Sunday, 21 August 2016

Fanatic Hearts


   So you wanta be a rock & roll star, or an actor in your own movie? Best thing to do is gather some like-minded ne’er-do-wells, head to The Bronx, and 25 years later the rest will be history!

   That was my immediate reaction after watching an “almost-final cut” of Fanatic Heart, a movie by Vic Zimet and Stephanie Silber, devoted to the music and general shenanigans of yours truly and Black 47.

   19 years ago without a whit of thought, I gave permission to Vic and Stef to become flies on the wall in the rambunctious life and times of “the house band of New York City.”

   They produced a number of official Black 47 DVDs but all the time they were quietly filming hours of material about a band that had no shortage of drama, success and debacle.

   It’s a brutally honest depiction. Laid bare are the excitement, tedium, musicianship, boozing, triumphs, disasters, drive, and devotion of a band that rarely rehearsed but delivered on stage.

   The camera is unsparing as it chronicles a riotous and righteous journey that began in the bars of The Bronx’s Bainbridge Avenue and ended in BB King’s on Manhattan’s Forty-Deuce. There’s no make-up artist present, no remedial paint or powder, just the rawness of passing time taking its toll. And yet the same fist-in-the-air defiance is as evident at the end as the beginning.

   None of it was faked. We were a New York Irish band with attitude. Right from the start if asked to play a U2 song, my standard response was, “next time you hear Bono sing a Black 47 song we’ll cover one of theirs.”

   Fanatic Heart pulses with the joy of musicians thrilled to be adding to the creative mosaic of the city of Lou Reed and Walt Whitman; and that thrill was curried by the delight of a loyal audience that would have followed us to hell – some unfortunately did!

   But it’s the sweat-stained exultant faces of the fans that move me most. Some are still friends, others have sadly departed; at the screening people broke into spontaneous applause as Phyllis Kronhaus RIP, our first merch seller, expounded on our perennially strong Jewish following in her inimitable New Yawk accent.

   I mentally trembled as the first shots of our riotous 2003 Irish Tour streaked across the screen. Ah well, what’s a little nudity among friends; this is a movie about a rock & roll band, not The Legion of Mary!

   But then there’s footage inside Kilmainham Jail and West Belfast, and compelling performances of signature songs like James Connolly, Bobby Sands MP, and The Big Fellah, and you get an inkling of what made Black 47 tick – the core principles of civil rights and human dignity fueled by an unflinching desire to do things our way.

   Many of our supporters would have been happy if we’d dealt only with Irish politics. But perhaps our finest hour was outright rejection of the Iraq War while at the same time supporting those who fought it on our behalf. This stand cost us dearly but was there any other choice for a political band?

   In fact Fanatic Heart makes clear why we never achieved the super-stardom so often predicted for us in our early years. We just weren’t cut out to be “the next U2” - too ornery, too pointedly political, too focused on the new song to be bothered polishing old favorites – we never repeated a set in almost 2500 gigs. Nor did we spend the requisite time kissing the correct posteriors. But what a blast we had!

   How interesting too to watch our beloved New York City transform over the 25 years from $2 a pint Recession Wednesdays in Paddy Reilly’s - where Joe Strummer, Neil Young & Brooke Shields rubbed shoulders with cops, firemen, nurses and nannies - to the current Disneyfied hollowness of Times Square.

   The movie is completed but Vic and Stef must now raise a modest sum to fund post-production. There are many inexpensive ways of getting involved through Indiegogo. Visit http://tinyurl.com/FUND-B47 for information and to see out-takes and scenes from Fanatic Heart.

   You never know, it might inspire you to form a band, head to The Bronx and begin your own rock & roll journey.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Showbands Forever


   I was talking about Irish showbands on Celtic Crush - my SiriusXM show - recently when I realized I’d never actually played a track by these oft-maligned musical outfits.

   So, off with me to iTunes where I found Irish Showands – The Hits Collection – 50 tracks from greats such as The Royal, The Miami, The Capitol, The Dixies, all the way down to unknowns the like of Trevor Kelly and the Galaxy, and The Epic.

   Showbands ruled the roost in Irish entertainment from the mid-1950’s until the massacre of The Miami Showband outside Newry in 1975. 

    They had a distinctive sound, for they sported a brass section of sax, trombone and trumpet. Since brass was not called for in many songs, it was incumbent upon the section to dance – or at least move in time – hence was born the showband shuffle.

   A raw teenager, I entered the showband ranks towards the end of their reign - recruited by Johnny Reck, a legend in Wexford musical circles. He had observed me playing a pub gig and invited me to become his bassist with the following confidence-building line, “Six strings seem to be a bit beyond you – let’s start you out on four!”

    The other members – a surly bunch somewhat taken with alcohol – were even less impressed; but no matter, there was a shortage of singers and I was hot to trot. As was my friend, Pierce Turner, who joined soon after.

   We were on the far side of atrocious, but Johnny was a nimble thinker for we played under many names including The Liars, The Palladium, and the Johnny Reck Showband to prevent instant identification.

   We did have a bit of a following around Wexford Town with the hip, the hearing-challenged, and rival gangs of teenage psychos. ‘Twas in this band I learned to play standing on one foot while kicking out at combatants sent sprawling onto the stage. This skill would later serve me well in CBGB’s and various drinking emporiums on Bainbridge Avenue.

   At first my teenage girlfriend refused to attend our dances for as she put it, “you’re feckin’ awful, and besides your crowd is fierce rough.”

   She changed her tune soon though, for Johnny had a brainwave: he got the band members to join the Musicians Union of Ireland. Then he contacted all the local big ballrooms and informed the promoters that he’d shut them down if they failed to hire union members for the warm-up band slot.

   We were suddenly catapulted into greatness. From local buckets-of-blood we ascended the majestic stage of Wexford’s Parish Hall, and similar venues.

   We had not, however, improved musically. Most of the starring bands were decent about this but Ben Dolan of the Drifters took grave exception. He basically agreed with my girlfriend’s evaluation of our talents, but his language was far more pointed and profane.

   Not that it mattered for Wexford was a pro-union town – like the revered Larkin and Connolly we were loyal union members and had to be hired.

   Ben’s brother, the mighty Joe Dolan, said little but occasionally he’d sneak into the wings to observe us, for what Turner and I lacked in musical sophistication we made up for in sheer gusto. Chords, harmonies, lyrics, mattered little to us – we were striving for Wexford originality – even if we weren’t quite sure what such a thing might be.

   For about a year we opened for all the big names – we even started to improve - slightly.

   Then catastrophe struck: we were expelled from the union for failing to attend the annual mass for deceased members! To add insult to injury, my girlfriend ditched me for an artificial insemination inspector; so I resigned from Johnny’s band of many names and moved to Dublin.

   I’ve been moving ever since. But one night recently after a couple of drinks I downloaded Irish Showbands – The Hits Collection and turned up the volume full blast.

   I then resurrected my showband shuffle and danced solo to The Royal, The Freshmen, The Pacific, The Dixies, and The Mighty Avons; and for a sweaty hour I was back in my glory nights in Wexford’s Parish Hall with Joe Dolan smiling enigmatically at me from the wings.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Fifteen Minutes of Unholy Fame


    A sighting of Andy Warhol was always an occasion. It usually occurred in a West Village bookstore as he peered shortsightedly at a row of titles. I never saw him with a book in hand, nor heard him speak. He was invariably alone, a languid character, yet ever so distinctive in his bleached isolation.

   I wasn’t a fan of his paintings – while skillful they seemed derivative – of course I now see that was the point. Still, he had discovered Lou Reed and Velvet Underground, so Andy was all right by me.

   I was much more a fan of Picasso, Dylan, and Joyce – three cultural commandoes who delved deep into the human psyche and positively exuded originality. However, I’m forced to concede that in terms of sheer cultural influence Andy has left this illustrious trio in the ha’penny seats.

   Originality has lost much of its lustre of late. Hip-Hop, long the most popular and vital music genre, has turned sampling of previous works into a compelling art form – in much the same way that Andy transmuted photo images of Marilyn and Mao into multi-million dollar paintings.

   But it’s his prophecy - everyone will have his and her 15 minutes of fame – that sets Mr. Warhol apart. When he first made this outlandish statement it seemed dichotomous at best.  But just a casual sampling of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram will show that Andy predicted a celebrity-mad world that Messrs. Picasso, Dylan, and Joyce couldn’t even imagine.

   Makes you wonder – did a young Donald Trump also run into Warhol in a West Village bookstore? Perhaps, the androgynous artist convinced the budding wall builder that in the new millennium celebrity would count for far more than talent, and image would trump substance by a Tweeted mile.

   But enough of Mr. Trump – whatever you think of him he does wear his celebrity effortlessly. Then again, with 10 billion dollars, a full head of hair, and Melania to go home to, we too might exude charisma.

   On the other hand, rock stardom, like originality, is not what it used to be – the glitter is still there but little of the gold. With the advent of Spotify, Pandora, and illegal downloading, none but mega stars can aspire to a penthouse in Trump Tower; and yet there is no shortage of poseurs vying for this faded apex of celebrity.

   Speaking of rock deities, I was once in deep conversation with Ric Ocasek of The Cars when a fan of huge girth, many tattoos, and much muscle bellowed in our direction, “You are God!”

   After a fretful glance to make sure a holy assassination wasn’t in the works, Ric mildly responded, “Thank you.”

   I figured I’d copy this response should I ever be hailed in such a manner, but my moment has yet to come. 

   Perhaps, just as well, for I have friends who swear by their publicists’ hype, rendering them so boring I now hide at their exalted approach. 

   Maybe Andy knew that celebrity is not all it’s made out to be. I’ve often thought it must be hard to be Bono. He seems like a decent enough skin but, from what I hear, half the world would love to snub him, while the rest want to beat the bejaysus out of him.

   Phil Lynott enjoyed his celebrity better than anyone I ever met, with Frank McCourt a wry half-step behind.

On the other hand, Norman Mailer, one of nature’s gentlemen on a one-to-one basis, seemed to feel honor bound to live up to his aggressive reputation at a gathering, particularly when the drink was flowing.

   So, what is this 15 minutes of fame that Andy speaks of and why do we desire it so badly? I suppose it’s a need to know that we matter.

   And yet celebrity is hardly the answer. Many of my acquaintances who thirsted for fame have ended up enmeshed in drugs and drink when their 15 minutes have evaporated. 

   So, later for Mr. Warhol and his prophesies! I’m going to invite Bono over for champagne, sit under my priceless Picasso, read him Molly Bloom’s final soliloquy, listen to Mr. Tambourine Man on repeat, and pray to God no one breaks through my velvet rope and beats the bejaysus out of the two of us.


Wednesday, 13 July 2016

The Housekeepr and the Pig Man


   While throwing out a very stale half-loaf of bread recently I experienced a pang of guilt, closely followed by a dollop of nostalgia.

   I recognized the guilt instantly. Where I came from food was never discarded. On my grandfather’s farm the sheepdogs ate anything we didn’t. 

   Little else was thrown out either. In a corner of the barn lay all manner of broken pitchforks, scythes and shovels - some so old they might have been used in Wexford’s 1798 Insurrection. 

   “When things are slower in the cold weather we’ll fix them,” was the mantra; needless to say winter brought its own demands.

   My grandmother fiercely hoarded her stale bread; it would have been considered bad luck to throw it out for echoes of the Great Hunger still lingered in rural areas. And so every week she baked a bread pudding rich with raisins and sultanas. 

   This treat was tasty but nothing compared to her Queen of Hearts – a more refined bready concoction on whose top she added lashings of raspberry jam and a frothy soufflĂ© - the like of which I have never experienced since.

   Much as I loved the farm I was raised mostly by my maternal grandfather - a widower and monumental sculptor by trade. He and my uncle lived in a big barracks of a house in the heart of Wexford town. A succession of housekeepers came and stormily departed before Miss Codd, a formidable spinster, took charge.

   She had been a parish priest’s housekeeper for many years and considered it a huge tumble down the social ladder to be employed by “a mere stonecutter.” As you might imagine from such scathing language ours was a turbulent household.

   However, since my grandfather and his intrepid housekeeper shared rural roots they were agreed on one thing – nothing should be wasted. We had no sheepdogs, and Miss Codd was no great confectioner, so we utilized a “pig man” to remove our discarded scraps of food.

   This occupation may seem somewhat quaint now but it was common enough back in Wexford town. Jackie Redmond was a prosperous breeder of pigs and once a week he emptied our “bucket of slops” into a vat placed in the back of his van.

   Despite his occupation Jackie was considered to be a gentleman. He was from a well-regarded Home Rule family and revered the memory of John Redmond, leader of that party in the British House of Commons.

   Now my grandfather had “very advanced” Republican sympathies, but both men were civil to each other. I suppose pig slops weren’t worth resurrecting old feuds. 

   After about a year or so I noticed that Miss Codd always had a cup of tea and some choice biscuits ready when Jackie made his weekly call. I put little pass on this at first as Jackie, despite his breeding and gentility, smelled like a walking abattoir six days of the week, while our housekeeper was beyond fastidious in all things.

   However, one Sunday morning I encountered Jackie escorting Miss Codd home from 11 o’clock mass. Our pig man was resplendent in his best three-piece suit and even from across the street I could detect the waft of Old Spice and Brylcreem. 

   Miss Codd, who always shopped in the best ladies establishments, was dressed to the nines in a well-cut tweed jacket and skirt, with a fuchsia blouse and a matching lavender silk scarf.

   I watched stealthily from behind a Morris Minor as they exchanged some banter and words of farewell outside my grandfather’s door. Then Jackie raised his felt hat and departed, his face creased in what I considered a speculative smile.

   It would have been a great match. A 60 year-old bachelor of means and a stylish spinster “of a certain age.” Alas, it never happened. 

   Was Miss Codd’s delicately honed sensibility unable to stomach the ubiquitous smell of pig slops, or was Jackie too set in his bachelor’s way? I dared not inquire. But one day the tea and choice biscuits were not on offer, and from then on Jackie shuffled in and out of the house in a far more businesslike manner.

   Isn’t it strange how many sepia-toned memories can surface when throwing out an innocent, stale half-loaf of bread?

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Ghosts in Snug Harbor


   The creative life of a playwright or novelist tends to be one long hard slog. Oh, there’s the initial inspiration for a project, and the occasional day when the gods favor you, but for the most part a career in the Sanitation Department makes a lot more sense.

   Songwriting is a whole different kettle of fish. Like play and novel writing it takes craft, but the art springs from that magic moment when your musical and lyrical sensibilities collide – hopefully in a hail of sparks.

   I had one such moment out in the Noble Maritime Museum in Staten Island last year. Now unlike certain MLB batters I can’t point at the sky claiming divine intervention, but I wonder if I didn’t get a little nudge from beyond the grave.

   I had been impressed with the gracious 19th Century building – once a home for aged sailors - when taken on a tour prior to the gig by Dawn Daniels, director of programming. While staring at a picture of an old sailing ship, a tragic piece of family history came to mind.

   My great-grandfather, Capt. Thomas Moran, was lost with all hands when his ship, City of Bristol, went down off Cornwall in 1898. Over the next six weeks his body floated 150 miles north towards his home in Wexford, but ultimately washed ashore directly across the Irish Sea in Pembrokeshire, Wales.

   As a boy my grandmother, Maggie Moran, often told me this story. She always finished with the words, “he loved us so much he was trying to get home.”

   Even back then I knew someday I’d capture the tragedy in a song. I failed a number of times – the words and melody were always decent but a certain spark was missing.   
        
   My father had little time for such romantic tales. In his view, Capt. Moran ran into a storm he couldn’t handle. Life at sea, as he put it, was not for the faint of heart – ships he had served on in WWII had been torpedoed twice by German U-Boats.

   After the second such incident, Jim Kirwan spent a couple of months in New York City, in no big hurry to renew his acquaintance with German submarines. He never talked much about his wartime experiences, but mentioned washing dishes on 42nd Street and that he occasionally found lodgings in an “old sailors’ home in Snug Harbor.”

   I had forgotten this last detail but it sprung to mind while onstage at the Noble Museum; I realized I was actually in the “old sailors home in Snug Harbor” my father had mentioned.  
         
   It was a riveting moment but I was totally unprepared for what happened next. 

   A window into the night of Capt. Moran’s shipwreck was suddenly thrown open and I experienced the terror, loss and longing of the man in a rush of words:

“Now the waves they are like mountains
And the wind’s a howling gale
And I know for surely certain
I’ll never kiss your mouth again.” 

   I might as well have been on board the City of Bristol with the captain as he came to terms with the fact that the ship was lost, all aboard would drown, and that his wife and three young children would go through life without him.

   On the trip back to Manhattan I was fearful I’d lose the vital spark that fused the lyrics and melody of “Floating.” But there was no problem. The song was like a gift - there for the taking.

   At my next gig in the Noble, Dawn Daniel’s brother, Dave Cook recorded my performance of “Floating” live and it can be purchased on iTunes, Amazon, and most digital platforms, with all proceeds going to The Noble.

   Snug Harbor is one of New York City’s treasures. It’s serene and beautiful, and the grounds and buildings pulse with the restrained sensibility of another era. 

   It’s a short bus or cab ride from the Staten Island Ferry terminal. Take a trip someday and visit the Noble Maritime Collection – there’s magic in the air out there, maybe you’ll strike it lucky too.

  Noble Maritime Collections, 1000 Richmond Terrace # 8, Staten Island, NY 10301 (718) 447-6490 www.noblemaritime.org

Monday, 13 June 2016

Joan of Arc from Chappaqua


            I’ve always loved elections. The polls, policies, and debates leading up to the final thrill of the count - you can almost see the wheels of democracy spin.

            Then why do I feel anxious about the upcoming presidential campaign? I suppose it’s the prospect of constant personal attacks, vilification, and half-truths, all curried with a disregard for any kind of factual accountability.

As usual, Mr. Yeats sums it up pithily: “the worst are full of passionate intensity.” But for once the master fails to capture the sheer boorishness and mean-spiritedness of this dogfight, at a time when there’s such a need for a cool and logical national discussion. 

The promises being bandied about are wishful thinking at best - the “good” jobs that have gone overseas are not coming back. This particular industrial flight has been gathering steam since the 1970’s.

Despite sermons on national decay, manufacturing output is at an all time high in the US; unfortunately less employees are needed in this new technological age. A modern factory that might have employed 1500 people 30 years ago can now make do with less than 500; with the expected advances in robotics things will only get worse.

Instead of rants and threats, steps could be taken to retrain discarded workers. With an actual shortage of skilled labor in many parts of the country vocational colleges could be created where firms enroll apprentices in work-study programs.

This would call for investment in a new economic model but if Germany can do it, why can’t we?

American corporations could help by repatriating the profits they are making and stashing overseas. That’s unlikely to happen until they’re made an offer they can’t refuse by an activist congress – all the more reason to cast your vote wisely in November.

There’s a lot of pain across the country because wages - adjusted for inflation - have actually diminished over the last 40 years. Blaming illegal immigrants and foreign governments might feel good but the solutions are closer at hand.

“Who the hell cares if there’s a trade war?” Mr. Trump demands? How about the 4 million plus American workers who would be laid off in a tariff battle with China and Mexico. In this interconnected world, both of those countries would likely head into recession, driving down stock markets, your 401(k) and the American economy for good measure.

Mr. Trump is long on quick-fix solutions but short of any actual details. Even his greatest illusion – the Great Wall of Mexico – is not worth considering since more Mexicans are presently leaving the US than arriving. 

Facts, however, have rarely been important to Mr. Trump – beginning with his inane “birther” assaults on President Obama.

Amazingly, Secretary Hillary Clinton is the last bulwark against a Trump presidency. Had she voted against the invasion of Iraq she would now likely be finishing out the final year of her second presidential term, while that seasoned Senator Barack Obama would be running against Mr. Trump.

What an awful campaign the Secretary has run so far! How could she not see that receiving exorbitant speaking fees from Goldman Sachs would be anathema to a country livid about banks and other high rollers? Likewise her decision to use a private server for her government emails defies logic.

The amazing decision not to contest the Indiana primary when Senator Sanders was on the ropes makes you wonder who’s running her campaign? Choosing small intimate meetings with supporters rather than Trump-Sanders barnstorming outdoor events in this age of spectacle is equally puzzling?

There are so many questions. Has President Bill Clinton totally lost his once acute political chops? Why have so many women deserted Secretary Clinton? Isn’t it time for a woman president – especially given the alternative?

African-Americans and Latinos know exactly what a Trump presidency will deliver. But the big question is - how will the rest of Americans react to the next five months of constant negativity?

Democracy is a messy business – it calls for a lot of scrubbing away at the grime and examining the facts underneath. 

I hope Madame Secretary is up to the task; come November the country will have a lot riding on this flawed, but steady, Joan of Arc from Chappaqua.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Those Berrigan Boys


            I recently attended the memorial service for Fr. Dan Berrigan SJ.  I’d never met the man but he was an inspiration.

            A familiar figure at anti-war protests he had the look of the true believer – someone who had come to terms with his mission in life and intended to prosecute it to the fullest.

            His brother, Fr. Philip Berrigan SSJ, was no less committed, and yet he had the eyes of a boxer, always alert for the jab or hook that would soon be coming.

            I remember an activist friend from Baltimore saying: “I always felt safer when Phil was at a protest for he was a formidable man if things got ugly. Dan was a quieter presence but equally fearless.”

            Things often got ugly for the Berrigan Brothers and the militant pacifists around them. They believed that war was immoral and that those who promoted it should be called to account.

            St. Francis Xavier Church was jam-packed despite a deluge of rain. Many familiar activist faces were sprinkled throughout the congregation.

            Father Dan had obviously touched everyone attending the service. The heartfelt grief was curried by a feeling that if things had not gotten worse, they had hardly improved much either.

            Dan Berrigan himself was no pie in the sky optimist; he was of the opinion that a dogged evil still held sway in worldly affairs – and yet, if good people stood up and did the right thing, that evil could be held at bay, if not defeated.

            Standing amidst the crowd of mourners at the back of the church, I idly wondered what this pacifist priest had thought of the upcoming presidential contenders – one a know-nothing, aggressive nationalist, the other a hawk whenever the chips are down, as they so often are in the US.

            One of the speakers stated that Dan would not wish to be placed upon a pedestal – for that merely allows the rest of us to shirk our social, moral, and political responsibilities.

            Dan Berrigan believed in building and fostering community through individual testament, and his contrarian spirit suffused the ornate church on that wet Friday morning.

            The service pulsed with commitment as speaker after speaker recalled the Berrigans and their shock tactics that included pouring blood on draft records or burning them with homemade napalm.  

            They and their comrades were no turn-your-cheek Christians but, for the most part, outraged Irish-American Catholics who took hammers to warships and missiles, and accused US presidents of war crimes. 

            They went to the wall for their beliefs and as Dan wrote for the Catonsville Nine Statement in 1968 – “The suppression of truth stops here. This war stops here!”

            The question posed to us at the service was the unlikely, “Are we prepared to wake from our day-to-day slumbers and confront the evils of poverty and militarism in these United States of Amnesia?”

            The Berrigan Brothers were not popular with many Irish-Americans for they repeatedly questioned US foreign policy. But time has proved them right about Vietnam, Iraq and the many other wars of choice. 

And yet they were grudgingly respected for they didn’t gloat, much less rest - there was always a battle to be fought - if not against militarism, then against the degradations of poverty in this land of plenty. 

            Dan Berrigan practiced what he preached. Midway through the service the children present were asked to gather around a well-used cardboard box. 

It contained Father Dan’s prize possessions: some well-worn books, photos, a banner or two, a worn shirt and a Ben & Jerry wool hat that he wore frequently. Each child brought a piece of the material side of this deeply spiritual, man up to the altar. 

            Despite all his principles and commitment, Dan Berrigan was deeply human, as a relative recounted. Inevitably at family gatherings one of the brothers would say “We’ve been good long enough;” whereupon a bottle of whiskey would be produced and the joking and laughter would continue late into the night.

Father Dan’s message remains – look around you and witness the defects in society, then go beyond yourself and don’t rest until you make the situation better.

            Irish-America should be proud of those Berrigan boys. They called it as they saw it and made a difference.