Book review: JACKIE MCAULEY – I, SIDEMAN: The Story Of Me In The 60′s & 70′s

JACKIE MCAULEY - I, SIDEMAN: The Story Of Me In The 60's & 70's – 253 pages paperback [Publication date: December 2017]

Jackie McAuley’s ‘I Sideman: The Story Of Me In The 60′s and 70′s’ is an eloquently written, partial biography by a multi instrumentalist and vocalist who takes three quarters of the book to realize that maybe he should have been a front man after all.

From the dark silhouette on the cover, via a narrator who often appears to be on the outside looking in, the emphasis is mainly on his working life as a sideman, neatly summarised in an early mission statement as: “My story is not a full biography. It is only a biographical account of my life working as a sideman and also of the friends around me.”

And as if echoing the old Charlie Watts chestnut about ’5 years of playing and 20 years hanging around’, he derives his source material from :”Between the gigs…that’s where the real stories come from.”

Nothing unusual there perhaps, but Celtic rocker McAuley is a gifted writer who delivers colourful and emotive imagery to match an unquenchable thirst for knowing what motivated people.

Whether he’s describing his mum’s calling as a pro-entertainment, or his own brief ascent to stardom while still effectively starving with Them, or a lovely vignette about a duet with Gene Vincent, nothing feels forced as his recollections are shot through with a mixture of genuine emotion, and wry humour.

There’s also a few priceless encounters along the way, from the surreal complexity of the brilliant, but troubled alcoholic Bonzo Viv Stanshall, to the Zen like quality of his time on the road with part Cherokee Indian Marvin Rainwater.

He reaches deep into his own psyche for a recollection of a mid-German tour visit to Dacchau: “The whole place was eerie and the silence so heavy that I could feel a thousand ghosts screaming out to me in despair.”

He’s similarly unafraid to re-examine the Miami Show Band Massacre, but from a musician’s perspective to draw in even the most circumspect reader into his own thought processes, or those of the people he’s writing about.

‘I Sideman’ is a well written book that flows seamlessly and occasionally hits an emotive vein. McAuley writes analytically and objectively, while his insightful recollections and thoughts refuse to pander to either cliché or false sentiments.

His description of his own impoverished but happy upbringing recalls Frank McCourt’s tales of Limerick and Brooklyn, But McAuley is very much his own man, combining self evident familial and historical research with a philosophical bent.

His description of the Donegal of his upbringing draws the reader into a timeless world of small town Ireland, as claustrophobic as it was ideal. The way his narration captures the drive and impulses that led to his would be mum leaving home to become a musical entertainer is both heartfelt and poignant.

It also serves to provide a meaningful framework for how he became a musician, and as he says deep into the book: “I had been raised by musicians and playing came as a natural thing for me. Music wasn’t really a ‘career’ move; it was something I had to do.”

He recalls his 3 month residency in the gangster ridden paradise of Beirut and specifically his work place: “The (Kit Kat Club) was as classy as it was sleazy”. He also contrasts the backdrop of his last few days in The Falls Road in West Belfast, with a move to a bustling London social and musical scene with sessions in Tin Pan Alley.

He lucidly recalls his time with Them through the eyes of an enthusiastic, naive and ultimately shattered 17 year old: “I witnessed the Birth, Life and Death of a truly great band that had such potential, being choked to death by a greedy and ruthless management.”

He describes Van Morrison succinctly says: “Probably the first real ‘blue-eyed blues singer’”. He remembers Morrison’s fearless approach to some riotous crowds and belatedly recalls a priceless answer to a 1965 questionnaire regarding Van’s ambition. However, as the book unfolds, it is evident that McAuley tries most of his life to lay the ghost of Them to rest.

His career as a sideman is a colourful blur of sessions, recording and gigs, though disappointingly, he doesn’t dwell much on the latter, save for a humorous Joe Cocker story. He also has a brief spell with Paul Brady in The Kult: “Even in the Kult I’d always felt that I was a sideman, and that it had been Paul and Brendan (Bonass) who held that responsibility of leading.”

In that context he turns down Henry McCullough – “I didn’t want to be a front man” – Vangelis and later Pete Brown: “I just couldn’t handle his singing”. His paths crossed with Lemmy, and before teaming up with Judie Dyble as Trader Horne (a name suggested by John Peel), he finally admits that by the late 60′s “I did not want to start a new band, I only wanted to get out and earn some money for my trade, just like real people who work for a living.”

He meets a roll call of legends from Hendrix to McCartney and he surprises us by taking a sanguine view of Punk: “Musos were sweating buckets again.”

The almost unspoken core theme of the book is trust and he finally finds a kind of redemption in the trusting and mentoring figure of Lonnie Donegan, who eventually tells him: “This is what you should be doing with your own band, doing your own stuff.”

If there’s a criticism, it’s a minor one that he fails to explain how he met pivotal characters such as Kim Fowley, who:”Suddenly appeared out of the night”, or why he never gigged behind a solo album that made it into prized LA Tower records promotional window display.

In later years, he dips into the Irish showband scene and fondly declares that the Las Vegas residency by the Royal Showband: “became such an attraction that Elvis Presley was inspired by their act to return to the stage.”

‘I Sideman’ is an aptly titled book. If there’s any semblance of regret in missing out on a solo career in the golden age of rock, then that is probably due to his original dashed aspirations in Them. It’s a story in itself that you can read as part of this engaging book. ****

Review by Pete Feenstra

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