‘Famous Blue Raincoat’, in The Guardian (Sat. 25 June 2005)

Lisa noticed that one of the boxes of old records had been moved from the corner of the garage, leaving a square of light-coloured cement. She asked Ted if he had touched the records but he shrugged and said that he had forgotten the boxes were ever there.
 When Luke came home from school she thought of asking him if he knew about the boxes, but he was difficult sometimes if he felt that he was being criticised or accused of something, so she did not mention it. She put the box back where it had been and then was busy for days in the dark room developing old negatives for the new scanner which had been set up for her in the spare room. Soon, she thought, this liquid and this old process would be obsolete, this dark and concentrated space would no longer be her domain, and she would have to live in brightness. She hoped to postpone that day for as long as she could.
  She noticed, some time later, that records had been taken from one of the boxes and left to the side. It was then that Ted told her that Luke and a friend had begun to burn CDs, so perhaps they had taken some old records for their project. She smiled to herself at the parallel currents in the house, records being put on CD, negatives on disc. The idea would horrify Luke since he did nothing at anyone else’s prompting and followed no one’s example, least of all his mother’s. Later, when she remembered the records, she went into the garage and examined the old boxes, flicking through the records which Luke had put aside, wondering for a second why he had removed so few, leaving old classics untouched. As she stood up, however, and realised what he had taken from the box and why, she shuddered and turned away.
 When Luke had gone to bed, she told Ted that she had found three albums in his room, the first with her photograph and that of her sister on the cover, and a picture of the whole band on the other two. The years when she toured and sang with the band and made the three albums were seldom mentioned between them, so that even she herself had come to half-believe that she had only taken photographs during that time. Now her son was listening to the music she had made long before he was born.
 The band, she thought, had one great season, and there was no recording of that; there might be photographs which could show how young and happy they were, and some memories of people who had been in the audience. The band, one reviewer had commented in the year when they arrived on the English scene, was better than Pentangle, as good as Steeleye Span and on the way to outreaching Fairport Convention. This came to be a mantra for them, something which made them laugh. Dinners, roadies and English towns all came to be graded in similar terms. They had played support for all of these groups, and Lisa remembered with fondness the time when one of their roadies had been her boyfriend.
 They began as two sisters singing, Julie with the deep voice and deep feeling, Lisa with a thinner, reedier voice, depending always on her sister’s guidance, but with a larger range and flexibility, a more sparkling musical intelligence. It was strange how different they were, how Julie held herself apart, hating the flirting and easy association that went with the business. Julie was hard-headed about money, planned the tours and worked out the costs; she was ambitious; she held grudges. Lisa, just two years younger, took everything lightly and took no responsibility. She did not suffer much from period pains or the monthly tensions which were capable of reducing Julie to deep depression and irritability, even sudden changes in the timbre of her voice.
 It was Julie who led the search for the two male singers, dragging her sister to clubs and pubs, watching the young musicians as an expert on bloodstock would watch a horsesale. Julie did not know what she was looking for, but not glamour, she explained, and no pretty boys allowed, no white polo necks, or guys smelling of Brut, and no smilers either, she added.
 Phil, the first new member of the band, was from a family of musicians; at 21, he seemed to know infinite numbers of songs, including many of the Child ballads, and variations of songs. His guitar-playing was agile and original. He had, they realised, a way of changing a song, moving a tempo, varying a chord, and he could work with their voices as an arranger; also, he knew more about systems of recording than anyone else they had met. But it was his shoes that decided Julie. Clearly he had owned them, and no other pair, for years, but had never, it seemed, bothered to polish them.
 Shane, who would complete the band, was unlikely. He was northern. His accent, Julie said, was repulsive. He hated folk music, he said, but loved jazz and blues. He only hung around the folk venues, he said, because he liked drinking. His voice was high, he could sing in Irish, he played the mandolin and the bouzouki, although he claimed to despise both of them. He made no effort to charm, although he wanted the job, and that was enough for Julie. At their first rehearsal Shane made clear to the other three that he was in the band to combat the tendency they had to sing like Peter, Paul and Mary.
 They began to work in an upstairs room off Mowlesworth Street. All four of them drank afterwards in Kehoe’s or the Lincoln, but never for long. The boys always had somewhere else to go. In those early months as they prepared for their first concert and first recording, they did not become friends.
 Julie and Lisa worked out their harmonies from instinct, from trial and error. Although they both had taken piano lessons and been taught the rudiments of music theory, they used none of that in their singing. Now they watched as their two new colleagues had a name for everything as they arranged a set of songs. Shane, although he claimed to love only jazz and the blues, turned out to know intimately both classical music and an entire body of work he still insisted he despised - the songs of Tim Hardin, Tom Paxton, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. Sometimes, in self-mockery, he would take one of Cohen’s more doleful tunes, or one of Joni Mitchell’s sillier songs, and exaggerate their worst qualities to the accompaniment of a mandolin.
 On The Late Late Show, they sang a version of Handel’s Where’er You Walk, arranged by Phil, with new words by Shane; it became their signature tune. For the first album they added new versions of Irish and English ballads and Irish versions of modern songs, including a rendition in four-part harmony of Lady Madonna. For their second album they signed with a small British record company. The sound they made was new but closer to what was happening in England than in Ireland. So they played the clubs in England, turning up where they were asked, travelling the motorways and staying in cheap hotels. After the first six months, Julie agreed that they could share the takings, and all future decisions could be made by all four of them, at least in theory. In practice, everything was decided by Julie and Phil.
 Most of the time they sang into one microphone, and this made Lisa smile when she though about it now. They were utterly dependent on each other when they stood on the stage, and, even though the music was rehearsed, it had to allow for chance. They each had to concentrate fiercely, listen with care and be ready to respond. Usually, they were led by Julie’s moods; because Julie’s voice was the strongest, it was often what people came to hear. Lisa never minded how little she herself was noticed. When they found a solo song for her, she was uneasy about taking the limelight, always glad when it was over.
 Once their second, more sophisticated, album was released, small success beckoned. They were almost fashionable, especially their songs in Irish which, Lisa remembered, English audiences seemed to love. They were called a contemporary band rather than a folk group. Even John Peel approved of them and played a track from their album a few Saturdays. Alan Freeman played a single from it on his show. They had cult status, but there was always the possibility that they could become popular. It would take the right song, some luck, and, it was suggested, a manager, but Lisa always knew that Julie would not be able to work with a manager.
 The song that nearly made them stars was the one that Shane detested above all. It was Leonard Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat. No one at that time, Lisa remembered, had noticed the song much or made cover recordings of it. Phil and Shane, despite Shane’s hatred for manufactured sadness, as he called it, worked at isolating the melody, discovered that by leaving some parts bare and unadorned and filling other parts with voices, echoes, instruments and harmonies, the song could be made very powerful. For once, they had a good recording studio and a sound engineer who liked their work.
 Phil and Shane decided that only Julie and Lisa would sing on the track, working on many takes of Julie opening the song, using echo effects and laying down track over track so that at times she sang alone and unaccompanied and at other times in many layers to the accompaniment of her sister, a cello, a saxophone and a mandolin. They asked Lisa to go through the whole song singing with Julie but in the same register using a separate microphone. She found it almost impossible not to harmonise, she had to let Julie guide her, pull her along like a small boat. When she had finished, they told her that they had, in fact, recorded only her, and for one of the verses they were going to cut between the two singers. When she went to listen to the tape, she was amazed at how close her voice was to her sister’s, almost as deep and strong in certain sections.
 The track they made was seven minutes long, twice the length of a normal single. Because the band was winning the confidence of the label, and because Sandy Denny had built up a following and Fairport Convention had had a hit with Si Tu Dois Partir, then it was agreed that it could be released with an Irish song performed by all four of them on the other side. No one expected much radio play; instead, they hoped that a new tour with Martin Carthy as support might help the sales.
 Lisa remembered that they were somewhere in the north of England when they were told what John Peel had said about their new recording. He made them into a cutting edge acoustic band, brave enough to release a seven-minute single, making a new sound. He made them seem almost hip and counter-culture. And then the following week Famous Blue Raincoat was played just after midnight on Radio Luxembourg. A week later, their single was hovering outside the Top 50. It began to be played on Radio 1, mostly being faded out after the first three minutes.
 On one of those nights when their single was in the Top 30, an American journalist came to a packed-out concert in Glasgow and came backstage later. He was smooth, talkative and knowledgeable about the business. He turned up in London as soon as they were back there and wanted, he said, to attend one of their recording sessions to write a long article about them which he would sell to a magazine back home. His name was Matt Huling, but he became known as Puffy to the band from the moment he expressed approval when Shane told him that their next single was going to be a slow version of Puff The Magic Dragon. Matt did not have a sense of humour; instead, it seemed to Lisa, he was skilled at displaying resentment, when he thought he was being mocked or ignored. Since Shane mocked him half the time and the others ignored him when they could, he had many opportunities to show how he felt, his face pale, his brow furrowed, his broad frame almost threatening.
 In the weeks when Famous Blue Raincoat failed to make the Top 20 and then dropped out of the charts completely, Matt did not disappear as they hoped he would. He waited, it seemed to Lisa, to be sneered at by Shane and spent much of his time in their company in a sort of seething silence. Slowly, he stopped mentioning the magazine article he was meant to be writing. His presence, Lisa thought, made all of them uncomfortable, yet so apparent was Matt’s vulnerability that none of them had the courage to tell him to go.
 As soon as they had returned to London to work on the new album, it occurred to Lisa that Phil had known before she did that Matt and Julie had become lovers. He took Matt’s presence for granted, listened to him when he intervened and nodded when he made suggestions. No one, however, seemed to have told Shane about Matt and Julie; he responded to the American with blunt incomprehension and rudeness when he came into the studio with a list of songs they should record, more up tempo material, as he put it - essentially, Lisa thought, three-minute pop songs which might suit Julie’s voice. It was clear to Lisa that when Julie suggested that they should bring in some session musicians, including a drummer, the idea had come from Matt.
 One morning Matt and Julie arrived in the studio with two new songs. They were by one of the new American songwriters, Matt said, who had heard the band’s last album, loved it, and was ready to grant them exclusive rights to both songs. He passed the sheets around with the lyrics and the music. As Julie quietly began to sing the lyrics, Lisa realised that she knew them by heart. The tune, Lisa thought, was banal and derivative. When Julie had finished singing, Shane stood up.
 “The words are cat,” he said. “I think your friend, the American songwriter, is a bit of an eejit, Matt. What do you think?”
 “I think it’ll sound different when we have heard it properly arranged,” Matt said, his face pale.
 “Well, you can arrange it yourself then,” Shane said.
 “We will do just that,” Matt said.
 “Let’s give it a chance,” Julie said. “We need a few contemporary songs on the album.”
 Lisa noticed Phil was sitting quietly watching Julie. Later, he told Lisa that he knew at that moment that the band would break up. He did not intervene, and it was his silence as much as the determination of her sister and Matt which allowed the track to appear on the album, complete with drums and upbeat arrangement and Julie trying to sound like an American rock singer and Lisa tagging along with an equally fake accent.
 Luke, Lisa thought, could be burning that on to CD, too, perhaps he would think it one of their best songs, or maybe their most embarrassing. If Luke went to the album sleeve he would notice that the song was composed by Matt Huling, who had told them, when the copyright for the songs was being checked out, that he himself was, in fact, the writer.
 One day on the tour to promote the album, Lisa had lunch alone with Julie. They must have been waiting for the others, because Lisa remembered they had more time than usual. It was a while since they had been together for so long. Julie eventually asked her why she had never said anything about Matt.
 “I take it you don’t like him,” she said.
 “Well, you like him, that’s the main thing, isn’t it?” Lisa said.
 “Hey, I asked you.”
 “I don’t know,” Lisa said.
 “This is serious,” Julie said. “Tell me what you think.”
 “I feel he has you in a sort of cage.” As she watched her sister colour, Lisa instantly regretted the remark.
 “I love him.”
 “I hope he does not cause you trouble,” Lisa said.
 “If he does,” Julie said, staring directly at her, “you will be the last to find out.”
 As the tour progressed, relations between the five of them were not improved by a number of reviews, both of the concerts and the album, which suggested a turn towards commercialism, and this gave Shane more ammunition to fire in the direction of both Matt and Julie. On the last night of the tour, when the lights went down on the stage, Shane packed his instruments and left the venue without saying goodbye to any of them. He never played with the band again. Soon, Phil announced that he wanted to take a break and go to New York. Lisa, on a trip to Dublin, read in the Irish newspapers that Julie was to begin a solo career in the United States.
 Over the next year she heard about Julie from their father, to whom Julie telephoned every Sunday with news of gigs in America and plane journeys and hotels. The only sign she was ever given of what was to come was a phone call from Phil. He was in New York. It was nine in the morning, Dublin time. He sounded drunk. He told Lisa that he had met someone who had seen Julie in a sort of folk bar in San Francisco. She was not well, he said. She was on crutches and wearing sunglasses and her face was bruised and, when she had realised that someone there knew her, she had left the bar quickly.
 Julie was not on the bill that night, Phil added, but Matt was, complete with guitar, singing some of his own songs and singing also some songs associated with the band. Lisa asked Phil to find her a number for Julie, even for Matt, and he said he would find them if he could and call her back. Her father, she discovered, did not have a number for Julie either, but as the calls continued to come each Sunday he was not worried about her. When Lisa went to her father’s house one Sunday and managed to answer the phone before he did, she found Julie friendly and distant, giving no sign that anything was wrong. Lisa wondered if Phil had not been too drunk to judge what might have been idle gossip. Phil had not seen Julie himself. Her father, when he had finished speaking to Julie and hung up, remarked at how happy she was and what a power of good America seemed to be doing her.
 On Saturday Luke told her that he had made a single CD of the band’s greatest hits. Lisa observed his confidence, his ease discussing the technology, and his utter failure to notice her at all as he spoke. She wondered how many years more his innocence would last, how long it would be before he learned to read signs. She could not say to him now that she did not want to hear the CD. She would, she supposed, have to listen to it.
 Luke knew, Lisa remembered, that Julie was dead. How strange that he would not wonder if Julie’s death meant that her voice, recorded on all these songs, might not carry too much sadness with it, too much regret, to be listened to casually after all the time that had passed.
 Almost three years after the break-up of the band, two guards came to her flat in the early morning and told her that Julie had been found dead in a hotel room in California. She took a taxi to her father’s house and woke him and told him.
 “That’s the end for me now,” he said. “That’s the end.”
 When she asked him if he would come with her to identify the body, he seemed puzzled and wondered if Matt Huling would not do that.
 “She died alone, Daddy, the guards told me,” Lisa said.
 Her father said he did not want to go with her, and told her he did not care where Julie was buried, or where the funeral was. It was the last thing he cared about.
 “It’s all over for me,” he said.
 She flew to London and then to Los Angeles and then, on a small plane, to Fresno in California where Julie’s body lay in a morgue. She had never been in the United States before, and perhaps, she thought, it was the hours flying and the day becoming night as much as the unfamiliarity that seemed to soften everything she saw and felt, seemed to render colours bland and voices hard to make out. The only hotel she knew was the one where Julie had been found. It did not occur to her to go anywhere else. It was a new motel at the edge of the city, and it was only when she had checked in and was lying on the bed that she realised this might not be the best place to stay. She thought of asking to see the manager and requesting him to show her the room where her sister had been found, but she postponed this each day.
 She studied the staff, wondering which of them had seen her sister dead and which of them would know if Matt had been with her on the night or day she died.
 In all the years that followed, she wondered why she did not go to the police, or find the Irish consul, and she still wondered if one of the men in the morgue who witnessed her signature was not a policeman. She had phoned the number given to her in Dublin and arranged to go to the morgue the next day. She had also given them Matt’s name and asked them that if he made contact, they were to tell him where she was. It sounded as though she were making a business transaction and this added to the strangeness of those days when no one recognised her, when no one spoke to her, when she could find no bar or restaurant or coffee shop where she felt comfortable. She was in a land of ghosts.
 She remembered the time in Fresno before she went to see her sister’s body as interminable, a limbo time in which there was nothing to do, no duty to perform, no possibility of sleeping. She tried to take a taxi to the city centre so she could stroll in the streets, but after much misunderstanding, she discovered that there was no city centre, and there were no streets, merely long leafy rows of houses which led to more of the same, like an enclosed city of the dead, the houses like small tombs. She tried to phone friends in Ireland, but each call had to go through reception; the receptionist was not in the habit of dealing with international calls and mostly failed to connect her. The staff began to view her lurking in the lobby waiting for taxis, her coming and going, with something between hostility and suspicion.
 She had seen America in the movies, but nothing she saw in her days here belonged to the images she had seen on the screen. The flatness, the deadness, the long waits for taxis, the tiredness of every object belonged to no Hollywood drama she had ever seen. Only once, in that first day, did she see a sight worthy of the movies. She had felt a craving for Chinese food, and she had asked at reception for the name of the nearest Chinese restaurant. The receptionist seemed to have no idea what she meant. In the end, Lisa spoke directly to the taxi company who dispatched a driver after 45 minutes to take her to a nearby mall.
 On the way there, she had seen the beautiful graveyard, the headstones all low and uniform, the grass freshly cut. She had noticed sunlight for the first time, as though the graveyard were in brave Technicolor and the rest of the world in black and white. On the way back to the motel, having picked at her food and eaten almost nothing, she asked the driver to stop and she walked among the graves, looking at the foreign names and the foreign places of birth and sensing in this community of the dead, resting in this sunny clearance, some warmth, something even close to hope, and for a few seconds the dread lifted at what she would see when she arrived at the morgue.
 She asked each time she returned to the motel if anyone had called, but there was no message. She had given the number of the motel to her father in case Matt rang. But there was nothing except the receptionist’s irritation. She presumed that the people at the morgue would know about the circumstances of Julie’s death and if anyone else had checked into the motel with her. Thinking about the questions she could ask when she arrived distracted her.
 They wheeled Julie’s body into a small, cold, narrow room. There was no sheet over her face so Lisa could instantly see her. Julie was smiling. It was not a dead or distant smile; no make-up artist could have painted it. It was a smile which belonged to Julie alone, it was how she often looked before she spoke, the smile impatient, it was how she smiled when she was ready to interrupt. It seemed astonishing that her face, being frozen and dead for several days, could produce this smile. The orderly who had wheeled in the body stood and waited as Lisa touched her sister’s hand and forehead and spoke to her, whispering what words she could, telling her how much they had loved her, adding what their father had said. She thought of singing a verse of something, but the thought was enough to make her cry.
 If only now, in this next half an hour, she had known what to ask, whom to ask for. She showed her passport and signed a form. There were, she remembered, three men in the room, but only one spoke and she had no idea who the other two were. She saw on the form that Julie had died of heart failure. She was so concerned that she could be allowed to see the body one more time, so desperate for them to agree to this, that she asked them nothing else. It was arranged that she could come back the next day.
 She went back to her sunlit graveyard, leaving the taxi driver waiting for her. She believed that she would find an office, or a priest attached to the cemetery where her sister’s funeral could take place, but there was no chapel and the only people she met told her that this was an Armenian graveyard. Lisa found the most recent grave and looked at the unused plot beside it, and this was where she imagined her sister would lie in earth warmed by the sun, in a place which was neither Ireland nor America. On that day and the next, however, especially once she had slept for a while, she did not have the will or energy to organise it.
 Julie’s face had changed when Lisa saw her for the second time. Her smile had fallen inwards. There was no life in her.
 “She has gone,” Lisa said to the orderly who nodded to her kindly.
 “She has gone,” she repeated.
 She wondered if taking the body from the freezer the previous day might have caused this new deadness in her sister’s face, or if Julie had been mysteriously waiting, holding on, until her sister came. In life she had great strength; maybe in death, too. But it had fled now whatever it was, and there was nothing left. She phoned her father one more time to make sure that he did not want Julie’s body flown to Dublin. He assured her that he did not. Through the morgue, she found a funeral director and arranged to have her sister buried, after Mass, at the edge of the Catholic graveyard at the other side of town among the emigrant Irish.
 Over the next few years, as she worked as a photographer, she asked any musician she met who had been in the United States if they had ever seen Matt Huling, or even heard of him. Phil, when he came to Dublin, looked her up and remarked when they met how strange it was that Matt had disappeared. America was big, he said, but the music business was small. He must be in another business now, Phil remarked. Strangely, it was Shane, the member of the band who had been unhappiest with the music, who wanted the albums re-issued when CDs became current, but by that time, Lisa wanted to forget what had happened, and, to Shane’s puzzlement, she refused.
 She could not refuse Luke, however, since he was so proud of what he had done. When he asked her to sit and listen to the CD he had burned, she did not protest. She kept a large camera close to her in case she would need to cover her face or distract herself.
 Luke was all competence and pride as he set up the disc in the player.
 “I put the best track first,” he said, “and I had space at the end so I put it on a second time.”
 It was Julie’s voice singing the opening verse of Famous Blue Raincoat with no ornamentation or instrumental accompaniment. Lisa saw her sister’s face that day when she was dead, the features all filled with life, ready to start an argument, enjoying her own lovely authority. Soon, when the echo effect was added and the cello came in and Lisa’s own voice appeared, she was glad she had spent the years not hearing this music. Of all the songs on the CD this was the only one which still seemed alive, the rest were relics, but the song which began and ended the CD Luke had compiled gave her a hint, in case she needed one, of her own reduced self, like one of her negatives upstairs, all outline and shadow. Now, as the CD came to an end, she hoped she would never have to listen to it again as long as she lived.

[ close ]
[ top ]