Chris Wasser: 'George Byrne scared the bejaysus out of me…and I thought he was great'
My first conversation with George Byrne should have been on a Friday. I was 17 at the time.
I was also a first-year journalism student at Rathmines College, and our class had been instructed to find work experience for the following semester. Usually, this would require ringing up local newspaper desks and sending out generic emails to a long list of editors. I decided to go local.
I’d grown up on Clarence Mangan Road in Dublin 8 in an area otherwise known as the Tenters. My house was four doors down from Kay and Michael Byrne, parents of John George Byrne, resident music and film buff with the Evening Herald. I knew the family well. I’d played football with George’s nephew, Jamie, when we were kids. I’d read some of George’s pieces, and had seen him on the box once or twice. He was good. He was very, very good, in fact.
“Sure I might as well ask Mick for George’s number,” I’d said to my folks, “see if he can get me in there.” I did. Mick happily obliged. Only, my first call went straight to voicemail (a Beach Boys tune, and a short message from the big man himself, if I remember correctly). George called me back on a Friday night. I was at my secondary school debs - not the best place to be making career plans. It was well into the next week when we finally caught each other. George said he’d had a word with the folks up top in Herald towers - they had an opening in November and were only too happy to welcome me on board. Sorted.
But here’s the thing – it wasn’t until the following year (December 2006), at a Herald Christmas bash in Krystle nightclub that I had my first proper chat with George. I thanked him for helping me out - he didn’t appear all that interested in talking to me. I was a kid, after all, barely old enough to get the next round in. But I could listen in and join the big boys for a lesson in old-school, after-work chit-chat, if I wanted.
Jaysus, he was loud. He seemed a bit intimidating. He knew everything there was to know about pop music and film. He could spot the bullshitters and bluffers a mile off. You needed to know your stuff around this chap. In short, the legendary George Byrne scared the bejaysus out of me…and I thought he was great.
I began to read his stuff religiously, taking notes as I went along. The people around me shared stories about his previous life as a bass player. There were a handful of fascinating anecdotes about his rock ‘n’ roll behaviour as a journo, too (just a handful, mind). Here was an arts critic who didn’t care what he said; a fearless, imaginative and never-less-than engaging writer who always made me laugh – both on paper and in person. I wanted to write like George. No disrespect to any of the fine tutors at Rathmines with whom I shared a classroom for three years, but George may well be the greatest teacher I ever had. I might have, um, borrowed a few of the guy’s phrases here and there, too. An obvious one? Ah lads…
As time went on, I’d learned he’d been reading some of my pieces, especially the ones that had pissed people off. At the next Herald social gathering, he introduced me to his best friend, Ian O’Doherty of the Irish Independent. George began to list the various professionals and music makers I’d upset throughout my first year with the Herald. Because, apparently, this was an achievement in his eyes. Ian’s, too. He seemed sort of proud. I was secretly delighted.
We began to hang out at gigs. Well, what would really happen is that I’d see George bopping up and down across the room, deciding then and there that he’d have a much better time if I were to join him (sorry for annoying you, Ringo). Eventually, I attended my first pub quiz with the man. George brought his own A4 pad and everything and gave out to me for second-guessing the answers. We won the music round. We lost everything else. George left early.
I always paid close attention. With George, you had no choice. His was the noisiest voice in the room. He was a walking encyclopaedia, and he almost always had to have the last word. He once listened to me (a rarity, in those early days) about how I’d given a recent Ian Brown gig a good review. He was flummoxed. “And he sang in tune?” asked George. “Sort of,” I answered. “The fans seemed to like it.” George’s face went blank. “It’s about what you think, Chris – nobody else...” Duly noted.
Slowly but surely, George went from mentor to acquaintance. It’s no secret that George Byrne could be a little…difficult, let’s say. Actually, he was a grumpy auld bastard at the best of times. But he was a loveable grumpy auld bastard; a talented, insightful and frequently hilarious individual with a hell of a knack for storytelling. George had been there, done that and continued to wear the T-shirt. If he didn’t like something, he’d let you know. He’d correct you over everything. I’ll never forget the day that George discovered I’d played drums as a teenager. As it turns out, I was indeed the young fella he used to complain about to his parents upon his weekly Sunday dinner trip to the Tenters. George said he’d come close to banging on the door and robbing me of my drum sticks. I wish he had. That would have been some story…
George was a massive influence. There are bands in my record collection that, without his input, I might have missed out on. The Blades. Tindersticks. The Hold Steady. He assured me that Hall & Oates were cool – I agreed. He probably knew that there was a touch of hero worshipping going on. At George’s funeral, Colm O’Hare of Hot Press referred to me as George’s understudy. The late, great Richie Taylor once (jokingly) accused me of snapping at his colleague’s heels.
I’ll always remember the day that George Byrne properly accepted me. It was Friday October 14th 2011, and the Herald had just published my interview with Noel Gallagher. George texted me that afternoon to congratulate me on the piece. He said it was almost as good as the interview he’d conducted with Oasis, ten years previously. High praise, indeed. He then told me I was good enough to play in the premier league (his actual words) and to bring my A-game to Reade’s pub the following week. In other words, George Byrne thought it was okay if I had a beer or two with he and his friends after work. Happy days.
It was the beginning of a good friendship. I used to look forward to crossing paths with George at weekly film screenings in town. Good Lord, George could be brutal. Things could get very funny, too. “Go On, Liamo, kick some arse!” he’d shouted during last year’s screening of A Walk Among the Tombstones, with Liam Neeson. That was George. The last gig we ever attended together was the Manic Street Preachers at the Olympia Theatre before Christmas. “I fucking love the Manics!” he’d shouted, almost falling out of Box 3, to the right of the stage. Because, as many have already attested, the chap never stopped being a fan.
George Byrne gave me my start in the Herald. He was the reason I wanted to pursue a career in arts journalism. Whatever about the gruff exterior, he was (if you had the time to stick around) a gentleman and a scholar; a colleague and a pal. I never stopped reading his work, or listening in to Tom Dunne’s radio show on a Thursday night, where he’d regularly roll out a masterclass in film criticism.
In my eyes, the Herald hasn’t been the same without George since he took ill. It never will be. Why? Because George was one of a kind. He probably knew that much himself. In fact, he used to remind me every time I left the pub at the end of a memorable session. “Be good, Chris,” he’d declare, raising an index finger and nodding that big, smiley head of his: “But not as good as me!”
Not a chance, Ringo. Sleep tight.