FolkWorld Issue 38 03/2009; Article by Sean Laffey

Still Turning
Liam Clancy's Wheels of Life

Consider, being in the right place at the right time, the Dickensian conundrum of the best of times and the worst of times, even the old “the time of your life.” At 73 Liam Clancy has known enough times to have a shoe box of memories for each of those categories, and more. Then there’s the idea of the moment and thereby hangs the tale of this interview. Timeliness, writes Sean Laffey, now there’s a tangled concept for you.

We had planned this story to be the big feature in the November issue of Irish Music Magazine in good time to herald the release of Liam’s Wheels of Life CD which hit the stores on October 31st (on the Dolphin label). You might think the album would be another of those essential compilations in the sense of essence not necessity, but no, the new album is a new album, made at his studio in Ring in Waterford’s Gealtacht.

He made it with some of the best in the business on it: boasting Mary Black, Gemma Hayes, Donovan, Tom Paxton as guests, a house band featuring Kevin Evans (who produced the album as well as playing guitar), Paul Grant,

Liam Clancy

Liam Clancy @ FolkWorld: FW #2, #38

Icon Sound @ Icon Movie @
Danú’s Muireann NicAmhlaoibh and Slide fiddler Daire Bracken, not to mention the talents of Liam’s son Donal. Liam says modestly, “that’s what happens when your stock is running high; people want to see you, they want to work with you.” He counts himself lucky that he is still in a position to be making a living at the thing he loves, live performance.

Now why the delay? The reason is purely medical, Mr Clancy was not well. You see Liam although he is taking things a little easier these days, he is still working, inevitably in the world of Irish music that involves the odd trans-Atlantic flight to play to his loyal fans in the USA. He was booked to headline the 2008 ICONS festival in Boston and that is where things began to slip. He reacted to some new medication and found himself in New England as weak as dishwater. “Old Dr, Grease Paint got me through the live gigs in Boston” he told me, “My wife Kim said I hadn’t performed as well for forty years. It was a huge lift being on stage, a magical rejuvenation when all those health problems seemed to fade away, but the down side came when I walked off.” When he returned to Ireland the Doctor ordered rest, and a visit to the hospital in Cork for an NCT, this meant things like a few gigs had to be postponed and inevitably our interview was shifted to accommodate his recovery.

So instead of me running down to Ring we settled for an hour of chat on the phone and I have to say it was a very stimulating way to pass a wet Sunday in November. The good news is that Liam got the all clear from Cork and his medication has been sorted out. He’ll be back gigging around Ireland in the winter pf 2009.

His popularity is still high as we all realised when his “The Essential Liam Clancy” album from Dolphin became the biggest selling folk album of 2006, (on which yours truly sang a few lines in the backing chorus on a couple of numbers, thanks Liam).He now performs on his own terms, no more the gruelling schedule of multiple events in a week, no more the months away from home; he can pick and choose where and when and for how much. Working with Clonmel based David Teevan (the man behind the Junction Festival), Liam is now his own promoter, and he has full control. Everyone wins, the houses are full, he gives a better performance and the audience are treated to something magical each night. “When you start off, right at the start of your career, you can be guilty of trying too hard, and you know it doesn’t work, it’s like the old teacher, the fella who’s been at it a lifetime, they just know how to do it, I’m drifting into that territory now.” He chuckles.

The new album has a very contemporary feel to it; you won’t find the hard drinking ballads of the Clancy’s boozy days. Liam laughs about this and does an impression of Luke Kelly. “I remember singing Home Boys Home with him, you know all loud and raucous … Home Boys Home, but on this album I’m in a gentler mood. I’ve gone back to what is probably the original song to Ambletown, which is more reflective; it’s about sorting out your priorities.” The song is a bell-weather for the mood of the album, there’s a sense of knowing where the centre is and what that centre means, for Liam and I suspect for most of us, the safest island in our stormy lives is family. So we talk a little about the first Clancy festival held last summer in his home town of Carrick on Suir. At that event Liam the last surviving Clancy brother, began a monologue on his childhood days, telling tales of his escapades on the banks of the river Suir, the antics of carefree unfettered youth, games and daring adventures all within a safe mile of home. That monologue moved into the Dave Mallet song I Knew this Place, he calls it out to me over the telephone, word perfect:

I knew this place, I knew it well,
Every sound and every smell,
And every time I walked I fell
For the first two years or so.
   There across the grassy yard,
I a young boy runnin' hard.
Brown and bruised and battle scarred
And lost in sweet illusion.

He skips to the nub of the final two verses:

And all these thoughts come back to me
Like ships across a friendly sea,
Like breezes blowing endlessly,
Like rivers running deep.
   The day is done. The lights are low,
The wheels of life are turning slow
And as these visions turn and go,
I lay me down to sleep.

We’ve always known songs are important to Liam Clancy, and we know that words drew him as young actor into the artistic whirlpool of New York in the 1950s. I ask him, does he thinks it’s harder now for a young performer to make a mark? “Back then we had a sense that we were part of a changing world and that we could make those changes happen.

Liam Clancy, The Wheels of Life

1. Follow On 2. Talk to Me of Mendocino 3. John Cook 4. The Broad Majestic Shan-non 5. Shenandoah 6. Ambletown 7. Phil Brown 8. Roseville Fair 9. I Knew This Place 10. Dónal Óg 11. The Last Thing on My Mind 12. Catch the Wind

It’s not like now where things are driven by money and greed, where you get the sense of things being over-managed, where your next move is always calculated. In the 1960s there was a real sense that singing about the world could actually change it.” That difference was as likely to be personal as political. He cites the song Talk to Me of Mendocino by Kate McGarrigle which he sings as a duet with Mary Black on the album. It has an autobiographical feel for him, as it tells about coming of age and finding your identity in the Big Apple.

New York is still key to getting near the real Liam Clancy and it is part of another project he is working on with the TV producer Alan Gilsenen. Readers in Ireland may have seen a TG4 Show of Liam performing live in New York which aired in October. The footage from that gig is now out on a DVD, which also looks at the Life of Liam.

He tells me that he is hugely impressed with the work of Gilsenen and his crew. As a young man in American he was the centre of too much amorous attention by a famous heiress, the relationship was crushing, and if it had run its course he might never had been allowed his full artistic destiny, something which came to light during the making of the documentary. He singles out the researcher Hanna Rodgers who was able to find the infamous farm cottage in Connecticut in which Diane Hamilton Guggenheim attempted suicide on the night Liam ended their one sided affair. “To find the house after so many years, after fifty years in fact, was remarkable, to see it almost as the day I left it. That was unsettling. It’s an old place hand built in the 1880s with hand adzed timbers, very rustic, nothing grand or fancy and the people who have it now have changed very little. To revisit the place where your life changes forever, that’s a sobering moment.”

His trip to New York wasn’t without its light hearted moments. “Donal and I were visiting an old friend, a bar keeper, only to find out that he had died since our last visit. So we had a couple of beers to reflect awhile, when who should come in but the bold Shane McGowan He comes up to me” (At this point Liam slips into a Cockney twang). ““Hello Liam, why the F** haven’t you recorded that song I wrote for you?”” Liam told Shane that he couldn’t understand the words, so Shane tried singing it again, and again his words didn’t fully register. “Some of his minders got me the song on a bit of paper” he tells me. The song, to which Liam gave a new tune, is the Broad Majestic Shannon, a modern yet timeless ballad about the Irish in exile and another song centred on simple pleasures of innocent youth.

The last time I saw you was down at the Greeks
There was whiskey on Sunday and tears on our cheeks
You sang me a song as pure as the breeze
Blowing up the road to Glenaveigh
I sat for a while at the cross at Finnoe
Where young lovers would meet when the flowers were in bloom
Heard the men coming home from the fair at Shinrone
Their hearts in Tipperary wherever they go

Not that all the songs on the album are so nostalgic, indeed the opener Paul Brady’s Follow On, which dates from the times of the trouble in the North of Ireland can be re-interpreted for a modern age: imagine factories closing, communities in turmoil, victims of Wall Street speculators, gamblers and chancers:

Shutters on the windows, chains upon the door
Sleepless nights spent waiting for an answer
Dreams of heaven falling, panic in the town
Lonely men with fingers on the future...
As ever the solution is with the ones we know best;
“When all is said and done
You are the only one …”

We talk more, there’s too much for these pages and we tweeze issues out of songs and verses. But haven’t we done that for years now? Perhaps like me you’ve known the music of Liam Clancy for all or your life, and even if you haven’t you can take one piece of timeless philosophy from the boy from Carrick, it’s a line he often quotes of Bertolt Brecht; "With a man's dying breath he must be prepared to make a fresh start.”

As one audience member shouted out at that ICONS gig in September "He's still got it". He does indeed, the Wheels of Liam’s Life are still spinning.

Photo Credits: (1)-(2) Liam Clancy (from website).

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© The Mollis - Editors of FolkWorld; Published 03/2009

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