Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Wexford


                          WEXFORD
I remember a town by the mouth of a river
Its mossy-backed gloom can still cause shivers
The moon peering down through a foggy midnight
While redundant sailors pine for Pacific starlight.

I remember a love that was just about over
Red sails in her sunset past the silting harbor
Storm clouds in the North but down South we were cautious
When you’re all of nineteen you can be so oblivious.

The old man on a sofa in tie and starched collar
His back poker stiff, he’s wearing the scapular
Of our dear St. Francis and his divine Third Order
He can’t understand why I don’t head for the border.

It’s five in the morning the old man is up reading
One last glance at your loveliness as you lie sleeping
The ghosts in the Abbey snap to attention
The mossy-backed streets thrum with apprehension
A young man has slipped past the sentries in Selskar
And abandoned the past to escape his own future.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Bainbridge and Kingsbridge Forever


Though Bainbridge Avenue seems far away now, it was once the dead center of Irish America. 

Not that it got much love from Manhattan’s Irish elite. I might never have discovered the place myself if Phil Delaney hadn’t stumbled upon Turner & Kirwan of Wexford ripping up East Durham and booked us for Durty Nelly’s.

Yeah, I know, Nelly’s was on Kingsbridge Road – hardly crawling distance from Braindamage (as Bainbridge was often called) - but the two areas are forever linked for me, living as I was in the wilds of the East Village. 

My life would have been much poorer if I hadn’t ventured north frequently. It wasn’t that you couldn’t have fun in Manhattan’s Irish bars, Fleming’s on 86th St. was a riot, Eamonn Doran’s rarely closed, and The Pig & Whistle gave me my first New York gig; but there was a raw majesty to the Bainbridge/Kingsbridge joints that will never be replicated.

Part of their appeal was that there was no concession to America. It was as if Cultimagh, Cahirciveen and Carrickmacross had been uprooted and beamed down upon The Bronx. Within a couple of pints I’d have shed my Alphabet City veneer, be jiving to the showbands, and wondering how many goals Tony Doran had netted against near-invincible Kilkenny.

Although some of the pubs could be on the rough side and a bartender might have occasional need of a camán or baseball bat, yet there was a rare magic astir in those sheet-rocked saloons.

I experienced much warmth and acceptance too from the many excellent musicians who played the scene. I can still see the smiling faces of Dermie Mac, Gerry Finlay, Tommy Mulvihill, Paddy Higgins, John Morrison, Gabriel Donohoe, Joe Nellany and a host of others. The laughs we had as we tried to outdo each other with the “the most disastrous gig I ever played” stories.

The owners and managers were a breed apart also. Phil Delaney was a smiling rogue from central casting, Sean Lynch used to hire us just to annoy his more conservative customers, and John Flynn - with a well-timed gig and bonus - paid many of my overdue rent bills.

I also met one of the best friends a man could have in Brian Mór, aka Bernie O’Boyle. He was the doorman (among other duties) at the fabled Bunratty. If you read my novel Rockin’ The Bronx he’s easily recognizable as the implacable Benny, keeper of the faith on Kingsbridge. A wonderful artist, Brian lived by a set of hard-won principles; but oh what a twinkle he had in his eye. 
         
It was in the Bunratty that I first heard real traditional music – unhinged and unfettered - as played by Johnny Cronin, Andy McGann, Accordion Joe Burke, and Banjo Joe Burke. I’ve never heard the beatings of it since. Of course eight hours of straight drinking could, and did work wonders. The Bronx in those days, as you might imagine, was not a place for the sober or fastidious.

It did throw all types together, however, in that many young Irish from the Republic were introduced to their counterparts from British occupied Ireland. That rarely happened at home. Few of my Wexford contemporaries had ever been to Belfast or Derry, and why would they? It was a different country and in many ways we in the south had turned our backs on our people in the north.

For the first time many of us got to experience the effect of state-backed religious and political discrimination on our Irish brothers and sisters, and it changed our lives.

I had no idea when I returned in the early 90’s with Black 47 that the minutes were counting down for Bainbridge. Nelly’s, The Archway, and The Bunratty were already shuttered. There would be no more old time waltzes or Kerry slides heard on Kingsbridge.

But Bainbridge seemed solid – after all it was as much of a way of life as a geographical area by then. But immigration was tightening, the nascent Celtic Tiger beckoning, and one night the lights went dark on the avenue.

That’s New York for you – a city of change – but the warmth and memories of Braindamage and Kingsbridge will never fade.

Monday, 23 January 2017

USA 2017 Selfie


It’s a good time to take a “selfie” of the US. Remember the salad days of January 2001 during the transfer of power between Presidents Clinton and Bush. There was a budget surplus, no foreign wars of any consequence, low unemployment; I even recall a debate about whether surpluses might be bad for the country’s  economic long-term health. Ah yes, dream on!

There are many similarities today. We have an unemployment rate of 4.7%, and miniscule US forces remain in Iraq and Afghanistan; the deficit, however, is now at an unseemly $552 billon (still, many economists feel that while borrowing rates remain low the US economy can handily sustain this deficit level.)

Given the economic Armageddon that President Obama inherited in 2009, he’s done an amazing job. Stock markets are zooming, housing values have recovered, and gas prices continue to be low.

Let’s paste this selfie on our refrigerator door - we may need cheery memories in the coming years.

On the other hand, who knows what wonders await us under the incoming Trump Administration? I, for one back in 2009, never imagined that the tanking American car industry would be booming today. If you remember, 600,000 jobs were lost in that awful January President Obama took office.

Still unless President-elect Trump’s plans change, one can safely predict that “huge” tax cuts, allied with increased infrastructure and defense spending, will lead to even “huger” deficits. The consequential higher inflation and interest rates will pose severe threats for the present healthy economy.

But from what I’m hearing, the first Trumpian priorities will be to kill Obama Care and cut regulations. 

Although the Affordable Care Act has led to some costlier individual premiums it is saving many billions in overall US health costs. And in the rush to kill this flawed but helpful scheme, Republicans and the Trump Administration have yet to propose a meaningful alternative. The resulting chaos suggests millions left without coverage and a return to the staggering cost increases of the pre-Obama days.

As for regulations: some can undoubtedly be done without, but those that affect climate control are there for a reason, and without them a price will be paid in terms of rising sea levels, breathable air and other such niceties.

President-Elect Trump’s plan to “drain the swamp” is admirable, especially his threat to ban administration officials from becoming lobbyists for five years after their term of duty.

As distasteful as these crony capitalist enablers may be they are minnows compared to the real swamp alligators – the “huge” corporations that have increasingly been calling the shots in this country. 

Despite Mr. Trump’s populist campaign rhetoric, notice how effortlessly wealthy veterans of Exxon, Goldman Sachs and other members of the swamp elite have glided into his cabinet. They share one overriding concern - the amassing of corporate profit. 

Corporate taxes will definitely be cut. Will this help in the creation of well paying, non-service jobs? I doubt it. 

Corporate profit rates have been growing for the last 30 years while investment in factories and the work place has not kept pace, apart from a drive for more automation that inevitably leads to less jobs. 

In a major publicity move, Mr. Trump recently saved 800 Carrier jobs from moving to Mexico at a cost to the state of Indiana of 7million in tax rebates. The problem is - many of these jobs will eventually be lost to automation. Is there a solution?

There are over 5 million jobs nationwide that cannot be filled because Americans lack the necessary skills. Wouldn’t it be better for federal and local governments to collaborate with unions and employers, and train workers for these positions? 

Such an investment would engender less headlines and 4am tweets, but would provide many families with a path to the middle-class.

And while we’re at it - Fortune 500 companies have stashed more than $2.1 trillion in profits offshore to avoid taxes. What are the chances of those trillions being repatriated? Slim to none I’d say - without a sweetheart deal for the corporate alligators.

So there you have it – things could be better as President Obama leaves office; but they could get a whole lot worse. Don’t forget to check that selfie on your refrigerator door!

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Rockabilly Wexford-oh


Americans definitely liked Buddy Holly. Many could even hum a bar or two of his songs. But they didn’t revere him like we did. In the narrow streets and back lanes of Wexford the man from Lubbock was right up there with Saint Anthony – he had a large and devoted following.

Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent were only a couple of notches behind. No two ways about it - our town was Rockabilly mad.

Wexford has always been musically hip - partly because of its proximity to London. A fellah could go out for a couple of pints on a Saturday afternoon, get soused, throw some shirts in a battered suitcase, and wake up with a vicious hangover in Paddington train station the following morning.

Whatever sounds were au courant in Piccadilly soon pounded forth from Nolans’ jukebox on Wexford’s Main Street. Ska, Blues, Reggae, Glam, and Punk had their moment in local musical history but it all began with Rockabilly.

Nolans was a smoky ice-cream parlor frequented by would-be juvenile delinquents and London-hardened Teddyboys, but it was so much more. It may have been the coolest place I ever hung out. 

With its polished tiled floor and darkened windows it boasted a riveting natural reverb. I’ve tried to replicate that effect in the most sophisticated recording studios but have never come close.

Could it have had something to do with the volume? I often wondered if the proprietors - the mild-mannered, Mr. & Mrs. Nolan - were deaf, for ice cream bowls and coffee cups literally hopped on the tables when the Teds grooved to their favorite 45’s.

And guess what sounded best? You got it – Buddy, with Eddie and Blue Gene in close contention. I mean Elvis was no slouch and Irish-American Bill Haley could rock, but they lacked a certain ineffable coolness and that whiff of rebellion so central to Rockabilly.

Eddie Cochran even made fun of the mighty Presley – “Guy can barely play guitar, where’s that at?” Eddie himself could sure as hell play - Hendrix copped his first licks from Cochran 45’s, and Pete Townsend never even came close to “the man” on his version of “Summertime Blues.”

Of course, Eddie Cochran never got old and bloated like Elvis. A dumb Brit driver killed him at the age of 21 while recklessly speeding through the pitch dark English countryside; to top it all he half-crippled Eddie’s amigo, Gene Vincent. 

And you know what happened to Buddy Holly – he did a nose dive into the fields of Iowa courtesy of a pilot who should never have been let near a plane. And with the three of them gone, Rock & Roll died.

But not in Wexford! It lived on in the grooves of scratched 45’s and CD reissues. If you were an aspiring musician and wanted to play beyond your bedroom walls you had to at least learn the rudimentary fingerings and beats.

Rockabilly culture survived in grubby dancehalls and working class pubs, and many of us gravitated to it. It was more than the music: when you played that scene you were cool by association, for Teddygirls were sumptuous, and violence rarely more than an errant glance away.

One summer our band played Friday nights in the local CYMS. Catholics we might have been but there was little Christianity in that packed sweating hall. With no security fights ricocheted around the dance floor until they petered out from a surfeit of spouting blood or sheer fatigue. 

Didn’t matter! We played on for there was a promise of redemption in Rock & Roll; you went home exhilarated, and dreaming of the day when you too might become a Buddy or an Eddie or, the Lord forbid, a half-crippled Blue Gene.

Times and tastes change but on my last trip home I saw a vaguely familiar figure from those CYMS nights strutting down the Main Street. His hair had long ago turned grey but it was still coiffed in the old greased-back Ted fashion. 

His pants tight, his socks white, his progressive lenses encased in Buddy’s black signature frames, he winked his recognition as he sauntered by whistling “Rave On.”

Oh yeah, Rockabilly lives and Wexford Town still pulses to it!

Friday, 23 December 2016

Merry Christmas, Baby


She was my first IAP (Irish-American Princess). Well the first that I lived with at any rate. Tara had somehow made her way down to the Lower East Side from the leafy, lace-curtain environs of Westchester, although she was anything but stuck up. 

Back then I had a regular Sunday gig in the less than ritzy Archway up the Bronx and she fit in there like a fist in a glove. Of course, she was quite a looker so that didn’t hurt with the lovesick Paddies. 

She had beautiful grayish green eyes that would mist over in any kind of conflict or passion; there was much of both in our relationship. The boys said that she could twist me around her little finger. They were right, but oh that twisting could be so sweet.  

Things came easy to Tara. She had succeeded at everything she’d turned her hand to. But she wished to become a successful singer, the rock that many have foundered upon. 

I must have seemed like a good step up the ladder; along with gigs in the Archway and John’s Flynn’s Village Pub, I regularly strutted my stuff at CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City. 

It was to be a match made in purgatory for both of us. Whatever, as they say, I was in need of some stability and moved into her apartment on First Avenue.  

I always seemed to have “just missed” her parents on their visits to the city. That should have set the bells ringing but I guess when you’re in love… 

Actually, our first major disagreement was over my parents - when I announced I’d be spending Christmas with them in Wexford.

“Our first Christmas together?” She shuddered.

“Well, you can come too.” Although I broke into a cold sweat at the thought of telling the Mammy that we’d be bunking together in the ancestral homestead.

“I couldn’t desert my parents,” she countered as though I was sentencing her whole white-picket-fenced clan to twenty out on Rykers.

“But what about my parents?” I countered. And on it went as lovers’ quarrels do until her eyes were so misty and beautiful I feared that her heart might indeed break.

Well, I wrote my Mother a particularly tear-stained letter full of half-truths (God rest her soul, I suppose she knows the full story now). I didn’t dare telephone; I wasn’t man enough to bear two loads of womanly angst. 

In truth though, the part that really hurt was that I would miss the traditional Wexford boys’ night out on Christmas Eve. And so I extracted a promise from Tara that we’d at least tie on a decent substitute.

“No problem,” she said and was good to her word. She was fairly abstemious for those times but, when called upon, could drink like a fish with little ill effect. 

We bought a tree, decorated it, and strung flashing lights all around the apartment. I almost felt like Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life.  Almost! For around 7pm I slipped on my black leather jacket, she dressed up to the nines and off we strutted up First Avenue to get well and truly shellacked.

God knows how many bars we hit, I certainly don’t; but I was feeling no pain by the time we reached Max’s Kansas City. Why Max’s on Christmas Eve? Well Tara liked to make the scene, besides I knew the doorman and got in free. 

I was also familiar with the bartender who slid many the shot of watered-down whiskey towards us. And then, through the shroud of smoky darkness, I heard the London accent.  

“Roight!” The spiky-haired ghost in black leather wearily exclaimed.

The platinum blonde next to him droned on as junkies do.

“Roight.” Sid Vicious reiterated whenever a response was expected.

I casually whispered his name to Tara.  

“Oh my God!” She shrieked as though Jesus had just hopped down off the cross and offered to buy a round.

Sid looked up blearily, whereupon Tara flashed him a smile that would have done justice to Marilyn Monroe on steroids.  

“The blonde looks like a piece of all right,” I countered and winked at Nancy Spungen.

“From a bottle!” Tara sniffed just as Sid laboriously hauled himself off his stool and stumbled towards the restrooms; whereupon Ms. Spungen laid her head down on the counter for a wee snooze. 

We were still awaiting Sid’s return when Tara looked at her watch and gasped. “It’s ten minutes to twelve.”

“Expecting to turn into a pumpkin?”  

“No,” she moaned, “we won’t get into St. Patrick’s!”  

“What for?”

“Midnight mass, of course. What do you think?”

Was she kidding - from Max’s to matins? 

When we arrived at the church off Avenue A, I could tell it wasn’t exactly what Ms. Westchester had in mind. For one thing, the priests all wore shades and spoke Polish. Still, the place was packed and we reverently stood in the transept in close proximity to an ornate candelabra - wax dripping from its many branches. 

Perhaps, it was the heat, though it could have been Max’s watery whiskey; for one moment I was sweating and swaying, the next I was writhing on the marble floor painfully disengaging myself from a myriad of hot waxy candles. There was immediate uproar with many Eastern European ladies screaming at me, and Tara, no doubt, wishing she was safely home in leafy suburbia. 

When I awoke on Christmas morning much of her extensive wardrobe was laying atop me.  She was modeling a matronly gray jacket and skirt, the hem inches below her knees, damn near a foot down from its usual height. 

I leaped from the bed and grabbed my Doc Martens, pink shirt, and black leather tie and jacket. Unlike my dearest, I had long before settled on an outfit appropriate for my first appearance in Westchester.

“You don’t look well, baby,” she laid a cool hand on my brow and cooed, “You’re just burning up.”

I did feel as though one of those monsters from Alien was ready to hop out of my stomach but I had much experience of that condition.  “No, it’s okay. I want to do this for you.”

She hemmed and hawed before blurting out the truth, “It’s my mother…she wouldn’t like you.”

“What’s there not to like?” 

“Well, your clothes, for one thing. I mean, are you serious?”

And with that, the fight fled from me. I could just picture the whole clan dressed in Kelly green singing Danny Boy around a turf fire - her auld one, no doubt, peering out at me through lace curtains.

Tara took me in her arms whispered that I should go back to sleep, and hinted that on her return Santa might provide some x-rated delights. But I wasn’t that easily mollified and delivered one last parting shot as the door closed behind her, “So what am I supposed to do, have Christmas dinner in an Indian restaurant?”

Well, I didn’t fall back asleep and the hangover was of the galloping nature, gaining ground all afternoon. But the hunger was no joke either and when I eventually sauntered up First Avenue the only places open were of the Indian persuasion. 

A dusting of snow was descending as I stormed into The Taj Mahal. The lone customer didn’t even bother to look up from his book; I sat there glaring at him, cursing all cruel-hearted IAPs and wishing I was home with my Mammy in Wexford.

The snow was swirling around First Avenue and White Christmas was leaking from doorways as I headed back to the apartment. I turned on the blinking Christmas lights and took a couple of fierce slugs of Jameson’s whiskey, turned the Clash up to eleven and rehearsed ever more vicious and vengeful ways of breaking up with Ms. Westchester.

She must have forgotten her keys for, at first, I didn’t hear her knock above Strummer’s bawling. I strode over to the door, angrier than any Old Testament prophet. She stood there, face flushed from the cold, snow in her hair; she was expecting my fury and accepted it with grace. She smiled gently, her grayish green eyes misting over, and I barely heard her murmur, “I missed you so much.”

She reached up, held a sprig of mistletoe over my head and kissed me as if for the first time. And when she whispered, “Merry Christmas, baby,” all the fight fled out of me and young love in all its passion returned.

The Christmas Gig


Back in the Ireland of the 1970’s the Christmas gig was the highlight of the year. Any band with designs on “making it” had long ago headed to the UK; but homesickness was always a factor and what better way to ensure a Christmas dinner at home than to undertake an Irish tour in late December.

Rory Gallagher, Thin Lizzy and Horslips were the rockin’ Santas. Not only did they strut the boards in their hometowns they played the other major urban centers – including, to their credit, Belfast.
Talk about hitting a warzone! It’s sometimes easy to forget just how dangerous it was up North - as The Miami Showband tragically discovered in 1975.

Rory, in particular, played Belfast religiously. His following had always transcended sectarian divides, besides bassist, Gerry McAvoy, and drummer, Wilgar Campbell, were locals. 

But then Rory would have taken a gig at the gates of hell itself if the bread was decent – for he was a bluesman with a hellhound on his trail!

Rory meant a lot more than music to us. He was the best and what else did we have in Ireland back then? Joyce and Yeats, I suppose, but they were dead as doornails and it was hard to pump your fist in the air for Molly Bloom, or fight your way to the front of the stage to rhapsodize about “bee loud glades.”

But you could scream “Messin’ with the Kid” at the top of your lungs when Rory was leading you, and oh the whiskey-soaked paradise you entered when he shredded his sweat-stained Stratocaster during “Bullfrog Blues!”

Even Hendrix agreed with us – when asked what it was like to be the greatest blues guitarist in the world, the man from Seattle shrugged, “I don’t know, ask Rory Gallagher.”

Rory had a way of placing other artists in perspective. I once saw him open for Rod Stewart on Staten Island and Sir Roderick seem very common after the encounter. Don’t even ask how shabby a very stoned Aerosmith sounded in Central Park after the Corkman’s adrenalized set. It begs the question, why would anyone in their right mind have Rory open for them?

And yet despite all the foreign triumphs, there was nothing quite like Rory on his home turf for the Christmas gig. I was often home on vacation myself in those years, wondering if I could ever fit in again after the delights of New York City. Rory was like a bridge between these two very disparate worlds.

A magician onstage – he wielded that Strat like Merlin waving his wand.  For two solid hours of bluesy mania you could believe that anything was possible. There was a unity to the audience. We screamed in unholy unison when Rory taunted and teased his own particular demons, and we swayed in silence when his sultry guitar lines took us to places we only experienced at his shows.

Did he know the effect he was having on us? I often wondered. With his long hair flowing, the sweat streaking his face and axe, his faded blue denim jacket and red flannel shirt tossed and sometimes tattered, he seemed on a different plane.

Off stage he was polite and distant. He approached me once in Dublin’s Television Club. Shy and standing in the shadows I couldn’t believe it as he strolled across the dance-floor. 

“Any chance of a lift home?” He smiled.

“What?” Said I, only then realizing that he had mistaken me for some young fellow from Cork.

“Oh Jesus, I’m sorry.” He smiled again and turned away.

I watched him edge uneasily through the crowd. I felt like running after him and saying, “Yeah, no problem, man!” 

I was ready to run out onto Harcourt Street, break into a car, jump-start it and drive him home – to hell with the consequences! Instead I stood there paralyzed, rooted disconsolately to that sticky dance-floor.

I never go home for Christmas anymore. Too much has changed. I don’t even know if musicians do Christmas gigs any more. 

It doesn’t matter. I have the memories. Santa Claus knew what he was doing back then. Rory Gallagher’s Christmas gigs were gifts I’ll always treasure

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Stardust and Shay (Healy)


When was the last time you heard a song that floored you? I’m not talking about a number that you instantly hum along with, or tap your foot to, but something that really touches you.

It’s a rare Van Morrison album that doesn’t provide one such song. Bob Marley had a way of melding rhythm, rhyme, and melody that could grip your soul; and back in the day Shane McGowan seemed to effortlessly stir the heart.

Because I produce and host Celtic Crush on SiriusXM I’m always on the lookout for great songs. You’d be surprised how rarely I find them. Don’t get me wrong: there are many good songs out there, but play them next to a great one and you instantly notice the difference. Because Howard Stern is down the corridor only dying to snare my listeners, I don’t have much use for the merely “good”.

So, I guess you could say I’m in the business of creating future classics. I also know when I’ve succeeded – or failed - because listeners all over North America aren’t shy in letting me know.

About a year ago I received an email containing an mp3 from an old friend. As I was reading his message I automatically clicked on the link. At first I barely noticed the song. But within 20 seconds I knew I had stumbled upon something wonderful. 

The voice was familiar although I hadn’t spoken to my friend in over 20 years. There was a physical weariness to it, however, that stopped me in my tracks, and yet the old ebullience and optimism was still there at the core. 

“When my life is over I’ll become a bit of stardust
Out there in the heavens out beyond the blue
And if you want to see me just look into the night sky
You will see me shining winking down at you…”

The arrangement was sparse, somewhat like a Billie Holliday torch song, it left acres of room for the singer to get his point across. The words grabbed me with their aching humanity; there was a message here that went beyond your normal pop song. It was about the fragility of life, and the singer’s awareness that he has learned something he’d love to pass on to the rest of us. 

“Stars were made for wishing so make your wish upon me
And I’ll do what I can to make your dreams come true
Dry away your tears now our souls go on forever
And maybe we will meet again when you become stardust too.”

There was a certain humility that you sometimes hear in a Sinatra song – particularly those the man from Hoboken recorded when reeling from the heartbreak of losing Ava Gardner. In Sinatra’s case, though, it’s the young stud realizing that he’ll never find a love like this again.

I can’t say for definite that the Parkinson’s that has afflicted Shay Healy has something to do with the wistfulness of When You Become Stardust Too, but I have no hesitation in saying that my old friend has written and performed a classic that will long outlast his very full and fulfilling life.

As the gripping trumpet solo brought the song near to an end I thought of many things: how African-American Jazz music has spread so effortlessly that an Irish muso can nail its essence as readily as any New Orleans aficionado.

I also remembered a Wexford adolescent buying New Spotlight Magazine to read about the Folk Scene in Dublin catalogued in such detail by Shay Healy, and later on meeting the man himself and getting his encouragement to begin my own musical journey.

That’s what a great song does to you. It provides wings and wheels to your own memories and imagination.

I played Stardust the following Sunday morning on Celtic Crush and the response was immediate. Listeners loved it and I’ve been playing it ever since. People write and tell me they listen to Shay’s song for inspiration, how it gets them through tough moments, and how they love to share it with others.

Thanks, Shay, you created a classic and we’re all the richer for it. Long may your stardust sparkle, old son!