I started writing songs in 1965 when I was 15. Prior to that I had played bass in a couple of local bands but it was when I bought a beat up Hofner six string that I really got started. Suddenly a new world opened up to me and I devoured it with a passion. Every new chord liberated my creativity. Almost from the beginning, as well as learning contemporary and traditional songs, I was writing my own. Now I was free to perform wherever and whenever the occasion presented itself. And with that came a lifestyle that shaped me in more ways than I would ever have expected. It was a time of significant cultural change. A fresh wind was blowing through sterile pop culture. A new world view was emerging and I embraced it with open arms. It uprooted me like a hurricane and before I knew it I was ‘on the road’.
Reflecting on it ten years later, I wrote:
“When I was just a kid I was pop group crazy
nervous in the forecourt outside the coffer bar
autographs and records were the currency of status
Beatle boots and bell bottoms were really fab
Summer, winter, summer came and I was inside
standing by the jukebox.
Next thing I knew I was a beatnik
shouting at the protests, staying out all night
reeling off statistics of armaments expenditure
my daddy said the CND was a front for communists
so I pulled on my denim cap and picked up my guitar
and I set sail for England……”
That’s exactly what I did in January 1966. It happened like this. On New Year’s Eve I was playing in the top room of Sammy Housten’s Jazz Club on Great Victoria Street. After I had finished this guy approached me. He was called Mick Kinane, taller than me, in his early twenties with a shock of black hair, dark eyes and a large slightly crooked nose. He was wearing a candy striped suit that someone had mistaken for pyjamas. He had an English accent. “Hey Man” he said “My name’s Mick and I’m the road manager for The Wheels.” He introduced me to some of the members of the band. “You should come to England and hang out with us. There are plenty of places you can play.” He gave me a crumpled business card. “That’s Johnny” he said “Make your way to his place and we can pick you up from there.” That was all I needed. Two weeks later I quit my dead-end job as a dispatch clerk in the basement of Robinson & Cleavers and bought a one-way ticket on the Belfast to Heysham night steamer. Me, my new guitar and a pocket full of songs. There was no turning back. I was going to be a folksinger and songwriter.