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Remembering Joe Cassidy

North Belfast musician’s death at 51 robs us of a unique talent


Joe Cassidy died earlier this month

Joe Cassidy died earlier this month

Joe Cassidy died earlier this month

On Joe Cassidy’s very first day in New York, a bearded man came over and invited him to a party. It was the poet Allen Ginsberg and a few hours later the Belfast boy was Allen’s guest at a Manhattan loft, alongside Debbie Harry, Lou Reed and Patti Smith.

This was a classic example of the Joe Cassidy aura. He had an excess of charm and a magnificent smile. Things seemed to happen around him. Wynona Ryder came into his orbit when she clipped him in the street with her car. The David Bowie encounter happened around a backstage fruit table. Words were exchanged and Joe was hugely taken by the scent of the Thin White Duke.

In recent years, Joe was living in Chicago, putting out great records and befriending the families of Glen Campbell and his songwriting partner Jimmy Webb. At one point, he was working in the studio with Jimmy while Glen, suffering from dementia, watched intently.

One of his own tunes, Holding On, was a sideways tribute to Wichita Lineman, the classic Campbell-Webb experience. Joe summoned the twang, the sense of regret and the resolve to stay in the game. The three Webb sons sang harmonies and Cal Campbell played guitar just like his dad.

In the video for the track, Joe almost puts a Glen Campbell CD in the car stereo, but opts for one of his own tunes instead. Mischievous.

He was managing Ashley Campbell, Glen’s daughter, and he had even officiated at the wedding of one of the Webb boys. Snippets of Cassidy’s eventful life appeared on his social media timelines and we followed his moves with pleasure. He gifted his close friends with decorous notes and drawings, while he sent others emails that routinely fizzed with delight.

Unfortunately, Joe felt ill earlier this month and, by the time he was admitted to ER, his condition had become critical. There were issues with his heart and sepsis developed. Joe died on July 15, with some family present at his bedside. He was 51. There have been hundreds of tributes since then, as his legacy of music and kindness has become apparent.

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An online tribute of words, testimonies and music streamed for over four hours on the evening of July 19. Joe’s name was set up on the showtime board for Chicago’s Metro venue, with the simple message: “You lovely fella”.

Such gestures have been some comfort for the family at home. As his mother Anne appreciates: “Sometimes, you don’t know the high esteem that some of your children are held in.”

Joe grew up around the Antrim Road area of north Belfast, spending his early years at Cedar Avenue. He enjoyed long-distance running and represented Ulster at Under-14 tennis.

This fixity of mind and intense application was also a feature of his music career. In 1987, he was invited to a recording session in England during his A-levels and the authorities at St Malachy’s College resisted the plan, but his parents were encouraging and so Joe was installed for a week at Suite 16 Studios in Rochdale.

He met the co-owner, Peter Hook from New Order, and thus he got a crash course in bass playing from a master.

He grew out of his goth tendencies with bands such as The Gift and BFG. His new act was called Butterfly Child, named after a character that he’d invented in his back garden at the age of six. His mates were creating bands with severe, post-punk names, but Joe wanted something that was child-like and full of wonder.

He had bonded with another north Belfast visionary, Gary McKendry, and they made adventurous recordings on an Amstrad four-track machine. They listened to the Velvet Underground and read James Joyce. This was the era of the Cocteau Twins and their wordless, reverb-soaked sensations and that was absorbed in the Butterfly Child’s character.

Gary was very taken by the abstractions of London act A R Kane and when he heard they were looking for talent on their new record label, he made a visit to their HQ in Stratford in 1991. He presented the rough demos and emerged with record deals for his own band, Papa Sprain, plus a release for Butterfly Child.

Joe and Gary played in each other’s bands and their talents overlapped. They recorded sessions for John Peel and the music press was very supportive. Unfortunately, it was also a time of messy politics in record labels and a deal of estrangement between the two friends.

Even so, Butterfly Child created three significant, early records: Onomatopoeia (1993), The Honeymoon Suite (1995) and Soft Explosives (1998). The project name was resurrected with a fourth album, Futures (2015). The title reflected Joe’s optimistic mindset.

He was busy with commercial work plus an act called Assassins. Joe also re-connected with Gary McKendry and they made their peace with a beautiful project called My Bus. The album, Our Life In The Desert (2020) was about a special friendship and the duress of Belfast life in the late 80s. Old four-track recordings were re-purposed and new recordings accented this.

The two characters are lovingly represented. As Joe’s brother Michael explains: “Joe would being the pop side of things and Gary would bring the apocalypse.”

The album mentions Cave Hill, the Antrim Road, the impact of the conflict and the consolation of listening to John Peel on the radio. A track called And Time is about an era, a city and it radiates immense soul:

Lavery’s and The Plaza, just echoes.

The people gone too soon all cared the most.

Our bus late as always on the way home.

These ghosts won't live forever on their own.

When you hear it now, it breaks your heart.

(Joe Cassidy, August 31, 1969-July 15, 2021. With thanks to Anne Cassidy, Michael Cassidy and Gary Hill)

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