Saturday, 7 January 2017

Rockabilly Wexford-oh

Americans definitely liked Buddy Holly. Many could even hum a bar or two of his songs. But they didn’t revere him like we did. In the narrow streets and back lanes of Wexford the man from Lubbock was right up there with Saint Anthony – he had a large and devoted following.

Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent were only a couple of notches behind. No two ways about it - our town was Rockabilly mad.

Wexford has always been musically hip - partly because of its proximity to London. A fellah could go out for a couple of pints on a Saturday afternoon, get soused, throw some shirts in a battered suitcase, and wake up with a vicious hangover in Paddington train station the following morning.

Whatever sounds were au courant in Piccadilly soon pounded forth from Nolans’ jukebox on Wexford’s Main Street. Ska, Blues, Reggae, Glam, and Punk had their moment in local musical history but it all began with Rockabilly.

Nolans was a smoky ice-cream parlor frequented by would-be juvenile delinquents and London-hardened Teddyboys, but it was so much more. It may have been the coolest place I ever hung out. 

With its polished tiled floor and darkened windows it boasted a riveting natural reverb. I’ve tried to replicate that effect in the most sophisticated recording studios but have never come close.

Could it have had something to do with the volume? I often wondered if the proprietors - the mild-mannered, Mr. & Mrs. Nolan - were deaf, for ice cream bowls and coffee cups literally hopped on the tables when the Teds grooved to their favorite 45’s.

And guess what sounded best? You got it – Buddy, with Eddie and Blue Gene in close contention. I mean Elvis was no slouch and Irish-American Bill Haley could rock, but they lacked a certain ineffable coolness and that whiff of rebellion so central to Rockabilly.

Eddie Cochran even made fun of the mighty Presley – “Guy can barely play guitar, where’s that at?” Eddie himself could sure as hell play - Hendrix copped his first licks from Cochran 45’s, and Pete Townsend never even came close to “the man” on his version of “Summertime Blues.”

Of course, Eddie Cochran never got old and bloated like Elvis. A dumb Brit driver killed him at the age of 21 while recklessly speeding through the pitch dark English countryside; to top it all he half-crippled Eddie’s amigo, Gene Vincent. 

And you know what happened to Buddy Holly – he did a nose dive into the fields of Iowa courtesy of a pilot who should never have been let near a plane. And with the three of them gone, Rock & Roll died.

But not in Wexford! It lived on in the grooves of scratched 45’s and CD reissues. If you were an aspiring musician and wanted to play beyond your bedroom walls you had to at least learn the rudimentary fingerings and beats.

Rockabilly culture survived in grubby dancehalls and working class pubs, and many of us gravitated to it. It was more than the music: when you played that scene you were cool by association, for Teddygirls were sumptuous, and violence rarely more than an errant glance away.

One summer our band played Friday nights in the local CYMS. Catholics we might have been but there was little Christianity in that packed sweating hall. With no security fights ricocheted around the dance floor until they petered out from a surfeit of spouting blood or sheer fatigue. 

Didn’t matter! We played on for there was a promise of redemption in Rock & Roll; you went home exhilarated, and dreaming of the day when you too might become a Buddy or an Eddie or, the Lord forbid, a half-crippled Blue Gene.

Times and tastes change but on my last trip home I saw a vaguely familiar figure from those CYMS nights strutting down the Main Street. His hair had long ago turned grey but it was still coiffed in the old greased-back Ted fashion. 

His pants tight, his socks white, his progressive lenses encased in Buddy’s black signature frames, he winked his recognition as he sauntered by whistling “Rave On.”

Oh yeah, Rockabilly lives and Wexford Town still pulses to it!

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