Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Roy Orbison Changed My Life

            The word spread like wildfire up the narrow streets and down the mucky lanes – Roy Orbison was coming to Wexford! 

            It wasn’t that we were unsophisticated; Brendan Bowyer and Dickie Rock had jammed the Parish Hall on many occasions. But Roy Orbison was a horse of a different color – wasn’t he the next best thing to Elvis!

            However, we were uncertain of the etiquette for such an occasion; normally we danced to showbands for four continuous hours. The Parish Hall Committee soon set us straight: a local band would play until Mr. Orbison arrived from Arklow where he was engaged to do a similar 40-minute show. He would then move on to Waterford for a final late night performance.

            We were informed that we should not dance while this legend was performing but give him the same rapt attention and reception we afforded President John F. Kennedy on his visit in 1963.

            I was very relieved by the non-dancing edict as I was going through a rough patch with the fair sex. “Hooking up” was tremendously complicated in those distant days, as 99% of this activity was initiated in dancehalls where a strict protocol had to be observed.

            It began with requesting the pleasure of a lady’s company for a set of three dances. In those scant ten minutes of twists, two-steps or waltzes you were expected to beguile her with your manliness, comedic chops, and career prospects. Should she have found your presentation acceptable it was then incumbent upon you to request her company for a further set.  

Unless she had fainted from boredom during this second set you then inquired if you could buy her a “mineral;” if she accepted, you escorted her to the balcony. It was usually plain sailing from then on: you walked her home at the end of the night and were rewarded with the chastest of kisses.

            I knew the routine; the problem was – none but the lame, the overweight, and the criminally insane would dance with me. It wasn’t just me – most girls wouldn’t dance with any of my friends.

            To be declined thirty times in the course of an evening was routine for a young man. Many of these refusals were courteous enough, although I remember one lady stating that she would be delighted to dance - if I could find her a partner. Another was more to the point, merely muttering, “Would you ever shag off!”

            I don’t know why women of that generation were so choosy. My grandmother proclaimed that she had never refused a gentleman a dance. My mother too seemed puzzled but reassured me that I’d “grow out of it.” 

The Parish Hall was packed when Mr. Orbison’s backing band took to the stage. They were obviously English for they gazed upon us much as my grandfather did when appraising poorly castrated bullocks.

            They then began the intro to Pretty Woman and we craned our necks as Mr. Orbison strolled on stage followed by an assistant bearing his guitar. A vision in shades and gold lamé suit, the legend stretched out his arms not unlike Jesus on the cross. The guitar was slipped over his shoulders and he began to sing.

            Oh, what a voice! At the song’s conclusion he stood stock still while we cheered as though Wexford had just wiped the floor with Cork in the All Ireland Hurling Final. Mr. Orbison then proceeded to string together one after another of his hits.

            He never acknowledged us and it was hard to say if he was enjoying himself but we were exultant. Some even compared the experience to witnessing the Blessed Virgin at Lourdes.

            The set built to a climax with a rousing reprise of Pretty Woman, and suddenly Mr. Orbison was gone without a word of farewell. A committee member later confided that he was at least 2 miles down the road to Waterford before we gave up roaring for an encore.

            I looked around the hall. The mirror ball still spun and the local band had begun playing. But something had fled and with it my ability to accept thirty refusals a night.

            Soon after I emigrated to New York City. Roy Orbison had apparently set me free.

Monday, 20 April 2015

A Confederacy of Dunces

            There are two types of people in this world – those who have read A Confederacy of Dunces, and everyone else.

            John Kennedy Toole’s masterpiece reeks of absurd life and introduces Ignatius Reilly, one of the 20th Century’s great literary characters. But have no fear: this is no scholarly tome but an outrageously comical romp through New Orleans.

            You will recognize the book’s influence on many of today’s writers: in particular, Tom Wolfe and his Bonfire of the Vanities. Likewise, it’s hard to imagine that The Bronx’s Richard Price – arguably America’s finest living writer – hasn’t also cracked a few pages of Confederacy.

            Though written back in 1963 there’s scarcely an archaic reference; but then John Kennedy Toole is a writer for the ages.

Like Vincent Van Gogh he hadn’t an iota of success in his lifetime. In fact, A Confederacy of Dunces was not published until 1980, eleven years after Toole’s suicide.

So, who was John Kennedy Toole? Well, he was decidedly well-read for the book is prefaced by Jonathan Swift’s quote, “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him."

The Tooles arrived in New Orleans from Ireland during the Great Hunger of the 1840’s. His mother Thelma Ducoing, the major influence on his life, also had Irish roots through her Kennedy grandfather. Thelma was highly cultured and encouraged young Ken (as Toole was known) to pursue his interest in theatre and literature.

However, she was possessive and controlling, not unlike the mother of Ignatius, the anti-hero of Confederacy. Thelma invested all her hopes in her popular and intellectually brilliant son, and yet he often appeared sullen and morose in her presence. If he was indeed writing about his mother in Confederacy he didn’t stint on her faults, yet his portrayal is ultimately sympathetic as it is for each of his blustery and self-obsessed characters.

Many feel that Toole used a fellow English professor, Bob Byrne, as a model for obese, supercilious Ignatius – Byrne too was a slob, played the lute, and wore a deerstalker hunting cap despite the often stifling heat of New Orleans. Byrne however felt that Toole himself was the model: “a strange person, both extroverted and private, with a strong desire to be recognized but also a strong sense of alienation – just like Ignatius Reilly.”

There’s no doubt that Confederacy captures the unfamiliar underbelly of working class New Orleans and renders it just as exotic as the Mardi Gras city we’re accustomed to. And what a guide Toole is – unrelentingly and hilariously non-politically correct, he skewers every class, nationality and race with equal delight.

Each of the twenty or so characters is larger than life and solidly ensconced in their own private universes. Alas, their worlds collide with abandon, but each character is so realistic and wonderfully drawn, you have to wonder if you too in your daily routine are behaving in an equally absurd manner.

Toole tried hard to get his book published and even gained the ear of the legendary Robert Gottlieb, senior editor at Simon & Schuster. Gottlieb did his best to shape Confederacy but Toole was reluctant to make changes – and rightly so!

When Gottlieb eventually passed on the book Toole was shattered. He sunk into depression and acute paranoia, and eventually took his own life.

There the matter might have rested. But Thelma, his driven mother, was convinced of her Ken’s genius. After many rejections, she began pestering Walter Percy, a faculty member of Loyala University. One day she barged into his office and, fearing a scene, he began to read the battered manuscript - at first with indifference, and then incredulity, scarcely able to believe the brilliance of Toole’s writing.

The book was eventually published in 1980 and in 1981 Toole received a posthumous Pulitzer Prize. It has now sold close to 2 million copies in a legion of languages.

Read it and delight in the crazy universe of Ignatius Reilly. And if you’ve been rejected in some walk of life, don’t despair like John Kennedy Toole, especially if you have an obsessive mother who won’t give up on you.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Feeling Lonely? Why Not Write A Play...

            Feeling lonely, depressed, no one making a big deal out of you? Why not write a play?

            With fifteen of them under my belt, take my word: you need not fear being propositioned hourly by ravishing actors seeking parts in your masterpiece.

            However, the characters you create will forever clatter around your brain like a gang of cider-swilling skinheads. Bid farewell to days of solitude.

            And since you’re unlikely to ever make a buck from playwriting, you can feel smugly superior to those who concern themselves with such banalities. You, my friend, will have ascended to the ranks of a serious artiste.

Not to mention that you can drink like a fish without guilt – weren’t Brendan Behan and Eugene O’Neill first class rummies, and it’s rumored that even Shakespeare murdered pints in the morning.

            Everyone has a good play in them – or at least everyone who attends my dramas knows exactly how to make them better.

            But if by chance you’re stumped for a subject, fear not - every family has at least one skeleton in the closet.

Did someone just roar out “Aunt Bridie’s one night stand with a married communist trombonist!” Now you’re talking drama!

            Here’s the first rule – do not begin at page 1 where Aunt Bridie is dolling herself up before heading to Killarney Town Hall where she will meet the trombonist from the Johnny Flynn Showband.

            You’ll be astonished at how technically difficult it is to get the old babe from her bedroom to the dance floor. Page 2 through 7 will take months and you could end up with a serious drinking problem. Why do you think Behan and O’Neill were such heavy hitters?

            No, you’ve a lot of thinking to do before you ever put pen to paper. Having a beard is great during this gestation period, as you can twirl it, and really look like you know what you’re doing even when you don’t have a clue. 

            You see, you’ve got to get Bridie situated firmly in your mind’s eye. Some refined exaggeration never goes astray. Start with her eyes. Make them unusual in either color or character without going overboard, or she could end up looking like Bono with the yellow glasses.

Then tackle the hair. Beware of baldness. You would be amazed how much wigs cost nowadays, and how touchy actresses can be about shaving off the whole shebang.

With Bridie’s general physiognomy finally taken care of, you’re ready to write – but you’re still miles away from Page 1. You now have to deliver her back-story. Be of stout heart – jot down everything you know, and - more important – everything you suspect. Anyone who gave it up to a married communist trombone player has many secrets, you will be positively astounded at what you unearth.

            The real writing now begins, but cut straight to the chase. What were the trombonist’s first words to Bridie? From there continue on to the tragic end, and tragic it will be – just picture poor Bridie in the clutches of any musician of your acquaintance! From this sad denouement, work your way back to Page 1.

            This will take much time, beard twirling, and visits to dive bars to observe musicians in their natural habitat. Eventually, you’ll have much less money and far more material than you need. That’s par the course – playwriting is all about editing and pacing yourself in pubs. However, if you’ve followed my instructions faithfully, you should have the makings of a decent play.

            The next step is to get a bunch of actors together to read your masterpiece aloud. You’ll also need a psychotic director – for in the many moments you question your own sanity it will help to have someone present who’s certifiably crazier than you.

            Then head for An Béal Bocht in the Bronx. There’s a crowd of ne’er-do-wells up there who put on plays. And if they shoot you down you’ll at least be amidst other serious artistes in a great bar; besides, you’ll never drink alone again now that you have Aunt Bridie and the married communist trombone player forever knocking around in your skull.

            PS Probably better to keep Aunt Bridie away from opening night!

Monday, 30 March 2015

Eva Cassidy

            On very rare occasions you hear a voice that stops you dead in your tracks. For some it’s the lungpower of a diva or the technique of an opera singer that impresses, but for me it’s all to do with the performer speaking directly to me.

            I had received a very special request to play Danny Boy on Celtic Crush, my SiriusXM radio show; in an effort to find a less than hackneyed interpretation I stumbled upon Eva Cassidy’s version.

            Like many musicians I was familiar with the Eva story but, oddly enough, had never heard her sing. Within seconds I was captivated, as was the Celtic Crush audience for I received many emails wishing to know more about the singer.

            Fearing a fluke I downloaded her version of Autumn Leaves, one of my favorite standards. Again I was struck by her performance. It wasn’t just the command in her voice or the all-pervading sense of loss she evoked; no, it was as if she was singing to me alone and reopening matters that I’d long since set aside.

            Eva Marie Cassidy was born in 1963 to an Irish father and German mother in Washington, DC. From an early age she showed talent as a singer and musician, and by her teens she was already performing professionally in a number of bands.

            Although she suffered from shyness she stretched herself from the start, experimenting with various kinds of music from Folk through Jazz to Go-Go - DC’s own R&B dance music. Perhaps, this love of diversity was the reason she found little but local success – she was hard to categorize, although everyone who heard Eva live appears to have been mesmerized by her voice and performance.

            She was hard on herself too – harping on flaws, real and imagined, where others heard only perfection. Take a listen to her version of Sting’s Fields of Gold. I’ve always felt it is one of his best songs but Eva takes this delicate slice of memory to a different plane by fusing Sting’s sense of melancholia with an almost existential sense of loss. And yet that loss is cool and austere – there’s not even a trace of self-pity in her rendition.

            Perhaps she knew whereof she spoke, for Eva died from Melanoma in 1996, at the age of 33. Her family, friends and many admirers on the DC scene were stunned. It seemed only a matter of time until the outside world would discover her almost feral talent. Her circle continued to listen to a live recording she made at Georgetown’s Blues Alley – ever the perfectionist Eva felt her performance on that night suffered because of the effects of a cold.

            And there the matter would have rested except that her version of Fields of Gold along with a standout rendition of Somewhere Over The Rainbow were played by Irish DJ, Terry Wogan, on BBC Radio four years after her passing.

            The audience reaction was electric. Who was this singer, where had she come from, and how come no one knew of her? An enterprising producer from BBC’s Top of the Pops procured a live video of Somewhere Over The Rainbow. Within months, Songbird, a compilation CD was top of the English charts and Eva has since gone on to sell over 10 million albums worldwide, with only a small percentage racked up in the US.

            You have to wonder why? Is radio so fragmented, commercialized, and market driven that most Americans just haven’t heard Eva? Or do those who have experienced her perfection prefer to keep their secret under wraps?

            It’s hard to fathom. But I do know that practically any song I play by her on Celtic Crush is a revelation to the nationwide and Canadian audiences.  She’s had a similar effect on me; for when I listen to Eva I’m reminded that I haven’t heard it all, haven’t become jaded, that all I need is a voice that speaks to directly to me, a voice that can cut through the everyday chatter of life, and I’m stopped dead in my tracks once again.  Thanks, Eva.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

God Bless The Sisterhood of the Stick

            Let me speak of that noblest of professions – the bartender. Now one could write tomes on the gentlemen keepers of the sacred stick – the exploits of Steve Duggan and Malachy McCourt spring to mind, but when it comes to tough love, lady bartenders leave them in the dust!

            I will refrain from mentioning any member of the Irish-American community, since too many know where the bodies are buried; instead I will dwell on the chutzpah and heroics of a Pole, a Finn, and an African-American, three ladies who took no nonsense from their clientele.

            The Polish woman ran a saloon on the corner of First and First, now owned by that infamous Dubliner, Terry Dunne. Known simply as Ma’am, she was on the wintry side of 70; yet she had your measure taken in the time it took you to shuffle from the door to the bare-bones bar. Nor did she offer a word of greeting - or gratitude - as you forked over your three bucks for a Heineken.

            She employed an alcoholic Polish accordionist who played Chopin with much feeling. She demanded silence for these performances and all banter halted as he labored over his melancholic sonatas.

            One night Milan, a fearsome Ukrainian of quicksilver temperament, expressed his homophobic opinion of Chopin and Poles in general.

            Without a flicker of emotion Ma’am leveled him with a baseball bat. Blood spurted from Milan’s bald pate while we drinkers scattered to the four walls. Whereupon Ma’am called a round on the house and nodded her approval as the accordionist abandoned his beloved Chopin for a wild Gypsy Mazurka.

            The Finnish lady had to be close to 90. At least I assume that was her nationality for she presided over The Finland Bar on 86th Street. I never saw her commit any act of violence, although her Louisville slugger nestled snugly next to the antediluvian cash register.

            She was lively, opinionated, and preferred that gentlemen greet her with one word - “Wodka!” One could wave a hundred-dollar bill while soliciting a Budweiser, and it would get you nowhere. No, “wodka” ruled, and she poured shots so liberal men were known to shake hands with themselves after a couple. Women, as a rule, did not frequent this saloon.

            A big silent hulking fellow sat in the corner; he was variously described as her son, or lover. One night an inebriated companion of mine ventured to suggest that he might be both. A frigid silence descended upon the room. The Finnish lady glared at us with such cold disdain that we promptly downed our “wodkas” and skipped to the door - some steps ahead of the big hulking fellow. 

I was furious at my companion, for good bars are hard to come by and liberal shots even rarer, but perhaps it’s just as well for my liver is pickled enough as it is.

            There are some who would say that Maria, the bartender at the Kiwi on East 9th Street, was not even a woman, but no one ever suggested that this tall, willowy transvestite was not a lady. She could converse on any subject, social, political or philosophical with clarity, erudition and grace. She was also quite an impressive sight for she favored six inch heels and towered above all and sundry.

            One evening a Hells Angel of much girth and little discretion expressed the view that he would prefer to be served by a “real woman.” In one fell swoop, Maria reached down and came up swinging with a spike heel. No blood spurted as she struck the Angel right between the eyes; nonetheless, this hirsute gentleman burst into tears claiming that his mother had, just that very morning, threatened to throw him out of house and home if he got in another fight.

            Ah yes, those were the days when men were men, and women occasionally were too. It’s probably safe to say, they don’t make lady bartenders like they used to.

Still, let us raise a glass to the sisterhood of the stick – when the world has turned its back on you, they’ll still slip you a drink and a knowing wink – just remember to behave yourself in their sacred presence.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Fine Girl You Are, Beyonce!

            Where does the time go these days? Have you noticed that you’re busier than you’ve ever been but never seem to get much done? And despite all that, you’re sleeping less, and always have a nagging feeling that there’s something you’re forgetting? Welcome to the modern world!

            What’s going on? No matter how hard I work I still go to bed at all hours with many the task still incomplete.

            It has to be computers, Internet, smart phones and all the other agents of benign digitalia. The fact is - I’m so hooked up and ahead of myself, I don’t know whether I’m coming or going.

            You know where I’m writing this? Somewhere out over the Caribbean. I woke up in a sweat a few minutes ago on a plane to Barbados dreaming about Ray O’Hanlon, the editor of this newspaper.

            Now, not to worry Mrs. O’Hanlon, it was all quite chaste. But your husband was frowning at me – and, as you know, Ray is a very affable and understanding man. So, I thought to myself, “Jeez, I must have forgotten the column.”

            Instead of ordering another beer and ogling the latest Beyonce video like any self-respecting rock ‘n’ roller, I guiltily grabbed my laptop and began tapping out this missive from a mile high.

            Now, wouldn’t you know it, while grabbing the laptop I dropped my iPhone and iPad, and panicked that both might not be charged for this 4 hours plus jaunt with Jet Blue. Time, after all, is money nowadays.

            It was then I had my Eureka moment – too many gadgets, too many apps, too many calls on my time! 

And I don’t even text that much. Much to the chagrin of those around me, my text alert is switched off.

“What’s the point in getting texts if you don’t know they’re there?” This is a question often fired at me.

            Perhaps it’s self-preservation – since the vast majority of my texts demand accusingly, “Where are you?”

            Now be honest with yourself, when was the last time you got a bit of good news in a text?

Well, I have to admit there was a recent one I received that read, “Mary had a 7 lb baby boy!!!” However, that was followed by four others demanding in increasingly graphic terms, “Where the hell are you?”

            Where was I, indeed? I was indulging in my latest crusade – Phone Free Fridays. Yeah, just take your eyes off me for five seconds on the best day of the week, and I’m out that door, cruising up Broadway with the damned iPhone forced to fend for itself amidst the detritus of my cluttered desk.

Granted, I felt very guilty about these unaccompanied walks at first. But I did reason with myself that Mary was unlikely to have another seven pounder for at least fifteen months – and knowing Mary it will probably be longer since she’ll spend so much time in the gym getting slim again, she’ll be fast asleep every night before her geeky husband clambers in next to her, worrying about what he’s forgetting.

            And that’s the problem nowadays. We’re always turned on, plugged in, hooked up – and in all the wrong ways! Right now the plane is hopping around like a herring on the griddle-oh, and still I write on for fear this column is due.

Back in the late lamented 20th Century, before digitalia enslaved us, I’d be so looped on shots and beers I’d be either humming Buddy Holly songs or passed out and dreaming of something a lot more delectable than Ray O’Hanlon.

            What’s the solution? Retire to the Dingle Peninsula and put up a “Gone Fishing” sign on my Beehive hut? Nah, I’d never hack the wet winters.

How about only checking texts and emails three times a day. No way, think of all I might be missing!

Still, would the world be a much worse place if we didn’t know the latest Kardashian tidbit or Manchester United disappointment? And even Mary’s news wasn’t any less joyful for hearing it in the evening than the afternoon.

            So, here’s to Phone Free Fridays! Pass the rum and coke, fine girl you are, Beyonce! Barbados here I come!

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Sandy Denny

A hush often falls on conversation when the name, Sandy Denny, arises, usually accompanied by sighs and a gentle shaking of the head.  The initial pain at her passing over thirty years ago has eased but many of her admirers still experience a deep sense of loss.

What is it about Alexandra Elene Maclean Denny?  And why does she touch us still?  I really don’t know, but even as I write this I’m filled with a sense of gentle melancholia.  It definitely had something to do with her voice.  Even as a very young woman, that instrument ached with experience.

How could she have written a masterpiece like “Who Knows Where The Time Goes” as a teenager?  And to compound matters, it was rumored to be her first composition.  During an interview with Richard Thompson for Celtic Crush, I asked him if this was true.  He replied that to the best of his knowledge it was and, at any rate, she’d had the song when he first met her.

Fairport Convention are merely a footnote now in rock history but there was a time in the late 6o’s/early 70’s when their influence was huge and their star shone brightly.  There wasn’t a woman singer at the time that didn’t look up to Ms. Denny.  Sandy, herself, was racked by insecurity.  She longed for mainstream success but was unsure about, among other things, her appearance.  Add to that a harsh shyness and an uncertainty about celebrity.

Despite these doubts she was an electric performer who devoured light.  When she was onstage it was hard to take your eyes off her, notwithstanding the fact that she was always accompanied by stellar and equally charismatic musicians the like of Richard Thompson and her husband, Trevor Lucas.  I guess it was her intensity.  The song was everything to her and she effortlessly channeled the times, along with the ghosts of the people she sang about.

Take a listen to Banks of the Nile with her band Fotheringay.  I still delight in the perfection of the song’s arrangement; and then that voice – laying bare the story of a girl who dresses as a soldier to find her lover in England’s army fighting Napoleon in Egypt.

Or lose yourself in the longing and regret of No End where she mourns for the idealism of an artist she loved and admired.  Now that he’s forsaken his craft – and her – what’s left?  Well, actually, a lot, in particular that ineffable feeling we’ve all experienced at being let down but were never quite able to put into words.

Sandy died from a brain hemorrhage after a fall down a stairs in 1978.  At the end of our interview, I asked Richard Thompson to describe Sandy.  After praising her originality, voice and craft, he halted for a moment then continued in his very understated English manner, “she was a woman of considerable appetites.”

Lucky for us, I suppose, for her songs, though delicate, throb with life, loss and pain.  She was the best and we’re lucky to have been touched by her considerable talents, spirit and soul.