Damien Dempsey played to a room of forty people in the eight o'clock slot at the Hotel Café near Hollywood and Vine last Friday night. James (my significant other---this week, I'm naming him after James Joyce, this is a multiple epiphany piece) battled three hours of rush hour traffic to get up to Los Angeles; then we zig-zagged up surface streets to get to Hollywood.
Damien Dempsey had already started his set, and his song, ‘Negative Vibes', echoed out onto the sidewalk as we paid our twelve bucks and got our hands stamped to go in. We settled at a wobbly table near the bar and procured ourselves our first round of beers. We had made it. We high-fived each other. We were happy.
I first heard Damien Dempsey singing on the jukebox at Rocky Sullivans in New York City a lifetime ago. It was probably 3:35 in the morning most likely on a Thursday night after the quiz. The trivia lovers had cleared out, and the bar had grown quiet. The shadows had become deeper. I liked this time of night the best. All the rowdiness had gone home hours ago, and what was left was a calm like the ocean. You might be rocking back and forth, but there were hidden depths beneath you.
So that night in Rockys, in the dark and quiet, before they got the neon sign, Damien Dempsey's song ‘The Colony' came out of the jukebox. It growled in the shadows at the back of the bar like something wild with a rough guitar. I had never heard that voice before, yet it seemed right and familiar.
Later, when I heard the song without the beer accompaniment, I realized the song was about empire building and the destruction empires bring upon their colonies. The song begins in Ireland but expands outward to the whole world. In this expansion, the song breaks its own form and explodes into lyric poetry.
However, that night in Rockys, I wasn't thinking structurally or lyrically. My hyper-educated mind was turned off. I just heard a voice in the darkness, and I liked what I heard.
‘Who's that singing?' I asked the bartender.
‘Damien.' He said.
Like most things gleaned late in the night, Damien and his song moved into my unconscious brain. Years later, in Los Angeles, when I was working a lame ass office job in a freezing office while wondering why exactly I had left New York in the first place, I did some nostalgic web surfing. The web is a great network for nostalgia. Someone somewhere is bound to remember the same shit you do. On the Rockys website (where you can STILL find old trivia photos), there was a notice that Damien Dempsey was playing there. More pointing and clicking led me to a song sample on a record store website.
I started playing his music in the car. It was good driving music and grounded me in the bright shining fluffiness of LA. A lot of the songs have a reggae beat to them, so I nodded my head up and down in time to the music. A lot of the songs were about going through shit and coming out with a positive outlook. I could relate to the songs. There's a song called ‘Cursed with a Brain' about being a thinking person in the world today. How can we think when we're told not to? His songs have dark humor but not defeated irony. He has song called ‘It's All Good' and not a song called ‘It All Sucks'.
One Christmas, James and I were driving up to Northern California to see my family. I was driving, and James was dozing. Damien Dempsey was playing on the CD player with the sound low as we reached the end of the freeway. James suddenly sat up and turned up the volume. Something had caught his ear.
‘This is great, Jen, he's talking about history.' James said as if he had just discovered the new world---or was it the old world.
Apparently, in Ireland, Damien Dempsey became a big deal. His album went platinum. He sold out a thousand seat venue in Dublin. When we were in Ireland one trip, one of James's friends was surprised that I had heard of Damien Dempsey. His response was the Irish equivalent of ‘whoah'.
The stage at the Hotel Café was set up in the corner of the room with red curtains all around it. It reminded me of a lecture I once went to where the playwright Maria Irene Fornes pondered why theatre curtains must always be red. Passion? Blood? Sacred Space? I don't know. A few years later, I saw a great play she wrote called The Summer in Gossensass in which an actress obsessed with Ibsen's Hedda Gabler stands in front of a deep red curtain. Seeing the red curtains, I thought of the Fornes play, and a Fornes play is always a very good thing to think about.
Damien Dempsey stood up on the stage with his accompanist, Eamon, who played keyboards, bodhran, pipe, and flute. Eamon had really nice shoulder length hair. Damien Dempsey held his acoustic guitar like a gun---very strong, you wouldn't dare take it from him. He was tall, stocky but fit with crew cut hair and a baby face (what is it with the Irish and great skin, James has great skin too). The fashionista in me has to add that he wore a black shirt (ironed) and dark blue jeans. The sum of his parts might not seem to add up at first. Shouldn't he be more brooding and less accessible? Shouldn't his hair be long? Maybe the sum added up by not adding up, and image is really just who you are. . .even in Hollywood.
James and I sang along with the songs. We were in our happy place. James and I are good at being goof-cadets together. We might seem weird, but I think the positivity of our energy comes through. Many in the crowd didn't know what to make of this guy, and some of his songs seemed awfully depressing. Still, it was a polite crowd.
Then, he sang ‘The Colony'. It started off like every other song. People were milling about. There was some bar noise. When the lyric got spoken and aggressive, the room got quieter and quieter. He got the crowd. He was on a stage in a corner chanting with his eyes closed, and the whole room came to him. He was the eight o'clock act, and he had won the room.
After the set ended, James got us another round of beers (third round, perhaps) and went out for a smoke. I stood by the wall with two bottles of beer and a clock in my sightline. I drank my beer and waited. Twenty minutes went by. I finished my beer. The room was filling up for the next act. Twenty-five minutes. I started drinking James's beer. What was he smoking? I walked to the back door. James was not with the other smokers. Where did James go? Had he left and joined the circus?
Then, I got a feeling about where he was. James is a talker. He loves to talk with people and share stories and jokes. He's a very good talker as well. He's probably talking with Damien Dempsey, I thought. I drank more of his beer. More people came in, and I realized the only way for James to find me again was to be where I said I'd be.
Sure enough, James showed up. He didn't mind that I was drinking his beer. He was glowing. Jamo had been talking with Damo and Eamo and the tour manager guy. Since the next act was starting, we went into the back lounge. James giddily told me the story of his smoke break while we sat in a shadowy booth with a tea candle on the table. I was happy for him.
‘Would you like to meet Damien Dempsey, Jen, he's right over there.' James said. Sure enough, right over there was the source of the voice in the darkness only this time he was standing under a light and I was sitting in shadows. Suddenly reality got very heavy and very vacuous at the same time. Maybe it was the beer.
Damien Dempsey was surrounded by about a half dozen people. James dragged me over, and I stood at the edge of the circle. There was one couple (he was Irish, she American) with a camera who wanted a picture.
‘Stay within the red square' was the phrase I remember about them. I think they were talking about the camera, not Russia.
There was another couple (he was Irish, she American, gosh, do you see a trend here?). They were also from Orange County. They had also fought THE traffic. The guy was wearing a bright green Ireland rugby shirt. The guy called Damo the Irish Bob Marley, then asked for the four dollars extra he had spent on an import CD. James reached into his pocket and offered him four dollars which he did not accept. Then, James introduced me to his good buddy, Damo, and we got to talking about Rockys and all that stuff.
‘You know, that's how Shane MacGowan heard me, he heard ‘The Colony' on the jukebox at Rockys.' Damien Dempsey said. Those probably weren't his exact words. I think I was two-fisting bottles of Corona at this point. I do remember Damien was across from me with two bottles of lager at the same time.
‘Wow, that's great. Yeah, I have all my teeth.' I said grinning a toothy grin. I'm not sure if I should be honored or scared that certain synapses in my brain operate like Shane MacGowan's brain. By the way, I do have all my teeth---even the wisdom ones. I've never had time, energy, or cash to get them pulled. Sometimes, they hurt like a jackhammer, but enough about my pain.
It should also be noted that the Pogues were playing the Wiltern down on Wilshire the very same Friday night. Their tickets were fifty bucks. Some of James's friends went to the show. I wonder if they got T-shirts.
Back at the Hotel Café, I tried to exercise restraint in choosing my words. It's undignified to babble lots of praise. It's like you are isolating that person. I don't know you, but you are above me, so we can't have a conversation on any level without shouting. Maybe too, by praising others, we praise ourselves. I think you're great, so I am great for thinking you are great. But, then again, why am I writing this if not to praise? Uggggggg, I suck. Wait, let me get back on track. So there with the crowd in the back room of the Hotel Café, I went kind of quiet. I think I might of talked boxing, but that probably was the beer talking. Yeah, any takers, fightcha with one hand behind my back.
In the presence of the Irish Rock Star, James became a rock star to me. He was kind and polite. He had grace and brought back another round of beers. He was funny and took nothing too seriously. So yes, this is the gushing I-love-my-boyfriend paragraph.
I worry about having an I-love-my-boyfriend paragraph. It might mean the beginning of the end. I am suspicious of the highs going too high because that means the lows can go way low. I try to maintain an even keel. Still, we were happy that night, we were happy, we were happy, we were happy. Woohoo!
We hung out a little while longer. I talked to a very nice lady who designs clothes, so I put all those hours of watching Project Runway to good use. I could ask about lines and stuff. James and I left and decided to hunt down a cup of coffee in Hollywood. James's giddiness had really opened up, and he was using ‘fuckin' as an adverb. Come to think of it, I was too.
As we walked up Cahuenga, we bumped into two very good friends, a couple we hadn't seen in ages. I now understand the whole couples being friends with other couples thing. It's twice the fun. Our couple friends were going to the eleven o'clock act at the Hotel Café. We were still stamped from earlier, so we joined them. The night kept going, and James and I were loving life even though the eleven o'clock act seemed to play the same song over and over again.
The other couple and ourselves went and ate bad pizza at the corner pizza place. You can not get good pizza in LA. After we said good night to them, we walked up the street to the 7-11 to get some coffee for Jen and cigarettes for James.
As we sat out on the pavement, two young guys came up to us. They were young twenty-somethings with all their dreams still intact. One wore a shark's tooth necklace on a leather string.
‘Oh, we're gong to Dublin next month. We have our tickets already.' They sang to us. They were so happy. Their night was just beginning. It was all just beginning for them.
On Sunday morning, I got up early because my mind was running. A dense marine layer of fog sat around the house. The sky was white, and everything else looked far away---like it was in a haze. The air was wet and cool. It was quiet except for the seconds ticking on the clock in the kitchen. For a few seconds, the Southern California air felt like parts of Ireland I had been to. I got up from writing this and got another cup of coffee.
If you are still reading this, you are awesome.
To learn more about Damien Dempsey, his website is here.
If you want to see a great picture of red curtains, go here