Goodnight Saigon in Donegal: Father’s Day in Favourite Records

This piece was originally published as part of a wider collaboration on You can read the full post here.

When it comes to music I am very much my mother’s daughter. The Saturdays of my childhood seem soundtracked by her singing along with Bruce SpringsteenFleetwood Mac or Van Morrison as she danced the hoover round the various living rooms we inhabited over the years. It was my mother’s cassettes that I poached for my own, my mother who brought me to my first gig and with whom I still trade albums and new artists.

My mother simply planted seeds and let them grow. My dad was not quite so patient.

I don’t believe my father has ever listened to a piece of music at a tolerable volume. In his not so humble opinion, most of what the music industry has ever produced is crap. And if it isn’t crap, it should be loud. Very, very loud.

I was in my teens before I ever heard Pink Floyd played below the stereo’s breaking point. Subsequently, as a child I formed an instinctual revulsion to Floyd, and contrary to all his good intentions, my dad had actually given me an allergic reaction to one of the most revolutionary bands to hit the airwaves.

But not all his clamorous efforts were in vain. One of the definitive images of my childhood which was replayed in various houses, gardens and cars over the years, is the figure of my father’s hunched shoulders and closed eyes, leaning over the stereo as he turned it up to eleven, crooning along to Elton JohnNeil Young or Tom Waits.

In the background my mother rolls her eyes.

My dad never just listens to music, he is in the music, shaking his fist or howling along at the top of his lungs. There is no such thing as background noise.

Luckily he’s got a passable singing voice, one which in my youngest memories is always paired with my godfather’s in a husky Dublin rendition of Sinatra’s Under My Skin or My Way.

My dad cried the day Sinatra died. He cries readily. Every Christmas it is just a matter of time before he cracks to Fairytale of New York, the song which I most associate with our decrepit record player as he taught me how to place the needle on the groove. He is a man of sensitivity and passion who grew up in a gritty and pitiless time, his favourite records provide the drama and intensity which reality could never satisfy. It is perhaps why my most vivid memories of him resemble a scene from a Hollywood movie.

Damp and cramped in the backseat of car, the rain and wind devastating the Donegal coastline barely visible through the windshield, it is the mid nineties and my older cousin has discovered Oasis. My dad throws up the volume, rouses the shivering troops in the backseat and leads a rabble of Don’t Look Back in Anger to match the ferocity of the Atlantic throwing itself over the rocks just outside.

Another rainy Irish summer, on a windy hillside not so far away we are listening to Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits on my mother’s battered car stereo. As the helicopter blades shatter the silence and the tremors of the keys creep in, my father turns up the volume and delivers the most stirring rendition of Goodnight Saigon ever heard within the confines or a Vauxhall Nova.

There were we on the coldest, dampest, most North-Westerly tip of Ireland yet he sang from the heat, humidity and intensity of a South-East Asian jungle. His obsession with the Vietnam War was endemic on our bookshelves, Apocalypse Now and Platoon among his favourite films, it is the conflict which filled the newsreels of his earliest childhood and I suspect was where he always played at soldiers in his mind. Now in his fifties he is the veteran of Billy Joel’s broken America, I can picture him in Allentown, but will always strive to remember him in his glory days as Frank Sinatra, or Tom Waits , but most likely, as Billy Joel in Goodnight Saigon.

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