For the record: some thoughts on music and one musician

A gift from a friend has put me thinking about music in general and vinyl records in particular.

I know how old and cranky this sounds, but in a time when songs and albums are increasingly sold and downloaded as a virtual concept, the vinyl record is a monument to the idea that works of art should be real and have innate value.

I blame the Horslips. I never recovered from the first time I held in my hands “Happy To Meet, Sorry To Part“. An album on vinyl is an entire package: the album sleeve, with its artwork and booklet; its size, the weight of it and the fact that playing a record makes listening to music almost an interactive thing. Taking a record from its sleeve and placing it upon the turntable is, I think, almost a sacred ritual. Opening a box and throwing on a CD? Meh.

But carefully handling a vinyl record and so delicately guiding the needle to the groove? That in itself is an art and it adds to, it enhances, the joy of listening to a record. Turning the record over to play the other side is also an act of physical collaboration which allows a natural break for refection between songs.

I have shown my little niece and nephews how to play records and, without prompting, they have treated the disc with near-reverence and reacted with awe at the crackle and hiss as suddenly a beautiful sound, so much warmer than on a CD, comes from the speakers. You did something, is the lesson, something real, and because you treated that action with respect, here’s your reward: music. This is important, I think, and it has been a part of humanity since the Banū Mūsā brothers invented the first known musical machine in Baghdad in the Ninth Century.

Music is a huge part of my life, although I lack any music in myself. Well, that’s not true. Like John Cleese’s Pope, I may not know much about art, but I know what I like. Just don’t ask me to sing. You won’t thank me.

“All art is quite useless,” according to Oscar Wilde (you’ll know that, especially if you’re an A House fan). I remember once reading that, of all of the arts, music is the least useful, the least explicable and the most esoteric. Well, I think the technical term for that theory is “bollocks”.

Of all of the arts, music is surely the most instantaneous and, I’ll say it, essential. Music can bypass the brain and form an immediate connection with the heart. I challenge anyone to listen to the Beatles’ “Please Please Me” or Buddy Holly’s “Rave On” and not be lifted with sheer joy. Before ever I went there, I knew what New York feels like from Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue“. Switch on Gorecki’s “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” and you’ll just cry for humanity in all our base brutality and soaring kindness. Now there’s a piece of music that’ll break your heart at the same time as it restores your faith.

And, by the way, while we’re on the subject, frankly, if Nina Simone or Johnny Cash don’t knock your socks off, then I don’t even want to know you.

I mentioned that I’d received a gift from a friend. I’ll have to name-drop here but sure that’s hardly a burden to me… My friend’s name is Julie Feeney. She’s a multiple-award winning singer-composer and her gift was a vinyl copy of her astonishing third album, “Clocks“.

I first heard Julie on John Kelly‘s late and still-lamented Mystery Train. Kelly’s show was an unmissable treasure trove of brilliant and encyclopaedic unpredictability. The world of music he opened up for this listener has left me richer in every way except financially. And, as a feller once said, “He’s got a new one out now, I don’t even know what it’s about but I’ll see him in anything, so I’ll stand in line.”

Even on a show as exceptional as The Mystery Train, here was a voice, a song, a performance, that stopped me in my tracks. All this time later, “Aching” remains a stunning piece of music.

Julie’s 2005 debut album, “13 Songs“, deservedly won the inaugural Choice Music Prize. Since then, her career has blossomed in the intervening years, with hits like “Love Is A Tricky Thing” and “Impossibly Beautiful“, from 2009’s “pages” propelling her to ever-greater heights. Last year, the New York Times gave her the sort of rave review that long-established acts would kill or die for.

I’ve got to know Julie a bit over the past while and she’s a very decent person. She’s also one of the smartest people I’ve ever met and a good friend. Plus, I can tell you this much: you really haven’t lived until you get “Impossibly Beautiful” dedicated to you in a church in Westport.

Right. Now to listen to “Clocks” on the record-player. First, I have to displace Rory Gallagher. But that’s okay. I think Rory would have loved Julie. Then, the album sleeve, pale yet warm, inscribed with a beautiful, personal message, yields a booklet and there – look – wow! My name in the “And thank you to…” section. That’s never going to get old.

Then, the record. Place the needle in the groove (careful!) and a crackle and…

(P.S. Well, what do you know, I managed to get to get to the end of this thing with only a single Dylan reference.)

– Donal O’Keeffe

(P.P.S. Something I drew…)

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