Every year on April 28th, for the last decade, a couple of us mark the day by playing ‘Fall On Me’ by R.E.M.. Notwithstanding the fact that it’s one of the truly great and most memorable songs of our generation, it’s also, for us, a gentle way of calling time, remembering a close friend we lost overboard along the way.
I went through all sorts of carry-on with Philip over the years and saw most of his many sides as closely as anyone. But I never imagined I’d be one of the chosen, locking arms under his box, carrying him out of The North Cathedral two years shy of his fortieth birthday. Phil was the third classmate of mine from The North Mon to pass away, but it’s not as if we weren’t given a fair heads-up. Twenty years previously, one of our teachers warned us that, life being life, a stark road was ahead of some of us. And that, before leaving school for good, we should all just take one last look around the classroom and clock the faces. ‘There are lads in this room you’ll never want to see again’, he told us. ‘And there are others you’ll never see again’.
I think about Philip most whenever I hear any of his favourite bands. Which is often, given that, wherever he went or wherever he led, I tended to follow closely behind and so our broad, respective collections of wax, cassettes and compact discs were, for years, almost identical. He loved R.E.M. from the off and was still loyally there at the end, making a compelling case for them even after the release of ‘Reveal’ and ‘Around The Sun’, back when some of us, short-sightedly as it happens, had them down as a beaten docket. He particularly loved the opening lines of ‘Fall On Me’ – ‘There’s a problem, feathers, iron. Bargains, buildings, weights and pulleys’ – and he’d quote it liberally, as he did many couplets and rhymes. His repeated, doomed efforts at growing beards were inspired by Michael Stipe as, I suspect, was his fondness for the poetry of Philip Larkin and the short stories of Flannery O’Connor. But he always selected his own words spectacularly well too: like with his favourite bands and writers, he was drawn first to anything just about on the popular side of slightly obtuse.
And he was funny with it too. He saw the spectacular codology in much of what – and who – we encountered during our first, nervy weeks in U.C.C. and even flirted briefly with the English Literature Society purely, it seemed to me, to entertain himself. But he was way more secure at home, with his three-in-one, his records and his tapes, and always had a decent book on the go. He ditched out of college early and never told any of us. And I never once pushed him on the reasons why because you just didn’t do that with him.
Work, life, time and distance eventually forced us apart but, on those many occasions when I stepped off of the bus or the train having come back home to Cork, he was always and forever the first one I’d seek out. And if he was busy with a customer inside the clothes shop where he worked, I’d loiter around the doorway on Patrick Street until he’d seen them on their way, almost always having dropped a fair few lops inside. You were guaranteed a hearty welcome there and he’d always have a batch of freshly-minted cassettes on the go to sustain the weary traveller. Compilations he’d pored over at home, compiled with absolute devotion and completed with carefully inked inlays in his perfect hand- writing.
One of the quirkier aspects of what was a most unusual store was how, with Phil on the premises, the musical accompaniment there was always so utterly out of kilter with its surroundings, which were generally austere and stuffy. For the most part, Mannix And Culhane did pricey gear for the aspiring local toff or the perspiring merchant prince’s young fella: Argyle v-necks, slip-overs, cardigans and the like. And yet, from a small sound-system over by the cash register you’d hear all kinds of unrestrained wonder – McCarthy, The Woodentops, Teenage Fanclub, The Sundays, Prefab Sprout, Into Paradise, Trash Can Sinatras and The Blue Nile – soundtracking the haughty range of Farah slacks and Magee tweeds.
Hanging around the front of that shop just became something many of us did, part of a routine for those of us seeking, from Philip, either validation, raw gossip or absolution. Others simply killed time there while stuck in the middle of town. Once in a while, Phil would sell one of us a decent leather jacket or a classy winter coat but, for the most part, you called in there to just chat it all out and, more often than not, that chat was almost exclusively about music. The late Brendan Butler from LMNO Pelican, Kevin Sull, Pat Sca, Derry, John Henchion, Avril, Morty, Paul Mac, Ashley, Mary Buckley and Jim Comic were just some of those regular visitors to the front-step of Mannix And Culhane: their names freely popped the conversation whenever the two of us caught up. If they ever erect a series of plaques in Cork commemorating the city’s most influential music landmarks, they’ll certainly have to slap something up over the door at the four-storeys at 59, Patrick Street.
I can’t remember exactly when and I have no idea how much it cost, but I do know that Philip bought his acoustic guitar from The Swap Shop on McCurtain Street, a narrow, musty premises where records and history were traded freely and where, on the side walls down towards the back, were mounted a host of second-hand instruments. And once a week for what seemed like an eternity, Phil would take the bus from town out to Sinéad Lohan’s late father, John, over on the southside, where they’d go through the rudiments together and work the frets. For years, that guitar was a constant and Philip mastered some of his own favourites quickly enough: he loved The Las but, typically, preferred ‘Timeless Melody’ to ‘There She Goes’, and learned that one off early. And he wrote the odd song to humour himself too, of which ‘Kevin Drives An Escort’, about a hail fella from the top of Fair Hill we knew, well got, is still stuck in my head. ‘Kevin drives an escort’, it went. ‘It’s battered, beiege and bounces over town’. It’s amazing to think what flashes through your mind when the rain belts back off the window of a speeding train, when your gaze is stuck and your head is cold, going home to bury one of your own kind.
I was there in the room in Sullivan’s Quay school when he jammed with The Frank And Walters, during a time when we felt they maybe needed a little bit more clout and when he slabbed up that shabby old acoustic to help shove them over the line. And there was already a history there: a couple of years previously, it was in Mannix And Culhane that Philip played me one of The Franks’ early demo tapes, after which I just stalked them for decades and helped them to outgrow their bodies. But not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, Philip just wanted to keep it simple, soft and close to home. The Franks were just far too driven for him, a recreational player limited by the parameters he’d built around his own ambition, for whatever reason. Instead, he was happy to stand back and suck it all in from distance, usually a spot by the sound-desk and, by so doing, became a perceptive if unwitting chronicler of music in Cork. For years, we were constantly at each other’s elbows.
The music followed us everywhere. We loved choral singing like we loved the seedy promise of those many, often dismal midweek nights we spent with young, formless bands in back-rooms and bars all over town. Philip had a sweet tenor voice and we sang together for years in the ranks of the male voice choir down in Saint Mary’s Dominican church on Pope’s Quay and in a madrigal group called The Ferry Hill Singers. Our palates knew no boundaries and we’d often swing from Na Filí to Peter Skellern to Ó Riada to The Pale Fountains without blinking: for many years, impervious to the demands of cool, we just couldn’t get enough. But I’ve long wondered if the music was just a handy cover for us ? And if, in the worst traditions of the stunted male mind, the abundance of records, tapes, books and gigs just allowed us to avoid the inconvenient truth ? Did we ever, for instance, enquire of one another how we really felt ? How things really were ?
While I lived briefly in America, Philip would send regular bulletins and keep me in tune with events at home with cuttings, snippets and, naturally enough, his home-spun cassettes. He introduced me to Into Paradise’s ‘Blue Light’ EP during the summer I spent in Holyoke in 1989 but, by then, we were already mainlining The Long Ryders, The Replacements, R.E.M., Green On Red, Guadalcanal Diary and The Byrds. So when I eventually returned home with dozens of rare albums that I’d rescued from the expansive bins in the record shops in Amherst and Northampton – including, bizarrely, a live Cactus World News mini- album recorded at The Whiskey A-Go-Go in Los Angeles – we just set about them like they were going out of fashion. Which, of course, many of them soon were.
Almost all of Philip’s favourite bands were cut in his own likeness: a little lateral, intelligent, warm, proud and complicated underneath the bunker. So little wonder that he took so quickly to The Trash Can Sinatras, with their sparkling guitars, clever wordplays and puns, beautiful harmonies and all-over warmth. He could have easily passed for one of them too, bone-skinny in his tweed jackets, baggy corduroy trousers and permanent wool scarf. Which may explain how he ended up backstage with the band after a sparsely-attended show in Nancy Spain’s in Cork in 1995, as The Trashcans were touring their imperious second album, ‘I’ve Seen Everything’. I used to say, only half- facetiously, that he probably knew the band’s back catalogue better than they did themselves and, if pushed, could have easily picked up a stray guitar and accompanied them through one of their sets.
On one of the last occasions I spent any amount of meaningful time with him, he’d driven up from Cork with Paul Mac to see them in an awful hole in Temple Bar called The Hub, back in 2003. He stayed with Clare and myself in East Wall that night and was full of the joys of it, rhapsodising about family life at home in Cork, about Lorraine and his first child, Seán. We were childless ourselves but had started the process of nesting our two-up, two-down and the talk that night covered far broader ground than usual. Did it take the presence and the persistence of a woman to get us to open up, spit it out and finally move us gingerly across the Rubicon ?
It was in that same house, three years later, that I took the call from one of my sisters telling me that he’d died. After that, I can’t remember much, although the train journey to Cork for the funeral was longer than usual, broken only by the odd, mad memory drawn from God knows where. Like the time outside The Savoy before a Smiths show when we pretended to be members of the support band, The Frank Chickens. I remembered ‘Kevin Drives An Escort’. And John Lohan, who himself passed away at a young age years previously. Pat, one of the two doughty regulars behind the counter at The Swap Shop on McCurtain Street. And the night when, after he’d moved in with me during the summer of 1987, we heard Mark Cagney tell his listeners on Radio 2FM, in the dead of night, that The Smiths had split up.
Earlier this year, a small number of us gathered in Cork to remember Philip, ten years on. ‘Fall On Me’ was, of course, mentioned in passing and, for the umpteenth time, I told the story about The Trash Can Sinatras up in Nancy Spains. At one stage, Philip’s wife, Lorraine, produced a book of old photographs taken way back and there we both were again, gawky and septic, arms invariably around each other, posing as if we were in a band somewhere, sometime. I have no memory of most of those photographs ever being taken but we must have made some effort to ensure they survived the stark road.
One of The Trashcans’ most memorable songs, and a long-standing live favourite, is ‘Twisted And Bent’, one of the singles from the ‘A Happy Pocket’ album. In which the chorus goes :-
‘Remember Phil. Phil, Phil, Phil, Phil.
I knew Phil well. Well, well, well, well’.
And when they play it as part of their set at their forthcoming show at Dublin’s Workman’s Club on November 12th next, a couple of us will acknowledge that yes, we knew Phil well. And, in the same breath, wonder if we ever really knew him at all ?