I was a teenage pop star
You know him as the conscience of the BBC, the man who reports from the world's grimmest trouble spots. But there is another Fergal Keane: a lad with a guitar who once rocked the village halls of Cork
Friday 19 November 1999
My confidence might have taken a bit of a bruising but I had three things in my favour: I had a guitar, I could play at least three chords and I had an ego the size of a football field. For an aspirant rock star in the city of Cork these were not inconsiderable assets. In those days we teenagers were living under enemy occupation. They were everywhere. The army of the Republic of NO: the priests and the teachers and the parents and the politicians, the whole boring bloody lot of them keeping us in check... but only barely. For the Ireland of my adolescence was being convulsed with strange new forces, we sensed we were standing on the cusp of a revolution and wanted to be part of it. The Sixties had shaken things up. But the hippies had grown up and got married. Men we had admired for their long hair and contempt for authority had gone off to become teachers and doctors. They had swapped their tie-dyes and bell bottoms for tweed jackets and slacks.
I didn't get involved with a band until I was midway through secondary school. A friend of mine called Chris Ahern was also a big rock fan and a promising guitarist. Chris loved the Beatles, especially the early rhythm and blues numbers. His eldest brother was one of the top guitarists on the local scene and the family home was filled with music of all kinds. Since coming back from my summer in Dublin I had developed an addiction to the Rolling Stones and practised my Jagger impersonations in front of the bedroom mirror every night. We had a wealthy schoolfriend who allowed us to practise in his house. He was the only one with a decent instrument - a mahogany bass guitar - and was naturally guaranteed a place in the band. We found a drummer at school and began to rehearse a set of Beatles and Stones numbers. Our first name was "Home Brew". Then we graduated to "The Runners" (we had a symbol of a tennis shoe on our home-drawn posters) and finally "The Streets".
I can't remember our first gig. Probably out of shame. We were pretty crap in the beginning. It wasn't until my brother Eamonn came along that the music started to pick up. He was a trained musician who could take his hand to any instrument and make it sing. He took over on bass and along with Chris started to impose some kind of musical discipline. What was my own role in this grand enterprise? So much for the droll Canadian's warnings... I was the lead singer.
Our first triumph was a charity hop at school. By now we had shifted our rehearsal rooms to the children's nursery, which was run by Chris's mother. Her tolerance was boundless as we pounded out one rock classic after another. By the time the gig came around we were, as they say in the business, a "tight" unit. Such a night of glory. The crowd - mostly our friends - jumped and hopped and gave us three encores. I had flung myself around the stage with fierce abandon, my ego firing on all cylinders. The band were so loud that I'm not sure the audience heard much of what I sang. It was the beat that mattered - a truth I would never forget.
We began to pick up gigs around the city. At the Arcadia - where U2 played ("imagine that") - we played to a big crowd; biggish at any rate. There was Shandon Boat Club and Cork Boat Club and the Cricket Club dance. For the latter we were forced to broaden our range and include "pop" songs. We were tormented by members of the audience wanting to sing and use us as a backing band. The gigs were not always triumphs and my ego was frequently dented. We had no money and were reduced to borrowing and begging equipment. Sometimes the gear was good, but often it made us sound like we were playing inside a washing machine. For transport we usually depended on one of our mothers. I remember once the entire band plus equipment and my baby brother being packed into my mother's Mini for a 40-mile trip. (We were skinny young lads).
The best gig I can remember was in Ardmore, where my family went for the summer holidays every year. The local hall was called St Declans and I had enjoyed my first dances under its tin roof. Most of the bands who came there were regulars on the country and western circuit. "The Antelopes" (I am serious), "The Double Units" (twin sisters), "The Indians" (complete with tribal gear) were a few of the big names who came. It wasn't my type of music but they were genuine professionals. No bum notes, no whining feedback, no forgetting the words. None of the diseases from which we in "The Streets" suffered so regularly. But our Ardmore gig was a hit. As usual we had taken the precaution of stacking the audience with friends and family. But there was something about the venue - the heat, the abandon of summer, the patchouli perfume and the testosterone - which lifted us from being averagely good into one moment of greatness... well, for me at least.
Afterwards there was the usual row about money with the parish priest. They were the hardest men in Ireland to deal with. You would have had more luck getting money from the Sicilian Mafia than one of the reverend fathers. Once when we were denied one share of the takings we decided a symbolic protest was in order. And so - as the crowds were leaving - we returned to the stage and began to play a punk number. We jumped and jumped and pounded and went crashing through the floorboards. Viva rock'n'roll.
One of our last gigs was at a rural harvest festival - a dance held at the end of the harvesting - near a seaside town on the county Cork coast. It ended in chaos when a crowd of Dutch fishermen arrived and took over the stage. Later that night there was a big fight with the locals and - quelle surprise - the priest couldn't find the money to pay us exactly what we were owed. Our driver was a notorious hard man in Cork and asked me if I wanted him to negotiate with the priest. I took one look at Micky and decided this would be unnecessary. Micky was shot dead in a drugs war in Cork years later.
By the time we left school the band was in the process of disintegrating. The real musicians like my brother and Chris were exploring different styles and writing their own material. Both Eamonn and Chris went on to become accomplished and highly regarded musicians - and I sang at parties whenever anybody asked.
It wasn't until I moved to South Africa that the call of the stage returned in the person of a British diplomat named Michael Shipster. I'd met Shippo at a party and we got to talking about music. In a few minutes we'd set up a guitar session and the rest is history. Well, sort of, South African history at any rate.
In the closing days of the white empire Johannesburg was a city of never- ending parties where people were only too happy to dance away their worries. Shippo and I saw the potential opening and formed a band. Our drummer was a cameraman for German TV, our bass player a sound recordist. In mockery of a phrase from the anti-communist paranoia of the apartheid years we called the band "Total Onslaught". We were hot. Very hot. We played about four gigs but I am sure South Africa has never forgotten them.
The final epic performance came at the time of the first multi-racial election. The week after the votes were cast and the new ANC government came to power, we performed to a crowd of journalists and politicians in the lush premises of the Transvaal Automobile Club. The new deputy Minister of Defence, Ronnie Kasrils (a famous anti-apartheid activist), joined us on stage. It was a great night in the middle of extraordinary times.
Since then I have only played guitar at home, waiting for a phone call that I suspect will never come. My rock'n'roll days are probably over, and I never became a star. But what the hell - it was only rock'n'roll and I liked it. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
`Letters Home' by Fergal Keane will be published by Penguin, pounds 6.99, on 25 November
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