Throughout six weeks in October and November, I was commuting with my wife Sharon from our home to Beaumont Hospital for treatment with radiotherapy delivered by some of the most expert, kindest, most apologetic radiotherapists one can imagine. They were apologetic because of the four radiotherapy machines in use in St Luke’s in Beaumont, one kept breaking down daily. The radiotherapists were front of house when calling in someone like me who had been waiting an hour or two longer than expected.
I explained that as a 25-year clinician with overbooked clinics my entire career, 70% of my St James’s and Inchicore outpatient appointments begin with me saying I’m so sorry to keep you waiting. I said listen: for one thing the music here in the waiting room is good as it is RTÉ Gold. I heard Bob Dylan’s ‘Rainy Day Women #12 & 35’ the day after I went to see him in the 3 Arena and I wanted to tell the whole waiting room. When the staff said sorry, I said apology accepted but I thought no more apologies more suitable. I won’t name the staff but I will always remember them and I did name them in the thank you card I dropped in on November 17th, when I finished radiotherapy. That was seven days after I saw Pavement in Vicar St for the first time since they broke up in the 1990s. I wore a Pavement t-shirt to therapy the final day for protection.
I am a scientist, as Guided By Voices would have it, or at least some sort of scientist. I did medicine and I moved to clinical research with clinical practice and I published papers using data that required statistical analysis. I am medically trained, with an MB BCh BAO that had its Silver Jubilee in April, and I understood the science of the radiotherapy offered by Beaumont. I am not sure how much I would rely on myself to deliver a baby based on a 1997 Bachelor of the Art of Obstetrics, being a 1974 breech baby myself, but the degree letters are legal after my name. “Is there a doctor on the plane?” is a question one does not love hearing decades out of acute medicine and surgery but I once tweezed an earplug out of an external auditory canal on a plane back from Lanzarote and I have never received such an adoring look from another man.
So ‘Gold Soundz’ became the title of this series of essays at the show in Vicar St and unexpectedly came up for its own essay really soon. Last week I shuffled and was taken aback by the track the shuffle chose. There are more than five hundred songs on the Goosebumps list. I have been twice surprised now by the closeness between me and a song that comes up quickly and randomly, but then, maybe, don’t define a playlist by its somatic impact—its bypassing of the brain to hit home.
‘Gold Soundz’ has tracked me through my adult life like other Pavement songs, mostly on Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain if I am honest. I know that hardcore Pavement fans reach for Wowee Zowee or Slanted and Enchanted and I’m like that with bands or artists I feel particularly possessive of, like American Music Club, whose Engine is unsurpassed, contrary to popular opinion. Increasingly, I’ve come to consider that Crooked Rain is perfect and it is partly perfect because of the apparent imperfections and inconsistencies. Albums need bumps and diversions and digressions. If one starts an album pristinely and continues it that way then it fades as you go on. Songs for Drella needs the bitter rage of ‘I Believe’ and the confusing mess of ‘A Dream’ to allow the listener to adjust and prepare for the tearduct target archery of ‘Hello It’s Me’.
So on Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain we have perfect openers and so much variation in dynamics. We have the abstract pause of ‘Newark Wilder’, the clamour of ‘Unfair’, and the Fall caterwauling of ‘Hit The Plane Down’, so we are not just hearing perfect slacker pop. Then off we go again: the bewitching wishing of ‘Fillmore Jive’. I carried a bleep in multiple hospitals from summer 1997 to winter 2002, between being a urology surgical intern in Louth to a post-Membership psychiatry trainee in Tallaght. In 1999, in Portiuncula in Ballinasloe, I was a medical SHO and while on call I was the most senior immediately available doctor to look after you if you came from east Galway or Athlone with cardiac collapse. This was crazy. I could not sleep. What if someone arrives in from Loughrea and I fail? To my bleep, and career choice, and to hospital switch, so many times I pleaded, in Stephen Malkmus’ voice: “I need to sleep / Why won’t you let me sleep?” This was an era of 120 hour weeks and 60 hour calls. ‘Fillmore Jive’ could not help.
‘Gold Soundz’ was on this list because of my early connection to the song and album and because of how much I related to the lyrics way back when. In 1994, turning twenty, I felt like the lead character in this song felt about himself: “So drunk in the August sun / And you’re the kind of girl I like / Because you’re empty, and I’m empty / And you can never quarantine the past”. Maybe their finest verse and the source of the title of their Best Of, but in summer 1994 I was in America and feeling empty too. As one would hear in American Music Club, Palace Brothers, Kristin Hersh, Blood on The Tracks, and The Magnetic Fields’ ‘Born on a Train’, which no-one in Europe yet knew. The Divine Comedy’s Promenade and A House’s Wide Eyed and Ignorant were off-setting this loneliness although A House’s ‘The Comedy Is Over’ was wincingly truth-telling: “On the days I made you laugh / I thought I was halfways there / Now it seems that halfways is nowhere.” Ouch.
I was using music that resonated and I was using, as I always have and still do, sound as a source of emotional fullness. It helped to know that one could feel empty and not be alone in this. Smog, over the years, were particularly helpful here. In 1994 and 1995, Bill Callahan’s songs on Julius Caesar and Wild Love were about nothing but frozen isolation and by 1997’s Red Apple Falls they had warmed so much, in ‘The Morning Paper’ and ‘To Be Of Use’, that you knew change could come. In ‘Gold Soundz’, you had this loneliness but you also had shrugging optimistic lightness. You had Stephen Malkmus rhyming remember with December. Hey—he is a fun ragged poet! He does not care too much what people think. Once I heard him sing “So drunk in the October sun” live and I always enjoy when singers play with songs. Playfulness brings joy. I was a soupçon of disappointed when Malkmus decided not to sing “So drunk in the November sun” three weeks ago.
I didn’t know if I could go to Pavement on November 10th. I was over a month on radiotherapy and by then you are feeling things. The side effects were fine but they would preclude one from going to a show and standing for two hours. Any shows I’ve been to since becoming unwell in August have been seated—Christian Löffler and Grandbrothers, Julia Jacklin, Bob Dylan, and Pavement. Pavement was planned months ago, long before any of this, and I thought I was not too pushed about seeing them. But at half one on the morning of the show, Foggy Notions’ Leagues O’Toole direct messaged me to say there would be a seated ticket for me waiting in the box office and I realised I was delighted and craving this music.
I did not know whether I would buy a Pavement t-shirt. Since Beaumont began, I wore a t-shirt every day usually under an Autumn sweater (thank you Yo La Tengo). Each shirt was a band or singer. Radiation was not being directed at my chest or abdomen and so I wore t-shirts as if they were armour or the musicians were talismen. This meant I would only wear a t-shirt of someone who I thought had the resolve and robustness to keep me still and safe so the treatment would help not harm. Sharon bought me two Iggy pop t-shirts on these grounds, one of which reads “I’m a street walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm.” I told my old friend and boss, author of 250 scientific papers, about this and he said: If Iggy Pop doesn’t protect you, who will?
Additionally, I wore shirts from A Lazarus Soul, Julia Jacklin, Nick Drake, Bob Dylan, Guided By Voices, Rival Consoles, The Wormholes, and A House. Technically the last one there was AHOUSEISDEAD but that is about rebirth not death so no problem. I did not wear my B.C. Camplight shirt bought in 2020 because as much as I love him and Shortly After Takeoff, he has a song called ‘Cemetery Lifestyle’ and his t-shirt depicting ‘Born To Cruise’ has a skeleton driving a van. So this seemed like asking for trouble. My Pixies t-shirt from the 1991 Point Depot show I saw the day I finished the Leaving Cert did not get an airing either. I thought the radiotherapy staff might wonder if I was OK if they saw 1991 on my long-faded clothes.
I didn’t think I would want a Pavement t-shirt because I had this memory of them as Stockton slackers: lazy and likely stoned and not too concerned: “I could really give a fuck”. I thought harm would not be magically prevented by their presence. Then I saw the show and they were as fierce and fiery as lava. Bob Nastanovich bobbed and roared his lungs to within an inch of their and our lives. Spiral Stairs sprang, strummed and smiled. When I came home I opined that the exchange of love, energy, and joy between the band and audience was unparalleled and I maintain that. Stephen Malkmus stood mostly smiling to the side of the stage rather than act as an oligarch and the whole band swept us away. As the show came to an end I realised I needed to hold on to this energy in the remaining days of treatments. I ran down during the penultimate song of the encore and picked up a t-shirt that I knew would help to keep me well. I wore it the next day. The therapists smiled and understood. They know you can never quarantine the past.