Terri Hooley's Alternative Belfast
The tour guide leads his audience on a merry dance
While the rest of Belfast is at the May Day marathon, a rag-tag band of hippies and punks are traipsing the city’s musical landmarks in a fug of cigarette smoke. It’s Terri Hooley’s Alternative Belfast Walking Tour – and it’s everything you could wish for from Northern Ireland’s famously contrary ‘Godfather of Punk’.
The sold-out event – part of the 10th Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival – begins with booze and banter at Terri’s new Good Vibes music shop on Winetavern Street. I introduce myself and tell him I’m writing a feature for CultureNorthernIreland. He pulls a face that suggests this is the craziest thing he’s ever heard, and spits: ‘Get yourself a drink.’
Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody was due to say a few words, but sends his apologies. ‘He’s just back from tour and he’s knackered,’ explains Terri. ‘Some people these days have no stamina.’ In Lightbody’s place is a tattooed street performer who breathes fire and squeezes his body through a tennis racket. ‘It’s all for you, Terri,’ he gushes. ‘I love you, man!’
An assistant produces a ghettoblaster – held together by parcel tape, naturally – and Hooley puts on a CD of poetry specially recorded by Oh Yeah’s Stuart Bailie, followed by some vintage Them, Van Morrison's first successful band. Our host holds aloft a skull and crossbones flag as he leads off through Castle Court car park. He’s the pie-eyed piper of old Belfast town, saving us from ruthless property developers, sectarian thugs and the suits at City Hall.
‘This tour is not about the Troubles or the Titanic,’ he says. ‘It’s about love.’ Hooley singles out a friend in the crowd who left Belfast to work for the Beatles in the 1960s. ‘What did the Beatles have that I didn’t have?’ he asks. The punchline almost writes itself: ‘Two eyes!’
Hooley speaks about his socialist father and Christian mother, his brother who died from heroin (‘Best drug in the world but I wouldn’t recommend it’) and his children. He even reveals a little of what – beneath the bullshit and bravado – makes him tick: ‘My ego covers up a deep-rooted inferiority complex. I should be locked up in an institution – but I’m too smart for that.’
Hooley talks of ‘big highs and big lows’. He was hailed as an A&R genius by Warner Bros executives – then beaten half to death by a loyalist mob. Good Vibes was voted the UK’s most rock ‘n’ roll record shop – then he was burnt out of North Street Arcade.
The tour staggers from Smithfield to King Street to the site of the old Maritime Hotel, where Them found their feet. Hooley takes us past the Europa Hotel, the Crown Bar (he had hoped to stop for a pint but it’s closed) and the Ulster Hall. He mentions the Rolling Stones’ first Belfast gig, which lasted ‘13 to 15 minutes’. He namechecks Bob Dylan, Nana Mouskouri and Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green, who, we’re told, drinks champagne because he reckons there’s no alcohol in it. ‘Exactly the same reason I drink brandy, Guinness…’
There are good-natured rants about Van Morrison, Eamon McCann, George Jones and early punk DJ Davy Sims. Ian Paisley, Gerry Adams and Johnny ‘Mad Dog’ Adair, meanwhile, get special abuse. Hooley has no time for politics. ‘If there’s one thing I hate it’s fascist bastards,’ he rages.
Holey reels off the celebrities who came into his various premises. Over the years, he served Britt Ekland, Julian Lloyd Webber, PJ Proby and Cannon and Ball, though none received star treatment. ‘I ran that shop the same way I’m running this walking tour,’ Hooley says. ‘Is it any wonder we went bust?’
On Great Victoria Street – Hooley’s best known Good Vibes stomping ground – he gets carried away riffing about Caron Keating. It’s just as well dead people can’t sue for libel.
The spouting continues: ‘I don’t believe in flags, I don’t believe in countries.’ What Terri does seem to believe in are all-night parties, ‘tripping on liquid acid’ and, above all else, the unifying power of music. ‘From blues to folk to the R&B explosion to punk – I was there,’ he says. ‘Punk was my hippy’s revenge. It was a brilliant freedom of expression.’ Hooley laughs that posters for his gigs are now on display inside the Ulster Hall – gigs ‘The Man’ originally tried to ban.
As the tour edges towards the three-hour mark, many punters have begun to drift home. It’s cold, it’s wet and EastEnders is on the telly. For the stragglers who accompany Hooley to the John Hewitt pub, there’s more: ‘I’ve a gammy leg, bad heart, glass eye and I look like the back of a bus – but you’ve never lived ‘til you’ve slept with a one-eyed man!’
If Terri Hooley didn’t exist, you’d like to think some mad bastard would invent him.