Recently I came across an exchange between cycling writer Shane Stokes and former doper Joe Papp on twitter. The conversation was to do with the possibility of declaring an amnesty on doping in cycling. An amnesty such as this, which has been suggested before, involves choosing a day in the calendar, deciding that anybody who doped, or had been involved in doping, before this day can admit it and be exonerated, but anyone caught from this day on will be banned for life, or handed some other severe punishment, in order to finally move on from cycling’s sinister past. The counter-argument is that exonerating former dopers and ‘moving on’ may put a stop to investigations into doping rings that may have been organised in the past, but a full pardon for everyone involved doesn’t weed the bad guys out. The drug suppliers, the drug administers and the drug takers will all remain in the sport, as a result of which, all the ingredients will remain for further doping scandals to envelop cycling. As Shane Stokes said ‘as long as they still have power and influence. They need to be removed from cycling, not pardoned’. Declaring an amnesty merely papers over cracks.
This brief twitter exchange got me thinking about my own life and in a roundabout way I arrived at the following series of thoughts:
I grew up with music. I started playing so young, I literally can’t recall a time when I wasn’t able to play the fiddle. My Dad, Paul, was a musician, still is. He used to be in a band called the Fleadh Cowboys who played the midnight at the Olympia slot every Friday during a period in the eighties. Some of my earliest memories are being in the Olympia Theatre on Dame Street during the day, running around the stalls and all around backstage, playing chasing with my brother, while Paul and the rest of the band did their sound check.
During this time, Paul also worked as a musical instrument repairman. He had a workshop on Capel Street, where all sorts of people would pop in with their wounded instruments for Paul to fix. I even remember a time when Father Jack came in with his fiddle! The workshop was amazing, there were hundreds of instruments. Some days, when I was off school, Paul would bring me in to town and I’d spend the day in the workshop. I’d crawl through the piles of abandoned instruments until I found one which had all the strings still on it and play around on it until it was time to go home. In addition, the sitting room at home was chock full of records, tapes, and later on, CDs. I couldn’t have been more surrounded by music.
And yet, I never found myself listening to music. Even as I reached my teens I still played the fiddle, but I’d never stick on a tape when I got home from school. I wouldn’t even really listen to the radio. I still don’t really understand why. My brother Iarfhlaith was the music buff. He would always have music blaring from his room, and he’d constantly get given out to for having it too loud when he couldn’t hear Mum calling that dinner was ready.
He’d be listening to bands like Green Day, Nirvana, The Deftones, Korn, Pearl Jam, all pretty heavy stuff. But then one day, when I was about 16, he came home with an album called Dance the Devil by a band called The Frames. By this stage, I couldn’t help but be familiar with all the music that he’d be listening to by osmosis, but I’d still never find myself wanting to listen to it on my own time. But when he stuck Dance the Devil on, I remember sticking my head around the door and saying “who’s that?”, I wanted it.
This was an indie rock band, with a fiddle in it, a concept I’d never come across before, and I could so obviously relate to. I put the album on repeat for days and days until I knew every lyric, every sound effect and every note, I was hooked. I wanted more. So Iarfhlaith, who was busy becoming obssessed with them himself, unearthed more of their albums, a previous one called Fitzcarraldo, and a brand new one called For the Birds. I loved all of it.
Then Iarfhlaith told me he was going to see The Frames one night, in Whelan’s on Wexford Street. “What?!” I said, “Surely they’d be playing bigger venues than Whelan’s”. He said “no, sure they’re only a small Irish band really”. Again I couldn’t believe it, “They’re Irish?”. “Yeah of course” said Iarfhlaith, “sure the lead singer was in The Commitments”. We had no internet in the house at that stage, so I had no way of just ‘looking them up’ and finding out about them. So I had simply presumed they were American, same as most of the other bands that Iarfhlaith would be listening to. So to find out this band I had learned to love were Irish and that they played gigs a couple of miles down the road from my house was music to my ears, so to speak. (Later I’d find out the band got their name from the numerous amounts of bicycle frames which would be hanging in Glen Hansard’s garage, his house became known as ‘the house with the frames’).
I wanted to go to their next gig, which happened to be in Galway City. So myself, my brother and two of our cousins, who were also mad into them, took the train to Galway, booked ourselves into a hostel and went to see them in a big tent. The gig was incredible. Of course, the memory of it has been blurred by nostalgia, but it remains the best gig I’ve ever been to. They played for about three hours, at one stage the lead singer Glen Hansard bodysurfed into the crowd right in front of us. Then towards the end of the gig, he started calling fans up on stage to sing a song called ‘Heyday’ with him. So about fifty of us managed to make it up on the stage before security started stopping people from jumping up. We sang and danced with the band and I managed to nab a set of drumsticks and the setlist, before we were ushered off.
After that, to say I was hooked would be a gross understatement. I’d say in the next four years I went to see them thirty times. They’d play five night runs in Vicar Street and I’d go to as many as I could afford. The way Glen Hansard played songs was like nothing I’d experienced before. He’d start off with one song, then he’d segue into another, then on further into a cover version, then back into the original song he started with all the while he’d have the crowd singing over him perfectly with lyrics from a completely different song. I wanted to be him, I wanted to do what he could do. I wanted to be at parties and whip out the guitar and sing for hours and woo the crowd. But to do so, I had to learn the guitar, and sing.
So I did. I learned really quickly, and got fairly good really quickly. I remember getting sick of people telling me that they’d love to be so talented at music that they could be able to play the guitar so well in a few months. It used to drive me mad. Because for those few months, by God I practiced… and practiced and practiced. I didn’t just pick up the guitar and by some ‘God-given’ right I was capable of playing immediately. I practiced so much during that period that my fingers bled and I failed my college exams.
The Frames would play plenty of covers, they’d get special guests on stage with them and they’d have a different support act every night. This led me towards discovering loads of other bands, I wanted to listen to the same music The Frames were listening to. As we now had broadband in the house, unashamedly, I frequented the likes of Ares and Kazaa on a regular basis to quench my thirst for new music. The Waterboys, The Pixies, Mundy, Damien Rice, Ash, BellX1, Kraftwerk, Deus, Bob Dylan, Jeff Buckley, Tim Buckley, the list was endless. The Frames, and particularly, their frontman Glen Hansard, shaped who I was as a teenager. The fact that I learned to play the guitar meant I’d sing at endless parties throughout college, and indirectly, this has led me to going out with my girlfriend now and doing the PhD I find myself in the middle of. All because of The Frames!
As the years passed and The Frames became more and more popular, amongst my peers it became rather naff to be a big fan. Then the band took a break and Glen Hansard went off and won himself an Oscar. My fandom waned. But when I heard The Frames were back gigging this Christmas, I couldn’t resist. It had been years since I’d seen them. So myself and my brother went to see them last Thursday in Whelan’s. The gig was great, and I enjoyed it hugely, but seeing the band now, it’s almost embarrassing to admit that this one person could have had such an influence on my life. But it could have been a lot worse…which is where cycling comes back in.
The guy that I wanted to be, played the guitar and sang. So to be like him, I played the guitar and sang. But what about the youngsters in cycling? They are also just impressionable teenagers. What did their heroes have to do to earn the adoration of the crowd? There are so many directeur sportifs (and riders) who doped in their past, who are now in charge of young riders and their futures. If there is an investigation in to one of these guys and it is discovered that he is now in charge of a systematic doping regime to boost his riders’ performances, the basis of which he probably learned when he was a rider himself, then this person needs to be brought to justice. They cannot be allowed to be given a pardon just because doping investigations are long and arduous and bring bad press to the sport. These guys have to be investigated. I found a hero who I wanted to emulate and did all I could to do so. But I didn’t have access to my hero. What must it be like for the young riders of today who have doper directeur sportif heroes who they actually see on a regular basis, and who can be more directly influenced by them than I ever was? Will they do whatever it takes? I know I did. I’ve got the scars to prove it.