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Remembering George Byrne

George Byrne died on April 2nd after a short illness. His funeral is this morning. John Fleming writes:

Journalist and radio pundit George Byrne used to work amid broken KitKats and sticky boiled sweets and break-jaw toffee that might have been cooked too long. There were fizzle sticks that had fallen on the factory floor and Walnut Whirls twisted into horrible shapes that might offend conventional consumers of uniform confectionery. The shop was called Hector Value and was on Camden Street. If you were a sweet-toothed young teen with an eye for a bargain you might have wandered in for some cut-price if flattened Nut Milk Toffees. From down the back of the shop something loud emanated ... Wait ... It sounds like At Home He’s a Tourist by the Gang of Four. And what is that poster on the ceiling? Two Sevens Clash? What’s all that about then?

George Byrne, a half-decade or so older than myself, is selling records to customers. Occasionally he flips furiously through the alphabeticised LPs to relocate the record just played. Then he whips out another with a deft glance at the label’s track listing. This one turns out to be More Songs About Buildings and Food. Over a period of weeks in 1979, I stopped buying the sweets in this shop and started buying singles ‑ all the early Jam Polydor seven-inches in their warped Irish pressings. George had priced them to clear at 45p each: a penny per revolution.

Every Saturday, we would speak about the music I was hearing on Pat James and then John Peel. He was one of the few people I knew back then tuned to the New Wave that, along with the plays of Harold Pinter, seemed to me to be the only thing that made sense. XTC’s Drums and Wires came out. I went into town and found George had kept me a copy with the limited edition free EP. I was very touched.

George Byrne was the first man I heard use the word Rickenbacker. He taped albums for me on the cassette-head-tarnishing orange BASF C90 tapes I supplied. He invited me to the Ivy Rooms to see his band, AutoBop. They sang a Squeeze song, Pulling Mussels from the Shell ‑ this tune was not much to my liking but here was a world of imagination swirling around an otherwise grey and dour Dublin. Ideas and sounds were circling the Dandelion market. The Atrix, Chant! Chant! Chant!, a nascent Microdisney, The Blades, A Further Room, It’s A Tightrope, Meelah 18, Free Booze, The End and Amuse all plied their trade in the now long-gone Ivy Rooms, Magnet and Judge and Jury. George made claims to have played with various incarnations of several of these bands. He stoked a sense of potential and plenty.

Years later, after I waded through school, college, emigration and other trivial pursuits, it turned out George was writing for papers like the Hot Press and Evening Herald. He was on the radio. Some of my friends knew him as a rock critic, a film reviewer. Paths began crossing again on streets, at gigs, in bars. I think I reminded him over pints somewhere of the early broken KitKat scene. I can’t rightly remember. But there was a chat in Fallon’s one afternoon eight years ago. He was wearing a Devo T-shirt as that group had recently played Vicar Street. I mentioned old Dublin band DC Nien, who had done a cover version of a controversial Devo tune. He smiled in affection and proceeded to name the members. But one name eluded him. He banged the bar to try to jostle his memory. Strangely to no avail. Three days later in Cornmarket Spar I bumped into him again. “Paul,” he said triumphantly. “Paul McGuinness. Not yer man but the DC Nien guy. That was torturing for me for days.”

There’s George Byrne backstage at the GoBetweens in the Academy. There he is at the Electric Picnic half-afraid to see the Sex Pistols for the cheap cabaret show they were bound to be. There he is in the house of a friend in Knocklyon at a private gig, clapping along with the other twenty people assembled. And there he is crossing the unreconstructed, twisting, scrapyard-and-second-hand-car-dealer-adorned Clanbrassil Street in 1982, coming out of Long Lane on his way home to the Tenters with an album under his arm and a 2lb brown-paper bag of sticky misshapen sweets.

Pop culture is doomed to jump its own tracks. Ian Curtis. Phil Lynott. The death of Atrix singer John Borrowman in the mid-1990s and then a few years later Hot Press Bill Graham. Recently Phil Chevron. Journalists have had a bad year of it too, with too many passing away too soon. Death stalks us all. It heartbreakingly takes parents, family members, neighbours and workmates. It cuts people up and always seems wrong. Each generation moves on through this thing called life. Endless only until it grinds to a halt and time’s own pectin stops the flow.

George Byrne will remain part of the muscle memory of New Wave/post-punk Dublin. As the melancholy of what I would never admit was middle age settles on me and my friends, the past and present become more and more precious. The forces of George’s articulate enthusiasm will remain plugged in, amplified. In a city of links like Dublin, the ghosts of his loquacious energy and affection for music and film and life and talk will keep turning corners and bumping into kindred souls walking down the street. RIP.

7/4/2015