Roddy Doyle holding The Band album in front of his face

Roddy Doyle remembers the musicians who showed him what kind of man he wanted to be

One of my oldest and closest friends, Ronnie Caraher, died in May and since then – and before his death – I’ve been playing the music we shared, putting on records I haven’t listened to in years. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Innervisions – records I know so well, that are so deep in me, I don’t really need to listen to them. Pretzel Logic and Feats Don’t Fail Me Now – I carried those records under my arm to Ronnie’s house in Raheny, about a mile from my house in Kilbarrack, and we sat on the floor, backs to the wall under the window, and played them again and again and again.

Ronnie’s mother died this morning; I just found out. She was a very nice woman. She can’t have liked The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle or The Band’s live double album, Rock of Ages, especially the fourth side, but she never objected when we blasted them out – although his father often did.

“Turn off that shite!”

My own father regularly roared the same words but neither man threw much conviction into his performance. They were middle-aged fathers – it was part of the gig.

It’s The Band I’m listening to most these days. I look at the men on the front and back covers of their second record, The Band, and I still want to be one of them. I’d fit in there now; I have a beard of my own and I’ve been to Toronto so often, I’m technically Canadian – or I should be. But I remember, when I was 14 and 15 and 16 and 17 and 18 and 19 and 20, thinking that the timeless world they’d created for themselves was the right place for me.

There was a lot of good music on the go back then. Ziggy Stardust, Blood on the Tracks, Exodus, Horses, Heroes, Berlin, Lust for Life, For Your Pleasure, The Hissing of Summer Lawns. I could go on, and I will. Never Mind the Bollocks, The Undertones, Give ’Em Enough Rope, Live at the El Mocambo (the bootleg – illegal and recorded in Toronto: two cool features for the price of one – or something), Heat Treatment, Silk Degrees. I’m only mentioning the good stuff. I look at some of the records I bought back then – and played back then, and loved back then – and I hear my father, or it might be myself: “Turn off that shite!”

But The Band – they seemed to have walked out of the mid-19th century. And it wasn’t a Dickensian world, distant and safely historical, all urchins, dandies and top hats. It was an American 19th century and I was looking at these men in the 20th century, in 1973. It – they – didn’t seem too far away. They weren’t elegant but, fuck, they were cool. They were on the cover of one of the best albums ever recorded but they weren’t smiling. I look at them now and they look young. I looked at them then and I saw men – adults. Not young men – men. These men looked like they had never been young: they were veterans.

They were the dangerous, legendary uncles who’d been far away for a long time, who’d seen and done things that could only be captured in song.

And I hadn’t even heard the songs yet; I was only looking at the photographs. Never judge a book by its cover: bollocks to that – I did it all the time.

I loved Roxy Music but I didn’t want to be one of them. Because they looked daft. That’s the cranky old me using that word “daft.” Today, I’d love to be able to sing like Bryan Ferry. Back then, I didn’t want to dress like him. I didn’t want to be a glam rocker, any more than I wanted to be a cartoon. I loved Bowie – I loved his music. If Bowie had dressed like The Band’s organist, Garth Hudson, he’d have been perfect.

The Band strode out of the past. Roxy Music and Bowie were announcing the future but I didn’t believe in it. The Band dressed like their grandfathers, not their fathers – “Turn off that shite!” They looked like the men who had fought for Irish independence, not the dreary, grey fuckers who were now running the place. The Band were a way – a route – to the past, my past.

I hated traditional Irish music. Irish music seemed to encapsulate everything that was awful about my education, and the religion, the conservatism, the entire culture of the diddley-eye dump of a country I was trapped in. Then Planxty appeared. They played traditional music but they looked like Rory Gallagher’s cousins or lads who could have been in Thin Lizzy but had gone for a few pints instead. I could listen to their music, and I liked it.

That seems daft now too, that I could appreciate the sound of Planxty’s very Irish music only because they had long hair and wore jeans. But I don’t think it is daft. Shallow, perhaps, but I was 14 or 15 when their first record came out. I didn’t know who I was, or who or what I wanted to be. I remember a teacher, a Christian Brother – an out-and-out bastard – giving out about one of the members of Planxty, Donal Lunny, because he played the bouzouki; it wasn’t an Irish instrument. “Brilliant,” I thought. Planxty offered me a route to an Irishness that didn’t make me shiver – a version that rattled the men who claimed ownership of the country’s definition – because of their long hair, jeans and Donal Lunny’s bouzouki. There was more to it than that but it was a start.

The Band were like that. I think that now; I felt it back then. They offered a way forward. Like the punks who came a few years later, they took stuff that already existed and made it new. They grabbed the past and shoved it forward. To a boy growing up in a place like Ireland, they made complete, immediate and startling sense. To the man with grownup children, 45 years later, living in a very different Ireland, they still do.

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