Sunday, March 14, 2010

Grief and stars and love

No sign yet of the online link, so here's my interview with Hermione Ross (aka Hennessy), daughter of the late and wonderful singer-songwriter Christie Hennessy, published in the Indo's Weekend mag yesterday. Above is a photograph of Christie as a new, 19-year-old dad, in London with his beloved Hermione as a baby.

DAUGHTERS are supposed to adore their daddies. Some fathers do their best to justify that expectation; some, sadly, turn out to disappoint.

Hermione Hennessy has never doubted to which category her late father, singer-songwriter Christie Hennessy, belonged. “He was just the most incredible person,” she says.

When news of Christie’s death from cancer caused by asbestosis broke two Christmases ago, the airwaves were flooded with tributes and an outpouring of grief. RTE’s Liveline was extended by an unprecedented half an hour to facilitate those paying their respects to the artist who Christy Moore described as the “most beautiful of men”.

Most remembered Christie’s good humour, his charm and his warm onstage presence. “Dad had always been quite shy,” says Hermione, “Mum remembers the first time she saw him on stage, cracking jokes and falling off his chair to make the audience laugh, and she thought, ‘My goodness, who IS this man? I’ve been married to him for five years and this is a different person!’ Dad was such a great storyteller and so comfortable with language. And he was so naturally funny.”

Then there were the songs. Some of his seminal tracks were made famous by other people: he wrote the Francis Black hit All The Lies That You Told Me, and Christy Moore’s recording of his Don’t Forget Your Shovel has been described as Ireland’s alternative national anthem. The influential BBC DJ John Peel championed Christie’s music from the early 1970s but it was only with the triple platinum-selling album The Rehearsal in 1992 that Christie - at the age of 47 – found himself in the limelight as a performer.

In the following 15 years, up until his death on December 11, 2007, his gently quavering voice and story-based songs of what Juliet Turner once described as “grief and stars and love” finally put him in his rightful place in the canon of classic Irish balladeers. The public sense of loss was palpable – one can only imagine the private devastation felt by the Ross family (Christie’s original surname; Hennessy was a stage name).

“When Dad died, I was in such a blur,” says Hermione, Christie and wife Jill’s eldest child, his longtime manager and sometime duettist. “I knew people were paying all these wonderful tributes to him, we were aware that it had hit people, but I didn’t want anyone to visit. It was overwhelming.”

Asbestosis is a particularly cruel disease – it has its roots in prolonged exposure to asbestos, a material that was often used in buildings and manufacturing. It often incubates for decades before a virulent cancer develops, aggressively attacking the body. In Christie’s case, it “knocked him for six”. He was diagnosed from the disease and died in the same year. His family believe he contracted it while working on building sites in London in the 1960s like so many young men forced to emigrate from Ireland’s economic wasteland at that time.

“I remember when I was a child, seeing him coming home covered in this white stuff,” says Hermione. “Once the warnings were out there, he wore a mask, he was diligent about it. It took 40 years to incubate and show up. He never drank, smoked, did drugs. He ate well. He was always doing the right thing for other people, and he also did the right thing by himself. So it’s really tragic that he probably got it in his very late teens.”

Hermione is now patron of the Asbestos Forum, offering support and information to others facing the “horrible, horrible” fate that Christie suffered.
She is as softly-spoken as her late father, and her voice drops almost to a whisper when she speaks about the ongoing impact of his loss on the family, her mum and her younger sister and brother, Amber and Ross. “Talking about him will never get easier,” she says, smiling sadly, “but then I have spent most of my life talking about him (as his manager and promoter).

“I said to a girlfriend after he passed - she had lost her mum when she was about 14 – ‘How do you cope with this, does it get any better?’ She said, ‘It doesn’t get any better, you just get more used to it.’
“And that’s the truth. You get used to it but you miss them even more.”

One way of coping has been to throw herself into projects that keep Christie’s memory close. Hermione’s sweet vocal harmonies appear on some of Christie’s best-loved tracks, from Messenger Boy to I Am A Star, but she had always resisted her dad’s encouragement to record her own solo material. Before he died, he wrote out a list of songs he thought would suit her voice.

“The choices in the list were so spot-on,” she says, “He thought I could sing a female version of Hallelujah – and this was way before the Alexandra Burke thing on X-Factor. And he was right as he always was because Dad was a great producer as well as everything else. I started managing Aled Jones at one stage to get dad to produce his album. It worked out so well.”

In May 2008, Hermione went on the Late Late Show to sing Messenger Boy to mark the release of an album of duets Christie recorded just before he died. A busy music industry creative herself (currently working with the likes of Bette Midler and Elaine Paige), she was just off a plane from LA, and was hazy on what was to happen with the performance. “I thought I was going to be duetting or doing backing vocals with this band!” she recalls with a laugh, “They said Christy Moore might come in or Ronan Keating or somebody. Then they went: ‘Get up there and sing’. My heels were too high, I thought I’d fall over on the walk over to Pat (Kenny) after the song; I just thought, ‘Oh God, I’m a disaster’.”

She wasn’t a disaster, of course. She performed beautifully and her friends began to insist that Christie’s instincts had been correct. Nick Stewart, the man who signed U2, gave her the name for the album: “I still wasn’t sure what I was doing or why I was doing it and he just said, ‘Daisy, listen to me, don’t be stupid, it’s Songs My Father Taught Me, isn’t it?’”

So, at the age of 44 – not that the incredibly pretty woman in front of me looks a day of it – she has recorded her first solo album, produced by brother Tim and featuring sister Amber on violin. The final song, Soho Square, a duet written by Christie and featuring his vocals, is particularly moving.

The family affair will continue when Hermione, Tim – also a talented pianist – and Amber take the album on the road next month (SUBS: April). The family already live close to each other in south London, and to their mum. Hermione feels a real sense of purpose to the time they will spend together touring, remembering, healing and enjoying unexpected time together as siblings. She explains: “Tim is 19 years younger than me and Amber is 6 years younger. Mum was 40 when she had Tim, and 19 when she had me so there is the same gap between Tim and me as there is between me and Mum.

“It was really hard having Dad gone and it’s really hard to find your way in your early 20s anyway so I’m delighted for Tim. It’s a lovely thing for us all to be able to do.”

The familial get-up-and-go is clearly inherited from Christie. That album of duets, The Two of Us, was conceived and recorded even as Christie was in his final months. His online diary on shows that he was still touring as late as August 2007, charming all-comers as he went. One night he obliged a wedding party with an impromptu sing-song when they recognised him as he returned to his hotel one night – on another occasion, he found himself playing special requests for an enclosed order of nuns in Ennis, Co Clare when they spotted he was playing the Glor theatre opposite their convent.

His conviviality perhaps stemmed from the fact that he never took his belated success for granted. Christie left school in Co Kerry at the age of 11, an undiagnosed dyslexic, unable to read and write. By 15, he was working on the building sites of London. At night though, he was playing in bands and Hermione remembers him arriving home after a day’s work, washing and changing and heading out again to catch a train or a lift to a gig. At one point he had a breakdown, something she says was “absolutely, definitely down to overwork”.

She adds: “He was always trying to help people by talking about the things that challenged him in his life, including his mental illness. He would answer every letter from every fan.”

Such extraordinary kindness will be remembered for a long time to come. As Hermione sees it, her job now is to ensure his musical legacy is strengthened and carried on. At the time of his death, Christie was signed to a two-record deal and had just finished composing a musical which was to open in the Gaiety in Dublin. As he recorded all his material on to tapes and videos to be transcribed later by someone else, Hermione has been sifting through a mountain of material to rescue his hidden gems.

“It took two years before I felt I could do it,” she says. “I decided I was going to view it quite dispassionately and I spent the time between Christmas and New Year going through them. There are hour upon hour of tapes of him doing all the different characters for his musical, with all the accents. He had an incredible all-round talent.

“There would be bits of him singing, or then talking a bit, it was organised randomness but random. And then right in the middle he would break off and sing Danny Boy, beautifully. Pick up his guitar and sing Messenger Boy.
“Dad had big dreams for stuff, and he had big plans. I hope I can bring some of that to people now. I’m just trying to take it day by day.”

• Songs My Father Taught Me, Hermione Hennessy’s album, is in record shops now. Details of her April tour dates in Ireland are at
• Christie Hennessy’s 1972 debut, The Green Album, has also been re-released through RMGChart – this was the album that brought Hennessy to the attention of John Peel with classics like Messenger Boy and Don’t Get Yourself A Shovel (re-recorded as Don’t Forget Your Shovel by Christy Moore).

A photograph in the CD sleeve of Songs My Father Taught Me has a poignant arrangement of some of Christie's most treasured belongings. Hermione talks us through them...
• Christie’s rosary beads: he was a deeply spiritual man.
• His Superman wallet: “He was obsessed with Superman, he would tell hilarious stories on stage, pretending to be Superman. It was a metaphor of sorts for him, positive and aspirational – that anything is achievable, that we all have some superpowers in us.”
• Desperate Dan figurine: “We would buy him Dandy and Beano annuals for Christmas – he used to get a real kick from them. Not being able to read, he loved comics, the pictures, but he also had a sense of wonder about him, a sense of the child.”
• His most personal belonging; his watch.
• Beatles memorabilia: “Dad was a Rolling Stones fan to begin with, a total Mod in his day, but as he grew older and more into songwriting, he really adored John Lennon.”
• His St Patrick’s Day badge: Decades in London never dimmed Christie’s pride in his Irish upbringing and his native Tralee.
• Christie’s reading glasses: Although his severe dyslexia meant he left school unable to read and write, Christie taught himself to use diagrams to compose music.
• Music box: Hermione bought him this as a present – “He was fascinated by music boxes and sometimes included them on his tracks. He thought they gave a sense of magic.”
• Backstage pass for his The Rehearsal tour: That 1992 album brought him belated commercial success.
• Book of Norman Rockwell posters, a favourite artist – resting on top is his Pioneer badge. A lifelong teetotaler, “he came from a family of drinkers,” says Hermione, “I think, and this is just my guess, that he saw the odd disturbance here and there and decided that wasn’t for him from an early age.”

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