Each week I flick through the Video tapes in second hand Limerick shops, often ending up with peoples TV compilations on Maxell or Bush tapes that i end up fast forwarding, shifting analogue chunks from someones attic. Its all history. Today in Oxfam a BBC copy of Midnight Movie, Dennis Potters last film, but even better, Shimmy Marcus's film from 2000, ‘Aidan Walsh – Master of the Universe’! Both pristine and mine for 3 euros. I was aware of the Walsh film but had never actually seen it so once home it was first into the deck.
Walsh had all the trappings of a 15 min Superstar when I lived in a battered Dublin in the 80s .The Temple bar glimpsed in parts of this tape brought back memories of crossing traffic light streets on many a nights wander from East Wall to Rathmines. Often in the City centre one would come across some sort of performance spilling from the Project Arts centre. Events such as the 24 hour continuous Art and Music ‘Dark Space’ gig where the likes of The Virgin Prunes shared room with Nigel Rolfe and other performers. Amongst the clusters of painted leather jackets congregating on the cobblestones on these nights one would occasionally see the ever smiling Aidan Walsh .
Social Circles and spaces were tight and emigration culled and it was perhaps easier then to be a ‘face’ in the country's capital than it is today. In the mid 80s Punk and the Dublin Punk look had ironed itself back into a traditional pose and was morphing back into a more manageable set of rebellious cliches .Within this make up Aidan always stood out. He had adopted unintentionally a look more associated with a crazy rural character than an urban hipster.
All of the cities bohemian population seemed to be on nodding terms with this Cowboy costumed character. Many creatives gravitated towards him and befriended him with offers. They recognised within his persona something that wasn't led by a conventional star agenda. Fame, its pursuit and end game on his part wasn't just wanting to be bigger than The Boomtown Rats. His singularity was interesting and his difference at times appeared to complete a romantic agenda not just for himself but also for the dadaist guitar fringe led by a set of the Golden Horde and remnants of the Virgin Prunes. As product there were some loose gigs, paintings, colourful posters and a lot of cartoons which kept the name and Walsh mission always in the public eye 'n' ear.
Marcus's Film documents and contextualises Walshs experience as performer whose individual path intersected with a particular time when the Capital was de parochialising itself and seeking its place within a worldwide postmodern outlook through various international cultural and social links. Art Spaces were operating between the spectrum of the Guinness Hop Store down to various small studios and venues in a damp Temple Bar (The minute link between any official recognition of the Irish Fine Art and Poprock camp in the 80s was possibly the Sense of Ireland Festival in 1980 where artists and rock groups travelled to London to represent contemporary cultural trends) The street scenesters that sought out Walsh traversed this bandwidth and were as hip to the platforming Warholian strategies of publicity as they were versed in the postpunk chords which would soundtrack the work he was creating about himself.
Walshs actual life story is the hard tale of an abandoned orphanage boy with an imaginative passion and desire for a happy conclusion as an adult through the medium of fame. Like an Celtic Sun Ra he circles a basic rhythm in shiny costumed garb and a non hierarchial attitude for expressing himself in popular and on occasion (by default) conceptual art. In Marcus's video he speaks in fairytales and riddles. He sleeps on four mattresses watching TV with a Teddy bear instead of a girlfriend beside him. Robots,he says, have sex for him as this is easier and cleaner for all concerned. He loves the community Games and claimed it as artistic vernacular material understood only by himself. He takes your picture and cuts it in half and if you don't have your half with you at the door he wont recognise you. He ran against Bertie Ahern in an election.
Amongst the striving showbiz tales and the pathos of his dealing with abandonment and ‘things he cant tell yet’ the films narrative documents a wider longing at the time for an imagined urban underground scene as typified by London or New York. 2fm began broadcasting in 1979 and the post punk sound and imagined attitude filtered through occasionally with records played by Pat Kenny and predominantly Dave Fanning. This was countrywide. Throughout the film there are clips of various youth programmes which illustrate the national broadcasters position on delivering rebellious or avant garde material, it was all just light entertainment. A Capital centred jamboree. Aidan on a popular Tv pop music quiz spurned Gerry Ryans patronage and shortcircuts the mundade trainspotting answers much to the hosts displeasure. A Radio clip of Fannings show has a jubilant Aidan in full situationist flight as Dave attempts to police the spectacle and sighs ..’here we go’. Just because Dave is on top of whats hot doesn't mean he has to like it or to be seen in the long run to support the potential subversion of the idea of the pop star Walsh always embodied. Belief in modernisation typified by the National Pop channel manifests itself in the desire for universalisation and any attempt by an Irish Sun Ra to interject de familiar effects to liberate the listener from his passivity and role as a consumer was always going to fail. Incidents being read in the end always as an aberration on Fanning et al rather than any successful act of détournement on Walshs.
80s Irish Pop Rock Celebrity was epitomised by these ex pirate radio radio personalities done good personified by Gerry Ryan and Dave Fanning . These two are pictured hanging and orchestrating events with Walsh in situations that Ryan admits were more beneficial as ‘street’ publicity to both ‘Comminatcha’ 2fm Djs than anything of equal benefit to Walsh. Ryan admits that Bono had words with him about this one way traffic and he eventually assisted Walsh in a more responsible manner particularly in tracking down the orphans Aunt .
Fame wasn't that magical or instantaneous and lest we get too crazy remember there was a pecking order as the concept of paying ones dues and all that entailed was ingrained in the gig trail since the beat scene of the 60s. Bono often rolled out the metaphor of the bucket of lobsters clawing back any of their own who dared to try and escape.There always seemed to be some attempt to categorise The Master and his place in the Dublin scene but Walsh was continuously energetic and original enough to side step these obstacles. Fame and his quest for it was sacred to him and eventually people began to realise here that normal (and 2fm) rules didn't apply. The Master of the Universe was so called because he was unique.
The strategy that would quickly take U2 from an english influnced powerpop beat group to a polished American brand was being brewed in Dublin and the audacious momentum created by their rise impacted not just on Walshs circle but on the whole of the cities scene. This was the time of the film Rattle and Hum where it was put to an Irish audience that there was something spiritual for Dublin people to explore their roots in the Deep south of America. Particular histories suddenly appeared freshly laundered, in stetsons. A mark of a gent in Country and western circles down in the sticks and Walshs trademark attire. Contemporaries of Walshs were the Joshua Trio a talented musical comedy act who were first on the ball reinventing themselves as cod preachers sending up U2 with country rambling tunes such as ‘The Edge has got his hat on’. As the celluloid Bono,Larry, Adam and the Edge spinal tapped a rhythm in Graceland, Walsh took small ads in the Dublin indy press announcing that since Elvis was dead it was time instead for the Master of the Universe to fill his shoes.
The waves of A n R men flocking to Dublin looking for a similar god fearing package moulded a rockist attitude that bred in many participants an expectancy akin to a promotion structure in the civil service. If you were a four piece Irish Rock band it was only a matter of time before money and fame came your way. In the middle of all this jostling Walsh was signed and put out an album. There is great footage of a London showcase of Irish acts where Walsh and the Screaming Eagles are being praised by Brian May of Queen while at the same time being castigated as taking up space for ‘Real irish Bands’ by a mulletheaded Bono clone.
The Producer of Walshs record was The Golden Hordes Simon Carmody who comes across here as a genuine supporter and facilitator of the fluctuating agenda that emanated from the Master of the Universe. The music he chose for Walsh looked to the Cramps / psychobilly / swamprocked jangle that held its own in England through punk but was more upfront about treating stage image as equal with recorded sound. The Boneshakers were the first Irish manifestation of this sound live followed by The Gorehounds and Sharkbait .This energy was represented visually in the comicshop culture that had begun to find its feet as well as in the Psychobilly pose that was the personal taste of those that ran influential record spots such as Freebird and Comet records. See Eammon Carrs compilation "Guru Weirdbrain presents" for a fun snapshot of these times. (note. If the sets Carr played when he stood in for Fanning at this time were available they would be a perfect document of the sound of an uncompromising 80s Dublin)
Carmody ( like Carr) was very hip to the more esoteric Art tinged possibilities of Rock n Roll based drama. He had a studied knowledge of the the vintage garage rock scene that spawned the Stooges as well the combination of circumstances that created the legend of the Velvet Underground, and he was committed to an Irish version of the above. He was the type that would not only know who 60s US icon Robert Anton Wilson was but be aware that he was actually living in Dublin for a while in the late 80s. The knowledge Carmody possessed combined with the avant garde tweaks of Gavin Friday and others gave patronage and credibility to what otherwise would have been a private universe existing only in notebooks and cassettes by Walsh in inner city Dublin.
As part of a wider agenda Carmodys stewardship of this project would consolidate the imagined (and constantly desired) underground perpetrated by groups like the Horde and offshoots like Hackalacka Biniti from the Prunes in the face of the predominant stone-rock- washed Americana being played on radio with Fanning balancing the more radical sounds late at night. By now Van morrison was collaborating with the Chieftans and the commercial popularity of the axis of the Hothouse flowers and The Waterboys seemed to further bland out the possibility of any type post punk progression being generated from the post hippy Dublin scene. This is the legacy of modern irish pop rock. For all Gerry Ryans patronage it was never going to be the same as John Peel supporting the Fall . Lines in Donnybrook are always drawn clear. In this light Walshs legacy from this time stands proud. ( I'm not aware did Walsh ever do a Fanning session).
Actually looking back now the nascent dance scene would have been a more receptive home for his mission for that – as it was being created in realtime - could be constituted as a true underground. Another venn diagram would circle the alternative ( universe) of Miss Ireland that was being promoted by Tonie Walsh and friends. However the idea of guitars, drums and sunglasses as a template for magical change was a hard one to leave since the structures were built for a type of accepted radicalism and no matter how different you wanted your project to sound and look you were invariably sucked into this ultimately commercial black hole .
Carmodys particular hands on patronage was the equivalent of Zappa in the 70s developing the outsider musician Wild Man Fisher as a counterculture performer as the industry co opted and controlled the freak scene. Like Zappa Carmodys work here was a one off. The music created specifically for Walsh as stand alone perhaps does not age as well as could be expected but the overall package is still worth checking. At a push the famous 60s NY street musician Moondog is another outsider example for consideration too.
The colourful adventures of The master of the universe would always be too busy to be contained within the confines of any lurching model of the Irish Music business, pre or post U2, and the film sketches the ups and (mainly) downs of various other commercial endeavours Walsh was involved in over the years. Another great story has Aidan trying to buy the building on the Quays that became the Virgin MegaStore and forcing the price up before Richard Branson stepped in.Towards the end we see our hero starting his own young band showcase offering advice and support to a group of very polite youth (his website currently continues this work). These stories are often disappointingly conveyed by Carmody and others by mimicking Walshs distinctive high voice. This is unnecessary, but taken in context with Fannings ‘sure, it was only a bit of a laugh at the time, nothing more’ commentary, gives Walshs own words a deserved sincerity.
The film balances all these strands never loosing track of Walshs humanity and enthusiasm. I remember him in the 90s circling Grafton St, his face hidden behind a mask touting a sandwich board for a now long closed record store. He wandered for a small wage unknown to a public who, if prompted, would wonder why once was all this attention was once given to a strange non singer who really didn't seem Irish. Toward the end national broadcaster Fanning yawningly alludes to the whole exercise in retrospect as an entropic scene specific to the Pale. Another example of venerating conventional paths at the expense of outsider experiments. I wonder how he would describe Gavin Fridays time in the Virgin Prunes? ( Friday himself says that once the Prunes were co opted into conventional promotion it killed the group).
Note. History is always written by the victors. Rte 2fms website proclaims that ‘there are those that say that without Dave Fannings live sessions U2 would never even happened’ The implication there that gatekeeping was always in place and correct. Rockist revisionism in place. The site also mentions that Gerry Ryan gave a hairdresser from Cork called Terrence a helping hand to become a National institution. Time perhaps here to curl up and dye?
In reality Dublin was always too small for Walsh and his directed exercises to be excluded completely and Marcus and all involved are to be applauded for re addressing and re discovering walshs legacy. The Film opens with footage of the generation of 2000 welcoming a still beaming Aidan at another gig. Incidently when BP Fallon blagged his way on to U2s Pop Zoo TV tour he played Public Enemy and Love (sprinkled with a wacky attitude) to appalled Spanish youth as warm up Dj. In this he was unintentionally representing the work of Walsh and Carmody. Twenty years later you tube archives this vernacular in crazed Country n Irish videos .These, and the fame hungry artisticly inclined digital intentions of the likes of the Hardy Bucks make Walshs musical persona (watching it as i am today on a Video tape) timeless. Walshs mission continues unsullied as the rest of the cast bob in the tide of what the U2 industry eventually defined their careers to be. The Prunes Guggi long grown out of wearing Mini skirts with no underwear on stage to being on occasion a painting instructor for a ‘exploring their creativity’ U2.
On Aidans website there is news of another Video. Quote in full.
‘Aidan Walsh Private Investigator’ was shown on Irish television on 8th of December on the Blizzard of Odd. The whole thing was out of this Planet what you could have ever seen before in this galaxy you’d die with a heart attack, a private detective taking over planet earth. Without no meaning and no end to it.’