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



Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Where Have You Gone, Derek Jeter?


            I love Derek Jeter! A bracing thought first thing in the morning! But what can I tell you – even for a Mets fan there’s just something about this guy.

            And it’s not that I was seduced by his leaping catches and double play pivots either, for I had already given my heart to Keith Hernandez, and Doc Gooden - not to mention that my first cousin, Charlie Kerfeld, was a relief pitcher for the Astros.

            “C’mon now,” says Your Man up in Pearl River, “That’s a tall tale.”

            I swear to God! My Aunt Margy Kirwan, while a nurse in London during the Blitz, married US Air Force Sgt. Jerry Kerfeld, and Charlie was born in Knob Noster, Missouri. Life is, indeed, stranger than fiction.

            But back to my man crush on Derek! What I really like about that damned Yankee is his coolness and unflappability even when struck out in a disputed call. He doesn’t indulge in the usual histrionics, but merely raises one eyebrow an infinitesimal degree so that the umpire understand the real reason for the bad call is that his smitten wife burns his toast every time the handsome shortstop’s name is mentioned.

            Jeter never thanks Jesus either or points heavenwards when he hits a triple; no, Mr. Wonderful is supremely confident because of his natural ability, diligent training, and the long hard hours he puts in chatting up beautiful women.

            Speaking of which, a friend who claims to know about such things, once related that Derek has dated more women than Pete Rose had hits, but none feel aggrieved when given the pink slip for he shows them every courtesy during the courtship. Of course this could be another urban legend or more likely wishful thinking on my friend’s part.

            Despite all this well-earned adulation I have one question for the Yankees’ shortstop. Do you have any idea that baseball’s huge salaries are killing America’s pastime? Now I wouldn’t even bring this matter up to the like of Roger Clements. Steroids or not, I never liked that bully – even before he flung a broken bat at the saintliest of Mets, Mike Piazza.

            But you’re a very smart man, Derek, and you have to see the change in baseball’s demographics since your rookie years. What family can afford the price of tickets to a major league ballpark any more? I’ll tell you who can’t– the 47% that Mitt Romney wrote off a couple of years back. Even with reasonable seats it could cost a family of four $300 for a baseball outing nowadays.

            Look around you at Yankee Stadium, man! Where are the working or lower-middle class kids who made baseball the great American game? And why do you think so many Yankee fans bolt around the 7th inning if the pinstripes are not leading? They’re not invested in the game or the team anymore – only in the expensive spectacle.

            So, Derek, why don’t you use your undoubted influence to persuade baseball owners to subsidize tickets for working poor families? Or even give away empty seats on a slack night. Yeah, I know that might affect the immediate market. But think long term: baseball is taking a beating. Basketball has replaced it for African-Americans and an increasing number of major league players are from the Caribbean or South America.

            Why do you think that is? Because “south of the border” you don’t need to float a Wall Street bond to take your family out to a ball park. It’s still a national pastime in those countries, and I won’t even get into how much it costs to see a game in Cuba.

            No one begrudges you your big salary, Derek; it’s just that I know you’re a thoughtful man who could make a difference. You’re a class act and have been an important role model to generations of children.

Thanks for all the years. It’s been a treat to watch you turn those double plays while barely raising your eyebrow to offending umpires. Mets or no Mets, come next April I’ll be singing:

            “Where have you gone, Derek Jeter, oh?
            A nation turns its lonely eyes to you

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Pete Hamill - Eugene O'Neill Lifetime Achievement Award


            I’ve become president!

            “Oh, no!” Says Your Man up in Pearl River, “Nightmares do come true!”

            Not to worry, comrade. I inhaled and enjoyed it, so no fear of me moving to new digs on Pennsylvania Avenue.

            As regards my recent elevation, I am merely following in the hallowed footsteps of Peter Quinn and TJ English as president of the Irish-American Writers and Artists, a group forged back during the 2008 election when it was suggested that working class Irish would be too prejudiced to vote for Barack Obama.

            We are non-sectarian, inclusive, proudly progressive and our main goal is to represent and further the aspirations of artists and writers. In case you hadn’t noticed, this is not a good time for workers in general, and is particularly dismal for those laboring in the arts; in fact, when asked about a career in music, theatre or literature my advice is don’t even dream of it without a thorough psychiatric evaluation and a skill that will net you $200 a day.

            That being said the IAW&A is an organization of realists and dreamers who love what they do and support each other. I urge you to come to one of the bi-monthly salons held in Manhattan at The Thalia (95th/Broadway) on the first Tuesday of the month and on the third Tuesday at The Cell (23rd/8th Avenue).

            You’ll witness a minor miracle. Artists of the stature of founding director, Malachy McCourt, read or perform regularly and are often followed by someone making their first public appearance. Both receive rapt attention from full houses. Only members of the organization may present but admission is free to all.

            Membership is less than a buck a week – half that for students - and comes with other benefits, but anyone may receive the weekly newsletter that lists the doings of members, details of opportunities, along with a roundup of artistic happenings in Irish America and beyond.

            Our salons regularly hit the road and have recently visited Philadelphia, Washington DC, and Fairfield, CT while we are in the process of forming chapters in Kansas City and Chicago.

            As regards philanthropy: this year we created the Frank McCourt Literary Prize that went to three students at the Frank McCourt High School of Writing, Journalism and Literature, and we have raised money and awareness for causes as disparate as earthquake relief in Haiti and support for the preservation of St. Brigid’s Lower East Side Church.

            Each October we give the Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award at one of Irish-America’s top social event where well-known and aspiring artists rub shoulders with supporters and admirers.

            Previous awardees have included William Kennedy, Brian Dennehy, The Irish Rep’s Charlotte Moore & Ciaran O’Reilly, Judy Collins and John Patrick Shanley.  On Oct. 20th at The Manhattan Club/Rosie O’Grady’s we will be honoring Pete Hamill, the great journalist and writer, and a seanchaí to many of us.
            
The IAW&A speaks for artists at a time when the arts are being marginalized, unions and community groups derided, and we are encouraged to view life solely through the prism of financial gain. We provide a forum for people who usually toil alone, while at the same time offering the public a chance to experience new work in a lively social setting at no cost.

            For those with a yearning to express themselves through poetry, prose, music, dance, you name it – we’re there for you. My own goal is to encourage the carpenter in Queens who could be the next O’Casey, the nurse in Brooklyn who might be a budding Edna O’Brien, or the late starter in The Bronx with a tale as riveting as Frank McCourt.’s, to realize your potential and help create a community

Hey, come to think of it, Your Man up in Pearl River shows much of the edge of Bob Geldof. Come on down some Tuesday night, man, time for you to strut your stuff in The Thalia or The Cell!

And if you can, let’s get together on Oct. 20th and honor Pete Hamill, reflect on his work and times, and the remarkable influence he’s had on so many of us and our city.

For details of membership, salons and the Eugene O’Neill Award go to http://i-am-wa.org