Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Change and Bernadette

Change comes slowly like the ocean
But it keeps on coming nonetheless
Take my hand, oh dear companion
We may not find happiness
But peace and then some real contentment
And a measure of social justice
Change comes slowly like the ocean
But they can’t stop the tide
And they’re never ever going to stop us

            I was recently compiling Rise Up, an album of political/historical songs for Black 47. With over fifty to choose from it called for hard choices.

            Certain songs like James Connolly and Bobby Sands MP were obvious but Change, a Reggae tune, kept surfacing. It took me a moment to remember who inspired the song – not surprising since Bernadette Devlin McAliskey is rarely in the public eye anymore. And yet, what an impact she had on Irish life.

            With all the changes that have come to pass it’s easy to forget the sheer scope of sectarianism, bigotry, and state approved discrimination that permeated Northern Ireland forty-six years ago. The hostile glare of B-Special thugs when you crossed the border with “Free State” license plates; the chained swings in locked up children’s playgrounds on the Sabbath; the fear of taking a wrong turn and ending up on the Shankill - all minor inconveniences compared to what the Catholic/Nationalist second-class citizens of this artificial statelet endured on a daily basis.

            Real change didn’t materialize out of thin air – Austin Currie’ housing discrimination protest in Dungannon and the all-important NICRA marches brought attention to the situation in the North – but in many ways People’s Democracy activists focused world television audiences on this festering corner of the UK.

            Eamonn McCann and Michael Farrell are names that spring to mind but it was Bernadette Devlin who caught the international imagination.  She was fiery, profound, and articulate, and she spoke the truth to power in her blunt Northern manner.

            She was young, petite, had a head of thick brown hair, a no-nonsense demeanor and an unflinching set of principles that would not serve her well in politics.

            We followed her through the Loyalist attack on PD marchers at Burntollet Bridge, the Battle of the Bogside, and many another protest as the statelet was shaken to the core by mostly peaceful resistance. At 21 Bernadette Devlin became the youngest woman to be elected to the British Parliament.

            Although forever articulate she physically attacked Reginald Maudling, British Home Secretary, on the floor of the House of Commons after his vapid refusal to accept any responsibility for the shootings in Derry on Bloody Sunday. Bernadette was never one to adopt the civilized rites of a British boys debating society.

            But the center couldn’t hold and violence spread across the North; still in the midst of it all you could set your watch by Bernadette’s principles and obsession with truth. In the end she lost her parliamentary seat and, in 1981, in what many see as a naked case of collusion between a Loyalist hit team and the British Army she was struck by seven bullets in front of her family.

            I first met her in person at Black 47’s first performance when we played a set before her speech in a Bronx bar. She was her usual magnetic self, though there was that calmness about her that you find in people who have stared death in the face and survived.

            It’s hardly surprising that she’s still active in community organizing though now more on a grass roots level in County Tyrone. Nor that she has alienated many – for you could tell all those years ago when she first exploded on the public stage that her principles were not for hire or sale and that she would continue to speak her truth – no matter how inconvenient.  That’s why she inspired Change.

Oh the stars in the heavens are blazing tonight
The moon she is gliding on high
And the drum roll of liberty beats in my heart
As the warm winds of change blow by

Don't ask me to be a slave anymore
I couldn't be if I tried
For the pipes scream an anthem of hope in my heart
As the warm winds of change blow by

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Where Have You Gone, Derek Jeter?

            I love Derek Jeter! A bracing thought first thing in the morning! But what can I tell you – even for a Mets fan there’s just something about this guy.

            And it’s not that I was seduced by his leaping catches and double play pivots either, for I had already given my heart to Keith Hernandez, and Doc Gooden - not to mention that my first cousin, Charlie Kerfeld, was a relief pitcher for the Astros.

            “C’mon now,” says Your Man up in Pearl River, “That’s a tall tale.”

            I swear to God! My Aunt Margy Kirwan, while a nurse in London during the Blitz, married US Air Force Sgt. Jerry Kerfeld, and Charlie was born in Knob Noster, Missouri. Life is, indeed, stranger than fiction.

            But back to my man crush on Derek! What I really like about that damned Yankee is his coolness and unflappability even when struck out in a disputed call. He doesn’t indulge in the usual histrionics, but merely raises one eyebrow an infinitesimal degree so that the umpire understand the real reason for the bad call is that his smitten wife burns his toast every time the handsome shortstop’s name is mentioned.

            Jeter never thanks Jesus either or points heavenwards when he hits a triple; no, Mr. Wonderful is supremely confident because of his natural ability, diligent training, and the long hard hours he puts in chatting up beautiful women.

            Speaking of which, a friend who claims to know about such things, once related that Derek has dated more women than Pete Rose had hits, but none feel aggrieved when given the pink slip for he shows them every courtesy during the courtship. Of course this could be another urban legend or more likely wishful thinking on my friend’s part.

            Despite all this well-earned adulation I have one question for the Yankees’ shortstop. Do you have any idea that baseball’s huge salaries are killing America’s pastime? Now I wouldn’t even bring this matter up to the like of Roger Clements. Steroids or not, I never liked that bully – even before he flung a broken bat at the saintliest of Mets, Mike Piazza.

            But you’re a very smart man, Derek, and you have to see the change in baseball’s demographics since your rookie years. What family can afford the price of tickets to a major league ballpark any more? I’ll tell you who can’t– the 47% that Mitt Romney wrote off a couple of years back. Even with reasonable seats it could cost a family of four $300 for a baseball outing nowadays.

            Look around you at Yankee Stadium, man! Where are the working or lower-middle class kids who made baseball the great American game? And why do you think so many Yankee fans bolt around the 7th inning if the pinstripes are not leading? They’re not invested in the game or the team anymore – only in the expensive spectacle.

            So, Derek, why don’t you use your undoubted influence to persuade baseball owners to subsidize tickets for working poor families? Or even give away empty seats on a slack night. Yeah, I know that might affect the immediate market. But think long term: baseball is taking a beating. Basketball has replaced it for African-Americans and an increasing number of major league players are from the Caribbean or South America.

            Why do you think that is? Because “south of the border” you don’t need to float a Wall Street bond to take your family out to a ball park. It’s still a national pastime in those countries, and I won’t even get into how much it costs to see a game in Cuba.

            No one begrudges you your big salary, Derek; it’s just that I know you’re a thoughtful man who could make a difference. You’re a class act and have been an important role model to generations of children.

Thanks for all the years. It’s been a treat to watch you turn those double plays while barely raising your eyebrow to offending umpires. Mets or no Mets, come next April I’ll be singing:

            “Where have you gone, Derek Jeter, oh?
            A nation turns its lonely eyes to you

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Pete Hamill - Eugene O'Neill Lifetime Achievement Award

            I’ve become president!

            “Oh, no!” Says Your Man up in Pearl River, “Nightmares do come true!”

            Not to worry, comrade. I inhaled and enjoyed it, so no fear of me moving to new digs on Pennsylvania Avenue.

            As regards my recent elevation, I am merely following in the hallowed footsteps of Peter Quinn and TJ English as president of the Irish-American Writers and Artists, a group forged back during the 2008 election when it was suggested that working class Irish would be too prejudiced to vote for Barack Obama.

            We are non-sectarian, inclusive, proudly progressive and our main goal is to represent and further the aspirations of artists and writers. In case you hadn’t noticed, this is not a good time for workers in general, and is particularly dismal for those laboring in the arts; in fact, when asked about a career in music, theatre or literature my advice is don’t even dream of it without a thorough psychiatric evaluation and a skill that will net you $200 a day.

            That being said the IAW&A is an organization of realists and dreamers who love what they do and support each other. I urge you to come to one of the bi-monthly salons held in Manhattan at The Thalia (95th/Broadway) on the first Tuesday of the month and on the third Tuesday at The Cell (23rd/8th Avenue).

            You’ll witness a minor miracle. Artists of the stature of founding director, Malachy McCourt, read or perform regularly and are often followed by someone making their first public appearance. Both receive rapt attention from full houses. Only members of the organization may present but admission is free to all.

            Membership is less than a buck a week – half that for students - and comes with other benefits, but anyone may receive the weekly newsletter that lists the doings of members, details of opportunities, along with a roundup of artistic happenings in Irish America and beyond.

            Our salons regularly hit the road and have recently visited Philadelphia, Washington DC, and Fairfield, CT while we are in the process of forming chapters in Kansas City and Chicago.

            As regards philanthropy: this year we created the Frank McCourt Literary Prize that went to three students at the Frank McCourt High School of Writing, Journalism and Literature, and we have raised money and awareness for causes as disparate as earthquake relief in Haiti and support for the preservation of St. Brigid’s Lower East Side Church.

            Each October we give the Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award at one of Irish-America’s top social event where well-known and aspiring artists rub shoulders with supporters and admirers.

            Previous awardees have included William Kennedy, Brian Dennehy, The Irish Rep’s Charlotte Moore & Ciaran O’Reilly, Judy Collins and John Patrick Shanley.  On Oct. 20th at The Manhattan Club/Rosie O’Grady’s we will be honoring Pete Hamill, the great journalist and writer, and a seanchaĆ­ to many of us.
The IAW&A speaks for artists at a time when the arts are being marginalized, unions and community groups derided, and we are encouraged to view life solely through the prism of financial gain. We provide a forum for people who usually toil alone, while at the same time offering the public a chance to experience new work in a lively social setting at no cost.

            For those with a yearning to express themselves through poetry, prose, music, dance, you name it – we’re there for you. My own goal is to encourage the carpenter in Queens who could be the next O’Casey, the nurse in Brooklyn who might be a budding Edna O’Brien, or the late starter in The Bronx with a tale as riveting as Frank McCourt.’s, to realize your potential and help create a community

Hey, come to think of it, Your Man up in Pearl River shows much of the edge of Bob Geldof. Come on down some Tuesday night, man, time for you to strut your stuff in The Thalia or The Cell!

And if you can, let’s get together on Oct. 20th and honor Pete Hamill, reflect on his work and times, and the remarkable influence he’s had on so many of us and our city.

For details of membership, salons and the Eugene O’Neill Award go to

Monday, 8 September 2014

The Priest and the Fireman

Anyone knocking around Manhattan in those days knew people who perished, but for me it all comes back to the priest and the fireman.

Even thirteen years later I can look offstage and imagine where each would be – Father Michael Judge standing by the bar, impeccably coiffed, surrounded by friends; and Richie Muldowney NYFD, darting around the room bantering with all and sundry, crooked smile lighting up the joint.

Though both are frozen in time they summon up the city as it used to be. For New York changed ineffably on 9/11when the spirits of so many unique people departed. They’ve been replaced, of course, great cities do that, but it’s not quite the same, is it?

I often thought of Mychal as a mirror, he was so empathetic he seemed to reflect your own hopes and fears. I never knew anyone who helped so many people; he was always concerned, forever providing a shoulder. 

I guess he came to see Black 47 to let off a little steam. I’m not even sure he liked our music – his own taste ran towards the more conventional – but the rhythms, juxtapositions and overall message fascinated him and, anyway, he liked to be in the thick of the action. 

Richie was hard-core Black 47. He knew all the words, the players, the other fans. He delighted to show up unexpectedly at out-of-town gigs; the moment you saw him you knew it would be a good night. To think such an irrepressible spark was extinguished so early!

I remember jaywalking across Times Square the first September Saturday the band returned to Connolly’s. The “crossroads of the world” was so deserted in those immediate post-9/11 nights it felt like a scene from a cowboy movie where sagebrush is blowing down the street.

But cops, firemen, emergency workers, the mad, the innocent and those who just couldn’t stay at home needed somewhere to go – to let the pressure off – and that was the band’s function. 

Those first gigs were searing. You couldn’t be certain who was missing, who had survived, who was on vacation, who just needed a break from it all. When a familiar face walked through the door the relief was palpable, someone else had made it. 

The atmosphere – though on the surface subdued - was charged with an underlying manic energy, a need to commemorate, celebrate, to show that life was going on. That would be some small revenge on the bastards who had caused all the heartbreak.

And yet, what an opportunity was missed in those first weeks. That smoldering pit down on Rector Street had galvanized the country. We were all so united; we would have done anything asked of us.

Republican, Democrat, Independent, we all came together as Americans. We would have reduced our dependence on foreign oil, rejuvenated poor neighborhoods, taught classes in disadvantaged schools. You name it - nothing would have been too big, too small either.

But no sacrifice was asked, much less demanded. Instead, 9/11 was used by cheap politicians to get re-elected; patriotism was swept aside by an unrelenting xenophobic nationalism that brooked no dissent. The US was converted into a fortress and the lights were dimmed in the once shining city on the hill. Worst of all, our leaders sought to use the tragedy as an excuse to invade Iraq.

Look at us now, dysfunctional, walled off from each other and the rest of the world. That began when the national will for a positive response was squandered in the aftermath of 9/11.

Though he was finally hunted down, sometimes it seems as though Osama Bin Laden won, for we’ve become a fearful, partisan people, unsure of ourselves, uncertain of our future.

But then I think of Mychal and Richie, their smiles beam across the years and I know that the current national malaise is just a patina that covers the soul of the country – it can be wiped away. It’s not permanent. We have greatness in us yet. 

That’s the hard-earned lesson of 9/11 and will always be the message of the priest and the fireman.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Forget The Format - The Music Marches On!

            I threw out all my old records last week. Remember LPs, EPs, singles? They’d been gathering dust since my old turntable went caput about 20 years ago. I knew I’d never play them again and yet…

            It was one of those impulsive decisions. I was trying to clear some space when I stumbled upon them in all their dust-clad, discarded glory. There was The Clash with Joe Strummer glaring back at me in youthful arrogance. My sneaker print still adorned the disc courtesy of a late night stagger through my old East Third Street apartment.

            The Tain by Horslips looked considerably worse for wear – its cardboard corners curled and faded; yet, I marveled at the detail - album covers were indeed majestic compared to emaciated CD insets. 

            And then I came upon Television’s brilliant first offering. By far the best band to play CBGB’s: the glass-strewn East Village streets it up whenever they hit that Bowery stage. I was there the night Clive Davis of Arista arrived in his big-shot fur coat to sign them, and was booed by the black-leathered legion fearful he might turn their heroes into another insipid pop music machine. They needn’t have worried Television were so wired they couldn’t even spell “sell out.”

            Music meant something different back then, or were we deluding ourselves? Placing a song in a commercial would have been traitorously un-cool; nowadays getting a few licks on a toilet paper ad would be a coup announced with a barrage of tweets.

            Perhaps that’s why I dumped my beloved records into two industrial trash bags and lugged them out on the street - they were a guilty reminder of a purer time. Of course the reason a band would now kill for a toilet paper ad is that musicians retain practically no illusions. Back in the LP days there was an assumption that if you made great music you would eventually break through on radio and gain the acclaim of your peers along with a comfortable living.

            Now even Bruce Springsteen has to hustle for a couple of plays on NPR and, like the rest of us, he receives miniscule percentages of pennies for plays on Spotify, Pandora and the other “cool,” but unconscionable, streaming services. Ads – for toilet paper or Tiffany - are one of the few ways a band can fund recording and touring.

            What would Strummer make of it all? Though quite rigid ideologically he didn’t live in some purist ivory tower. The Clash functioned as a working band – paid their bills and took care of business.

He was never short of advice on how Black 47 should function; indeed he got us our first gigs in Wetlands and other rock clubs – said we had to broaden our audience and let the world know what we were about.  He appeared to take it for granted that we’d never sell out; perhaps he was right but then again, to quote Neil Young - “no one ever made me a good enough offer.”

The next morning - as I was heading into SiriusXM to “spin” digitized songs on a computer - the two big industrial trash bags were missing from the sidewalk.  It was 6:30am and I assumed the garbage men had been and gone. I felt a pang of loss but put it behind me – “life marches on” and all that baloney!   

Then at the bottom of the street I found one of the bags; it had been ripped open. Most of the albums were gone but on a nearby loading dock a half-dozen or so were strewn about. Guess which one was on top? Yeah – The Clash with Strummer glaring up at me, forever young, forever sure of himself!

I cast a cold eye back at him and passed on. By the time I returned from the studio, even those records were gone.

I guess I was right to throw out what I would never use; The Clash, Television and Horslips had found new homes where they would once more be enjoyed.

In the end the format doesn’t really matter. The music lives on – forever young, forever trapped in a moment, while we continue to age and change.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Her Garden

            I often think of her garden this time of year. Though full to the gills with all manner of flowers it was laid out with great precision and taste. It’s probably like a jungle now for she passed on fourteen years ago.

            There have been tenants, good and bad, but none had much interest in gardens; they needed a house for a couple of years and that was that. I’ve often been tempted to visit but never felt quite up to grappling with the memories.

            She was partial to many types of flowers and yet the sweet pea is what always comes to mind. It must be running riot now, weaving its lovely way around roses, lilies, mallow, clematis, fuchsia, and honeysuckle – which she called woodbine.

            She wasn’t always a gardener. People who grew up on farms rarely are but when she finally took an interest, she jumped in hook, line and sinker. It even surprised my father; he was working on the oil rigs up off Aberdeen back then and when home watched her first efforts with amusement. But he was a perfectionist, no stranger to spade or shovel, and eventually pitched in.

            Her sitting room chair faced a sunroom, so she had a good view of her creation. She bought books on horticulture; these she studied until she knew all the flowers’ names, their preferences for shade or sunlight, and the plants in whose company they might prosper.

            She would often look up from the page she was perusing and stare out, no doubt visualizing the perfect position for each of her favorites. My father paid little attention to her deliberations – he was a television man and would chuckle away at some comedy show or other. They were very unlike and yet delighted in each other’s company – though, in the Irish fashion, they rarely made much show of affection.

            My father never complained about all the digging and transplanting she put him through, for she was never quite satisfied with her groupings. She once told me that she had made some big errors early on and instead of starting again from scratch, she chose to fix things as she went along.  She regretted this decision and said that I should take it as a lesson in life, for she considered some of my choices rash and impulsive and worried about me.

            Like many gardeners she liked to take her time about a decision weighing the pros and cons – this must have driven my father crazy for sailors are forced to make quick choices and live with the consequences.  And yet he would lean on his shovel and stare off into the distance as she pondered some setting or design. Was he thinking about his life away from meandering Wexford or merely counting down the hours to his first evening beer?

            I’ll never know now. I suppose he was already suffering from the Parkinson’s that would eventually nail him. They took it for granted that he’d be the first one to go. It didn’t turn out that way. He survived her by three years. For someone seemingly so independent and well used to his own company, her loss knocked the stuffing out of him. He had no stomach for the garden anymore but he did employ a man who tended to it. 

Both my parents passed in the summer months so when I returned her garden was at its glowing best. The weather was balmy on each occasion and I spent much time rambling the little paths she had created. My father had laid these walks with old wooden railway spars and in the warm sun the tar sizzled and the smell curried the sweetness of her bee loud domain.

            I was never one for cameras but I took a lot of mental pictures on those depleted afternoons for I knew I wouldn’t be coming back.

It’s odd though, whenever I attempt to summon up memories all I seem to see is the lovely sweet pea. I bet it’s everywhere now climbing and twining its way around that sweet-smelling jungle. Yeah, I often think of her garden this time of year.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Bert Berns - The Bronx Explorer

            Bertrand Russel Berns from The Bronx never set foot on the Emerald Isle yet he irrevocably changed Irish music.

            Okay, so only his Jewish-Russian socialist parents ever addressed him as Bertrand Russell - in honor of the British philosopher-activist; but, without Bert Berns, Van Morrison would likely be a grouchy curmudgeon still slouching around East Belfast.

            Berns is barely remembered nowadays but he’s about to come back with a bang courtesy of a recently published biography, Here Comes The Night by Joel Selvin, and a new theatre production, Piece of My Heart, currently running at New York’s Signature Center.

I first became aware of him as a boy while jamming my ear into an old cloth-covered wireless. On clear nights back in Wexford you could pick up the crackly sounds of AFN (American Forces Network) broadcasting from Germany.

            Berns’ songs and productions pulsed through those GI airwaves. Along with Carol King & Phil Spector he was one of the most brilliant graduates of the music scene centered around the Brill Building and 1650 Broadway.

            Bert’s effective career lasted only seven years, yet in that short span he wrote or produced 51 hit songs including Twist and Shout, Hang on Sloopy, Little Piece of My Heart and Here Comes The Night. He also owned and operated Bang Records where he nurtured the solo careers of Neil Diamond and Van The Man.

            Although a human dynamo who rarely slept Berns had a severe heart condition from boyhood. His parents worked long hours at their dress shop on the Grand Concourse and legend has it that their convalescent son became interested in music on account of the pounding radio of his Cuban neighbors.

            Infatuated with the Samba he became an accomplished dancer and even moved to Batista’s Cuba to follow his passion.

            Was it in Havana or The Bronx that he first became acquainted with certain shady figures from the New York Crime families? Of course, back then if you were involved in music it would have been hard not to cross paths with “made men.”

            Bert hustled around The Bronx and got by with handouts from his mother until well into his 20’s, but eventually moved to Times Square where he honed his skills as a singer, guitarist and pianist cutting demos for songwriters. They soon discovered that he was equally adept as a lyricist.

Many feel he was responsible for introducing the Latin tinge that made New York pop music of the 60’s so irresistible. He was also deeply influenced by R&B or race music, as it was often called. He got The Isley Brothers to record Twist and Shout. That song became the climax of live shows for then unknown Beatles, and was the standout track on their best selling first EP.

            That’s how Bert came to be in London where he was hired to produce Them, a raw Belfast R&B band. He instantly recognized the brilliance of vocalist, Van Morrison. Less enthusiastic about the band’s musicians he brought in 20 year-old guitar whiz, Jimmy Page, and organist, Phil Coulter, to record his desolate ballad, Here Comes The Night. That hit record by Them still sends shivers down my spine.

            When Them imploded and surly Van retired to his mother’s East Belfast home Berns sent him the fare to New York and turned Van’s Brown Eyed Girl into the exuberant Latin-tinged classic that still fills summer dance floors.

            By then Bert’s time was running down literally and figuratively. Corporate America was buying up the small independent labels; paranoid and under financial pressure he turned to his shady friends in the “families” for support.

When Neil Diamond wanted to break his Bang contract a veiled warning was delivered about the consequences. Meanwhile Van, wrestling with the complexity of his Astral Weeks masterpiece, had neither time nor inclination to deliver another Brown Eyed Girl.

            Shortly after a telephone screaming match with Mr. Morrison, Berns’ heart finally gave out on Dec. 30th 1967.  He was 38.

Hopefully, the musical, Little Piece of My Heart, will catch the effervescence, complexity and volcanic talent of the forgotten genius from The Grand Concourse who changed the face of pop music and rescued Van Morrison from East Belfast anonymity.

For tickets, information and a video visit