The musicians first got together to write about their memories of playing gigs in the 1970s and 1980s.
Together, they created a glossary of musicians’ lingo from the era.
The clarinet was a “liquorice stick”, the guitar the “axe”, the “box” or the “hurley”.
Irish ballads were known as “black puddin’ music”, while “green” referred to rebel songs. For some, the audience at showband gigs were dubbed “sheep”.
The first Tuesday of every month was children’s allowance day. That was usually a big night out, known as “mickey money day”.
While chatting to the other musicians about his memories at those gatherings, which were organised by the creative-writing organisation Fighting Words, Bill Whelan coined a new term too, “the Jimmy”.
“In every band that I ever knew, there was always a Jimmy,” says Whelan, sitting at a round table in a small office in the Fighting Words creative-writing centre near Croke Park.
“That was someone who was very, very talented but had to be babysat, effectively,” he says.
If the others didn’t collect him for a gig, he might not show up. He could arrive with an empty guitar case or without his trousers.
“Once you mentioned it, everyone said, ‘Yeah, we had a Jimmy too,’” says Whelan.
Fighting Words had brought the 12 musicians together so they could write their memoirs, for a new book out next month called That’s When the Sparks Fly.
Four of them went further, breaking off to also write a short play, about this common anti-hero, “The Jimmy”.
“I was more involved in folk music, but I wanted to be a rock and roller,” says Whelan, laughing, with his hands clasped in front of him.
He played Appalachian string-band music and trad. “I slapped the double bass,” he says. “I got away with murder.”
Playing it that way served as percussion, he says.
He also worked as a promoter, he says, and wrote music columns for Hot Press and In Dublin.
Next to him is Paul Hickey, who played in The Alsatians in the late 1970s and early 1980s. “We were a punk, reggae-influenced band,” he says smiling.
The Alsatians finished up around 1986, he says. These days Hickey teaches music and plays some rock gigs in pubs, he says.
Tony Boylan joins in by Zoom from his home office in Wicklow. He is now a project manager, but back in the day he wrote music and played “guitar, banjo, mandolin that type of thing”, he says.
Boylan was in a Cajun band called Big Mistake, he says.
Wally Page wrote the lyrics and Boylan wrote the music. They had a hit single called “Hey Paddy” about the Guildford Four, he says.
Another musician, Danny Tobin, was also involved in writing the play, “The Jimmy” too, says Colm Quearney, the development and outreach worker at Fighting Words.
It was Quearney who asked the musicians to get together to write their memoirs.
“Danny is a pure blues guitarist, he’s a great craftsman,” says Boylan.
The other band members had to collect the Jimmy for every gig, or else they might not show up.
“They were never even ready when you went to collect them,” says Whelan.
“You might have to shave them,” says Hickey, laughing.
“You knock at the door,” says Whelan, rapping the air with his fist. “You shout up to the window,” he says, looking up.
“I’m just getting up now. I’ll have a cup of tea and be down in a minute,” he says.
The Jimmy didn’t care that he was holding up other people, or disrupting them. They somehow attracted people willing to pick up after them, says Whelan.
“Jimmies would never take responsibility, if they created a disaster they would just wander away,” he says.
They always knew how to dodge work too, says Hickey. “Everybody would turn up on time and start setting up equipment,” he says. But the Jimmy would be missing.
Packing up the gear at the end of the night was always a big job, says Boylan.“You look around and he hasn’t done anything,” he says, smiling and shaking his head.
The Jimmy is grabbing a last pint, smoking, or chatting up a woman, he says. “Everyone else has hauled all the gear, dismantled everything,” says Boylan.
“And he’ll always say, ‘Ah sure it’ll be cool,’” says Whelan. “Sure, in the Jimmy’s world everything was cool.”
Says Hickey: “The great term was, ‘Ah sure, you know me man.’”
Boylan recalls playing support to a big international band and there were freebies for the band in the dressing room, a bowl of fruit and three six-packs of beer.
“The Jimmy in that band – we had just walked in, we still had our coats on – he put all three six-packs in his bag and the fruit,” says Boylan.
For the Stage
John Grogan, a playwright who volunteers in Fighting Words, helped them to structure the play, says Hickey. He and Boylan worked out the lines by playing the two main characters and improvising.
The play is set in the 1970s. “There is the Jimmy and the guy who is at the end of his tether with him,” says Whelan.
The other guy, Tommy, has been ignoring his family because he spends so much time looking after the Jimmy.
The Jimmy always has a woman looking after him too, says Whelan. At first his mother, sometimes later a wife or girlfriend.
There is one Jimmy that they all knew. “His mammy looked after him and brought him breakfast in bed,” says Boylan, the real-life characters morphed together into the character in the play.
“Tommy would come home from work and Jimmy is still lying in bed smoking dope and giving out that his mother is late with his dinner,” says Boylan.
In the play, Tommy and Jimmy’s band gets a chance to play the Late Late Show, and with it a shot at fame and maybe even a record deal.
Tommy is the main organiser of the band and is stuck selling electrical equipment in his day job, so he sees the Late Late Show as a massive opportunity.
This is a make-or-break moment, says Boylan.
Often for musicians in their 30s, “they have to let go of this dream of having a record deal or big concerts”, he says.
“The frustration here is that Tommy knows that Jimmy has the skills to make it happen but he keeps fucking it up,” he says.
Jimmy doesn’t care at all about the Late Late Show gig. He says that the cameraman will have to film him from the waist-up only – because he has lost his trousers.
This, says Boylan, was inspired by a real-life experience.
His band was touring the UK, playing the Irish clubs there and they got put up in a nice hotel, with all the mod cons.
He was stuck sharing with the Jimmy, who was smoking dope most of the night, he says.
The next day the rest of the band got into the van. The Jimmy arrived last as usual, got on the bus and said, ‘Hey man, can you find me trousers?’ Boylan says.
“He had cowboy boots on, his bare legs, it was like December, a sheepskin coat down to his knees, it was hilarious looking,” he says.
He had forgotten that he had put his trousers in the hotel room trouser press, says Boylan.
Hickey and Boylan will read the play, The Jimmy, at the launch of the book, That’s When the Sparks Fly, in the New Theatre, in Temple Bar on 27 April.