There are singers like Liam Clancy who delight in exploring that magical country between the words of songs that often goes unnoticed. Just as there are writers like Nick Drake who can infuse the least amount of words with the most amount of meaning.
It’s a rare singer/songwriter, however, who melds both those gifts. John Spillane is a past master at the art.
I’m sure it doesn’t come easy. Every word and silence in his best songs is pregnant with meaning and defined by a distinctive sense of place. I’d never heard of the Lobby Bar in Cork and yet I can see, and even feel, it as vividly as if I had been a regular.
“There were magic nights in the lobby Bar
With Brendan Ring playing Madame Bonaparte’s
Every note that the piper would play
Would send me away, send me away
Away through the window, away through the rain
Away 'cross the city, away in the air
To a field by a river where the trees are so green
The deepest of green that you've ever seen…”
Then again Spillane’s songs inhabit their own private universe of memory, loss and longing; he finishes the above verse with the gentle advice that,
“You can go any time, you can go any time
‘Cos it’s only in your mind.”
I came upon John’s music through my ongoing search for unique songs to play on Celtic Crush, my SiriusXM show. Now one would think that with the proliferation of CDs nowadays this would be a simple task, but it’s far from the case.
In fact I’m staring guiltily at two daunting towers of unsolicited CDs. And I’m on the artist’s side - I actually delight in finding great new songs and like to think that Celtic Crush is one of the last bastions of originality where good writing is rewarded regardless of commerciality.
Then, in the midst of all the polished mediocrity you’re forced to plough through, you unearth a diamond the like of Spillane. My last discovery had been Shaz Oye, a gay Irish-Nigerian woman from Dublin’s docklands with a voice a cross between Joan Armatrading and Nina Simone.
These two original Irish performers’ only links are talent and a sense of place. Spillane’s is firmly centered in Co. Cork, a hallowed land he claims to be the center of the universe.
I first stumbled upon Spillane on a CD called The Gaelic Hit Factory - a collaboration with the Gaelic poet, Louis De Paor. The track, “Buile Mo Chroí,” The Beat of my Heart, became one of the twenty all time favorites on Celtic Crush.
Close behind it is another spellbinder called “Báisteach” or Rain.
“Do shiúl thar bráid sa tsráid aréir nóscumaliom mar bháisteach
(She) walked past on the street last night as couldn’t-care-less as rain
Comhartha broinne ar a rúitlín clé is lúba airgid ar a riostaí geanmnaí.
A birthmark on her left ankle and silver bracelets on her untouchable wrists.”
Oh man, I wish I’d come up with those lines - in either language! John has the ambition of many great writers – to single out his ordinary world and wrap it in the “cloths of heaven.” And he often succeeds.
His ode to the “Dunnes Store Girl” was a big hit in Ireland and has caused many of us to look a little closer when we visit these temples of commerce for there may be “rebel streets of our dreams” within.
But his song “Passage West” succeeds where others much more celebrated have notably failed – for he captures the reality of modern Ireland and fuses it with the past many of us strain to touch.
“We watched the ferry come and go
We watched the river ebb and flow
The tide breathe in, the tide breathe out
We watched the Passage flowers grow
The ghostly forms of the hungry years
In sad procession did appear
With hope and sorrow made their way
For their passage west to Amerikay”
In subtle ways, this modern man from Cork, John Spillane, touches the soul with the delicate power of a Yeats or Kavanagh.