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Sea Birds Flying

September 16, 2016

Three songs made me cry when, eventually, and after many years, I first heard them performed live – “Sounds of Silence” sung by Paul Simon, “God only knows” from Brian Wilson, and “Wichita Lineman” performed by Glen Campbell on his farewell tour

All three songs had been part of my life for forty years or more, but none of them had a special association for me, other than teenage memories. The tears were a reaction produced by the “perfectness” of the songs – the words, notes, production and the atmosphere they created.

They were like an automatic release of emotion in some recognition of the role that music can play in our lives. When it feels “right” it can almost take control of us.

This week, another song had the same effect, but for different reasons.

From “Wichita Lineman” onwards, the songs of Jimmy Webb have always affected me. There’s something about his lyrics, his arrangements, his subject matter, which seems, almost literally, to strike a chord. Just as Karen Carpenter’s voice and the arrangements of their songs made the Carpenters’ music attractive to folk who would normally eschew anything remotely middle of the road, so the combination of Webb’s words, music, and production has long delivered songs to be wondered at and admired – irrespective of one’s other musical tastes.

So I took the chance to go and see Jimmy Webb In concert at Dunfermline’s Carnegie Hall this week – a conscious decision to see him at a compact venue rather than in the bigger Glasgow Royal Music Hall later on in the week.

His current tour is based on the songs he wrote for Glen Campbell – a kind of tribute to the star who is now in the final stages of Alzheimer’s. As such, we knew the songs would be familiar, and the anecdotes fascinating.

He came out, sat at the piano, and played “Galveston”. He played it in the originally conceived mournful style, rather than the more martial production familiar from Campbell’s hit single.

And the tears came.

When I was 17, my pal, Peter, from Dublin, had a battery powered record player. During our holidays in Kilkee, Co Clare, we would take the machine and a few “singles records” out to the west of the town, to an area below the cliffs, called the Diamond Rocks. It was a magical, ageless place with slabs of rock weathered through millennia by sea and wind, the Atlantic waves rolling out ahead, and a puffing hole spraying irregular surprises. You could not be there and not appreciate the grace, beauty and power of Nature.

In those far off days, long before the MP3 era of portable music, the song we played over and over again was “Galveston”. And why wouldn’t we – in that setting “Standing by the water, standing there looking out to sea”, hearing the “sea waves crashing”? It was, I suppose, a typically 60s teenage response to beauty.

The song fitted the scene before us perfectly. “You could make a film here”, I said, still ignorant of the fact that, only months before, David Lean’s Second Unit Director, Roy Stevens, had shot scenes here for the famous storm in “Ryan’s Daughter”.

Nor did I know that the previous year, in a predictably wild interlude between recording “A Tramp Shining” containing Webb’s “McArthur Park”, and the follow up album collaboration “The Yard went on forever”, Richard Harris had brought Jimmy Webb here, in his favourite holiday spot, and referred to the “Galveston” lyrics.

What were the chances of that?

At the time the song’s civil war or Viet Nam connotations were vague to us. It was a good song and fitted a favourite spot. We played it all the time that summer.

So I had started this week in a state of high anticipation: seeing Jimmy Webb, at last after all these years, would be a huge tick on the bucket list.

Then, on Monday, came the news that an Irish Coastguard volunteer, Caitríona Lucas, had drowned near the Diamond Rocks, while involved in a search and recovery mission

It has been a heartbreaking event for people in Kilkee, and in Liscannor nearby where Caitríona and her family lived. Her husband was also a Coastguard volunteer, and she worked in local libraries. She was well known, loved and admired.

And so, when Jimmy Webb played the opening, mournful chords of “Galveston “, I was, as always, transported to the Diamond Rocks, to that place of terrible beauty forged out of the unfeeling power of the sea. The impact of that song, and those emotions, in this week of all weeks, was quite overwhelming, the coincidence sharply felt. That my first time seeing Jimmy Webb should happen in the week when my associations with one of his songs took on such sadness was hard to believe.

And I thought of Caitríona, her friends and family, and all who were devastated by Monday’s events, and of David McMahon, for whom they had been searching, and as the tears came, I recognised that “Galveston” will forever now mean something different to me.

As will the Diamond Rocks.

And I hope the soaring notes, the beauty of the music, and the memories they bring me will help to celebrate the life of giving which Caitríona practised, and will, somehow, exhalt the human spirit she possessed in such amazing and compassionate quantities.

The magnificence of music can link together for me a country boy from Arkansas, a songwriter of genius from Oklahoma, and a wonderful woman from Liscannor, Co Clare.

And as the notes rise and thrill, I know they carry her spirit over the cliffs and ocean that she loved, and I pray her loved ones find solace in her inspiration, which, like the music, will last forever.

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