One of the roles of a true writer is to bring all the gifts of their being to the task of creating art which though conscious of history and artistic tradition demands that you attend to how it feels to be alive NOW in this particular society and culture in all its messy complexity.
And, if you can accomplish this task by creating songs, lyrical ballads, which speak urgently to their time while having depth of humanity and beauty of composition you will find that such songs do not wither and die.
Rather, they take on a life of their own and become beloved by audiences and fellow artists from different eras and cultures who will find universal truths emerging from these particular songs. Songs, filed with the quick life of the day, if they are good enough, find entry into the hallowed treasury of traditional song. Such songs will always find an audience and always find singers to sing them.
Philip Chevron wrote such songs.
Ireland was fortunate to find, in Philip Chevron from his 70s days with Ireland’s pioneer punk heroes,’The Radiators From Space’ through to his solo work and triumphs with The Pogues, a songwriter who wrote with fierce aching truth about the life he lived and the times he lived in.
Philip Chevron (born Philip Ryan) in 1957 grew up in Santry, Dublin. In his writing he chronicled with deep feeling, literary finesse, puzzlement and pain the realities of growing up in the Dublin of the 1970s. Few punk bands anywhere had a singer and writer with the ambition and artistic scope of Philip Chevron.
The Radiators 1977 debut record, ‘TV Tube Heart’ was filled with urgent songs displaying the frustrations and anger of urban youth in a society that seemed in many respects ossified and coldly indifferent to all those who in any sense lived lives which crossed the borders of catholic propriety.
The Radiators second album, ‘Ghostown’ produced by Tony Visconti is simply a great record including two songs, ‘Kitty Ricketts’ and, ‘Song of the Faithful Departed’ which demonstrated beyond argument that Philip Chevron was a world class songwriter.
Critical acclaim came plentifully but this was not reflected in record sales. Moving to London Philip found a home in the expatriate community and became friends with Shane McGowan of The Pogues and became a member of the band at the time of their second album, ‘Rum, Sodomy and the Lash’.
His abilities as a guitarist, singer and songwriter became crucial especially in view of the increasingly erratic behaviour of Shane McGowan.
To celebrate Philip Chevron on The Immortal Jukebox I’m going to feature three wondrous songs. The first, ‘Under Clery’s Clock’ is a miraculous song which finds heart rending beauty in a situation where a young gay man struggles to find dignity and love in a world which stonily refuses to admit that love has never been limited to that between men and women.
The use of Dublin districts like Burgh Quay and the cultural landmark of the department store clock – for generations a meeting place for trysting lovers anchors the song in time and place.
The regretful melody adds poignancy to the protagonist’s situation; living with urges he can’t fight wanting to be able to meet a lover in the light not in a dark and stinking place. The sense of outraged dignity and desperate longing in this song is palpable and overwhelmingly moving.
Let’s turn now to ‘The Song of the Faithful Departed’, which may be Philip’s masterpiece. A compendious song which, without strain, artfully and compassionately invokes the literary, religious and historical crosses and legacies that Ireland stumblingly shouldered in the 20th century.
No better man to take on such a song than the eminence grise of Irish music, Christy Moore, whose radar always picks up on songs which speak with power and humanity.
The version here is from a July 2013 live performance – a benefit for Philip in the last months of his life. Christy introduces the song by reading a letter from Philip Chevron which shows the measure of both men.
A line like, ‘The graveyard hides a million secrets’ resonates with increasing power with every passing year as the sins and scandals of Official Ireland have been brought shamefully into the light. But, impressively, this is not a finger-pointing song it’s a song of empathy and fellow feeling. Its a song from a writer at the height of his powers.
There will be no end to the singing of this song.
The emigrant ballad is one of the staples of Irish song. Philip Chevron with The Pogues produced in, ‘Thousands Are Sailing’ a deeply felt and formally sophisticated song which yearningly evokes the shared experiences of Irish emigrants to America over two centuries.
Again the song does not hesitate to face up to the painful realities that spurred emigrants to leave home and the challenges they faced when arrived in the long dreamed of America.
It was one of the signal hallmarks of Philip Chevron songs that they beguile rather than batter and that while conscious of the painful realities of life in the end they urge us to sing out the darkness and dance into the light.
Philip Chevron’s funeral service in October 2013, attended by family, friends, fellow musicians and artist in their hundreds, saw his coffin carried in accompanied by ‘Faithful Departed’ and borne out to the strains of ‘Thousands Are Sailing’.
Among the tears there must have been enormous pride.
For poetry today I turn to a lesser known Irish poet, Francis Ledwidge who died at the third battle of Ypres in 1917. Sometimes referred to as the poet of the blackbird or as a peasant poet he was, as all true poets are a protean figure always remaking himself to write the poetry demanded of him. Contradictions prove creativity. I urge you to seek out his work.
To One Dead
A blackbird singing
On a moss-upholstered stone,
Shadows wildly blown,
A song in the wood,
A ship on the sea.
The song was for you
and the ship was for me.
A blackbird singing
I hear in my troubled mind,
I see in a distant wind.
But sorrow and silence,
Are the wood’s threnody,
The silence for you
and the sorrow for me.
Happy St Patrick’s Day!