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Chris de Burgh takes on Irish Times reviewer Peter Crawley

The singer has lashed out at the critic who slated his Gaiety gig.

The Hot Press Newsdesk, 09 Sep 2009

Chris de Burgh has launched an astonishing riposte to an Irish Times review of his Gaiety Theatre show. The review appeared in the Times last Thursday, and a copy of an email sent by the singer, in response, to the reviewer Peter Crawley, has been seen by Hot Press.

The review contained a generally negative reaction to the gig – one of three sell-out nights, which attracted an audience of over 3,000 to the theatre – and depicted de Burgh in a decidedly unflattering light.

The spat touches on an age-old debate concerning the role of the reviewer. Is there – as artists, managers and promoters often insist – a need, in the context of a review, to reflect what happened at a gig, and to report on what the audience reaction is? Or is a purely subjective response what it’s all about?

“A small man appears,” Crawley wrote, “in suit trousers and a white shirt, giving a little wave, like a businessman happy to have finished a long day of conference calls.

“This man is Chris de Burgh. You may have heard of him. The name alone summons a rush of associations, some of which carry a shudder, few of which fail to draw a smile.

“There is that warbly tenor,” the review continues, “the calling card of the mawkish balladeer (“I have never seen that dress you’re wearing . . . ”) which switches at the faintest invitation into a throaty belt: “DON’T PAY THE FERRYMAN!” There is that haircut, long at the back and wispy up front, entirely unruffled by 34 years in the music biz.

“And of course there is that cringe factor, unalleviated by the man’s apparent earnestness: his slightly tarnished squeaky clean persona, his claims to heal people with his hands, his indelible association with a time of shoulder pads and enormous hair. In short, it’s easy to snigger at de Burgh.”

Clearly stung by the personal nature of much of the comment in the review, de Burgh wrote to Crawley in terms that more than match – and indeed in places far exceed – the reviewer in terms of vituperation. The email includes a bilious sideswipe at Joe Breen, the former rock critic with the Irish Times, who now reviews country and roots music for the paper, and also served for a time as wine correspondent.

(Joe Breen's response, when Hot Press contacted him, was short and sweet: "I'm lucky to be blessed with a sense of humour.")

De Burgh's email to Crawley continues: “Your churlish review is an insult to all those who enjoyed their night out, and in these days of collapsing newspaper sales and an entire new generation on the way who will get their information online, you may be looking for another job sooner rather than later. Your pals in the pub must have loved your review, but it seems that you are universally loathed in the Theatre world; a leading Impresario has described you as ‘puffed up with his own self-importance’, and a much loved and successful actress refers to you as ‘that loathsome little turd’. Great accolades, to be sure.”

Accusing the reviewer of having gone to the show with his mind made up, he goes on: “… to totally ignore what actually happened and launch a personal attack is so transparent that any reader can see that it was pointless even writing it, as you were the only person who attended the show that night who didn't ACTUALLY WANT TO BE THERE!!”

“It was a great gig,” Noel McHale of MCD told Hot Press. “The reaction was amazing – he was getting standing ovations from half way through the show. The band were shit hot, the musicianship was amazing and the production was superb – they did things with the lighting and with special effects that I’d never seen before. Technically, it was brilliant. But none of that was reflected in the review – which doesn’t seem fair or balanced.”

Peter Crawley’ Reflections On The Letter

Peter Crawley told Hot Press that he thinks the problem here is that de Burgh’s public and private personas have become mixed up.

“I sort of felt I could write about Chris de Burgh, this persona, and for it not really to emotionally trouble him. Genuinely, I think – that’s maybe my naivete – that somebody with a career of over 30 years standing will take it in his stride,” said Crawley.

But the Irish Times critic adds that there’s another aspect of de Burgh which may be at the root of this disagreement: “I think there’s a disconnect between how he sees himself and his understanding of what a perception of him might be. You see that in his performance, where suddenly he portrays himself as a rock and roller without fully understanding what rock and roll might be. And bridling against the whole crooner tag, which is a better description of what his music is and what his music was and what it means at a particular time.”

“To be inflexible after so many years makes you a nostalgia act and you have to accept that as part of the package. I guess, not being able to see that, makes him, in my mind, a little bit distanced from the scene – not having a very good outside objective perspective of himself. Or maybe not able to disentangle the idea of Chris de Burgh, the person who is a good father or a nice guy or a good guy to have a drink with, and Chris de Burgh that figure: the guy on the stage, the guy on the album cover, the guy in the video, the singer of those verses. I guess a lot of us never have to handle the idea of a public persona and a private life and I guess maybe you take things personally that aren’t meant personally. And I guess maybe, on my side, I should be better aware that things can be taken personally that aren’t meant that way,” said Crawley.

So, is this just another case of the age old debate about how objective/subjective reviewers can/should be?

“There’s no such thing as complete objectivity. You can’t really have a structuralist reading of a concert! So everything is subjective but must be argued. You have to back up a position. While prejudice isn’t going to help you, you have to take to evidence of the performance and any evidence that’s kind of attached to a persona that’s built up,” said Crawley.

“Obviously, I was surprised that it evidently was so wounding and clearly stuck in his craw. And, you know, you do tend to lose sight of the fact that when you’re talking about a public persona, there’s somebody with a mum and there’s somebody who gets hurt and somebody who is going to take it poorly. But the alternative is criticism which is nothing but unmitigated praise and I don’t think that’s especially helpful either,” he said.

Asked about his reaction on receiving de Burgh’s email, the critic said (with maybe just a hint of irony at times): “If you read it, it’s funny. It’s a little bit – I mean, you do cringe. In fairness, he has written this to be amusing and you’ve got to hand it to him – he’s obviously spent a long time and a lot of effort finding out who I am. That’s almost touching really.”

Crawley mentioned that, though the letter “seems to have circulated rather widely,” he had understood it to be a personal correspondance.

“It was, at least, addressed to me and he did ask to meet. So I wrote back and offered a few times that I’m available to meet him. I haven’t heard back yet but I think the offer stands,” he said.

For the full text of Chris de Burgh’s letter, click here.

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