One of my favourite things that songs do is that they mythologise normal places. Not everywhere is Athens and even there, one is in Ancient Greece while one is in 1980s Georgia. Any place in which a song is set may be special solely because it is in the song. There’s nothing intrinsically mythical about Summer St in Boston, the donut shop on Polk St in San Francisco, or Penny Lane in Liverpool, but were I in those cities I would be making pilgrimages to those places because they are in superb songs by Throwing Muses, Sun Kil Moon, and—surprise!—The Beatles. I did visit Summer St on my J1 in 1994, with the Muses’ Red Heaven on my Walkman, possibly puzzling passersby because strolling the scene of this song was making me smile. I didn’t make it yet to Polk St, from ‘Glenn Tipton’, or to Penny Lane, but I did stand outside Paul McCartney’s north London house for ten minutes in 2019, which is totally fine and not sad.
‘Personality’ by Whipping Boy, from side two of Heartworm, does this work of creating local folklore as well as any song. ‘Personality’ is one of half a dozen Heartworm songs that I could write about in a column dedicated to songs that send shivers up my spine. (‘Morning Rise’, the closing song, missed out only because I’ve gone on about it enough.) Aungier St and Dame St, where ‘Personality’ is located, have felt special since Autumn 1995, when Colm O’Callaghan gave me a pre-release cassette of Heartworm, and on my way home to Ballinteer on my bike my heart and mind melted. On Aungier St I always hum the song and sometimes walk a little on air because of the following lines: “The fantastic thing about the female / Is that she was put on this earth to be admired and adorned, not abused / Or so the Senator said one night in J.J. Smyths / Where all the punks had played and the jazz men have their day.”
Now, I have to say that is not the only reason Aungier St has sparkle: I used to essentially live on Aungier St as my wife Sharon lived on the top floor of an Aungier St flat during our early days. Good times.
I headed in to J.J. Smyth’s a good few times in the aftermath of Heartworm coming out. (As an alternative to The Long Hall, a fine pub on the cover of a fine Jubilee Allstars album—listen here.) I saw the late Louis Stewart there, a jazz man having his day, and other times I sat with a book and playing Heartworm, feeling at the centre of things. One of the song’s verses ends with “All our lives spent Underground”, meaning in the club at the junction of Georges Street and Dame St, where bands in the mid to late 80s lived and learned, like A House, Something Happens, Into Paradise, Power of Dreams, and Whipping Boy.
‘Personality’ does more than capture and beautify or beatify a place. It captures a time. The song opens with a gorgeous rising, falling, echoing guitar intro by Paul Page leading to Fearghal McKee narrating one of the more memorable couplets in music: “I want to marry a personality / Someone who looks just like Koo Stark”. Even in 1995, few knew who Koo Stark was, apparently a famous photographer since the 1970s but best known in the 1980s as a partner of Prince Andrew’s, so pinning the song to that period. The song contains lyrics I’ve never properly absorbed or understood (“Sunken dreams for Mr Field / Sold out to the Longman Oz / Solid days and Liquid nights / Red boy loved our pavement fights”), which has not hampered my appreciation of the song. There’s no harm when songwriting stays mysterious. Lyrics don’t need logic.
That said, sometimes Whipping Boy lyrics are hazardously direct. My son Michael, who is eleven, got into Whipping Boy this year when he heard ‘When We Were Young’. Michael is finding his way, as you do, mostly immersing himself in electronic music about which his Dad has no clue, and he made an iPod playlist for bedtime wind-down not long ago. There wasn’t too much serene ambient music on this playlist and there was no Max Richter. Eleven of the twelve songs were pneumatic drill dance and the twelfth, though not techno, was ‘When We Were Young’, another song that does the opposite of assist sedation. What Michael and I have not done—yet—is talk through what the words of the song mean: “Babies, sex and flagons, shifting women, getting stoned / Robbing cars, bars and pubs, rubber johnnies, poems”. I guess some of this is on the way, in ten or so years if Michael takes after his not-quite-Casanova 1990s dad.
Walk up to the corner of Aungier St and Longford St Lower now and you won’t find J.J. Smyth’s. It closed in 2016. It was replaced by another pub. For all I know, the Thomas Moore Inn is cropping up in someone else’s lyrics; I’d like to think so. The Underground became a gentleman’s club (air quotes) called Lapello, a depressing fate arguably worse than demolition. Another Dame St Underground opened in 2017 but closed in 2020. Venues that took over from The Underground as a nurturing ground, like the legendary Attic, did not last too long, although while the Attic survived it nurtured some of the finest music I’ve known to emerge from Ireland.
J.J. Smyth’s and The Underground being gone is paradoxically partly why I love ‘Personality’: the song evokes a vivid memory of places crackling with energy that moulded people including those playing the song. It documents how important it is to have formative homes from home where we meet ingenious inspiring mentors who encourage us to try new things. Fearghal McKee sings “People grow old / They get bored, they forget to take a risk”, but they didn’t do that in the Underground while it was hopping. I admit I don’t know where today’s analogue to the Attic or Underground or J.J. Smyth’s is. There are reasons for this. I don’t flounce around town as I did in my early twenties. I rarely get to gigs and they are mostly in the NCH. Nineties me is unimpressed. And as far as I know, it is becoming impossible to run a ‘Personality’-style creative cradle, small venues having been described this year as “on their knees” because of urban rent and the aftermath of COVID.
‘Personality’ is not all time-stamping. The opening couplet of the second verse is “I wish I were in a bright green field / Staring at the bright blue sky”. If I am walking on grass and the sky is clear, Fearghal’s vibrant voice and Paul’s radiant riff come back to my mind and it feels like I’m in the song as I’ve been for nearly thirty years. Songs that elevate the most everyday of experiences are crucial like songs that elevate a street corner or a time in the life of a city that in was not all great. Songs remind us that everyday experiences must be savoured. You don’t experience beaming primary colour nature every day and you will only experience it for so many years. You remember now when you were young and if you become eventually elderly you will remember when you were older, maybe longing to return to those days. We don’t get to.
What we get to do is to have blissful experiences alongside the bad ones as long as we live. Rammed lightning gigs. Lying down out the back of your house under a May cherry blossom, closing your eyes, and soaking up sun before it inevitably rains. Connecting with songs that are old, new, or both as they continue to evolve. Laughing with the love of your life with wonderful music in the air. Ageing as slowly as possible alongside her, she who transformed your life when she accepted and reciprocated the realisation that the dawning closing lines of Heartworm rang true: “I can’t help thinking that I love you”. Savour this: it’s as lucky as anyone can get.