Paperback writer: Paul Charles' memories of his youth in Co Londonderry revisited in his latest book
Impresario-turned-novelist Paul Charles may have worked with some of the world’s biggest music stars, but it’s memories of his idyllic youth in Co Londonderry that he revisits in his latest book.
Published 11/06/2014 | 09:00
Back in the 1960s, when Paul Charles started out in the music industry, his business card listed the local telephone box in his native Magherafelt as his main point of contact. When there was a call, a neighbour would rap the window of his parents’ house to let him know.
These days, as one half of the esteemed Asgard Agency — which represents acts including Alison Krauss, Jackson Brown, Ray Davies, Emmylou Harris, Christy Moore, Elvis Costello, John Lee Hooker, kd Lang and Tom Waits — Charles (63) is one of the best-known talentagents and tour promoters in the UK and Ireland. For the past 20 years, he has programmed the Acoustic Stage at the iconic Glastonbury Festival and has worked with legendary artists such as Rory Gallagher, Robert Plant, Van Morrison and Paul Brady.
When he is not putting bands on a stage – and on the map – he is also a prolific and successful author with a series of detective novels (The DI Kennedy Mysteries and The Inspector Starrett Mysteries), fiction and factual books to his name.
However, his latest novel, The Lonesome Heart is Angry, takes him right back to his teenage years in 1960s Northern Ireland and a time when matchmakers played cupid in many a rural Irish town.
"When I was growing up, I worked as a messenger boy for a shop owner, delivering baskets of groceries on my bicycle," he recalls.
"I would take the basket into people's houses and while they were unpacking, they would make me a cup of tea and I would hear all the local scandal.
"What always intrigued me most was the talk about the old art of matchmaking, where someone would pay the matchmaker 10 shillings to find them a partner.
"Through town gossip you would hear about some weird requests, such as a 20-year-old girl who was looking for a 90-year-old farmer because she wanted to inherit the land," he laughs.
"And the farmers who couldn't be bothered looking for a wife themselves, so would just pay 10 shillings in the hope the matchmaker could find one for them.
"I was intrigued to such an extent that I wondered what would be the weirdest request for a matchmaker.
"So, in The Lonesome Heart, there are 29-year-old twin boys – Pat and Joe Kane – from Castlemartin, who go to the matchmaker with a strange request; as a result the local people start to gossip."
Despite working in the night-owl world of the music industry, Charles follows a very strict writing routine.
"I write from 6am-9.30am religiously if I'm working on the first draft of a novel," he says. "If it's the second, I'm not quite as strict.
"At 9.30am, I head into the Asgard office and am there until about 7.30pm, or later if there's a gig to go to.
"Even if I am on tour, the music business doesn't really get going until lunchtime, so the mornings are always free. And there's a lot of downtime and waiting around in hotel lobbies and airports.
"After a gig, you can either go out partying or drink in the hotel bar, but I was never into that and preferred to go out and investigate the city we were in, or use the time to read or think of ideas for books.
"I was never a party animal, even though I started in the 1960s and '70s. I enjoy a glass of wine like the best of them, but I like to be in control of my senses.
"Also, no band wants to see their agent rolling around and getting as wrecked as they are. We are the people they depend on to keep the show on the road."
Born in 1950, Charles was the oldest of three boys born to electrician Andrew (now 89) and his late wife Cora, who died three years ago, aged 82.
"I have two brothers, Russell and Leslie, who were born three years apart and who both sadly passed away when they were 16 years old as a result of multiple sclerosis," he says.
"I was in my late 20s at the time and living in London. It was a terrible blow for the whole family. They were incredible young men with very big hearts.
"My mum and dad were amazing. To suffer the loss of one child was hard enough, but two ..."
Charles got hooked on music in his early teens after hearing Love Me Do by The Beatles on the kitchen radio.
"It stopped me in my tracks," he recalls. "And I'm still a huge fan of the band. It was such a joyous, uplifting sound.
"When I was about 15, a mate of mine at the time, a guy called Vince McCusker who played guitar, formed a group called Blues by Five and I started to manage them.
"And yes, we didn't have a phone in the house at that time, so my contact number was a nearby phone box," he laughs. "But it worked very well."
At secondary school, he excelled at technical drawing and maths and, aged only 17, Charles left Magherafelt to study for an ONC in civil engineering at Twickenham College of Technology in London.
"Civil engineering wasn't what I wanted to do, but I really wanted to go to London and this was a way of getting there," he says.
"London was an incredibly exciting place to be in those days and I think my mum was quite worried because I was so young, but she didn't want to hold me back.
"To be honest, I was pretty scared at first and during the first month, I wrote to my mum every night. If I could have afforded to come home, I would have.
"Luckily, I met a lovely girl from Co Clare, just before I came home for Christmas, so I had something to look forward to going back.
"And it was easy to stay out of trouble and away from the excesses that were around at that time.
"Looking back, I can see that I was pretty driven. I knew what I wanted to do and what I enjoyed doing – gigs, cinema, reading books – and stuck to that.
"Writing actually came about by accident, as I first started doing it to return a few favours.
"When I was managing Blues by Five, I used to hassle journalists to write about the band in the local papers. Then when I moved to London, those same journalists would ask me to review Irish acts such as Rory Gallagher who were playing over there, and get some quotes.
"I also started writing for London music magazines in my spare time and after my course finished, I stayed on.
"I had kept in touch with Vince, who by then had formed another band called, Fruupp.
"They came over to London and I arranged a number of showcase gigs for them and got some managers and record companies to come along.
"But they didn't get a deal, or a manager, so I took on the role and it was through managing them, that I got into the business.
"Fruupp were together for four years and released four albums."
It was during his time looking after the band, that Charles met Paul Fenn, now his partner at Asgard.
"Paul used to book acts into venues and I would ring him up and persuade him to give Fruupp some gigs. We got to know each other really well and after Fruupp split, I started working with him doing the booking and acting as an agent for other groups.
"I was still writing music reviews and articles and I really enjoyed doing it. I had also discovered detective novels and started writing a bit of fiction myself while on the road with bands, or in my spare time."
In 1996, Charles wrote his first Detective Inspector Christy Kennedy Mystery, I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass, which was published the following year.
Nine further Christy Kennedy titles followed, then two Inspector Starrett Mysteries, a novel about the Beatles, called First of the True Believers, a non-fiction book, The Complete Guide to Playing Live, and the two novels, The Last Dance and The Prince of Heaven's Eyes (a novella named after the final Fruupp album).
His latest work may be about matchmaking, but it took Charles a long time to find 'the one'. At the age of 48 he married property relocation agent Catherine, and he blames the lengthy delay in finding love on the nature of his job.
"Sometimes you are so involved in what you are doing and enjoying what you are doing that it's not that you make the decision not to get involved in a relationship, it just doesn't occur to you," he says.
"However, I always thought that there was someone special out there waiting for me and when I was 47, I met a wonderful woman from Donegal called Catherine, so I was right," he laughs.
Loving music so much and working in the business, did he never want a bit of the limelight for himself and try to make it in a band?
"Never," he insists. "What people don't realise is that being in a band is a really, really hard life. Yes, some make a lot of money, and some don't, but when you are on tour, you're lucky if you get two hours' peace each day – and those two hours are when you are on stage.
"It's especially so nowadays with all the extra-curricular stuff such as the constant media promotion that you have to do as well. This often starts at 7am and there's more to do when you come off stage.
"When you're not on tour, you're under pressure to come up with the next hit album or single. It really isn't a bed of roses!"
Although he has been based in London for almost 50 years, Charles' novels always contain a little bit of home – either a character, or in the case of The Lonesome Heart, an old tradition, so does he miss Northern Ireland?
"I was asked recently how much I thought Belfast influenced Van Morrison's Astral Weeks and I replied that I thought there was a lot of Belfast in the record, but it was a Belfast that only an exile would see," he says.
"I don't think Van would have created a work like that had he still been living in Belfast.
"When you are away from home, you see it in a different way – sometimes through rose-tinted glasses.
"I think I'm the same. Certainly with regard to Magherafelt and Castlemartin, I can't remember those places being anything other than wonderful and great fun. And very happy times."
The Lonesome Heart is Angry is out now, published by New Island, (£11.99)
Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll
The music industry has always been rife with stories of bad behaviour, but Paul is the master of discretion and refuses to divulge any tales of excess.
“I am very lucky in that I deal mostly with people and groups who are more into making music than getting hammered,” he says.
“The only thing I remember being surprised about was at the height of the punk explosion in the late 1970s, I was working with The Buzzcocks and went into their dressing room to find them very sedately quaffing Champagne.
“It didn’t fit in with the punk ethos at all. Pete Shelley wrote great songs, but they weren’t what they seemed.”
However, he does admit that stories of how difficult legendary rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Chuck Berry (inset) can be are all true. “But they’re true because he feels he was taken advantage of at one point in his career and now he finds himself in a position where he can make sure nobody takes advantage of him again,” says Charles.
“He gets to the end of a set, the crowd is going berserk, but he’s done his contracted 50 minutes to the second — you can actually see him look at his watch — and he comes off stage.
“The crowd wants more, but Chuck says: ‘My contract stipulates 50 minutes. I’ll do another quarter of an hour, but it’s going to cost you two-and-a-half grand’.
“So you pay. It’s literally as black and white as that: no pay, no play. But he does that because he had such grief in the early part of his life.”