BE YOURSELF STEVE

Ken Newell

(My Pause For Thought on BBC Radio 2 on November 23, 2021. The theme for the week was "the most important man in your life" for MO-vember!)

 

My most important man gave me advice in his kitchen when I was 35 that meant that that same kitchen was my kitchen when I was 50.

I had just arrived at Queens University in Belfast as part of the Chaplaincy team and thought I would grab a coffee with ministers of local churches. Ken Newell invited me up to his house for a coffee. Ken was minister of Fitzroy and a big inspiration on my life through his work to bring peace to Northern Ireland.

It is strange because I can remember vividly that short mile and a half journey and sitting in Ken’s kitchen. We didn’t have much time and while making a coffee Ken said, 

“Steve when you get to 50 make sure you know who you are. Most of my peers have been looking over their shoulders at what every else expects of them and most are having an identity crisis because they haven’t a clue who they are.” 

A quick coffee and I was gone… but with that most important advice ringing in my soul.

For the next 15 years I tried to live out Ken’s words. My very favourite verse from the Bible is John 10:10 and not just because my birthday is 10:10. Jesus speaks in that verse about coming to give us “life in all its fulness.” 

For me Ken’s advice helped me realise that life in its fulness would depend on my being me. Not trying to be like others. Me. As God made me. My unique self.

When Ken left as minister of Fitzroy 12 years ago, the church kindly called me to be his successor. If I hadn’t stayed true to Ken’s advice, I don’t think they would have. Ken was different and though I was different than Ken, Fitzroy wanted different and not anyone the same as everybody else.  

So I woke up on my 5oth birthday and had a cup of coffee in Ken’s old kitchen, now ours. This morning’s Pause For Thought comes from the exact place where the thought took place. 

Ken is Still one of the most important men in my life and he gave me the best advice I ever got. Be yourself to the full Steve. Be yourself.


MARTYN JOSEPH - 1960

1960

I used to say that if I wanted anyone to know what I believed about all of life then I would take them to a Martyn Joseph gig. His politics and  spiritual journeying seemed to reflect my own life’s outlook.

In 1960 Martyn is writing and singing my life again. Though born the year before me this is very much an album of reflecting on being 60. Martyn’s accuracy at reflecting my own refections is uncanny. More obvious would be his sadness at being Born Too Late to enjoy Joni and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young but that his dad drove a Renault too… come on!

What we have here is a memoir in songs. Yet it is a memoir of the head and the heart and the soul. There is a lot of vulnerability and honesty. I love the almost prayer-like posture of Trying To Grow where Martyn confesses to feeling at times a fool and a fraud but longs to be transformed. I know the feeling exactly, my friend.

There is also great gratitude of life in Felt So Much and love particularly in Everyman-like song We Are Made Of Stars and In My Arms. Shadowboxing is all about his father’s dementia. Beautiful, poignant and sad. Again I empathise. 

Martyn jokes on stage about writing miserable songs and there certainly is more misery in his body of work than any top 10 pop act of the 21st century but don’t be deceived. 1960 has its share of the shadowy darkness but there is hope in abundance. This is about the changes in life either intentional or terribly thrust open us and how we live and love on through. 

Hope is where it ends. There Is A Field gives Rumi melody. The idea of a field beyond time where all is peace and justice. I learned it from Colum McCann’s novel Apeirogon and then found out that it was an idea that the late Northern Irish and Nobel Peace laureate John Hume loved. Martyn follows it with more hope and light and love on This Light Is Ours.

I get the feeling that a worldwide pandemic sending you into lockdown as you write an album on the first 60 years of your life might have given time for more thoughtful reflection and more care of craft on 1960. In lyric, arrangement and production Joseph gets this one just right.

The quiet nature of the piece beautifully mixing acoustic guitar and piano. The lovely echo vocals on We Are Made Of Stars. The gospel feel of Down to The Well and the Cockburnesque guitar driven rhythm of Under Every Smile keeps it gently shifting. The hidden track cover Witchita Lineman is sublime.

I have been listening to Martyn Joseph albums for over half of his and my lifetime, reviewing the vast majority and for me this one is as perfect as it can get.


SONGS ON VOCATION ( DOING WHAT WE SHOULD HAVE DID)

Maybe Now Baby

Two massive songs. Both ever on the radio. Both with most controversial of grammatical irks. Both favourites when I am realigning myself to my vocation… particularly those irks. 

The Killers song Human has that strange line, “are we human or are we dancer”. Years before it was Deacon Blue’s Real Gone Kid and “Maybe now baby (maybe now baby)/I’ll do what I should have did”. 

Both lines seem a little bit askew. They seem to be breaking grammatical rules. Yet, that is what I was so drawn to poetry for. Even at Primary school I loved the playing with words that coloured them outside the lines of grammar.

Of course they work. Give me another line from those two most popular songs and by two most popular bands. Playing loose with language and you leave memorable lines. 

Best of all, by seeming coincidence, both songs speak to me of vocation and finding the reason that we are here on earth.

The Killers asks the big question. Who are we as human beings? What should we be living for? Just dancing? Or is there something more robust in humanity’s contribution to the planet? 

Deacon Blue make the vocational more personal. I have always seen Real Gone Kid as a revelatory moment for Ricky Ross. He has spoken about it happening during a Lone Justice concert. I can understand that. Maria McKee’s charismatic exuberance always has the possibility of being a conduit to seeing life’s full potential.

“I’ll do what I should have did” irks with some but as I have already said is that freedom of the language that I think poetry gifts us.

To do what I should have has been my main question in life since long before Deacon Blue gave it a mantra and I have been revisiting the question. What should I be doing with my day? What contributions can I make on my world? 

As I creep into my 61st I am reading the new Deacon Blue book To Be Here Someday and looking forward to seeing them play the Ulster Hall. You can be sure that when we are going mad to Real Gone Kid that I’ll be looking down my later years and asking… maybe now baby…


THE NARROW VOICE CALLING

Stockman bearded

Turning 60 has me reflecting and revisiting old poems. These were the diaries of my life for decades. The first two lines of this one refer to coming back from a trip to China and The Philippines in 1990 but I think the talking back to the pharisaical begrudgers might have been from early summer 1992 , the first time that all I believed in was questioned at some committee. 

Thirty years later and I am still committed...

 

Yesterday with me it was summer

Today my autumn leaves are falling

Yesterday was all open conversation 

Today I hear the narrow voice calling

Back on this island that I longed for

That I love with all my heart

Forcing me to be somebody else

From the one who has been apart

Telling me I’m saved by grace

So long as I become like them

But I wouldn’t be a follower of Jesus

If I sought the approval of men

They want me to come to maturity

But I will not be conformed

They want me to calm and settle down

But I love the eye of the storm

They want to put a ring on my finger

But I will stick it in my ear

They want me to say it as it is

But I don’t see it as they want to hear

So reject me like you did with Vincent

The truth will always set me free

To live life and life in all its fulness

Through every God given uniqueness in me.


EVEN THE FRINGES ARE SACRED

DB Live

Guitar comes crashing riffs of life

I read between the strings

Drums keeping beat to my imagination

As Ricky and Lorraine sing

To do what we should’ve did

Vocations being honed out loud

It could be me on that stage

And you in this crowd

Lights are flicking prophetic

Glimpsing the freedoms of rock n roll

The darkness screaming back at me

In the recesses of my soul

Song making me want to fall in love

Songs making me want to cry

Making me want to put the world to rhyme

And never ever die

Conjuring up salvations day

Substantial chords of inspiration

Filled with life in all its fulness

Feet dancing in the revelation

I sense the Creator smiling down

On humanity and everything created

Even the fringes of life are sacred

To be lived and celebrated.


DEACON BLUE - TO BE HERE SOMEDAY

DB - To Be Here Someday

While running an amazing arts programme at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, my friend Ken Heffner would book some amazing bands. He usually succeeded in getting the band to do an interview with students in the afternoon of gigs. His last question to the artist every single time was, “What are you hoping from your audience tonight?”

Ken realised that rock music was not just about the band but also about the audience. A live experience of rock music has to have a synergy between those on the stage and those in the pub/theatre/stadium.

Away from the stage, how many times have we heard a songwriter say that as soon as a song is released it belongs to the listener. Songs are like babies that you let go into the world…

I say all of this because Deacon Blue’s unique book To Be Here Some Day gives the audience their place. In this rock biography the editor Paul English gives one part of the book to the band and the other half to the fans.

Fans were invited to send their own stories and photographs of their relationships with Deacon Blue. For some that is a gig or a moment that they met the band or how a song of the band helped them through a difficult time in their lives. For many it is a lifetime of connection. English gives the audience its place.

In the other half English lets the band tell their story without commentary. I do not deny that this was my favourite half. It was everything I want from a memoir. I learned more about the band and their work and the rollercoaster ride of forming, becoming famous, breaking up and in Deacon Blue’s case… beyond.

It took me back to remember how extraordinarily mature and brilliant Raintown is as a debut record. In my Top 5 of all time. I understood better the different sound on When The World Knows Your Name. I fell in love with Fellow Hoodlums, “an album about the afterlife” all over again and finally declared Your Swaying Arms as my favourite Deacon Blue song (well after Dignity, maybe my favourite of all time). I even took more time to investigate Whatever You Say, Say Nothing and the lost album called Sleeper.

I was fascinated by the 1994 break up, understood the reasons but became aware of the later regret. Even more extraordinary is that when Deacon Blue made up they refused to be a hits band but have released four quality new records that take as much space in their 2021 set list as the first four. That is unique. Quite the artistic feat.

Hearing the band’s anecdotes about life in Deacon Blue as well as the recordings and the concerts, there is a wonderful sense of the band next door. The pages dedicated to the sad passing of original guitarist Graeme Kelling are personal, sorrowful and beautiful.

If their mentor Bruce Springsteen attempts to break down the distance between the star and the fan, then Deacon Blue actually achieve it, probably helped by America never opening up to them. You do feel that it could be you on the stage and them in the crowd.

What we have in the end is the memoir of a rock band family. We are back to my friend Ken. I am not sure what Deacon Blue hoped for from their fans but what they got was special, even for rock music anorak fandom. 

If you want to know what is special about different gigs then a band can tell you some of what went on, on a particular night, BUT there are hundreds of other stories, moments and memories out there in that crowd. To Be Here Someday is a beautifully put together mix of interview, testimony, and photographs that gives us it all.

For Deacon Blue fans - Essential.


U2: ACHTUNG BABY - 30 YEARS ON

Achtung Baby

It was the days when U2 albums went on sale on the stroke of midnight on Sunday night. U2 fans could never have waited until 9am on a Monday to grab the new record. I had already bought Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum at midnights in Belfast. In July 1993 I would buy Zooropa at midnight in Cork. In 1991 it was Virgin Records on The Quays in Dublin. I had moved to Dublin just two months earlier, probably inspired by U2. 

When I got back to the car and put it in my portable CD player I can still remember that first sound of Edge’s guitar riff on Zoo Station, like pneumatic drills bouncing off the Berlin wall. Of course we were already slight bemused having already heard The Fly, but that first listen to Zoo Station was and still is something other.

What is this? Where did this come from? What have they done? It was way more disorientating than a Ballymena Presbyterian moving to Dublin City. It was only seconds in before Bono was declaring “I’m ready for what’s next?” Was everybody else? Reviews over coffee the next morning were varied.

Ten year later, while researching Walk On; The Spiritual Journey of U2 it hit me, probably for the first time, just how great Achtung Baby is. Though Joshua Tree is perhaps more iconic I was forced to conclude that Achtung Baby was actually the band’s greatest artistic achievement. 

Achtung Baby is simply astounding, perhaps even because it comes in the slipstream of Joshua Tree. U2 are the biggest band on the planet and then they dream it up all over again. Achtung Baby sits up, out of the pack, raised by its originality onto a new plateau. 

In some of the presentations I have given on U2 I play a piece of the Rattle and Hum movie filmed in 1989 and then move straight into the video for 1991’s The Fly. My word! The transformation in mood, in colour, in sound, in image, in every kind of way. 

To get another visual glimpse of the change just look at the panoramic scenes from the Joshua Tree packaging and then the disc label on Achtung Baby where Anton Corbijn focuses in on graffiti on some door somewhere; from widescreen to as close in as possible. 

It is a reflection of the content. Joshua Tree had songs about justice issues that spanned the world but Achtung Baby zoomed in on a band wrestling with art and identity and one of its members going through a heartbreaking divorce. 

U2 had only dabbled ever so briefly with love songs in their first decade but here they were starting their second ten years with a whole record on the subject. That the sounds of Achtung Baby are massive and the topic of the material microscopic adds to the fascinating, brilliance and utter originality.

Thirty years after I found sonic disorientation on the road home to Shankill on a Dublin night, Achtung Baby might not be the record that holds most of my favourite U2 songs. However as an an album, no other rock band has ever reinvented with such a quantum shift. To do that and make an even better album than what was considered your life’s work is even more astonishing. 


I'M LOSING YOU (For Those With Loved Ones With Dementia)

HE_image_dementialady copy_0

The skipping of thoughts glitch

A flipping of a mind switch

Memory film all mixed up and tangled

The breaking of the familiar

Wrecking loved ones to reconfigure 

Past and present leave future mangled

 

I’m losing you

Embrace tight but you are leaving

Smiling through a coffin of glass

Hiding tears of elongated grieving

That which was once unsinkable

Is now taking in the sea

Singing hope in a hopeless place

“Nearer my God to thee”


THE MOODY BLUES' GRAEME EDGE - A TRIBUTE

Graeme Edge

I was saddened to hear that The Moody Blues drummer Graeme Edge had passed away and any hope of more new music from the band with him, though his retirement a few years ago had already signalled that. Edge was a founder member of the band, the only one left 58 years on. He was also so much more than an amazing drummer.

Two things drew me to The Moodies. One or maybe two classic singles and Britain’s first 1 million pound soccer footballer.

Taken from their very first record Days Of Future Past released in 1967, Nights In White Satin was re-released just as I discovered the radio in 1972. I loved it. 

Unlike some of the Glam pop hits I was buying then it was still on my turntable around my mid to late teens. It was then that I was provoked to search further.

I used to buy Shoot magazine. It was a younger version of my favourite - Goal. I was reading Goal from 7 years old but I was able to condescend to buying Shoot too! One of my favourite sections was their quick questions to a star player. My favourite question was Favourite Band? Trevor Francis answered The Beatles and The Moody Blues. I had just fallen madly in love with The Beatles so I wondered who the second band were. I had bought Blue Guitar by two of the band Justin Hayward and John Lodge.

Then Wings stuck a cover of Go Now onto their triple live album Wings Over America. It was an early Moody Blues single too and Denny Laine who sang it on Wings Over America had even been the Moody Blue who sang it back then! 

Both Go Now and Nights In White Satin became the smooch dances at our home teen parties. I had no luck with the chicks but I discovered a band.

I bought Caught Live Plus 5 and loved the Plus 5. Then it was Santa bringing To Our Children’s Children’s Children and Blue Jays by Hayward and Lodge and eventually acquiring all I could find. 

Delving back in to The Moody Blues as I do in concentrated phases over the years it took a long time to appreciate Graeme Edge or see his vital importance. Hayward and Lodge wrote the more accessible stuff. Edge was a spoken word yang to their yin. 

Yet over time as I fell in love over and over again with the band’s first seven records you have to eventually catch on. The first voice of the first track on the first album by the classic Moody Blues line up was Graeme Edge’s. His poems and mostly his voice kicked off 5 of the 7 classic records that ended with Seventh Sojourn in 1972. 

That is being more than a drummer. Edge set that Moody Blues mood. Those atmospheres that were so unique and cosmic and haunting. That yang again. I cannot imagine Caught Live Plus 5 without the 58 second The Dream to give it a unique artistic shift.

Graeme Edge passed away the day after I ordered Marc Cushman’s The Long Distance Voyagers; The Story of The Moody Blues Volume 2. It will herald in a new phase of Moody Blues obsession for me. It was ordered for Christmas but I think Edge’s sad passing will be the cause of cracking it open as soon as it arrives! 

Graeme Edge… thank you for the yang!


MY PERSONAL TRIBUTE TO FW DE KLERK

De Klerk

I was so sorry to hear about the death of FW de Klerk, former President of South Africa. Not only have I a deep love and connection with South Africa but one afternoon in 2002 I actually had the privilege of meeting him.

Between 2000 and 2008 I took University students to Cape Town. We were primarily building houses with habitat For Humanity but over the years added other prongs to the trip; HIV/AIDS, Fair Trade and Peacemaking. 

On the Peacemaking we invited David Smith from the PCI Youth Board to do sessions with the team before the trip and then to come with us to do some study in the field, so to speak. David pushed his luck. Being from Northern Ireland seems to give you access to some very influential people when it comes to peace and reconciliation. 

Somehow David pulled off the most amazing meeting with 

FW de Klerk, the former President of South Africa who released Nelson Mandela from prison and negotiated the democracy that came to that rainbow nation in 1994. 

Mr. de Klerk came and met us in a little Church hostel on Bree Street in Cape Town. The staff could hardly believe what was happening and who was walking through their little modest hostel.

There will be different opinions on FW de Klerk, perhaps even in obituaries written this week. In the end, whatever his failings de Klerk was the leader brave enough to end apartheid, free Nelson Mandela and set South Africa on a road towards democracy. Even when he came into power it would have been almost unfathomable. 

In my meeting with him I was nothing but impressed. Yes, afterwards we questioned a far from flawless political life BUT he was quite honest with us in the mistake that apartheid was and how the Bible has been so helpful in coming to terms with that. 

Reflecting his words back into 2002 N. Ireland, four years after the Good Friday Agreement and still bickering over power sharing and weapons decommissioning we were taken by the courage of de Klerk's leadership and his ability to bring his people with him in such a turnaround. We were discouraged that we saw no leaders back home with such gifts.

I picked up something from what he shared with us that has travelled with me down my work in reconciliation that I had no idea would even happen back then. 

He gave us various steps towards peace. It was the first two that grabbed my attention. 

The first step was to search yourself to the very marrow in order to make sure your motives were pure, in your attitude towards the other in your reconciliation and the ambitions that drive you. The second, he went on, was to check again in case you were bluffing yourself with how well you searched yourself! Clever preaching!

As I surmised the visit and what FW de Klerk shared I wrote this. I thank him for coming to meet us and for sharing his story of transforming his country from apartheid to democracy alongside Nelson Mandela. 

 

Search me oh God

Down to the very marrow of my soul

Take every selfish part of me away

That would stop me from being whole

Help me peer inside my prejudice

To see the incentive of all my actions

Make kind the reflexes of my heart

Make gentle the strength of my reactions

Help me squint at every weakness

That comes from family and neighbourhood

To smash all idols of destruction

And create the art of all that is good

Search me oh God

Down to the very marrow of my soul

Take every selfish part of me away

That would stop me from being whole

And when I’ve let you search oh God

Believing to be in Your Spirit’s collusion

Let me look just one more time

For any remnants of my own delusion.