Arts Q&A: Stuart Bailie on Hemingway, The Hairdresser's Husband and Terri Hooley

Jenny Lee puts artists on the spot about what really matters to them. This week, Belfast music journalist Stuart Bailie, author of the forthcoming Trouble Songs: Music and Conflict in Northern Ireland

Stuart Bailie's new book Trouble Songs will be published next month
Stuart Bailie's new book Trouble Songs will be published next month

1. When did you first think about a career in music journalism and what were your first steps into it?

In April 1985 I sold my Fender bass and bought a typewriter and a single flight to London. I stayed there for 11 years. I had been a rubbish musician but I became fascinated by journalists and how they rolled a story out. I bombarded the press with ideas and became reviews editor at [now defunct weekly music newspaper] Record Mirror. There were four weekly music papers at the time and the fun was relentless.

I was briefly a press officer at Warners, working with Robert Plant, Ted Nugent and Mötley Crüe. Feverish times. I started at the NME in 1988 and was on the staff for eight years. Music journalism has been the best life. Noel Gallagher blames me for starting Britpop, Paul Weller offered me out for a fight and Bono called me a "tough nordy ****".

2. Best gig(s) you’ve been to?

The Clash at The Ulster Hall, Van Morrison on Cyprus Avenue, Manic Street Preachers in Cuba, Sabres of Paradise at Sugar Sweet and Rudi at The Harp Bar.

3. Fantasy wedding/birthday party band?

Elvis fronting The Clash. John Doherty on fiddle. Billie Holiday on the ballads.

4. The record you’d take to a desert island?

Astral Weeks by Van Morrison.

5. And the book?

The Old Man And The Sea by Ernest Hemingway. I love the sweetness and the sadness and the mythical line in the book that says even the best work will be thwarted and damaged.

6. Top three films?

I adore The Hairdresser’s Husband. I’ve not visited a hairdresser for a long time but I can relate to the sense of mystery and big love. I saw Dead Of Night on TV as a child and it was deeply scary. The deranged ventriloquist. And the phantom bus conductor. Yikes.

I’m hugely fond of Shellshock Rock because John T Davis had the foresight to document the Belfast punk scene in 1978. All of John’s films are tremendous in some way and I’m excited to see how he finishes his major life statement, Mshiikenhmnising.

7. Worst film you’ve seen?

I can’t do Star Wars.

8. Favourite authors?

Tom Wolfe writes so well. His introduction to The New Journalism turned my head and Bonfire of The Vanities was perfectly bold. Nik Cohn is probably the best of the original rock writers, alongside Greil Marcus. Patti Smith was majestic in Just Kids. Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane was roaringly good. Sylvia Patterson is pure wit in I'm Not With The Band. I read Train Dreams by Denis Johnson on a train from Seattle to Portland last year and was overcome with sadness.

9. Sport you most enjoy and top team?

I was a schoolboy international fencer. Many years later I challenged Bruce Dickinson from Iron Maiden to a fencing contest and nearly beat the fella. I’ve lost interest in football but as a boy, I thought Billy Bremner from Leeds United was the coolest.

10. Ideal holiday destination?

San Francisco in the 90s still felt loose and free. I hear that the tech lizards have ruined everything. These days I’m drawn to the Atlantic coast of Donegal. I wrote parts of my Trouble Songs book in a cottage near Gweedore. I also signed up to an Irish language course at the Pobalscoil there in 2016. It feels entrancing.

11. Pet hate?

Northern Ireland has a surplus of wreckers, moaners, fundamentalists and lemon suckers.

12. What’s your favourite...

Dinner? The best dinner I had was halfway up a mountain in Lebanon. Tabbouleh, falafel, hummus and more.

Dessert? I'm partial to a Portugese Pastéis de Nata.

Drink? If you're offering an aperitif, I'll have a Ricard pastis. On a terrace in Paris, cheers.

13. Who is your best friend and how do you know each other?

Terri Hooley refused to sign my punk band Acme to his record label, Good Vibrations, around 1980. He’s rightly proud of this fact, but we made our peace about 35 years ago. He is cranky and barkingly wild. We argue often. We’re the George and Mildred of the Belfast music scene and I was his DJ sidekick at Voodoo for a few messy years. We have a gentlemen’s breakfast club at Skinner’s in Holywood every fortnight when we bitch and mither and talk about revolution.

14. Is there a God ?

You wouldn’t want to live in a literal world. I believe in the inarticulate speech of the heart.

:: Trouble Songs: Music and Conflict in Northern Ireland by Stuart Bailie is published on May 11 and is available to pre-order now via Troublesongs.com