By Jay Stringer
I have some strong memories from when I was a child. One of the clearest is driving around in my Grandfather's car, just me and him, listening to Johnny Cash. I didn't really know what it was then, and it sounded really old and silly, but I can still remember him looking over at me and explaining that it was a song about teaching your son to be able to fight for himself.
Cut forward to my teenage years, after I've been through a few musical phases that have been written out of my own personal history, and I'm too cool to like Johnny Cash, or country, or "any of that crap". My Grandfather passes away, a molotov cocktail of illness speeded along by cancer, and I have no idea how to articulate what is running through my head.
A friend gives me a copy of "American Recordings," and tells me to listen to the words, but I don't bother. Then I catch a glimpse of a music video -back when they could still change your life- and I saw an old man singing a brilliantly sick song about his dead wife, and Kate Moss is in it, and something about the old man's face and voice click.
I have a connection. I mainline Cash's songs, starting with the new and working back to the old. I learn his life-story inside and out and wear through a copy of his autobiography. I have a connection. I can sit and listen to this guy sing, and love it, and have someone else in the room with me. I can smell, hear and feel someone who's been lost to me since a couple of days before my seventeenth birthday.
My father and I have very different memories of the old man. For me he's a towering figure, almost mythical, a man who told me stories and dirty jokes, who drove me to self-improvement. Not without his harsher moments, like the time I fell and cut my knee and he made me walk back to the house rather than carry me. It's not my place to tell my Father's stories, but they would be different to mine, of a man who perhaps saw a different side of A Boy Named Sue, and always will.
But over the music of Johnny Cash we found a common ground, a common celebration and, in our ways, a common image of two different figures.
It's one thing to sit and write things like this, it would be something else to stand up in front of a sold out crowd in a comedy venue and lay myself even more bare.
At the weekend I saw Mark Thomas do just that, and I'm still thinking about it days later.
I've praised Thomas on here before. He's one of my personal touchstones, and even if it's not readily apparent in the prose of a moody crime writer, I can see the cues that I've taken from his work over the years.
At his last show, "Extreme Rambling," I was reminded of his ability to create a moving moment of silence in a comedy show. Way back in his show "Dambusters" I saw him willing to bring himself to tears to make a point about a human rights violation, again all in service of what was billed as comedy. But in his latest show, "Bravo Figaro!" Thomas has made that bravery the main drive of the show. There are laughs, some of them huge belly laughs, but this is a story with a beginning, a middle, and a bitter-sweet end.
Just as I found a new connection and new memories through music, so Thomas tells us of how his dads love of Opera gave him something to cling to as ill health started to eat away at the figure who had played such an imposing part in his life. Thomas never flinches from sharing home truths with the crowd, and in the best tradition of a writer he never hides from painting a picture of a very human father who has made some painful mistakes. But even with the harshest criticisms, it's always clear it's coming from a position of love, and as the show progresses we're routing for Thomas to get to do what so few of us ever do, and to turn that musical connection into something that matters while there's still time.
I won't ruin the ending. And there's also another aspect of the show that I'm leaving out -something that raises this from high comedy to high art- in the hope that some of you get to see it and experience it. But if you're in Edinburgh this month, or if the tour takes in a venue near you, you owe it to yourself to go watch.
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