I rarely watch movies when I’m flying, but on the plane from Chicago to Dublin last November, perusing my options for in-flight entertainment, I stopped in my tracks when I heard that hiss that comes after a stylus is dropped right in the groove, and then a Northern Ireland accent infused with Woodbine cigarettes: “Once upon a time in the city of Belfast, there lived a boy named Terri . . .“
Terri Hooley. Where do I begin, and what can I say that hasn’t already been said about him? In 1977, he opened his own record shop, “Good Vibrations” on Great Victoria Street in Belfast. The next year, under his own record label of the same name, he released “Teenage Kicks” by a relatively unheard-of Derry band, “The Undertones.” I bought the single and played it relentlessly. It was 1978. It was Northern Ireland. When our kitchen windows rattled, we knew it was a bomb somewhere not too far away, and we wanted to be farther away, to escape . . . “get teenage kicks all through the night.”
Now this may seem neither remarkable nor the stuff of a 2012 movie that was playing on my flight back home, except that Terri Hooley opened “Good Vibes” on the most bombed street in Europe, just two years after “the day the music died” in Ireland, and as I watched Richard Dormer’s brilliant portrayal of him in “Good Vibrations,” I was a teenager again, fingering through the sleeves of vinyl records in Ronnie Millar’s Pop-In record shop in Antrim, my hometown, knowing that Ronnie knew what I’d like and if I asked, he’d play it on the record player for everyone in the shop to hear. And when he did, you would never have known that our little country was in the grip of The Troubles.
There were moments on that flight back home when I wanted to jump out of my aisle seat and cheer for Terri Hooley, for Punk Rock, for everyone who bought a record from a smoke-filled shop just down the street from the most bombed hotel in Europe , and for every musician who ever played in Northern Ireland. I think I maybe even understood - if only for a moment – what Joe Strummer of The Clash meant:
When punk rock ruled over Ulster, nobody ever had more excitement and fun. Between the bombings and shootings, the religious hatred and the settling of old scores, punk gave everybody a chance to live for one glorious burning moment.
But when the movie ended and my remembering began, I felt like weeping for all that Northern Ireland lost between those bombings and shootings. I felt guilty for having left it behind when perhaps the better thing would have been to stay and strive to see far beyond the images that flickered on our TV screens at six o’clock every night. Unlike Terri Hooley, I fled.
Ironic then, that I am shocked when some of my American friends refuse to visit Belfast while vacationing in Ireland. They don’t think it’s safe. “But it’s a great city!” I tell them. “The best in the world! And the Antrim Coast is stunningly beautiful.” I urge them to take the train from Belfast to Dublin, to enjoy the full Irish breakfast on the journey, at the same time forgetting all those times my brother had to get off the Belfast to Dublin train and take the bus because of the threat of a bomb on the line.
So what must it have been like for Terri Hooley trying to convince bands to play in Northern Ireland in the 1970s? No small task. Musicians were afraid to play there because of something terrible that had happened in the summer of my twelfth year.
In the early hours of July 31, 1975, five members of The Miami Showband, one of the most popular bands in the country, were travelling home from a gig at the Castle Ballroom in Banbridge. The sixth member, drummer, Ray Millar, had gone home to Antrim instead to stay with family. On the road to Newry, they were flagged down by a group of uniformed men at what appeared to be a routine UDR (Ulster Defense Regiment) army checkpoint. I imagine that like the rest of us they didn’t think anything of it until they were ordered out of their vehicle and told to stand by the roadside while it was checked.
I don’t know if, while standing on the side of the road, The Miami Showband realized that this was not an army checkpoint and that they were instead the victims of a vicious ambush carried out by members of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). While the band members waited, two of the UVF men – later revealed as members of the Ulster Defense Regiment – planted a bomb in the back of their van.
However, the bomb exploded prematurely, killing both, and in the chaos that followed, the remaining UVF members opened fire, killing three of the band members. There werereports that the handsome young lead singer, Fran O’Toole, had been shot 22 times in the face. Lying on his back on the ground, he was utterly vulnerable to the men who showed no mercy in spite of his pleas. Brian McCoy shot nine times, was the first to die at the scene. Tony Geraghty was also shot in the back – four times. Des McAlea and Stephen Travers survived the blast from the explosion that flung both of them into the air.
Des McAlea suffered only minor injuries and was able to escape into the night; Stephen Travers was seriously wounded, but survived by pretending to be dead. He recalls the gunman kicking the four bodies, to ensure they were all dead.
Sitting here at my computer, almost forty years later, I can recall the shock and revulsion we felt as details of the massacre unfolded in our newspapers and on the radio later that morning. I remember my mother shaking her head in utter disbelief. It was unimaginable – these young men, Catholics and Protestants, darlings of the show band scene, in their prime and adored by thousands of fans north and south of the border, slaughtered in the muck on a country road. Why?
What happened to The Miami Showband left no doubt that musicians were just as much of a target as anyone else. Perhaps we had been in a kind of denial that musicians were somehow immune. Perhaps it was because we saw in the Miami Showband what could be, its members and its audiences crossing all social, religious, and political boundaries.
Some years later, in his address to The Hague Stephen Travers said his band was “a blueprint for social, religious, and political harmony.” I think Terri Hooley may have been working on a similar blueprint, but the odds were against him. In the years following the Miami Showband massacre, musicians were scared. There were some who thought that the musical life of Northern Ireland was over. Performers were afraid to risk their safety, and because of the increased risk, it became wildly expensive for major acts to come from the UK mainland – the cost of insurance premiums soaring given the real threat of hi-jackings and bombings.
Just three years after the slaughter of those young musicians on what became known as “the day the music died,” in Northern Ireland, I remember being shaken to my very core – again – by the inhumanity of people in my country. It was February 18, 1978, and what happened in the restaurant of the La Mon House Hotel in Gransha, outside Belfast, will forever stay with me.
La Mon House was packed that evening with over 400 people, some of whom were there for the annual Irish Collie Club dinner dance. By the end of the night, 12 of those people – including children – were dead, and numerous others seriously injured. The next day, the Provisional IRA admitted responsibility for the attack and for their inadequate nine-minute warning. With cold-blooded premeditation, the IRA had used a meat-hook to attach the deadly bomb to one of the restaurant’s window sills, and the bomb was connected to four canisters of petrol, each filled with home made napalm, a mixture of sugar and petrol, intended to stick to whatever or whomever its flames touched. I remember watching the TV coverage and listening as a reporter describe what happened after the blast – the enormous fireball, some 60 by 40 feet, unrelenting in its ferocity, roared through the Peacock restaurant, engulfing the people in its path in flames and burning many of them beyond recognition.
And almost forty years later and on the other side of the world, I am haunted by a widely disseminated image of the charred remains of someone who died in that horrific explosion.
How could anyone look at that image and look away, unchanged?
Although, I now wonder how I looked at that image – time and again – and still I was not brave enough to stay and do the hard work. To abide.
Unlike me, Terri Hooley didn’t leave Northern Ireland: A lot of my friends passed away. I thought I was going to be the only one left; it was a horrible time, but the idea of leaving Belfast made me feel like a traitor.
Punk Rock was perfect for him. He had an alternative vision for Belfast and its young people, perhaps inspiring Stiff Little Fingers’ “Alternative Ulster.” He was more interested in owing a record shop where kids, Catholic and Protestant, could come together and talk about music. He wanted the kind of place where a kid would be more interested in picking up a guitar than building a bomb. And he was fearless in the pursuit of such a place.
Naturally, then, Terri Hooley loved “The Undertones.” So did I. The Undertones were from Derry, and they knew about “The Troubles,” living and breathing it every day of their lives. They chose not to sing about it. Why would they? If anyone needed an escape, they did. Instead, they sang about the everyday things that mattered to them – and to me – in 1978 – “teenage kicks.” It was unfettered escapism, and it may well have saved us from going down a different road.
Glam rock, punk rock, reggae, blues, pop, classical – my musical education encompassed all of these and more. There were piano lessons, violin lessons, orchestra, choir, but the lessons that stayed with me I learned in Ronnie Millar’s Pop-In record shop, in vinyl.
I spent hours in the Pop-In, flipping through LP after LP, and walking up to the counter with three or four, knowing I would have to whittle my selection down to just one. After all, my school dinner money could only buy so much. I loved the ritual behind buying a new record. It began with carefully opening the album to see if the song lyrics were inside, or a booklet of photographs, or liner notes that would fold out into a full-size poster that would end up on my bedroom wall. I handled my records with care – as did Ronnie. And he would always add a clear plastic cover to protect the album art.
I remember in Mindy’s apartment on the Mork and Mindy show, the cover of Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty” hung on the wall. Naturally, when I went to college in Belfast, living away from home for the first time, the Running on Empty cover hung on my wall too. And was there anything better than opening the album to find a paper sleeve inside that would fold out into a full-size poster, like the one inside Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” That made it on to my wall as well.
And then there was the ritual of playing the record. It requires some effort to listen to music on vinyl. First, you have to actually get up, look through your stack of LPs to find the one you want, remove it carefully from the paper cover, place it on the turntable, drop the stylus right in the groove, sit down again, listen. Then you have to get up again and turn over the LP to hear Side Two. It’s a major investment of time. Shuffling music on an iTunes playlist requires no real commitment at all.
WIth vinyl, it was important to have the right hi-fi system. The first significant and most important purchase of my life was the system I bought in 1983. I enlisted the assistance of an engineering student who lived across the road from me, a few doors down from the Lyric Theater on Ridgeway Street. A purist who would never have watched Top of the Pops but would never have missed the Old Grey Whistle Test, he did his research (imagine, in the days before the Internet!) and found the perfect component system for me – a separate receiver, cassette deck, and a turntable that had a little strobe light, and some fairly impressive speakers.
I think I knew at the time what the 21st century lateadopters of vinyl are discovering – there is no better way to listen to music than on a record. I loved all the pops and crackles, the anticipation before dropping the needle right in the groove, and the audible intake of breath, the hiss before the first line was sung.
When I came home to Antrim on the weekends, I’d make a point of visiting Ronnie Millar’s shop. By that time the Pop In had moved from its original location by Pogue’s Entry and into the shopping center. And by that time, Ronnie Millar knew what I liked (which meant he knew what else I would like). One of the things I remember about him is that he paid attention to his customers and quickly figured out the music they liked– even if he passed judgment on their taste, like the day he asked “Why do you want to buy that rubbish?” when Dennis Ceary from the Dublin Road picked up “Never Mind the Bollocks” by the Sex Pistols.
It hadn’t taken him too long to figure out what I liked. I’d spent hours in there during which he would play something he knew I didn’t know (because, let’s face it, he knew the contents of my entire LP collection and probably everyone else’s in Antrim). And he knew I’d buy it. Not a bad profit cycle! Every once in a while, I’d stump him by asking if he could get a record he hadn’t heard of – but not very often. Even though I could have probably found it in ‘Caroline Records’ or Terri Hooley’s ‘Good Vibrations’ in Belfast, it wasn’t the same as going home to Antrim to ask Ronnie to get it for me. I don’t know when I found out that Ronnie’s brother was the drummer in The Miami Showband, but I have often wondered about the impact of that horrible night on a man who loved and sold music for a living.
All those years when I was collecting vinyl, it didn’t matter when I didn’t have a boyfriend. At some point, I’d convinced myself I would be “left on the shelf” but it didn’t seem that bad given the company I was keeping – Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Lou Reed, The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, John Cougar, and The Horslips. The music made everything better, and one of my fondest memories is of sitting in my bedroom on a Friday night with our dog almost hypnotized watching Joan Armatrading’s “Love and Affection” go around and around on the turntable.
By the late 1980s, I began making cassettes – mix tapes – hundreds of them. Making a mix tape was a labor of love – there was none of this easy downloading, dragging and dropping of music into your iTunes library. No. A mixed tape required hours and hours of opening albums, choosing just the right song, making sure the needle was clean, then dropping it right in the groove, and making sure to press record and pause at exactly the right time. And then you’d give it to some boy or girl, hoping the tunes said what you could not. (Or maybe that was just me.) And then you’d wait for feedback.Those were the days of delayed gratification, and I miss them.
My plan last November was to go through all the boxes of vinyl stored in the roof-space of my parent’s house in County Derry. Inspired by the very cool record shop on Fade Street in Dublin, I was going to bring my favorite albums – the soundtrack of my youth in Northern Ireland – back to Phoenix.
Before we were married, my husband bought me another hi-fi for my apartment. It had the tape deck, CD player, and, the trusty turntable – although by that time, nobody was buying vinyl. Still, I must have believed it would make a comeback, because of that system, I only kept the turntable. He kept asking me why I just didn’t get rid of it, but he knew I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. He would have loved to see me break it out again and play his favorite Lou Reed album. But life barged in, the way it always does, when I was busy making other plans for us, and he never got to see me resurrect the turntable. I would have liked just one more spin.
Maybe, like vinyl, the handwritten letter will make a comeback as well. I am sad that the letter-writing of my youth has fallen out of favor, snuffed out by phonecalls, text messages, Skype, and e-mails that are simply not the same. How I miss opening my mailbox to find the red, white and blue trimmed letter that was its own envelope, light as onion-skin, marked By Air Mail, par avion. And how glad I am to have saved so many to read and reread, these objets d’art, immortal reminders of the people I treasure and who treasure me.
Unlike the evanescence of all the music we download so effortlessly into a virtual cloud, vinyl records give us something to hold on to, something solid that represents a certain spot of time in our lives. This isn’t just nostalgia for my youth, it’s more than that. It’s a reminder that good things were and still are worth waiting for. Like peace – in Northern Ireland.