Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

Gone to the dogs with the music that's been a soundtrack to my life

I found myself last weekend in the company of the three amigos and the two cats. The three amigos being poor old Maisie who is 15 and looks like she was retired from that old Dulux TV ad: blind and with kidney failure, she no longer walks much. But she is not in pain and so is still with us, exceedingly loved by the woman I share my life with, who was away at the christening of her first grandchild on the mainland – as some might call it.

Then there is Delphine, who at nine should know better but is utterly spoiled by – who else – and then the latest family member, JoJo Leo, a miniature smooth-haired Chihuahua who I, much to my shame as a man, took to the vet the other day to have his vitals chopped off.

Somehow, the young German vet's line about 'unwanted puppies' did nothing to assuage my guilt. I feel so awful doing this, I said to her. I've never even had the snip, I exclaimed to her puzzled look.

Having watered and walked them (twice) on a very drizzly Saturday – proof, if proof were needed, that summer is indeed gone – we had a quick rekkie on what to do for the evening. Last time their mistress went awol we watched a couple of videos – the wonderful Incredible Journey and YouTube renderings of old Lassie shows. The cats, Bradley Pitt and Mini Ma, were not impressed, so the rest of us had to sit through Cat Ballou and Hanna's and Barbera's Top Cat.

We had exhausted our video collection – I thought Dogs Of War and Catwoman unsuitable for all five, who are quite impressionable and manic enough without inciting them to violence.

Tell you what, let's do music, I said – given that next Saturday (today) marks 58 years since the start of rock 'n' roll, when Little Richard went into a New Orleans studio to record Tutti Frutti – and next Thursday marks the going from this world of the gifted Gram Parsons, 40 years ago.

So we played a little rock 'n' roll to kickstart the proceedings. Delphine's and JoJo's ears cocked high, Brad Pitt sneaked off to the warmth of the kitchen and poor old Maisie slept on, dead to the unfolding party.

All my life has been as audience to music, of all genres. I have an insatiable appetite and each period in my life has been soundtracked by it – rock when I rolled with the punches as a young man, solid country when in the good years of a wife and children, jazz when those years came unstuck and the melancholia of middle age kicked in. And always the great masters: Handel composed his masterpiece, The Messiah, in just 24 days, completed on this day back in 1741.

The dynamic music and charisma of Little Richard, born Richard Wayne Penniman, laid the foundation for rock 'n' roll and was pivotal to the birth of other genres, including soul and funk – even rap. So we threw a little of that lot into the mix. (In 1989, Little Richard, by then 57, provided background vocals on the live version of U2's When Love Comes To Town, with the brilliant BB King).

Still performing, this year on the Las Vegas circuit, Penniman embodies the spirit of early rock 'n' roll more flamboyantly than any other – his raspy style giving the genre one of its most identifiable and influential sounds.

The animals were not impressed by all this and by the time I moved on to Gram Parsons, only JoJo remained by my side, the others having slithered off, paws pressed firmly against ears – Delphine attempting a howling imitation of Jerry Lee Lewis at his boogie-ing best.

Back in 1973 I was a rookie in the Irish Press when a story came over the wires that the burnt body of a rock star had been found in the California desert. The weird circumstances surrounding his cremation are to this day still uncertain, but that night in September Gram Parsons was dead at 26, from drugs and alcohol. Despite his youth, his influence, as part of the seminal Byrds, The Flying Burritos and one-time lover and side-kick to Emmylou Harris, cannot be underestimated, given the role of the Byrds and Gram in making country cool for rock aficionados. (Any worthy Wilco or Eagles fan knows his Sweethearts Of The Rodeo).

As Ryan Adams put it: "If someone tells you they have a cool record collection and they don't have a Gram Parsons album in it, shoot 'em.''

Tales of the above had an uninterested JoJo lick me large, jump off my lap and go in search of his sleeping sisters, while I fell into a sleeping stupor to the strains of Parson's Grievous Angel.

When their mistress returned all talk of music was muted and now focused on the christening of her grandson.

Given the child is of a mixed marriage, I never thought to ask was he christened Catholic or Church of England.

Not that it matters. He is a beautiful boy, whatever one day might be his convictions.

Or musical tastes.

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