lst July 1999
Remember The Night - A Tribute to Billy Brown
“Write an obituary on Billy Brown”, said my good friend and editor in chief, Michael O’Hanlon. It was more of an order than a request. Hard to blame Michael, after all someone like me who spent nearly forty years on the road doing the Showband circuit should be able to put it together, with all the right words in the right places, especially about a musician of Billy Brown’s calibre, whose name is spoken with reverence and respect, not just by his fans, but by his contemporaries in the music business. Billy Brown was ‘Apollo’ and the Freshmen arguably the best showband of them all. They certainly elevated the musical standards of an era, and paved the way for the Van Morrisons and the U2’s of today.
The Freshmen strived for perfection in everything they did. Their appearance, their presentation, their performances and their music was a cut above everybody else. Their harmonies were the greatest of any Irish band before or since. And it was Billy Brown who was behind it all. It was Billy who was the musical director, who did the arrangements, and who produced their records. Billy was the music, and he helped make the Freshmen one of the biggest attractions in the country. And the biggest ever to perform in Cork where they filled two major venues in one night, the Arcadia (in those days it was one of the country’s premier ballrooms) and the City Hall. Over 7000 people squeezed into those two big halls to see the Freshmen on that occasion. They had carved their name with pride in the annals of their time, and in doing so became the musical vanguard of a new generation.
But that’s not the Freshmen or the Billy Brown that I knew. Being on the road like they were, one seldom got to see other bands, and then it was on a night off when we were all so sloshed that we didn’t know where we were or what we were looking at half the time. I think I saw the Freshmen on stage twice. Mostly bands bumped into each other after gigs when they were staying in the same hotels. Then it was often a cleverly disguised drinking contest, a kind and gentle slagging match, some innocent renditions of a few popular melodies, lots of harmless fun, topped off with an eviction.
I remember the night I met Billy Brown. We were just coming out of Cashel, heading for Cork, when we came on the accident. It was very dark, there was something in the middle of the road, a car on the opposite side with its lights on, we slowed to a crawl not knowing what was in front of us. First there was the incredibly horrible smell. Then we saw the horse lying across the road with its belly burst open and its guts spilling out and there in the middle, in a swimming pile of blood, lay the body of a man. On the other side was a car, one headlamp still on, the other one smashed and bloodstained. The driver’s door was open.
No Grimm faerie tale, no horror movie, no previous experience in our lives had prepared us for something like this. It was an unbelievably awful scene. We were all numb with shock. I don’t know who said what, or did what, it must have been Sean, anyway somebody took the initiative and a few of the boys waded into the middle, lifted up the body and carried it over and placed it on the bonnet of our Chevy. There was a hospital just up the road. It was more like a castle than a hospital. We drove through the big iron gates and up to a heavy timber front door. One of the lads got out and rang the bell. After a few minutes there was a slamming of bolts, a rattle of chains and eventually the door was opened.
A stooped elderly man with white hair and bloodshot eyes peered out. Our man explained the situation. The elderly gentleman opened back the door, and quick as a flash the rest of the band hopped out of the car and transported the blood-covered body inside. They put him down in a dimly lit hallway in the middle of a polished marble floor. And ran, out the door, into the car, and home. After a while human feelings began to re-emerge. Conversation started up and normality returned. “Was that Boris Karloff who opened the door?” Joe asked.
A few days later we were playing in the Hanger in Galway and down the road in Seapoint were the Freshmen. Both bands were booked into the Oslo Hotel in Salthill and as was to be expected there was a little get-together in the residents’ lounge after the gigs. Everything was going fine, the sandwiches had been served, drinks were being passed around, jokes were being shared, musical arrangements discussed, instruments were starting to appear from under seats, it was warming up to be a typical two-band jam session.
The hotel owner Michael Hannon was standing at the door of the room giving his usual sermon like some missionary preacher in a pulpit, “I’m warning you gents for the last time, there are people upstairs trying to sleep, and if there is just one more complaint, out you go”. For his well-known oration he received a chorus of individual replies, most of them made up of words starting with ‘f’. “Just one more”, he repeated and went back to serving behind the bar.
And then Billy Brown stormed in, no-one realised he was missing before that. “Are you the f***in’ Dixies” he screamed. “We’re also musicians”, said Christy. Billy was fuming “You crazy bastards, do you even know what you did?” He had everyone’s attention but it was Theo who spoke. “No, but I get the feeling you’re going to tell us anyway.” Billy ignored him and carried on. “Last week coming back from a gig in Cork, just outside Cashel, a horse ran across the road in front of me. I tried to avoid him, he tried to avoid me, and we both lost.” Billy was getting dramatic. “Now that was a contest with a horse of a different colour” quipped Joe. Billy continued.
“I knew the horse was badly hurt, he was whining in agony. I got out of the car and went to have a look. It was very hard to see as one of my headlamps had been smashed. But the screaming had stopped and there was this terrible smell. I could just make out the horse lying in the road, I moved closer and then I stumbled and fell forward, everything went black, there was a terrible stench, and I was buried in some kind of goo, I couldn’t breath. It took me some time to realise I’d fallen into the open belly of the horse.” “Wait ‘till Jonah hears about this”, said Christy.
Billy kept going. “I crawled out, I tried to stand up, the smell in the air was killing me, my stomach was churning, my head was spinning”. “You were langers” said Joe. “I was dizzy and I must have passed out. And when I woke up I was in hospital, Cashel Mental Hospital, and it was you put me there. There was nothing wrong with me.” “We just wanted you to feel at home” said Christy. “I’ll drink to that” said Joe. “We’ll all drink to that” echoed every voice in the room.
And here’s to you Billy! Now that you’re playing with that great big showband in the sky. Musicians never die, nor do they fade away, for their music lingers and is passed on. Billy you’ve conquered that fever we call living and moved to a higher plain. You’re up there somewhere playing the sax or the keyboards or teaching the Angels their harmonies, and in between breaks ye swap those tall stories that always begin with “Remember the night...”
Michael also asked me to write a poem or some kind of requiem for Billy. ‘Fraid not, I didn’t really know him all that well. And even if I did, I don’t think I could express my feelings any better than I did a few years ago when Peter Prendergast, manager of the Dixies and of the Arcadia, died. Peter was one of the founding fathers of the showband scene, he was my friend and my mentor.
In the summer of our seasons,
We grew tall and touched the sky,
Never cared for rhymes or reasons,
As glory days went dancing by,
You were always strong and daring,
And triumphed over joy and tears,
Friendship born by our dream sharing,
Developed with the passing years.
Oh! Curse the end to that illusion,
It tore our vision at the seams,
The Reaper with one dark intrusion,
Shattered all those golden dreams.
Still when I hear a church bell ring,
Or gaze on high a sky of blue,
Or when I hear a sweet voice sing,
Old memories are stirred anew.
Farewell to sadness and depair,
For you are only just ahead,
Standing, waiting, smiling there,
Out on the road we all must tread.
This is the end…
…the final showdown
This is the end…
of our small love…
Well, good people of Douglas, the time you have all dreaded is finally at hand. Darragh James McManus, writer, graphic designer and all-round Renaissance Man, is bidding adieu to Douglas Weekly. He is packing his bags, blowing one final, fond kiss to the gallery, and upping sticks to the Big Smoke - Dublin. Well, okay - the Reasonably Big Smoke. I mean, it's not New York or anything, is it?
It's true, folks - I've taken the money and run, straight into the arms of a welcoming world. What can I say? I could invent some dubious justification for doing what I am, but I won't - that would be an insult to both you and me (but mainly you). The main reason, apart from the Playmate personal secretary, the six figure salary and the offer of the Mansion House as living quarters, is this: great and all as working on the Weekly has been, I felt I needed a new challenge.
Time stands still for no man, and Darragh James don't either. It was time to move out, onwards and upwards, never stopping, never looking back, just riding that cold rail all the way, baby, all the way to the end of the line. In the classic words of Jon Bon Jovi's seminal 1990 hit, Blaze of Glory: I don't know where I'm going, only God knows where I been, I'm a devil on the run, a six-gun lover, so catch me if you can!
Anyway, it is natural at times of change to reminiscence on what's gone before - so that's what I'm a-gonna do. When I first started at the Weekly, all those many moons ago, I was but a boy - wet behind the ears, green under the collar and red around the eyes, due to a reckless amount of drink taken the night before. I had barely started to shave, yet here I was, thrust into the hurly-burly of life at the cutting edge of publication.
At first, I was unsure of myself, anxious the way only the truly naïve can be. I would write an ill-tempered piece on how the people of Ireland had sold out on their own culture for multichannel and a cheap soccer shirt, and would think, "How will people react? Will they like my work? Will they be able to relate?" I would fret over the design, pondering the significance of each textbox drawn, debating the placing of each piece of clip art. Douglas Weekly was a naked block of marble, and I didn't speak enough Italian to feel much like Michelangelo.
Well, I soon got into the swing of things, and before I knew it, I was haranguing politicians on the telephone, ranting about everything from the Dole office to Erik Estrada to the new Millennium, and putting the paper together with all the style and pizazz of Yves St Laurent on benzedrine. And didn't you all love it? Go on, admit it - soon, life wasn't worth living without your weekly fix of Darragh James.
I was like a pusher, man, and you all were my willing customers. I get 'em hooked with a little humour, a sniff of controversy, a few pops of movie reviews; until they're down on their knees outside my door, begging me for more, shooting up that stuff that's too good to miss. Sport, cinema, opinion, argument, laughs, and the coolest layouts since Funky Freak Krud magazine went belly-up in '78 - all this in one small but perfectly-formed package. (Actually, I'm 5'11" and weigh about 11-and-a-half stone, but you get my point.)
I guess this is as good a time as any to unburden myself of a secret that has…well, burdened me. I have held this to my heart for too long. It has led to a minor breakdown, the failure of my marriage and an ulcer the size of Sears Towers. Children gathered here today, I have led a double life. For behind the façade of mild-mannered desktop guy and sometime crank caller, I was also:
The Guru!! The Fearsome Guru, Scourge of the Banner, Destroyer of Reputations, the Voice of Truth and Justice, and Major Annoyance in People's Lives. I held kings to ransom, forced the powerful to their knees, and generally banged a good old laugh out of all last summer's carry-on. And sure, where was the harm in that?
Oh yeah, I played the role of Digsy as well. And you know what? Man U are still the Evil Empire. Ha ha ha haaa!!
Anyway, chickie-babes, that's all bridge under the water at this stage of the game. Darragh James is hitting the high road, and not money, Iarnród Éireann nor even God himself could stop me. You know, some religions believe that we all have one path to follow to reach our destiny; or maybe it's something about life being a river down which we must all float like the lotus. Whichever, this is the particular path I'm taking; see you when you get there.
Darragh James McManus
PS: Many thanks to Michael for giving me a job in the first place and for publishing my various rantings in all their many guises. Every success in the future with Douglas Weekly.
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