Remembering Bill

It was ten years ago this issue that Hot Press and Ireland in general lost the great Bill Graham.

The FA Cup Final will always mean one thing to me. From a footballing perspective, I might have been looking forward with some relish to the joust between Liverpool and a resurgent West Ham, which as it happens turned out to be a real cracker of a game – but on the morning of the match, my thoughts were elsewhere.

Ten years ago this week, on the day of the FA Cup Final, May 10 1996, Bill Graham died. We were working that weekend, with an issue due to go to the printers and so duty called for Bill – but he was a football fan and the intention would have been to fit his work in around the game, between Manchester United and Liverpool. No problem to him – he’d accommodated it around far more demanding activities in the past! He got up on that Saturday morning, fighting fit and ready for action – or so he would have assumed – and went to have a shower. He collapsed and died immediately, a vicious heart attack laying him low with one terrible blow.

Bill had been with Hot Press from the start and had contributed enormously to the editorial strength of the magazine. He was a great journalist and a huge personality, who left an indelible impression on people who were lucky enough to get to know him well. In many ways, he was a founding father of modern Irish music. His curiosity about popular music was boundless. He loved jazz, Tamla Motown, the blues, Bowie, glam rock, Abba, Bootsy Collins, Kid Creole, King Sunny Ade, Joe Ely, Bruce Springsteen, REM, Horslips, The Golden Horde and Martin Hayes and Denis Cahill. And they represent just the tip of the iceberg. The breadth of his interest was extraordinary and as a result he inspired others – readers of hotpress, musicians and other critics and DJs alike – to forget their prejudices and listen far more widely than they might otherwise instinctively have done.

But Bill could take almost any music, from Big Tom through The Virgin Prunes to Kajagoogoo and come up with a theory as to how it begot itself and where it fitted into the social and cultural conditions of the time. And he was usually spot-on in his analysis. It was a gift he had: his brilliant, original intelligence tuned in to the subterranean links and connections that other people missed as a matter of routine. It made him a great conversationalist and companion, the kind of person it was a pleasure simply to sit back and listen to. The fact that he had a great sense of humour and fun made it all the better.

He inspired a whole generation of Irish fans and musicians to look at the world in a different and broader light. And he was good on more than music too. He felt a kinship with Northern Ireland and the people on both sides of the sectarian and political divide there that was unusual in those who were brought up within the narrow confines of the culture of Ireland in the ‘60s and ‘70s – and his political writing for hotpress reflected this. And he was also ahead of the game in terms of his appreciation of the importance of the politics of food and the position of the developing world in the new era.

He is best known as the man who ‘discovered’ U2. It was a title he disavowed, and for good reason. It was a measure of the band members’ own foresight and sound sense that they originally sought him out, and asked for his advice. He wrote enthusiastically about the band in hotpress, giving them their first exposure and generally proved to be a great mentor, generous with his time and wisdom. And, of course, as the history books accurately tell it, he put them in touch with their manager, Paul McGuinness, who was a friend of his.

The old ‘what if?’ game seems particularly relevant here. What if Bill had been too selfish or lazy or even merely too busy to think that one through? What if he hadn’t had the smarts and the selflessness to see that this was a match potentially made in heaven – and to cajole the not necessarily entirely convinced suitors together?

Where would U2 be now if they had signed to one of the other managers on the scene at the time – or to no manager at all? Where would Paul McGuinness be for that matter? They were and are all immensely talented people, McGuinness included, doubtlessly capable of doing great and impressive things in the long run. But it was the coming together that arguably made the critical difference to the fortunes of both – and, in turn, which transformed the Irish music scene. So much that has happened in Ireland since hinged to one degree or another on that.

It was heart-breaking for everyone involved with hotpress, and of course especially for his mother Eileen, to lose Bill in that way. For some of us it may not have been the first time, but we all learned definitively then, the brutal finality of death. If there was anything we could have done to turn the clock back, to regain the crazy times we had lived through with Bill, we’d have done it with a heart and a half. But time moves only forward and lost lives can never be reclaimed. And so we had to say a final goodbye to our friend.

But we can do those we have lost along the way a small amount of justice at least by remembering them and by acknowledging their contribution – which in Bill’s case was immense. And by doing the things that in our hearts we know that his presence would have required us to do, to be true to ourselves and to the brilliantly generous and affirmative vision of the world that he shared with us when he was here in our midst.

 

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