A piece I wrote some years ago …
In 1987 my girlfriend (not yet wife) and I moved out of Dublin city and into a rented bungalow in a small village 17 miles to the north. The main attraction was the large garage where we could do the screenprinting and signwriting that sustained us at the time. The economy of the area depended on fishing and market gardening … a big change from city life.
Soon we met a friendly young couple from Birmingham who lived round the corner, and started to drink and play chess with them. It wasn’t long before the male half of the couple said ‘Have you ever heard of Ted Hawkins?’ We hadn’t.
He loaned us a cassette of Watch Your Step, and we listened to it all the time while working in the garage … I associate it with the smell of paint and of the roll-up cigarettes that my wife smoked at the time (as did our new friends). The songs were varied, often quirky and strangely catchy; Hawkins’ guitar-playing was rudimentary but his voice was superb … harsh yet vulnerable, and full of raw emotion.
Ted was in his fifties by then … the final decade of his life. He was a big man from Mississippi who had lived the hard life of poverty, crime and heroin addiction. While busking on Venice Beach, California he’d been ‘discovered’ several times (Watch Your Step was recorded in 1971), but each time, it seems, he went back to the busking.
We lived in the village for only three months … the owner of the house we were renting was deported from America, or so she said … we suspected that she was just homesick. In any case, she and her family wanted to move back in, so we had to go, and we rented a flat and a lock-up garage in Dublin. Our Birmingham friends, who had a baby and a somewhat unconventional lifestyle, moved to a small island off the south coast of Ireland … he and I started a game of chess by post, but didn’t keep it up too long.
Later that year we saw Ted Hawkins playing live twice … once in the Olympia Theatre and once, appropriately, in the Hawkins on Hawkins Street … on the latter night a crowd of us were celebrating my sister-in-law’s 21st birthday (she was a big fan too by then).
Ted’s musical tastes were promiscuous … he seemed to be equally at home singing blues, country, soul, advertising jingles, and cheesy ballads that he just about managed to rescue with his soaring vocals and intense performance … the first version of ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ (and the only good one) that I heard was at one of his gigs. I suppose he always had the heart of a busker … a man with no image to maintain, and no interest in seeming cool.
Within a year my girlfriend and I were married had moved to England, and we more or less forgot about Ted. I think he spent his final years in England, living with his manager and the manager’s family. His life was unusual and unstructured. He was 58 years old at the time of his death.
He lives on in his music … I would certainly recommend Watch Your Step if you can get you hands on the CD.