John Kelly

Why Mahler? How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed the World by Norman Lebrecht.

Why Mahler? by Norman Lebrecht is published by Faber & Faber.
Book review published in The Sunday Business Post in 2010.

Where to begin with a colossus like Gustav Mahler? According to Norman Lebrecht the best approach is to address him in the present continuous, as a man of our own time. Mahler, he argues, is a composer for today and his music is perfectly pitched for a world constantly adjusting to high-speed developments, many of which are carriers of threat, confusion and fear.  The music works in such a climate because it can mean several things at once, and yet it cannot equivocate. “It comes at you from afar,” says Lebrecht, “like the light at the end of a tunnel, an irresistible destination.” In short, Lebrecht is saying that Mahler speaks to us like no other composer, and his music is good for what ails you. Name your crisis and he’ll proscribe you a symphony.

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This piece was written when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August 2005. I had just been there and would later return to see the devastation for myself.

But here is a piece which reflected how I felt as the news came through from the Crescent City. It’s not very polished. Hurried, scattered but heartfelt.

In Bob Dylan’s book Chronicles, he talks with a poet’s precision about the magic of New Orleans. He describes it as a place where there is something joyful behind every door. Either that, he says, or somebody with their head in their hands. The atmosphere, he continues, “pulsates with bygone duels, past-life romance, comrades requesting comrades to aid them in some way. You can’t see it, but you know it’s there.” After what has just happened to (or been inflicted upon) New Orleans, one can only wonder how something as elusive as this magic can possibly survive.

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Few musicians get through an interview without once referring to their brand new album.

Few interviewers get quite so engrossed in the conversation that they forget to mention it either, but that’s just the way of it with Brian Eno – smarter than your average sonic pioneer and far too polite for anything as brutal as a plug.

Eno is a one-man multi-media adventure and his CV would take the eye out of your head. A founding member of Roxy Music, producer of Talking Heads, Devo and U2, collaborator with everyone from Fripp to Bowie, inventor of ambient music, installation artist, painter, diarist and connoisseur of construction work. Quite simply, he never stops being Brian Eno.

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“The song is at the forefront,” he says, “it’s the only thing I think about. And I guess songs can be very, very deep – not in terms of meaning – but in terms of experience.

OK. Will Oldham is an acquired taste. His thin, quavering voice is that of someone without a note in his head. His production is lo-fi to the point of being lazy and slip-shod, and if that doesn’t finish you off, his subject matter will forever frighten the horses of your mind. In fact you’d be tempted to leave him well alone if it wasn’t for the fact that he writes songs that are beautiful beyond belief. His most recent recording Ease Down the Road made under the alias of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy is slightly more up-beat than previous offerings, but its still unmistakably the stuff of that uneasy Oldham imagination.

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This was my first encounter with Lou Reed. It was written for the Irish Times in 2000 and the piece is as nervy as I was. I’ve run into Lou many times since and he’s a sweet man. One of my favourite people.

It’s the month of May in the city of Paris and Lou Reed is singing White Christmas.   It’s as good an impression of the high-pitched vocal dramatics of Clyde Mc Phatter as you’re likely to hear and suddenly we’re laughing – in both senses of the word.  Turns out the man with the fearsome reputation is as nice as ninepence and we’re getting along just fine.  Such are the stories about Lou Reed interviews that I’d been having worrying premonitions of silence, a stand up row and an empty tape.   But then, you shouldn’t believe everything you hear about a celebrity – especially a walking urban myth like Lou Reed.  Everything’s cool. We’re talking about music and the music he fell in love with.

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I interviewed Nina Simone for The Irish Times on the day of her 1999 performance at The Point Theatre in Dublin.

Where to start with Dr. Simone?  According to legend she’s the hardest of tickets, the toughest of cookies and quite the most difficult interviewee on this or any other planet.  And so, when word comes that ‘the Doctor will see me now’, I cautiously enter her suite armed only with the smallest of offerings – a CD of the American poet Langston Hughes with whom she collaborated on “Backlash Blues.”

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He decided early that he wanted to be a musician and began to feel his way into a career that has lasted for over fifty years.

BB King tells John Kelly about a career that started out when the blues was pure black heart of the Delta and there was at least one exceptional country blues musician in the King family. Inspired by church and radio, King took to playing guitar and singing and soon his ambition went well beyond that of driving the tractor around the plantation.

He decided early that he wanted to be a musician and began to feel his way into a career that has lasted for more than 50 years. His influence has been incalculable and now, at almost 73, nobody disputes his title as the King of the Blues.

First published in The Irish Times, 01 August 1998.

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I have interviewed Van on several occasions for both radio and print and sometimes, at his request, for projects of his own. This piece appeared in The Irish Times in 1998.

East Belfast is a territory well covered in the songs of Van Morrison.  He constantly invokes its spirit and clearly glories in the names of its places, successfully elevating them well beyond their image of coal-brick and church-hall - the Castlereagh Road, Cyprus Avenue, North Road, Abetta Parade and Orangefield.  With the naming of names, Morrison reclaims his own place and replaces it where he remembers it - in the imagination and in the heart.  His are the days before rock n' roll and, significantly, the days before Belfast tumbled so violently out of the sixties and into the seventies.  Van Morrison's East Belfast is a place of swishing radio signals late on hot summer nights, the windows open and distant sounds echoing across Beechy River.

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