Monday, 11 December 2017

Ewan MacColl


I was reminded of his influence recently when playing three covers of his songs on Celtic Crush/SiriusXM Radio. 

An avowed Marxist he was once considered too dangerous to be allowed into the US, yet he changed the way we listen to music. Born James Miller in 1915, you might know him better as Ewan MacColl.

He was such a towering cultural figure in my youth it never occurred to me that he didn’t hail from the Highlands. His parents were indeed Scottish, but Jimmy Miller was born in Salford, part of Greater Manchester.

You probably never heard of the joint but you’ve hummed along to Millar’s hymn to its industrial dourness - Dirty Old Town.  

Millar couldn’t wait to get out of there. He quit school at 14, was organizing on the streets at 15, began his own theatre company at 16, while the British Secret Service opened their first file on him at 17.

Eventually he would shed his given name too. Ewan MacColl had a better ring for a man intent on changing the world.

He had plenty to revolt against - of four children born to his blacklisted ironworker father and charwoman mother, he was the only survivor. He grew up in a house throbbing with political songs, radical dogma, and a desire for universal revolution.

A voracious reader and self-educated man, he greatly resented the fact that people of his class were rarely granted entry to the halls of academia, much less the corridors of political power. 

Through his travels with his theatre company he came to understand that Britain’s old rural way of life was fast disappearing; and so he set out to record the songs and stories of the poor and dispossessed.

He presented a series of programs on BBC Radio and for the first time many “common folk” heard their accents, vocal mannerisms, and traditions broadcast on a medium that had been the exclusive preserve of the upper classes.

This was to open the door for “regional” people like Brendan Behan, Michael Caine, and The Beatles, all of whom would have been considered figures of fun in earlier decades.

MacColl was a hard, flinty man whose extreme Left Wing views barely softened with time. 

He could be intolerant and though almost singlehandedly responsible for the British folk revival of the 1950’s/60’s, he drew up strict rules for what songs could be sung in his folk club and how the performers should dress and present themselves.

He cared little for public opinion, and caused grave scandal by leaving his second wife while in his ‘40’s to marry Peggy Seeger, Pete’s 21-year old half-sister. Still he wrote one of the great love songs for her, First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, and their union lasted until his death.

I hear his influence often especially in Celtic Music for he was a strict taskmaster to Luke Kelly of The Dubliners who apprenticed at his school for folksingers. 

MacColl’s credo was to dig deep and find the inner core of a song, then sing it from the soul without any kind of ornamentation. He took this to rather absurd lengths with women for he frowned on the use of make up during performance. 

The Pogues would have appalled him and yet Shane McGowan’s delivery is vintage MacColl courtesy of his adoption of Luke Kelly’s soulful, stringent technique.

I once saw MacColl at Folk City in Greenwich Village. Finally admitted into the US, he dominated the stage – and yet there was a sadness about him. It was during the age of Reagan and it was obvious that time had passed the old Marxist by – his revolution would never come.

Oddly enough, the sadness humanized him and as I shook his hand after the gig I was never less than aware that the man who had written Dirty Old Town, The Traveling People, School Day’s Over, and a hundred other great songs, had indeed changed the way we listen to music.

I told him that Turner & Kirwan of Wexford had recorded a heavily synthesized version of Traveling People. With a glint in his eye he said, “I’ve heard of it.”

Choosing discretion over valor, I did not tell him I’d worn mascara many times while performing it.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Belfast - Soul City


I’ve always loved Belfast - a city with some serious soul.

Then again, I had a novel introduction. My uncle took me there as a boy to meet the Rev. Ian Paisley. Recently home from missionary work on The Philippine Islands Fr. Jim Hughes was convinced that the Rev. Ian was “the reincarnation of St. Paul” and just needed a “little change in direction.” I kid you not!

A hair-raising rural encounter with the B Specials put a crimp in Fr. Jim’s style, but we did drive through East Belfast on a Sunday morning while our Protestant brethren raised their voices in praise of the Lord. This outpouring of devotion left an indelible impression on my papist soul.

Soon thereafter I became a fan of the Belfast beat group, Them. Van Morrison’s classic Astral Weeks sealed my musical deal with the city.

I also visited during the dark days of Bobby Sands hunger strike; even then I was struck by the sheer humanity of the people.

I return every couple of years now and am always amazed at Belfast’s continuing strides towards inclusiveness. Walk out any evening into the crowded downtown streets, enter The Crown, Kelly’s Cellars, or any of the great local pubs and restaurants and you’d be forgiven for wondering, “Was it all just a bad dream?”

For Belfast is a city busy putting its past in the rear view mirror.

I take a group of North Americans to Ireland every year, most of them listeners to Celtic Crush on SiriusXM. Like my three-hour radio show I focus on history, politics, music and how they ineffably intertwine.

Belfast is always a highlight for it epitomizes William Faulkner’s line, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” 

Instead of shunning Belfast’s recent history Coiste deals with it in a way that could well pay dividends for other divided cities like Jerusalem or Beiruit. This enterprising organization puts together various political/historical excursions, but my favorite is the Joined Falls/Shankill Tour.

This is a unique opportunity to be taken through Republican and Loyalist areas by ex-combatants. This year our guides were Robert “Dinker” McClenaghan and Noel Large.

We began at The Spectrum, a vibrant community center in the Unionist Shankill Road area. It’s always important to remember that there is a wide variance of views in both Loyalist and Republican circles, likewise with our guides.

Noel Large is an intense and powerful presence, and a most interesting person in a city teeming with characters. He is proud of his native streets and heritage but, unlike the caricature of the dour Ulsterman, he wears his heart on his sleeve, and gave our busload of travelers a rare and passionate view into the Loyalist soul.

Dinker, as he is affectionately known, is no less an ardent spokesman for his Republican streets and point of view – remember that the Shankill and Falls are mere blocks from each other.

Republicans, however, have more experience in dealing with the outside world, and let’s face it: North Americans in general are more disposed towards their point of view. Which was why it was a riveting experience to share a bus ride with these two 60-year old ex-combatants who, to put it mildly, would not have been well disposed to each other not all that long ago.

Both had served long prison sentences for desperate deeds, and had given much thought to what they had done, and the reasons they had taken up arms in the first place.

The most touching aspect was the rough friendship they had carved out, for who could understand their shared experiences better than each other.

Towards the end Noel said something riveting, to the effect that “we should never have been fighting each other, but rather those who divided us.”

It was a moment of truth for two working class Belfast men looking back at a troubled past, both determined to make the present and future better for their people.

When you go to Belfast make sure you visit the Spectrum Centre on The Shankill as well as An Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich on The Falls. There’s truth and revelation to be found on both sides of a once impregnable divide.

http://www.culturlann.ie/en/welcome/

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Who are these guys - Butch & The Kid?


Who are these guys? This is not a flashback to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. No I’m talking about President Trump and the Republican Party?

Now I’m a man of the Left, as you might have gathered, but I’ve always felt a little more secure knowing that if my tribe happened to overspend, as has happened, then my brethren on the Right will be there bewailing rising deficits, crippling interest payments, and other fiscal calamities.

Being somewhat of a Keynesian in matters economic, I believe that during times of high unemployment, deflation, or catastrophe, it behooves the government to invest in infrastructure, thereby putting people back to work and giving the economy a jumpstart.

Generally speaking this economic “goosing” tends to work, though it can take time and much verbal lashing from the Right. 

And sometimes the Right is right! In a rush to pump money into the economy, there is often waste and overspending.

That’s why the recent about-turn by the Republican Party is so troubling. The GOP abandoned its loathing of deficits, along with its fear of “crippling future generations with debt,” and all at the behest of the two mighty “M’s” – Mnuchin and Mulvaney.

These two gentlemen are currently advising us that if we cut taxes for corporations these institutions will be so grateful they will spread their already massive largesse among the rest of us.

Not only that but there will be a surge of economic growth, the like of which we haven’t seen since the invention of the wheelbarrow; in fact, we’ll all be riding the gravy train like Mr. Mnuchin and his one-percent colleague, Gary Cohn, chief economic adviser to President Trump, who is reputed to have declared, “only morons pay the estate tax.”

Well he did work at Goldman Sachs so he should know. Or should he? Tinkering with stocks and bonds hardly qualifies you to expand a rapidly changing service and high tech economy that already boasts a minimal 4.1% unemployment rate.

However, such experience will help in managing debt, and there’ll be plenty of that. These Goldman Sachs alumni can share their expertise with our president, aka “the King of Debt” who also has intimate knowledge of the nation’s bankruptcy laws.

As for the bould Mick Mulvaney – he used to be one our foremost budget hawks. During the Obama administration he preached undying frugality and fiscal restaint. During the Great Recession he fought tooth and nail against federal infrastructure and research spending, as it would add to the national debt of $10trillion. Hey Mick, guess what. That debt is now well over 20trill.

Fiscal probity how are you! Let’s risk it all on one big throw of the dice. Add a trillion and a half more in tax cuts, and growth will pay for it. But let’s add a national novena to St. Jude for interest rates to remain flat. Could be hard servicing all these trillions in debt if rates rise – as they eventually will.

Hey, I like a little flutter at the track now and again, but I’m always careful to have bus, train, or even taxi fare home. If the Mnuchin-Mulvaney gamble fails, I’ll be hitching to Manhattan from Belmont.

By the way, has anyone reminded these whiz kids that corporate profits have been sky high for years, and corporate coffers are full of cash both here and abroad, yet wages continue to barely keep up with inflation? 

Does anyone really believe that increased corporate gain will trickle down to America’s workers? When was the last time you got a meaningful raise? 

And so we wait, certain of only one thing – the Big Man on Pennsylvania Avenue needs a legislative victory before the balls fall off the Christmas tree. Talk about government by Santa Claus!

But where will the Big Man be when the deficit balloons in the coming years?

Not to worry, he’ll blame it on Hillary Clinton, when he’s not engaged in trading insults with the other hair maven, Kim Jong-un. 

Or maybe, just maybe, some Republican Senators and Congressmen will come to their conservative senses and start worrying about exploding deficits again. 

Ah well, there’s always Santa Claus.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Irish American Writers & Artists


Irish American Writers and Artists was formed back in 2008 when it was suggested that Irish Americans would not vote for an African-American candidate.

Well, we not only voted for Barack Obama, we helped elect him, thus laying to rest another demographic shibboleth.

IAW&A is a proudly progressive organization, but non-political in that we accept members from across the political spectrum; although those of us of a conservative ilk tend to be more in the Edmund Burke tradition rather than that of our current president.

Broadly speaking, our brief is to highlight, energize and support Irish Americans working in the arts, and to provide a safe platform for others who might wish to read, perform, or show their work.

To that end we sponsor two salons monthly in New York City but our aspirations were always national; in the last month we have held salons in Santa Fe, NM, Hartford, CT, and at the Electric Picnic Festival in Ireland.

So, if you have a poem, song, novel, play, dance, film, painting, and wish to show it off, then you should abandon your lonely garret for an evening, and mingle among your peers. 

Annual membership costs less than a buck a week, or five pints and a decent tip should you measure life in more liquid metrics.

Of a reticent or retiring nature, then you may slip into the back row of a salon, lurk in the shadows, and audit the goings on – admission is free. 

You might end up discussing politics or the price of turnips with Malachy McCourt or one of the other notables who frequent such occasions. 

Whatever, you’ll get a feel for what’s going on, and perhaps toss your hat in the artistic ring on your next venture into the mystic. 

Irish American Writers & Artists is a non-profit outfit – board members and officials do not get paid. I can attest to that. I’ve been president for some years and have yet to make a cent – red or otherwise.

Any monies raised go to promoting salons, funding various artistic endeavors, and supporting good causes here and overseas.

Speaking of money! We host one major fundraiser a year when the Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award is given to an artist who has created a distinguished body of work.

Past awardees have included William Kennedy, Brian Dennehy, Charlotte Moore and Ciarán O’Reilly of the Irish Rep, Judy Collins, John Patrick Shanley, Pete Hamill, Patrician Harty, and the aforementioned scourge of recalcitrant reactionaries, Mr. McCourt.

Phil Donahue will receive the 2017 award at a festive evening on Monday, October 16, 2017 at the Manhattan Club, upstairs at Rosie O’Grady’s.

Born in Cleveland, Phil graduated from Notre Dame University and worked his way up through local radio and television, interviewing the like of John F. Kennedy and Malcolm X before creating the innovative The Phil Donahue Show.

Instead of the usual wasteland fare, Donahue focused on topics dividing American liberals and conservatives in his record-breaking show’s run of 29 years.

One could herald his achievements until the cows come home; but perhaps his greatest moment was his dismissal in Feb. 2003 as host of Donahue on MSNBC for his opposition to the imminent invasion of Iraq.

It was a courageous move at a time when patriotism was measured in jingoistic support for one of the greatest disasters in US foreign policy. Unfortunately, Phil Donahue was proved right. How different would US history have been if more people of influence had taken this Irishman’s courageous stand!

Join us on Oct. 16th.  The O’Neill event is one of the highlights of the social season when everyone can rub shoulders with the mighty or the low – and there’ll be plenty of both in attendance.

Remember - the goal of Irish American Writers and Artists is to give the carpenter in Queens a shot at becoming the next O’Casey, or the homemaker from Brooklyn an opportunity to emulate Sinead, or Frank, O’Connor.

And for those of you who just want a good night on the town, the O’Neill is your man! And what else would you be doing on a Monday night in October anyway?

Afterhours Delight


Recently I wrote a column bemoaning the loss of the mighty Blarney Stone chain of bars in New York City.

Ah, but if the Blarney Stone was the legal main course of an evening, what about that other disappearing New York institution, the illegal afterhours?

I’m not talking about saloons the like of the late lamented Durty Nelly’s up on Kingsbridge where the door would be “locked” at 4am, but shenanigans would continue until long after the first fighting cock had crowed.

No, I have more in mind an establishment that opened for business around 2am and hit its stride from 4am to noon or thereabouts. These “holes in the wall” tended to be located below Manhattan’s 14th Street, although “Rose’s” - up around 145th and Lennox Avenue - was a particular favorite of mine. 

Rose herself, a rail-thin African-American lady of indeterminate age, was one of the most gracious hostesses in America, but a formidable woman if crossed. Enough said!

The Anglo-Irish in New York knew a thing or two about such places. Dave Heenan, once lead singer with Dublin’s The Arrows Showband, ran the UK Club on 13th Street with great flair; while his friend, Blackpool Jimmy, ran a similar institution nearby.

My favorite was the Kiwi on 9th Street off Avenue A – though somewhat on the sketchy side it boasted a clique of extremely vivid characters. The only time I saw it empty was during the blackout of 1977 when the patrons were otherwise occupied in the fine art of looting. 

I gained membership of the Kiwi through my landlord who sponsored me when I complained about the lack of heat in our building. The temperature did not improve that bitter winter but my social life was immeasurably enhanced.

‘Twas in the Kiwi I fell in love with a beautiful Latina dancer who never gave me the time of day – or night. But she was the inspiration for a good Black 47 song – Blood Wedding – that’s popular to this day. 

I had to change my heroine’s name as two of my fellow carousers were also smitten, one of whom did not suffer rivals easily – much to the other’s misfortune.

The bartender was a stunning six feet tall cross-dresser by name of Carlita who towered above all in her heels. She lit up every social occasion and turned heads, literally and figuratively, wherever she went. 

One rambunctious evening a heavyset biker offered a churlish remark about her gender, whereupon in one fell swoop she removed her stiletto and struck him between the eyes with the business end of her heel.

The blood spurted forth and Mr. Harley-Davidson let out a scream akin to a stuck pig. He then began to sob and demanded of all and sundry what he was supposed to tell his mother when he got home.

Lest these early morning oases seem too much like the Wild West, I have to say that I had some of the most scintillating conversation therein – although for the life of me I can recall few of them. 

Occasionally, however, a sentence or two will spring to mind and I’ll feel momentarily uplifted.

A rare democracy and code of manners reigned. Should you be allowed inside one of these hallowed places, it was de rigueur that you speak to - but not bore – your neighbors. On one occasion, I merrily clinked glasses with Debby Harry in a 2nd floor joint on University Avenue as a crimson dawn broke over The Village.

I also had an amazing conversation with Lou Reed at a mob-controlled hideaway on Mercer St. This poet of the city said something startling to me then that, alas, I can never repeat. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

Lou was often to be seen in these shadowy establishments in his drinking days. I guess looking back, afterhours were places for people who just did not want the night to end.

There was camaraderie to be had; you entered alone and effortlessly melted into a crowd of people who like yourself had no desire to go home.

And when you eventually departed the day was well underway, and there was always the next night to look forward to.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

A Night Out With Labor


The Irish Echo Labor Awards is always one of the best nights of the year. 

Let it not be said that union members don’t know how to have a good time, for The Edison Ballroom was throbbing on a recent Friday night, much as it used to when David Bowie and Elvis Costello rocked the joint back in the 90’s. 

However, if we were all there to celebrate the achievement of the current leaders and awardees of the Irish-American Labor movement, we were never less than aware of the men and women who made it all possible; for it was a rare speech where James Connolly and Big Jim Larkin were not saluted or quoted.

How these two names still resound today! Both were children of the Diaspora born to abject poverty in Edinburgh and Liverpool; each spent time in New York City.

Connolly organized for the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies) until he returned to Ireland and was defeated in successive major strikes and lockouts in Belfast, Wexford, and Dublin. Despairing of meaningful change he led his Irish Citizen Army in the 1916 Insurrection and was executed for his troubles.

Larkin got stranded here during the First World War and ended up in Sing Sing on a charge of “criminal anarchy.” But he never stopped exhorting workers that, “The great appear great because we are on our knees. Let us rise!”

The spirit of these two legendary revolutionaries electrified not only the Edison but speakers like Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan and Christine O’Connor. And when Terry O’Sullivan, President of LiUNA, and John Samuelson, President of the Transport Workers Union took to the stage they brought the assembly to its feet.

Unfortunately, these are not great days for unions. Membership continues to dwindle and the “bosses” have definitely won the propaganda war. How many times have you heard it trumpeted that unions wrecked this or that industry with excessive demands – and nary a voice raised in protest?

Yet unions helped tame the exploitative heart of this country by demanding decent wages and working conditions for the  of immigrants, including the Irish; in so doing they laid the foundation for a civilized society and a vibant middle class.

Alas, as union influence has waned, so too has the size and vitality of the middle class. And there’s a lot worse in store as the “gig economy” takes root.

Can you imagine what Connolly and Larkin would have thought of this new scam? Hard as it is dealing with an employer – try arguing with an APP!  You have to hand it to these dot.com bosses, they really have their game down!

But it’s not just them - inflation-adjusted compensation for most workers has barely increased over the last 40 years. Still, the boot was really put in during the “great recession” of 2007. 

Even though the “recovery” began in 2009, the psychological impact of the brutal layoffs is still being felt. Think about it – when was the last time you asked for a raise?

Corporate profits, on the other hand, have been rising at a steady rate since 2000 and are near an all time high. 
 
With unemployment touching 4.3%, one would imagine that wages would be skyrocketing, but after nine years of near stagnation the corporate credo is still – “live horse ‘til you get grass.”

Little wonder, considering that only 11% of American workers now belong to a union. Compare that to the 35% of the 1950’s – a time of steadily rising prosperity for all. 

Then again the startling news that 43% of members of union households voted for Donald Trump last November gives one pause. Despite copious lip service, this president has never been a friend of unions or workers.

Unions obviously have a lot of work to do getting their own house in order. But we should wish them well. They provide a bulwark against a diminishing middle class, and they can once again offer a ladder into it, as Mike Quill and other 20th Century Diaspora union leaders did.

Connolly and Larkin fought mighty battles in their day. O’Sullivan, Samuelson, and the many inspiring union leaders at the Edison Hotel have a war ahead of them. But they have history, statistics – and right – on their side.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Van and Rory - Linked by Glory


They were like two local knights who ventured out from safe havens and inadvertently conquered the world.

One from Belfast, the other from Cork - both womblike and claustrophobic cities - how wrenching it must have been to break free!

One is truculent, as befits his embattled East Side Belfast, the other remained the quiet, mannerly boy from the banks of the Lee. Regardless Van Morrison and Rory Gallagher were driven loners who did it in their inimitable way.

Belfast and Cork were very different places in the 1950’s when these two aspiring musicians hit the streets. 

Van’s father introduced him to the R&B music that would shape his life. Rory, on the other hand, was a knob twirler who hunted down exotic music in the white noise hiss of old tube driven, cloth-covered wirelesses.

That’s how he found AFN (American Forces Network) and one night was rocked back on his heels to hear Blues courtesy of Muddy Waters on an electric Fender. Small wonder that Rory would become one of the world’s great Stratocaster players.

Oddly enough both got their professional starts in that much maligned Irish institution – the showband - Van began with The Monarchs, Rory debuted with The Fontana.

Showbands could be soul-killers – you copied whatever was current in the Top Twenty – a set of three swingers, followed by three smooches ad infinitum.

But showbands provided three invaluable foundation stones:  stamina, for you played four to six hours every gig. You also learned to wing it in every key because of demanding brass sections. And most importantly, you got paid!

After my first showband gig back in Wexford I was still tingling from the sheer exhilaration of playing a four-hour set. I would gladly have swept the filthy stage in gratitude. Instead the gaffer handed me a pound note and a bottle of Harp, and with that I became “a professional.”

Van had an advantage – though from a Belfast backwater he was raised as a son of the British Empire with all the accompanying illusions of superiority. 

Rory came of age in the land of de Valera where inferiority was baked into your DNA. But the Corkman had a dream, kept his head down, and knocked a hole in the wall big enough for many of us to sneak through.

“Business associates” ripped off both of them. Van made pennies from his early hits including the massive selling “Gloria.” Due to various legal hassles, Rory actually lost money playing with Taste, his highly successful trio.

Neither cared in the least for the trappings of superstardom. To this day Van has an acrimonious relationship with the media and his adoring fans. 

Rory, the nice guy, submitted to interviews but took little pleasure talking about himself. But get him going on Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters, and his face would glow with awe and delight.

The one thing they really shared was a vision for their work, and an endless search for innovation that might lead them closer to perfection. 

Though friends, they never jammed. On their only arranged recording date for Van’s Wavelength sessions, “The Man” didn’t show. Rory shrugged it off but even years later it irked the hell out of him.

Their various romantic relationships could be intense and dizzying, but in the end readily discarded, for ultimately the work was all that mattered.

Van is alive and raring to go with his 37th album, Roll with the Punches. Rory departed way too soon – all we have left are the memories of those blazing, sweat-soaked, Strat-man nights when he’d stretch out multiple extended encores rather than go home to four lonely pulsing walls.

Perhaps he sums up both their lives. "I've toured too much for my own good. It hasn't left time for very much else, unfortunately. You don't develop any family life or anything like that and it makes all your relationships very difficult. 

There's always a certain percentage missing from your life. As a human being, you only have so much to give, not just in terms of your physical body but in how you deal with people.”

We’re the lucky ones. We gained so much from our two local knights who while battling with their demons lit up our lives with their visions.