Crazy Dreams, by Paul Brady, Merrion Press, 333 pp., €25, ISBN: 978-1785374296
In the final chapter of his fascinating and at times unflinching autobiography, Crazy Dreams, Paul Brady reflects on what he calls his “long and winding musical journey. From that early feeling at St Columb’s (his secondary school) of not fitting in, I can see the contradictions and tensions which have whispered in my ear throughout my career.”
As well as telling the story of his stellar career as a legendary Irish traditional and folk musician, internationally recognised songwriter, performer and member of a number of highly influential Irish groups, Brady also describes the artistic, musical, emotional and familial pressures that have impinged on his life. Because of this, parts of the book have a frank and emotional quality as he strives to identify and achieve his artistic vision and, on occasion, struggles to survive on a day-to-day basis. As his story shows, even though there were alligators, at times he did have to sleep out in the woods.
For those Irish musicians who were teenagers during the late 1950s and early ’60s getting access to music in a conservative and economically and culturally underdeveloped Ireland was a case of listening to what was available locally in the community or the popular music of the day on limited national radio programmes. In Paul Brady’s case, there was music on both sides of his family and in the acknowledgements in the book he thanks his parents for “instilling a love of music in me from such an early age”.
Brady’s parents brought a piano into the house and singing and performing were regular events. His grandmother, Oonagh Brady, also sang and performed, abilities which she passed on to her son, Sean. He liked acting out dramatic monologues such as “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” by Robert Service as one of his acclaimed party pieces. Brady says that watching him present his monologues influenced how later he would he perform traditional ballads like “Arthur McBride” and “The Lakes of Pontchartrain”. His mother, Mollie, was fond of Percy French and songs like “Eileen Aroon”. So Brady was exposed to the popular songs of the day, with one particular favourite artist being Winifred Attwell, a recent immigrant to the UK from Jamaica who he later found out was also an influence on the young Elton John.
As with many other Irish musicians of the time, Brady was sent to piano lessons and also, like many others, he would learn the tunes by ear so he could pretend to be reading the music. However being able to play by ear is a more immediately useful ability for a youngster with a newly acquired guitar who is listening avidly to the rock and roll and pop music that is starting to come out of the radio and on records. As the family holidayed every year at the Holyrood Hotel in Bundoran, Co Donegal, Brady heard the latest pop records in the amusement park where he and his mates hung out.
He quickly taught himself to play the songs he was hearing, by the Everly Brothers, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and (the whole of) The Shadows Greatest Hits. He started to accompany his father when he sang at the hotel and he impressed the resident band sufficiently to be allowed to join in. So much so that he was employed at a rate of £4 a week, rising the following year to £12 plus board as a full member of the band. This gave him the useful experience of playing with other musicians and also the ability to back the having-a-good-time holidaymakers who decided to get up and sing with little regard for either the key or the tempo of their highly eccentric renditions of popular songs.
Unfortunately Brady’s experience of secondary school was a strong contrast to the pleasant times he enjoyed during the holidays. He says he never settled into St. Columb’s College, “Coming from a secular primary school with mixed religion and gender into an all-male Catholic boarding school run by priests was a shock.” He describes quite aggressive inci-dents of hazing of new pupils by the older boys that the priests did nothing to stop. Brady tells of one particular example of bullying and emotional abuse later on in his school career. By then he was quite a good guitarist and another boy would demand he play for him when they were on their own, with veiled threats as to what would happen if he didn’t. Brady felt compelled to do what he said. It was at St Columb’s that the feeling of “not fitting in” developed that he says, “would form the dominant emotional backdrop to my life”.
At seventeen Brady started as an unenthusiastic Arts student at UCD in Dublin, arriving there partly to please his parents, who were both teachers, and partly to avoid having to do another year at secondary school. He quickly realised he was out of place and that what he wanted to do was play music. As he describes it he was “Stuck. In UCD. Under false pretences. Pretending to my parents, the college and myself I was anything but a musician.”
Then, as was to happen on a number of occasions throughout his career, a little twist of fate intervened to distract him from his unhappy situation. By this time he was aware of the British blues scene and people like John Mayall, Peter Green and Eric Clapton, and so was very excited to see a poster on a Dublin street advertising a “Blues Extravaganza” at the Crystal Ball-room. He turned up, carefully watched all the bands and was particularly taken by the guitar playing of Brendan Bonass of The Inmates as he played left-handed with his guitar upside down. In an interesting aside which gives insight into the wonderful guitar technique he later developed, Brady says he was born ambidextrous but with a dominant left hand; however for societal reasons his parents felt they should make him use his right hand (as a left-hander I can vouch for the fact that there were pressures to make young children write with their right hand). This “confusion” between the two hands led him to develop his own ways of fingering and playing chords on the guitar.
By dint of badgering and blagging Brady got an audition with The Inmates and joined the band. The rock and beat group scene was growing at the time and there were lots of bands, and also lots of interchange between band personnel. In the space of a year and a half, Brady played with The Inmates (who then became The Kult). He then moved on to Rootzgroup, where one of the members was the brother of Pete Williams, the bass player in The Inmates, and finally to a group named Rockhouse. He was with this band as they played support to the Who and Roy Orbison when they came to town.
Predictably, his early rock adventures came to an abrupt end when his parents were informed by UCD that he hadn’t been attending lectures for about a year and hadn’t sat his exams. Parental pandemonium ensued. After some tense negotiations with both his parents and UCD Brady returned to university in October 1966 and in a symbolic move, sold his electric guitar to Phil Lynott and got an acoustic instead. Despite his somewhat reluctant new commitment to his degree, the siren voices of music continued to call him, but in a different direction. Although Brady wasn’t really aware of it, the folk scene in Dublin was growing rapidly, with clubs starting to appear all over the city. The international success of the Clancy Brothers, the Dubliners and Bob Dylan had everybody picking up a guitar and looking for places to perform. Many of the participants were students who lived in mostly grotty but affordable flats and bedsits, mainly on the South side of the city.
Again fate intervened to send his career off on a new path. Living in an upstairs flat in Ranelagh with two other students, Brady heard acoustic music and singing coming from the flat below. He initially disparagingly called it “whaling music”, but over poker sessions with the occupants he started to learn more about the expanding folk scene. His neighbours turned out to be Mick Moloney and Johnny Morrissey, who along with Donal Lunny and Brian Bolger, made up a folk group called the Emmett Folk. They were playing regularly in folk clubs and eventually persuaded Brady to come along with them. He began to do floor spots at the 95 Club in Harcourt Street and discovered that rather than having to do only “whaling song” he could do what he liked, so he performed an eclectic mix of songs like John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom”, Tommy Tucker’s “Hi-Heel Sneakers” and a standard of his Bundoran days, “Wayfaring Stranger”.
Brady gradually established a reputation and started to get invitations to do paid slots at ballad lounges like the Embankment in Tallaght and the Old Shieling in Raheny. Through Mick Moloney he was invited to do an opening slot at their residency in the Embankment for the Johnstons, who at the time were well on their way to becoming the biggest ballad/folk group in Ireland.
These gigs opened up major opportunities for Brady. About six months later he was invited to join the Johnsons, a major leap forward, and it was at the Embankment where he had what he describes as his “introduction to real traditional music” when he heard the playing of accordionist James Keane and bodhran player Carmel Byrne. Keane asked Brady to back them up on a few pieces and he discovered he was able to supply a rhythmic accompaniment that fitted in well with the duo’s jigs and reels. It was this experience, he says, that gave him a love for traditional Irish music that has never left him.
The longest section in the book (seven chapters) is that devoted to Brady’s time as a member of the Johnstons. Having originally been made up of members of the Johnston family from Slane, two sisters, Adrienne and Lucy as the singers and their brother Michael on guitar, they had honed their performances in their father’s pub. Their repertoire was a mix of popular songs of the day and some Irish material.
As a result of winning the 1966 Wexford Ballad Contest they got a record deal, made some TV appearances and were on the path to success. As their fame in Ireland grew the group decided to add to their line-up and approached singer and instrumentalist Mick Moloney at the beginning of 1967. According to Brady, who was sharing a flat with him at the time, Moloney was “exactly what the group was looking for” as he was “well versed in the rich Irish folk-song canon, a convincing singer and a rapidly improving instrumentalist on guitar, tenor banjo and mandolin”. Moloney’s arrival and his musical abilities put pressure on the brother, Michael Johnston, and his guitar-playing role, and Michael left the band soon after.
With the departure of their brother from the group, Brady must have seemed a logical choice to replace him. Having signed up to join the Johnstons and so become a full-time professional musician, as luck would have it about a week later he was invited by Andy Irvine to join Sweeney’s Men to replace Galway Joe Dolan. For Brady it was a “sliding doors” moment as he had a great admiration for and affinity with the singing and musicianship of Johnny Moynihan and Andy Irvine. Events later would provide one possibility as to how things might have worked out musically if he had joined them instead of the Johnstons: seven years later he was invited to join the group Planxty, which then included Moynihan and Irvine. As Brady himself says, “I would have avoided all the grief that came down the road in the Johnstons.”
The band signed with Nat Joseph and his UK label Transatlantic Records and made their first record. In order to build their reputation outside Ireland most of the group felt they needed to move to London, but Lucy Johnston did not want to leave Ireland so the group became a trio. At first things went very well as the band made successful records, performed widely throughout the UK and Ireland and made frequent appearances on UK radio. But Brady acknowledges that at this time he was feeling a tension between the two kinds of music the band were performing: traditional folk songs and new material by contemporary songwriters. Mick Moloney was particularly keen to hold on to the traditional material whereas Brady was more interested in exploring new musical directions. Nat Joseph’s practical, but probably not particularly helpful, solution to this divide was to record two albums, one of traditional songs and one of contemporary material and release both on the same day.
The pivotal moment that would eventually lead to the demise of the Johnstons and cause considerable personal distress for Brady, and even more so for Adrienne Johnson, seems to have been when Nat Joseph introduced them to an American songwriter called Chris McCloud. Brady gives very little background information about this man and trying to re-search him seems to show that he had “risen without a trace”.
Initially Brady was pleased by the contact, as he saw it as an opportunity to work with a songwriter to develop his own songwriting abilities and the links between the two produced some of Brady’s earliest songs, as well as Brady/McCloud collaborations. Adrienne was also happy as she and McCloud became a couple. Over the next year, Nat Joseph seems to have been given more and more control over the group by McCloud. He produced their next album, Colours of the Dawn, and organised promotional trips to America. Mick Moloney wanted to focus more on traditional music so he left the band. Eventually McCloud took over the group’s management and the relationship with Nat Joseph and Transatlantic Records came to an end.
As the strategy of the group had become “break America at all costs” they moved to New York. It seems that things went downhill rapidly from there as McCloud started to control all negotiations with potential record companies and would not allow the other members of the group to be involved. When money ran short McCloud had a chequebook to pay for everything so the others were dependent on him for all their basic needs. It was expected that any money that Brady had should be donated to the general kitty. Although it is important to be careful about applying modern day concepts to historical events, it would seem fair to call what was happening under McCloud a form of “coercive control”, which would now be regarded as a serious form of emotional abuse.
It is clear from what he writes that Brady felt completely trapped by the situation, both by the lack of money and lack of information or knowledge about was happening to the group in relation to recording deals (or anything else). However, he also he felt a commitment to “the Johnstons” and knew that if he said he wanted to leave McCloud would try to make him feel guilty and responsible for ending the group. More importantly, he had nowhere else to go. Eventually, it would take the assistance of three uilleann pipers and his future wife to help him extract himself from this toxic situation.
Feeling very homesick he used the remainder of his own money to make a trip back to Ireland in 1972 for Christmas. While he was there the great piper Willie Clancy died. Brady had been fortunate enough to meet him a few times and play informally with him before the Johnstons moved to London. He went to the funeral in Clare and at the session afterwards he met and quickly fell for a woman, Mary Elliott, who had also come to the funeral with her friend. In the early days of their relationship she visited and supported him when he felt he had to return to New York and the dysfunctional chaos that was “the Johnstons”. Elliott and Brady married in 1975 and this book is dedicated to her.
The second person to assist Brady was a rather unlikely candidate to be an uilleann piper. Patrick Sky was a well-respected songwriter and guitarist who had been an important part of the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene and a contemporary and friend of Dave Van Ronk, Dylan and others. At the Philadelphia Folk Festival in 1971 he had met the piper Liam Óg O’Flynn through the Johnstons and, for whatever reason, then decided to dedicate himself to Irish traditional music and the uilleann pipes in particular. Since that time Brady and Sky had been friends and at the end of the summer in 1973, Sky invited him to stay with him for a while at his house in Rhode Island. He seems to have been a straight talker and had no time for McCloud, telling Brady that he was a “con man and a nutcase” and that there was never going to be a record deal. No doubt Sky had come across similar types on the Greenwich Village scene in his time.
The few weeks in Rhode Island seem to have been therapeutic, with Brady doing some “normal” things like chatting to people and listening to records. But the visit was also highly significant in terms of Brady’s musical development. He found a version of “Arthur McBride” in an old songbook in Sky’s collection and started to play around with it, changing the structure, altering some words but most importantly, working on a musical accompaniment in an open tuning. The eventual result was to become an iconic piece in Irish music.
While the first two uilleann pipers (in their own ways) and Mary Elliott prepared the ground to encourage Brady to escape from his situation, it was the third piper, Liam Óg O’Flynn, who opened the door. In April 1974 he wrote Brady a letter inviting him to join Planxty as Christy Moore had decided to leave. For Brady this letter was like “a miracle” and his “get out of jail” card. He returned to Ireland and a productive eighteen months of touring and live performances with Planxty ensued. As Christy Moore didn’t leave the band immediately, there was a time, amazingly, when four of the finest Irish singers were in the same group. Sadly, during Brady’s time with Planxty no records were made and the band decided to split up in late 1975. However Brady and Irvine continued playing together as a duo and fortunately did make an album, Andy Irvine and Paul Brady, which has become an Irish classic.
The first half of Crazy Dreams focuses on Brady’s development as a musician, mainly in the fields of Irish folk and traditional music, and although he mostly enjoys what he is doing and is successful during this time he mentions on a number of occasions that this is not necessarily where he wants to be. As he puts it in a chapter entitled “Beginnings of Meta-morphosis”, it was his feeling that his time as a duo with Andy Irvine was coming to an end: “Musically, I increasingly felt the urge to be free to find whatever was still dormant inside of me … music I knew that Andy would not relate to, music that would not reveal itself as long as our partnership was the focal point.” In a recent interview he makes the same point more broadly: “The way I describe it, inside yourself there’s lots of rooms and some of them you haven’t been in. So I went into another room and found myself wanting to write songs and to write music which would have been a synthesis of all my influences up to that, from pop, blues, rock, jazz, trad and folk.”
The second part of the book deals with Brady’s shift into writing his own songs and leading his own bands, which was also a move from the folk world into pop/rock music. He goes into fascinating detail about how the songs were written, what musicians were involved and the process of creation in the studio. He also describes in some detail the positives and problems of dealing with record companies, producers and recording engineers.
In a sense his first “own” album, Welcome Here Kind Stranger, is a transition point from his folk/traditional music career to his first fully written rock album. In it he says he was able to synthesise his “confident inner folk voice with my dormant rock rhythmic sensibility”. This album included some pop production techniques like double-tracking and cross-fading on some tracks. The next album, Hard Station, was his first rock album and his first full record as a songwriter.
It was after the release of Hard Station that the cream of the rock and pop aristocracy started to get in touch, both to record his songs and to work with him as a performer. Santana’s recording of “Night Hunting Time” from Hard Station in 1982 was his first ever cover. The same year Rory Gallagher asks to meet up and join in a gig. Then Eric Clapton invites him to be support on his three Irish shows. Brady briefly debates with himself whether he wants to play support to one of the world’s great guitarists and quickly realises that he does. As his songwriting abilities blossom and he records more albums, the list of musical admirers continues to grow. In 1983 he tours with Mark Knopfler and Tina Turner records one of his songs, “Steel Claw”, as do Bonnie Raitt and Phil Collins. It has been said that he is regarded by many as the “songwriter’s songwriter”.
The most entertaining story may be the contact with Bob Dylan, who asked to meet Brady when he was appearing at Wembley Stadium in July 1984. When they got together Dylan said he would like Brady to show him how he played “Lakes of Pontchartrain”. Brady explained the open tuning system he used and Dylan asked to try it, so they swapped the guitar a few times as Dylan tried to learn how to do it. As he was struggling to get it right, Brady started to move Dylan’s fingers on the guitar and put them in the right places. Both were having fun. Unfortunately, after a short time the session was interrupted and the “lesson” ended. Brady was invited to attend Dylan’s concert at Slane Castle the next day but as far as he was concerned that was the end of it. However, a year later, in an interview with Cameron Crowe for the liner notes of his major retrospective album project Biograph, Dylan spoke about Brady and other musicians he admired:
The media is a great meatgrinder. It’s never satisfied and it must be fed but there is power in the darkness too and in keeping things hidden … people get famous too fast these days and it destroys them. Some guys got it down ‑ Leonard Cohen, Paul Brady, Lou Reed, secret heroes … I listen more to that kind of stuff than whatever is popular at the moment.
In his reflective last chapter, Brady talks about chasing major record deals which never quite came off and part of the reason for this was his unwillingness to give up his artistic vision. He describes his resistance to the demands of the music business, “It was a feeling of being out of control of my own life and being dependent on management and record labels for movement in any direction that was hardest to bear.” Bearing in mind his experience in the final years of the Johnstons such sentiments are understandable.
However there are not many musicians, if any, who have played with Willie Clancy, Seamus Ennis and many more legendary traditional Irish m-sicians, a major folk group like the Johnstons, Planxty, Rory Gallagher, Phil Lynott, Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Bonnie Raitt, Van Morrison and many more from the folk, rock, blues and traditional music scenes.
Equally, there is no doubting the esteem in which Brady is held by leading artists in the music business. In another part of that interview by Cameron Crowe, Dylan indirectly gives Brady even more kudos than he realised at the time. Dylan says: “Basically, I’m self-taught. What I mean by that actually is that I picked it all up from other people by watching them, by imitating them. I seldom ever asked them to take me aside and show me how to do it (author’s italics).”
That’s some respect, Mr Brady.
Jeremy Kearney writes on music, UK politics and social issues and is a regular contributor to the Dublin Review of Books.
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