What's Eating Gilbert?

Source: Evening Herald

Writer: George Byrne

Date: 16 Oct 2008

His songs are charming and heartwarming. But GEORGE BYRNE does not want to meet him

It's always the ones you least expect. In the run-up to Gilbert OíSullivanís current string of shows in the Olympia the promoters were naturally anxious to drum up as much publicity as possible but were possibly surprised to discover that there was a certain, shall we say, reluctance on the part of the cityís scribes to undertake the assignment.

"What?" I hear you cry. "Lovable cuddly Gilbert who charmed the world in the early 70s with such classics as Nothing Rhymed, Clair, Matrimony, We Will, the feminist anthem A Woman's Place, No Matter how I Try, Get Down, Ooh-Wakka-Doo-Wakka-Day and the genius that is Alone Again (Naturally) -- why would people not want to have a chat with him?" Well, to put it quite simply, the man is a nightmare interviewee.

Even seasoned hacks have been known to give up in exasperation at his bolshiness, and actually completing an allotted slot without telling Gilbert what to go and do with himself is considered an unofficial badge of honour. My own stint in the trenches came a few years ago and although I'd heard the horror stories, I reckoned I'd be grand due to my charming personality and the fact that I'd been a huge fan back in the day. Oh how wrong I was.

Seemingly oblivious to the fact that most people were only going to his gigs in order to hear the oldies, he quickly cut off any attempts to steer the conversation towards his hit-making heyday and talked about nothing apart from whatever album he'd released to worldwide indifference a few months previously. It was truly painful stuff, especially on the phone as I didn't even have the luxury of padding out his tetchy responses by describing the layout of the room or his haircut. Never again.

One colleague actually thought he'd lighten the mood in another Gilbert phoner by wondering whether, when his teenaged children came looking to borrow money, he'd reply with the line: "A loan again, naturally?" Oops!

Even when the mighty Morrissey performed a live version of Nothing Rhymed -- in which I have to say I may have played a significant part -- you'd imagine that he'd have been pleased at such a revered artist paying tribute but oh no, he threw a sevener. And if you'd really like to rattle his cage then all you have to do is mention the words Hot Press then sit back and enjoy the fireworks.

It's odd to think that some of the most ornery interviewees -- who can go to the extent of chasing the journalist down the street demanding the return of the interview tape -- are the ones who make music which is calm, peaceful and frequently beautiful.

One particular well-known Irish music figure has terrorised hacks for decades -- my own story about him can't be told in print for legal reasons but involves aura-assessment and a knife ... one for the high stool, I think. John Martyn was a belligerent anti-Christ in his day and has only mellowed somewhat since he lost his leg, while you'd be better off talking to Ray LaMontagne's guitar case than the man himself. In fact, the only time I've ever lost the head with an interviewee -- and vice-versa, but he started it -- was in an extremely ill-tempered encounter with, of all people, Ben Watt from Everything But The Girl. So don't let those soft, gentle melodies fool you at all -- there be demons lurking.

Gilbert O'Sullivan plays the Olympia Theatre tomorrow, Saturday and Sunday

George Byrne