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He made me laugh and cry: A journey with my friend Bap

Ralph McLean recalls the special times he shared with the late musician Bap Kennedy

Published 26/11/2016

Close bond: Bap Kennedy and his wife Brenda
Close bond: Bap Kennedy and his wife Brenda
Brenda at his funeral
Bap with Ralph
Bap performing on stage

I was working in Nashville when the news came through that Bap Kennedy had passed. Anyone who's ever been caught abroad when something bad happens at home will know how I felt. I was heartbroken at the news, although everyone involved knew it would arrive however unwelcome and probably sooner rather than later, and devastated to be so far away and unable to pay my respects in person. Standing in the foyer of the Country Music Hall of Fame as I was though seemed oddly fitting as I'd shared some good times with the man himself both in that very venue and also in Music City, USA itself.

I came as a kind of glorified MC with a contingent of Irish singer songwriters back in 2009 to celebrate the Sister City relationship between Nashville and Belfast and between the gigs and showcases that were lined up for our time in the city I was keen, as any music lover would be, to explore the sights and venues on offer. In Bap I found a willing accomplice and we took every available opportunity to skive off away from the group to check out the Honky Tonks and history that seems to almost seep from the sidewalks of the city. We strolled through the Country Music Hall of Fame with jars ajar staring wide-eyed at Hank Williams stage outfits and Elvis' solid gold Cadillac.

Bap loved Hank and Elvis dearly with the straight forward romanticism of Hank's words - his "complex simplicity" as he called it - informing his own work greatly. The laughs were plentiful as they always were with Bap and when I took that call in the foyer last month they were the first thing I thought of. Bap was always wry and dry, quick with a one liner and never bought into the showbiz side of the business. For Bap it was always about the music and nothing else. Everything else was nonsense.

I was in Belfast when the news of his cancer diagnosis came through. A vicious stomach pain had resulted in hospitalisation, which resulted in tests being carried out which resulted in the dreaded diagnosis and that most final of words "inoperable". He was only 54, which seemed a desperately cruel age to be taken at, but as anyone who has dealt with the disease will be all too aware the ruthlessness of cancer knows no bounds.

I spoke with Bap's wonderful wife Brenda and asked to come out to his home in Holywood. I wanted to do something to help, however small, and offered to record his life story. Just Bap talking and telling it like it really was. From his earliest musical memories of growing up in west Belfast to his time knocking on the big league doors with Energy Orchard and his remarkable solo career that led him to share studios and stages with everyone from Steve Earle to Van Morrison. It was a simple idea that Bap and Brenda, Bap's musical and loving life partner, seemed to like.

Seeing Bap as the cancer worked its way through his system was hard. He was frail, and greyer than I'd seen him before.

He was very tired and needed to take breaks when the weariness took over but that old twinkle in his eyes was still there and the positivity that he showed towards his future was incredible. He'd accepted his fate and wanted to put his life in order.

That he wanted to do it with style and humour was typical of the man and his outlook on life. He'd been blogging his thoughts on his situation (which you can still read at www.bapkennedy.com) and the reaction to his words seemed to genuinely surprise him.

He was shocked at the messages of heartfelt support he was getting from all over the world and couldn't believe how much he was loved and how much his music meant to people. I told him it was a pretty extreme way to find out and he just chuckled. Bap rarely did anything the easy way.

In that blog Bap has related how he sang the Hank Williams country classic Lost Highway as he was wheeled down to the operating theatre for those initial exploratory tests.

I asked him if that was really true. "Oh yes," he said smiling again "There was nothing I could do. I wanted to take control and I thought I'm going to sing Lost Highway. They took me down and put me on the table and gave me gas. The gas made me pretty gaga but I sang my heart out."

And as for the medical staff watching?

They were a tough audience it seems. "There was no applause," he says, laughing again. "But Hank was there. He never lets you down. He's always been there whenever I've needed him. Now the music business," he added with a smile, "that'll break your heart".

Our conversation, which you can hear on BBC Radio Ulster this Thursday between 8pm and 10pm, drifted through many subjects. We discussed how plain old Martin Kennedy went to being Bap - it was a football nickname derived from the crusty loaf made by Kennedy's bakery it seems - looked back on the fashion faux pas that regularly befell a young Belfast punk back in the day and wondered why Energy Orchard, who had all the ingredients to be stadium-sized big, never were. "One day the record industry just moved on and left us behind," he says with typical modesty.

We talk in passing about his singing brother Brian - "He was a proper singer", he tells me - and the conversation turns to the subject of building bridges while he still had time.

He told me of his relief when he was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome just a few years back. Suddenly it seems to throw everything - the laser focus that drove him on to write with Van Morrison or record with Mark Knopfler while other aspects of his professional and personal life floundered - into an understandable light. "Asperger's is the engine of my creativity for sure," he said, looking back on those achievements, "but I went into a huge record contract with no idea how it worked but pretending that I did and giving a good impression that I did. I took everything at face value. I was a bit like a lamb to the slaughter really.

"I was going into boardrooms and talking business with record companies and I was looking out the window, like I was back at school, thinking where do I sign? I made decisions I'm still paying for today. But I'm proud to have Asperger's. It's made me who I am."

As was always case when I've spoken with Bap over the last 20 years the conversation always returned to music.

He made beautiful, deeply emotional music that often reduced me to tears and it's making sure that music lives on and gets heard by future generations that remained his main concern.

"I want to make beautiful music," he said, considering why he'd put himself and his family through the rollercoaster ride of rock and roll all these years.

"That's my dream, to make beautiful music that makes me feel something and hopefully makes other people feel the same.

"Music opened up a whole new horizon. I've had a whole load of adventures I wouldn't have otherwise had and music drove it all. We ended up driving around Los Angeles in limousines with Energy Orchard, that's where it went. It's been a crazy old trip. Some real lunacy but it's always been music at the back of it, or underneath it or above it's always been music keeping it all together."

Back to Nashville, Tennessee, and the bench in the foyer of the Country Music Hall of Fame where I receive that dreaded call.

Once I'd put my phone away I considered what I should do and decided I'd take a stroll over to Lower Broadway and Tootsie's Orchid Lounge.

There's a back door from the Ryman Auditorium that led straight into the famous Honky Tonk and Hank Williams would use it to get a drink when he'd finished on the Grand Ole Opry.

I headed into the bar, ordered a bottle of cold beer and raised a glass to my old friend. I know he would have appreciated the gesture.

  • Bap Kennedy, A Life In Music, BBC Radio Ulster this Thursday, Dec 1, 8-10pm. Bap's final album Reckless Heart is released by Last Chance Records

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