Coventry singer/songwriter ROB HALLIGAN went to New York to film a video though the journey was much more significant than the standard publicity shoot. Mike Rimmer went with him.
The film crew have light meters in their hands and are arguing about camera settings for the next shot. Rob Halligan is standing on the edge of a small crowd of autograph hunters all edging closer to the musician wanting to get their photo taken with him. Behind his guitar he looks naked and I am thinking he must be cold! It is November after all and the crew, Halligan and myself are all staring in disbelief at an American icon! The Naked Cowboy!
To be honest he's not completely naked as he's wearing a pair of Y-fronts and an enormous cowboy hat but it's still a little disconcerting. This is Times Square and the Naked Cowboy's busking patch. He sings a little country, accepts donations into a slot in the body of his guitar, poses for pictures with girls encouraging them to grab his buttocks. You get the idea. We're trying to quickly get Rob jamming with him for a quick scene in the music video for one of Rob's songs "Streets Of This Town". We are in New York to shoot the video and despite the fun with The Naked Cowboy, the song is actually very serious.
The next day we're wandering through Manhattan and standing on Fifth Avenue as the sun shines between the skyscrapers. It's a beautiful autumn day and it's not often that you find a place where the sun can make it through all the buildings. Rob and I pause and look down the street towards the sun. It evokes a memory. The last time Rob stood here looking at the sun, it was a few days after September 11th 2001 and he was visiting New York because his father had died in the World Trade Centre. He had walked down here and it had been eerily deserted as he picked his way through the dust covered empty streets towards Ground Zero. Not a single yellow cab had been here then as the city silently mourned the dead. The strangeness of that experience washed up in the images captured in the lyrics of "Streets Of This Town", a song he penned on the plane home after the memorial service. It's apt then that he's back walking these streets and filming the video for the song.
Half an hour later, we're on the top of the Empire State Building looking out across the city. It's the highest I've ever been without sitting in a plane. I chat to Rob's half brother Trevor about his movements on that fateful September day as he talks about his father. For the brothers, one of the hardest things is not knowing how their father responded nor what he felt or did. His body was never found.
The last time Rob was at Ground Zero, it was an enormous pile of rubble, hundreds of feet high and now three years later, it's an enormous cavity, a gaping wound in the city landscape. All around the site a huge metal fence prevents people getting into the site. The fence has photos of how the city looked with the towers in place and there's a long list of the dead. People pass by, take photos. I stare at the list eventually finding Robert Halligan Snr's name and notice through the fence the battered twisted metal girder that was shaped like a cross. The rescue workers had found it as they dug the rubble searching for bodies. The cross had been a symbol of hope and now it stands cemented in place on the site, a constant reminder that even out of great tragedies, it is always possible to find hope.
And that has been the journey of Rob Halligan Jnr, finding hope in the middle of his loss. He is sober at Ground Zero as he wanders along the site looking through the fence, lost in his own thoughts. I leave him alone for a while but eventually we stop together by the fence and chat and he looks at the cross. "I think that's beautiful. I think it's amazing. What I like about it is it's not been fashioned, it's how it was. It hasn't been joined together or anything. They just found it and left it like that. I think God points us to the cross and says, 'Look, I died on the cross. I did this, I sacrificed my Son so that all the rubbish and all the crud that you carry around in this world could be killed as well.' That's an incredibly poignant reminder of that. This is an incredibly corrupt and messy scene we have here and that's been crucified, that's dead and buried, that's been put in the grave. And there IS hope in the cross, that we can have a relationship with God and if we have that relationship with God then we're going to see an end to all this kind of stuff that happens."
Coming back to New York to make the music video has been another part of the healing process for Rob. As a Christian and a songwriter, he has had to process the extreme hurt of losing his father so suddenly. He's wondered what it means for his faith. And the process continues. Some of the songs on his solo album 'Dancing With Seagulls' deal with that process, some are about other subjects because life is bigger than the events of this one day. Standing at Ground Zero he admits that coming to New York to shoot the video is cathartic. He explains, "After September 11th, I wrote some songs and the whole root of the songs was, 'Look, there can always be hope out of the mess of this world. God can give you a hope.' There's a metaphor in the Bible - 'beauty from ashes' - and I guess you can't get closer to ashes than this place. So what I've wanted to do is see beauty come out of ashes and these songs, I hope, give hope to other people. On the flip side, my dad always wanted me to make a video, so we're filming it and hopefully, somebody will get something out of it."
Back in Times Square, I am quickly discovering that shooting music videos is extremely boring! It's cold and I have been standing around all day keeping Rob company. As I look up at a giant picture of Destiny's Child stretched over the side of a building I reflect that I may be bored but at least I am bored in New York! Americans seem to be impressed when a camera is pointed at someone and people passing by want to know who Rob is! Autographs are sought. I spend ages explaining to passers by what this particular Englishman is doing in New York. I find all of this funny because in this celebrity obsessed country, Rob really is unassuming and yet he kindly signs postcards, stands for photos and gets back to the business of being filmed. But there's nothing glamorous about this. I discover it takes four days of gruelling work to make a music video. But if you want glamour, just walk to the other end of Times Square. Eminem is appearing live at the MTV studios and outside fans mill around waiting to see their hero. From one extreme to another, eh?
The excellent 'Dancing With Seagulls' album was recorded with Simon Goodall in the production chair. The motivation for making the record began in the aftermath of events in New York and Rob remembers, "I think after September 11th, I really felt I had something to say. It's more than just the Gospel presentation and the evangelistic stuff. I want to communicate a message of hope that when bad stuff does happen, God is there and God can pull you through. I guess like on 'Streets Of This Town', there's a line in it that says, 'You took all our fears and all our pain and you carried them down every street of this town.' What I hope comes through, perhaps not just in one song or in individual songs, but the whole album is that Jesus is there with us. He's carrying the weight for us and all we need to do is lean on him."
We spend some time staying on Long Island with Al & Cindy Chisare who are regular listeners to Rimmerama. Al runs a recording studio in his church and Rob will record a five song session there for my programme. Al has fixed up a gig for us to play at a local coffee house called Samantha's Lil' Bit Of Heaven. The Irish band Emmaus played here a few days before us and their leader Rojo left a message saying hi to us. It's a small world! Rob plays guitar and sings, I play Latin percussion and we busk our way through some songs.
Rob is an amazingly natural performer with a gift for relating to audiences. He chats amiably between songs, sharing stories and observations. He's brutally honest with a rough spirituality that has been tested and found true. Somehow this only adds to the power of his songs. Meanwhile I chip in a few stories of my own about my New York experiences since it's the first time I've visited the city. Half way through the set I completely fluff a joke! It's supposed to go "Why do seagulls fly across the sea? Because if they flew across the bay, they'd be bagels!" But I don't deliver it right and am greeted by an unnerving silence. From across the stage, Rob shakes his head at me in mock disgust.
Seagulls featured in Rob's childhood. He tells the crowd about growing up in Worthing. "When I was a teenager I'd go down the seafront at night and when the tide was out on a still night, you get thousands and thousands of seagulls all just sitting on the sand. So I used to run through them and they'd fly up and land somewhere else, so I'd run through them again! It was just great fun. And because I was quite messed up I was quite lonely and that was a bit of a comfort."
However he fell in with some of the local yobs and inspired by The Ramones' film Rock'n'Roll High School decided it might be fun to burn down his school. Thankfully his career as an arsonist wasn't successful! He remembers, "We set fire to the bin in the toilets. We didn't quite burn the school down! I laugh at it now but a lot of my teenage years were really wasted. I got into a load of trouble. I left school before I took any exams so I didn't have any qualifications or anything. I didn't have anywhere to live because I left home - moved out and got kind of messed up with accommodation. So I was on the streets and we were squatting in a house. What we were doing was breaking into cars at night and stealing stereos and things and selling the stereos. And yeah, we eventually got caught."
In trouble and in court, Rob's life might have taken the inevitable slippery path to long term jail sentences and who knows what except that God had other plans. Down and on the street after he'd run away and headed to the Midlands, he met some guys from the Jesus people who showed him hospitality and invited him to live in their community. After months of resisting, his defences were finally flattened when he realised how kind these Christians had been and it made him wonder about God.
Showing page 1 of 2