When news broke on Tuesday evening that Bap Kennedy had died it was as if the world took a blow to the solar plexus.
It wasn’t entirely unexpected given the bleakness of his cancer diagnosis earlier this year, but the wave of grief that washed through social media alone showed just how far and wide his music had permeated.
Far, wide and deep: Bap’s fans around the world took it personally because Bap’s songs are so personal, expressing universal emotions that resonate with all of us. Not only that he did it with lyrics of such concision and precision he made Hemingway look like a windbag. If Bap Kennedy had written War And Peace it would have contained the same wide range of character, chronology, depth and emotion but it would have been about six pages long.
Genius lies in that simplicity, that richness out of sparseness: the sheer humanity and impact of Bap’s songs could be found in the spaces in between. It’s an extraordinarily difficult thing to pull off yet Bap did it year after year on album after album, drawing down the human condition with all its flaws, joys, frailties hopes, heartbreaks and dreams and distilling it into the delicate melodies of scantily-worded songs over basic chords that made the listener feel he was speaking to only them.
I was lucky enough to know Bap on and off for the best part of twenty-five years. More off than on, really, but despite being able to call him a friend I was always in awe of him as a writer and performer.
The thing I’ll remember most about Bap is the ever-present sparkle in his eye that embodied his kindness, intelligence, warmth and lightning wit. I’ve pulled together a few memories of that sparkle, largely because I can hardly bring myself to believe it’s gone out.
Hull, 1992. A crowded cafeteria in a students’ union building in the early afternoon. I’m standing there with Bap and Energy Orchard, who are on a university tour sponsored by a brewery of which this is the latest stop. We’ve driven a long way from wherever the previous night’s gig was and we’re looking at the ENTS manager who’s smiling encouragingly.
“So,” I ask, expecting to be shown through to the hall and dressing rooms, “where’s the gig?”
His smile flickers. “Erm, here,” he says, gesturing at the tables packed with students eating jacket potatoes as if I’ve just asked where I might find some students eating jacket potatoes.
There’s a collective boggle from the Energy Orchard contingent.
“But… where’s the stage?” I splutter.
“The stage manager’s bringing it in his car.”
“His CAR?”
A slight pause.
“It’s got a roof rack.”
Bap walks towards me, hands in pockets, a man whose band is signed to a major label and who has written songs with Van Morrison. He’s arrived, hungover, in Hull and the gig’s in a cafeteria and the stage is somewhere in Hull on a student’s roof rack. It’s only my second day on the tour and so far we’ve pretty much only nodded at each other. He’s going to go ballistic.
I catch his eye. It’s sparkling. He flashes me a smile.
“Should be a good night,” he says in his clipped west Belfast tones.
He was right. It was a good night. The car with stage arrived, the PA was set up, the lighting rig hauled up into place and Energy Orchard tore the roof off the place. I have a vivid memory of that night in which half the crowd are on the stage with Bap chaired on their shoulders leading the encore chorus of Pain, Heartbreak and Redemption.
That night was the first time I saw the Bap sparkle. Over the next quarter of a century or so I’d get to know Bap better and the sparkle would always be there. I saw it at Energy Orchard’s farewell show at Harlesden’s Mean Fiddler in 1994 as Bap left the stage, arms aloft in triumph as Pain, Heartbreak and Redemption morphed into Nessun Dorma, the last bars of the last song at the last gig of one of the best live acts who ever took to a stage, a brilliant, hardworking, kick-arse rock’n’roll band who’d had the misfortune to be out of step with the zeitgeist (“the Happy Mondays were happening,” said Bap once of the band’s timing, “and we were still poncing around in waistcoats and ponytails”).

A year or so later I’m in the Samuel Pepys pub next to Hackney Empire. I’ve spotted in Time Out that Bap’s playing and I’ve not seen him since that Mean Fiddler gig. When I arrive he’s setting up on the little stage to the side of the bar, rolling out leads and plugging in microphones.
“Charlie!” he says, and there’s that sparkle again. “Did you bring your mando?”
I had no idea he even knew I played the mandolin, but this question triggered one of the happiest periods of my life, thanks to Bap.
After Energy Orchard had finished Bap had gone to Nashville and recorded his first solo album, Domestic Blues produced by Steve Earle. There was some kind of hold up with its release and Bap was playing low key local gigs honing the set ready to take things on the road and he was on the lookout for a mandolin player who could sing a bit of back up.
I was nowhere near good enough – the mandolin on the album was played by Nashville legend Peter Rowan for goodness’ sake, not to mention the backing vocals by Nanci Griffith – but Bap had me up there on stage for a few gigs and I will be forever grateful for that. There I was, utterly unqualified, carefully strumming chords and not daring any of Peter Rowan’s runs or solos I’d tried haltingly to copy in my bedroom from a tape of the album, just exhilarated to be sharing a stage with a man I admired so much.
Although I knew I wasn’t good enough – and I knew Bap knew I wasn’t good enough – I had the time of my life for as long as it lasted. We filmed a video in the cavernous Pembury Tavern in Hackney, miming to a tape machine with me struggling to control a permanent grin because I felt like a pop star (at one point the director actually encouraged us to smile. “Smayle?” scoffed the Geordie lead guitarist, “this is country rock man, not fookin Boy-zerrn”).

We branched out into general pub gigs in dives around Hackney and pre-gentrification Stoke Newington. There was a weekend residency at Filthy McNasty’s in Islington, thirty quid in your hand and all the Guinness you could drink where Sunday lunchtimes could turn into Monday mornings and the thirty quid was long gone but Bap was entirely at home telling stories and jokes.
I began playing with Bap’s younger brother Paul and my friend Pat, bashing out Gram Parsons, Hank Williams and Tom Waits covers in an endless stream of dodgy London boozers. Occasionally Bap would drop in to see us, pick up a guitar and join us for three or four songs; a couple of his, a couple of Elvis’s, and where we’d been thrashing away in the corner to widespread indifference suddenly every face in the place was turned towards us, utterly engaged by the man sitting on a table swinging his legs and singing his heart out over a battered acoustic guitar. Then he’d put the guitar down, retire to a bar stool and the hubbub of conversation would start up again as the three of us began to wobble our way through Sin City or somesuch.
In the mid-2000s I met Bap for lunch in the Star Café in Soho. My ham-fisted musical efforts had petered out and been replaced by bashing out books. Bap was working on another solo album, loosely based on the moon landings with which he had recently become obsessed. We were a decade older and talked about the old days, writing, Elvis and Hank Williams, pretty much the stuff we always talked about. Bap was a bigger Elvis geek than I was and would flaunt the key ring from the hotel room he’d stayed in while recording in Nashville – the room Elvis always requested whenever he was in town.
The afternoon went by in a flash and the sparkle that day was strong with reminiscence and news. The wintry sun was setting pink and purple in the Soho sky by the time we left and Bap was tangibly energised, fizzing with enthusiasm for work, for life.
The last time I saw him was in Dublin about four years ago. We went for lunch again, with our respective other halves. The sparkle was at its brightest that day because Bap was happier than I’d ever seen him: happily married to the wonderful Brenda, living back in Northern Ireland and bursting with life and ideas.
We parted vowing not to leave it so long next time.
A few days have passed now since he died but it’s still impossible to accept Bap’s seemingly infinite sparkle has been extinguished. There was so much life in it.
I spent relatively little time with Bap in the years I knew him but I treasure all of it and I treasure the songs: other people knew him much better than I did, but his music has underpinned most of my adult life. He was one of the most talented individuals I’ve ever met in any field and was a lovely, lovely man.
If there can be a positive aspect of Bap’s illness it’s that the outpouring of love that greeted his diagnosis allowed him at least a glimpse of how admired and loved he was by people all around the world.
Thank goodness he’s left us the songs. There’s sparkle in them.