Of all the countries he's busked in, Croatia is probably his favorite and he keeps going back there.
Charlie Cusack at home in Carrowholly
The Interview - Charlie Cusack
By Padraig Burns
THE first thing you need to know about Charlie Cusack is that Charlie isn't his proper name at all. He was born Patrick, son of Sean and Mary Cusack from High Street in Westport and he became Charlie when he was in second year at the CBS in Westport. Something to do with a drawing of an alien creature that needed a nickname! Needless to say, on High Street they still call him Pat.
The next thing you need to know about Charlie is that he's one of Ireland's great guitarists. He might not be a marquee name like Rory Gallagher or Dave Evans but talk to the connoisseurs of the instrument and they'll tell you that Charlie is up there with the best of them. A real guitar player's guitar player.
He's lived too, and wherever he's travelled the guitar has travelled with him. He went to Australia for a year, overstayed his welcome by two and ended up on the list of the 30 most wanted illegal people in the State of Victoria. "At the time I was in Queensland picking fruit on a farm and my girlfriend's mother sent her this cutting from a paper with my name in the list of wanted illegals. Basically, there was a reward for anyone with information on my whereabouts, so I took that as encouragement to leave!"
Later, when he was studying the guitar in college in Los Angeles, he took a wrong turn home one day and ended up being beaten up and handcuffed by the police who thought he was a member of a local gang. "I didn't know it at the time, but it was an area where no one used to walk in because it was so dangerous. The police saw me and thought I was robbing somewhere and they just jumped me, pinned me to the ground and handcuffed me. It took a bit of explaining to talk my way out of that," he recalls.
Nowadays, his life is much more serene, and he lives alone in a beautiful cottage in Carraholly, a few miles outside Westport town. He's surrounded by his guitars (13 in total) and tapes and discs of his own recordings and those of his favourite guitarists. He's writing his own material at the moment and he hopes to be able to have enough ready to be in a position to record an album within the next few months.
On the wall of the cottage are the posters that recall the gigs that started it all off for Charlie. Every Sunday night Charlie used to play The Den in Gibbons' Pub, Bridge Street, Westport along with his good friends, Paul Duffy and Paul 'Dude' Kelly, under the name 'Broken Glass'. Charlie used to let rip then and they still talk of the last gig he played before leaving for Germany in 1984. "I remember that night, we played in the front bar and I was up on the tables going mad. John (Gibbons) was great, he didn't really care how loud we played and we used to really give it holly. They were great times. I was working in Galway at the time in Digital, sitting at a desk all week and the Sunday night gig was a great way of letting off steam," he said, laughing at the memories of the 'Broken Glass' world tour t-shirts that did the rounds at the time.
Yet, it could all have passed him by. He used to play the piano when he was in national school but by the time secondary school arrived, he was more interested in football and walking dogs on the Rockies with John Kennedy than he was in music. "It could so easily not have happened for me and probably wouldn't if I hadn't gone to visit my uncle in Leicester one summer. He had a music shop and I worked with him for the summer. When I was leaving he gave me a guitar and that set me off again," he said.
He was around 15 at the time and since then life has revolved around the guitar and his music. After school he studied Electronic Engineering in Galway IT and he also worked in Digital for a while. But the music kept calling him back and in 1985 he walked away from Digital to give all his energies to music.
Since then he's travelled all over Europe, Australia and Asia. He's worked in conventional jobs to keep food on the table and he's busked everywhere he went. Once, in Hamburg in Germany, he was busking on the main pedestrian street and this man came up and asked him would he mind his apartment for two weeks while he was on holidays in Ireland. "He just wanted someone to water the plants while he was away. It was really bizarre," he remembers.
He recalls doing an 18-gig tour of Finland that was more hassle than it was worth. "I had to go everywhere by train. It was mad," he recalled. Of all the countries he's busked in, Croatia is probably his favourite and he keeps going back there. "They love their busking there and I managed to get a pretty big gig there once after I was spotted busking in the street in Split," he said.
In the late eighties he was accepted into the Guitar Institute of Technology in Los Angeles and he spent three years there learning new techniques and refining what he knew. It was a tough but worthwhile learning environment. "I was probably the only one there that wasn't American and I had to pay my way. There were times when I didn't have a bob and I lived for a while in a hard area. It wasn't unusual for me to come out of my apartment and for a helicopter to be hovering over with its lights beaming down on someone who was being held at gunpoint by the police," he said.
At the moment he's heavily into the Dadgad technique of guitar playing. Pierre Benssusan is renowned as the world's most authoritative exponent of the Dadgad technique and earlier this year Charlie spent a fortnight at his home just outside Paris, learning from the master.
"Dadgad is a tuning. It's used a lot in traditional music but it's only as a background, as strumming. I wanted to get some idea of how it works and I transcribed three pieces of his music. I used a notebook and I had to write down every note that he did and it took me weeks and weeks. It showed me what compositional devices he was using and how he was structuring it.
"When I discovered this tuning it spoke to me more than the standard tuning. I was able to compose more and it was related more to my roots. I find it so easy to compose in this tuning and anyone that uses it says the same things. Musically, I'm going back over and trying to complete music that I've written for an acoustic CD. But I need a new guitar because I've discovered that the guitar that I play the Dadgad on is limited. I can see from other players that are demanding an awful lot more from their instruments and the guitar I have isn't capable of these demands. A guy called Kevin Ryan in California hand makes the type of guitar that I need. He's leaving 11mm between the strings and that facilitates the finger picking. There's a bigger space and it makes it easier to pick, especially if you're pushing the boundaries of the guitar. I'm progressing and it's opened up a whole new world for me. I've learned a lot too from a guy called Michael Hedges and I'm trying to incorporate a lot of that into my work. I find that it inspires me," he said.
He lives for his music, always has and probably always will. He doesn't bother with the television and spends most of his time writing and listening to music in Carraholly.
He loves the challenge that is facing him at the moment: getting to grips with Dadgad, getting that new guitar sorted and completing his own recordings is more than enough to keep him busy. "I don't know what I'd do without my music, I really don't. You know, no matter what mood you're in there's music to suit. You can be in love and there's a tune for that or you can have the blues and there's something for that too.
"I'm really enjoying trying to get to grips with the whole Dadgad thing. I'm off to America in April to meet up with this guy I met at the seminar in France this year to explore it further and while I'm there I'll get my new guitar. I also have my own work to complete. The plan is to record it here in the cottage and if I can do that I'll be a happy man."
If there is a downside to his life at the moment it's the lack of gigs. He used to have a regular slot in a pub in Westport but an Elvis impersonator with backing tracks replaced him. "I can't compete with someone like that. It's getting hard to get gigs," he said.
When it's put to him that The Den is still vacant he smiles at the thought of a 'Broken Glass' reunion. It probably will never happen but there's a generation of people in Westport that would love nothing more than the sight of Charlie Cusack letting rip on Bridge Street again. Any chance, Charlie?