Michael Ryan: Trebus Projects Record 2

These songs, recorded in 2005, were to be released on the B-side of a second Trebus Project vinyl record. A monologue based on the life of the singer – a 70-year-old man with dementia – who, for the project, I named Michael, would be on the A side. I got as far as writing the sleeve notes, designing the album cover and recording a rehearsal of the monologue before putting the project on the back burner. I’d worked with Michael for two years in a care home and then visited him for three months in an stark and terrifying mental health unit in a hospital to which, during a manic and violent episode, he had been sectioned. During these visits I recorded conversations in which Michael told me about his alcoholic father, the physical abuse he received at the hands of sadistic priests and his life as a street fighter, boxing for money outside pubs. A few days before Michael was sectioned I had released ‘Songs and Stories from the Centre – Trebus Record One’ – the first of an intended series of experimental collaborations between artists, composers and people with dementia. The record picked up unexpectedly excellent reviews: ‘A startling collision of Tom Waits, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Samuel Beckett’ (The Guardian). In the hospital I talked to Michael about ‘Songs and Stories’. Unasked, he came up with the idea of recording his favourite songs for a second record and started to write down the titles of tracks he would like to sing. A few days later I brought in my tape recorder and we made test recordings there in the mental health unit. As I mentioned in the sleeve notes (attached at the end of this post), Michael’s writing down of song titles had an unexpected outcome. Trebus Record Two – Michael’s album – never happened. I had anxieties about whether people would think I was opening him up to ridicule and whether he fully understood how he would be perceived. Twelve years on, however, having listened to the tracks again I find them moving and Michael’s determination to make the recordings in dreadful circumstances, admirable (though there’s no denying his singing is occasionally pretty bad) and it’s clear from his introduction that he knew what he was doing. Alongside the monologue of his life story the record would, I think, have worked artistically and it would have broken new ground in terms of the way in which people with dementia are represented. Michael frequently improvised lyrics – there is a manic quality to some of the singing - and sometimes performed songs twice in succession without pause. ‘You Made Me Love You’, sounds like an accusation and has a definite sense of menace. ‘My Lord’ is Michael’s own composition (during his madness Michael became fervently religious and heard accusing voices, which he took to be angels). Tracks 1. Walter’s intro (recorded in his room in the mental health unit) 2. Moon River (x2) 3. Danny Boy 4. Irish Eyes 5. You Made Me Love You. 6. Oh Shenandoah 7. My Way 8. I Gave Up My Senses 9. My Lord 10. Come Let Me Love You (x2) Sleeve notes: ‘Michael sang all the time. He was short and powerful with massive tattooed hands and a boxer’s nose. His medical notes said that he could barely read or write. Night and day he paced headlong down the corridors of the care home singing at the top of his voice. He said singing and pacing stopped terrible, violent thoughts coming into his head. Eventually he was taken off to a mental health unit where he smashed everything to pieces, punched a nurse and sang even louder. Medication didn’t help. Too high a dose and he went to sleep, a fraction lower and he woke up singing at full volume. Two months later I found him sitting quietly, writing on the back of pilfered drug charts. Each page was filled with shakily written song titles. Thinking of a favourite song and writing the title took so much mental effort that it overwhelmed his violent thoughts. Providing he had a pen and paper Michael didn’t need the drugs’.