This article was first published on CLUAS in July 2008
Interview with 'Irish Jack' Lyons
An interview 'Irish Jack' Lyons, The Who's unofficial fifth member...
It was while living as a young man in London in the Sixties that something extraordinary happened to Corkman Jack Lyons. While they were still unknowns, he befriended legendary rock band The Who and went on to become their unofficial 'fifth' member. Furthermore, 'Irish Jack' became the acknowledged inspiration for Pete Townshend's classic film and album Quadrophenia.
Jack left London in 1968 and returned to Cork where he has lived ever since but has remained in close contact with the surviving members of the band, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey. It was through his job there as a postman that he came to know another band that would go on leave their mark in their own unique way, The Frank And Walters. As an early cheerleader and mentor for the band, they returned the favour by asking him to write a book about them. The result 'A Renewed Interest In Reading' is out now.
Below, Jack describes how he always knew Ashley Keating and brothers Niall and
Paul Linehan would go on to great things as the Frank And Walters but he also
entertainingly recalls his friendship with
The Who, his long 'raging'
discussions with Pete Townshend, drinking late into the night with Keith Moon
and how the tears welled up in his eyes when The Who played last year in his
hometown of Cork. Jack will also be doing a reading about his experiences at DJ
Dandelion's 2nd birthday party on Friday, 4th July at the Sugar Club, Dublin.
Jack, your book on the Frank And Walters 'A Renewed Interest In Reading' is an entertaining overview of one of the truly great Irish bands, The Frank and Walters. Could you give us a little history of your relationship with the band?
Since I was the Frank And Walters postman for many years I was there when they first started to form the band and I knew them as young fellas. I used to deliver letters to the Linehans and Keatings in Glencairn Estate in Bishopstown and spent a lot of time talking and listening to their ideas (no wonder my letter delivery took so long!). I soon discovered that Paul, Niall and Ashley were, not only very knowledgable when it came to knowing what they wanted to do, but they also possessed a spark of originality and imagination. They were very, very down to earth and not at all swayed by the star system. They never wanted to form a band to be 'rock stars' - they couldn't be that if they tried - but they did want to form a band because they believed in a dream. And that dream was to write some great songs and perform them in public. Everything else after that was a bonus. That's precisely what made me want to write this book. I was their postman, mentor, adviser, cheer-leader and bill deliverer, and it wouldn't have worked with any other band.
You knew Ashley, Paul and Niall from when they were young but you also appear to be genuine fan of the band they became. What attracted you to their music?
I think what really attracted me to their music was the simplicity. The Frank And Walters write about life in old exercise copy books. They've never really grown up. They're still forming themselves in the sense that their songs are the stuff of young people still at school, the stuff of young fellas and girls in their first jobs and which further evolves into the stuff of fellas who are now married pushing buggies around town on a Saturday with their wives and safe in the knowledge that the band they danced to in the mosh-pit at Sir Henry's all those years ago are still the Frank And Walters. You'll see all these people at their gigs and hopefully they'll buy 'A Renewed Interest In Reading'. The Franks are everybody's band because their songs envelope a community spirit of thought and action.
How did the initial process begin for the the book?
I got a phone call from Paul two years ago and it's been a labour of love ever since. I never wanted to do this book initially. I feared that someday, because of our talks at the gate and me holding a bundle of letters and all the encouragement I had given the band, that I would draw this on myself. When Paul phoned to ask me if I would be interested in writing the book I said, 'I knew I'd get this phone call from you some day.' He and Ashley told me nobody else could write the book because I'd been their postman. I fell for it and I'm still trying to work out the logic behind what they said. They're very surreal. A bit like Frank And Walter.
Do you think the Frank and Walters have had an influential effect on the Cork music scene?
The Frank And Walters have had an enormous effect on the Cork music scene - and beyond. Their mainstay is that they have the ability to reach so many divergent people - and all ages. Don't forget they were, and still are, the only band to come out of Cork and appear on the iconic Top Of The Pops with 'After All' - no other band from here has done that. In my book, I relate to the amazing number of current name-checked people who actually supported the Frank And Walters and were very glad to do so. People like Radiohead, Suede, PJ Harvey. Even Noel Gallagher of Oasis was their roadie on a UK tour. I think the main effect the Frank And Walters have had on musicians in Cork is how they're able to show other bands that it can be done. That you can start from nowhere and achieve something worthwhile. But like everything else in this life it takes belief and sweat and toil.
Moving on to your time with The Who in the Sixties, what was that like? It must have been an incredible experience to be such a close confidante with one of the pivotal bands of that era.
It was the most exciting time of my life, in fact. Because becoming a Mod changed me completely into this 'other' Jack bursting to get out. Before that I had been a very naive young lad from Cork growing up in London, then I met Pete Townshend in the summer of 1962 and we became friends very quickly and suddenly I was a well-plumed peacock Mod whom Paul Weller would've been proud of and I discovered my whole life had gone into overdrive. Pete Townshend and I talked a lot about religion, style, music, philosophy and more religion (he was a supporter of Young Communists at the time) and we used to have these raging discussions. Unbeknownst to me, he was collecting all this information about me and using my character and, of course, my Irish eccentricity, as a catalyst or springboard for his songwriting.
What were they like as individuals? We all have this image of Keith Moon as the archetypal 'live fast, die young' rock 'n' roll hellraiser. Was he like that ALL the time?
They certainly didn't have much respect for each other. What people don't realise is that Roger Daltrey and Keith Moon came from a working-class background, whereas John Entwistle and Pete Townshend were middle-class. If Roger had never formed The Detours, and had continued to work in the Goldhawk Road as a sheet metal fabricator, people like Pete Townshend and John Entwistle would never have been in his social circle. Their backgrounds were so different. Roger knew all the local villains in Shepherd's Bush - people you avoided like Georgie Harding, Norman Foreman and Reggie Chapel. He was a hard nut, Roger, and like all low-sized gentlemen, harboured a fantastic grudge towards anyone almost a foot taller, especially middle class 'prats' (as he would say!) like Pete Townshend from Ealing Common. Roger's idea of discussing band tactics in the old days - even when we had our old drummer Doug Sandom who preceded Keith Moon - was that if you didn't agree with Roger's wishes you were liable to get a bunch of fives.
John Entwistle was a thorough gentleman. He worked across the street from me in Acton High Street with his mother Queenie in the Acton Tax Office at Bromyard Avenue. John was the only member of the band classically trained. He could read and write music and could play French horn and trumpet. He never wanted to get involved in band squabbles, all he wanted to do was just play. He was a truly gifted musician and some American magazine some years ago voted him the bass player of the millennium. I phoned him up and told him, he was a bit embarrassed but quickly gathered himself and asked 'Is there some kind of monetary reward in this?'
Pete could be very moody and still is to this day. The strange thing is that he adopted me as the band's mascot and treated me as if I was his younger brother, yet I was two years older than him. He could be as rude as f**k but inside was a heart of gold.
Keith Moon lived on Chaplain Road in Wembley. There's a lot of stuff completely
exaggerated about Keith, like driving a Lincoln Continental into a swimming pool
at Peter Noone of Herman's Hermits birthday in Flint, Michigan and then all that
stuff about Keith throwing televisions from a twelfth floor hotel window but
what most people don't realise, and I say this in all my interviews, is that
Keith was a genius when it came to comedy. He was a natural. When Keith guested
on BBC Radio with John Walters back in the Seventies he did a weekly half hour
show and thousands of listeners wrote to the BBC begging them to have Keith back
for another series. He was an extraordinarily funny man but was rarely placed in
his true context as a mimic and story teller. People only wanted to hear about
smashing up his drum-kit, hotels and Lincoln Continentals. That was the sad part
about it. I have seen Keith Moon get physically sick in the toilet twenty
minutes before going on stage. I've been with Keith drinking at three in the
morning in a hotel private bar and the odd time there was just me and him and
we're sitting there together and he's still calling me 'Dear Boy' and everything
coming out of him with an Oxford accent, and I'm there with him and I'm
saying...'Keith, this is Irish Jack mate, I've known you since you were with the
Beachcombers in 1963, y'know, you don't have to do all that stuff with me.' And
he'd say something completely ludicrous like 'Jack, old darling, the lights are
going out all over Britain (Churchill)...because people haven't paid their
electricity bills. Waiter!!' People say that Keith was never going to live to a
ripe old age. I disagree. If he had been usefully employed in what he was really
good at in radio or television, and kept away from substances, he'd be alive
today. Now and again that old British comedian and actor Norman Wisdom comes on
Sky News at a royal garden fete or something and he does his famous foot trip
and I look at him and I can see Keith Moon and in a strange Messianic way Norman
Wisdom is Keith Moon continued.
Do you have a favourite Who song or album? What live gig of theirs really sticks in your mind all these years later?
That's an easy one. It has to be our very first hit 'I Can't Explain' January 1965. Album: well, what do you expect other than Quadrophenia? There are so many special gigs in my memory that for some reason have left an indelible mark. Possibly Keith Moon's last performance in May 1978 with the Who at Shepperton Film Studios just before he died, when we were filming 'The Kids Are Alright' He had put on a few unwelcome pounds but for some reason managed to bring himself to an unexpected performing level. Chemicals?..I dunno. He put in a fantastic performance and at parts it looked like the old Keith Moon was back. I'm actually in the footage standing at the side of the stage leaning against the band's drinks fridge. During 'Won't Get Fooled Again' when they sing the line...'And the morals that we worship will be gone' the camera pans to the right of the screen and on the word 'gone' there I am in my cricket whites, red tee-shirt under my grandfather's zip cardigan in a pair of Doctor Martens holding the mandatory can of beer, then four lines later they sing 'And the men who spurred us on sit in judgment of all wrong' The camera pans back again to the right of the screen and there I am again...still looking for another beer on the word 'wrong'. So the key words to one man's immortality are 'Gone'... 'Wrong'.
Do you think the recent reunion was a good idea? Were you impressed by 'Endless Wire' and the recent gigs?
I think the reunion was the best thing that ever happened to The Who. That point was driven home to me when I saw them play the Cork Marquee last year on June 30th. It was a big family day for us and the band backstage. I was a bloody nervous wreck worrying over how their performance would go down because I've been bending people's ears about The Who here in Cork, where I've lived since returning in 1968. There's not a man or woman in Cork who is not in some way aware of my forty-six year association with The Who and I was just very worried that if they managed to get themselves a bad review or didn't exactly cut the mustard that I would die the death. I couldn't have been more wrong; I just couldn't believe the reaction they got from the crowd and when Pete Townshend started to tell people about me and dedicated 'Drowned' from 'Quadrophenia' to me the tears were coming out of my eyes. What was lovely at the very end was when Roger was saying goodnight to the audience and said 'Don't forget to look after your postman!' - everyone in Cork was reminding me of that for a few weeks as I've been a postman for the past twenty-seven years.
It took me a little while to get used to the songs on 'Endless Wire'. I thought
it was a very brave album to do because obviously it was far removed from other
Who albums where the sound and production was very different. But if Pete
Townshend does anything he moves on with his musical creativity, he never stays
in the one place. I especially love the tracks 'Fragments', 'Man In A Purple
Dress' and the 'Mike Post Theme'. I think they're songs especially written for
the voice of Roger Daltrey, who excels on a lot of the album.
What's your relationship with the band like now? Do you still keep in touch with Roger and Pete?
My relationship with the band today isn't all that very different to the old days except of course I now live in Cork. Back in the Seventies myself and Pete used to write every three weeks to each other. Long extended handwritten episodes of family life etc, streams of subconsciousness. And in one of these streams of letters I told Pete that he might be pleased to know that I had just become the first bus-conductor in Cork to wear the celebrated Doctor Marten boots. He wrote back to say he was elated in the knowledge that one of his oldest friends had embraced Seventies youth culture even if I was 28 at the time and he only two years behind me.
The next few letters between us was all about youth culture and I sent him my old Goldhawk Social Club membership card (the club in Shepherd's Bush where The Who had practically started out from), he returned the card to me by informing me that he had been reading a lot of what I had been telling him and remembering what it had been like when we had been Mods together in Shepherd's Bush and that he was now writing another opera. And I thought, 'Good Jesus, not another f**king Tommy?' He wrote back to say this was going to be a Mod opera with me in mind. About a year later Quadrophenia appears as an album and the next thing is I'm in a newsagent's having a free read of the New Musical Express and there's an interview with the man himself and he's telling his interviewer Tony Stewart that 'Quadrophenia' is 'all about that legendary Who-charter fan Irish Jack'. I looked at my name on the page and my heart glowed, and I thought 'Well, I might as well buy this.' So people reading this are going to be bloody gob-smacked to learn that Quadrophenia - one of the all-time acknowledged classic cult films and albums - started with a pair of size 7 Doctor Martens bought in Drummy's shoe shop on Lavitt's Quay in CORK.
So from there on I have made an extensive career out of Quadrophenia. I have read my scribbled stories about growing up with The Who, being an original Mod and Quadrophenia at such illustrious places as the Oxford Union (twice), Cambridge University (three times), Trinity in Dublin where I was introduced on stage to over a hundred people by Stuart Clark of Hot Press. I've read in New York, all over England, Scotland and I think it's fantastic that a man of my age, 64, is prepared to step up on a podium and read about a band like The Who... the one band who in their writing and performance mirrored their audience. So I suppose I'll get away with saying that, as a 64 year-old retired postman, I am the acknowledged embodiment of The Who. One day a few years back my wife Maura, who has put up with me (and The Who) for the past thirty-eight years, was having a bit of a barney with me about bills and stuff. Just before she was about to throw the frying pan I said 'Doll, you married a legend...but there's no f**king pension!' She couldn't keep in the laughing. That's what makes it all worthwhile.
Contact with Roger? Yes, I ring him every three weeks on his mobile. He worries
about my drinking. He's a diamond.
Interview conducted by Ken Fallon