An Irishman’s Diary about the late Phil Chevron
‘I couldn’t but recall that Phil Chevron was the only singer I have ever seen booed off an Irish stage. It happened in Dublin’s National Stadium in the early 1980s. And it was all the more shocking because it was one of the first concerts I ever attended in the city.’ Above, Chevron speaking at the Olympia Theatre earlier this year, when a range of musicians and writers gathered to honour him. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Amid the many deserved accolades for the late Phil Chevron this week, I couldn’t but recall that he was also the only singer I have ever seen booed off an Irish stage. It happened in Dublin’s National Stadium in the early 1980s. And it was all the more shocking because it was one of the first concerts I ever attended in the city.
Yes I’d heard stories about perfectionist urban audiences howling down performers who didn’t meet their standards. It’s just that such things typically happened at operas, and in places like Milan or Palermo, or other hot-blooded Italian cities where perceived mistreatment of a Verdi aria is considered grounds for justifiable homicide.
And all right, Dublin too had a famous tradition of theatre riots. But that was from another era, when national feelings ran high, and before Irish audiences learned to behave themselves.
By the 1980s, if anything, they were too well behaved, and they remain so today. It’s rare to see open hostility towards a performer, however poor. As a people, we prefer to express dissatisfaction by grumbling in the pub afterwards, or in extreme cases ringing Joe Duffy.
Yet there was no such restraint shown that night to Phil Chevron. His difficulties began, I suppose, because it wasn’t his show: he was only the support act.
But there was also a dramatic mismatch between him and the main performers, Moving Hearts: then in their earliest incarnation, complete with charismatic front man (Christy Moore), fiery politics (republican), and all the multi-instrumental virtuosity they would retain in later years when they dropped songs and singers from their repertoire.
They were a big act, in every sense. Whereas Chevron was performing solo, on vocals and piano. Also, rather than his old Radiators material, or his later classics like Faithful Departed (a Moving Hearts standard), he confined himself to singing songs from a 1929 German musical, Happy End, by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill.
And the audience hated it. Perhaps the first one or two numbers were endured in respectful silence. Then came the advance warnings of impatience: a whistle here, a heckle there. After that, the floodgates of vitriol opened.
When I say he was “booed off”, I don’t mean he left early. On the contrary, he endured the catcalls manfully and, so far as I know, delivered his full set. I think I was more traumatised than he was, because it’s a scary experience seeing a performer eviscerated, even verbally. It’s just a little too live for comfort.
Yet it didn’t seem to take anything out of Chevron, who filled the allotted time, and then doffed his hat in a stylishly theatrical bow before sauntering off.
There was no question of an encore – although I’ve been at less entertaining concerts since where at least some of the audience have obligingly demanded the encore they knew was planned anyway, and then betrayed their boredom only by not calling on the performer to return a second time.
But even so, the singer had the last word. Not in person – his relationship with the audience precluded any witty repartee. Instead it was a comment made backstage to the aforementioned Moore, who relayed it when he came on later. Chevron wasn’t feeling too bad about the show, Christy informed us, because “he says the songs got the same reaction when they were first performed, in pre-war Germany”. Ouch.
That was true, by the way. The debut production of Happy End, in Berlin in 1929, closed after six performances. Brecht and Weill fell out over it and Elisabeth Hauptmann, who had written most of the lyrics, disowned the play. When it was next performed, in the US, the librettist credited was a fictional “Dorothy Lane”.
Anyway, Phil Chevron will now live on in his songs, as do Brecht and Weill in theirs. In fact, the work of the latter pair is undergoing something of a Dublin revival this autumn. The Threepenny Opera has an extended run until November 16th at the Gate. And now, next month, comes a production of Brecht’s solo play, The Life of Galileo, at a very unusual venue.
Dunsink Observatory is not normally associated with drama (although it knows a bit about showcasing the stars). It will, however, be an apt stage for Brecht’s play about the conflict between science and religion, produced by the Greenwood Theatre Company, in a new version by David Hare. The piece runs for three nights next month, presented by the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies as a prelude to Science Week. More details are at dias.ie