From Despair To Where? - Keith Donald Recounts A Life in Music

A celebrated sax-player who’s worked with Christy Moore, Van Morrison and Rory Gallagher, Keith Donald's extraordinary one-man show recalls not just his musical exploits, but also his encounters with alcoholism, paramilitaries and the Irish Special Branch.

As the Morrisons cooed over the arrival in August 1945 of little George Ivan, the Donalds from round the corner in East Belfast were strapping their slightly bigger bundle of joy, Keith, into his pushchair. Both have gone on to have distinguished musical careers, Van as the purveyor of finest Caledonian soul and Keith lining up alongside the likes of Christy Moore, Donal Lunny and Declan Sinnott in the band that ripped up the trad rulebook in the 1980s, Moving Hearts.

“Yeah, I’m six months older than Van, not that he recognises my seniority!” Keith smiles. “We had it in common that while I was playing jazz in Sammy Houston’s as a teenager, he was literally round the corner playing blues in the Maritime Hotel. We often ended up drinking together. I’m going to preempt your next question by saying, ‘No, I’ve never had a difficult conversation or problem with Van.’ I used to visit him at his house in London, and he’s stayed at mine up in the Dublin hills. He’s a force of nature alright, but one I love being around.”

VanMorrisonWithCig

With no hint of the bitter sectarian rifts to come, Keith enjoyed what he describes as “a textbook happy childhood” up until the age of five when he started school.

“My parents didn’t have a lot of money, but they paid for me to go to preparatory school,” he says, suddenly looking serious. “I don’t have the words to express it, but the headmistress, who was approaching her sixties, abused me for three years.”

Asked whether he thinks she was abusing other pupils at the same time, Keith takes a moment and then resumes: “I have wondered that, but never attempted to find out. She’s long dead now, so I’m not sure it would serve any purpose if I did. My first escape from all that was running away, my second was into music and the third was into alcohol. The music and the alcohol both stuck for a while, but then, thankfully, I managed to shake the alcohol off. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here talking to you now.”

Keith was too immersed in jazz and big bands to notice what Elvis and his bequiffed cohorts were getting up to, but got a crash course in rock ‘n’ roll when, like a lot of his fellow northern Protestants, he came down in 1963 to study at Trinity.

“I studied Greek, Latin, Ancient History, Archeology, Comparative Philology, Sanskrit & Philosophy. What saved me from being the biggest nerd on campus was that I’d bought a tenor sax and taught myself how to play it. I was strictly jazz, but needed money so halfway through Trinity joined this showband, The Green Beats, who were huge and had their own very funny, satirical show on Radio Éireann. It was like a 1965 version of Scrap Saturday! It wasn’t long before I was the best-paid student in college and earning more than my father. In 1968 we started another band, the Real McCoy, who had a massive number one with ‘Quick Joey Small’. Every kid in Ireland was singing it. I could have bought a brand new car for cash every six weeks with my share of the proceeds.”

It was while furiously gigging round the country with The Green Beats that Keith was in the first of two serious car crashes.

“It was… God, I’ve kind of gone back there for a split-second... It was horrific. I was in the Regional Hospital in Limerick for four or five weeks, and every band that was passing through the city came to visit us, usually with a bottle of something to cheer me up!

“My altogether happier memory of Limerick in the 1960s was walking down a street there late at night after a gig, and hearing this incredible music through an open door that turned out to be the Rory Gallagher Trio. I became a friend of his later on. I loved Rory; he was a really great guy and very generous.

“The only support gig that the Moving Hearts ever did was opening for Rory in Paris. It was part of what was supposed to be a tour, but en route to France heard that the Dingwalls circuit, which we were going to be playing in the UK had gone bankrupt. Three hours after the Paris show, I went to the dressing room to get our fee from Rory and his brother Donal. Without being asked, they’d doubled it to help us out, which is pretty rare. Seven years later, I was able to pay Rory back by booking him for the blues gig I’d been asked to put on by Temple Bar Properties on College Green. That was his last show in Dublin.”

Was Keith aware of how alcohol and prescription-drug dependent Rory had become by 1992?

“I only knew him as a pints drinker, but Rory would go to this doctor for a skin complaint he had, get a ‘script for pain relief to cover him for a six-week tour, and then take too much of it, which damaged his liver,” he reveals. “I was shocked and saddened but not overly surprised when the call came through saying Rory was dead.”

Keith had by then kicked his own kamikaze drinking into touch.

“As a small child, I was a serial loner who used to go out for long walks on my own. That continued in my teens, but when I started serious drinking in my early twenties I became party guy. I had such fun until it stopped being fun and, as I hit my thirties, started interfering with everything. Serious drinkers always seek camouflage, which is why I did most of mine with other musicians who were often knocking it back with even greater gusto than me. It was both good and bad that no matter how much I’d been drinking, I always managed to keep it together playing with the Hearts. I did have the proverbial rock bottom, though, which was hiding from the police who were trying to serve a drink-driving summons on me. Around the same time I bumped into a guy who I’d had many treble-vodkas and pints of Guinness with but who was now drinking water. He said, ‘If you ever want to stop that, give me a shout’, and I did.”

It wasn’t quite full-on Bob Dylan “Judas!” chants, but Moving Hearts received serious flak at the start for breaking with trad orthodoxy.

“I remember people all around Ireland accosting Christy and Donald and saying, ‘Why the fuck have you got a rock ‘n’ roll rhythm section behind you?’ They were expecting Planxty and got something very different, which was the whole point.”

Moving Hearts

Another thing that got up people’s noses was the political nature of some of the Hearts’ early songs, which reflected on the hunger strikes and the other stuff going down at the time in Ireland.

“On our first major tour in 1981, a guy in a wheelchair waited for us to come out of the dressing room at the National Stadium and accused us of being terrorist sympathisers. I said, ‘Have you listened properly to the lyrics? We’re not preaching violence. We’re talking about injustice.’ He was still convinced we were the musical wing of the IRA, though.

“The Dublin Special Branch thought the same thing. We released a single and did a gig for Nicky Kelly (who’d been wrongly imprisoned for train robbery) in the SFX and they were cruising up and down outside harassing our fans. When we played in Belfast, we’d come out of the Europa Hotel and stand around while the crew got on their hands and knees and checked under the band waggoKeith for wires and all the rest. We had to cancel travelling up there once when a death-threat was ‘phoned through to our publicist with a credible paramilitary code word attached to it. It was heavy stuff.”

Is Keith surprised that Christy Moore has gone on to become such an Irish icon?

“No because he’s brilliant,” he shoots straight back. “I’m delighted for him. Christy and I sometimes used to travel together and he’d say, ‘Excuse me for a moment…’ and start into a line of a song, phrasing it half-a-dozen different ways for 20, 30 minutes, until he’d come up with the perfect way of doing it. Christy is so aware of the need to communicate clearly to an audience.”

All of the different strands of Keith Donald’s remarkable life come together in NewBliss, a one-man show comprising of music, verse and not inconsiderable humour, which after being road-tested in the North comes to the National Concert Hall’s John Field Room this month.

“The stuff that has the potential to hurt other people is out, everything else is in!” Keith concludes. “I’ve got through the scab-picking stage and am at peace with myself. I realise that my life is lesser than it might otherwise have been because of the illness of addiction, but it’s the life I have. I wouldn’t be who I am or doing what I’m doing without it, so in a way I’m thankful for all the mistakes and cock-ups, however painful and destructive they’ve been.”

Keith Donald brings his NewBliss show to the National Concert Hall’s John Field Room on February 28

 

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