The calm after the storm

Folk legend, activist, hellraiser... Christy Moore has been there and back. John Walsh meets a man now at ease with himself
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The Independent Culture

In the first press interview that Christy Moore ever gave - with Melody Maker in 1968, to talk about his debut record Paddy on the Road - the accompanying photograph jumps off the page at you. It shows an alarmingly shaggy-bearded, red-faced, streel-haired, portly hooligan looking as if he might explode out of his open-necked shirt - the living image of the roving Irish bard, wild as the wind and drunk as a skunk. This figure is a long way from the shorn and professorial gent who looks up from afternoon tea and sandwiches in the Basil Hotel, off London's Knightsbridge, and regards you with wary hauteur over the top of his spectacles. Open-toed sandals, track-suit bottoms and a whiff of expensive soap hint at a regimen of purity and sobriety.

In the first press interview that Christy Moore ever gave - with Melody Maker in 1968, to talk about his debut record Paddy on the Road - the accompanying photograph jumps off the page at you. It shows an alarmingly shaggy-bearded, red-faced, streel-haired, portly hooligan looking as if he might explode out of his open-necked shirt - the living image of the roving Irish bard, wild as the wind and drunk as a skunk. This figure is a long way from the shorn and professorial gent who looks up from afternoon tea and sandwiches in the Basil Hotel, off London's Knightsbridge, and regards you with wary hauteur over the top of his spectacles. Open-toed sandals, track-suit bottoms and a whiff of expensive soap hint at a regimen of purity and sobriety.

Christy Moore at 55 is a living advertisement for the getting of wisdom. His early years of gigging in tiny English folks clubs, of constant travelling and freelance hellraising, were replaced by a middle period of ferocious artistry, when he founded two of the key bands of the Irish folk renaissance, Planxty and Moving Hearts, in the 1970s. They were the natural successors to the Clancy Brothers and the Dubliners, talented singers and musicians who had become terminally uncool and stage-Irish. Moore sang folk songs never heard outside their native Clare or Tipperary, songs he'd picked up on his travels, modern ballads by gypsy travellers like John Reilly, songs that reinvigorated ancient song traditions: "The Raggle Taggle Gypsies", "The Well Below the Valley", "Cold Blow and the Rainy Night". Later, as a solo artist, he became a political engagé and then acquired the status of national treasure. He tells it all in a frank but chaotically-structured book, One Voice: My Life in Song which uses the lyrics of 250 songs as the jump-off for memories, reflections, rants, lists, confessions and bursts of lyrical prose.

Moore' s singing voice was always a strong and beautiful thing, but it carried a note of unmistakeable authenticity. It's a percussive, tap-dancing voice, as nimble as a fiddle, the voice in which (you feel sure) Irish songs used to be sung before Christy's namesake Thomas Moore sweetened everything up with his Irish melodies. On stage, Christy always looked like a truculent brickie, his plain grey T-shirt straining over his capacious belly, but he played guitar and sang with tight throb of passion like a diva. He did a lengthy bodhran solo (that's a large hand-held drum, played with a small barbel) that became a meditation, his face pressed to the skin as if listening to something beyond music.

"They were the best nights," he says contentedly. "Nights when you put so much into the show, and the audience would become crazed by it, and I'd feed off it, no matter how exhausted I was, and I'd start a chant or a drone or a wail. There were nights I thought, I could die here. But I couldn't stop. I just thought, fuck it, I'll see it out." Once in Glastonbury, during his percussion ritual, hordes of people emerged from their tents, and the audience swelled to 25,000 - "attracted", he says, widening his eyes, "by The Drum..."

You look at him, and wonder how seriously he takes his excursions into the mystic. For Moore has become a bit magus-like these days. After a heart attack in 1987 and a nervous breakdown 10 years later, he has rediscovered God, if not religion. And when he says, "I'm in a very different place from where I used to be", he's talking about more than the Basil Hotel. But then you recall that he was never quite as working-class as his audience may assume. His father was a bank manager's son who went into farming, then the army, then ran a grocer's shop; he died at 41, after going into hospital to have an ingrowing toenail removed. Christy was 11, and the shockwaves have reverberated through his life.

He is the eldest of six children, who were sent by their mother to learn the black arts of entertainment. "We all went to elocution lessons, and piano lessons, singing lessons, proper breathing and voice projection," he says proudly. "We were privileged, not that I appreciated it at the time. But it's always stayed with me, the breathing exercises. I could gig endlessly without the voice giving out".

Did he used to take anything before going on stage? Honey and lemon and ginseng and syrup of figs, like Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin? "Oh God, no. Guinness and hashish and cocaine, yes. Honey and syrup, no."

Moore has always suffered from the More, Please Syndrome. Whatever good time or passing pleasure or illegal stimulant is around, he'll want more of it. His book features a head-spinning list of all the drink and drugs he's consumed over the years. "I was very keen on gin and tonic," he recalls wistfully, having been off the electric soup for 11 years. "And I used to love the pint bottles of Guinness. At different times, I loved cider. Oh, and ale - Strongarm, or John Willy Lees...".

He has a slight obsession with names. His self-penned songs are full of place-names, little hamlets and shebeens celebrated and memorialised in the Irish way, but also full of people. In the 1980s, Moore became adept at long, all-embracing novelty rap songs - like "Lisdoonvarna" or "Me and the Rose of Tralee" - which took the mick out of the nostalgia industry, but simultaneously name-checked politicians and media celebrities, pulling the whole nation of Irish public figures into a single arena. They turned Moore into a national treasure, a mocking commentator on the Republic's current affairs.

His political involvement went down less well. During the blanket protests at Long Kesh in the late 1970s, Moore was the hunger strikers' most vocal supporter. He visited the prison, talked to disorientated strikers, released a protest song, "Ninety Miles to Dublin Town", which was instantly banned, and brought out an LP, H-Block. The launch party in Dublin was raided by secret police. But many Irish people felt Moore was naive, or just plain wrong to take sides so overtly. "I was surprised by the antagonism. But you don't write a song about something like the blanket protest to court popularity. I made a decision to lend my voice, to use it to express the way I felt."

One of his best songs, "Ride On", which features the hook line, "I could never go with you no matter how I wanted to", has been interpreted as an invitation to join the IRA. So could he have gone with them? "I wouldn't have been accepted," he says. "Why would they want me in the IRA, if they could have me around the world singing songs?" But did he ever apply to join? Christy's eyes glitter. He smiles. He says nothing.

After the breakdown in 1997, he cancelled all work, gave up live performances and began his confessional songbook. He says he won't play another major concert, though he thinks a small room with an audience of 60 might be just the job. His retirement from the fray finds him becalmed in a Zen-like equilibrium. He attributes it to prayer and therapy. "I used to rely totally on myself, for everything. Now I know I can't deal with anything." And a satisfied, cleansing laugh issues from the mystic ruffian in the lounge of the Basil Street Hotel.

 

'One Voice: My Life in Song' is published this week by Hodder, £20

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