Culture That Made Me: Mick Flannery

From Tom Waits and Kurt Cobain, to Bertrand Russell and the Big Lebowski, singer Mick Flannery tells Richard Fitzpatrick about his cultural touchstones.
Culture That Made Me: Mick Flannery
Cork's Mick Flannery: informed by a wide variety of influences.

From Tom Waits and Kurt Cobain, to Bertrand Russell and the Big Lebowski, singer Mick Flannery tells Richard Fitzpatrick about his cultural touchstones.

Aping Tom Waits

Growing up, listening to Tom Waits, there was something cool about him, something underground. When I listened to him, I felt as if I wasn’t listening to a mega popstar. The subjects he wrote about – maybe not on albums like Closing Time but later on – seemed grittier.

He had working class characters, lower down the social ladder. His way with words. His use of dialogue in songs. His ability to inhabit a character. His songs are like short stories. That appealed to me. It’s what I found myself doing – aping Tom Waits a lot even in voice unfortunately, which makes it difficult to listen to early recordings of myself because I can hear the affectations, trying to sound like I’d smoked a lot more cigarettes than I had.

Kurt Cobain and fluffing lines

I was big into Kurt Cobain even though he had already died by the time I knew who he was. I liked his voice, his style, his angst, as teenagers do. I think I first heard The Man Who Sold the World on Dave Fanning’s show on RTÉ. There’s a story in the song. There’s an underbelly of aggression.

Lines like, “I spoke into his eyes/I thought you died alone.” It’s very blunt. I don’t know why that’s appealing. I guess because it’s more likely to be honest if it’s not coated. I was slightly disappointed to find out later that this song I loved so much was written by someone else – David Bowie. It was a cover version.

I think Kurt Cobain fluffs some of the lines in it. I can imagine how it happened. It’s easy to fluff a line in a song you haven’t written. I prefer Kurt Cobain’s version by a long stretch. His huskiness gives it that attractive grit.

Bob Dylan has good closers

Bob Dylan has great little couplets of imagery. The song It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) on his Bringing It All Back Home album is very political. It’s kind of like a rap song. It takes an overview of what society is. It has lines like, “Bent out of shape from society’s pliers/Cares not to come up any higher” or “He not busy being born/Is busy dying”.

Hearing all those lines for the first time I was thinking to myself this is what song-writing is. I read his book as well, Chronicles: Volume One, and found nearly the last line of every paragraph was a sledgehammer.

Getting the balance right

Depending on who you talk to, Bob Dylan may appear preachy, or may not appear preachy enough. When Dylan was famously part of a civil rights movement, he was also not part of it to a degree that irked people like Joan Baez, who were more active and felt he didn’t use his power enough, that he didn’t go to the protests enough. That’s a problem.

How much of your life do you devote to the betterment of others, or how much of your time can you just devote to sitting in the woods? Are you wrong to do that when you know that the world isn’t fair?

Bertrand Russell’s letter writing

I like Bertrand Russell’s writing a lot. It’s clearly written and thought out. He’s succinct. He puts across his point softly, logically. I read his autobiography. There was three volumes of it. It took a while to get through.

There are some beautiful letters in it between himself and various people at the time like Albert Einstein. They’re great reading, the old style where people sat down and fired off their correspondence.

Love is wise, hatred is foolish

Bertrand Russell gave an interview to the BBC in 1959. They asked him what would he say to the future in a dead sea scroll. He said the world was getting increasingly interconnected. He could see telecommunications were getting more advanced.

He said we were going to have to develop greater tolerance for each other and understand that people are going to say things we don’t like. If we are to live together and not die together on this planet we must become more charitable. I stole some of that speech of his – “hate is foolish, love is wise” – and put it into the song Live in Hope.

Give me the facts

Bertrand Russell had such great clarity of thought. The second thing he said in that dead sea scroll was intellectual. When you’re studying any matter, look only at what are the facts. What is the truth that the facts bear out?

Don’t let yourself be side-lined by what might be beneficial to society if it were believed or what you might wish to believe were true. You must only concentrate on the facts.

That bleeds into the modern day, where we have a lot of trouble figuring out who to trust and who to listen to in the world of media and bipartisan wars.

Understanding the machine

I’ve started listening to audiobooks recently. There’s one on evolutionary psychology called Behave by Robert Sapolsky, which is very interesting for trying to understand what kind of machine is running the show. It goes into what effects trauma can have on a human, for example.

Poverty is another example. If you feel as though you’re not safe, or that you can’t afford to go to the doctor, or that your neighbourhood is likely to be more violent at night, it increases your stress levels, which makes you less likely to achieve good grades in school.

It gives the nurture element more power over how people can go through life. It illustrates how important it is to have a level playing field when it comes to social equality, good schools, and getting people out of poverty.

The Big Lebowski

I love The Big Lebowski. I’ve seen it six or seven times – at least. It’s brilliant comedy, brilliant characters. It’s so well written. In nearly every scene someone is losing their mind, which creates great comedy. Even down to a cab driver that is offended by the fact that The Dude doesn’t like The Eagles.

The tension bar is so high throughout the whole movie. He can’t put a foot right. All the while, he tries to keep a calm demeanour whilst being drugged and beaten by the Malibu police. I love the line when he’s looking down on the guy in the pool [who’s supposed to be a nihilist, floating on a Lilo bed]: “Ah, that must be exhausting.”

Mick Flannery’s album Alive is released on July 24. Pre-order via: mickflannery.com

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