Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Malachy McCourt and Eugene O'Neill

            When I first called Malachy McCourt to inform him that he was the choice of the IAWA board to receive the 2016 Eugene O’Neill Award for Lifetime Achievement he laughed.

            It took a minute or so to persuade him I wasn’t joking. That’s our Mr. McCourt – unassuming, humorous and totally without pretension.

            Don’t get me wrong – the man is not without pride. Some would say not without arrogance too, though I feel they confuse that trait with his willingness to speak his mind, particularly on behalf of the less fortunate.

            But then he is a McCourt and that family has never been hesitant to lay it on the line. Malachy went a step further by embracing the public and political arenas.

            His life has been informed by his Limerick childhood. Unlike many he has been unwilling to turn the other cheek; he sees poverty for what it is – a grinding, debilitating, inhumane station.

            There’s little nobility in it – only shame. But if childhood poverty didn’t scar him it did leave a deep bruise that has led him to challenge the spiritual and political status quo both here and in Ireland. He’s never had time for those who insist that political change should come glacially, or that one should suffer here on earth in exchange for a mythical paradise in the hereafter.

            It has always been a joy – and sometimes a relief - to see him on the protest lines against the various US wars of choice of the last 40 years, or in support of the rights of political prisoners in Ireland.

            He has never been without humor, however. Once while unwisely singing Fixin’ To Die Rag at an anti-war rally in Woodside, Queens, a bottle came winging through the air.  

Malachy sauntered out on stage and in regal tones advised Turner & Kirwan of Wexford that “perhaps a strategic retreat is called for;” while we bolted back to the Lower East Side our tails between our legs.

            Like his brother Frank, Malachy left school at 13; that was the system in the Ireland of his youth: schooling is wasted on the poor, continuing education is for your betters. No wonder so many fled the country.

But Malachy never suffered from a lack of formal education for he had a love of books and a burning desire to distill what he read and pass it on.

            You can witness this at the many IAWA salons he attends. He is revered at these gatherings, not so much for what he does – although he is a mighty performer - but for the encouragement he gives the other writers and artists.

            Our goal at the salons - produced by IAWA treasurer, John Kearns - is to provide a safe space for both the experienced and the novice to air their new work. Each participant, well known or otherwise, is given the same time and attention.

            It’s a particular thrill to see someone read or perform for the first time and then bask in the hearty applause. There’s a spring to their step as they stride away from the podium and you know they’ll soon be back with more accomplished work.

We encourage everyone with a story, a song, or a dream, to become a member of the IAWA; it costs less than a buck a week. You never know - that carpenter in Queens who dabbles in plays could be the next O’Casey, or the homemaker in Staten Island with the store of scintillating stories may well be an Edna O’Brien in the making. We have a platform for everyone and admission is free for non-members.

The Eugene O’Neill Award night is our one fundraiser. All monies go towards funding salons around the country and supporting various causes, including The Frank McCourt Award, a financial prize to encourage young writers at the Frank McCourt High School in New York City.

On Monday, October 17th celebrities will rub shoulders with the lesser known at Rosie O’Grady’s Manhattan Club as we come together to honor a man who overcame so many odds to receive our lifetime achievement award. I have a feeling that the brooding spirit of Eugene O’Neill will not be displeased. Join us.

For information about IAWA visit

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Nick Drake

 A friend first pointed it out to me in the 70’s – an appreciation that appeared on the back page of the Village Voice every November.  Nothing fancy – just a plain “Nick Drake 1948-1974, thank you for the music.”

Back then very few people had even heard his name.  I had - through listening to John Peel play his incandescent songs on BBC Radio.  Still, I only possessed one of his albums, the debut, Five Leaves Left.  It’s funny, I can remember the cover so well – green bordered with a picture of a willowy young man looking out from an attic window.

I had to be in a certain mood to play it – besides there were times when you just wouldn’t want Nick in the room – especially if you thought someone with you wouldn’t appreciate him.  If it was someone you were romantically involved with – you especially thought twice about it - supposing they didn’t like Nick, then what?  One of them had to go and I well knew which one.  I can summon up that mood and a lot of other old feelings by just thinking of that album cover and the songs within.

Nick Drake’s music was enigmatic – deep and churning but deceptively calm on the surface.  It never seems to date, perhaps, because he captured a mood, rather than a time and place.

His other two albums, Bryter Layter and Pink Moon are no less enthralling.  They too evoke the same mood.  He died in 1974 – a failure, in his own eyes at any rate.  He is now best known in the US for a Volkswagen ad but you can hear his influence on a multitude of artists.  Many of them are attracted to his essence – none grasp it.  All three of his albums sold less than 5000 copies in his lifetime.  But obviously each person who bought one treasured it and the mood it identified; then passed on the word.  Incredibly, his three albums keep getting better with time.

The memorial in the Voice eventually stopped.  Did the admirer die, move on, move out of New York?  I watched the back page of the Voice for a couple of years and then I too moved on.  Just another New York oddity that I rarely give thought to, until Saturday mornings on Celtic Crush when I play Nick. 

It never seemed like morning music to me back in the day – I rarely listened to it before midnight.  But Nick Drake’s songs have become timeless and hourless – much like the man himself.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Robots, Candidates, and Bartenders

           One of the most striking things about the upcoming presidential election is how both candidates appear to be gazing in the rear view mirror rather than anticipating the problems barreling down the pike.

            That being said, it’s always hard to distinguish between what’s for voter consumption and what each candidate actually believes. Mr. Trump, in particular, is a master at blurring the lines between wishful thinking and bald reality.

            Consider his proposed wall and his conviction that Mexico will pay for its construction. My advice for him is to attend the Irish Rep’s upcoming production of Finian’s Rainbow; perhaps the Leprechaun will throw him a few wishes!

            However, it’s Mr. Trump’s pandering to the working class that is most troubling. His promise to bring back coal mining to West Virginia and other states is blatantly dishonest.
            Coal is dead! Not only is it one of the worst pollutants, there are now so many more economical and cleaner energy sources available. But even if the mines were to be reopened, the only way to make them profitable would be through automation - with a minimum amount of actual miners’ jobs.

            Secretary Clinton does have a plan to rescue the old coalmining communities.  It includes attracting high tech and biochemical industries, and retraining the miners to work in the new plants.

            But it’s too little – and far too late. The cost would be huge and there’s scant hope of an inert congress passing what amounts to an Appalachian Marshall Plan. It would appear that the Invasion of Iraq – which both candidates originally supported – was the last great American initiative.

            Beyond overuse of twitter and emails neither candidate seems to be aware of the effect digital technology is having on the economy. Even in the niche market of music so many people who once made decent livings are abandoning this once profitable business. 

What happened? Digital technology changed the mode of delivery, making record stores obsolete; piracy became rampant, and of late consumers have decided that it makes more sense to rent thousands of songs for $10 a month rather than buy a CD for the same price.

            It’s hardly the worst example though, for most musicians and music biz workers tend to be self-motivated; many have already adapted and are creating new jobs for themselves.

            Not so, miners! It’s a big leap from chipping away at a coal face hundreds of feet under the earth to grappling with an Excel spread sheet in a semi-automated office.

            It’s the lack of imagination from both candidates that troubles me most. For the real threat – industrial robotics - will undoubtedly strike in the coming years and lead to much redundancy and long term unemployment.

            You don’t have to be a weatherman to see this tsunami on the horizon. Isaac Azimov was predicting it back in the 1950’s.

            I recently re-read his Three Laws of Robotics. As ever, this Brooklyn born writer/savant was on the money – apart from one small detail; his robots had designs on world domination, ours merely want our jobs.

            What will we do in this brave new world that’s darkening our horizon? Take the A train out to Rockaway every morning and watch the sunrise? But who’ll pay the rent and cable?

            Uber won’t want us because the damned robots will come with built in GPS. And do you really think that the corporate whizzes at Amazon will prefer a whining human over a silent machine that can cheerfully pack boxes until the cows come home?

            So maybe the Donald and the Hillary know exactly what they’re doing – deal with the dead and dull past rather than confront the uncomfortable future. Most of us will never even meet a miner, let alone attempt to retrain him for a career in biogenetics. And in the end, they say that a discouraged Azimov abandoned science fiction for the certainties of Shakespeare.

            You have to wonder though, given the seeming intractability of future problems, why would either of these candidates wish to be president?

            Ah well, that’s their problem. Time for the pub; at least I’ll never have to worry about a robot replacing my favorite bartender. Or will I?

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Paris v New York City?

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
                                                                                    Ernest Hemingway

            I don’t doubt it for a minute, Hem, but I’d stack New York City up against the City of Light any old day of the week, particularly in the wild and wooly 1970’s through the mid 1980’s.

            Not only was New York pulsing with exhilaration, you could have the time of your life for little or no money.

            That’s not to say that present day Gotham hasn’t got its charms, you just have to spend so much time working it’s hard to find time to actually enjoy the place.

            Of course, each generation makes its own terms with New York, but I have to say that mine got one hell of a bargain.

            When I first arrived the city was reeling from debt and crime, and revolution was in the air. The Vietnam War was still in full swing, and everyone seemed to be protesting it.

            Greenwich Village might have seen better days but the nights were electric. Black Panthers, Young Lords, Vietnam Vets Against The War, Official and Provisional IRA, gays, feminists, and every liberation movement worth its salt milled around the storied streets fueled by cheap booze and marijuana.

            Most rented dirt-cheap, bath-in-the-kitchen apartments in the Far East Village and mooned around Tompkins Square Park by day. There were few bars east of Second Avenue back then, apart from some Ukrainian shot and beer joints that tended to be off limits to those of us with anything longer than a short back and sides.

            Who cared, you could pick up a six-pack for $3, and from a comfortable stoop watch the world saunter by. The streets were full of action. Buskers played everywhere, and street theatre flourished, though it was often difficult to differentiate actors from audience.

            Theatre itself tended towards the surreal and fantastical, for realism onstage seemed phony when compared to the actual drama on the street.

            A junky once stuck an 18” bayonet in my throat whilst I was taking my evening constitutional in Tomkins Square. Nothing out of the ordinary, the real crux was how did I give him my few dollars without putting my hand in my pocket – which he explicitly warned me not to do for fear I would produce some weapon of my own.

            It was a rare apartment that cost more than $200 a month – my least expensive went for $95 – eat your hearts out, millennials! I did, however, get cleaned out in my first week – but at least I wasn’t home to upset the burglars.

            Turner & Kirwan of Wexford were perhaps the first band to play CBGB’s but The Bowery was so dangerous few of our following attended; after a couple of weeks we quit our residency and went home on vacation. A bad career move! When we returned Patti Smith had turned the barren bluegrass pub into the Mecca of Punk.

            Despite our disloyalty Hilly Crystal, the owner, still allowed Pierce Turner and me free entry. Thus I saw The Ramones on their first appearance. The English bartender confided that they seemed like fascist thugs in their black leather jackets and torn jeans. He obviously had never met any nice Jewish boys from Queens.

            After a somewhat bizarre on-stage performance Hilly banned me from the club – I may have been the only one to suffer such censure. I was never, however, 86’d from Malachy McCourt’s Bells of Hell, since I took care never to break the one house rule – Thou shalt not bore thy neighbor.

            But since Turner & Kirwan were the house band I drank free there most nights of the week – probably one of the reasons Malachy is no longer in the bar business.

            These salad days came to an end during Ronald Regan’s Morning in America. Rents were raised, Yuppies arrived, and something ineffable departed.

            Ah yes, Mr. Hemingway, I bet Paris was a hoot but I can’t imagine it held a candle to New York. For what’s a stroll by the Seine compared to being the only one banned from CBGB’s?

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 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.