- 08 Nov 01
After his celebrated band the blades failed to make a breakthrough in the 1980s, PAUL CLEARY more or less turned his back on music for 15 years. But now unexpectedly, he’s back with a terrific solo album crooked town and more than a few tales to tell. Interview: LIAM MACKEY
Step on board the time machine – Kevin Barry is buried (again), abortion is back on the national agenda (again), the Euro is the new decimalisation… and Paul Cleary has recorded and released an album.
The good news is that, unlike other less welcome ghosts, Crooked Town is as relevant to our time as Cleary’s celebrated first band The Blades were to theirs. Otherwise, inevitably, a lot has changed in Cleary’s life since he first unveiled his sharp three-piece in Dublin in 1979, steered them through line-up changes and an expanding sound to ‘next big thing’ status and then, despite creating a catalogue of classic pop-rock songs that earned always rapturous critical acclaim and a committed cult following, saw the whole enterprise wither on the vine for lack of a commercial breakthrough midway through the 80’s.
Disillusioned and feeling guilty about letting his band-mates down, Cleary turned his back on the creative process at that point, picking up his pen only to write reviews in hotpress and In Dublin, and taking down his guitar solely for money-making pub gigs with The Cajun Kings and The Wilfs, or to fashion television sig tunes. Through the ’90s, the latter craft led him further into television as a deviser of quiz programmes and further away from the passion for songwriting and performance which had once marked him out as an exceptional talent. Soon enough, all those great songs seemed like ancient history: by the onset of the new millennium, as far as the Irish music audience was concerned, Paul Cleary had been consigned to the file marked ‘Where Are They Now?’.
Where he is now, in fact, on a Sunday afternoon in October 2001, is sitting in a Ballsbridge hotel near where he lives, still quietly buzzing from appearing on stage as a guest of Paul Brady in Vicar St. the night before, an event notable not least because it marked the first time in well over a decade that Paul Cleary had played one of his own songs – and a brand-new one at that – in public.
At 42, Cleary is enjoying (and, at the business end, sometimes enduring) a crash-course in reacquainting himself with old sensations – first the writing and recording, then the launch and the promotion and now this, facing an audience with a band to deliver two songs, the title-track to his new album and, at his own request, a version of Brady’s ‘Hard Station’, the two men alternating vocal duties on both.
There’d been a few pre-match nerves alright, Cleary concedes. He’d been tempted to self-medicate with a nice glass of wine or two from the cooler in his private dressing room – Christ, was this ever a long way from The Baggot?!? - but then decided, no, he’d be better off using the adrenaline to his advantage.
And it had clearly been a bit of blast, all of it, from wandering in for the afternoon rehearsal to see and hear the band playing along with his album on the house PA, through to the performance itself - a full house, the guitar in his hands and top notch musicians around him.
Possibly no one is more surprised to find Paul Cleary in this position than Paul Cleary himself. Looking back to the mid-’80s end-game, after The Blades had mutated into The Partisans and the whole thing was on the road to, as he puts it, “nowheresville”, the prospect of a future in music could not have been further from his mind. Indeed, from my own encounters with Cleary, then and for a long time afterwards, the abiding impression was of a man who was almost witheringly contemptuous of the notion that he might ever again have, as they say, something worthwhile to bring to the party.
Looking back, was it a question of disillusionment with the music business or with himself?
“I’d say a bit of both but really I didn’t think there was any point in writing songs because I’d no outlet,” he says. “To be honest, when The Blades finished, I should have stopped. That was ’86. We’d been going since 1979, a good seven years – but seven years in the third or fourth division, without any real rewards. Seven years in a transit van – it does wear you down.”
But was there also a crisis of confidence on his part?
“No, I think I’m too egotistical for that, to be honest. It was more that people didn’t want it. And when the Partisans finished my feeling was, what’s the point of writing songs when I’m not going to play them anyway?”
That feeling persisted for more than a decade, until his long-time champion, Elvira Butler of Reekus Records, helped persuade Cleary that there was merit in re-releasing the best of The Blades in a two-album set. By the time that record came out, just over a year ago, Butler’s enthusiasm was beginning to have an even more profound effect.
“I became a songwriter again around that time,” says Cleary, almost as if it was a matter of switching on a tap. “Work was pretty slow in normal life anyway. And I thought, with this Blades thing coming out, I might just have an opportunity to write some songs again. One, to see if I could do it well. And, two, because there was a sufficient distance in time from The Blades and all that.”
He began by revisiting two song ideas left over from The Partisans, getting the creative juices flowing by applying flesh to the old skeletons. Soon, brand new songs were starting to take shape in his head, sketches and ideas which he began to preserve on a tape-recorder at home. Before very long, he arrived at what he now recognises was a moment of definition.
“Usually what I do, I have the words first, then the chords and the tune,” he explains. “But this time I started ‘The Ghost Of Christmas Past’ with the chords and the tune. Normally, I’d lash it down on a cassette tape. Whatever happened that day, I was in the kitchen and I had come up with the melody and I thought ‘that’s nice’. And then I went to the supermarket. And I was half-way to the supermarket and I realised I hadn’t put it down. And I didn’t want to lose this melody. So I kind of panicked and actually ran back to the house – well, I walked very quickly (laughs). And I remember thinking to myself, ‘well, aren’t you getting yourself into an awful tizzy, son.’
“Up until then, I was maybe thinking that I could be half-pregnant, y’know? But, now, here I was rushing back to the house to pick up the guitar and nail the chord structure and the tune and stick it on a tape. And I’m thinking, ‘this must be important to you’. So if there was a moment of realisation that I was in there, that was it.”
Now determined to take the work to full-term, Cleary next demoed the material with his old pal, Jimmy Smyth, once of The Bogey Boys, before finally venturing back into the studio proper with another long time collaborator, Conor Brady, a gifted and experienced musician whose opinion and comradeship Cleary values enormously and whom he describes, at one point, as “a session player but without the session mentality”.
The result of those labours is Crooked Town, a record which plays to all Cleary’s strengths as a songwriter and performer. From the opening track, the Costelloesque ‘The Queen Of Indecision’ to the closing eight-minute mini-epic ‘Ecstasy Blues’, it’s full of winning melodies, gold-plated hooks, inventive arrangements and the kind of lyrical exactitude and imagination which bespeaks a man with a serious appreciation of the power of the word.
With its conscious sonic nods to inspirational figures of predominantly English pop and rock of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s – from The Beatles and The Who to The Jam, Elvis C and even XTC – there is inevitably some danger that a music industry, which all too frequently mistakes style for substance, could take one cursory listen to Crooked Town and simply dismiss Cleary as a man out of time. Timeless, in fact, would be an altogether more accurate description of the many intelligent pleasures contained on an album which, beyond its instant accessibility, seems to offer more, the more you listen.
But then, Paul Cleary is nothing if not true to his own heart – and art. Consequently, there was never any danger that he was going to try to reinvent himself as alt.country, lo-fi or the latest Nick Drake, simply to get an audience.
“I love music,” he says, “and maybe this is an arrogant thing to say, but I’m all listened out. And when it came to do this record I just thought that I wasn’t going to bother chasing my tail in terms of what’s hip.”
If one album, above all others, served as a kind of spiritual reference point for Crooked Town, it was Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel Of Love. Sound-wise, the two are very different but Springsteen’s self-performed open-heart surgery was, says Cleary, a real inspiration. “Not so much in terms of style but in terms of smell,” he emphasises, “Tunnel Of Love was the kind of album I wanted to make with Crooked Town.”
This makes sense in terms of Cleary’s bald admission that he has always been “fascinated with affairs of the heart”. But the speaker is also well aware of the irony here; where Tunnel Of Love was Springsteen’s blood red letter to his then wife on the disastrous state of their soon to be terminated marriage, Cleary will allow that he is currently enjoying the most stable period of his own emotional life, happily married to Paula Wilson and the father of baby Dylan, who had reached the ripe young age of eight weeks on the day of this interview.
Yet, with the single exception of ‘Lullaby’, a coded song of love and consolation for Paula, Crooked Town’s seductive soundtrack sugars a bitter lyrical pill of loss, loneliness, betrayal, anger and the ravages of alcoholism, most of it delivered in the first person narrative of man who sounds like he has been bruised, broken and brought to his knees.
So then, will the real Paul Cleary please stand up?
“The past, present and future is very fluid with me,” he offers. “And probably for a lot of people, if they just sat down and thought about it. I’m a big fan of Dennis Potter and why I like his stuff is that it all blends and meshes. So I even have difficulty making the statement that I’m happier now than I was ten years ago. Because that ten years ago is still here with me. I’m not a religious person or superstitious or I don’t believe in the paranormal or any of that shit but I still think that the future is almost nearer to us as well. And that’s about as bullshitty or pretentious as I’ll get about it (laughs).”
And on the always interesting issue of biography versus autobiography, it’s worth noting that while Cleary may be an expert story-teller, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s his own story that’s being told.
For example, he will allow that while he himself needs to be “vigilant” about his use of alcohol, he believes he has witnessed its most destructive effects in others, including friends who have suffered recurring grief as a consequence. Similarly, while careful not to identify individuals, he talks about other people he has known who have shared with him their own crushing experiences of other kinds of emotional despair. “It’s real, heart-breaking stuff,” he says, “and I must be influenced by those stories.”
These then are universal themes even if they might have a very specific origin. Which suits Cleary because his goal is to write what he hopes are “inclusive” songs.
“Here’s what I think,” he reflects, “for each song, five or six people I know could think they were about them. Which is fine by me, because if you extrapolate from that, five or six thousand people might think it was about them. Something in there might strike a chord. Who knows if I’ll do another album? So I wanted to write something that I thought was significant in terms of emotion, in terms of real life.”
That ambition is particularly well realised on the album’s title-track, a song about present day Dublin on which Cleary’s preoccupations with both the personal and political come together to powerful effect. Writing about the city’s changing face(s), Cleary nails racist attitudes in one pithy phrase: “Get back to the jungle the tiger said.”
“People will just have to live through it”, he says of immigration. “England is a great example in this regard. London is one of the most tolerant cities I’ve ever been in. I think we can learn from the English – and from their mistakes. We have to learn to be tolerant. We have to be careful. It is here to stay. In every country. We’re all naturally, in a way, slightly xenophobic; it’s self-preservation. But it’s also atavistic, a base thing. We’re civilised people. We have to get over that. And we have to see the positive.
“Every time I go into town, I see more black faces, more Asians. And there’s something in me – it’s a natural thing – I just like that. I like Dublin turning into a cosmopolitan city. The downside? Well, the downside is people who pick on black people, on Asians and on Muslims as scapegoats. Particularly now, with a recession beginning to hit. Now is really the time to preach – and that is the right word – to preach tolerance.”
Perhaps now more than ever it’s good to have an Irish songwriter of Paul Cleary’s calibre back in the frame. How long he will remain active, however, is down to the fate of Crooked Town.
“Am I afraid that people won’t buy this?” he says. “Oh yeah. Because that would be another kick in the teeth. But that was the risk I decided to take – it’s a silly, simplistic analogy, but I just decided to get up on that highwire again, without a net.”
Having made what he knows himself – and what many critics are agreeing – is an excellent piece of work, can’t he just be philosophical about the response?
“Let’s take the negative: let’s say it doesn’t sell well, then in two or three years’ time, I’ll be philosophical and sanguine but not now because I’m too involved in it,” he says. “You use so much energy and creativity that it seems to me a terrible waste for any artist who puts their heart and soul into something if it doesn’t get across to the largest amount of people possible. So for me, it would be a blow. Like the circle being squared again.”
So what’s the ideal scenario?
“I’d like it to sell well, and go out and work it and play,” says Paul Cleary. “And I’d like it to sell enough so that I could do another one.”
And so say all of us.
Paul Cleary’s Crooked Town is out now on Reekus Records