Back in the late 1980s it was quite hard to find a male Irish pop singer whose emotional temperature ever climbed above lukewarm. There was a lot of bravado in Irish music back then fueled by whiskey and contraband, but there really wasn’t a homegrown version of someone quiet and a bit sensitive and think-ey like Jeff Buckley.
At the time most Irish pop and rock singers sounded like they were always just on the verge of a tremendous revelation. Their music was epic even if daily life in the endless Irish economic recession wasn’t. It was their response to a diet of privation, I suppose.
I could not relate to the mullet headed Bono. To me he looked like a goat on an endless search for a summit.
When I read interviews with him he seemed to belong to an alternate reality, too. He was so serious and so self-involved that the Pet Shop Boys eventually lampooned him by playfully sticking the gay disco hit “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” on top of the Wagnerian overkill of “Where the Streets Have No Name.”
I didn’t want to be blown by the wind or trampled in dust, I decided. I felt – and still feel – that U2 lacked a sense of humor or irony.
Even in their awful Pop phase they still found away to make frivolity weigh too much. It’s why Boy George once advised Bono that if he still hadn’t found what he was looking for he should look behind the drum kit at Larry Mullen Junior.
So in that era I was looking for Irish singers who would, in the words of the band I idolized, say something to me about my life. I found one quite by accident.
One evening in Dublin a friend asked me to accompany her to see Barry Moore, who was also called Luka Bloom she told me. This was already promising. It turned out he was the brother of Christy Moore, and it turned out this was the least interesting thing about him.
We ended up in a white room near a pub off Gardiner Street. Bloom was accompanied by just a sound engineer, a guitar and a microphone.
His playing was so evocative, the songs were often haunting that he held people spellbound. I had never heard or seen anything like him in my life.
There were only about 20 of us in the audience. I was a teenager, but looking at him I thought he looked like a man in search of something.
He appeared to be getting his confidence back, or getting over a heartbreak, or healing something that had been shattered. He was one of the most interesting Irishmen I had ever looked at.
The songs he sang plumbed depths that other Irish singers didn’t seem to know existed. He sang about lost love, he sang U.S. rap songs, he sang about his old da, he sang about atom bombs. He even sang about Donegal.
The lyrics turned out to be unforgettable. That night he sang a song called Dreams In America that has kicked around in my head for 25 years. It’s a song so filled with yearning that it rivets you to the spot. It’s so Irish, so heartfelt, it becomes like a tattoo. Then he sang this:
“I was brought up near the riverside
In a quiet Irish town
An 18-month-old baby
The night they laid my daddy down
Everyone knew everyone
And everybody else as well
My home was filled with sorrow then
Too much for me to tell.”
There isn’t another Irish songwriter of his generation who can do so much so quickly. He could bring you to tears and somehow gladden your heart in a few lines. I have not encountered another Irish talent like him.
Now, in his new book Homeplace, Bloom has assembled the lyrics to the songs that have made him a modern Irish master. His lifelong obsession, the fate of love, is laid bare on every page.
Songwriters work in a different dimension to poets, but Bloom’s Homeplace reminds us how much poetry can be contained in a song.
Sometimes a DJ really can save your life, but songwriters have an even better track record. Read this book and realize what a gift his work is. A ripple that began in my teenage years finds still its echo thanks to these works.
Ed Sheeran’s new album includes traditional Irish songs