Johnson confirms his political commitment with a song called “Over the Hills and Far Away”, a restrained statement that would sound much better possibly in the hands of someone like the late Woody Guthrie or the late Phil Ochs or even our own Christy Moore, whose recent political songs have anger written in every line. The crowd love every minute of it, though I’ve lost a faith in the sincerity of the commitment by young people in this country to ally themselves with the rights of right in a wrong society. “She’s Leaving” is a song (written to the tune of Auld Lang Syne), which topped the Australian charts and went big in the United States when Jim Ed Brown put it out on record over there. A simple song that admits failure and is incapable of hiding the author’s feelings when his wife walks out: “the fool in me / persuading me / to hide the broken pieces of my dignity”. Johnson, one gets the impression from his songs, had to subdue a lot of personal pain before the lines went on paper.
Longford’s own, Brendan O’Reilly, recorded the Irish cover version of the song three years ago but it lacked the emotion charged pace which Johnson’s powerful voice both convey and keep under command at one and the same time. The Australian singer is faultlessly moving through his set, approaching the half-way stage with “No Sense at All”, a song which underlines human failure again and “New York City”, a song which in my opinion underlines nothing at all and least of all this artist’s immense ability. But he soon redresses the imbalance with the highlights of the night. First, a song called “Scotty”, dedicated to his younger son. It could, in the hands of an Irish singer songwriter, turn into a maudling chapter thirty-three of a come-all-ye but in this artists’s hand it examines the things – even love – which touch different parts of our life at a tangent and then they’re gone. Forever. It was the first time I heard the song and I remember it as the highlight of the show, tracing as it does how his young son asks him questions about life which the father in reply tells him that he’s lived a lot longer and can’t answer the same questions, maybe sometimes can’t even bring himself to ask the questions any more. Johnson sums it up: “Scotty, life can be rough / Scotty, life can be tough”. The nuances of the singer’s voice as he ranges through those lines lift the song above the pain which the lines could painfully impress in the hands of a lesser artist. All Johnson leaves one with is a dull ache which makes one even appreciate the pain to hear the pleasure of things he’s observed on his journey from his birthplace in Rockhampton, Queensland, to the stage of Dublin’s Olympia Theatre.
The crowd know the next song from the first chord “Rock and Roll I gave you all the best years of my Life” is an anthem, a song which will be remembered long after the Seventies have gone. It’s a song of dreams, broken dreams, consolations, new dreams and the consolation that in an empire of dreams – broken or otherwise – a dreamer is still king. It moves through a lifetime in its five minutes and twenty seconds. The song is a true classic: “I can still remember when I bought my first guitar / put it proudly in my car and my family listened fifty times to my two-song repertoire / and I told my mum her only son is gonna be a star” / and then chapter one: “sixty-six seemed like the year we were really going somewhere / Livin’ in San Francisco with flowers in our hair”, and Johnson carefully traces the ebullient rise to fame and ecstasy to “Sixty-nine in L.A. / Came around so soon / we were really making headway / writing lots of tunes / We must have played the wildest stuff we had ever played / the way the crowds cried out for us we thought we had it made”/ but the bubble had burst and the bright lights of fame had dimmed in two years: .’Seventy-one in Soho when I saw Suzanne / I was trying to go it solo with someone else’s band /…. “and she followed me / when finally / I sold my old guitar I and she tried to help me understand I’d never be a star”. The recurring theme of the song is that the author and observer was always just one step behind, and would always be one step behind a person he most wanted to be in step with.
Fame, fleeting and robbing the soul of its strength if it is let, is a mistress which only keeps pace with the best of us for a short time. Then the dream breaks and everything breaks. Johnson’s song will long outlive the Seventies. The audience give it a long, deserved ovation. This concorde-performer has scaled his height and it’s a downward dropping flight from here in as he paces his way through “Sunday Morning Roses (From the Monday Morning Dust)”, “Grab the Money and Run” before he finishes off with “Man of the 20th Century”, his re-released and inferior single in Ireland at the moment. He comes back and does one encore with “There is Nothing I would Rather Do than Love You’.