It was 4:30 in the afternoon, an hour before the doors would open at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, Massachusetts. There was already a line.
On this night, it was for Peter Wolf, former lead singer of the J. Geils Band.
Those who arrive so early are usually solo. The fanatics. The ones with (or without) the flexible work hours. We all could be characters from Nick Hornby's "High Fidelity." If the weather is lousy or cold, there is the grousing and the whining refrains of "Why don't they just let us in early?" But if it's bearable, the comments are mostly about music. "How many times have you seen 'em?" "Who else have you seen lately?" "What are you listening to?" This night is more than bearable. The rain has stopped. It is unseasonably warm.
Music memories and recommendations make the time fly. Kasey Chambers, Fred Eaglesmith, Paul Kelly, Lucinda Williams, Willie Nile, Steve Forbert, David Gray, Steve Earle and Dan Bern are just a few of the names bandied about. Peter Wolf, impossibly thin, his black hair spilling from under a pork pie hat, walks past the queue and into the club. No one says a word to him. They only stare.
A woman joins the line, disappointed she missed seeing Peter Wolf but thrilled about having snagged a nearby parking space. She is from Arlo Guthrie country, the Berkshires, about an hour west. She doesn't make it into Northampton much. The last trip was nearly six months before, for a Jerry Jeff Walker show. As soon as those Berkshire hills are in her rearview mirror, she can pick up Johnny Memphis on WRSI. "He plays the best music," she raves. "I just heard a great song by the Saw Doctors. Sounds like a Stephen King book instead of a band, doesn't it? Have you ever heard of them?"l tell her I have.
"Which song?" She doesn't know. "It was a happy one," she says. "I was dancing in my seat. Great chorus. Great rock and roll. Let me think for a second." She does. "It was a happy song," is all she knows. "That's no help," Jack, a line regular, says. "All their songs are happy. They're the Irish Beatles."
I say: "Imagine if Bruce Springsteen had grown up in the west of Ireland and was influenced by the Clancy Brothers, Bob Marley and the Ramones. That's the Saw Doctors." "They sound too good to be true," is her opinion. "But that's the best part," I tell her. "They're not."
And, Jack adds: "Wait until you see them live." She borrows my pen, opens her purse, pulls out a scrap of paper and scribbles down album titles and the website address. I prattle on. Telling her probably more than she needs to know about a band from which she has heard exactly one song. But isn't that what we do as fans? Get excited. Share. Of course. We can't help it.
I tell her that one of cooler aspects of the Docs is their musical generosity, how they've toured more of the U.S. than most natives ever have. How they still put out singles with b-sides, songs so stunning you wonder how they didn't make an album. How some of these tunes — "Sound Sham," "Bless Me Father," "Small Ball" "Where's the Party?" — are rousing enough to have been used as concert encores, but found homes only on a b-side or a mailorder-fan-club-only release. "Sounds like Bruce's 'Tracks,'" she says, referring to the 1998 four-cd set of Springsteen outtakes. "Exactly!," I say a bit too loudly. "All the greats have an alternative history. The Saw Doctors are no different." I tell her about "Play It Again, Sham."
"Cool title," she laughs. "But what's a sham?" I tell her I'm not sure. I think it's a good person, but I tell her not to worry about translations of Tuam slang. I don't know what a fuelie head and a Hurst on the floor is in Springsteen's "Racing in the Street," nor do I know what Dylan means when he sings, "The ghosts of electricity howls in the bones of her face."
But it never stopped me from connecting on some deep, personal level. Plus, music fills in the emotional details, providing the universal truths that words can't convey, communicating only with the soul and leaving the song in your heart and on your lips. Isn't it great how all that works? The door to the Horse opens. The line shuffles forward. Berkshire's friends arrive. As do mine. She thanks me for the recommendations.
And then we're inside. Peter Wolf is in fine form. And, as it is with most great nights of music, even after two hours, he's off the stage too quickly. As the crowd files out, Berkshire taps me on the shoulder. Says "Play It Again, Sham," as her way of saying goodbye to me.
Though it sounds more like hello to the Saw Doctors.
Some time, back around 1991, it was after our first album was released, myself and Davy were in Dublin for a day with nothing to do; don't ask me why. We bumped into fellow Tuam man, and Ireland's greatest living playwright, Tom Murphy. One thing led to another and we ended up having a few drinks and a hugely entertaining conversation ensued. Tom suggested we call our next album 'Play It Again, Sham'.
We loved the title and never forgot it. Jonathan Philbin-Bowman, God rest him, joined the company and even more lively stories were exchanged. Jonathan somehow persuaded the barman of wherever we were at about ten or eleven o'clock that he should give Davy and myself a bottle of champagne; again, don't ask me why or how! We arrived at our residence for the night, the Central Hotel, where we were meeting Pearse who was coming up for the night. As we would normally do at that time, not being too used to hotels, we were going to stay in the one room, the three of us, but the man at reception refused to let Pearse come up and join us in "drinking the champagne". We left the hotel in some sort of huffy protest at about half one in the morning and ended up ringing up and staying with Irene (a friend of ours whom we had met earlier on, along the way) in her house in Dolphin's Barn with a gang of women, where we duly opened the bubbly that Jonathan procured for us, and a good few bottles of wine as well, and waited up laughing and chatting 'til dawn.
When the second album was ready for titling, we felt that Tom's suggestion would be better kept for a compilation type collection so here it is, thanks to Tom Murphy and a great day's drinking in Dublin, Play It Again, Sham!
Leo MoranPlay It Again Sham! was compiled by Davy Carton from selected tracks from the following Saw Doctors albums and singles.