Interview: Barry McGuigan: Mild man blues
His father famously sang Danny Boy at the ringside; now Barry McGuigan is going to sing at the Cafe Royal. The former world featherweight champion may be strong, writes Jonathan Rendall, but he's certainly not silent
Sunday 29 November 1998
"No I, er, I don't think I should ... "
"Go on," urged Sybil.
"What, now? Here?"
"Oh yes, Barry. You must."
I didn't know what he was being encouraged to do, but I feared for him. When it emerged that he was going to sing, I almost crashed the car.
It was "Tempted", the old Squeeze song. There was to be no backing track, no accompaniment. Just Barry's voice and the barren, judgmental airwaves. I lit a fag in sympathy. Here it came, the first line: "Tempted by the fruit of another/ Tempted but the truth is discovered." Bloody hell, it was going to be OK. Quite tuneful, actually. I started to relax, and so did Barry. "What's been going on, now that you've been gone," he crooned mellifluously, even risking a chord-change flourish on the final "gone". Actually, it wasn't just OK, it was good. Not a sophisticated voice, but an honest, competent one, with a certain emotional resonance that came from ... well, from knowing that it belonged to Barry, the Clones Cyclone? Or from the quality of that voice?
Whichever, it was just as well, because Sybil went on to inform us that Barry was shortly to make his singing debut at the Cafe Royal. So this was serious, then.
After a couple of days had lapsed, I couldn't be so sure. I needed someone to corroborate that Barry had a good voice, so I rang my friend Frank. Being Irish, au courant with boxing and, unlike me, also with music, Frank was uniquely qualified to unravel the resonance question. Also, being unemployed, he would almost certainly have heard the Sybil show.
"Did you hear Barry on Sybil?" I asked Frank.
"Course," said Frank.
"Frank, straight up, does Barry have a good voice?"
"Definitely," averred Frank. "But I knew that already. He was on The Late Late Show with Gay Byrne about a year ago."
By this time, as I told Frank, I had fixed up an interview with Barry. Despite Frank's undaunted view of celebrity (no doubt due in part to his constant exposure to it on daytime television and radio), I could tell he was impressed.
And that is the thing about Barry (or, as he was christened, Finbar Patrick McGuigan, born 28/2/61). He is not just a former sports star. To a lot of people over the age of, say, 28 - women as well as men - he is an icon. Try, for example, shouting out the name "Eusebio Pedroza" in the office or at some gathering - I bet you'll get a response. Not immediately, perhaps, but as memories stir it will eventually come, in the form of the words, "Barry McGuigan, wasn't it?" Eusebio Pedroza was the deadly, inscrutable Panamanian whom Barry defeated to become world featherweight champion at the Loftus Road football ground in west London on 8 June 1985. A crowd of 27,000 was there - a full house - and at least 270,000 more claim to have been present. There were a further 19 point something million watching at home on television - more viewers than for any other British sporting event in history, not including tragic football semi-finals against Germany.
For many of us, the victory against Pedroza was a Kennedy moment. We remember where we were. Me: by a then innovative giant television screen in a dodgy pub in Oxford. Frank, of course, claims to have been there live at Loftus and - the clincher - didn't even have to pay for a ticket.
To put things in context, sport was unfashionable in those days. Art students, for example, hated football on principle. Yet I remember an art student friend, in fact the exemplar of art student dandyism, coming back from a trip to London enraptured. "I saw Barry Mc-Guigan on the King's Road," he said. "He looked at me!"
There were diverse reasons for Barry's iconic status. The Troubles were on. Barry, a Catholic, was married to Sandra, a Protestant. They were childhood sweethearts (they had sat on Clones walls together since the age of four). Barry fought in blue velvet trunks decorated only with the white dove of peace. There were his looks: with his hair slicked back as he entered the ring, he looked like an angel in boxing gloves. There were his old-fashioned, deferential manners. His manager was an Irish bookie known as Barney, except to Barry, who called him Mr Eastwood. There was his father, Pat, who, misty-eyed, sang "Danny Boy" before the first bell; there was Dermot, Barry's devoted, toothy, hyperactive brother, who loyally served as his punchbag sparring partner between fights, and during them hopped about by the corner smoking cigarettes. There was the shortness of it all: it seemed like the blink of an eye, from the heady hysteria of the Pedroza fight to the horror of Vegas in June 1986, where, in heat so fierce that it fried his milky skin into cruel orange welts, Barry lost his title to a Texan, Stevie Cruz. It was about all of these things, but about none of them individually. Barry, Sandra, Pat, "Danny Boy", Dermot, Pedroza, Vegas: what they all added up to was a fated, crystallised innocence.
I had interviewed Barry once before, in 1987, while he was still shadowed by the highest peak of his fame. The photographer and I - both young, unqualified and as yet uncommissioned - had hoped for 10 minutes. Barry gave us three hours. The last was spent sitting dumbstruck in his sponsored car while he played his tape collection, giving us a running commentary on the tracks. It came as a shock to discover that Barry was a young man too; until now, I realised, he hadn't seemed to have a real age, or a real personality, or any real purpose beyond the pure, almost fictional one that an icon has. But there he was - a young man, although one who had always been surrounded by older men, the money men of the boxing business. A great fan of Eddi Reader and Fairground Attraction, Barry was. "Listen to the way she hits this high note here," he enthused, re-winding "Perfect" to the relevant bar for about the sixth time.
Thinking about that, as I drove down to Kent, where he and Sandra now live in an elegant farmhouse surrounded by acres of lovely countryside, it didn't seem so surprising that Barry could sing.
In the kitchen, a creative maelstrom was in progress. There stood a still-trim Barry, his shirt hanging out, slapping his thigh in a ready-to-pounce stance reminiscent of early Van Morrison. Beside him sat Dave, a goateed guitarist in his twenties. Barry was singing a ballad, every note spot on: "The wheel of fortune took me/ From the highest point she shook me/ By the bottle live/ By the bottle I shall fall."
"It's about a boxer called Jack Doyle," he broke off to inform me. Since Barry has always been a teetotaller, it was unlikely to be about him. "He once drew 400,000 people to Haringey. Died in the gutter, totally penniless. Wasn't a great fighter but he was so handsome. It's called `The Contender'. A guy called Jimmy McCarthy did it. Lovely melody. Will you come and have lunch with us at The Dove?"
He resumed singing: "When I die I'll die a drunk down on the street." The audience comprised his 12-year-old daughter, Danika, (one of four children), the photographer, me and, occasionally, Sandra. She and Barry have been together so long that they seem almost to have grown into an organic whole. Speaking to them is like talking to a single brain cross- referencing itself. Barry, it is true, sometimes strays in conversation - one suspects possibly through a tendency towards exaggeration (400,000 at Haringey?) - and on these occasions Sandra shepherds him back into the shared brain. She is also trying to shepherd him down to The Dove, where they are about to stop serving lunch: "I tell you what, you ought to be shifting yourselves."
It was some time before we reached The Dove. First, there was the matter of Jerry Reid, crazed deep South bluegrass songster, to attend to. Barry produced the tape and began his normal commentary duties. "This is kind of extreme stuff . My dad brought me this in 1970. You know the film Smokey and the Bandit? He did that. But when my dad bought me this nobody had heard of the guy." The manic bluegrass guitar began. It was good. "And the lyrics are fantastic!" Barry shouted over the lyrics.
At first the procedure was that Barry, hovering near the tape recorder, did a near simultaneous translation of Jerry Reid's deep South lyrics. But this proved untenable, so the system changed: we would listen to a chunk of untranslated Jerry Reid; Barry would pause the tape and give the translation; then he'd press play again and on we'd go. "I've got a car that's mine alone/ That me and the finance company own," Barry translated, using his own plausible deep South twang. "A ready-made pile of manufactured grief/ And if I ain't out of gas in the pourin' rain or changin' a flat in a hurricane/ I'm spending three days lost on a clover leaf." At one point, while Barry ferreted around for a Reid song called "Amos Jones", Dave struck up some bluegrass licks of his own. "Check it out," Barry advised over his shoulder. "Top player."
After I'd checked it out, I asked Dave how he and Barry had got together. "We met three years ago at a restaurant called Johnny Foxes," Dave said. "It's the highest restaurant in Ireland." Before I could press Dave on whether "highest" meant physically the highest, or was some Irish or muso vernacular, Barry shouted, "Here's the Amos lyrics!" and we were off again, all hoe-downing it with some abandon by this point, led by Barry. "`Now everybody blames his old man/ For making him as mean as a snake/ When Amos Jones was a boy/ His Daddy used to use him for alligator bait ... ' Let's do a few more! ... Here's the Henry Ford lyrics!"
At The Dove, over his usual lunchtime order of the avocado and bacon salad, without the bacon, and a Coke, Barry, cross- referencing with Sandra, explained how his life had been soaked in music from day one. His father, Pat, was a proper professional singer, long before the "Danny Boy" pre-fight cameos. He won the Irish national song contest in 1968 and finished third in the same year's Eurovision. In 1969, in Malta, Barry informs me, David Bowie was his dad's warm-up act ("It's Bo-ee, Barry," Sandra corrects).
"I remember cleaning the shoes in the showband," Barry continued. "And when he was in a band called Cecil Kettle and the Skyrockets, I used to clean the band's clothes. I'll never forget it. They were sand-coloured." "Do you remember when they had the blue suits with the black shirts?" enquired Sandra. "No, no, darlin', that was the Seventies," said Barry firmly. "What they had was dark brown shirts with, like, tan tops and no collars on the jackets."
Once he was in the ring, he blocked out the sound of "Danny Boy": "I never listened. You're right on the edge of breaking into tears already. You're holding it in. Your adrenalin is screaming. I just said a simple little prayer to myself, over and over and over again. I didn't listen to it, but I needed it."
On the night of the Pedroza fight, Pat McGuigan was judged by many to have made an uncharacteristic balls-up of "Danny Boy", but Barry explains that at the soundcheck earlier that day everyone had forgotten that there would be a 27,000 crowd later on.
"He didn't have the ear-things they have now. He couldn't hear a thing. Then he heard a note so he started, but he was about half a verse behind. He tried to catch up and by the end it was almost right."
That night, as the week-long celebrations began in Clones, the McGuigan family house burnt down. Barry: "They were burning a holy candle on top of the TV. What happened was that they went to bed and the candle melted down, into the back of the TV and all the electrics had ..." Sandra: "You can't say that, Barry." Barry: "No, I can't say that. We don't know that." Sandra:"What happened was the surge in electricity used in the town actually overdid the whole area. A lot of television cameras were in the house that night, all plugging in and ... " Barry: "But there was a candle on top of the TV." Interceding, I asked, yes, but was there a candle there every night? It seemed the pertinent sleuth question. "Yes, and it had never happened before, so it couldn't have been that," Sandra replied, quickly. Barry offered: "It could have been divine intervention."
The night that Barry lost in Vegas, his dad was booked to play a celebratory set in Caesar's Palace lounge. He honoured the booking. "It was very difficult for him but he still sang. He was a professional."
The fame was harder for Sandra than for Barry. "Do you remember when I had the miscarriage, Barry? I was at the hospital waiting to see if I'd lost the baby or not. I was very traumatised, and this trainee doctor says, `I really am in awe of your Barry, you know.' He started talking about all his fights and everything."
Barry says, grimly, "They should find out where he is and sack him."
Barry's life has been beset by trauma. He killed an opponent, Young Ali, in the ring in 1982, and dedicated all his later fights to him. Danika was diagnosed with leukaemia, but is now on the mend. Dermot committed suicide in 1994. Pat had died seven years before. And that's why, although I like the mad bluegrass stuff, I think that, in "The Contender", Barry McGuigan may have found himself a very special song.
The wheel of fortune took me
From the highest point she shook me
By the bottle live
By the bottle I shall fall
This, metaphorically or literally, is the story of almost every champion boxer you can think of. But not of Barry: he has come through. He's still got his money, his wife, his kids, his mind. He was in the horror, but he's not of it. So no one else can sing "The Contender" quite as he can. I intend to watch him sing it, probably with my friend Frank, and I doubt either of us will care much where the resonance comes from, as long as Barry hits the right notes.
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