THE MAKING OF THE YELLOW BITTERN
Alan Gilsenan’s Director’s Notes < back
Four Years in Search of Liam Clancy…
(May, 2005 – July, 2009)
Ring, Co. Waterford, July 2009:
It seemed right somehow that it should end here - where it all began - over four years ago. We had come down to Waterford to record the last snippets of voice-over for the cinema version of our Liam Clancy film. We had been through a confusing myriad of versions, television versions, concert versions, festival versions but finally we were putting the finishing touches to the film that we set out to make back in 2005: THE YELLOW BITTERN, a feature-length cinema documentary on the life and times of Liam Clancy.
Here now, in Liam’s house, the eco-home he built long before it was fashionable, the man seems at his most relaxed. Privately, I have christened the voice-over interviews and recordings that we have made in this house The Capless Interviews for they are the ones where he seemed most at ease with himself, where he spoke openly without wearing his trademark cap, the performer’s mask.
Looking back over my notes from the first meeting on May 11th, 2005, I am struck at how constant the themes have remained over the intervening years: The frailty of life; contemplation of death and our place in the universe; the fear of illness; the perspective of time; the importance of nature and the transient nature of life.
It was here in the attic too that we uncovered the old photographs and rusted film cans of rare and unseen archive, film off-cuts and home-movie footage that appear in the film. Much of it was as much a surprise and joy to Liam and his wife Kim as it was to us predatory film-makers. Their delight in viewing forgotten and unseen film of their wedding would far out-weigh the discovery of other rare professional stage appearances.
Now, however, the spectre of mortality seems more real than when we first began. Tommy Makem had died over the course of making the film leaving Liam, in his own words, “the last man standing”. More recently concerts have been cancelled and a ready supply of oxygen is close at hand. But there remains a hearty enthusiasm for life and work allied to an honest realisation that death is perhaps not a million miles away. Liam and I would often joke that I was dragging the filming out so that we would finally have some sort of obituary. That his passing would give the film a sort of commercial currency. It was an idea that I suspected the showbiz-savvy Clancy sort of approved of. But now the joke had taken on a whiff of gallows humour.
Not that we had a particularly chummy sort of relationship. Despite his easy charm and our good times together, he was a hard man to get to know. To get beneath his skin. But we achieved a certain amount of mutual understanding, I hope. So here, then, for the record, are some vague impressions of Liam Clancy, garnered over those long years making THE YELLOW BITTERN:
It is the voice first and foremost. Soft, clear and true, imbued with deep emotional resonance and subtle dramatic timing. The delicate touch. The accent too is soft. With never-to-be-forgotten echoes of Tipperary naturally, and maybe hints of Waterford too, but the unmistakable mark of Irish-America is there as well. John F. Kennedy comes to mind for no reason at all. Sometimes, you hear a rougher edge, somewhere there at the back of that silky throat. It holds the promise of a good nights drinking and a song or three after hours. Sea shanties. Rebel songs. Songs that make us feel good about ourselves again. Songs that make us cry like babies. The promise that we will be transported again, that we could be heroes once more for a couple of lost hours. Or perhaps that promise is not promise at all, but just a fading memory, a memory of the happier and wilder times that we never had. Those were the days, indeed.
There’s a sense that you might have heard this voice long before you came into this world. For this is the voice of our past and our forgotten futures. Was this the voice that you heard in your mother’s womb? No, that’s too fanciful a notion, but it undoubtedly resides somewhere deep in our common folk memory. In our sense of who we were. What we are.
It is the voice of Liam Clancy. Of story and song. Of laughter and lament. Liam Clancy? You might be surprised to hear that he is still alive, but you’d be certainly shocked to hear that he was dead. He seems forever young. That tender voice. Those film-star good looks. The twinkle in the eye. The eternal cap. That stage presence beneath the lights.
But he’s not alone there, of course, the baby brother. For there are ghosts always about him. The bawneen-sweatered and sweating brothers. All dead now, God rest them. Their raw power and towering passion. Their dignity and decency too, amidst it all. The highs and the lows. The long road and the longer night. Bigger than the Beatles, they were, you know? Madison Square Garden. Carnegie Hall. Radio City Music Hall. Petie Lawlor’s. All those glittering prizes. Falling over and falling out. But they were brothers too, above all else, in the end of the day. And Mammy Clancy gave them songs. And she knit those sweaters for them too. And one for Tommy, of course. We couldn’t forget Tommy.
For Tommy Makem has some voice also. A beautiful dark Northern quiver to it. Tougher too, in many ways. Songs under siege. And who could forget those sideburns, those rough tufts of manhood. And Tommy’s Mammie Sarah handed down all those songs that she had cleaved so closely to her heart. For these boys’ story started with their mothers really. No surprise there. Mammies Makem and Clancy. Lost songs. Maybe it was their maternal voices that we heard deep in the collective womb, all those years ago.
They were legends, these lads, and their songs still stir something deep within us. There is a sense that every one of these songs is known to us, even the new ones. They are etched upon our soul in some profound way. This is strange because we younger generations often derided them. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. Makem and Clancy. Liam Clancy. All of them. We slagged off their bawneen gansies and their hairstyles and their sentimental shamrockery. Wild rovers and patriot games. We accused them of all sort of things. They were an embarrassment to us for a time, in that way that the young are embarrassed by their parents or their mad uncle. Embarrassed by those drunken songs deep in the night. Later, when you knew them better, knew their struggles and their grace, you were ashamed of this. How you could have turned away and sneered. For they are you in so many ways.
Their story was our story. The story of a nation. How apt those lines of WB Yeats that Liam is so fond of:
Know, that I would accounted be
True brother of a company
That sang, to sweeten Ireland’s wrong,
Ballad and story, rann and song;
Their story was our story. Liam and his siblings grew up, not in some rural idyll of peasant countryside, but in a small and noble town. Carrick-on-Suir, in the shadow Slievenamon, the mountain of the women. There was music in the air in their small but solid house on William Street, not just traditional songs but folk songs and popular songs and light opera too. Next door, behind the oppressive grey stone of the Catholic Church, there was the smell of incense and damp and all those intoxicating rituals, the benedictions and dark pageants, and the choir that young Liam sang with as a boy. Star of the Sea, Queen of the May. The traveling players would visit Carrick too, bearing gifts of theatre, and they too would leave their mark.
But this was a dark time, let’s not forget, those Forties and Fifties. The poverty and the clergy and the squinting windows. The heady excitement of the birth of the nation was now well past, and the brutal reality of making our way in the world dawned. Emigration and exile. America calling to us like some gaudy whore. Like many before and after them, the Clancys answered the call. Young Liam, innocent and shy (hard to believe that now) with his hallmark mixture of lady luck and divine destiny, followed. He fell, as if by chance, not into the ghettoes of Irish-America (still singing “Does Your Mother Come From Ireland?”), but into the Greenwich Village of the Swinging Sixties. Folk revivals and beat poetry. Talk of revolution and liberation. Black power and black music. A long way from Tipperary. Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, Odetta and Josh White, and the young Bob Dylan, just taking it all in. The Clancy lads got gloriously lost in it, absorbing it all too, while carving out decent careers for themselves as actors. On occasion, with a few taken, they’d sing a couple of the old songs. Just for the crack. Nothing serious, just belt them out for the love of it. Punk Paddies giving it a lash. But it was the real deal, it’s soulful power rang out, and the Village, with it’s hunger for authenticity, responded in kind.
They played the basements, the folk clubs and the black clubs of Chicago and New York. Not the Irish clubs mind, for these Clancys were too down and dirty for them. They turned away also for a time. But the Clancys and Tommy learned their trade. Watched the old Blues guys and learned how to judge a show, how to play an audience. The nuanced to and fro of performance. Destiny was calling loud over the tannoy. The rest, as they say, is history, glorious history, and it was our history, although we were slow to acknowledge it. And they were singing our songs.
But there was darkness also, amidst the starry firmament. The demon drink and the demon lover. Damage done and people hurt. Dark days and dark moods. Ups and down, money made and money lost. The stuff of life itself, only larger.
Later, there was the return to native soil. The journey home. Helvick Head and Muggorts Bay. Drumm Hills and Knockmealdowns. An eco- home of our own. Family, most of all, family, although there must have been some neglect there down the years. Trees planted lovingly. Growing older now. Thoughts of mortality. Posterity. The vastness of it all and the passing of our time.
Time to write too. Brother Paddy always said that he should write more. For Liam is a teller of tales, both in song and in story. He is always magically weaving a narrative. He knows their talismanic power. He crafts the dramatic contours of narrative throughout his shows and records, and he knows well the intimate cartography of performance. If you look closely enough, there is a story too interwoven into the rich fabric of this collection. It is a map of a long journey. His and ours.
He’s a hard man to get to know, this Liam Clancy. Wary, as he is, of the business and the bullshit. Sometimes, it’s hard to penetrate his chilly charm, the protective shell of genial performer and entertaining interviewee. But he’s an entertainer above all, never forget that. People pay their hard-earned cash to see the shows and he won’t let them down. For Liam Clancy is still a worker. He’ll put in the miles and do the gigs. Because Liam Clancy will always turn up. And he’ll tell you straight what he made on a night. Pennies, shillings and pence. But you sense that he wouldn’t leave you stuck either for there is undoubtedly a generosity of spirit in him as well, this man who has known the kindness of strangers.
Some say he threw it all away. All those many as yet unrealized other talents – the actor, the writer, the film-maker… They claim he just sang the songs he knew so well. Took the easy way out, the money and the fame. But that is to miss the point. For Liam Clancy was bestowed a precious gift all those years ago. It is a gift that he has not squandered.
The voice. He is singing now again. Lost amidst the darkness of some stage. There are ghosts about him. Memory and loss. Past and future. Hope and despair. He seems lonely there amidst in the crowd, yet also strangely peaceful too in some way. He is singing still and we are listening closely. He is singing of us and for us, and we are seduced once more.
The Bitter End, New York City, July 2008:
Liam Clancy with Shane MacGowan backstage at The Bitter End July 2008
It had been a long road. Long for us. Far longer for him. But, at last, we had reached the Bitter End.
The idea seemed simple enough at the time. After three years - on and off - making a documentary about Liam Clancy’s life and heady times, we would return to the Greenwich Village where it all begun for Liam and his brothers over fifty years ago to film a music event. Somewhere between a concert and a pub session, it would to be a chance to re-capture something of the spirit of yesteryear. That spirit that was the Village Gate. The White Horse. Gerde’s Folk City. The Lion’s Head. The Bitter End. All those clubs whose names resonate with the spirit of New York’s folk revival of the late Fifties and early Sixties.
There’s an old photograph from around that time, a shot taken inside the Limelight that seemed to sum it all up. It became something of an iconic image for us, a half-dreamt memory that spoke to us somehow. Beckoned us back to those seemingly more potent times, to lives lived more intensely than our own.
A large sturdy table dominates the scene. Upon it, a sea of discarded glasses and ash-trays, an open bottle of Powers whiskey and a Pernod Ricard jug of tap water. Gathered around this comforting debris is a tightly packed group of people engaging passionately with the music, with each other, with their time.
Paddy Clancy dominates the picture, a small bull of a man with sleeves rolled up and waistcoat open. Beside him, his brother Tom strikes a handsome pose, cigarette perfectly balanced in his questioning hand. Tommy Makem is there too, God rest him, all sharp suit and brylcream slick. Beside Tommy sits the young Liam Clancy with his guitar distinctively held upright and poised for action. Handsome, no doubt, but perhaps a little delicate also.
Across from them sits the great Odetta and beside her Billy Faire, his trademark banjo cradled on his knee, listening intensely to the same Tom Clancy. Between them – and perhaps momentarily distracted by some passing beauty beyond the horizon of this picture – is the young Jewish folk-singer and actor Theodore Bikel. Others too. The dapper. The radical. The just plain curious. And that beautiful woman in the quirky black hat.
Beyond the table, in the further reaches of the club, the photograph appears to shimmer with the promise of other presences. Come in Pete Seeger. Come in Woody Guthrie. Come in Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, Josh White, and Dylan Thomas too. Come in Jean Ritchie, Leon Bibb, Oscar Brand and Jack Keruoac and Rev. Gary Davis too. Come in, Luke Kelly. Come in, come in.
No surprise also that this image brings to mind some simple lines of Bob Dylan - a mere child of this time – from Tangled Up In Blue:
I lived with them on Montague Street
In a basement down the stairs,
There was music in the cafes at night
And revolution in the air.
Now we find ourselves, all those years later, on Bleeker Street. Attempting to invoke the ghosts of this long-forgotten photograph. Or perhaps conjure some small magic of our own. Veterans of the glory days, Odetta and Tom Paxton are coming. I listen to their old records now with a kind of wondrous awe. Leon Bibb’s son Eric should make it, we hope. (Off the stage at Glastonbury last night? This morning?). Shane MacGowan’s coming. Perhaps. Fionn Regan wants to sing a Woody Guthrie song that nobody has heard of - which must be a good thing, I suppose. Gemma Hayes, bless her, arrived the day before yesterday to rehearse an idea for a duet of Roseville Fair, her cool beauty belying her true talent. And Liam Clancy, of course, the Last of the Irish Rovers.
Or maybe not quite the last. Late last night, when Shane MacGowan arrived, we sat in the bar at the Waldorf Astoria talking quietly of this and that. O’Carolan. The O’Rahilly. James Mangan. Oliver Goldsmith. The bards intoning their bardic lineage. The night ends with Liam and Shane singing “Buddy, Can You Spare A Dime?”.
But now we’re ready. Or as good as. The tracks are laid. The lighting is set. Richard and Ross check their shots and judge their angles. Anna and Siobhan are dealing with whatever the hell needs dealing with. The queue lengthens outside while inside the groupies and the hangers-on linger in the shadows like hungry curs. A kind of madness begins to unfold. This is it then. The start of the night and the end of the road.
For the years making this film with Liam has left us with many other images, other memories. Dark intense days at Ardmore Studios. The long way back to Tipperary. Carrick and Helvick Head. Winter walks amongst the trees that Liam planted back home in Ring. Singing sea-shanties late one night on the roof of a hotel in Milwaukee. The constant figure of Kim Clancy, radiant and dignified always. The ghostly melancholic elegance of the Guggenheim Estate on Long Island. A charmed day at Pete Seeger’s home in Upstate New York which reminded me that goodness sometimes does prevail. Odetta in some hotel somewhere in Germany. Pints with Conor B. in Molly’s on Third Avenue. Talking of Robert Frost and W.B. Yeats in the blue dusk of Cape Cod.
Another memory rises now. Here at the Bitter End as the night winds to a close. Liam is on stage. He is singing Shane MacGowan’s song The Broad Majestic Shannon, written for the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem yet sadly never recorded by them. Liam is the last man standing of that fine band of brothers and he sings now as if he is singing for them all.
I stand with Shane in the dim corridor that leads from the shabby dressing room to the stage. Spellbound, we listen quietly to the master’s voice. Our eyes meet. Shane smiles a shy smile, with perhaps just a hint of pride. This is awright, isn’t it? he seems to be saying. A Clancy brother singing one of my fucking songs. Something special then? Maybe even worth remembering? I smile back.
Moments pass. Moments remain. The crowd disperses. The rig gets de-rigged. Liam disappears – totally spent and mind empty – back to the hotel to watch a late-night movie. There’ll be time enough for post-mortems in the morning. At 3.00am we head to Swift’s down near the Bowery. Quiet pints among friends. Daire Brackan and Tom Doorley start up a session and we are lost again in their beautiful music.
Dawn comes suddenly. Somehow, I end up talking about boxing with MacGowan and find myself sparring with him on Fourth Street. Our ‘fight” ends when he finally throws a pint of gin over me and jumps in a taxi. “Goodnight, Joe Doyle”.
I wonder, for a moment, about Liam Clancy, but the thought passes and we’re off in search of breakfast.
The end of the road? The bitter end? Bitter-sweet, more like.