BOB DYLAN: CHARGING OF THE GUARDS

The American singer-songwriter, Bob Dylan, who turns 80 years old today, is no stranger to Ireland and to Irish popular culture. So we’ll begin with an obvious reference to the Clancy Brothers, from Tipperary, and Armagh’s Tommy Makem who, in Greenwich Village’s clubs and coffee houses, played re-imagined Irish folk songs that so influenced him that he borrowed some of this material for his own formative sets during the early 1960s. This aspect of Dylan’s career is covered at length in the voluminous Dylan historiography. He has also made several live appearances here over the decades since initially performing in Ireland in May 1966, at Dublin’s Adelphi Cinema. This was the first of two Irish dates on an infamous world tour on which, backed by The Hawks, he was disavowed by anoraks and die-hards for using amplified instruments on some of his songs. One such fundamentalist advised him, from the safety of the bleachers at the Adelphi, to ‘leave it to The Beatles’.   

The critic from Dublin’s Evening Herald newspaper was similarly unimpressed. Describing our hero as ‘a slightly down-at-heel, paperback version of Mick Jagger’, the review of the Adelphi show– filed under the initials, J.K. – concluded that Dylan’s show was ‘brutal’. It’s fair to say that several of his Irish performances ever since have left audiences just as under-whelmed.

But Bob Dylan is still one of the most fascinating and compelling figures in the entire history of popular music. So, it isn’t overly surprising that his career has spawned an industry that parses his every word and tuning which, in the worst traditions of these things, tends to mirror the writer’s output. Much of that critical analysis is excellent, plenty just patently mails it in and a lot of it is impenetrable and best left to completists only.

Rightly or wrongly, I prefer to think of Dylan as an elemental and uncomplicated writer: to my mind, he just does love songs in a way that gets to the core of the human condition better than anyone else. And so, to several generations of us, he is easily the greatest song-writer we’ve ever encountered because, at every single significant personal turn, he sounds like he might be addressing us directly, and with pretty decent, lived-in counsel. Irrespective of your circumstance, Dylan seems to always have a song for you and there’s something achingly re-assuring about that.

Henry Mount Charles was twenty-five years old when, in 1976, he returned to Ireland from London to run Slane Castle for his father who, he claims, was ‘land-rich and cash poor’ and ‘too vulnerable to the ravages of taxation’. Slane Castle is an imposing, 1,500 acre spread in County Meath, located thirty miles from Dublin and, in attempting to make the estate pay its own way, has been sub-let by the Mount Charles family over many decades for an assortment of different purposes. The manor has served as a setting for television and film production and as working organic farm, while the main hall there has hosted a restaurant, a nightclub and has even been used as a mobile recording studio. U2 memorably committed ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ to tape there in 1983 and 1984.

A long-time fan, the setting for a famous Rolling Stones show in 1976 – Knebworth House, a stately Tudor pile in Hertfordshire – wouldn’t have been lost on Henry Mount Charles, and neither were more recent events across county lines. In a newspaper obituary following his death in 2020, the Honourable Desmond Guinness was described by the Irish Independent as ‘a great dandy of his generation’ who ‘lived the gilded life of a fun-loving aristocrat’. Guinness, who long espoused – and financially supported – several community-based initiatives around Kildare and who, among other things, was a founder of the Irish Georgian Society, also makes a couple of interesting cameos in the un-cut history of Irish popular music.  

It was at the Guinness-owned Castletown House in Celbridge that An Garda Siochána raided a late-night birthday party for Philip Lynott the night before Thin Lizzy head-lined Dalymount Park in August, 1977, recovering a serious supply of drugs and making several arrests. And it was on Desmond Guinness’s estate at Leixlip Castle that two rowdy live shows by The Boomtown Rats and The Police took place in 1980, both of them pock-marked by vandalism and disorder. After which Guinness agreed to cover the cost of the repair work required on local properties that had been damaged before, during and after the concerts.

But it was the broader cross-cultural experience at Leixlip Castle that, one suspects, led Mount Charles to open up the grounds at Slane to live popular music. He describes the wide estate in his autobiography, ‘Public Space, Private Life’, as ‘one of the finest natural amphitheatres I have ever cast eyes on’, and quite rightly so. And it was onto that magnificent lawn that an emerging promoter from Togher in Cork, Denis Desmond, working in partnership with a Belfast-based agent, Eamon McCann, and a British firm specialising in outdoor event staging, assembled an Irish-themed line-up for an outdoor show at Slane in August, 1981. That concert was headlined by Thin Lizzy and also featured a young local group, U2, on the undercard.    

With events in Leixlip the previous year still fresh in the minds of local residents, a public meeting was held at one of the bars in Slane in advance of the show and quickly ‘descended into a bit of a shouting match’. During the exchanges, a young man voicing support for the concert was asked to leave the premises. The local Community Council wrote subsequently to Mount Charles, declaring that ‘the people of the area are gravely worried about the risk to person and property if the wrong kind of people should come to the village’, the population of which was just under 700. But on August 16th, 1981, a crowd estimated at close to 20,000, fetched up at Slane Castle to enjoy the sights and sounds and the whole thing went off without major incident. Because of the lack of infrastructure and lighting around the site and on the surrounding roads, the terms of the licence for the show determined that it concluded in daylight and so the whole thing was wrapped up by 9PM.  

The Rolling Stones performed at the same location the following year and attracted a crowd of 70,000 to a show that was promoted by Jim Aiken, an Armagh-born impresario who’d cut his teeth and developed a fine business on the Irish showband circuit that was in its pomp during the mid-1960s. Working with another formidable character, the American promoter, Bill Graham, Aiken secured Bob Dylan for a live show at Slane in August, 1984, which was co-promoted with Mount Charles. Dylan was 43 years old when he landed at Dublin airport for the weekend and was on the road – as he seems to have perpetually been throughout the bulk of his career – plugging a recent album, ‘Infidels’, which was released the previous Autumn. With half-an-eye on the novice MTV generation, that record opens with a couple of Dylan’s finest 1980s cuts, ‘Jokerman’ and ‘Sweetheart Like You’, before slowly melting away over the course of the middle order. It concludes on a high with, if I may, one of my own favourite Dylan songs, ‘Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight’. The album was co-produced by Mark Knopfler who, despite the all-star cast of musicians that populates the record, achieves the barely thinkable and manages to make Dylan sound like Dire Straits.

The 1980s hadn’t been particularly kind to Dylan, nor he to it, and the splattering of styles and influences on ‘Infidels’ – the players include Mick Taylor, once of The Rolling Stones, Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare and Dire Straits’ Alan Clark – is testament to either restlessness or a drifting. Both of which are recurring themes throughout Dylan’s sixty year-long innings. He’d been in prodigious form the previous decade and had first worked with Knopfler on his ‘Slow Train Coming’ elpee in 1979, the first in a trilogy of Christian-slanted records that also includes ‘Saved’ [1980] and ‘Shot of Love’ [1981]. By all standards, those records are oceans removed from the immortal ‘Blood on the Tracks’ [1975] and, commercially and critically, Dylan’s ‘born again’ phase never really caught fire. If nothing else, ‘Infidels’ at least stopped the bleed but the thought that it might entice casual fans to a day out in Slane seemed fanciful enough.

Dylan’s 1984 show at Slane will, unfortunately, be forever remembered more for events away from the concert stage than for our main man’s long, career-marking performance on it. Ticket sales for the European leg of the ‘Infidels’ tour had been slow and the Slane bill, already featuring the American rock outfit, Santana, was further bulked by the addition of a popular soft reggae band from Birmingham, UB40, and a curious local collective, In Tua Nua, who’d recently launched a debut single, ‘Coming Thru’, on U2’s Mother Records. Unusually, the concert was scheduled for a Sunday night and not, as had previously been the case in 1981 and 1982 – when The Rolling Stones headlined the second ever Slane live show – on a Saturday.

In advance of the event, late-night bar extensions were granted to publicans in Slane against the wishes of local Gardaí, who opposed them in court. And once the pubs stopped serving in the early hours of the day of the concert, a night of violence and mayhem broke out in the village. Gangs fought among themselves and with the Gardaí, the local station was put under siege and a police van set alight. Slane’s Post Office was ransacked and running battles took place throughout the night, both in the village itself and at some of the campsites around it. Twenty-five people were injured and taken to hospital, six Gardaí among them, and locals were left traumatised. Among them Henry Mount Charles himself who, he says, ‘felt like death’ on seeing what was unfolding before him outside the gates of his estate.

Dylan’s appearance at Slane was covered at length by all of the national outlets the following day but it was the rioting that led the front-pages. In the accompanying black-and-white photographs, the village looks like a war-zone and the finger of blame was pointed early and often. The Gardaí were unequivocal: ‘the cider and drugs brigade’ caused the mayhem. Henry Mount Charles described the trouble-makers as ‘a crowd of gurriers’, local residents vowed to never again allow live music anywhere near the site at Slane and many referred to the lack of adequate policing around the village before the show.

Jim Aiken attempted to strike a pragmatic and balanced tone and referred to ‘a small minority’ in a concert crowd estimated to have been in the region of 50,000 people, down considerably on the numbers who attended the Rolling Stones’ show the summer previously. The Irish Press newspaper was far less circumspect. According to one of its reporters in Slane, ‘the last of the intense fighting took place on the Collon Road near a large campsite where there was a strong contingent of northerners who taunted the Gardaí with cries of ‘You Free State bastards’’.

The news, on the night of the concert, that a nineteen-year-old man from Kilmainham had drowned earlier that afternoon as he attempted to swim across the River Boyne and gain access to the site, only compounded the darkness of the weekend further.

All of which has long detracted from Dylan’s performance – all three hours of it – during which he knocked out an array of his many hits with the help of a magnificent backing band that included Mick Taylor on guitar. He was joined for an encore by Van Morrison, who duetted with him on ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ and who then performed one of his own songs, ‘Tupelo Honey’, the title-track from his fifth elpee. Bono joined the party just before matters concluded and, in effect, kick-started a relationship with Dylan that endures to this day.

Despite the fall-out, and especially the trenched position taken by some of the Slane residents who had long contested the staging of live concerts on the grounds of the estate, shows on the manse went on. The following summer – on the day of my seventeenth birthday – Bruce Springsteen played an absolutely storming set in support of his ‘Born in the USA’ album and, in the years since, Slane has hosted an array of huge – and middling – international acts. And also Guns n’ Roses.

It’s perhaps worth noting how, in the run-up to Dylan’s show at  Slane, Henry Mount Charles was also busy elsewhere; he’d been attempting to snare a Fine Gael nomination for an up-coming by-election in Laois-Offaly, caused by the premature death of the Fianna Fáil TD, Ber Cowen. Mount Charles failed to secure a slot on the ticket and history records that Cowen’s son, Brian, kept the seat in the family, where it resides to this day. Mount Charles’s political leanings were apparent in the hospitality area at Slane on the day of the Dylan show, and the back-stage was heavily populated with the trendier end of the Fine Gael parliamentary party. Also in attendance, according to a report in The Irish Independent, was the Labour senator, Michael D. Higgins, who fetched up for the occasion in a vintage black leather jacket.

2 thoughts on “BOB DYLAN: CHARGING OF THE GUARDS

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  1. Colm,have a suspicion that the JK critic was one Joe Kennedy , we relied on George Hodnett in The Irish Times to get the clarion call of the sixties. The first full time popular music correspondent was appointed by the Evening Herald in the early seventies, Tony Wilson formerly of Melody Maker and nowadays residing in Texas. Shortly after I joined RTE in the late eighties the late Ciaran MacMathuna recalled seeing Bob in Greenwich Village in the company of Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy and Ciaran recorded Jesse Fuller on the night on his Nagra , subsequently it received its maiden broadcast on Bluestime….

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