Damien Dempsey Draws the Line

Or, How a Working-Class Singer from Dublin Taught This Middle-Class Girl from Virginia to Never Take Music Lightly Again

I was having coffee with an acquaintance of mine, let’s call her Alison. She brought up a generally well-regarded film and asked me what I thought about it. I answered that I thought it was a pandering and wretched piece of shit, and I had felt like I needed a shower after leaving the theater. Alison’s face clouded, and she began to try to convince me I was wrong. She plaintively cited the pedigree of the actors, and her belief that the filmmakers were brave and uncompromising. She wouldn’t shut up about it. She acted like I’d insulted her personally, impugned her character, accused her of some fundamental failing of taste and judgment.

We still saw each other after that, but Alison was timid, almost distrustful. I realized one day that my disdain for this film she loved had made her genuinely not trust me, like she’d discovered, after years of thinking we both liked the Yankees, that I was really a Red Sox fan. I didn’t understand it at the time - I thought it was pretty lame, actually - but I’ve developed a cultural allegiance of my own that meets and even eclipses Alison’s. And so I say it, and so I mean it: I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t like Damien Dempsey.

I’ve only played his music to one of my friends, a close one, and I did it with extreme reluctance. To be frank, if I hadn’t had a couple of drinks in me I don’t think I would have dared. I put on a favorite track of mine, all the while entertaining a furious inner monologue. She’s gotta love him, right? She has to. This is a great fucking song. It’s nonnegotiable. It’s not up for discussion. It would be impossible to have red, living blood in your veins and not like this song. I even handed her an article to read at the same time, thinking that maybe a so-so, distracted response would allow me to laugh the whole thing off and not have to eighty-six our relationship entirely. About a minute into the song, she looked up from the magazine. “God,” she said, “rip my heart out, why don’t you?” I let out a nervous giggle. I was safe.

The descent into fandom is always a peculiar thing. Often, it takes a simple form: One minute you don’t know someone exists, the next you’re brokering with shady internet retailers for used copies of obscure charity releases. Other times, it’s more circuitous and does not, like the path to true love, run smooth.

I first saw Damien Dempsey on the recommendation of, literally, the-guy-sitting-next-to-me-at-the-bar, someone I liked immensely but didn’t know well. I knew that a musician from Dublin was playing that Saturday, but I didn’t want to take the trouble to enlist any of my friends to go with me; they are people who are not generally tempted by an evening of seeing an unknown quantity at a tiny Irish pub. I told Liam I doubted I’d be able to sell it to anyone, at which point he looked me dead in the eye and said, “Then come alone. I’m not fucking joking. He’s really good.”

I went and, standing by Liam in the audience, I leaned over and agreed that yes, these songs were lovely. He laughed in my face. The musician onstage was the opening act. A little while later, the opener was replaced by a big, rather nondescript guy whose body language hinted at a strange combination of “I-am-what-I-am” modesty and “don’t-fuck-with-me” intensity. He sat down on a stool, closed his eyes, and without preamble, launched into a song.

I can’t for the life of me remember what that song was, but I didn’t like it at all. And the funny thing is: I got the distinct impression that it didn’t like me, either. The song demanded to be listened to, like it had business with me personally and would not be waylaid. I felt uncomfortable, assaulted, and I slowly started moving - fleeing, practically - to the back of the crowd. If I’d been a cat, my ears would have flattened. I left after a few songs, and went home shaken but not favorably impressed. “That guy obviously thinks he’s some kind of troubadour,” I remember thinking huffily. “Give me a break.”

But I kept the ticket stub. I have no idea why. I even stuck the thing on my fridge.

It must have been over a year later when, sitting in the same pub, I found myself singing along with a song that was played often on the jukebox. It had a haunting opening - a man with a huge voice singing words at once absurdly simple and utterly unforgettable. I was too embarrassed to ask anyone what it was - I was singing the damn song, after all - so I went home that night and Googled that singular line: "Lord, won’t you give me the strength to be strong / and be true." I followed the first listed link to a website.

I had to laugh. It was the same fucking guy.

I went out and bought the album (Seize the Day, the only Dempsey record thus far released in the United States) and that was all she wrote. It was over. I was the Christmas goose and I was done. The pursuit of obscure charity releases began subsequently, and I've never looked back.

In retrospect, it’s no mystery why my first reaction to Dempsey was less than warm. His music isn’t inclusive, at least not in the traditional sense. He’s almost painfully earnest but yet is also unapologetically combative. He manages, in a single line from his latest album, Shots, to take a swipe at the populations of seven different countries, asking them if they bother to feel ashamed of their nations’ colonial histories and adding that, if they “have any kind of mind,” they should.

To put it another way, he requires a little give and take. His songs - in a refreshing change from the vague, milquetoast emotionalism of most commercial rock - are all actually about something. Politics, economics and history mix with love, frustration and despair to create some of the most challenging and beautiful music you're likely to hear.

He can change to whom he’s singing within one song, and “you” can be either who he’s defending or who he’s berating. And I, for one, must admit that I'm in the latter category almost as often as the former. He exhorts the listener to love yourself but also to change yourself - he doesn’t let anyone off the hook. For all of the “us versus them” in his music there’s an equal measure of Invictus-like certainty that you’re in charge of your own destiny, and that the greatest battle you’ll ever fight is with yourself.

So, inclusive his music is not. What it is, strangely, is universal - despite the fact that so much of it is deeply concerned with Dempsey’s personal history and identity. “Factories, Trains, and Houses,” the song I played my friend, is about growing up in a grim urban environment, populated by people who joyride, drink, fight, grow old, and die before their time. I grew up in stereotypical suburbia, a place so pretty and neat that you could receive a cease-and-desist order for erecting an unattractive swing set. Our worlds are so different, but his opinion of the world at large - the world that belongs to all of us - is undeniably true. Maybe he just got me at the right time, but Dempsey has forced me to face some rather unpleasant facts: about my place in the world, how I live my life, and whether I am the person I really want to, and ought to, be.

The best music is, in my mind, aspirational. It’s music that tells it like it is, in a way you either can’t or are afraid to. You wish you could, and when someone does it for you, the only honest response is gratitude. It’s not music that pets or coddles you, not music that tells you that everything’s okay. It’s music that challenges you to a bare-knuckled fistfight, throws down the proverbial gauntlet, and lets you know that, even though you’re about to get seven shades of shit beaten out of you, you’ll be better for it in the morning. Like my friend said, it’s music that rips your heart out, and when you pick the poor thing off the floor, dust it off, and put it back in your chest, you realize it’s somehow stronger.

Before a month ago, I’d never been on a fan message board in my life. But, knowing I was going to write about Dempsey ("Damo" to his fans), I wanted to get some impressions from the fellow smitten. I hadn't been reading the posts for five minutes before I felt an overwhelming sense of vindication. For, in addition to the expected "Oh-my-God-that-gig-was-so-great" enthusiasm, there was the heartfelt testimony of people, like me, for whom Dempsey's music is truly vital.

One man lost someone close to him to heroin, and found strength in the song “Ghosts of Overdoses.” He wrote, “Damo has guts and you can see the passion. I could imagine that acoustic guitar as a shillelagh [cudgel] bashing the heads of the cynics, critics, and the up-their-own-arse negative people of this world.”

Another comes from the same area in Dublin as Dempsey and understands being judged by your accent and provenance and being looked down on as a "skanger" (a derogatory term for a Northside, working-class Dubliner who speaks in a certain way). He also pointed out that Dempsey, unlike most Irish artists, sings in his own accent, in a simple yet poignant protest against homogenization and prejudice.

Another described Dempsey as singing each song “like he’s trying to kill you with it. If you're open to it, he can really break through your shell and get at your heart in a way that very few singers can because very few singers want to. They want to draw you into their misery, but Damo is more like 'Hey, I went through it too and I'm still standing and singing and I've turned all that negativity and shit into positivity and art and you can too.'”

Still another was watching TV when, as he put it, he came across a song [my beloved “Factories, Trains and Houses”] that “elevates ordinary observations/experiences about growing up in Dublin to such a level of beauty and longing that I found myself looking back over those very same experiences in my life growing up in Dublin through the lens created in the melody. But the real impact of the song was the unexpected transcendence of the escapism, in the repeated refrain "Howth Junction could take you away / and in the hayfields we'd squander the day." It took the song from the local to the universal again with a pervasive longing which quite simply blew me away...on my big armchair...surfing the channels...what a blessed discovery..no songwriter has hit me as hard.” Well, folks, there’s no way on God’s green earth that I can put it any better than that.

Music has many forms and functions, and I won't pretend I don't like to blissfully rock out, or sing along to fun songs on road trips, or dance to a song just because the bass line's good. But music is also supposed to be art, and the best kind should never be a joke, a diversion, or something to listen to on line at the bank. It should burn down into your gut, give you aggro and give you hope, lead you down a road you may have never even noticed was there before. It should, beyond all expectation, change you a little bit for the good.

A very smart man once said to me: “It doesn’t matter who you are or where you came from. The only thing that matters is what side of the line you choose to stand on.” I remember being frustrated by that statement, demanding, “What line? You show me the damn thing and then we’ll talk.” Well, I’ve found a pretty good line all by myself, and Dempsey’s drawn it. To put it another way: If loving Damien Dempsey is wrong, then I don’t want to be right.

So, go out and buy one of his albums. Buy an import - get one off eBay if you have to. You can thank me later. Or, if you don’t like it...well, then it won’t matter. Because I’ll probably never speak to your soulless ass again.

Jan Herndon