HELL, I’M GONNA BE ME

Fer­gus O’Far­rell was an mu­si­cian of re­mark­able tal­ent, and even more courage. As front­man for In­ter­fer­ence, he was an in­spi­ra­tion to Glen Hansard, Mic Christo­pher and a gen­er­a­tion of Ir­ish bands. But for all his ge­nius and charisma, suc­cess never prop­erly

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Life - - STEPPING OUT -

‘Iwas born with a sil­ver spoon,”

sings Fer­gus O’Far­rell in “

Gold. Hell I’m gonna be me/I’m gonna be free.”

It’s a beau­ti­ful song, made all the more so by the poignancy of those lines. Be­cause Fer­gus wasn’t free, ex­cept in his mind. He was phys­i­cally de­bil­i­tated by mus­cu­lar dys­tro­phy con­fined to a wheel­chair from his early 20s, and al­most en­tirely to his bed for the last years of his life and de­pen­dent on oth­ers. By any nor­mal stan­dards, di­ag­nosed at eight years old, Fer­gus was not born with a sil­ver spoon. And yet such was his gift, for mu­sic and for life, his de­ter­mi­na­tion “to be me”, that he re­fused to ac­cept the flat de­nial of the many things he could not do. He achieved a free­dom be­yond the con­fines of his wasted body in a world of the mind, and in the minds of oth­ers, where his re­mark­able voice and tal­ent will live on, de­spite his death in Fe­bru­ary last year, aged 48.

From Schull in west Cork, Fer­gus was the lead singer and driv­ing force be­hind In­ter­fer­ence, the great­est Ir­ish band who never made it. His was an ex­plo­sive tal­ent a golden voice and rare mu­si­cal abil­ity cou­pled with the kind of sin­gle-minded de­ter­mi­na­tion, as well as good looks and charisma, that should have taken him any­where he wanted to go. Ex­cept that he was shack­led to a fail­ing body, with a life ex­pectancy that he de­fied by nearly 20 years, and still didn’t live to see 50.

“It was a post­man in Kin­sale who I used to have a drink with, who said it first,” Fer­gus’s dad, Vin­cent, tells me. “He said, ‘I’ve been watch­ing your lit­tle boy walk­ing home’ — there was a steep hill be­side our house — ‘and there’s some­thing funny about his walk.’ I said, ‘What do you mean? He’s got a bit of an un­usual swag­ger.’ Now, I’d been watch­ing him play­ing foot­ball and he wasn’t get­ting up to the ball as quickly as the oth­ers, and I’d been shout­ing, ‘Get a move on . . .’ so we then started tak­ing him for tests, and fi­nally a spe­cial­ist said, ‘It’s mus­cu­lar dys­tro­phy’.” Fer­gus was eight at the time, and the spe­cial­ist’s prog­no­sis was, ‘He’ ll be in a wheel­chair by 12 and gone by 20’,” says Vin­cent. That was 1975.

The spe­cial­ist was wrong — there are many vari­a­tions of the dis­ease; it causes pro­gres­sive weak­ness and loss of mus­cle mass and has no known cure and he spec­i­fied the wrong one. But, also, he hadn’t reck­oned with Fer­gus’s re­mark­able willpower. “Fer­gus comes from a very stub­born line of peo­ple,” says Vin­cent. “He was de­ter­mined to do ev­ery­thing he could. All his whole en­ergy was go­ing to go into his mu­sic and songs. Noth­ing was go­ing to get in the way of that.”

Fer­gus him­self once said, “I’ ll give 150pc. I al­ways wanted to be so good that it’d never be this pity thing.” And he was that good. It isn’t pity that makes his mu­sic re­mark­able. The mu­sic stands by it­self, and al­though knowl­edge of his suf­fer­ing adds a par­tic­u­lar res­o­nance, that is a very dif­fer­ent thing to pity.

There’s a story Fer­gus used to love to tell about go­ing to a faith healer. When he was in his late teens and al­ready us­ing a wheel­chair, he was taken by his very de­vout Aunt Mary. “I re­mem­ber him putting the hands over my head, and a feel­ing, the equiv­a­lent of an or­gasm; this com­plete and ut­ter elec­tric­ity through my body, and I was go­ing, ‘Oh my God, I’ve been healed’. And, in fact, for the first sec­onds after the healer moved on, I was afraid to move a mus­cle, in case it hadn’t hap­pened. And then I went to stand up, and of course it hadn’t hap­pened.”

His aunt was so dis­ap­pointed, so dis­be­liev­ing, that she went back af­ter­wards to meet the healer and com­plained that Fer­gus hadn’t been cured. The healer, Fer­gus re­called, “put his hand on the side of my face, and he said, ‘There has been a mir­a­cle, it just hasn’t been what you ex­pected’.” To this, Fer­gus’s re­sponse was: “That’s when I knew it was mu­sic. Mu­sic was my mir­a­cle.” Later, he said that at that time he be­lieved that he had been “cho­sen by God to do mu­sic. That’s the kind of faith I had.”

Fer­gus went to school to Clon­gowes, where he won the Aloy­sius Tro­phy for ‘courage and de­ter­mi­na­tion’. The school, back then, wasn’t adapted for stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties, and so Fer­gus’s friends would carry him up and down the stairs; he could still walk, but climb­ing was in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult. Un­able to play sport, mu­sic be­came his thing, soon to the ex­clu­sion of all else. “We’d been push­ing him to do ac­coun­tancy,” his fa­ther says, “but Fer­gus told us told us, ‘No, it’s not for me’. I tried to fight him on it, his mother tried even harder, and he said ‘No’; he was go­ing to do it his way.”

Fer­gus formed In­ter­fer­ence, a kind of mu­si­cal col­lec­tive, while still in Clon­gowes, with two friends, gui­tarist James O’Leary and poet Mal­colm MacClancy. Straight out of Clon­gowes, he moved up to Dublin, to the old Win­stan­ley shoe fac­tory in the Lib­er­ties that his fa­ther had just bought, and which even­tu­ally be­came Mother Red­caps.

“It was just an old shoe fac­tory,” says Vin­cent, “but we built an apart­ment for Fer­gus there, with two or three bed­rooms, and the lads used to lift him up the stairs. They had all that space to bring in bands and re­hearse. The Hot­house Flow­ers were in there, The Black Vel­vet Band were in there; all just young kids. It must have been the hottest scene in Dublin,” he re­calls, “and Fer­gus was at the heart of it.”

It was around this time that di­rec­tor Michael McCor­mack, who spent over 10 years film­ing with Fer­gus for a fea­ture doc­u­men­tary about Fer­gus’s life,

met him first. “I first saw them play when I was 14. I was work­ing at a Self-Aid char­ity gig in Black­rock, and all these dif­fer­ent bands were play­ing — The Dixons, the Oliver Brothers, and then this band came out, In­ter­fer­ence, and they just had this con­fi­dence about them. The singer was hold­ing on to the mike, in what I thought was some kind of mad, rock-star pose. Later, I learned the mike was ac­tu­ally hold­ing him up. His voice hit me straight away; the emo­tion that he put into ev­ery word.”

Fer­gus him­self later ad­mit­ted that far from feel­ing con­fi­dent, “for the first seven years I gigged, I threw up be­fore ev­ery gig. I love be­ing on stage. I hate go­ing on stage. The nerves — well, pre-stage en­ergy is a bet­ter term for it. But once I start singing, it’s great.”

After Fer­gus came off stage that night, Michael watched, as­ton­ished, as this

Out, Break­ing

charis­matic young singer sat him­self back into a wheel­chair. “I went over to him. He couldn’t es­cape from me, and I poured forth about how amaz­ing they were. After that, I went to all the gigs, even the sound­checks. I was ob­sessed. And I be­gan to re­alise very quickly that I wasn’t alone. All these other young guys who were in the au­di­ence reg­u­larly with me were form­ing their own bands: Mundy, The Frames, Kila, The Mary Janes, all the young mu­si­cians, and they looked up to Fer­gus and In­ter­fer­ence, be­cause they knew this band was some­thing spe­cial.”

Any­one who heard them knew this was the real thing that frag­ile com­bi­na­tion of tal­ent, charisma and drive. At a time, there was huge en­ergy and ex­cite­ment on the Dublin mu­sic scene. Big record com­pa­nies were ac­tively look­ing for the next U2, and in that scene In­ter­fer­ence were so ob­vi­ously the ones to watch; the break-out stars. It felt as if it was only a mat­ter of time. Their gigs were few and far between be­cause of Fer­gus’s con­di­tion, but those that hap­pened be­came events — shows in the old Beal Bocht near Ranelagh, and a near-le­gendary se­ries of gigs in Whe­lan’s of Wex­ford Street.

There were ap­pear­ances on tele­vi­sion, in­clud­ing a mu­sic video di­rected by Gerry Stem­bridge for RTE, and In­ter­fer­ence were again and again tipped by the mu­sic press as ‘most likely’ and ‘the next big thing’. But it didn’t hap­pen. To the as­ton­ish­ment of fans, the var­i­ous A&R men who came and watched their gigs went away with words of en­cour­age­ment, but no record deals fol­lowed. “We can mar­ket blind­ness,” one said, with un­char­ac­ter­is­tic if dev­as­tat­ing hon­esty, “but we can’t mar­ket a wheel­chair.”

“They played far less than other bands,” McCor­mack says. “Fer­gus thought he’d be dead by 20, then dead by 30 — he was try­ing to pro­tect his voice, so they played less than they should have. But when they did, it was like go­ing to Mass. Peo­ple hang­ing on their ev­ery word. We all be­lieved they’d make it, and were shocked that they didn’t.”

No one was more shocked then Fer­gus. His be­lief in his own suc­cess was ab­so­lute. “Much worse than the mus­cu­lar

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