Friday 21 October 2016

Eamon Carr: George Byrne had soul, and Dublin has lost a rare talent

George Byrne
George Byrne

His name wasn't George. It wasn't Ringo. It was John.

And let's get this out of the way first. He was known to be irascible, often irritating and even, on occasion, downright rude. But the man we knew as George Byrne was always hilarious and frequently insightful.

These weren't his only positive qualities. He had many. Which is why he will be missed by people who knew him as a friend and those who were simply acquainted with his fearless criticism in print or on radio.

My first encounter with George, or John as he was then, was bizarre. It was after a Horslips' New Year's Eve gig in Red Island.

On a frosty night, as we drove along the narrow road out of Skerries, we spotted two blokes thumbing a lift back to town. Barry Devlin pulled up and said: "Get in." One of the teenagers was George. He had organised a bus to the gig but had been enjoying himself so much that he missed the return journey. He missed his own bus.

That night a legend was born.

Fast-forward to the early 1980s and a cramped bedsit on the SCR where a gang of us had decamped after a gig in town, probably by The Commotion and the Fontaines. As the session went on, I began wondering about the opinionated bloke who kept correcting people.

It seemed unnatural that anyone could have such perfect recall of a diverse, encyclopaedic range of pop culture trivia. It was George.

George Byrne
George Byrne
George Byrne
Joe Elliot interview with George Byrne
Anthony Bourdain and Herald writer George Byrne, Digges Lane, Dublin in 2010
Anthony Bourdain and Herald writer George Byrne, Digges Lane, Dublin in 2010

Soon afterwards, he cut his journalistic teeth in Hot Press. By then, we'd become friends and allies.

I admired the way in which he kept the spirit of irreverence that was a cornerstone philosophy of punk. In keeping with Lester Bangs, George could spot rock 'n' roll hypocrisy a mile away. He took the stun-bolt gun to music's sacred cows. And he later shifted his focus to the world of film.

Read more: A legend has left us - tributes as Herald great George Byrne dies

He wrote like he played bass - with passion and purpose. From Autobop he moved to The Gorehounds, where he redefined mayhem and made Nick Cave's Bad Seeds look as anarchic as the Vienna Boys' Choir.

Going on the testimonials that have been flying around social media since Thursday evening, it's true to say that anyone who ever came in touch with George has an entertaining anecdote to share about the experience.

George loved pop trivia and prided himself in being a tough pub quiz competitor. God love the presenter who got things wrong. I've seen him remonstrate with quizmasters.

In San Francisco, KFOG presenter Greg McQuaid recalls the time he attended a pub quiz with George.

"We'd been robbed," recalls the DJ. "George had to be forcibly removed from the establishment. I can still hear him shouting, 'The f***ing answer was Nightswimming by REM!' as he was deposited on the Haight Street sidewalk."

At heart, George was a fan. An uber fan. One of his favourites was The Go-Betweens. The time the band's Grant McLennan crashed in George's gaff is legendary.

Anthony Bourdain and Herald writer George Byrne, Digges Lane, Dublin in August 2010
Anthony Bourdain and Herald writer George Byrne, Digges Lane, Dublin in August 2010
George Byrne and singer/ writer Willie Vlautin pose outside Fair City's McCoy's Pub in 2008
Lifelong Shamrock Rovers supporter George Byrne
George Byrne at his beloved Stamford Bridge
George Byrne and Louis Walsh in 2002

I'd had the two lads round for supper the night before. As the jollifications progressed, someone found a trunk in the attic and, before you knew it, George had everyone togged out in retro glam rock costumes, loudly reprising the hits of Sweet and T.Rex.

Perhaps it's just as well the roll of film was lost.

Waking up in George's place, Grant was about to sing or write some songs but tragically George didn't have a guitar in the house. It was George's biggest regret.

But Grant did get to witness and admire George belting out his legendary high-octane version of Pretty Vacant to a karaoke in a pub in Thomas Street, where a bemused auld lad was heard to exclaim: "He should be in the Gorman."

In the Man Shed of pop, George remains famous for his unerring taste.

Despite his sedition, he was devoted to his family, never missing a weekly catch-up with his folks.

Arthur Mathews has astutely pointed out that George was a Romantic. He had soul. It was another of the many qualities that made him a truly remarkable character. Dublin - and Ireland - has lost a rare talent.

Greg McQuaid adds: "I sincerely hope he remained steadfast to his assertion that 'no one with a beard ever made a great record'."

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