Thursday, 16 March 2017

Saint Patrick's Wild Stallion In Times Square


I’ve seen many a St. Patrick’s Day – mostly playing in a band atop a large stage, amidst a swirl of action but removed enough so that the forest can be clearly distinguished from the trees.

Where to begin?  I suppose in the metropolis of Wexford where St. Patrick’s Day was at best an insipid dud. With not much else going on in March we’d line up on the Quayside and watch the Confraternity men and Legion of Mary ladies parade by in a murmur of rosaries, accompanied by the local FCA (Army Reserve) who at least marched in time. 

My favorites were the Foresters – they wore green and white Robert Emmet type uniforms, knee-high black leather boots, and plumed hats. 

The lack of alcohol, however, weighed heavily on both marchers and observers, as pubs back then closed for our national feast day.

At my first New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade I felt I had stepped into Caligula’s Rome. Though quite early in the morning the bacchanal was already in full swing – not just booze either, but weed wafted gently by on the cool breezes of Fifth Avenue. Sex, too, was in the air as leggy drum majorettes kicked for the skies and suburban high school kids made out with vigor in fashionable retail doorways.

Later that night in Tomorrow’s Lounge, Bay Ridge, I had one of the best gigs of my life as Turner & Kirwan of Wexford shook the considerable dust off the rafters. In truth we could have played Enya-on-Ambien dirges and the packed house would have roared along with gusto. To top it all we got paid double!

It was then I realized that on St. Patrick’s Night a band mounts a wild stallion. All you have to do is hold on to its mane, dig in the spurs, and off you go with the flow! 

The following year, however in our innocence, Turner & Kirwan played ten 40-minute sets in Manchester, NH and received sweet damn all bonus. Somewhat miffed we invited the friskier looking part of our audience back to a party in a house that had been lent to us. 

I will not bore you with the salacious details; suffice it to say we left Manchester in somewhat of a cloud. So much so that when I returned many years later with Black 47 I had to put forth that the Kirwan playing with the disgraced duo from Wexford had been my Uncle Larry.

There was never a need for such white lies in New York City on March 17th. For one thing, no one would be crazy enough to give Black 47 a loan of their house on that sainted liquid evening.

Not that there weren’t hiccups. One night in a shadowy corridor of the Letterman Show, fatigued and overwhelmed, I thought I had lost my mind when assaulted by a battery of little people dressed as leprechauns who were merely seeking autographs. 

Another year on the Conan O’Brien Show I almost had a heart attack when I forgot a line from our song James Connolly on national TV.

But there were triumphs too. I can still feel the crowd and band meld together into one tightly clenched fist when I hear our Live in New York City CD recorded on St. Patrick’s Day in the late lamented Wetlands club.

I thought I might give the whole thing a break when Black 47 disbanded, but BB King’s on 42nd Street wanted the real rockin’ New York Irish music experience again, so I’m back in the game with a new kick-arse band for a night. 

Cáit O’Riordan of The Pogues and Chris Byrne of Black 47 will join us for some songs. Lia Fail Pipes and Drums from Mercer County will kick off the evening. Pat McGuire, our old comrade from Spéir Mor and Paddy Reilly’s days will team up with Geoff Blythe of Black 47 to do a set; and my son, Rory K, the hip-hop artist, will jam the grooves with Celtic themes like Fresh Off The Boat – dear God how did I beget a rapper – perhaps it’s karma for Uncle Larry’s long-ago wild night in Manchester?

Whatever! See you at BB’s in Times Square when we mount that St. Patrick’s Night wild stallion one more time. Bring your spurs!

Larry Kirwan & Friends, BB King’s, 237 W. 42nd St. NYC  (212)997-4144     
Doors 6pm/Show7pm
Tickets: http://bit.ly/2iK94Xl or at the door

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Fanatic Ladies


It’s odd to see yourself in a movie, especially when you have no idea what’s coming next. Such was the case when watching a rough cut of Fanatic Heart recently.

In the course of 25 years with Black 47 I’d acted the clown in a number of MTV videos – hardly a great experience, since that pathetic medium emasculated Rock & Roll and left it the flaccid force it is today.

Still, I’ll be there with my popcorn tomorrow night March 2nd when Fanatic Heart (the Black 47 movie) premieres at Cinépolis Chelsea for Craic Fest’s Gala opening.

The directors, Vic Zimet and Stephanie Silber really captured the arc of the band. It is far from the usual musical puff piece as our only directive when they began filming 17 years ago was to “show it like it is.”

They didn’t stint on that – the passage of time is well commemorated in lined faces and graying hair – but who gives a goddamn considering the alternative? We all got out alive - more than can be said for many around us.

It was interesting to watch from the outside. From my perspective at the center of the cyclone it was all one big swirl of passion, fatigue, dissonance and delight in a continual battle to do exactly what we wanted.

One of the most interesting people interviewed was my sister from another mother, Mary Courtney. She was the woman’s voice on Livin’ in America, one of the band’s signature songs. 

I guess the reason she fit so perfectly is because we all came from the same Bronx music cauldron and shared many political views.

Watching her made me realize how interesting it would have been to feature the other women members of Black 47. What a cast of characters!

I first met Mary Martello while setting Caoineadh Airt Uí’ Laoghaire (The Lament For Art O’Leary) to music for a dance-theatre piece by June Anderson. Mary had never heard the Irish language or the great epic poem and yet she sang as though raised in a Munster Gaeltacht.

I used part of that performance for the intro to Big Fellah, our song about Michael Collins. Kurt Sutter, Sons of Anarchy creator, was so taken with Mary’s vocal he featured the track on the Lochan Mór episode gaining the band a worldwide audience. Mary continues to act and sing in the Philadelphia area.

I don’t know where I met Christine Ohlman. A Rock & Roll legend and singer with the Saturday Night Live Band, she’s often called The Beehive Lady on account of her spectacular bouffant! And what a voice – somewhere between Ronnie Spector and Janis Joplin! Take a listen to her on Black 47’s Blood Wedding where she channels the pain of Carlita, a Lower East Side woman caught in a crime of passion.

Some of you already know Celtic princess, Ashley Davis. I met her on her first night in NYC after a stint as sean-nós singer in a Michael Flatley extravaganza. A collector of rare songs when she’s not writing her own classics, her solo career is booming and, to top it all, she had the good fortune to marry a Bronx boy. She adds her haunting voice to Fatima, a young Muslim woman with a decision to make, on Black 47’s New York Town album.

Nora Shanahan showed up at our recording studio after a night on the town. She was one of the singers in New York’s great lost band, The Táin. Totally distinctive, she reminded me of a peroxide punked-out Bridie Gallagher. She was accompanied that morning by an entourage as well oiled as herself. But, man, when she lit into Bodhráns on the Brain, the room lit up. 

Bodharns is a rip-roaring fare-thee-well-sucker song about an Irish girl ditching her cool New York boyfriend for an “auld alcoholic bodhhrán maker.” I still laugh whenever I hear Norah ripping me apart and am delighted she found happiness back home in Ireland.

There were other ladies - just as distinguished - who sang with Black 47, God bless them. Perhaps they’ll show up at Cinépolis Chelsea tomorrow night. If not, see you there.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Alternative Facts


Like many I’m saddened by the finger-wagging and brow-beating the media is taking nowadays.

For I wholeheartedly subscribe to the Thomas Jefferson dictum, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

But with newspapers under attack from all angles in these digital days, we are now all part of the media. One only has to crack one’s Facebook page to be exposed to a host of views – temperate and otherwise.

It was a much more efficient world when you bought your Times, News, or Post, and read the considered words of giants like Breslin, Hamill, Kempton et al.

They didn’t just keep their opinions for their columns - I once overheard Pete Hamill discussing the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. 

“We’re Americans, we don’t do torture.” He said quietly, and no one dissented. 

I wonder what Pete is saying about President Trump right now? For after a month of almost constant mistruths, one has to question the president’s judgment, at the very least.

These erroneous statements range from crowd size at his inauguration, to the rising murder rate, onto the number of people affected by his immigration executive order. And I’m only skimming the most obvious.  

Almost equally questionable are the president’s diversionary attacks on the media in phrases such as “dishonest press,” and “lying media;” neither does he stint on reporters and columnists labeling them “lying disgusting people.”

Now I’m not, as you might gather, a Trump supporter, but I’m far from a nihilistic hater. He did win the Electoral College vote, so unless he abdicates or Tubbercurry’s Mike Pence locks him up in the Oval Office and throws away the key, we’ve got four more years to get through with this man. 

And not to beat around the bush, if he were to bring millions of manufacturing jobs back to the Rust Belt and Coal Country, I might even vote for him in 2020. But that’s highly unlikely given the tides of history and technology.

Donald Trump is not the first president to lie. In fact when faced with the choice of a lunatic or a liar with his finger on the nuclear button, I’d go with the latter any old day of the week. After all we survived Nixon and Clinton.

But we’re faced with something different here. What will four years of constant “alternative facts” do to us?

Every journalist and columnist I know double checks their facts – the most embarrassing thing is to be called out on some “misstatement.” Opinions are one thing – we’re hired to offer those – but playing loose with the truth is quite another.

Now like the president I come from the world of entertainment where massaging facts is rarely frowned upon. It’s not life or death, after all. And reality television is about tied with professional wrestling at the bottom of the entertainment totem pole.

But c’mon, Mr. President, that was then; you’re now leader of the free world. People take what you’re saying seriously. They’re working hard paying off mortgages or bookies, they don’t have time or energy to come up with an answer to, “why is the president lying, Mom?”

There are boundaries to taste, discretion, and above all truth, and 99% of politicians pay lip service to them. Most of these pillars of probity are familiar with the name, George Orwell, even if they’ve never opened their high school copy of 1984. 

Take a read of it, sir, the next time your cable goes on the blink. It’s actually somewhat calming compared to your first month in office. It’s also becoming a best seller again, thanks to you. 

The message in this classic book is clear. A constant diet of “alternate facts” is anathema for a healthy and sane society. A journalist’s job is to point this out.

Besides those of us with half a brain can already predict your endgame – “the dishonest media has sabotaged my agenda.”

Well, so be it, you’re the one calling the shots. Did it never occur to you that running a country was always going to be harder than strutting around reality TV?

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Wexford


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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Bainbridge and Kingsbridge Forever


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 23 January 2017

USA 2017 Selfie


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Rockabilly Wexford-oh


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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