No one in Belfast was thinking about the sugary pop songs of the Beach Boys in the 1970s when the Troubles were at their height. Instead, people were trying to make it home without being shot or blown up by the various factions and the seemingly never-ending war.
Well, one person actually was thinking about the Beach Boys, even in the darkest days of that conflict it turns out. Step forward Terri Hooley, anarchist and free spirit who had no time for sectarianism, bombs, or bad vibes.
Hooley was the kind of holy madman who would open a record shop in the famed Bomb Alley of Victoria Street in Belfast, a byword for crisis and chaos. Where others were busy running for the hills Hooley was lining up rock records, convinced that if he built it the public would come.
In "Good Vibrations: A Punk Rock Musical," now playing through July 16 at the Irish Arts Center, Hooley's 'never say die' story is recounted in song, music, and dance in a show that asks you to appreciate the bright light that trailblazers can shine in the darkest of days.
Don't imagine that his efforts made him friends everywhere he went, though. Hooley was first wondered at, but then he was emphatically resisted. To paraphrase Madonna, 'music makes the people come together,' and there were a lot of people back then – as indeed there are still now – who were determined to prevent peace and love from ever happening in Belfast.
Hooley, as the show reminds us, was first targeted by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, then by loyalist gangs, then by Neo-Nazis, all of them hell-bent on clipping his wings.
“Well, if I’m gonna stay here and they’re gonna kill me, they might as well kill me doing something I love,” he says at one point in the new show, demonstrating just how deeply he objected to the sectarian, sour society that he refused to be reduced to.
But let's take a moment to acknowledge the sheer courage and conviction it took to be that man, at that moment, insisting on the power of rock and roll to take you out of your diminished circumstances and then out of yourself and change the world.
Part of it was that he couldn't help himself, "Good Vibrations" shows us. Hooley had the funk and initially, that was all there was to it. From Hank Willams to Van Morrison to The Shangri-Las, his obsession was music and if the society didn't fit to accommodate him, then society itself would have to change.
The music that powers this musical is already well known, from the aforementioned groups to local acts like The Undertones and Stiff Little Fingers, so it helps that the tracks are so good they're like bookmarks in culture.
In fact, I would say Teenage Kicks is a high water mark in rock history, and Alternative Ulster is one of the most potent expressions of idealistic youth pushing back against faithless age that has ever been written.
There's no question these punk rock songs are among the greatest ever recorded, but at the preview I attended I started to wonder if Hooely's story, inspirational as is it, has the legs to carry it all the way to Broadway?
"Good Vibrations" focuses almost exclusively on the legendary real-life Belfast man, his life and times, his strengths and weaknesses, and his determination to let the world know that world-class rock music was being written right at home.
But I often found myself wanting to get back to the music and the people who had written it. Fergal Sharkey and his bandmates make a tantalizingly brief appearance, considering their importance to this story and to rock. Stiff Little Fingers and The Outcasts and Rudi are also here and gone before you can say who's yer wan?
Perhaps it's a case of Belfast celebrating one of its own first and foremost, and whilst that's understandable, it's really that music and the bands that have the name recognition here in the States. So if you come for the latter, the show can be a slightly frustrating experience.
Hooley is a saintly figure in so many ways, but he is far from a saint. He leaves his wife on the night his daughter is born to attend and go backstage after a Siouxsie and the Banshees concert. That's the kind of behavior that makes his wife Ruth (played with wonderful poignancy by Jayne Wisener) finally understand that the real love of his life is someone else.
As the lead, Glen Wallace takes an episodic script and fills it with great feeling and fun, in an all-electric performance worthy of his character. He lets us see Hooley in full, warts and all.
But Americans in particular will have a hard time understanding why Hooley repeatedly turns down easy money, success, fame, and all the usual rock and roll trappings in favor of one glorious night in the Ulster Hall when the bands he represents turn the Troubles and their attendant misery upside down.
He was never in it for the cash, "Good Vibrations" reminds us. Instead, here's a real-life radical whose interest is culture, not commerce. For Hooley, what really matters is social impact and inspiration and the music that results from it. It's the whole story for him, not just a part.
In one sense, Hooley may have been more punk rock than the rockers he represented, but as a reviewer, I found myself wanting to know more about the bands and singers on the other side of that idealism. We see a little bit of their frustration but the bigger picture is gently canonizing this man and so the scenes never linger.
The direction by Des Kennedy keeps things moving but sometimes the blocking is fairly chaotic, I suppose befitting the times and the characters. Less charitably though things can get a little crowded onstage and we can lose the point or purpose of the next big musical ensemble even as it's happening.
There's no doubt that Hooley did something remarkable in a terrible time. In fact, he was one of the most incendiary devices that the Troubles ever saw. Wallace plays him pitch perfectly as a man more sinned against than sinning, and that seems true, although we do see an insensitive side and a side that you want to violently shake as he gives away gold for pennies in so many areas of his life.
But it's not the man but the spirit of Belfast that really raises the roof in "Good Vibrations." That's a collective effort and at its best, this musical has the power to get you jumping to your feet in celebration of these matchless tunes. Here is life, it's not insult and hatred, it's music and singing and celebration, and it's all ours even in the darkest times, this high rocking show says.
"Good Vibrations: A Punk Rock Musical" is playing through July 16 at The Irish Arts Center.