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The ballad of Bill McMahon
My dad, April 5th, 1941 - July 30th, 2022, RIP
Noel Gallagher once described his younger brother Liam thus; "He’s like a man with a fork in a world of soup". It’s a funny line, though I’ll confess that when I heard him say it, I was irritated that he’d got there first. I’ve spent my entire life trying and failing to understand my dad. A man with fork in a world of soup more or less does the job.
My dad is gone. To where I don’t know, but when I kissed his forehead goodbye in the hospital this weekend, I’m sure that there was nothing of my father that lingered within the worn shell of his body that lay there on the bed. My dad was a difficult man. Always out of time. We had little in common. I like football. He liked rugby. I like horror movies. He liked westerns. I love music. He liked it, at a push. Truth be told, I like a whole lot of stuff. He barely liked anything. Not even his third born son. He told me so once. “I love you son, but I don’t like you.” Even when we shared interests, I had to come to him. I’m fascinated by World War II, but if you spent your childhood in dry docks being lectured about old submarines, you might be too.
I loved my dad. Sometimes I even liked him too. Music could connect us, despite our opposing views as to its usage. Music is so important to me, I often wince to think of it’s function as entertainment. It seems a way too trivial to think of it. A descriptor that fails to convey it’s majesty. I don’t think my dad thought about music this way. Maybe men of his generation just didn’t - or couldn’t. Around the time I was writing about indie bands in fanzines – which to his credit, would not have been produced in bulk and sold to the disinterested populace of Doncaster had he not covertly used his lunch-breaks at work to photocopy them for me – he had learned to shoot a gun and was on a battleship, thousands of miles away from home. I was allowed to be a teenager. He wasn’t. Sometimes I’d express incredibility that his twenties coincided with the onset of the 60s and yet he’d never seen The Beatles, The Kinks or the Stones. “I was married with two young kids,” he said. Which is fair enough.
I spent a lot of time in the car with my dad. My growing problems with mental illness, and the perhaps incorrect belief that home was the principal cause of these problems, led me to pick a university as far away as I could possibly get from Yorkshire. It made sense at the time. He would drive me there. He would drive me back, and as we drove up and down the A roads of the north, he would play songs he liked, many of which I liked too. Lots of Bread. The 1975 novelty single ‘Convoy’ by the oak throated C. W. McCall. The collected singles of the late, great Don Williams – the gooiest heart who ever played country. That genre was predominant; compilations of golden oldies traded for tokens at service stations, the Shell Oil logo displayed on the cassette spine, a photograph of a young women in gingham and denim hot pants on the sleeve. He liked the song ’16 Tons’ by Tennessee Ernie Ford. I did too, though I think I now prefer the version by The Redskins. I never told him that. It’s fine.
He would come see my band play. He’d never say he liked us. Or disliked us (though I knew, I always knew). But he’d be there, at the back of the room, smoking. Toward the end of my band Mavis’ time, I even wrote a song that referenced him. “When I was a young boy,” I sang in the verse of ‘Brightest Stars in Yorkshire’, the closing number of that band’s second album, “my father said to me, ‘The brightest stars in Yorkshire son, are shining just for you…’” My dad never said this to me. I stole the idea for the song from ‘The Bluest Eyes in Texas’, by Tim DuBois, Dave Robbins and Van Stephenson (though at the time I wrote mine, I only knew it as the number Chloë Sevigny mumbles through in the 1999 Kimberly Peirce movie, Boys Don’t Cry). Much like when I signed up for the school rugby team in an attempt to impress him, I was just trying to get his attention. I broke my nose less often writing songs than playing rugby.
I think my dad showed me his love by being there. He couldn’t tell me how he felt – and often, on the occasions he did, I think I’d really rather not have known – but he showed up. I have to give him that. He rarely moaned about lift giving. I’m actually going to a concert at my teenage stomping ground The Leadmill next month. It’s been decades since I was last there. It will be strange to leave the venue and not be looking for him parked down a Sheffield side street waiting to drive me home. Once he was visiting me in London on a night that I had to review Linkin Park for a music magazine. I couldn’t get out of it. I managed to find a ticket for him too. He came. He spent two hours looking like someone who had been forced to gargle wasps. But he was there. He showed up. I think he did what he could, if not with gusto.
We rowed all through my childhood about my obsession with music, playing it and writing about it, and the way it’s culture would shape my fashion and worldview. He punched me in the face. Then I went to bed, my eye throbbing. Then he woke me up, crying, repeating, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry” like a mantra. He hated my ripped jeans. He hated my sideburns. He absolutely despised my long hair. One night on the field some girls from school had braided a few strands of it with coloured thread. I loved it. I woke in the early hours of the night with my dad hovering over the bed, scissors in hand, cutting out my braids. Just go to bed dad! Stop waking me up in the night you fucking weirdo! A few years before any of this I recall us watching The Brit Awards together. I’m sat at his feet. Suede are playing. Brett is spanking himself with his microphone. Bernard is molesting his guitar. “Disgusting” sneers my dad. “Disgusting” I reply, absolutely sure that I’m not going to school tomorrow and that I’m going to Our Price to buy the Suede album instead.
It might be no surprise to learn that my dad was enormously fond of the song ‘Okie from Muskogee’ by Merle Haggard. There’s long been debate about whether that song, a single in 1969, is a celebration of conservative values or a spoof. I’m guessing my dad thought it was the former.
A decade later, a few weeks after I’ve moved to London, I return home from a gig, I check my email, and I find a message from my dad. I’ve just got back from my first transatlantic job for Metal Hammer. I’m weeks from getting my first staff job for NME. “Son. I never understood you wanting to be a music journalist,” he writes. “I didn’t know what a music journalist was. I didn’t believe in you. I should have. I’m pleased you’ve found something that you’re good at and that you find so fulfilling.” A few years after that, when he's visiting me in London, I take him into the NME office after hours so that he can see where I work. He tuts. Moans about how messy it is. I can’t stop him picking magazines up off the floor. When I get into work on Monday and open my desk drawer, there’s a note with my dad’s handwriting on it stuck inside. “Proud of you. Dad.”
Many years after that, when I’m editor of Kerrang!, I take my dad to the magazine’s yearly awards ceremony at The Troxy in east London. There’s a scrum of autograph hunters on the way in. They’re screaming at the arriving rock stars, arms extended, pens and paper thrusted in their direction. My dad is looking very old now. He was always an older dad. At least a decade older than the dads of my mates. “How’s your granddad?” was a common taunt at school. My dad now looks - if you’re borderline blind, I guess - like Ozzy Osbourne. “Ozzy! Ozzy!” shouts a fan, holding out his autograph book. My dad takes the paper and the pen, and signs it for the fan. I do hope someone still has that piece of paper… and has spent the last ten years wondering why ‘Ozzy Osbourne’ signed his name ‘Ossie’ that night.
The last time I saw my dad - my actual dad, not the husk of a human that I said goodbye to this weekend - we listened to the music of the wartime big band leader, Glenn Miller. If you don’t know the story of Glenn Miller you should read up. Flying to Paris in 1944 to entertain the troops, he disappeared while flying over the English Channel. And so there’s plenty to talk about as my mum goes to work on my dad’s daily medications. He can’t eat solid foods now. My mum has to hook him up to a tube each day, yellow gunk being funnelled into his stomach in an attempt to further his increasingly miserable existence. The thinking is that the music of his childhood favourite might help take his mind off the discomfort. And it does. “My mum used to have this on around the house,” he says, smiling, the years falling away from his tired face as I see a small boy in long shorts appear before my eyes.
I remember in that moment - if I had indeed forgotten - that music is indeed magic. I think my dad, a man who agreed with me about basically nothing, and who I will forever miss doing so, might actually have thought about music in this way too.
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