By Eamonn Keyes
Rock and Roll and I are about the same age.
Here’s what Elvis was up to on the day I was born.
I guess he wanted to celebrate. I was probably asleep or eating-little has changed, funnily enough.
Being born at that time has obviously had a huge impact on my life and there’s little I’ve done over the years that has not been influenced by music.
When I hear a song I can usually tell the year, as it’s unbreakably linked to whatever I was doing at the time. Scientists say that music is only bested by our sense of smell as a memory jerker.
Fast forward to the year 2000 as my phone rang. “Can you do sound for a band I want to book?”. It was Andrew Johnston. Oh dear. I hesitated, briefly contemplating being an answerphone message.
Andrew was known in Belfast as the wretch who had formed highly erratic bands like Griswold and The Dangerfields. Fuelled by a burning passion for Chevy Chase and Rodney Dangerfield comedies, punk music, old horror movies and vintage rock and roll, Andrew was also an intensely caring and motivated individual, trekking all over the world for causes like MENCAP and many animal charities. I’d like to think we had a mutual respect, but it was rare to have ‘Andrew’ and ‘respect’ in the same sentence. At that time he was drumming with The Dangerfields, who featured a constantly revolving cast of bizarre misfit members like Johnny Goatboy, Dan Bastard, Graeme Insect, Horny Sean, The Baron, Jar, Wasp Boy, The Steve Jones, Gerry Nearly and Treeslug. Andrew was the only constant in the chaos. Mind you, he was a pretty chaotic constant even as a standalone.
But back to the story: It turned out that Andrew had been offered a chance to book Rock and Roll legends The Comets. Bill Halley had died some years earlier. Of course I was interested. I’d sort out a decent PA system and be there on the day. And yes, I’d bring my keyboard for them to use, of course.
The day dawned, prone to the usual hiccups, such as not actually being able to gain entry to the venue for quite a while and then the usual rush to get everything assembled before the band arrived.
They wandered in, and then it started to hit me that I was perhaps involved in a wee bit of history. The youngest member of the Comets was 68. The oldest was 82. This wouldn’t be happening much after this gig, I reckoned.
We met, and introductions went fine, apart from some grumbling that my supplied keyboard wasn’t quite as big as necessary, and then the band went on to soundcheck. There was a bit of flexing and tuning, and then I was treated to some of the finest jazz I’ve ever heard- and all merely being used as a warm up by this veteran bunch of rock and rollers.
We grabbed some food and prepared for the gig, which was being held in an old disused church that was part of Queen’s University campus, smelling of varnish and old wood. Andrew hadn’t done much advertising for the gig given the time available, and we crossed our fingers for a decent crowd.
It doesn’t always end up like the movies.
That night, one of the bands that helped create modern music played to maybe 70 people,
performing a stunning set nevertheless. They still had to be paid. Andrew had taken out a bank loan to make sure he could cover it, and on that night he lost his shirt. Admirably, he shrugged and simply said that he’d worked with rock legends, and it was worth it. And yes, it was. I declined any fee as I felt exactly the same.
As we packed away the PA system we learned that another gig about a mile away had packed them in. The show? Some look-alikes impersonating rock and roll stars from the 50s and early 60s. Three thousand people had watched look-alikes as the real deal played close by to an almost empty hall. Sometimes life is cruel.
That was their final tour. Shortly afterwards they started to pass away, and I was proud to have met them and got a chance to talk to them and hear their stories
There is a happy ending of sorts. I got a present shortly afterwards from Andrew. That night he decided I shouldn’t walk away empty-handed after a full-day’s work, and I found this waiting for me one evening, personally signed. It hangs with my other memorabilia on the wall even today.