Medbh McGuckian

Five albums I would take with me. Where I am already and always have been, on this deserted isle they call "Belfast." My choice right now my kids would rightly deem "sad,"pathetic. The tapes I mostly have no choice but to listen to are theirs, ghetto-blasting from three or four different unenterable bedrooms. Bands like Weezer or The Backstreet Boys, Radiohead, The Flaming Lips, Jim White, The Stone Temple Pilots, The Goo Goo Dolls. Terrific names. I do enjoy or have learned to enjoy one of these for their lyrics, "Hobotalk. Mostly being a poet I like songs for their words. Some for sentimental reasons, for the person who gave it, a tape of Yiddish music donated by a Pole at Auschwitz; The Beautiful South because one of my students used to be their lead vocalist; The Traveling Wilburys and many "Fenian" collections that kept us semi-sane nights when there was nowhere to go even if you risked your life going out; McCartney because I discovered how to make love to it, over and over again, on the sweltering top floor of a Jewish hotel, in the Catskills, summer of Woodstock.

There are precisely five slots on our not quite state of the art CD turntable. For complicated domestic reasons I have to be ironing in order to listen to one, or to listen makes ironing doable. I decided to write this tonight, feeling even more on a desert island than usual, since I am not attending the Hallowe'en, All Saints, All Souls, memorial party hosted by the Academy Awards for their late president, Gregory Peck. So I am neither ironing, nor hearing Jane Fonda and Barbara Streisand, Liz Taylor and Tom Hanks, Lauren Bacall and Harper Lee, who will be there. Keith Carradine will play Greg's favorite tune. His family will send me a video. My five choices are ones I associate with him and the delightful friendship we enjoyed over the last five years of his life.

1. The first of course is Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, Volume 3, a gift from a playwright colleague, number 12 of which is the dream-story-memory "Brownsville Girl" which pays homage to "The Gunfighter." I love the grinding mouthorgan, the guest appearance of George Harrison on guitar, plus the fact that Dylan will not be there either but is sending a special recording I will hear later.

2. The second is Belfast-born Brian Kennedy's Won't You Take Me Home? which I bought after meeting him on Rathlin Island off the North Antrim coast this summer. He does his own songs and traditional airs, interprets Lennon and Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell. But his unbearably sweet voice, so in contrast to Dylan's abrasiveness, is best in his setting of an old Gaelic poem, "My Black Haired Love," which shatters the boundaries between music and written speech.

3. Third on the turntable is Bucket Full of Dreams, the admittedly mawkish final album by Ballymena-born Davy McWilliams who died around this time two years ago. People said his range was as versatile as Dylan's, though he never, as he says himself, "made the big time," but stood quietly in Tessie's Bar in Ballycastle as if he had never fathered such lines as "Even if she tried she couldn't wear much less." For someone who never married he was a real family man. One haunting track is for one of his many daughters, Hannah.

4. The fourth is a highly popular compendium of Irish women, A Woman's Heart, which was a breakthrough in bringing together artists from both North and South at a crucial point politically. It also has an isly flavour to it, since the Black sisters featured on it hail from Rathlin, and Dolores Keane performs "The Island" by Paul Brady. I love its dark and light mix of lovesong with nostalgia for the land. I purchased it when I was homesick living in Trinity College, Dublin, and sent Gregory a copy to cheer him up when he became unable to travel to Ireland.

5. I also sent him a copy of the final record, though oddly he said he had never heard of Leonard Cohen or his Ten New Songs. Cohen's rich, mesmerizing, soporific, almost-speaking voice has captivated since student days when Paul Muldoon would whip up dawn-breaking omelets to "Your Famous Blue Raincoat." The songs were a double present from someone who took the trouble to copy them for me in the first place. Cohen's angst and lugubriousness appeals eternally to one seagirl in faerie lands forlorn. The track "Say Goodbye to Alexandra Leaving," inspired by a May-December love, became significant only after his only daughter Cecilia, named her own daughter by this name to match her own second name. I think now listening perhaps fancifully there is some resemblance between Gregory's own lost voice and the doleful self-pity of the abandoned poet-Muse bereft that Cohen's deep chords overcome, as close to a caress as the ear over water will allow.

 

--Originally published in Crossroads 2004

 
 

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