By Eileen Murphy
The first message I got on my answering machine when I walked into work last Friday morning was that Charles Comer had died the night before.
I stared stupidly at the phone for a few minutes after Helena Mulkerns’s voice faded away, thinking: she’s got it wrong. It had to be a mistake. I spoke to Charles a couple of nights earlier, and he sounded fine. We made lunch plans, for heaven’s sake. The Chieftains’ new album was coming out in a few weeks. The Grammys were coming up. Charles wouldn’t miss that for the world. He couldn’t be dead.
I played the recording again, and it was the same. I played the rest of my messages, but didn’t hear any of them.
Charles was dead. No more phone calls on a Monday night — our customary gossip-and-catch-up time. No more news items or exclusives. No more fascinating off-the-record stories about . . . well, you’ll never hear them from me. I promised, and you didn’t break a promise to Charles. Not that he made threats, or made you swear you’d never tell — it was just understood. A gentleman’s agreement, if you will. No more Charles.
I thought about all the things Charles had done in his 64 years. His stint in the Merchant Marines, his work promoting the Beatles’ first album. A Liverpudlian himself, he must have enjoyed watching four Liverpool lads became the most famous band in the world. He and fellow publicist Sam Leach had coined the term "Mersey Beat" to describe their sound, and the term entered the rock and roll lexicon, defining the music of the early 1960s British Invasion.
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Charles handled the Rolling Stones’ publicity for over a decade, and went on to represent such diverse acts as Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Grace Jones. He also represented a band called the Texas Blues, where he met a then-unknown guitarist named Stevie Ray Vaughn. In recent years, he’d concentrated on Irish traditional artists the Chieftains and on blues/cabaret singer Marianne Faithfull.
I can remember thinking, at the beginning of our four-year friendship, that Charles couldn’t possibly know all the people he mentioned so casually during our conversations. But I found, in time, that Mick and Keith were indeed Jagger and Richards; his great mate Peter was actually Peter O’Toole, and that dinner at Sting and Trudie’s was a swanky affair in their Central Park West triplex.
Charles never bragged — he didn’t need to. He was living the kind of life that people in the entertainment business dream of, and he was aware of it. His phone never stopped ringing, and he never stopped answering it — not even at those time when (I found out later) he was almost too sick to hold the receiver.
Talking to friends about Charles in the days after his death made me realize the range of his influence. His good friend Mary Ryan, who runs American Celtic Television, said that Charles had insisted she go to the NAPTE Convention a few weeks ago, "to see if I wanted to take the show to the next level — cable, satellites and the rest."
"While I was there, I saw David Kelley (producer of "Ally McBeal") give a speech," Ryan said. "Afterward, I wanted to talk to him, but he was up on the stage and I was still down in the audience."
"Charles once told me, ‘Don’t talk to somebody who’s standing higher than you, because, psychologically, they’ll think they’re above you. Get on the same level and talk to him face to face.’ " Ryan recalled.
"What I did next was pure Charles," she said laughing. "I scrambled up on the stage and stuck my hand out, and introduced myself to Kelly. I congratulated him on the strong Celtic theme in his shows. He laughed and said, ‘Thanks for noticing.’ Then he took my card and put it in his pocket."
Charles spent his last weekend in the hospital, though he had planned a trip to California instead. He called me Monday evening and we chatted about the Chieftains’ upcoming album, "Tears of Stone." He fretted that I had not yet received a copy or a press kit.
"You’ll have one tomorrow, Eileen," he said firmly. "You’ll love it!" Ever the publicist, it was a command as much as an opinion.
I asked about his stay in the hospital, and characteristically, he pooh-poohed it.
"I had some trouble with my foot," he said. "The doctor wanted to remove part of it, but he was able to treat it."
I was startled, both by the seriousness of his condition, and by the casual way he mentioned it. "Charles, what’s wrong with your foot?" I asked, in a voice I tried hard to keep neutral.
"I’m diabetic," he said simply. He changed the subject, and I realized he’d said more than he’d intended. I had known him for over four years, and I’d had no idea he was so ill.
We chatted on, about Sinead O’Connor, about Michael Flatley, about Mick and Jerry and the Grammys and, of course, about the Chieftains. He asked me to fax him the Echo’s recent interview with Richard Harris’s actor son Jamie. He talked about Paddy Moloney’s energy, and about how happy he was that fiddler Eileen Ivers will be touring with the Chieftains this spring. He talked about ‘din Moloney, and how proud Paddy was of her acting talent.
Again in publicist mode, he reminded me that Marianne Faithfull’s new album was due out. "God’s record is hitting the stores soon!" he crowed — referring to Faithfull’s stint playing the Supreme Being on the TV show "Absolutely Fabulous" — and then broke into that familiar cackling laugh. He mentioned Stevie Ray Vaughn — "my poor Stevie," he called him — and we talked about the VH1 special about Vaughn’s life.
He sounded a bit tired, so we made a date for lunch, and I told him to take care of himself. I didn’t know this was goodbye — there was so much more to say. So many more stories to tell. So many things to take apart, so many more times for him to scold me for working too hard. So many more times for me to scold him for working too hard. So much left to say.
He signed off with his familiar, jaunty salutation, "Showbusiness is my life." Then there was a click on the other end of the phone — he didn’t believe in saying goodbye.
So I’ll say it. Bye, Charles. Say hello to your beloved Stevie Ray for me, and to Bob Marley and the Echo’s Kevin McHugh and everybody else as well. I’ll picture you up there, promoting that new Chieftains album, and keeping an eye on the press coverage. I’ll imagine you up there, using your influence to win them yet another Grammy.
Showbusiness was, indeed, your life.
We hear that Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, got a tad annoyed when she and her boyfriend, Count Gaddo della Gheradesca, were pursued by papparazzi when they attended the Rome premiere of Meryl Streep’s new movie, "Dancing at Lughnasa."
The New York Post reports that Fergie’s limo driver had to swerve to avoid hitting a photographer on a motorcycle. The paper quotes Sarah telling a friend, "It was one of the most terrifying nights of my life."
The irony can’t be lost on Pulitzer Prize-winning author Frank McCourt: the success of "Angela’s Ashes," his memoir about growing up in the slums of Limerick, has made him rich enough to afford a swanky mansion in Roxbury, Conn. According to the Wall Street Journal, the house, which sits on 25 acres in tony Litchfield County, cost a cool $1,125,000. McCourt and his wife, Ellen, will be within sugar-borrowing distance from fellow scribes like playwright Arthur Miller and writer William Styron.
Thrice is never enough
Hunky Irish actor Pierce Brosnan loves being known as 007 (though personally, we’d give him a 10). In fact, he loves it so much that he hopes to stay bond-ed to the role — which made him an international star — well into the next millennium.
Brosnan is currently working on his third Bond film, "The World is Not Enough," which fulfills his three-movie contract with producers. He told reporters, "I love doing this character and I have an option to do a fourth movie."
One can only assume that the producers are eager to sign Brosnan to another contract — in financial terms, he’s been the most successful Bond in the history of the franchise.
When he finishes work on "Enough" (or, dare we say, when enough’s enough) Brosnan hopes to work on another independent film like last year’s critically acclaimed "The Nephew."
"I’d love to come back to Ireland or England to make another independent film," he said. "In fact, I’ll be looking at coming back and getting a budget together in the next year."
Those of you who are already champing at the bit for details on "Enough" will have to content yourselves with knowing that the movie also features "Full Monty" actor Robert Carlyle. Robbie Coltrane reprises the role of Zukovsky which he created in the first Brosnan Bond flick, "GoldenEye," and this season’s Bond girls are Denise Richards and French actress Sophie Marceau. Another "girl" will be announced this week.
Mad Angels and Black 47
Those of you who just can’t get enough of Black 47 and its frontman (and noted playwright) Larry Kirwan, take heart — this is your week!
First off, there will be a play-reading seisiun titled "Mad Angels" to benefit breast cancer charities this Sunday at the Chelsea Playhouse, from noon-midnight. A host of well-known Broadway and Irish theater actors will read all of Kirwan’s works: "Blood," "Liverpool Fantasy," "Night in the Garden," "Mr. Parnell," "Rockin’ the Bronx," "Days of Rage," "Against the Grain" and "Poetry of Stone."
The event is sponsored by the West Bank Café, and all proceeds will be divided between NABCO (National Alliance of Breast Cancer Organizations) and a special fund set up to help pay Carolyn Keegan’s medical bills due to her breast cancer treatments.
The Chelsea Playhouse is located at 125 W. 22nd St., New York City. For reservations and information, call (212) 924-7415.
Also for you Kirwan-philes is Black 47’s new album, "Live in New York," which hits record stores this week. The album was recorded live at the Wetlands club in New York City last St. Patrick’s Day, and features favorites like "Funky Ceili," "Forty Shades of Blue" and "Different Drummer." We played our copy over and over and over all weekend, until the neighbors hammered loudly on our common wall. No accounting for taste . . .