In November 1991, I read a review for A House’s I Am The Greatest that was written by Lorraine Freeney for Hot Press. I had been reading her for a year or so. I had just started college and I didn’t know Lorraine but I loved her writing and highly valued her opinion. I started in Hot Press too in 1993. We have been close friends since then and I still do both of those. Lorraine gave I Am The Greatest a double six on the Hot Press dice and she wrote that ‘When I First Saw You’, track seven, the song that segues into ‘I Am Afraid’, had a haunting quality with “sustained, ominous baroque chords crowned with gut-wrenching vocals”. That sentence stuck the album on my Santy list. I played the album, those two songs more than most, to death. I have played. Not past tense.
One thing that intrigues me is how songs evolve and grow with you. Well, they don’t all have to. You partner a song and then you can move and grow together or you can go your own ways.
Some songs are critical to life decisions at one point and then they are released just to be great sounds again. That was Dexys’ Midnight Runners’ ‘This Is What She’s Like’, from Don’t Stand Me Down, for me. Kevin Rowland assured me indubitably, through whooping, when I had not met and then when I had met the woman I needed to spend my life with. I broke up with someone great in 2000 when I first heard ‘This Is What She’s Like’, because the ecstatic adoration in the song just did not resonate with our relationship. I did not want to waste the time of the person I was with. I played ‘This Is What She’s Like’ when I met Sharon in summer 2001 and it said Bingo. I no longer needed the song as a guide. Long ago I put it out to pasture, no more workhorse blues, but I still stroke its nose every so often and say Christ, thanks Kevin.
At the start of my relationship with I Am The Greatest, I paid less attention to ‘I Am Afraid’ than I did to ‘When I First Saw You’, because paying attention to ‘When I First Saw You’ was not volitional. When the song finished, it didn’t. There was post-vocal reverb but that was not all. On ending, ‘When I First Saw You’ grabbed me and shook me by the lapels of the James Dean red jacket I was trying to look cool in. It mussed my quiff.
I was seventeen then eighteen in 1991-92. I arrived blinking and hoping to college from a lonely few years in a boys’ school. In UCD, I was frequently, incompetently, in love. I understood when Dave Couse sang “I was in awe of you / I needed to have you / God you’re beautiful, you really are / God I need you now, I need you now”, but I had no clue how you would go about meeting those needs. Not for ten more years.
I play this song now and I am still blown away by it in a way that is as literal as it is figurative. I am not synaesthetic but Dave Couse’s vocal sounds as a force nine gale would feel. I have to breathe deeply to assume the impact safely. The song clears my sinuses. Couse’s voice pierces through my heart space to my spine and I shiver. Some of this must be bad memories. I don’t miss that early longing. But it’s gratitude too. Thank you for letting me know I am not alone. Thank you for keeping me going.
‘I Am Afraid’ stood out on I Am The Greatest for me in 1991 because, well, for one thing, I could play it on the acoustic. I could strum with confidence and I could fumble along to Fergal Bunbury’s limber, empathetic lead line. Also, I heard the words. While I didn’t need these words as much back then as I needed ‘When I First Saw You’, we have stuck together. No retirement for them.
On ‘I Am Afraid’, Dave Couse, who is ten years older than me, sang explicitly about his fears and he declared that he was not brave. Well, technically, he said, “It’s not that I’m not brave / It’s just that I’m not brave enough for you”. If at seventeen you hear singing about twenty-something interpersonal problems, you might reasonably be pining for personal problems that attenuate your isolation, and you might disagree that they are to be feared. Couse sang “I am afraid to drink too much, because of what I might do”, so my GABA, my amygdala and I conferred and replied together: We are afraid not to drink too much, because of what we might not do. This remained true for—ten years maybe. Who’s counting?
‘I Am Afraid’ opened with “I am afraid of the dark”, and I was not. I liked dim light because that way you could shun and be shunned while walking around Ballinteer or town, without making a big deal of it. Headphones and the Discman that Blonde on Blonde inhabited helped. My stomach churned if I had to bump into someone I was uncomfortable in meeting. I was, as such, afraid of the day, as the second half of the first line said. Couse did this a lot. Not afraid of this? How about its opposite? Ha! Gotcha.
I don’t recall now being then perturbed by many of the next listed fears: “I am afraid to be unloved, I am afraid to be forsaken / I am afraid of doing wrong and to be never be forgiven / I am afraid that you will find I’m not the man you think I am / I am afraid to be on my own and of the unknown”. I was afraid to be on my own but I was used to it. I was not afraid that people would find I’m not the man I think I am because I was not a man. Who was I? No clue.
In ‘I Am Afraid’ an unmissable moment was when the music stopped and Dave Couse, a cappella, revealed “Ever since I was a small child / I cannot sleep at night / Without the light on”. I mostly mentally skipped this one. Even my ten-year-old brother slept in the dark. Then Couse stood on stage including at A House’s final show in 1997 and stretched out his arms like on Calvary, disarming himself while crying this out, and I didn’t properly appreciate even that act until recently. I am not brave enough for two, he said, but I am brave enough to be beamed at by bright lights before you to tell you that I suffer and lack courage so that I can help you sense, admit, and remedy your own fear and pain.
There are fears in ‘I Am Afraid’ that emerge as the song and seasons draws in, that don’t shrink. My core fear for years is “I am afraid that you will find I’m not the man you think I am”. One has to get to know yourself to validate this fear, which matures like vintage wine. Live through Sinatra’s ‘It Was A Very Good Year’ and arriving in UCD is the first verse while draining vintage wine is verse four, in the autumn of one’s years. As wine matures, taste improves but dregs pile up and crappy characteristics become visible. At seventeen, it’s hard to parse out flaws. At forty-eight, it’s easier.
‘I Am Afraid’ concludes with a verse in which Couse examines and elicits fear of two opposing things: “I am afraid of growing old / I am afraid to die, but it’s something I must do”. ‘I am Afraid’ can momentarily trick me into thinking that I am still afraid of growing old but I am not. I am afraid to die. I heard John Lennon last weekend singing “I can hardly wait to see you come of age” to his son Seán on 1980’s ‘Beautiful Boy’. John died at the end of that year, when Seán was five. Seán has always had Yoko Ono and he seems fine. Still, I have two such boys and a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful girl. I can hardly wait to see them come of age. I dreaded old age and now I crave it.
In Vicar St in December 2019, at the second AHOUSEISDEAD show, Eva Couse, daughter of Dave and star of his 2003 album Genes, sang ‘I Am Afraid’ as Dave accompanied on vocals and Gretsch, Fergal Bunbury played that graceful and resilient guitar line, and Eva’s friend and Fergal’s daughter Mairéad Bunbury drummed. They had done this together in June at the NCH too. I was there in June.
There are moments when Eva has to stop what she is doing because the crowd is singing to her and to her family and there is a moment towards the end where she elevates the pitch of her vocal by an octave because she is in front of her Dad, declaring on his, her, and all our behalves, “I am afraid to die / But it’s something I must do”. It is an act. And I know she and her family have experienced losses that were predicted and painted in song by Dave Couse and Fergal Bunbury and are rightly, always, to be feared. Then she and her dad and Fergal and Mairéad all hug each other as they close the song and you watch and you think, this, here, this is peak human life.
A House is Dead? Long live AHOUSEISDEAD.
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