Chris de Burgh has never really received proper credit for his lyrics. While his reputation as a musician was cemented early on by such classic tracks as ‘Spanish Train’, ‘Crusader’ and ‘The Traveller’, his equally poignant use of the English language deserves attention.
Let us, however, not speak of ‘Lady in Red’.
If we pretend, for a moment, that each of Chris de Burgh’s albums is instead a collection of poems, the results are startling. Far from being merely a competent guitarist and composer with a talent for soaring and majestic melodies, Chris de Burgh is also a poet.
However, Far Beyond These Castle Walls . . . (1974), Chris de Burgh’s first collection of poetry, showcases a poet who, alas, does not yet know it.
Beyond the ellipsis: Chris de Burgh and his early lyrics
In fact, Far Beyond These Castle Walls . . . deserves a moment’s silence. That silence is suggested by the ellipsis (. . .) at the end of the book’s title.
Released in 1974, the collection was published in an LP-sized package complete with a haunting black cover featuring some kind of gothic ‘castle’. This ground-breaking volume represents the beginning of what has turned out to be an astounding career.
Sure, you can’t really compare these early works to later sequences (see Man On the Line), however their sheer technical genius and intricate use of language work to set Chris de Burgh’s lyrics apart from the lyrics of other literary wannabees including Rod McKuen, Kevin Johnson and the rest.
Hold on . . .
Take, for example, ‘Hold On’ with its hauntingly simplistic opening:
Somewhere,—Chris De Burgh, ‘Hold On’
A lonely girl lies weeping.
A lonely man tries sleeping,
But he’s getting nowhere.
This is deceptive stuff, lulling the reader into a false sense of security until, by the poem’s devastating end, we are left wondering just what the hell has happened:
Somehow,—Chris De Burgh, ‘Hold On’
Just when the tension becomes almost unbearable, however, Chris throws the switch and in floods emotion. Sing this with me:
Na na na na oh Lord on this windy night—Chris De Burgh, ‘Windy Night’
Na na na na oh Lord on this windy night.
Moving on . . .
‘Sin City’, surely a reference to South Africa’s ‘Sun City’, is a bold and political poem, with a directness lacking in the collection up until this point:
Good morning, Blue Rider, and how was your night?—Chris De Burgh, ‘Sin City’
Did you get the best deal from your body, did she make you feel alright?
Well she did ‘cos she’s my friend …
That de Burgh manages to riff on Kandinsky and the Rolling Stones at the same time is both incredible and a hint of things to come.
Note also the link between this poem and the previous poem, through the repeated use of the word ‘night’.
Puzzling though the meaning of this and other pieces (see, for example, ‘New Moon’, ‘Lonesome Cowboy’) may be, there’s something uplifting, something moving here, a kind of seething anger at the unfairness and injustice of everything.
Still, this is not to say the Chris has totally abandoned his rock and roll roots, as shown clearly by the bizarrely debauched ‘Watching the World’:
Oh Ram bam bi doo ah… Ram bam bi doo ay…—Chris De Burgh, ‘Watching the World’
Roll one for me brother, eighteen inches long,
And we can lay down here by the riverside
Smoking and singing this song… oh yea
Oh yea, indeed.
While ‘Satin Green Shutters’, with its melancholy air and gently maudlin delivery was (in my opinion, deservedly) the only poem here that made it onto Best Moves, I’d like to conclude this all-too-brief appreciation of Chris de Burgh’s ealiest lyrics with a nod to the final poem, ‘Goodnight’, the only sonnet in this collection and not a bad one at that.
Sure, it’s a little hastily cobbled together and yes, the first and second parts do end with the same words and, clearly, most of the line breaks are arbitrary but hey, no one ever said CdeB was John Donne.
Lacking a central conceit, the poem does nevertheless manage to evoke some feelings within the reader, mainly relief at the book’s impending conclusion but also a sense of eerie deja vu, perhaps due to the fact that the final lines echo lines from other poems in the collection:
I will lead you to the river, here’s the door,—Chris De Burgh, ‘Goodnight’
And the key is turning round
Close the shutters, do not cry, there’s a new moon in the sky;
Oh hold on to your love, until your time has come to say … goodnight.
And on that note, I too must say goodnight but I will return, very soon, with another poetic appreciation—this time, of Chris’ first real ‘storytelling’ ‘masterpiece’: Spanish Train and Other Stories (1975).
Until then, as Chris would say, ‘guard these moments well’.