Some men may very well be from Venus
From the planet Venus, Aidan Walsh, the self-proclaimed "Master of the Universe", was arguably Ireland's first pop-art celebrity. Feted by media and TV types, you'd see him during the 1980s riding a big, white horse in St Stephen's Green, publicising his latest venture - be it a new record, plans for a new hotel or the simple matter of building nuclear bunkers under the river Liffey. Nobody quite seemed to be reading from the script when it came to Walsh and his 15 minutes of Dublin fame - was it a Warholian style "happening", a Situationist statement or a sick media joke?
For the past four years, bright spark filmmaker Shimmy Marcus has worked on a documentary detailing the life and times of the terminal eccentric. From his harrowing upbringing in Co Cork through to his pop career in the late 1980s and on to his various business ventures, the film is an attempt to unravel the many strands of the Walsh story. It's about as close we'll ever come to a real answer.
There's some very delicate ground to be trodden here. Supporters of Walsh claim to have his best interests at heart, that they genuinely loved him and were moved by the apparent profundity of his musical work. Others find the whole episode unsavoury, wondering aloud if there was any integrity involved in the Walsh project. There is no middle ground. Where Marcus's film works best is in its depiction of Walsh's background - the sort of nightmarish institutionalised Irish upbringing which, sadly, is still a fact of life for many young people in this country. Where the film veers off track is in quotes from those who claim there is no real difference between Walsh and Bono.
Aidan Walsh was born in Dublin in 1954, never knowing his mother or father. At a young age, he was sent to the Lota school in Glanmire, Cork where he poignantly remembers being "totally forgotten about". After failed attempts to join both the Irish army and the navy, he arrived in Dublin, hoping to become a film-maker. Not having much luck, he decided his best way to the top of the heap was to act on his inalienable right to be "Master of the Universe" by becoming a pop star.
He didn't fit the conventional bill. A true absurdist with his own distinctive speech pattern, dress sense and world-view, he described himself as an "interesting opera singer". At that time in Dublin (the mid1980s), the city was awash with international record company A&R types, all stalking music venues hoping to sign the "next U2".
One such British A&R man, from the independent Kaleidoscope Records label, happened to be in a bar one night when Walsh took to the stage to perform his own original interpretation of the Hokey Cokey. He was signed on the spot, one of the few people ever to get a recording contract after a mere three-minute audition.
Walsh was quickly embraced by musical men-around-town Simon Carmody (ex-The Golden Horde) and Gavin Friday (ex-The Virgin Prunes), who produced his debut album A Life Story Of My Life - an eclectic collection of original Walsh compositions that lived up to his absurdist standards. Largely autobiographical, the album featured the songs Community Games (about Walsh's love of the youth sporting event) and Kissing and Eating with Woman (all about the perils of making love on an empty stomach).
A group of supporters known as "honorary eagles" gathered around Walsh, including the DJs Dave Fanning and Gerry Ryan. Both interviewed in the film, they seem a bit bemused now, more than 10 years down the line, by their involvement. "If people were to say was I getting more out of my involvement with Aidan than he was from me, then to be honest I'd have to say yes," admits Ryan, who points out that the only person who questioned his involvement with Walsh was Bono, who asked if the whole Walsh project was "healthy and correct".
Once the pop-star game was up - the records didn't sell - Walsh involved himself with a rehearsal room for rock bands in the then pre-developed Temple Bar. Walsh lived in a tent on the roof of a building and had an atypical way of allowing musicians entrance to rehearse - he would take a photo of them, tear it into two, keep one half for himself and ensure that the musician had to have the other matching half on him at all times to gain admittance.
He went on dreaming his dreams, one of the most fanciable being to turn the old McBirney's building on Dublin's quays (now the Virgin Megastore) into Ireland's first rock 'n' roll hotel. Walsh's plan was to build an underground tunnel from the hotel to the airport so rock stars could get straight into the hotel, where they would be greeted by the general manager, Simon Carmody. On hearing that Richard Branson was planning to buy the building, he went to the bank seeking a £3 million loan for his hotel plan. He was indignant when they turned him down.
Operating on his life-long principle that "any publicity is good publicity", he then ran against Bertie Ahern in the Dublin Central constituency, where he picked up 43 votes. He tried to start a video filming business (which floundered after he forgot to put a cassette in the recorder for his first job - a "high-society" wedding). He now runs a "new band showcase" night in the Temple Bar Music Centre, in between having his photograph taken by visiting US rock bands.
The story within the story, though, is how the film crew follows him back to the Lota school where he wants to find out more about his background and if his parents are still alive. The staff produce his file and piece together as much of his early life as they can. It's sad and unsettling to see the man reading his personal details, then turning to the camera, saying: "there should be more documents about me, but there aren't". He makes repeated references to "bad things" that happened at the school, saying at one point that some of the people there were "hypocrites - they'd rape you during the week and then go to mass on Sunday".
Whether this film is the end of the Aidan Walsh story or merely the first instalment remains a moot point. Director Shimmy Marcus has made an engaging and moving feature. It's everything you ever wanted to know about Aidan Walsh without having your mind made up for you.
Aidan Walsh - Master of the Universe runs at the Irish Film Centre from October 27th to November 2nd