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 Mark Geary at  Subterranean Sounds , Waterford City. Sunday 18 March, 2018. Courtesy:  Subterranean Sounds

Mark Geary at Subterranean Sounds, Waterford City. Sunday 18 March, 2018. Courtesy: Subterranean Sounds

 

TOWARDS ♫ GRACELAND

An art critic walks into a bar... 

By JAMES MERRIGAN  |March 22, 2018


 

“...those that confuse rhetoric with reality, and the plausible with the possible, will gain the popular ascendency with their seemingly swift and simple solutions to every world problem”.

(from President John F. Kennedy's undelivered speech,1963.)


 

“I don’t like the idea that people who aren’t adolescents make records. Adolescents make the best records. Except for Paul Simon. Except for ‘Graceland’. He’s hit a new plateau there, but he’s writing to his own age group. ‘Graceland’ is something new.”

(Joe Strummer, The Clash, 1988.)


 

“...all I have to offer is myself”.

(Chris Marker, avant-garde filmmaker)


 

SUBTERRANEAN SOUNDS is an upstairs manifestation of a basement ideal, promoting LIVE Irish and international music in Waterford City. Located up a narrow flight of stairs in Phil Grimes Bar, the venue visually drifts between dreamy opium den and Rathmines bedsit. Red Candles, yellow LEDs and pink velvet curtains are wrapped in a homemade banner wherein the two elegant A’s in SUBTERRANEAN look like a woman’s fingers. Longer than wide, the bar stools step-stone to the stage, upon which singles slouch and couples brace each other against the tide of bar and restroom restless. As an art critic the DIY aesthetic was a dialect I already spoke, the only difference here is ears are prioritised over eyes. But before Mark Geary’s voice and guitar took to the stage – the reason I came to be here in the first place for the first time – all I had were my eyes and memories to go on.  

 
 Mark Geary, Lisdoonvarna 2003, RDS, Dublin. Photo: Roger Woolman

Mark Geary, Lisdoonvarna 2003, RDS, Dublin. Photo: Roger Woolman

 

I was an art student living in a Ranelagh bedsit with my future wife in 2003 when I first experienced Mark Geary LIVE at the RDS. That day I remember the crowd getting off on the joyous camaraderie as Irish artist Glen Hansard and American artist Josh Ritter came on stage to join Geary – a 'shaver' in a big suit on a Brobdingnagian stage. Somehow Geary elicited joy from the crowd even though his Lyricverse is in no way near the orbit of the ecstatic. As one state-the-obvious Hot Press writer offered in a review of a Geary gig (we also attended) in Whelan’s in 2009: "[Geary] suffers the curse of the pensive singer-songwriter; he’s not vying for commercial success, yet he’s unable to pack venues without it”. Seriously? But I kind of get what the writer was getting at. In an interview with Paul Simon on Late Night with David Letterman in 1986 following the release of the critically and commercially successful ‘Graceland’ (Mark Geary’s beautiful rendition of the title track being the main compulsion to write here), Letterman equated artistic success with commercial success: 

 

Paul Simon:  “What I’m interested in is... well, actually, whatever I’m interested in (laughs). And in this particular case (keeps laughing) the area I was interested in became a popular hit. In the early days when I had hits with Simon and Garfunkel everything that I was interested in, or wrote, was also of interest to my generation so they were hits. Then you drift off into your own area and they are not hits. But in this particular case people liked 'Graceland' and South African music as much as I did.”

David Letterman: And it must have been very, very satisfying to you for several reasons... and I don’t want to belabour this, but it seems to me like, that after you’ve been doing it for twenty some years, to at this stage to be able to, you know, find that magic again, that must have been very exciting.

PS: Well, my point is that, it’s not like finding magic again it's just... I do my work because I’m interested in my work. You mean I found magic because it was a hit? 

 

One part of me loves Paul Simon’s response to David Letterman, but the other part sees Simon being overly defensive with a man whose job was to entertain the masses, averaging three million viewers in the mid-1980s when Letterman was the US television host with the populist mostest. Simon realises this too as he catches up with himself mid-interview with a smile of self-realisation. And anyway, can we really deduce from Simon’s logic that cultural synchronicity between the mined personal truths of the artist and the collective truth of the greater public is a card game of *SNAP* when it comes to artistic “magic” and commercial success? When on earth did these two things become a thing?

 
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Between songs in Phil Grimes Pub, Geary shared that he “sweat blood” for his lyrics and his mother was never as happy as when she was listening to sad songs by Tammy Wynette among others. There’s a strange optimism in Geary’s baggage. But it's the generous autobiographical baggage shared within songs and between songs that ingratiates Geary with his audience. 

Rooted in Americana, but more bungalow-longing than New York skyscraper tall, Geary’s tales perform as ‘You did this’ and ‘I did that’ tête-à-têtes. Geary has an uncanny knack for grounding his songs in an intimate setting were love is found or love is lost. It’s the small, dark, after-hours world that Geary spreads his lyrics and emotions, warm and dark. Whether in New York – his fable-rich home from home – where as a young man he frequented all-night cinemas after his bartending shift to experience the dirty makeups and breakups in the indigo A.M., or Wyoming, where he shared a story of escapism and desolate isolation, that all turns out darkly comic in the end. You had to be there I suppose. And that's the point – you had to be there. People that make the effort to experience singer-songwriters LIVE like Geary, go to experience it together. It's a shared experience; especially here in the upstairs underground of Subterranean Sounds. And with Geary embracing his songs’ lyrics like he is living them in the present, releasing a smile or an ache in anticipation of his sometimes exaggerated phrasing, you feel uncensored. Yet not enough to sing along. We are modern Irish after all for whom the jig is up. 

My eyes plugged, my ears open, I was there to get out of my own head and into someone else’s. I hadn’t intended to bring my words with me, which I automatically do on entering a gallery. This was a break from all that. That is until Geary sang Paul Simon’s Graceland. At first I didn’t recognise it, but Geary’s opening riff was familiar, very familiar, too familiar, so familiar that before I knew it I was a kid of the 1980s again. I remember listening to my brother’s copy of ‘Graceland’ rustling under the needle. As David Byrne of Talking Heads observes: “'Graceland' was a Paul Simon record that rocked a little harder than some of the ones just before that. The ones before of course had great songs; this one had a little more low-end going on.”

But back then the vinyl album was a low-end experience anyway – if 'low-end' means engrained noise and latent textures: the paper sleeve that buckled in the awkward extraction of the record, the lift of the arm, the drop of the needle, the scratch, the Saturn rings and ridges that measured time all the while impossibly divining music from a flat lacquered universe. In those days I stayed put when listening to music because I had committed to this material process that had a beginning, middle and end: no shuffle. I always hated the ‘Greatest Hits’ concept.

“I still listen to music from start to finish. I enjoy full albums. I mean, why would you only watch twenty minutes of a great film? So I still write like that, I write songs about love, songs about leaving, being in relationships and out of them.” (Mark Geary, interview, 2012)

 
 Simon & Garfunkel

Simon & Garfunkel

 

Geary singing Simon’s Graceland fits; more than fits. It felt complete the other night as the audience pressed their lips together to hmmmmmmmmm in mimesis. I won’t even try to compete by paraphrasing what Rob Tannebaum wrote in Rolling Stone in 1997 on the title track from 'Graceland': “And in the brilliant Graceland (a peak in Simon's career), Elvis Presley's gaudy, impenetrable home stands as a glorious symbol of redemption. The narrator, who's running from a broken relationship, announces he has "reason to believe" he'll be welcomed in Graceland. The knowledge that Presley died bloated, addicted and isolated doesn't deter the song's giddy faith in his legend.”

Breakups are a big subject in Geary’s and Simon’s poetics. I know nothing beyond the ‘You did this’ and ‘I did that’ relationships in Geary’s world, but Simon, since the age of 11, has spent a lifetime breaking up and making up with Art Garfunkel. And it’s no surprise that Geary has a song titled Battle of Troy, signifying the biggest mythological breakup in the ancient world among friends and countrymen, and all staged upon world-shattering LOVE.

But 'faith' also plays a part in Geary's and Simon's songwriting. Tannebaum refers to “giddy faith” in response to Simon’s Graceland, a word combination that has something uncanny lurking between; while Geary proffered “Come little fire, save my faith” upstairs in Subterranean Sounds. Between Paul Simon and Mark Geary there is a lot of ‘wanting to be saved’, to be redeemed. 

JFK never got to warn us of the perils of confusing “rhetoric with reality" because he was assassinated on the way to delivering his speech in Dallas in 1963. He was 46. His prophetic words chime with the contemporary times as we enter an increasingly rhetorical political and virtual present that seems more and more irredeemable. So I will leave you with Paul Simon’s words of individual redemption, in which hope is waiting for him on the horizon.  
 

 

Graceland

The Mississippi Delta was shining
Like a National guitar
I am following the river
Down the highway
Through the cradle of the civil war
I'm going to Graceland
Graceland
In Memphis Tennessee
I'm going to Graceland
Poor boys and pilgrims with families
And we are going to Graceland
My traveling companion is nine years old
He is the child of my first marriage
But I've reason to believe
We both will be received
In Graceland

She comes back to tell me she's gone
As if I didn't know that
As if I didn't know my own bed
As if I'd never noticed
The way she brushed her hair from her forehead
And she said losing love
Is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you're blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow

I'm going to Graceland
Memphis Tennessee
I'm going to Graceland
Poor boys and pilgrims with families
And we are going to Graceland

And my traveling companions
Are ghosts and empty sockets
I'm looking at ghosts and empties
But I've reason to believe
We all will be received
In Graceland

There is a girl in New York City
Who calls herself the human trampoline
And sometimes when I'm falling, flying
Or tumbling in turmoil I say
Oh, so this is what she means
She means we're bouncing into Graceland
And I see losing love
Is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you're blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow

In Graceland, in Graceland
I'm going to Graceland
For reasons I cannot explain
There's some part of me wants to see
Graceland
And I may be obliged to defend
Every love, every ending
Or maybe there's no obligations now
Maybe I've a reason to believe
We all will be received
In Graceland


Songwriter: Paul Simon
Graceland lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group



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