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"A Mad Shamanic Journey Through the Gap"

Updated: Aug 31, 2020

I asked John Spillane to share his thoughts on writing the song "Crowley's Music Shop" for Mick Crowley's 10th-anniversary. He brought back such great memories on this wild trip back to MacCurtain Street. Here is the insight to a man, an artist, a storyteller, a musical shaman... He is a big part of Cork's heritage. Thanks a million, John.

"CROWLEYS MUSIC SHOP" - How I went back to write the song.

By John Spillane. So I’ve just written a song called Crowleys Music Shop. It took me 7 days to write it and Sheena Crowley has asked me to describe those 7 days during which I flew out the window and landed back in the past and found myself in Crowleys, after all these years, back to write the song.

Yes, I was asked to write a few lines for an article in the Examiner about the shop on Michael Crowley’s 10th anniversary, but I wasn’t really on fire with the writing. I just touched on a few early memories - how there was often some guys in the shop playing Stairway to Heaven to show off and a few memories like that. It wasn’t until I heard Declan Sinnott’s new original song about Crowleys, which I loved, that I felt a twinge - ‘Hey I should have written a song about Crowleys myself’, and ‘Hey that’s not what I would have said’, and ‘Hey I think I could do better than that.’ Thanks, Declan for the inspiration! To add to that ‘Hey you gotta love Sheena Crowley. She’s been like a mammy figure for loads of musicians for years.’ Day 1: So it was one spoonful of guilt and a half spoonful of competitiveness as well as a world of memories and a lot of love that got me going on this song and the first thing I did was pick up a guitar and came out with this really deadly cool guitar riff. I swear. I can’t believe it. I’m being given it. I am on fire.  I am in the shop. It is towards the end of time and Mick, the man of the house, surprises me with the gift of a music book. It was written by his father Tadhg. I’ve just realised that I have the name of the book wrong in the song. Let’s not panic. In the song I refer to The Tunes of the Munster Pipers but I’ve just now checked it out and realised the book was called Crowley's Collection of Music for the Highland or Irish Bagpipes ... Compiled & arranged by Tadhg O'Crowley, Book One 1940. We don’t necessarily have to turn this into a problem, however, like, do we? It feels so good to sing the words The Tunes of the Munster Pipers.  Anyway I picked up my guitar and started playing this riff which might be like some notes from a piping march perhaps, I did try out a few of the tunes in the book at the time, this could be one of those. This is an Irish Trad riff but it’s Rock and Roll as well. I love the place where Gaelic Music meets African Music. Trad music is just so unbelievably cool and the scales are just different from mainstream ‘Western’ music. This is like Tinariwen/ Rory Gallagher/ Munster Pipers. Might be a phrase from some reel. We’ll have to call the music police as to what it is. Meanwhile, I’m rocking. I’m going on a journey. Out the gap. I’ve been fascinated about a place that is supposed to have existed in Cork City called The One Bright Spot. I believe it was on the corner of Parnell Place and Lower Oliver Plunkett Street. It may have been a café. It’s a sex shop now. I’ve always liked the name of this mythical place. The past is the best mythology of all time. I’ve decided to start the song at The One Bright Spot and by claiming Crowleys Music Shop was shinier, I’m boldly moving the One Bright Spot across the river to MacCurtain Street. Mad or what? I’m going - “If ever there was in Cork, that One Bright Spot,  It was Crowleys Music Shop, Shop of dreams, cave of wonders, palace of musical delight. CHORUS; There are ten stars that shine so bright above MacCurtain Street tonight, Remembering Michael Crowley, and Crowleys Music Shop.”

I got a very sweet chorus going on! So happy with that. Major chord. The Chord of C. Doe a deer. Home. It feels lovely to sing “MacCurtain Street’ on this year, the 100th anniversary of the murder of Tomás MacCurtain. It was called King Street before that. It was out of the Police Barracks on this street that they came to kill him in Blackpool.  Songwriting is about making up stuff and making lots of little decisions. I had used the numbers of stars to denote the number of years in another song, where I said  “One hundred stars are burning bright above the old Slieve Bloom tonight, One hundred snow white horses in the March of the Kings of Laois”

I hear voices. They say things like “You can’t use that cos….”. The voices are negative and must be fiercely defended against. It means I’m flying and I’m getting attacked. It’s a good sign really. Ah well, I thought let’s use ten stars for the ten years since Mick passed away and continue this in any number of songs. Don’t turn it into a problem, turn it into a motif, a pattern. If I go for it, this song is gonna be mad. Writing the song I think about two crowds of people, those who will know the people and places in the song and the other crowd who won’t. I’m not catering for either crowd. I’m going through the gap.  We gotta bow down to Rory Gallagher whose mother bought him his Stratocaster in Crowleys. They lived near there. Read Mark MacAvoy’s Book of Cork Rock for the full story. Will I say Gallagher or just Rory? It’s day 2 of the song and it’s late August and the weather is brilliant. It’s the Covid. I am out swimming at the Hell-hole and talking to two old Cork boys and I ask them if they ever heard of the One Bright Spot. “Naw” is the answer “Ná”. I try out a verse of the song on them. There’s no need to say, Rory Gallagher, we know it’s him, they say. 

I’m back in the shop. I am eighteen and I work in the Bank of Ireland 125 O’ Connell Street Limerick, but I play in a Rock and Roll band at home in Cork as well. We are called Bootlace and I am going into Crowleys with my paycheck from the bank and I’m buying a brand new Fender Precision Electric Bass Guitar. It is a rainy dark winter’s evening in 1979. MacCurtain Street is shining in the rain. All the lights of the cars, the traffic lights, the streetlights, the lights of the shop windows, are all shining in the black wet tarry rainy road. It’s like Paris at Christmas at the corner at the bottom of Patrick’s Hill.

“I think I hear strange music The clack of the pleck on the 7th fret of the 4th string of a Fender Precision electric bass guitar, played through a Marshall Stack. The past is gone and it’s not coming back In the door comes Jimmy Mack, he’s thinking of buying an Ovation You might think he’s crazy but I say the man is a musical genius When he walks out the door the music follows him.

"There are ten stars that shine so bright above MacCurtain Street tonight Remembering Michael Crowley, and Crowleys Music Shop” Ah, lads when you get flying along with the writing, and when you find your wings, you can turn this way and that, and you don’t know where you are going. I thought I scored a big goal when I mentioned the Marshall Stack. Who remembers those beautiful amps and speakers? Best bass sound I ever had. But when I hit ‘the past is gone and it’s not coming back’, I think I’m on fire and then I hit Jimmy Mack it’s like wow how did we get here? I am remembering a lecture in praise of rhyme by Sean Lucey I heard in College long ago. I’m the biggest fan of rhyme ever, it’s more than rhyme, it’s how everything in the universe is related to something else, and interconnected. 

I was blown away so much and so often by Jimmy MacCarthy it’s great to have this chance to praise him. I’m getting surreal now with my line about the music following him out of the shop. Like you can see it! I’ve just read a book called The Last Days of New Paris and the vibe of the book has snuck into the song. Bring it on. Still, Day 3 of writing the song and I sing it to the MacSweeneys on Fairy Hill when I’m walking my dogs past their gate. They get it! I know it’s working when they get it. They’re good. They see the song even though it’s not a song yet. You got to get the right people to try things out on. Day 4 and I’m finding it hard to get the vibe right, I can’t seem to make the song sit on top of the riff. I go hey John you know it’s brilliant. Keep chipping away at the old block. Tonight! Tonight! I keep singing the song again and again and again. I can’t get past the first verse. I can’t get past the second verse. It’s brilliant. I’m memorizing the song. I don’t write anything down. This song has only been sung and belongs to the songs that have never been written down. Cathy says don’t sing ‘baby’ in the As The Crow Flies bit. I was thinking the same myself. Maybe I’m such a Folkie that I can’t sing ‘Baby’ with the Hoochie-Koo? Having bowed down to my hero Jimmy MacCarthy next I have to mention Dec Sinnott. “I think I hear strange music. The door slides open and in walks a mountain lion It’s Declan Sinnott and he’s on the prowl, he gives one low growl He is reading the shop, he is looking for some shining object It might be a drum, might be a book, it might be something small that has been overlooked Even if he got the one note out of it, the wan note, even if he got the one note out of it, the one note! There are ten stars that shine so bright above MacCurtain Street tonight Remembering Crowleys, Crowleys Music Shop."

Well since it was no bother to me to move the One Bright Spot across the river I might as well move the story of ‘The One Note’ just a small bit up MacCurtain Street, from the Swap Shop to Crowleys Music Shop. It was Tony Ryan of the Leeside Music Centre who is reputed to have described Declan coming in there and searching the shop for some strange odd thing that been ignored by everyone else “Even if he got the wan note out of it!” says Tony. Thanks, Tony Ryan, I hope you don’t mind me using this gem of Cork folklore. I wonder did you ever say it? Lads I’ll have to track Tony down now in Spain and hope this’ll all be alright! Hey, I can’t believe I got the mountain lion coming in the door, what a laugh. I better clear this with Declan. Hope he won’t mind being called a cat. I get Declan on the phone and he says great, go for it! I’m kind of living this song on day 4 of these days of the song. Day 5 of writing the song and I might as well use this as an excuse to talk to Jimmy MacCarthy. I get Jimmy on the phone and sing his verse to him. I call him a musical genius. The thing about ‘thinking of buying an Ovation ‘I think might actually have happened. “That’s lovely John, thanks” says Jimmy. He knows I always bow down to him.  I am in the shop. It’s not like I’m remembering it. It’s like it’s happening now.  “I think I hear strange music. Brian Calnan has just struck a Zildjian brass riveted ride cymbal, the sound goes on forever, like a great wave crashing and dying on the shore of some distant island.”

It’s day 6 of writing the song and I’m up and down with it. I realize that if I’m gonna pull this off I have to sing it in saucy Rock and Roll high manner. Kind of sing it from a height, proclaim it. Rock and Roll. It’s day 7 of the song and I’m able to sing it from start to finish. I’m adding a list of names. I’m just going for it, you can’t name everyone, it’s just a sample, a slice of life that came in through my eyes, my story and I’m sticking to it. If there’s any lies in it, they can stay there now and all that. I hope it’s ok to do this. I relish saying those names, Johhny Fang, Philip The Maggot, Handsome Christy Twomey. I wonder should I run it by Mick Daly. I hope he’ll be happy. He’s the only one who’s in it twice. He’s laughing the first time and smiling the second time, loading the van. very bright representation of someone whose named after Deopression. -The Black Dog. The best line in the song is the line about “Loading the van.’  That’s a short movie for you if ever there was one.  The song is finished. I could go back and write more. There are other verses that have occurred to me, but it’s a bit too mad though going there again and again. Time to leave the shop. Back out the gap. Clean up. Take the money and run. Day 8 I write the words of the song down on the computer for the first time. Now it has left that great crowd of songs that were sung, and never written down. They belonged only to the air and to those that heard them. They were invisible. There was nothing to see. 

Thanks very much to Sheena Crowley and to everyone. Hope you get to hear my song sometime and hope you’ll enjoy it, whether you are in the crowd who knew the place and the people, or whether you are in that other crowd, who didn’t. Thanks, everyone. John.

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