Thursday, 15 January 2015

Bob Dylan - the greatest artist?

            Is Bob Dylan the greatest artist of our time? 

Probably, if you use three recognized criteria: sustained creative brilliance, influence on others, and length of career. Oddly enough, his main challenger could well be Andy Warhol, not known for originality but whose concepts have inspired a myriad of cultural movement from Hip-Hop Music to Facebook.

From the start Dylan was like a sponge – appropriating influences across the spectrum from folkie Woody Guthrie to rocker Buddy Holly.

When he got to New York in 1961 he threw himself into the Folk renaissance and became friends with Liam Clancy from whom he learned Dominic Behan’s Patriot Game. Recognizing the song’s brilliance Dylan adopted its template for his own anti-war anthem, With God On Our Side. Luckily for him the aggrieved Behan had himself employed a traditional melody, The Merry Month of May. Dylan never made the same mistake again.

He found his own creative voice by spending months in the New York Public Library poring over every available newspaper of the American Civil War period - distilling not only subject matter but speech patterns and cultural trivia. He emerged poet laureate of the “old, weird America” as Greil Marcus termed it.

Despite huge success he totally cast aside the Woody Guthrie mantle by teaming up with members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band at the Newport Folk Festival in July 1965 thereby creating Folk-Rock.

However, no one was prepared for the sheer aural and lyrical brilliance of Like a Rolling Stone when it was released that same month and many of us have spent a lifetime aspiring to its standard. Back then “singles” clocked in well under the three minute mark, but Rolling Stone was over six – it even contained a number of “mistakes” with the inexperienced Al Kooper playing well behind the beat on the Hammond B3 organ.

Dylan didn’t care. A groundbreaking song demanded an innovative hook. He urged the producer to turn up the organ and changed the course of music.

I once had the same manager, Elliot Roberts, who assured me that “there is nobody quite like Bobby Dylan” – he cared nothing for critics or indeed anyone else. The man just liked to play, if he ran out of major markets look elsewhere; that’s how they came up with staging concerts in minor league baseball parks.

Dylan’s been an icon for over 50 years now but he reinvents himself often on a nightly basis. At a Radio City show I only recognized Like a Rolling Stone during the second chorus – and that’s a song I’ve performed hundreds of times.

Like another semi-recluse, Neil Young, Dylan is leery of mass exposure, valuing creativity before all else. At the height of his fame in 1966 he retired to Woodstock - sick of celebrity and being viewed as the new Jesus.

But even in the solitude of the Catskills he combined with The Band to produce musical magic as demonstrated by the recent release of the Full Basement Tapes. On even a cursory listen you can hear an artist delving into the weird music of America’s past as an impetus for a further creative jump forward.

I went to a Dylan show in Bridgeport last summer. I hadn’t seen him since the Radio City gig twenty years previously; I was probably one of the few people who enjoyed his performance.

He no longer plays guitar – apparently suffering from arthritic fingers – he ether sings out front or from behind a keyboard. He dressed like a 19th Century prairie preacher, never acknowledged the audience and performed few of his expected standards. Most songs appeared to be of a recent vintage – all showed flashes of brilliance.

I worked my way up to the front of the stage – not hard as many were drifting towards the exits. This didn’t seem to bother Bobby in the least. His band, as ever was great. And so was he.

As far as I know he didn’t perform Like A Rolling Stone, or perhaps he did; but it hardly mattered. He was still the man, challenging, shape shifting, forever the joker and the tramp. Go see him while you can – they don’t make the like of Bob Dylan any more.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

American Wake

            His mother called a couple of days after he got his Green Card. He could almost feel her tears flow down the phone.

            “You’ll surely come home for Christmas, Sean. How many years has it been now – seven, eight?”

            He’d been dreading the question. Besides, why go back now? He’d settled into his own Yuletide customs. Work late Christmas Eve, then a big night out on Bainbridge with the lads; hungover as hell on Christmas day he’d barely make dinner with the cousins on Long Island. Before you knew it was over, back to work again Stephen’s Day.

            Things were finally going well with the flooring business, and with the Green Card he could put the deposit down on the house up in Pearl River. Fix it up by the summer, have his mother over for a couple of weeks, take her up the Catskills, the usual.

            It wasn’t that he didn’t miss her but it was a small town back home and you never knew who you’d run into.

            His mother was waiting at Shannon. He hadn’t been able to say no and in the warmth of her hug all his apprehension drained away.

            It was all good, the sight of familiar places, the deep green of the grass that he’d forgotten. His sister had the big breakfast ready the minute he walked in the door, the perfect taste of the tea, the smell of the fry. The visits to aunts and uncles, the first night down the pub - all of it coalescing in a swirl of Christmas lights, smiles, hugs and jet lag.

            He stayed off the main streets. You never knew who you’d run into and as the days counted down to the return flight he began to relax.

            He shouldn’t have gone to the disco. The DJ played all the old familiar songs and every step of the way home provoked a memory.

            He only went to mass on Sunday to please his mother. He’d barely been inside a church in The Bronx except for weddings and christenings.

            He went through the motions, more interested in the crowd than the proceedings - guitars and folk songs now rather than incense and the old hymns. Fr. Joyce still ran the show, his face creased with age, far less sure of himself than when he was curate and they used to argue about faith.

            He was thinking about the big job in Pelham that he’d bid on when the mass ended. He was shuffling down the aisle in the thick of the crowd when he saw her. 

Her hair was shorter but there was no mistaking the color, and anyway James was ushering her along. He had filled out and there were flecks of grey in his hair.

            Sean tried to turn around but the crowd pushed him forward. He lowered his head and was almost past them unnoticed when Fr. Joyce called out, “I thought that was you, Sean!”

            The crowd parted and there she was holding firmly onto two fidgeting children.

            He’d always imagined that the girl would look like her. But no, she was bland and uninteresting like James. The boy though had his mother’s sensitive green eyes and the perfect shape of her face.

            James dropped his wife’s elbow and over-eagerly thrust out his hand. “I’d heard you were home, Sean, you never called.”

            Sean muttered some banality.

            “I’m sure he’s too busy for us now.” His wife stated calmly.

            She hadn’t changed much, just a little older but it suited her. She held his eyes unflinchingly and the years drifted away. She was as lovely as ever.

            Then the boy dropped his coloring book. As she rose from picking it up, their eyes met and for an instant she was her old self again. She took his hand as if to shake it but instead squeezed it gently.

            Then she was gone in a flurry of embarrassed goodbyes, off home to cook the Sunday dinner.

            “I suppose you’ll be having the American wake tonight, Sean?” Fr. Joyce diplomatically broke the silence as Sean counted the devastating hours until the flight from Shannon.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Paddy and the velvet revolution

           We were lost – gloriously lost in the enveloping darkness – at a crossroads in the middle of nowhere with no signpost. We had crossed into Czechoslovakia from East Germany some hours earlier and were trying to reach Prague before the following afternoon when we were scheduled to play at a boys club.

            We were a band of fractious New York improvisational musicians that raised hell behind a poet named Copernicus whose philosophy was:  We do not exist.

            For once he appeared to be on the mark as our driver pored over his maps unable to nail down our location.

            “I could use a drink,” muttered Thomas Hamlin, later to become drummer of Black 47.

            It was then I spotted a flicker of light in the distance. It could have been Dracula luring us to a necking session but the thirst was upon us.

            To our amazement we stumbled into a candlelit tavern occupied by a group of surly peasants not one of whom turned a head to look at us in our black leather New York splendor.

            Not until I flashed a $20 bill and was almost knocked down such was the stampede to fulfill our every desire. When it was established that our only wish was for a couple of cases of beer, these were carried out to the van and we were dispatched without delay on the correct road to Prague.

            It was past midnight when we reached Wenceslas Square and met the very anxious looking dissidents who were promoting our show. In broken, but very familiarly accented, English they informed us that the gig had been transferred to the National Ice Hockey Stadium and we would be headlining.

            It was June 1989 and the dissidents had decided to challenge the government by running an unauthorized rock concert. In order to hire the stadium, however, they needed “an international act of considerable cultural and popular appeal.”  Though we emphasized that we had never played to more than 50 people and had yet to receive a kind review we were shushed into silence.

            The next day we could barely get near the stadium such was the crowd outside jostling for tickets. We had apparently attained star status overnight. It didn’t hurt that the best bands in Czechoslovakia, including members of the banned, but internationally renowned, Plastic People of the Universe, were on the same bill.

            The scene backstage was chaotic but it was then I identified the familiar Czech-English accent. It was Lou Reed’s “take ze walk on ze wild side,” since hey had all learned their English from Velvet Underground records.

            After a couple of slugs of Armenian brandy I was beginning to enjoy my elevation to superstardom until a phalanx of the Czech State Militia marched to the top rows of the stadium and aimed their weapons at the stage.

            When I notified the chief dissident, he smiled conspiratorially and replied in his best Lou Reed, “Zey will not kill all of us.”

            “Yeah, right,” I replied in some dudgeon, “but you won’t be a sitting duck on stage.” 

            He appeared to find the idea of a duck on stage the height of hilarious originality; apparently Lou had never mentioned such a sighting in a Velvet Underground song. He did however give me another bottle of Armenia’s best and on stage we trooped to a rapturous welcome.

            It was one of those nights a musician dreams about. Everything went perfectly from the moment Copernicus screamed to the 12,000 people, “I have always been in trouble with the authorities” and flung a bible down on the stage. Every note, tone and movement gelled; the audience cheered us from start to finish.

            We were the kings of Prague that night, feted wherever we went. Our dissident friends told us we’d helped light a spark. Five months later the Velvet (Underground) Revolution swept away the communist regime and dissident hero Vaclav Havel became president.

            I came home a changed man. I had regained faith that music could make a difference. A couple of months later I met Chris Byrne and we formed Black 47.

            Sometimes you have to be really lost before you learn to find your way.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Which Side Are You On?

            What a craven political party! Relax, oh ye Republicans, I’m not addressing you this time. In fact, congratulations on your recent election victories, you had one big message and you stuck to it like white on rice – blame the guy in the White House for everything including the sorry state of the Mets, Jets and Giants!

            The fact that you didn’t come up with an iota of a plan for running the country hardly matters except in the grand scheme of things – but who cares about that!

            No I’m talking about the Democratic Party and its lack of principles. All those nice shiny suits – and dresses – in Congress jumped ship as soon as President Obama’s ratings dipped below 50% - despite voting with him to restore the economy and extricate us from two foreign wars of choice.

            Now far be it from me to say that this first African-American president hasn’t made mistakes – I’m looking over my shoulder even as I type in case one of his NSA spooks is monitoring these treasonous words.

But get a grip! The man became president as the economy was flushing down the tubes. He didn’t freak out – unlike many across the political spectrum – no, he kept a cool head and has brought the unemployment rate down from a dismal 10% to the current 5.8%.

            Many people lost their jobs, savings and dreams during the Great Recession but that’s hardly the president’s fault. Could he have battled recalcitrant Republicans more strenuously and increased the stimulus – definitely. Could he have whipped them into raising the federal minimum wage – perhaps; but, at the worst, he’s got us back to a place where we can even argue about such things.

            Another little detail that goes without much notice – he saved the American car industry when the free market consensus was to let it go and re-invent itself. That would have been a catastrophe. The Mid-West would still be reeling and god knows what ripples would be coursing through the rest of the country.
            I followed the elections closely and I never heard a Democratic candidate mention any of this.     No, they fled from any meaningful dialogue for fear they might end up whipping boys and girls on the Fox Network and who wants to be on the bad side of Rupert Murdoch if you’re running in a tight race.

            But such cowardice has consequences. The Democratic Party ran on one unifying platform – stay the hell away from the President! And it showed. I could barely muster up the energy to go to the polls myself - and I even vote for dogcatcher.

            You think African-Americans didn’t notice the shunning. Look at the returns from Georgia where Michelle Nunn took a royal shellacking because of low African-American turnout. Try explaining to an African-American that racism plays no part in the South being so overwhelmingly anti-Obama.
             Sometimes you have to forget polls and stick to facts and principles. Ask Mrs. Clinton – she’d be president now if she hadn’t voted for the invasion of Iraq back in 2003.

            And while we’re talking foreign affairs how about Syria? Did President Obama vacillate about helping the so-called “secular” resistance? Sure he did and for good reason - that is one god-forsaken country to keep far away from. You can’t win there, just as you couldn’t win in Iraq despite the bales of 100-dollar bills thrown at the region and the countless lives lost.

            And what about Ukraine? Shouldn’t the president have gone bare-chested mano a mano with Putin over another civil war halfway around the world? No way - just stay cool; eventually Putin’s petro-dollars will run out.

            The two Democratic success stories were John Hickenlooper in Colorado and Andrew Cuomo in New York who ran against the gun lobby and retained their governorships - albeit with reduced majorities.

            But in the end the only thing that saved the Democrats from a total thrashing was that the Republican Party is even more disliked by the electorate. 

So as you go forward towards 2016, oh ye lords of the Democratic Party, forget about polls and take some time to find out what you actually stand for. You’ll be amazed how many people care.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

We're a big people - we can handle this

             I traveled much when I first came to this country. It was easy, just deliver a car to San Francisco and you could hit the road, be your own Jack Kerouac.

The vastness and potential of the country was awe-inspiring – the interstate highways, the industriousness of the people, the sense of American can-do!

I learned even more about the US with Black 47 for I came to know and appreciate Irish-America in a way that few native-born Irish ever do. I learned first hand the difference between a person born on Tipperary Hill in Syracuse and one reared on Chicago’s South Side, while it didn’t take long to become acquainted with the huge cultural divide between Dorchester and Geary Street in San Francisco.

Music, however, bonded all these communities: Irish-Americans everywhere raised their fists to “James Connolly” and jigged with abandon to “Funky Ceili.”

For the culture is strong – you can almost touch it at the various festivals and the Irish centers that dot the country. It’s a rare city now where you can’t take lessons in the Irish language, not to mention that you can get a decent pint at a traditional music seisiún just about everywhere.

The Irish embassy and consulates are playing a major role in reaching out to the Diaspora and helping foster the resurgence of Irish-American cultural pride. This is in stark contrast to some decades back when there was considerable friction between Irish diplomats and Republican activists; a blinkered patronization set the tone for any social interaction. Where once Irish embassy and consulate officials preferred the lace-curtain certainties of DC and NYC, now they travel nationwide to festivals and cultural events, as willing to listen as to lecture.

And still I feel that a certain potential is unrealized – and I’m not talking about investment in Ireland or boosting tourism – no rather a meeting of minds, or even more importantly perhaps, a union of hearts between the home country and the Diaspora.

One of the keys to such a reunion is for Irish natives to realize that Irish-America is nuanced and not just some generic cash machine to be exploited around St. Patrick’s Day. Irish-Americans have a deep interest in Ireland that goes beyond kissing the limpid Blarney Stone; many are au courant with modern Irish music, theatre and literature and are often more at home on the Falls Road than your average punter from Waterford or Walkinstown.

Irish-America is often seen to be rigid and static. Nothing could be further from the truth. The social changes of the last few years have been startling – legalized gay marriage is sweeping the states along with a general forbearance, if not total, acceptance of this alternate life-style. But then there’s always been a latent Libertarian streak in American culture that encourages people to be what they are.

How odd then that cosmopolitan New York City should provide the one major issue with which Irish-Americans can be whipped every year. 

Though there was initial relief on both sides of the Atlantic when the LGBT group from NBC was invited to march in the 2015 St. Patrick’s Day parade, it has since come to be seen for what it is – a short-term effort to stop the hemorrhaging of sponsorship.

New Yorkers deserve better. We live in the most inclusive and international city in the world and we don’t shirk from big gestures.

We can argue ‘til the cows come home about Catholic doctrine and who should or shouldn’t march, but it’s time to put all that behind us and use plain and unvarnished logic.

If an American LGBT organization can be invited to march – then why can’t an Irish group? The streets will not cave in. In fact our LGBT brothers and sisters will bring new life, joy and verve to a parade that has undergone many changes since 1762 when Irish soldiers in the British Army began the tradition.

We’re a big people, we handled Know-Nothings and the tragedy of 9/11; we can take cultural change in our stride, and in a couple of years both the Irish in Ireland and Irish-America will look back and wonder what the fuss was all about.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Joe Hill's Last Will

My will is easy to decide
 For there is nothing to divide
My kin don't need to fuss and moan
‘Cause moss don’t cling to a rolling stone

My body? Oh, if I could choose
I would to ashes it reduce
And let the merry breezes blow -
My dust to where some flowers grow…

            So went Joe Hill’s Last Will. Swedish immigrant Joel Hagglund/aka Joe Hill wrote that in 1915 the night before he was executed by the State of Utah, supposedly at the instigation of the copper bosses.

            The big bosses have never been ones to mess with particularly if you want to unionize their businesses. True, Apple has never whacked anyone; yet their poorly paid “genius” employees toil on without the benefit of a union.

            That would be no big surprise to Mr. Hill, yet I bet he’d be staggered by the current level of political unawareness. 

            For instance in the New York Times recently a middle-aged lady from Kentucky was lauding Obamacare now that she is able to get treatment for a number of serious ailments.

            When asked, however, whom she would be voting for in the upcoming Senate election, without hesitation she opted for Senator Mitch McConnell. When reminded that this gentleman has vowed to repeal Obamacare “root and branch,” she blithely replied that she always voted Republican. You don’t have to be Joe Hill to scratch your head at that logic.

            Then again there have always been people who vote against their own interests. James Connolly and Big Jim Larkin, contemporaries of Joe Hill, never ceased to wonder at the scabs who took union members’ jobs during strikes. Didn’t these scavengers know that even if they gained a few weeks work the bosses would eventually pick them off too?

            The Great Recession officially ended in 2009; corporate profits have been sky high for many years and yet the workforce is so beaten down by the threat of dismissal, few dare mention a wage raise. To add fat to the fire, real wages as adjusted for inflation have actually been dropping since 1972. Hey, Joe Hill, maybe it’s time to organize again.

            Whatever happened to the “social contract?” Remember that archaic concept where capital and labor not only co-existed but actually thrived together. Instead of squeezing every last shekel from his workers Henry Ford had a crazy notion that if he paid them a decent wage they would eventually become customers.

If Ford’s idea made sense a century ago then it’s bible-strong today when 70% of the economy is dependent on the goods and services we supply each other.

            Instead we have a federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Try asking out Kim Kardashian on that! It’s beyond time for an across-the-boards raise.

But won’t that increase the cost of living? Of course it will, but the economy could do with a little controlled inflation right now. The extra dollar on my pint to help pay for a reasonable minimum wage will cost me $20 a week but it will be money well spent as it will go directly back into the economy and make us all that bit richer.

            There we go again, says Your Man up in Pearl River – taxing me bloody pint and getting the government involved too!

That’s only the half of it, man - the federal government should be pumping money into an aging and ailing national infrastructure thereby providing decent paying jobs.  Who else is going to do it? Apple, Facebook?

            Turn on your Fox News, your Rush Limbaugh, or whatever your reactionary secret pleasure might be and I guarantee you that within minutes you’ll hear the holy trinity of “government, Obamacare and unions” being damned to high heaven.

            There’s a reason - all three of them are working for the general good. And after Joe Hill appears in his shroud in Congress and causes a stampede to raise the minimum wage, he’s going to head for Kentucky where he’ll recite the last words of his will to a certain politically unaware Obamacare recipient. I hope she’s listening!

… Perhaps some fading flower then
Would spring to life and bloom again
This his is my last and final will
Goodbye, good luck to all of you

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Change and Bernadette

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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