Joe Dolan

This appeared in the Sunday Independent on February 04, 2007

Face that launched a thousand hips

The photographer wants something theatrical: the famous white suit and the megawatt smile. Maybe a piano and a velvet curtain. But on the day we meet, Joe Dolan is in demure form. He wears a sober brown jacket and a somewhat weary expression. “When I have the [white] suit on,” he says afterwards, “I’m another person altogether. But we are having a conversation as well. And dressed like this I can just be Joe.”

He looks around the empty bar of the soon-to-be-levelled Burlington Hotel, which he has chosen for our chat. “This thing should be protected by some heritage council or something. All the GAA crowds, the functions, people up from the country over the years; it’s just a shame that they are getting rid of it. At the same time you would have got a fair amount of posers and dickheads coming in here. But, you know, funnily enough it’s not so long ago that we were all doin’ the same thing – posing, that is.”

Joe knows a thing or two about posing and the pace of change. Like perhaps no other artist his music has straddled the old and the new Ireland: Sweaty, smoky dancehalls and air-conditioned Celtic Tiger-era discos. At the beginning, his manager says, they played gigs where there was no toilet and Joe had to “piss out of a door at the back of the stage” and you had young ones throwing their knickers. His band, the Drifters, was, Joe says, “travelling around the country with six or seven of us piled into the back of a Volkswagen van”. Now in his 60s, he travels in a lot more comfort and his dancehall days are behind him. But inevitably, there aren’t as many pairs of knickers to pick up.

He freely admits that their sound back in the day was “like a boy band” and the music could tend to the cheesy. But television was in its infancy then, and radio afforded only crackly aural glimpses into the glamorous world of pop stars and performers. Unlike today, there was little alternative to live music. The touring showband singers cut a brilliant streak across the bleakness of rural Ireland. And with his richly distinctive voice, Joe Dolan was perhaps the cream of the crop.

“We could never have gotten on television. There were no Childline concerts or anything like that in those years,” Joe Dolan says. “There was what they called the Herald Boot Fund, which was a charity that gave shoes and boots to children. We certainlyweren’t going back to somewhere like Renards after it.”After asking the audience at one of his shows in the National Stadium to offer a round of applause to some Soviet embassy officials who were present, red tape was pushed aside and he was invited to play in Moscow to became the first-ever western singer to give a performance there during the Cold War. “They laid on a car which waited for me outside the hotel night and day. We met musicians who had no instruments and we gave away bits and pieces we weren’t using.” It wasn’t just the Russians who loved him. Bootlegs of his records have been found by peacekeepers in shops in Beirut.

If he’d come from any other background, he could have been a big international star – Ireland’s answer to Tom Jones – but a number of things stood in his way. For one thing, there was the poverty of the country and the lack of media exposure. But it was, he says, also a problem that Ireland had no managers who had the clout to promote acts in the UK and further afield. “Paul McGuinness managed it with U2 but that was a bit later and they were exceptions.” What about Louis Walsh – was he not around in the showbands era? “Ah yeah, he was. But Louis was a punter then. We needed someone to do for us what he’s done for all those young kids since then. If you had a great hit here in those years, you knew it wasn’t going anywhere. So you were stuck.”

It was also reluctance to move away that hamstrung attempts to build a big international profile. Mullingar is Joe’s spiritual home – the place he’ll be forever known “but not hassled”, the place where he can wear the brown jacket and be just Joe.

Though he now lives part of the time in Foxrock in Dublin, he could never bear to be away from his hinterland for long. In the Sixties, he refused to perform a stint at a seaside town in England.

“In the Good Looking Woman days I could have lived anywhere. I just never wanted to live away from Ireland. The flights in those years were a total rip-off. If you were gone to England for two months, it really meant you were gone, and you’d be playing shows twice a day. I’m a down-home Irish person and I can’t change that. It’s just the way I am.”

Little is known about his personal life other than his fondness for golf, and the fact that he dotes on his nephews and nieces. Like fellow easy-listening bachelor no longer in his 20s, Cliff Richard, Joe is a target for questions about his sexuality. Daniel O’Donnell used to get it too, but he’s married now. Joe’s unofficial fan site quotes him as saying, “I am a straight, straight guy” and speculates that any suggestions to the contrary may be down to professional jealousy from some in the music business.

He may have been crooning about good-looking women but he says he got into music “to give people a laugh or a bit of happiness, but I never thought of the sex end of it,” he shakes his head. “Jaysus.” The atmosphere in the room drops several degrees when I mention the question of sexuality. Joe moves back in his chair and his face looks like a pool into which a single pebble has been dropped. “Ah now come off it. Get off the f***in’ stage, will ya?” he says, still, unnervingly, smiling. “And if you print that you’re finished as a journalist.”

I’m beginning to wonder if I am about to have a walk-out on my hands. “Why does everything have to come back to finding a bit of sh*t or a bit of dirt? You mentioned girlfriends: I’ve had millions of girlfriends,” he says. I apologise if I’ve annoyed him. “I’m not annoyed,” he says, “I’m surprised. I’ve no idea why somebody would say something like that about me. It could be malicious, people saying something like that.”

I meekly protest that he’s a confirmed bachelor, voluntarily in the public eye and celebrities get asked about their personal lives all the time.

“This is a ridiculous situation,” he responds. “I’m a private person. I always keep my family and friends who are not involved in the business out of the business. Are people not allowed to have a life without people shoutin’ about it or selling newspapers over what someone said to you?”

Fair enough. At this point I’m trying to get off the subject and regain the more agreeable atmosphere we had five minutes ago. Joe is still visibly seething but, ever the pro, he flashes that famous smile – although it looks more like a rictus grin by now – and we move swiftly on. He remains guarded though.

For instance, he tells me somewhat implausibly that the most difficult thing he ever went through in his life was not being able to work for a year while he was recuperating from a hip replacement, yet adds that he had to be reminded to go back to work. He sold the old hip on eBay and made money for autism. “Keith Duffy was glad about that,” he says.

Although he insists that not being able to work was devastating, he seems slightly oblivious of his finances and according to those close to him has to be nudged every now and again into recording new work. His manager says that they considered taking a record company to court for lost royalties from Joe’s early career but decided against it because of the cost.

“If I had gotten into this business for money and if I was concerned about that, I would have had to have gotten out years ago,” Joe says. “I have to be thinking about what I’m going to be in the studio or on the stage. There was always enough of everything so I never really bothered about the financial end of things.”

He prides himself on his appeal to “all generations”. “I was in the Pod for Ronan Keating’s 21st birthday party a

‘I did it to give people a laugh or a bit of happiness, but I never thought of the sex end of it,’ he shakes his head, ‘Jaysus’

few years ago and all sorts of people were coming up to me. Darren Smith, who was with [record company] EMI at the time, was there and he was amazed to see all these people talking to me, and he got on to me and we came up with the idea for Joe’s 90s. Suddenly we had younger people coming to the shows and hearing the old stuff and the older people were introduced to these new songs.”

In the strange fast-forwarded nature of interviews, we have already moved from the thin ice of his personal life just a few minutes before back to the safe ground of his popularity, his music.

As we get ready to leave, there is no mention of the threat to end my career. It’s as though it never happened. The car park attendant jokingly pretends not to recognise him. We all laugh. Everyone knows Joe. Don’t they?

He waves at me warily. “God bless.”


~ by Donal Lynch on March 25, 2008.

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