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Sonic boom boom
Inside John Kelly’s teenage head, as the broadcaster and writer goes back to his roots.
Peter Murphy, 15 Apr 2003
A whole host of writers have had a crack at the rock ’n’ roll memoir, but from LA’s Wonderland Avenue to punk-ruptured Soho, they’ve usually had the benefit of a cosmopolitan background, some amount of contact with the talent, plus multiple variations on the Icarus myth. Broadcaster and writer John Kelly on the other hand, grew up in Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh, and like almost every pop-obsessed kid outside of Dublin in the ’70s and ’80s, felt like he was marooned in the butthole of nowhere.
In his second novel Sophisticated Boom Boom (the title taken from a Shangri Las song), Kelly attempts to convey the agitated desperation of living in small town Ireland with an itch in your teenage head, the only forms of recreation being spitting, bitching, bellyaching and forever pretending to be someone else – someone baaaad. It’s an area he touched on before in his memoir Cool About The Ankles, but as he explains, changing the names to protect the almost innocent allowed him a little more leeway this time out.
“I wanted to fictionalise everything just to free it up,” he says, “and yet at the same time, because our lives weren’t particularly dramatic, I couldn’t introduce bizarre events that were unlikely to happen. I wanted to go back to that period, triggered really by conversations with friends. One of them was a conversation with Gavin (Friday) where he remarked that at a certain age, I forget exactly when it was, he went on the boat to see David Bowie in London. At that age I didn’t even know who David Bowie was, and if I’d seen David Bowie I probably would have been scared of him. I wouldn’t have gone to the gig and probably wouldn’t have been allowed to go to the gig. When I should’ve been putting safety pins in my ears I was in the scouts.”
Kelly accepts that most people experience a feeling of their clock having been stopped dead and reset at some point during post-adolescent rites of passage. For him, one such beatitude was Thin Lizzy playing a show in Enniskillen in the early 80s.
“I suppose for me all these things were happening for the first time,” he considers, “and some of these were huge mind-blowing epiphanies or whatever you want to call them. For some people it may have been hearing Sgt Pepper’s, but for me it was seeing Thin Lizzy or Horslips. And those events are still absolutely vivid; I can remember every second of the gig and what they were wearing. I’ve seen hundreds, if not thousands of gigs since then and they just slipped my mind. It was such a huge experience for us to go from seeing no bands at all to that full on experience in our own hometown.”
Later on, when Kelly attended college in Belfast, he found himself walking in the footsteps of the characters that populated Van’s Astral Weeks, a record that has somehow remained enigmatic and immune to the hundreds of thousands of words thrown at it over the last 30 years.
“I thought, right I’ll not do this Astral Weeks thing,” he admits, “and then I thought, well, I was in Belfast living in a house where literally the character in Astral Weeks had lived. You’ll not pin Van down on what Astral Weeks is about, but I do know that the house on the corner (of Fitzroy Avenue) is part of the song (‘Madame George’), and I lived in that building, they were my student digs, so I thought, well, I’ve got some rights on this. And also the fact that it did actually make Belfast tolerable to me – the album gave a dignity to the place that I didn’t see at first, it gave a depth and a whole lot of resonances and colour, it gave it a mythology.”
For all of that, Kelly reckons that his next book will inhabit considerably less wistful territory.
“I’m about 40 pages into something at the minute which is very dark, not many jokes, third person, total fiction, set in contemporary Dublin,” he says. “It’s about dysfunction: personal, civic, national, global and ultimately… cosmic dysfunction! So that’ll be a chirpy little