayo's Worst-Ever Defeat?

July, 1975. 10cc weren’t in love in the charts, Muhammad Ali warmed up for the Thrilla in Manilla by pounding Joe Bugner in Kuala Lumper, and Jaws was revolutionising the movie industry in the USA.

Across the broad Atlantic on the west coast of Ireland, the Mayo football team hit the nadir of their sixty-years and counting wait for a fourth All-Ireland senior football title. For some reason, the defeat to Sligo in 1975 is seen as Mayo’s Guernica – the greatest horror among a long catalog of horrors.

And at thirty-seven years’ remove and in a week when Mayo face Sligo in the Connacht Final once more, it’s reasonable to ask why. Why was that 1975 defeat so much worse than any of the other horrors that happened before or since?

Sligo were no bad team in 1975. Barnes Murphy, an All-Star winner in 1974, was coach and captain at centre-half back, and even in those amateur days Sligo went to the effort of bringing Brian McEniff down from Donegal to take some training sessions. Sligo had form, having dispatched Galway to get to the Connacht Final in the first place. And they had Mickey Kearins, Eamon O’Hara’s one challenger to the title of Greatest Ever Sligo Player. Kearins had a lot of miles on the clock by 1975 and looked it, but he was the one man Mayo feared.

Sligo certainly didn’t fear Mayo. In the week leading to the game, the Irish Press quoted a bullish Barnes Murphy on how glad he was that it was Mayo that Sligo faced in the final, a quote that places what Mayo football was like at the time in context: “You always have an inferiority complex if you come up against Galway while Roscommon are a bit of a hoodoo team for us. But we do not feel that way at all about Mayo. After all, in recent matches, we have beaten them as often as they have beaten us.”

The Connacht Final in Markiewicz Park on July 6, 1975, was a draw, 2-10 to 1-13 on a beautiful day for football. Sligo went into a six point lead which Mayo slowly clawed back in the second half. Each had their chances of winning of it in the last ten minutes, but didn’t take them. A replay was fixed for two weeks later in Castlebar. Sideline 50p, schoolboys 20p.

Which of them left it behind in the drawn game was a matter of perspective. The Western People felt that there was a “primary difference between the counties: Sligo’s self-doubt based on years of inferiority as against Mayo’s utter conviction that, when they put their minds down to it, there is no way Sligo can deny them.”

Barnes Murphy didn’t much care for them apples. On the Saturday before the replay, he provided Mayo with more dressing-room material, again courtesy of the Irish Press: “We know we have the beating of Mayo and indeed we had the winning of the drawn game. Remember we were on top in the opening stages and then that unlucky penalty knocked us out of our stride.”

While the drawn game was a fine game, the replay in Castlebar was just plain dirty. It was scrappy, with a lot of needle and no small amount of off-the-ball exchanges. Mayo’s best line was at half-back, but in midfield there were serious problems.

Mayo named Richie Bell and Frank Burns at midfield for the drawn game. Burns, who also played rugby for Connacht, was a veteran, while Bell was part of a Mayo Under-21 team that won the 1974 All-Ireland and came into the senior squad in the winter of ‘74. But Bell got injured before the drawn game, with his place taken by Charlestown’s Eamon Brett. Brett hurt his shoulder two minutes in the drawn game, and Des McGrath came on then.

Mayo makeshift midfield struggled badly in the drawn game, and had to haul Seán Kilbride back from full-forward to bail water. It was a bridge too far in the replay, where Sligo’s mustachioed hero Johnny Stenson bossed the skies and Mayo, even with Kilbride brought back to help out, couldn’t compete.

When you lose midfield your full-backs will be exposed to shot and shell. Mayo famously hauled John O’Mahony ashore after eleven minutes but the real damage was being done on Johnno’s left.

Mickey Kearins had been quiet in the drawn game but he wrecked havoc in the replay, smashing home a penalty and setting up the second Sligo goal. When the dust cleared, Sligo had won by a point, 2-10 to 0-15.

The Mayo News was phlegmatic in its analysis: “This is a young Mayo team. They have the winning of a number of Connacht titles and possibly an even bigger one. They have the spirit and another year will make a better team of them.”

The Western People was more robust: “A total indifference to warnings about the quality of the full-back line, being too smart by half with full-forward/midfield switches, and the employment of doubtful tactics which robbed the half-forward line of impact, finally culminated in disaster, just as emphatic, in fact, as in the league semi-final against Meath.”

Quite the rant, and there was more to come: “There is no use in selectors dodging the issue by asking where the replacements needed might have come from. It was their job to find them and they didn’t have to cast their net very far. For, and make no mistake about it, there are certainly better players around than at least eight of the men who were on duty or standby last Sunday.”

Unfortunately, the Western didn’t go so far as to name an alternative team, and it’s all in the realm of conjecture now. But on the face of it, it’s hard to understand why that game above all others was seen as such a low-water mark.

Sligo might be poor relations historically in Connacht, but that was a good team they had in the 1970s. They got destroyed by Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final, but that Kerry team would munch up and spit out far prouder counties than the Yeatsmen. Cork, for instance. That Sligo team always had a Nestor Cup in them, and it was Mayo’s bad luck to meet them when destiny smiled.

It was also Mayo’s bad luck to suffer that bizarre series of injuries at midfield. Not that Bell playing would necessarily have changed things – he and Stenson both now field the dropping ball in Heavenly pastures, may God be good to both of them – but the makeshift third-string midfield can’t be dismissed as a factor in Mayo’s defeat. JP Kean reflects in Keith Duggan’s magnificent House of Pain that if his shot on goal in the first game had been three inches lower and avoided the crossbar the entire history of Mayo could be different. But of course, it didn’t, it’s not and life is very much like that.

Sometimes it’s not a curse. Sometimes the other guys are just better. Mayo lost to Sligo in 1975 because Sligo were better and wanted it more. Simple as that.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Andy Murray - Predator or Prey?

Andy Murray ought to do himself a favour and give up tennis. It doesn’t suit him.

Murray won a lot of admirers when he openly wept in front of millions when interviewed by Sue Barker after Roger Federer beat him in the Men’s Final at Wimbledon yesterday. Murray has a reputation as something of a boor; to see him so vulnerable presented another side to him. The problem is that it’s a side that proves he will never be big time in professional sports.

Murray is big and strong and is doing all he can to be as good at tennis as he can possibly be. But he’s not as naturally gifted as Federer – very few are. To bridge that gap, he has to make up in application what he lacks in gifts.

Roy Keane is the perfect example of making up in application what he lacked in gifts. Keane was able to focus all his strength and will to the task at hand. Players who were more talented but less determined wilted when they realised in their hearts that they would never want to win as badly as Keane did. That’s what made Roy Keane a champion.

Michael Jordan was considerably more gifted as a basketball player than Keane was as a soccer player but, like Keane, it was Jordan’s competitive fury that brought him from great to transcendental. In his speech on the occasion of his induction into the NBA Hall of Fame, Jordan listed all the slights he felt he’d received as a player. They all still burned him, ten years after he hung up his Nikes for the final time.

Murray can’t match Federer for talent, but neither can he bridge the gap with mental resolve, as Keane or Jordan did. It’s not in him. Murray will gain kudos for being a man who openly expressed his emotion rather than bottling it up, but what exactly was he crying over?

If he was crying because he felt sorry for himself, because he realised that he will never be as good as Federer, because expectations have been placed on him from a young age that he feels he cannot possibly deliver, then the best thing he could do for himself would be to walk away. Life is tough enough to live by your own lights. Why crush yourself for someone else’s?

Maybe yesterday was a Rubicon for Andy Murray. Maybe Murray's sluiced it all out and will return a harder, steelier man. But if it wasn’t, if Andy Murray’s tears are an indication of what competing at the highest level is doing to him, he ought to walk away. He broke down after he lost to Federer in Australia two years ago too. He needs to address this.

Bobby Riggs is famous for his Battle of the Sexes match against Billie Jean King, but he has three Grand Slam titles to his name (one Wimbledon, two US Opens). Riggs's chief talent was his brain – he was able to win by playing his opponent for a sucker.

If Bobby Riggs were alive today, he would be on the phone to Andy Murray this very morning to bet Murray one gazillion dollars that Riggs could beat him using frying pans for racquets. And Riggs would collect his bet, because in Murray Riggs would see someone whom he could mentally crush like a bug.

In competitive sports, you are predator or you are prey. Andy Murray should decide, for his own sake and not that of Ivan Lendl or his mother or Simon Fuller, which he is and make the appropriate decision. He’s only twenty-five years old. He has his whole life to live. Who needs the grief?

Monday, July 02, 2012

You'll Never Beat the Royals

Wouldn’t it be perfect if the Meath revival turns out to have been inspired by the handshake between Martin McGuinness, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, and Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain? It would be the grace note on an excellent GAA weekend if the boys of Nobber turn out to have gotten the hump over the fawning coverage given to a foreign monarch and decided to remind the nation that Ireland has her Royals too.

In terms of physiognomy, the royals of Meath prefer the bucket jaw to the chinless wonder that is so distinctive of the British upper classes, but other than that the blue bloods are quite similar. The belief that they are born to rule sees both entities survive into a 21st Century where, really, they should have been put out to pasture many years ago.

Modern GAA thinking tells us that Meath never should have been let near Kildare yesterday in the first place. Kildare were promoted to Division 1 this year, while Meath sank to Division 3. Kildare thumped Offaly last time out, while Meath were taken to a replay by Carlow. The modern form book tells us this is the very definition of a mismatch, and nobody will gain anything when Kildare inevitably murder helpless, hapless Meath.

Meath, bless them, couldn’t give a chew of tobacco for the form book. Meath only know one way to play. Meath catch it and they kick it. When Meath’s players are good enough they win, and when they’re not they lose. There is nothing esoteric about Meath. They are or they ain’t.

Of course, Kildare played their part in the Meath victory. Kildare did not deliver on the day, and the reason why is something that will concern the great GAA people of Kildare greatly in the two weeks they have left to put their season back on track. There was certainly a marked difference between Meath’s potency in front of goal and Kildare’s.

It is one of the great coincidences of modern times that Seánie Johnson should be overcome with a desire to play for Kildare at the exact moment when a player like Johnson is precisely what could make the difference for Kildare’s hopes of a first All-Ireland since 1928. Johnson gets a lot of grief for a private citizen, and it’s hard not to wonder if he’s a pawn in a bigger game. Whoever the behind-the-scenes grandmaster is should have a long, hard look at himself.

But that, of course, is a debate for another day. Yesterday was Meath’s day. Dublin will be favourites against them in the final of course, and will probably win it. But yesterday was one of those days when the stars aligned and Meath enjoyed one of their great days of the post-Boylan era.

Meath have shown intermittent signs of life before. They shocked Mayo in 2009 but couldn't keep her lit against Kerry, who extracted revenge for 2001 in the semi-final. Meath’s luster dulled further the following year when they were too chicken to offer Louth a replay after the controversial end to the Leinster Final. There are the ongoing Borgia-style politics that go on in their managerial appointments. These are all issues that have to be dealt with and it would be naïve to ignore them.

But for the seventy minutes in Croke Park, Meath shook off their recent humiliations and restored the ermine, if only for a while. Their inside men were outstanding, their midfield dominant and their defenders brave as Lyons.

Dara Ó Cinnéide wrote some years ago that Meath is a petri dish for the GAA in the 21st Century. The country is changing from rural to urban. The rate of change is different in different counties, but the change itself is as inevitable as income tax.  Meath is significant because it’s in Meath that the rate of change is fastest, and where the recent winning tradition is strongest. On yesterday’s evidence, there’s hope for the GAA to survive and thrive in the transition. It’s great to see.