Dedicated to the legendary Terri Hooley . . .
I rarely watch movies when I’m flying, but on the plane from Chicago to Dublin two Novembers ago, perusing my options for in-flight entertainment, I paused when I heard the unmistakable hiss that comes after a stylus is dropped right in the groove, and a Northern Ireland accent infused with Woodbine cigarettes:
“Once upon a time in the city of Belfast, there lived a boy named Terri . . .”
Where do I begin, and what can I say that hasn’t already been said about him? In 1977, he opened his own record shop, “Good Vibrations” on Great Victoria Street in Belfast. The next year, under his own record label of the same name, he released “Teenage Kicks” by a relatively unheard-of Derry band, “The Undertones.” I bought the single and played it relentlessly. It was 1978. It was Northern Ireland, where, when our kitchen windows rattled, we wondered if a bomb had exploded not too far away, and we wanted to be farther away still, to escape, to “teenage kicks all through the night.”
Now this may seem neither remarkable nor the stuff of a movie that was playing on my flight back home, except that Terri Hooley opened “Good Vibes” on the most bombed street in Europe, just two years after “the day the music died” in Ireland, and as I watched Richard Dormer’s brilliant portrayal of him in “Good Vibrations,” I was a teenager again, fingering through the sleeves of vinyl records in Ronnie Millar’s Pop-In record shop in Antrim, my hometown, knowing that Ronnie knew what I’d like, and if I asked, he’d play it on the record player for everyone in the shop to hear. And when he did, you would never have known that our little country was in the grip of The Troubles.
There were moments on that flight back home when I wanted to jump out of my aisle seat and cheer for Terri Hooley, for Punk Rock, for everyone who bought a record from a smoke-filled shop just down the street from the most bombed hotel in Europe , and for every musician who ever played in Northern Ireland. I think I maybe even understood – if only for a moment – what Joe Strummer of The Clash meant:
When punk rock ruled over Ulster, nobody ever had more excitement and fun. Between the bombings and shootings, the religious hatred and the settling of old scores, punk gave everybody a chance to live for one glorious burning moment.
But when the movie ended and my remembering began, I wept for all that Northern Ireland lost between those bombings and shootings. I felt guilty for having left it behind when perhaps the better thing would have been to stay and strive to see far beyond the images that flickered on our TV screens at six o’clock every night.
Unlike Terri Hooley, I fled.
Ironic then, that I am shocked when some of my American friends refuse to visit Belfast while vacationing in Ireland. They don’t think it’s safe. “But it’s a great city!” I tell them. “The best in the world! And the Antrim Coast is stunningly beautiful.” I urge them to take the train from Belfast to Dublin, to enjoy the full Irish breakfast on the journey. In my enthusiasm, I forget about all those times my brother had to get off the Belfast to Dublin train and take the bus because of the threat of a bomb on the line. So what must it have been like for Terri Hooley trying to convince bands to play in Northern Ireland in the 1970s?, when musicians were afraid to come because of something terrible that had happened in the summer of my twelfth year.
In the early hours of July 31, 1975, five members of The Miami Showband, one of the most popular bands in the country, were traveling home from a gig at the Castle Ballroom in Banbridge. The sixth member, drummer, Ray Millar, had gone home to Antrim instead to stay with family. On a narrow country road outside Newry, they were flagged down by a group of uniformed men at what appeared to be a routine UDR (Ulster Defense Regiment) army checkpoint. Like the rest of us, I’m sure they didn’t think anything of it until they were ordered out of their vehicle and told to stand by the roadside while the soldiers checked the back of the van.
I don’t know if, while standing on the side of the road, The Miami Showband realized that this was not an army checkpoint and that they were instead the victims of a vicious ambush carried out by members of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).
While the band members waited, two of the UVF men – later revealed as members of the Ulster Defense Regiment – planted a bomb in the back of their van. The bomb exploded prematurely, killing both, and in the chaos that followed, the remaining UVF members opened fire, killing three of the band members.
There were reports that the handsome young lead singer, Fran O’Toole, was shot 22 times in the face. Lying on his back on the ground, he was utterly vulnerable to men who showed no mercy in spite of his pleas. Brian McCoy, shot nine times, was the first to die at the scene. Tony Geraghty was shot in the back – four times. Des McAlea and Stephen Travers survived the blast from the explosion that flung both of them into the air. Des McAlea suffered only minor injuries and somehow escaped into the night; Stephen Travers was seriously wounded, and survived by pretending to be dead. He recalls the gunman kicking the four bodies to ensure they were all dead.
Sitting here at my computer, almost forty years later, I can recall the shock and revulsion – the fear – we felt as details of the massacre unfolded in our newspapers and on the radio later that morning. I remember my mother shaking her head in utter disbelief. It was unimaginable – these young men, Catholics and Protestants, darlings of the show band scene, in their prime and adored by thousands of fans north and south of the border, slaughtered in the muck on a country road. Why?
What happened to The Miami Showband left no doubt that musicians were just as much of a target as anyone else. Perhaps we had been in a kind of denial that musicians were somehow immune, perhaps because we saw in the Miami Showband what could be, its members and its audiences crossing all social, religious, and political boundaries.
Some years later, in his address to The Hague Stephen Travers said his band was “a blueprint for social, religious, and political harmony.” Terri Hooley may have been working on a similar blueprint, the odds against him. In the years following the Miami Showband massacre, musicians were scared. There were some who thought that the musical life of Northern Ireland was over. Performers from the UK mainland were afraid to risk their safety, and with this increased risk, it became wildly expensive, the cost of insurance premiums soaring given the real threat of hi-jackings and bombings. Northern Ireland was a “no go” area.
Just three years after the slaughter of those young musicians on what became known as “the day the music died,” in Northern Ireland, I remember being shaken to my very core – again – by the inhumanity of people in my country. It was February 18, 1978, and what happened in the restaurant of the La Mon House Hotel in Gransha, outside Belfast, will forever stay with me.
La Mon House was packed that evening with over 400 people, some of whom were there for the annual Irish Collie Club dinner dance. By the end of the night, 12 of those people – including children – were dead, and numerous others seriously injured. The next day, the Provisional IRA admitted responsibility for the attack and for their inadequate nine-minute warning. With cold-blooded premeditation, the IRA had used a meat-hook to attach the deadly bomb to one of the restaurant’s window sills, and the bomb was connected to four canisters of petrol, each filled with home made napalm, a mixture of sugar and petrol, intended to stick to whatever or whomever its flames touched. I remember watching the TV coverage and listening as a reporter described what happened after the blast – the enormous fireball, some 60 by 40 feet, unrelenting in its ferocity, roared through the Peacock restaurant, engulfing the people in its path in flames and burning many of them beyond recognition.
And almost forty years later and on the other side of the world, I am haunted by a widely disseminated image of the charred remains of someone who died in that horrific explosion.
How could anyone look at that image and look away, unchanged?
I looked at that image – time and again – and still I was not brave enough to stay and do the hard work. To abide.
Unlike me, Terri Hooley didn’t leave Northern Ireland:
A lot of my friends passed away. I thought I was going to be the only one left; it was a horrible time, but the idea of leaving Belfast made me feel like a traitor.
Punk Rock was perfect for him. He had an alternative vision for Belfast and its young people, perhaps inspiring Stiff Little Fingers’ “Alternative Ulster.” He was more interested in owing a record shop where kids, Catholic and Protestant, could come together and talk about music – buy a record. He had no interest in taking either side of the sectarian divide; he wanted young people to have another option, another kind of country where a young person would be more interested in picking up a guitar than building a bomb. And he was fearless in the pursuit of such a place.
Naturally, Terri Hooley loved “The Undertones.” So did I. They were from Derry, and they knew about “The Troubles,” living and breathing it every day of their lives. They chose not to sing about it. Why would they? If anyone needed an escape, they did. So instead, they sang about the everyday things that mattered to them – and to me – in 1978 – “teenage kicks.” It was unfettered escapism, and it may well have saved many of us from going down a much darker road.
Glam rock, punk rock, reggae, blues, pop, classical – my musical education encompassed all of these and more. There were piano lessons, violin lessons, orchestra, choir, but the music lessons that stayed with me I learned in Ronnie Millar’s Pop-In record shop, in vinyl.
I spent hours in the Pop-In, flipping through LP after LP, and walking up to the counter with three or four, knowing I would have to whittle my selection down to just one. After all, my school dinner money could only buy so much. I loved the ritual behind buying a new record. It began with carefully opening the album to see if the song lyrics were inside, or a booklet of photographs, or liner notes that would fold out into a full-size poster that would end up on my bedroom wall. I handled my records with care – as did Ronnie. And he would always add a clear plastic cover to protect the album art.
We had three TV channels from which to choose in the 1970s, no Internet, and no smart phone, so I spent a lot of time in my room, reading and listening to music. Still, I remember watching the Mork and Mindy show, and noticing that hanging on Mindy’s apartment wall was the cover of Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty” album.
Naturally, when I went to college in Belfast, living away from home for the first time, the “Running on Empty” cover hung on my wall too.
There was nothing better than opening an album to find the liner notes and a paper sleeve inside that folded out into a full-size poster, like that of Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” That made it on to my wall as well.
And then there was the ritual of playing the record – and some records, like “Born to Run” or Steely Dan’s “Aja” should only be listened to on vinyl.
It requires some effort to listen to music on vinyl. First, you have to actually get up, look through your stack of LPs to find the one you want, remove it carefully from the paper cover, place it on the turntable, drop the stylus right in the groove, sit down again, listen. Then you have to get up again and turn over the LP to hear Side Two. It’s a major investment of time. There’s waiting involved. Shuffling music on an iTunes playlist requires no real commitment at all.
WIth vinyl, it was important to have the right hi-fi system. The first significant and most important purchase of my life was the system I bought in 1983 (feeling flush with my grant check). I remember enlisting the assistance of an engineering student who lived across the road from me, a few doors down from the Lyric Theater on Ridgeway Street. He didn’t go out much, but he loved music. A purist who would never have watched Top of the Pops but would never have missed the Old Grey Whistle Test, he did his research (imagine, in the days before the Internet!) and found the perfect component system for me – a separate receiver, cassette deck, and a turntable that had a little strobe light, and some fairly impressive speakers.
What he knew then – and I knew it too – is what the 21st century late-adopters of vinyl are discovering – there is no better way to listen to music than on a record. I loved all the pops and crackles, the anticipation before dropping the needle right in the groove, and the audible drawing of breath, the hiss before the first line was sung. Yes. I was experienced.
When I came home to Antrim on the weekends, I’d make a point of visiting Ronnie Millar’s shop. By that time the Pop In had moved from its original location by Pogue’s Entry and into the shopping center. And by that time, Ronnie Millar knew what I liked (which meant he knew what else I would like). One of the things I remember about him is that he paid attention to his customers and quickly figured out the music they liked– even if he passed judgment on their taste, like the day he asked “Why do you want to buy that rubbish?” when Dennis Ceary from the Dublin Road picked up “Never Mind the Bollocks” by the Sex Pistols.
It hadn’t taken him too long to figure out what I liked. I’d spent hours in there during which he would play something he knew I didn’t know (because, let’s face it, he knew the contents of my entire LP collection and probably everyone else’s in Antrim). And he knew I’d buy it – a perfect profit cycle. Every once in a while, I’d stump him by asking if he could get a record he hadn’t heard of – but not very often. Even though I could have probably found it, during the week, in ‘Caroline Records’ or Terri Hooley’s ‘Good Vibrations’ in Belfast, it wasn’t the same as going home to Antrim to ask Ronnie to get it for me. I don’t know when I found out that Ronnie’s brother was the drummer in The Miami Showband, but I have often wondered about the impact of that horrible night on a man who loved and sold music for a living.
All those years when I was collecting vinyl, it didn’t matter when I didn’t have a boyfriend or had nowhere to go on a Friday night. Even when I had convinced myself I would be “left on the shelf” it didn’t seem that bad given the company I was keeping – Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Lou Reed, The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Janis Joplin, John Cougar, and The Horslips. The music made everything better, and one of my fondest memories is of sitting in my bedroom on a Friday night with our dog almost hypnotized watching Joan Armatrading’s “Love and Affection” go around and around on the turntable.
By the late 1980s, I began making cassettes – mix tapes – hundreds of them. Making a mix tape was a labor of love – there was none of this easy downloading, dragging and dropping of music into your iTunes library. No. A mixed tape required hours and hours of opening albums, choosing just the right song, making sure the needle was clean, then dropping it in the groove, and making sure to press record and pause at exactly the right time. And then you’d give it to some boy or girl, hoping the tunes said what you could not. (Or maybe that was just me.) And then you’d wait for feedback.Those were the days of delayed gratification, and I miss them.
Ode to a Mix Tape These days, it’s too easy to make mix tapes.
CD burners, iPods, and iTunes
Have taken the place
Of vinyl and cassette. And, soon
Enough, clever introverts will create
Quicker point-and-click ways to declare
One’s love, lust, friendship, and favor.
But I miss the labor
Of making old school mix tapes— the mid air Acrobatics of recording one song
At a time. It sometimes took days
To play, choose, pause,
Ponder, record, replay, erase,
And replace. But there was no magic wand.
It was blue-collar work. A great mix tape
Was sculpture designed to seduce
And let the hounds loose.
A great mix tape was a three-chord parade Led by the first song, something bold and brave,
A heat-seeker like Prince with “Cream,”
Or “Let’s Get It on,” by Marvin Gaye.
The next song was always Patsy Cline’s “Sweet Dreams,”
or something by Hank. But O, the last track
Was the vessel that contained
The most devotion and pain
And made promises that you couldn’t take back.
~ a labor of love.
My plan last November was to go through all the boxes of vinyl stored in the roof-space of my parent’s house in County Derry. Inspired by the very cool record shop I’d discovered during my week in Dublin, I was going to bring my favorite albums – the soundtrack of my youth in Northern Ireland – back to Phoenix.
Before we were married, when I was living alone in an apartment in Phoenix, my husband bought me another hi-fi. It had the tape deck, CD player, and, the trusty turntable – although by that time, nobody was buying vinyl. Still, I must have believed it would make a comeback, because I held onto the turntable. It’s in a cupboard along with other things of sentimental value. He kept asking me why I just didn’t get rid of it, but he knew I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. And I cannot. He would have loved to see me break out that turntable to play his favorite Lou Reed album. But life barged in, the way it always does, when I was busy making other plans for us, and he never got to see me resurrect the turntable. I would have liked just one more spin.
Maybe, like vinyl, the handwritten letter will make a comeback as well. I am sad that the letter-writing of my youth has fallen out of favor, snuffed out by phonecalls, text messages, Skype, and e-mails that are simply not the same. How I miss opening my mailbox to find the red, white and blue trimmed letter that was its own envelope, light as onion-skin, marked By Air Mail, par avion. And how glad I am to have saved so many to read and reread, these objets d’art, immortal reminders of the people I treasure and who treasure me.
Unlike the evanescence of music afloat in a virtual cloud, vinyl records give us something to hold on to, something solid that represents a certain spot of time in our lives. This isn’t just nostalgia for my youth, it’s more than that. It’s a reminder that good things were and still are worth waiting for. Like peace – in Northern Ireland.