Sunday, November 21, 2010

Elvis is dead, Long Live The King by Ivor Casey

FOR me, aged 13 in 1997, discovering Elvis Presley was like being introduced to a whole new world: a world away from image victimisation and frivolous performers. It was the discovery that music once meant something and there was a time when singers with heart and soul were the most successful in the business. Being a modern day teenager in a society that's intolerant of individualism made it tough to be a fan of a dead singer. While this did distance me from some, Presley's rise educated me about having passion for what one truly believes in and his downfall made me aware of the emotionally strenuous aspects of life.

A chance encounter with the flood of TV tributes on the 20th anniversary of his death engrossed me like nothing had ever done before. His song Always On My Mind was a major hit in Ireland at the time and it was the song's meaning that drew me to Presley. Through it, I was first introduced to the poignant story of Elvis's later years. That song described a man regretting how he had ruined a relationship. It was recorded after Presley's divorce in 1972 and subsequently his life began to spiral downhill until his untimely death in 1977. Singing songs of solitude and despondency to the end, he related his own pathos in the music.

While many are aware of how he contributed to his own decline, it is harder to comprehend why he couldn't help himself. I wanted to understand why a man with such talent and success became so self destructive. Presley was the world's first superstar and he had nobody to take guidance from. Others can now learn from Presley's mistakes but he took the bashing as he made the first moves. Unfortunately, nobody can save their own life once they have lost faith in living. Being a compassionate and sensitive man, suffering from depression and having achieved everything one man can comprehend, Elvis really didn't have too much more to reach for. And some of his goals and ambitions could not be achieved because of the mysterious control his manager had over him. There is the image of the "drug abuser" or, more truthfully, Presley's biological addiction to prescription medicine: in today's world, he would be seen as a victim rather than an abuser.

Presley was a massive phenomenon and it took me time to realise the unique abilities behind his superior singing voice. Emotionally void art snobs bemoaned the fact that he didn't write songs, but I set out to discover something more important than the ability to write lyrics. I discovered that from the time Elvis made his first recording in the summer of 1953, he used natural empathy to bring out the meaning in a song. Elvis embodied the most important human characteristic: feeling. His method of interpreting a song was inspirational. That was the genius of Presley. As our own Irish legend Bono stated, "Elvis had the wisdom that makes wise men look foolish".

Some people have the impertinence to compare this timeless icon to today's fabricated pop stars. No pop stars will ever last over 50 years or equal his charisma, vocal range and the fact he founded a musical style that changed world cultures. Some claim he stole black music but I dare those to challenge the accurate belief of soul god James Brown, who explained, "Elvis wasn't copying. He found his own style".

Later, Elvis did lose touch with his roots but his raw energetic presence is still available to be heard. His is the story of a man who used fortitude to break down the barriers of racist and conservative societies. Once you look past all the unsavoury stereotypes, Elvis Presley was a regular man who was gifted enough to make a teenager from an entirely different generation realise the meaning of music and how it is an essential part of life.

- Ivor Casey

(Ammended from article by Ivor Casey first published in 'The Sunday Independent', 17 August, 2003)

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

John Barry: The Man with The Golden Touch by Ivor Casey

FROM the alluring strings to the dramatic brass, the resplendent tunes of film music composer John Barry were projected across the National Concert Hall in Dublin. This was John Barry’s first time performing in Ireland, having been invited to be the guest of honour by RTE Lyric FM’s Aedín Gormley, for the channel’s Movies and Musicals programme. As the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra took their places, Ms. Gormley opened the show, introducing the evening’s line-up, followed by John Barry himself. The composer walked on stage cheerfully to a rapturous and passionate applause, took a bow and without hesitation, guided the orchestra into his sensational theme to Goldfinger. Keeping, at first, to the James Bond films, which catapulted him to fame, he followed this performance with We Have All The Time In The World from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Unfortunately but understandbly as the guest of honour, John Barry departed the stage to view the rest of the evening from the balconey with his family. He was replaced by the excellent conductor Nicholas Dodd, who took over for the rest of the night. Dodd is also associated with the movie business, having conducted the orchestral scores for the last four James Bond films, as well as other Hollywood hits such as Independence Day and Godzilla. He has mastered a deep understanding of the music of John Barry and was the ideal candidate for the concert, as he energetically conducted the orchestra through many of the exquisite compositions from the great composer.

The RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, lead by Alan Smale on violin, were also at the top of their league, as their renditions of the music were orchestrated flawlessly. Performances included the histrionic score to Zulu, the poignant theme from Somewhere In Time, the moodiness of Midnight Cowboy, the wondrous melody of Born Free and the sensuous sounds from Body Heat, to name just a few. The audience were left enraptured as the music ventured through a range of emotions, inspiring adrenaline and melancholy. The highlights of the event could be found in two of Barry’s greatest works, Out of Africa and Dances With Wolves, delivered in all their lush and thrilling grandeur.

John Barry was born in York, England and now lives in Oyster Bay, New York. He was the son of an Irish born cinema owner and it was the experience and atmosphere of being around movies which inspired Barry, who decided early on that he wanted to compose movie music. He studied music under Stan Kenton and after a three year stint in the army, he began the ‘John Barry Seven’, a rock ‘n’roll band in the 1950’s. Having  become acquainted with the rock ‘n’ roll musician Adam Faith, who went on to star in the film Beat Girl, Barry was granted the opportunity to make his movie soundtrack debut.

This lead a couple of years later to an offer of working on the music for the first James Bond film Dr. No, in 1962. This was to be his breakthrough moment as he went onto compose the music for a further eleven Bond films, which helped elevate him to the legendary status which he hails today. However, it is outside of the James Bond recordings in which Barry’s accolades and genius have reached their highest levels. He is the winner of five academy awards, two for Born Free and one each for The Lion In Winter, Out Of Africa and Dances With Wolves.

Unfortunately Barry has been somewhat misplaced by Hollywood in recent years with its drift away from the melodic splendour and feeling, as found across all of his work. Barry feels that many, often wonderful, film composers today fail to compose melody, which he finds important in a great soundtrack composition. While his work not only incorporates some of the greatest melodies ever written, the emotion behind his music takes on a mythical quality of special symbolic significance, with a deep resonating narrative of passion, pathos and poignancy. Barry exudes the rare ability to strike at the very core of human emotion.

At the climax of the evening, John Barry was invited back on stage, more than once, to another resounding applause and standing ovation, where he conveyed his gratitude for the wonderful reception and was presented with a crystal bowl on behalf of Lyric FM. Although movie music history has many great composers who have created spectacular melodies, it is the combination of melody and tenderness which nobody has perfected quite like John Barry. He is a musician who goes beyond the realms of the movie business, to being possibly the greatest classical composer of our day. It is such attributes that John Barry retains which indeed make him the man with the golden touch on music.

- Ivor Casey
(Ammended article by Ivor Casey covering the exclusive John Barry Concert at the National Concert Hall in Dublin, Ireland in June, 2008)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Leo and the Literary Legend by Ivor Casey

HE was once confronted on the street for bringing ‘that pornographer into Mullingar’. An attack on Joycean scholar and writer Leo Daly, who passed away recently at the age of 90.  He had experienced this attack simply for linking the story of the literary giant, James Joyce, to the Westmeath town, through his book, James Joyce and The Mullingar Connection. A book, which printed in 1975, both linked the work of a highly respected literary legend to a small rural town and brought the knowledge and works of Joyce to a wider audience.

A native of Mullingar, Leo Daly is one of Co. Westmeath’s great writers and historians. Spanning over 30 years his writings have included fiction and non-fiction publications, magazine features and essays, covering many aspects of Irish heritage, literature and local history, often relevant to places such as Mullingar and The Aran Islands.

Up until his passing, Leo resided in his home town of Mullingar, a resident of St. Clair’s Nursing Home and remained an active writer. It was here I met him a few months ago before going for lunch, as I set out to conduct an interview with him about his life and career. As we walked into the Bloomfield Hotel, not far from where he lived, I asked him of the influences on his writing career. He told me, ‘the major influence on my venture into writing was my interest in places such as Aran which had been successfully portrayed by Synge and others in the native language’. The Aran Islands clearly held a place in Leo’s heart as he would go on to write extensively on the history and people of this part of Ireland in both fiction and non-fiction terms, through a series of short stories and books, including Oileáin Árann and The Rock Garden.

Leo was educated at St. Marys College in Mullingar. He later studied drama writing under the British drama league and studied photography at the Agfa school of photo-journalism in Kent, England. He was one of the founding members of the Mullingar Little Theatre and has acted in and produced numerous plays, including Ghosts Strike Back which he wrote commemorating James Joyce and was performed at the Mullingar Arts Centre.

Leo has also produced pantomimes, has contributed photographs to American and Irish publications and has written drama criticisms for various newspapers, both regional and national. Having retired early from psychiatric nursing, Leo Daly followed a career as a writer, photojournalist and editor and has had his work aired on Radio Éireann and was a regular contributer to the famous Sunday Miscellany programme. As well as highlighting James Joyce’s relevance to Mullingar and surrounding areas in various publications, Leo has also told the story of the 7th Century Saint, Colmán of Lynn in the book The Life of  Colmán of Lynn.

Sitting down in the lounge of the Hotel we looked out across Lough Ennell, which fills the panoramic view from where we were seated. A lake with its own literary history, as it is noted as the influence for Jonathan Swift’s Gullivar’s Travels and the story about the people of Lilliput. I continued to ask Leo who he would consider his favourite writer. Leo explained, ‘my favourite writers are those who portray a visual concept rather than those who portray the metaphysical and historical interests of the writer’. Leo then added, ‘James Joyce is concerned with both in his writings and exploits a greater and broader canvas than others, thereby attracting a wider readership’.

Staying on the area of Joyce I asked of his attraction to Joyce’s work and what the inspiration was to produce such a unique book as James Joyce and The Mullingar Connection. ‘My main attraction to Joyce was his versatility, mainly a feature of his early works’ he stated. Leo continued to explain, ‘This feature of Joyce’s writing attracted me to Joyce, leading me to explore an area of Ireland already familiar to me and to an equal extent people and characters I was already familiar with. Thus the characters which Joyce introduced in his Epiphanies were those of the town I lived in’. In regard to the book itself, I was told, ‘Although the book was not well received at the time of its publication, especially by academics, it gained a readership and importance as source material’.

Despite Leo’s feeling that it was not well received, since it was published Leo and this particular book have gained a positive mention in the noted reference book Recent Research On Anglo Irish Writers by Richard J. Finneran. On asking him what was a highlight of his career, Leo smiled as he thought back to the time he was especially invited to give a reading of his paper, James Joyce in the Cloak of St. Patrick at the James Joyce Symposium in Zurich. It was also here, he told me, that he had the delight to meet and interview the American author Marilyn French who had written, The Book As World: James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Having connected a highly respected literary figure with a rural town, it can be found that Leo has contributed to bringing vibrancy and culture to the town of Mullingar. I asked if locals have taken note of this enough but Leo suggested that ‘Mullingar has still to give Joyce an honourable place in the town’s literary acclaim’. Once again we looked out across Lough Ennell and its enchanting illumination of the landscape. Looking beyond the lake, Leo directed me towards the hill of Uisneach, which was the setting for part of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, informing me of one of the many connections between Joyce and the midlands. I asked Leo why he thinks Joyce may have been drawn to the midlands and he suggested, ‘the midlands are the centre of Ireland and to him would have been the centre of the Universe’.

In more recent years, to add to his various talents and literary skills Leo Daly has produced a collection of poetry which was exhibited in St. Claire’s Nursing Home. With an emphasis on humour with witty and honourable descriptions of the staff at the home and descriptions of life as it then stood for the writer, his introductory collection of works were funny and insightful. They combined the natural desire to make you laugh and to make you think. Leo only began writing poetry recently and hopefully this work will eventually get a full publication, adding to his great body of literature.

As a passionate and devoted writer, Leo refused to be idle as he had recently completed writing a new play, which he had been working on for the past decade. Titled, The Jealous Wall, which was the name given to the mock ruin of a castle at Belvedere House in Mullingar, to divide rivalling brothers, this ‘Wall’ encompasses a true story which has now been dramatised by Leo. He described the inspiration for this new play, saying, ‘the story of “The Jealous Wall”, exploiting as it does the history of Lady Mary Rochfort’s conjugal imprisonment by her husband for almost thirty years, is an excellent portrayal of the “Gothic Grotesque”. The fact that the artefacts are still above ground and visible today lends a reality which is seldom encountered today’.

He told me he would be happy to have this drama performed on radio, not only because getting a stage produced play can be quite difficult, but because a lot of it may be better suited to radio. With this project being his most recent endeavour, I dared to ask him what was next after this and if he had any further aspirations and ideas on his mind. He responded, ‘Unfortunately no, time has overtaken my hope of further accomplishments. I can only hope for the best’. Nonetheless Leo has now behind him a fascinating body of work. It could be said that Leo is a writer not fully appreciated in his time but who will certainly go down as one of Ireland’s great literary legends.

- Ivor Casey

(Ammended from article by Ivor Casey  which appeared in 'The Westmeath Examiner' and 'The Sunday Independent')