Sunday, 25 August 2019

A Kind of Love - Long Ago

It was the sweetest farm you can imagine: one hundred acres of lush grassland almost within sight of Wexford’s spires.

I can’t say I remember every blade of grass but I can still summon up every stream, hill, lake, and valley though I haven’t set foot there since the 1970’s.

I think of the farm often, particularly in times of stress. Life seemed a lot simpler then in the big old house at the end of a rutted avenue where my grandparents lived.

Theirs was not a marriage made in heaven. He was from stolid cattle-dealing stock while my granny was from a nautical family and cut from more dramatic cloth. 

As my father, a plainspoken merchant marine once remarked, “There was no small problem she couldn’t turn into a full-blown crisis.” 

And yet, my grandparents were in their own way devoted to each other.

They didn’t seem to converse much but I’m not sure many married couples of their generation did.

They did have a certain comfort level though, or perhaps by the time I was old enough to observe they had come to understand that neither was going to change the other. I suppose that’s a kind of love in itself.

They did like to attend race meetings together and we’d often head off to Gowran Park in Co. Kilkenny, Tramore in Co. Waterford, or even mighty Leopardstown. 

They didn’t care for Wexford Racecourse. My grandfather complained, “That place is so full of auld nags it’s hard to predict form there.” 

Television, oddly enough, brought them closer because with its arrival they could attend Aintree, Ascot and even Longchamp for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, without leaving the comfort of their armchairs.

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of racehorses in Irish life. There’s almost a spiritual connection between these highly-strung ponies and the Irish people.

We all bet on them for back in my boyhood there was no age bar in a bookie’s office. The lowest wager allowed was “a shilling each way” and I remember my first win. ‘Twas a French filly, Petit Etoile and my grandparents beamed their approval.

Yet, if horses were sacrosanct, then cattle were beyond importance to my grandfather. He had no time for milch cows and would barely cast them a glance, for the bullock was his bread and butter.

He bought them at fairs and cattle markets; had them delivered to his farm where they would sate themselves on the rich green grass until they were deemed fat enough to be transported to Birkenhead, outside Liverpool, for slaughter.

He moved among these gelded bulls as if he were a ghost. They barely noticed his presence whereas they would gaze sullenly at me or bound off in a haze of horseflies.

He counted them every morning after breakfast and immediately after evening tea, unless Raymond Burr or Jackie Gleason were lording it on the black & white television in the kitchen corner. 

Shep, his faithful sheepdog, accompanied him on these excursions and I watched them grow old together. Finally Shep could no longer make it past the outer haggart and would sink down in the grass to await his master’s fatigued return.

My granny would watch fretfully out the window awaiting the peak of her husband’s cap to come bobbing home above the yellow gorse hedgerows. 

By the time his faltering step would echo in the scullery she would have composed herself. I used to wonder if he knew the turmoil she had gone through in his absence.

I would have accompanied him on his rambles for there are few things as lovely as an Irish farm on long summer’s evenings. But he preferred his own company, this taciturn man who merged effortlessly with the trembling rural silence.

When you’re young you think all things will last forever. But what does youth know?  Shep died first, then my grandfather, and finally my Granny was forced to move.

The farm is long gone, replaced by one hundred acres of suburban homes that I’ve never seen. 

And why should I risk viewing such a blasphemy, when I can summon up fields and trees and streams, and grandparents that are as real to me now as they ever were as a boy.

Sunday, 11 August 2019

Is President Trump a racist?

The recent shenanigans between Donald Trump and various Democrats of color raised the question - could our president be a racist? 

Not that he would be the first. George Washington was a slave owner and chances are a majority of our presidents bear some taint of racism.

Not to be outdone, President Trump accused Squad members, Representatives Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Pressley and Tlaib, of being socialist - a disappointing turn of events as I felt that Senator Bernie Saunders had finally taken the sting out of the “S” word back in 2016.

However, Mr. Trump’s accusation caused me to question my own socialist credentials. Like the Squad I had often been told to “go back to where you came from.” Although my detractors usually felt that Cuba would be a more fitting destination than Ireland.

Being a socialist was no big deal back in Wexford where a Labor Party TD was always returned. 

In fact, local socialist Brendan Corish became leader of the Labor Party and Tanaiste in the Coalition Government of 1973.

Brendan was also a devout and principled Catholic. He would have been delighted to meet Rep. Omar, get the story of her flight from Somalia along with a blow-by-blow account of her kerfuffle with Speaker Pelosi.

But am I still a socialist? Well, like Senator Sanders I believe in a single payer health insurance system. 

Like Senator Warren I don’t trust big business, nor do I think it’s a good idea for college graduates to owe a fortune in student loans.

To add fat to the fire, I don’t believe in invading other countries and blowing the hell out of them.

I guess that means I can still step into Mary’s Bar in Wexford whistling “James Connolly” and enjoy my welcome home pint without being accused of “selling out to the Military Industrial Complex.”

But if I am a socialist, I’m also a canny one. In these cantankerous times why advocate changing the current failing health insurance system to “Medicare for all?”

That’s sure to antagonize the vast majority of voters who receive private health insurance from their employers? 

Far wiser to let them keep their current coverage but provide a public option that will eventually prove its economic feasibility. 

That will keep everyone happy, particularly rust belt union members who’ve fought long and hard for their “benefits;” and remember those states must be carried in 2020 or Ivanka will be our next Secretary of State.

I’d love to give free college tuition to the masses – everyone deserves four years out of the rat race playing beer pong. 

But it’s too late. President Trump already gave away the shop to big business with his 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. In fact, the “King of Debt” will be coming for your Medicare and Social Security benefits when his deficit hits trillions. 

As for the Squad, I agree with many of your sentiments but politics is the art of the possible.

And lay off Rep. Pelosi! You may think her day is done but she passed the Affordable Care Act when President Obama was going “wobbly.”

She and Mr. Trump are the two pre-eminent politicians in this land. Whatever about the president Nancy is no more of a racist than Brendan Corish ever was.

Don’t play into the president’s hands. He needs the Squad as you are right now, outraged and outrageous.

Americans, socialist and otherwise, also need you - to be incisive, logical and bold, as you strive for a new and fairer America. 

Discretion, however, is usually the better part of valor. There are other strong voices in the Democratic Party – particularly those who must fight close elections in districts that Mr. Trump won in 2016.

Think before you speak and don’t suck all the air out of the room lest you provide an oxygen mask to a flailing president who will use the basest methods to get re-elected even if that means kindling racial animosity.

Sunday, 28 July 2019

Hooked on your phone?

Last summer I was faced with an existential conundrum. It was a blazing hot day and I had left home without hat or cap.

This was far from a fashion problem. A doctor had recently warned me that being of a fair complexion I should protect my exquisitely delicate skin.

“To hell with it,” I rebelled. “I’d sooner end up the color of an Enniscorthy strawberry than go all the way back.

And then calamity struck. I had forgotten my cell phone. My heart leaped, a cold sweat broke out on my burning forehead, and I engaged in a fit of self-recrimination that would have done justice to Judas Iscariot.

There was nothing for it. I’d have to hoof it back the many blocks in the humid heat.

“Why?” A voice of reason inquired from deep within my psyche.

I stopped in mid-step. There was no compelling reason to retrieve my phone. I’d only be gone for a couple of hours. 

But it was obviously deeper than that. A wave of anxiety swept over me that brought to mind a hungover morning long ago when I didn’t have the price of a pint. I was hooked – to a bloody phone?

I paced to and fro on that narrow sidewalk blocking matrons with strollers, anguished hipsters, and the homeless before I bit the bullet and headed off phoneless into the great unknown.

I’ve been “clean” for a year now and often leave the house without my cell. As far as I know on those phoneless rambles no one has called to inform me of a lottery win, but I have missed many messages from mysterious Chinese women and emails from gregarious West African princes all of whom assure me that they have my best interests at heart.

Going cold turkey wasn’t particularly hard, but then I’m probably not hooked as most. I’m not a big texter and have never activated notification sounds.

So, what’s this smart phone addiction all about? Is it a need to be constantly in the mix? I have some rapper friends who feel that they need to be online at all times to see what’s trending.

For myself I’ve stopped even checking news online as I’ve found it ruins my appetite for the more in-depth analysis one might get in the Times, the Journal, or the sports pages of The Post.

Then again we live in exhausting times. We have a president who never sleeps and governs by tweet. 

Perhaps he’s trying to keep the rest of us awake and on our toes?  I recently heard a millennial friend inquire, “Has anything of value ever been tweeted?”

I couldn’t even hazard an opinion as I’m not a tweeter. The very thought of having one’s sleep interrupted by the random offended thoughts of our president is alarming. I know this might sound unpatriotic, and please don’t tell Ivanka, but I already find it increasingly difficult to think straight in a world tangled up in apps, memes and emojis.

Which brings to mind a 19th Century poem beaten into me at Wexford CBS.

“What is this life if full of care
We have no time to stand and stare
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows…
A poor life this if full of care
We have no time to stand and stare.”

I wonder what the Christian Brothers would make of President Trump or contemporary social interaction? 

In a restaurant last night I looked around during a break in conversation at the dozen or so other diners, all gazing raptly at their cells. For a moment I wondered if Wexford had beaten Kilkenny again or had another royal just delivered her baby. 

I have to confess there are times I long for old-fashioned answering machines and those long lazy afternoons spent on my couch wondering what I might do next – if anything. 

I had all day at my disposal, a six-pack cooling, and time to dig into that big volume of Proust or Steve Duggan’s tips from Belmont.

Those idyllic days are gone to be replaced by an ever present niggling anxiety that I can’t quite put my finger on. Excuse me while I check my cell.

Saturday, 13 July 2019

The Boy From The Bronx

You can take the boy out of the Bronx but you can’t take the Bronx out of the boy. That thought struck me when I first met Elliot Rabinowitz back in 1992.

He was charming, intelligent, and hilarious but he had never lost his sense of the immigrant underdog going one on one with the system.

By then he was known as Elliot Roberts, one of the world’s most powerful talent managers.

Who had he not handled – Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Still & Nash, The Cars, Devo, Tom Petty? And now he wished to manage Black 47.

He loved our songs, the explosive stage shows, and the political beliefs that led Time Magazine to pronounce, “Finally, Rock ‘n’ Roll that means something again.”

Elliot and I shook hands on a very simple and fair management deal – “no need for a contract,” he said.  “That way either of us can walk without putting our lawyers in a higher tax bracket.”

Within a month the scouts from every major record company were lined up outside Paddy Reilly’s, for in our proletariat zeal we insisted that they pay admission like every other punter.

We eventually signed with EMI. Rick Ocasek of the Cars and I produced Fire of Freedom, and the world and her mother seemed to be dancing to Funky Ceili or pumping their fist to James Connolly.

It all came back recently when I heard that Elliot passed away.

What a character, as tough as barbed wire and yet with a degree of sensitivity and understanding rare in a man!

He was a joy to hang out with, he rarely gave any direction, and yet he could be lacerating if he felt you weren’t living up to the band’s talent and potential.

I once tried to explain that we played loud because it enabled us to jam better. He dismissed such twaddle with the cursory, “People come to hear your songs for the stories. If they can’t hear the words they won’t come back.”

Being Irish and a musician I’ve often felt that if you ignore a problem for long enough it may go away.

Elliot knew better. “Who do I call and what’s the number?” was his standard response to any crisis. Whereupon he would suavely fix the issue or engage in a blistering phone rant regardless of where we were or who might be listening.

He loved musicians, probably because he understood just how rigged the music biz is. 

There are no pensions or 401(Ks) in this game. There’s no longer even a Bowery to plant your butt on if all else fails. That’s why he treasured all our dreams and fought like a lion for his artists.

Lately, I’d often thought of calling him to get his take on Spotify, Apple and all the other “dot commers” who have finally beggared musicians in a way that the most cutthroat suits up on 57th Street never managed to do.

It wouldn’t surprise me if this issue was on his mind in his final days, for despite his battling soul and native optimism Elliot took things personally.

Losing Bob Dylan as a client was a blow that weighed deeply on him during our business relationship.

It didn’t surprise me for Bobby could never play second fiddle to any other artist, and Neil Young was Elliot’s main man. The affection and loyalty between these two titans was legendary. 

They once gave me a beautiful turquoise Stratocaster that Fender had made for Mr. Young. 

“Neil has hundreds of guitars,” Elliot waxed eloquently, “You only have one. What’ll happen if you break a string on stage? 

Neil winked at me. He’d obviously heard the line before but he enjoyed his manager’s Bronx shtick.

When it was time to end our business agreement, Elliot was as good as his word. We shook hands, called it a day and remained friends.

The boy from The Bronx traveled many roads and lit up the lives of those he loved and represented. I continue to learn from his example.

Saturday, 15 June 2019

The Most Transformative President

Donald Trump may be the most transformative American president ever! Look what he’s done to the GOP – once the bastion of free trade the party of Lincoln has effortlessly morphed into the party of tariffs.

As if that wasn’t enough, with a couple of waves of his tweety wand he’s converted the party of fiscal rectitude into a posse of hardcore deficit ballooners. 

But perhaps his greatest achievement is to defang the anti-Soviet, All-American party and unite it in a mutual admiration society with Mr. Putin’s Kremlin oligarchy.

That’s not to take away from his stunning political feat of converting blue Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan to red in the 2016 election; if he holds on to those gains in 2020, he will have done the near impossible - unite large swathes of the American working class with its union-hating bosses.

Only Abraham Lincoln comes close to Mr. Trump in the transformative stakes and it took him a four-year civil war to achieve limited emancipation.

Meanwhile President Obama’s “Change We Can Believe In” era is now little more than a vague memory. In these braying days it’s hard to remember that the first African-American president inherited a tanking economy and saved our economic system from collapse.

Lucky for us Donald Trump wasn’t elected in 2008, a time when a steady hand was sorely needed. In fact, every time he mentions Iran I check my fridge to make sure I have a six-pack of strong IPA to soothe my own nerves. 

Brinksmanship on tariffs is one thing, these Persians under Xerxes The Great were ruling the roost a thousand years before St. Brendan caught sight of the green hills of America. They won’t fold easily and are not people to be messed with.

But let’s get back to the Republicans. They must be wondering what hit them! Everyone and their granny knows that free trade ultimately trumps tariffs.

Sure, some industries suffer and workers need help in making a transition to other fields of employment; but on the plus side, imported goods become less expensive and working families can afford more. 

But whatever your views, trade wars are never a good thing – because like all conflict we have no idea where it will end. We do know, however, that the less wealthy will suffer most.

The blink-of-an-eye conversion from a deficit-fearing Republican Party to one that embraces massive debt is truly stunning. Though perhaps not for President Trump, the so called “King of Debt” – and in fairness he’s always managed to walk away relatively unscathed from his financial disasters, albeit with the help of bankruptcy.

And the man has a point – the country has dealt with ever-increasing debt since President George W. Bush frittered away a $200 billion surplus given him by President Clinton back in 2001. 

President Trump is also correct in stating that a growing economy can sustain more debt now than ever before. But only while interest rates stay low!

A rise of a couple of percent could balloon the deficit, and guess who’d end up paying for it – President Trump’s purported “base” in the form of slashed Social Security and Medicare benefits.

Still, these are all greenback matters easily settled with a timely lottery win or a lucky streak out at Belmont. What is going on with Russia? 

Our president is nothing if not an alpha-male! Yet, any time I’ve seen him with Vladimir Putin, he seems deferential, even cowed.

What’s wrong with that picture? This ex-KGB dude has been meddling in our elections. Can you imagine how Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, or Reagan would have handled such an affront?

It was a sad day for the US when John McCain departed this mortal coil. For it would appear that no other elected Republican will demand answers from their leader.

I have many friends among the president’s base, most of whom intend voting for him in 2020, basically because they don’t see any politician improving their lives, and at least Mr. Trump “speaks truth to power.”

But President Trump is the “power” now. He has transformed the Republican Party beyond recognition. The question is – how far has he transformed the country? 

I guess we’ll find out a year from November when the election results start pouring in.

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

Wexford - A Quare Auld Place!

Wexford was a “quare auld place” to grow up in and I doubt if any of it’s 12,000 or so inhabitants back then would have disagreed with me.

It perched precariously on the banks of the River Slaney where it thumbed its nose at the rest of the world.

I often wonder if its as quare an auld place nowadays, for though I return once a year it’s only for a night and I’m accompanied by a couple of busloads of friends and fans.

Probably not, for with television and the Internet you can now visit so many other worlds. Whereas back in my day, we had the “pictures,” the daily newspaper, and the county library for inspiration – the rest of the time you lived in your own imagination and that could be a quare auld place unto itself.

Auld, indeed, Wexford was, for Ptolemy charted it on his third century maps when it was known as Menapia. The Vikings thought it was a hell of a place for looting and called it Weissfjord, and Strongbow’s Normans took over the joint in 1169.

From my grandfather’s house on George’s Street where I grew up I could see Selskar Abbey, the Norman stronghold and church where King Henry II came to do penance for the whacking of Archbishop Thomas รก Beckett in Canterbury Cathedral.

One of our pet peeves was that the bould Henry did not declare Wexford a city – no, to our mortification, Waterford, Kilkenny and even Sligo were deemed cities while a metropolis the like of ours will always be a town, even though it’s a far quarer and older place.

Such is life and one must suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune without too much bellyaching.

One of Wexford’s great attractions was that, given its size and narrow streets, you ran into people on a regular basis. This could also be a trial, for if someone disliked you they could beat the head off you regularly too.

My guess is that I knew upwards of 1000 people while living there, not intimately, for there was little sex in Wexford back then, or so the priests and Christian Brothers reassured us. That was something that happened in faraway pagan places the like of Waterford, Kilkenny, and even Sligo.

But given that there was only one degree of separation in Wexford, if I was curious about someone, then I could ask one of my 1000 non-intimate friends for a report on this stranger and get a full account of their background, vices, who their family supported in Parnell versus the Bishops, and if any of the girls of that family had to flee to London after finding themselves in the family way, the Lord save us!

I mean who in God’s universe needed television or the Internet with so much information to be had without stepping beyond the walls of our quare auld town.

The Kardashians had nothing on some of Wexford’s characters. For once you had done something of note then you or your family would be elevated or more likely tainted forever. 

And God help you should you have some pronounced physical feature. Say for instance I had a set of big ears - then I, and all of my progeny until kingdom come might be called “The Jennet Kirwan.”

Luckily I had no such affliction so I escaped that bullet, but with bright red hair, I was called everything from Ginger to Carrot Top. I don’t have to worry much about that anymore although some people still call me “red” because of my political opinions.

Wexford still has characters but they are fast disappearing, including my dear friend, Pat Kehoe, once proprietor of the notorious rock & roll Imperial Bar. 

Pat bit the bullet recently but as he was being wheeled into Macken’s crematorium he had Black 47’s Funky Ceili blasting! It goes to show that you never know where your songs will end up.

Ah yes indeed, from the mighty King Henry II doing his fake confession in the cauld auld draughty Selskar Abbey to Rebel Pat Kehoe bidding a boisterous farewell to his hometown, there’s no denying that Wexford was, and always will be, a quare auld place, God save it!

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Donald Trump & Wexford Teddyboys

Anyone care to speculate on who might end up Democratic candidate in 2020?

That race seems not unlike the Aintree Grand National – it’s long and winding, with lots of steep fences and plenty of time for every participant to fall or self-destruct.

Bear in mind too that front-runner Joe Biden tossed in the towel in 1987 when caught lifting a few lines from British Labour leader, Neil Kinnock. 

Good man though he is, will Joltin’ Joe have the stamina to survive the intense primary season ahead, let alone withstand the mountain of sludge headed his way should he gain the nomination?

On the Left, Bernie and Elizabeth will ultimately have to duke it out, a shame since both are principled and have done much good for the country.

Beto and Mayor Pete will ultimately go mano a mano for the cute young white guy title, while either Kamala or Cory are likely to meet their Waterloo early on in South Carolina, or three days later on Super Tuesday when the field will be reduced to the few left standing with sufficient money and buzz.

Senator Harris in particular has much going for her with early primaries in South Carolina and her home state of California, and could be a formidable November foe for President Trump.

Still, my only prediction is for the Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee. Should Senator Harris not make top of the ticket, either she, Senator Klobuchar, or Sherrod Brown of Ohio will get the nod.

Which leaves me still pondering something the Democrats have ignored these last two and half years – why was Hillary Clinton such an awful candidate back in 2016?

Water under the bridge, you might haughtily declare, or “we wuz robbed!” I beg to differ and until the party takes the time to figure this out they might as well be doing you know what into the wind.

You can be sure Donald Trump spends his tweetless hours ruminating on this. Because he knows he’d be currently living on Fifth Avenue if he’d been running in 2016 against Bernie Sanders who would have beaten him handily in the Rust Belt.

On paper Secretary Clinton looked invincible, she was eminently qualified, the first viable woman presidential candidate, she had a huge war chest, and yet it all came to naught over 77,744 votes in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

That she didn’t even campaign in Wisconsin is a black mark, but hey, we all make mistakes.

Many women of my acquaintance feel that misogyny was the issue, and I’m sure it played a significant part.

I used to feel it was because of over-familiarity with the Clintons and their fondness for big fee speeches, but Donald Trump has made a career of flashing his money around like a Wexford Teddyboy on a Saturday night booze-up.

Still, you have to hand it to the man from Fifth Avenue, for he persuaded the white working class to vote against their best interests. 

Sure, he made them false promises about returning well-paying factory jobs from overseas, and that he would provide first-class health care insurance at reasonable prices, and so on.

But his stunning victory may have more to do with the perception that he cared more for the regular person than Mrs. Clinton. Given his history and public persona that’s pretty astounding.

I thought he was dead in the water until late October when I began to hear back from wherever I inquired, “Yeah, Hillary has it sown up but everyone around here is voting Trump.”

I also experienced a “eureka” moment myself when a very smart union leader confided that while he and other officials were voting Hillary, the membership was all behind the Donald.

It’s a long way to Nov. 2020, and there’ll be many the slip twixt between the cup and lip, but if the economy stays strong, the market remains high, and the creek don’t rise, then it’s won’t matter if the Republicans haven’t a clue how to provide decent health care insurance, or return manufacturing jobs to the US.

Donald Trump, the king of compassion and guardian of the American working class, will romp home in a canter.