UNCUT - - Contents - Graeme Thom­son

Trou­ble Songs, Paul Si­mon

With Brexit once again throw­ing the ques­tion of the ir­ish bor­der into stark relief, Stu­art Bail­lie’s ter­rific Trou­ble Songs ar­rives with a du­bi­ous cur­rency, its themes more po­tent than at any pe­riod in the past two decades. Deftly ne­go­ti­at­ing re­li­gious and po­lit­i­cal bat­tle lines, the ex-NME staffer and broad­caster un­rav­els the story of mu­sic’s con­nec­tion with 30 years of tur­moil in North­ern ire­land. Start­ing with the Amer­i­can Civil Rights an­thems adapted for use dur­ing the Derry marches of 1968, mov­ing through punk, pop, in­die, folk and Or­bital’s haunt­ing “Belfast” (in­spired by an “elec­tri­fy­ing” visit to the city in 1992), the tone is hu­man, hu­mor­ous and ed­u­ca­tional. We learn that Loy­al­ist para­mil­i­tary Johnny ‘Mad Dog’ Adair was once the bass player in far-right punks Of­fen­sive Weapon, and that there ex­ists a song called “No More Sec­tar­ian Shit” by a band called Pink turds in Space.

the book’s re­cur­ring riff con­cerns the va­lid­ity and ef­fi­cacy of writ­ing di­rectly about the con­flict. Op­pos­ing views are per­son­i­fied by Stiff Lit­tle Fin­gers – mid­dle-class boys happy to re­flect (or even ex­ploit) lo­cal ten­sions in their mu­sic – and the Un­der­tones, work­ing­class Catholics from Derry who seek only es­capism. into the vast grey area sep­a­rat­ing their ap­proaches stum­ble clued-up na­tives and well-mean­ing out­siders. the Clash make a sym­bolic and sham­bolic visit to Belfast in Oc­to­ber 1977, pos­ing for pho­tos with tooled-up squad­dies, though they don’t ac­tu­ally play a note. the tragedy of the Miami Show­band, mur­dered on the road­side by Loy­al­ist paramil­i­taries in 1975, il­lus­trates just how high the stakes be­came.

Christy Moore is re­fresh­ingly hon­est about his jour­ney from ami­able “Pad­dy­whack­ery” to rad­i­cal Re­pub­li­can­ism to the more mea­sured stance he takes to­day. Bono is more opaque, though he does ad­mit that “i’m not sure [‘Sun­day Bloody Sun­day’] is a very good lyric if i’m still hav­ing to ex­plain it”. Trou­ble Songs cli­maxes in May 1998, with Bono unit­ing op­pos­ing politi­cians John hume and David trim­ble at a con­cert on the eve of the ref­er­en­dum to rat­ify the Good Fri­day Agree­ment. U2 and Ash head­line. One of the songs they dis­cuss per­form­ing is Rolf har­ris’s “two Lit­tle Boys”. As i said, ed­u­ca­tional. Paul Si­mon: The Life, by the Los An­ge­les Times’ long-serv­ing mu­sic critic Robert hilburn, is crafted in the im­age of its sub­ject: low-key, mea­sured, a lit­tle guarded. it was writ­ten with di­rect ac­cess to Si­mon, which proves a mixed bless­ing. Si­mon’s line-by-line cri­tiques of some of his great­est songs are fas­ci­nat­ing, and he per­mits a lit­tle light to fall on his pri­vate mo­ti­va­tions, yet the through line is un­de­ni­ably par­ti­san. the fe­roc­ity of his scrap with the ANC and the anti-apartheid move­ment over Grace­land is down­played by hilburn, while Art Gar­funkel – no­table by his ab­sence in the list of in­ter­vie­wees – is por­trayed through­out as self­ish, in­se­cure, un­re­li­able and painfully pedan­tic. he writes his part­ner plead­ing let­ters ref­er­enc­ing decades-old hurts; Si­mon re­sponds with su­pe­rior cool­ness, oc­ca­sion­ally throw­ing some crumbs. Now be­yond rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, the fi­nal break in their re­la­tion­ship comes when Gar­funkel is less than can­did about the ex­tent of his vo­cal prob­lems when the pair tour in 2010. “he let us all down,” says Si­mon. “i was tired of all the drama. i didn’t feel i could trust him any more.”

hilburn takes Si­mon’s part a lit­tle too read­ily, but he’s ca­pa­ble of ob­jec­tiv­ity where war­ranted. Not­ing the propen­sity for his sub­ject to ap­pear aloof, he in­cludes a mem­o­rable de­scrip­tion of Si­mon by the late Wal­ter Yet­nikoff, for­mer head of CBS Records, as “a lit­tle Lord By­ron… stretched out on a couch, smok­ing a joint, pon­tif­i­cat­ing about the na­ture of po­et­ics”. Like­wise, the catas­tro­phe of

The Cape­man, Si­mon’s 1997 Broad­way show about a no­to­ri­ous teenage Puer­toRi­can mur­derer, is cov­ered in all its gory hor­ror. De­scribed in the NYT as “a sad, be­numbed spec­ta­cle”, it closes af­ter only 68 shows. Si­mon ad­mits its fail­ure lay in his high-handed dis­missal of the rules of Broad­way: “i wasn’t pay­ing at­ten­tion to what the neigh­bour­hood pol­i­tics were.”

hilburn’s ac­cess bears lit­tle fruit in re­la­tion to Si­mon’s pri­vate life, though he does re­veal a later-life fas­ci­na­tion with the hal­lu­cino­genic ayahuasca, which for a spell helps lighten his mood and mas­sage the muse. he quits the drug in 2000 af­ter a se­ries of “fright­en­ing” episodes. “i started tak­ing it more fre­quently to help my song­writ­ing, and it even­tu­ally turned against me,” he says. “i had this voice in­side me that said, ‘You’re a liar, you’re a fake.’” Seek­ing pro­fes­sional help, he is ad­vised to imag­ine that the neg­a­tive voices sound like Bugs Bunny or Don­ald Duck.

Ul­ti­mately Si­mon emerges much as imag­ined. A boy in a bub­ble, pre­cious and self-con­tained, not read­ily dis­posed to hap­pi­ness, and li­able to ruf­fle feathers. he also ap­pears as a loyal, gen­er­ous friend, a man of con­vic­tion, and a song­writer of true ge­nius who, in the words of Wyn­ton Marsalis, has strived al­ways to “serve the right mas­ter”. Even poor Ar­tie, you imag­ine, couldn’t ar­gue with that.

The Clash visit Belfast... but don’t ac­tu­ally play a note

Pos­ing but not play­ing: The Clash visit Belfast in 1977

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