Ferdia Mac Anna has been in the corner of the public eye for as long as I can remember. He has done so much over the years: television, journalism, novels, and Bald Head - his 1988 account of surviving cancer that its sometimes difficult to remember what came first. As this memoir makes clear, what came first was rock n roll. And so enjoyable is Mac Annas retelling of it that its tempting to believe that what has come since has been a series of solo projects while were waiting for the band to re-form. For people like me, who were wide-eyed, gig-going teenagers in early 1980s Dublin, Ferdia MaC Anna is still Rocky De Valera, wild-limbed front man of The Gravediggers, and then, most famously, The Rhythm Kings.
The Last of the Bald Heads covers more ground than that, though, ranging over most of Mac Annas life so far in an easywgoing, engaging style, which generates plenty of whole-hearted laughters, and some surprisingly moving moments. Mac Anna, who seems to have a knack for cheating death in much the same way that global rock stardom had a knack for cheating him opens his story in 1985, with a startling and unsettling account of coming to in a hospital bed after a brain haemorrhage He can remember nothing. Only very slowly does a sense of himself return, as details come back. his name, his wifes name, his work. Mac Anna then winds back the clock and takes us into a more conventional chronology. But the opening lends a delicacy and fragility to what follows, as if his me-mories have been rescued, saved, like photographs from a house fire.
Mac Anna grows up in an artistic, even bohemian household, mostly in Howth, and mostly in frustration at the eccentricities of his mother and the regular absences of his writer/director father, Tomás, associated for many years with the Abbey Theatre. Mac Anna does a very good kob indeed of gently revealing the complexities of his parents. They baffle him as a child, and the bafflement is understandable, and often very funny. His mother makes up stories about him, telling everyone that hes a model son, and inventing all kinds of achievements of. which he has no knowledge. His father is impressive and mysterious and given to odd impulsive acts such as driving his car through the closed wooden gates of their home, because hes fed up stopping to open them.
His Christian Brothers education at Coláiste Mhuire is as awful as you can get, with some psychologically malformed Brothers meting out violence and abuse and bigotry. But Mac, Anna is loyal to his younger self, and there is no retrospective self-pity. The anger that comes through is the anger he felt at the time - and it is all the more powerful for that. Mac Annas escape is through the friendships he forms, and through writing. He writes an astonishing number of storybooks with his pals, basing them on television characters or American comics or James Bond. A little back-of-the-class literary club is formed, eventually breaking down, inevitably but hilariously, into factions and back-biting and squabbling.
If writing is one driving force, music is at least its equal. After Mac Anna leaves school for UCD - his newfound sense of freedom coinciding with the arrival of punk - its music that takes over his life. This is the best of the book: the accounts of early gigs; meeting up and falling out with a succession of disastrous musicians and managers; the search for the all-important perfect name in a world where nobody had a real name; the birth, in a shed in Howth, of
Rocky De Valera and the Gravediggers; the drink, the tours with The Rhythm Kings in vans that always break down; the parties and the arguments and the girls; and underneath it all the constant hope that somehow, just maybe, they might make it. They never quite do. But in his loving chronicle, Mac Anna has created a valuable document of a demented time. Anyone whos ever been in a band will recognise and relish it.
There are other things too, of course: a revealing account of working on The Late Late Show; the satisfyingly squalid summers spent in London; perfect recreations of the.Dandelion Market, and of being intimidated by the punks in the doorway of Advance Records and cameo appearances by all sorts - from Brush Sheils to to Duchess of Argyll. And at the end, its back to hospital, and an abbreviated retelling of his encounter with cancer, and his recovery.
Whats most impressive is Mac Annas loyalty. I dont mean his loyalty to others (though thats hinted at, not so much in what he tells us, but in what he doesnt), but to the previous versions of himself. There is no attempt to put an older, wiser voice into the head of the boy or the teenager or the rock-n-roll singer that he has been. As a result, the writing is fresh, honest, straightforward, and very entertaining.
He mightnt go by the same name these days, but Rocky De Valera still knows how to pull off a great gig.
[Keith Ridgway is the author of, most recently, The Parts. He used to play bass in Friends of the Family.]