Monday, 28 November 2016

Four Hot Years Ahead


The subway train was eerily quiet on the day after the election. As usual my fellow travelers averted their gaze, but there was a certain wariness in the eyes of African-Americans that I hadn’t seen since the Giuliani mayoralty. 

I felt like shouting, “Hey, I didn’t vote for Trump.” But what was the point? Back in the day, I didn’t vote for Giuliani either.

On the other hand, congratulations, President-Elect Trump! You won fair and square, aided by Secretary Clinton’s spectacularly inept campaign.

Leaving aside her email server debacle, ceding the campaign trail to her opponent’s monster meetings, and employing a tone deaf, numbers-cruncher like Robby Mook as campaign manager was political suicide.

Sure, there was anger out in the hinterland that might have swept aside any Democrat this year. That anger will not dissipate under a Trump administration. Coalmines will not reopen due to the availability of cheap natural gas, and the industries that have moved overseas because of lower wages are gone forever. Capitalism, indeed, can be cruel.

A nod to the wise, if you were thinking of nailing down a mortgage or any kind of loan, move fast, interest rates are already rising.

President Trump intends increasing infrastructure spending to the tune of a trillion bucks. Hallelujah! Many of us have been urging such a move for years; however, the Republican controlled congress wouldn’t okay it for President Obama. 

One caveat - fiscal intervention seems to work best when used at the height of unemployment, with the debt repaid during the ensuing boom. But we are already down to 4.9% unemployment while this year’s third quarter boasted a not insignificant 2.9% in US economic growth.

Not to mention that the president-elect is also promising to cut taxes, particularly for the wealthy. These two initiatives combined will lead to a ballooning of the deficit and a consequent increase in interest rates. 

Still, the new president claims to the “the king of debt.” So, let’s hope he knows something we don’t.
Don’t get me wrong! I wish the man and his economic policies much success – we’re all in this together. It’s just that his agenda seems to be a recipe for a bracing increase in the cost of living.

Send millions of undocumented people south and you cut the workforce correspondingly. What native-born American is willing to step into the many poorly paid jobs that will be vacated? 

Dump the Affordable Care Act and health insurance costs will rise – assuming you can get insured in the first place; and forget about crossing state lines for your new inexpensive coverage – imagine showing your doctor’s receptionist your brand new Mississippi insurance card.

Of course we’re all to blame for not questioning Mr. Trump on the specifics of his policies during the campaign. Not that he would have answered – “kings of debt” rarely do – they renegotiate or declare bankruptcy.

I don’t doubt that income inequality and the loss of decent paying jobs fueled the pitchfork uprising that we just witnessed. Unfortunately, Mr. Trump’s policies will likely lead to more of the same, particularly if he gets into trade wars with China, Mexico, or God forbid, Pearl River.

I hope I’m wrong but inflation looms on the horizon. Mercifully we have been spared this specter over most of the Bush/Obama years. Once inflation rises it’s a tough nut to crack, as anyone who lived through the Carter years will remember.

Leaving aside economics, we should not forget that the genie of racism, anti-Semitism, and other taboos were deliberately uncorked during the election. It didn’t take a brain surgeon to notice that Mr. Trump did not disavow the despicable David Duke’s support until after some important Southern Republican primaries were won.

It’s hard to put that genie back in the bottle. This malignant and powerful little fellow was only too apparent on my subway train the morning after the election. 

The country has done major work banishing his like and influence over the last eight years. Let’s hope this genie does not become a major player in President-Elect Trump’s campaign to make America great again.

If so, we have a hot four years ahead of us.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Mary's Bar and the old spirit of Wexford Town


I can measure my life in terms of bars. They stretch across two continents: The Wren’s Nest in Wexford, The Hideaway in Rathmines, Tomorrow’s Lounge in Bay Ridge, Dirty Nelly’s and The Village Pub in The Bronx, Paddy Reilly’s, Rocky Sullivan’s and Connolly’s in Manhattan. 

I only have to hear these names and a host of smiling faces materializes, for we Irish treasure our pubs. When all else fails and the world doubts you, you’ll always find a welcome in your local.

In terms of longevity Mary’s Bar at the top of Wexford’s Cornmarket has a hold on me like no other. I was raised in nearby George’s Street and passed by its old style shop front most days of my youth. 

My grandfather, usually a teetotaler, drank there so I witnessed its once mysterious interior through a child’s eyes, the walls hung with pictures of Robert Emmet, Wolfe Tone and Padraig Pearse.

I didn’t realize it then, but I had stepped into a piece of history. The pub dates back to 1775; an “early house,” it opened at 7am for the Cornmarket workers, and those who unloaded the coal boats down on Wexford Quay. It closed at 3pm.

But then I walked amidst history every day while growing up in George’s Street. Nearby stood Selskar Abbey where Henry II did penance for the murder of Thomas a’Becket. While just down from Cornmarket, Cromwell’s roundheads slaughtered 300 women and children in the town square known as The Bull Ring.

If Mary’s Bar is festooned with rebel pictures there’s a reason. The Cornmarket area was a vital part of Wexford’s Free French Republic declared during the Uprising of 1798. Indeed the leaders of this rebellious secular state held a dinner to celebrate their declaration of independence in a “gentry house” on my own George’s Street.

Built at the same time, my grandfather’s old town house has long ago been converted into flats but the memories throb from within every time I pass by. The little houses on nearby Abbey Street have for the most part been demolished, but the far-flung residents and their children still return to Mary’s Bar.

I only go home now once a year and rarely stay more than a night. I do a concert in Wexford’s Arts Centre, formerly the Town Hall where I learned to play the guitar standing on one foot – the other was often needed to kick away Teddyboys as they fought in front of the bandstand.

I always go to Mary’s Bar after the gig and the smiles of welcome light up as I walk in the door. Catherine Kielty, the proprietor, will stop what she’s doing and give me a hug. It’s the welcome home that every emigrant craves. 

I never know whom I’ll meet: a school friend returned from England, an old girlfriend and her grown children. But ghosts crowd the place too, including my grandfather perched unsmiling on a stool – he found little joy in falling off the wagon. Turn quickly and I might catch Catherine’s father, Joss Kielty, beaming a welcome home from his corner.

I usually have a busload or two of Americans with me. I try to show them the hidden Ireland, untouched by tourists and, often, locals. Through such visits Mary’s has become known in the nooks and crannies of the US and Canada, and few people who have raised a glass there forget its honest charms.

For they recognize the uniqueness of the place. It’s not just a pub; it’s a portal to the past. There’s still a spirit there that speaks of a forgotten Ireland. 

I first heard “One Starry Night” sung on the pavement outside by an old traveler, and as a boy I followed Paddy “Pecker” Dunne into its smoky darkness, entranced by his songs and rugged independence.

Musicians always recognize the essence of the place, for you hear the same soulful echoes as in Tipitinas in New Orleans where Doctor John and Fats Domino presided.

Times have been tough on the old working-class pubs of Ireland. Customers move away or pass on. But Mary’s is more than a bar; it’s a site-specific, living museum that houses the old spirit of Wexford Town. Long may it prosper.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

James Connolly forgive me - I'm voting conservative


            I’m voting conservative in this year’s presidential election.

            “What?” Says Yer Man up in Pearl River. “Where’s your James Connolly now?”

            I’m throwing in my lot with Hillary Clinton, even though I swore I’d never darken her door again after she voted to invade Iraq.

            Basically, Donald Trump scares the living daylights out of me. Now I won’t even get into his rooster ranting on the tape with Billy Bush. Anyone who has heard him on Howard Stern knows full well where he stands on such matters; besides, women are only dying to clean his clock on Nov. 8th.

            Mr. Trump claims there’s a media bias against him. Nothing could be further from the truth for he’s been given a free pass on his woeful economic and security policies this whole campaign. 

            I will say one thing for him – he does recognize that investing in infrastructure is vital for our changing economy. 

            If there’s one thing that the Great Recession has made clear – Keynesian economics works. When the economy stagnates it behooves the government to invest in it. Look at how quickly the US economy has recovered compared to the European model where austerity policies were favored.

            So is Mr. Trump a disciple of Keynes? Well, yes, in the sense that he believes in borrowing to promote growth – with the caveat that he prefers to renegotiate loans and has no problem in declaring bankruptcy.

            This would not be a prudent way to run the country, as was shown when the markets swooned on his suggestion that he would renegotiate federal loans; talk about delivering a Ringsend uppercut to US creditworthiness and the dollar.

            Worse still, he favors massive tax cuts that he claims would create a tidal wave of revenue. Bitter experience, however, suggests that this traditional Republican fiscal policy rarely works.

            No problem for Mr. Trump seeing that he doesn’t pay federal taxes anyway; but infrastructure spending plus massive tax cuts equals staggering deficits.

            Now it may seem that I often put undue emphasis on the health of financial markets, but collapsing stock prices are anathema to the many Americans dependent on 401(k) accounts for retirement. Be warned - the occasional time Mr. Trump’s poll numbers rise the markets correspondingly dive.

            Notwithstanding his threat of pitchfork revolution Wall Street does not fear reform under a Trump presidency; however it trembles at his general untrustworthiness and the likelihood that he might cause another “huge” recession.

            I share Wall Street’s pain – recessions are no fun.  So despite Iraq, emails and the hubris that swirls around the Clinton family I’m voting conservative. At least Mrs. Clinton is unlikely to declare bankruptcy and turn the US into another Atlantic City. 

            Let’s take a look at security, and making America great again. Is that code for invading other countries, blowing the hell out of their infrastructures, and then spending billions rebuilding – not to mention slaughtering and maiming their inhabitants?   
        
None of the last wars of choice have been successful. Raw power doesn’t do the trick any more, as was shown in Iraq where a $15 IED could blow up a $150K US Army Humvee. The world has become very complicated and interconnected; it has little tolerance for Mr. Trump’s bull in a china shop tactics.

            As for slapping tariffs on Mexico and China - be prepared for economic wars and the loss of millions of jobs. Also brace yourself for rising prices on imports that will lead to inflation, soaring interest rates, and another recession. Let’s not even revisit the ridiculous idea of a wall that Mexico will pay for.  

I suppose I should mention that Mr. Trump’s ongoing xenophobic and provocative statements have once again exposed the ugly seam of racism and know-nothing extremism that is only too willing to surface in times of national stress. 

But I’ve little doubt that once he has lost the election and his “brand” has suffered financially that a kinder, gentler Trump will re-emerge. Let’s hope his followers – many of whom have genuine grievances – will then see him for what he really is as the door slams behind him in his ivory New York tower.

            As for me, I’m voting conservative this year. I think the ghost of James Connolly will understand.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Yellow Moon v Polished Dust


           “Kirwan,” the old showband head addressed me.  “There are only two types of music, good and bad. Now step aside!”

            With that he belted into “Down By The Riverside,” and soon had the dance floor “black” with delighted jivers and quicksteppers who had been ominously absent during my previous pop meanderings.

            The head’s judgment may still stand but what would he think of today’s polished mediocrity? For with the advent of computer software even your Aunt Gerty can “make a record.”

            Not everyone, however, is a songwriter. That breed appears to come in two types: volcanic talents like Van Morrison or Brill Building types who master their craft after years of trial and error.

            In one of my other gigs I host Celtic Crush for SiriusXM. This entails a lot of listening – more like scratching around for diamonds in piles of polished dust. One thing you learn quickly on Satellite Radio - every song must be distinctive; with over 100 competing music channels, not to mention the lurking appeal of Howard Stern, each number must capture and hold the listener’s attention or else it’s “c u l8r.”

            Originality, unfortunately, is a rarity and though you may long for it like a cat in a tripe shop, you’re more often forced to settle for a dollop of emotion chiseled into some decent lyrics and arresting melodies. 

Shane McGowan still stands out for his ability to encapsulate the Irish soul – a rare diamond, indeed; and yet, I often rue the effect he’s had on Irish-American songwriting. While aping the man’s phrasing and subject matter can work on stage before a boozed-up audience, more often than not it comes off as parody in the recording studio. 

            Far better that Shane’s musical disciples mine his original sources - Brendan Behan, Irish showbands, London punk and Tipperary Trad. Channeling these through the prism of a unique creativity McGowan gave us The Pogues.

            Shane would be the first to note that there are still vast virgin tracts of the Irish Folk Tradition to draw from. Time to get cracking, Shaneheads! You have the chops - all you’re lacking is the material and that divine spark of originality necessary to ignite it.

            Which brings me to Yellow Moon. You might wonder what’s the connection between the Neville Brothers from New Orleans and anything remotely Irish? Oddly enough, quite a bit!

            Yellow Moon has long been one of my favorite albums but I hadn’t listened to it since the 90’s. Was I afraid it wouldn’t stand up – or perhaps I didn’t want to mess with the memory of sharing a stage with them some years back?

            Neville is a very popular name in my neck of the woods. Were the Brothers descended from long-ago Wexford emigrants or, as some of you are probably muttering, had their slave masters hailed from the Model County?

            Perhaps, both! When Black 47 first played Tipitinas in New Orleans’12th Ward we were treated like royalty by the city’s music lovers and local Irish-Americans.

            At the end of our “meet and greet” line stood a dozen or so of what I took to be African-Americans. Each one, however, exulted in trumpeting Irish surnames like Murphy and Doyle. They told me that their forefathers had come to Crescent City in the 1860’s to dig the canals and married “locally.”

            Yellow Moon not only stood up - it floored me all over again. Each song was a gem, from the title track to My Blood, from Rosa Parks to A Change Is Gonna Come. It’s the story of a people rooted in one of the world’s great musical melting pots. And, sure enough, beneath Daniel Lanois’ incandescent production, one can glimpse sparks of the Celt.

            Listen to Aaron Neville update Sean-Nós on Bob Dylan’s With God On Our Side – itself lifted from Dominic Behan’s Patriot Game - and you feel the ineffable pain of all the world’s dispossessed reclaiming their dignity.  
         
            Like much great art, Yellow Moon is timeless and self-reflecting. By flirting with perfection this album allows us to reflect on what we were when we first heard it, while revealing what we have become down the years in between.

            It’s a diamond that still sparkles; pulsing with raw humanity it helps us differentiate between genius, and the curse of mediocrity and parody. That’s no small thing in an age of polished dust.

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 http://i-am-wa.org/

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?