Sunday, 22 November 2015

Luke Kelly - Troubled and Triumphant - Still The Man

I first saw him at a Fleadh Cheoil in the packed town square of Enniscorthy, the very walls throbbing with music, good fellowship and liquor.  As a wild-looking, red-headed man - banjo in fist – climbed to the roof of a car, whispers swept the square, “It’s Luke Kelly.”

For a long moment, he stood still as a statue and stared out at us. A hush swelled and spread outwards. I was stunned by the power of any man to still that unruly crowd.

And then Luke began to sing Kelly The Boy From Killane and his words ricocheted across the same square that Father Murphy and his Pikemen had stormed through in the rebellion of 1798.

It was one of those moments of revelation, and I knew I’d never be happy if I didn’t at least try to do the same myself some day.

When he finished the last thrilling chorus he laughed heartily at the thunderous applause; with a shrug of his shoulders he took a slug from a bottle handed up to him, then wiped his mouth with his sleeve.

His point made, he continued with The Leaving of Liverpool. This sailors’ work song gave us the freedom to join in and we did with gusto on the choruses – our voices reverberating off the walls until you could almost see the beautiful girl on the banks of the Mersey that we were all leaving behind.

I prefer to think of Luke at that moment – young and in control of his destiny. I suppose it had something to do with the times: there was an air of possibility abroad, a sense that things were changing.

Still, Luke’s vision was rooted in the past, for he had that innate power of the seanchaĆ­ to summon back to life a revolutionary spirit that had lain dormant in Enniscorthy for almost 170 years.

He summoned something achingly familiar that had been kept at arm’s length from us - our own sense of Irishness – something fierce and untrammeled that one never heard on the radio, a dissident spirit that did not sit easy in the musty, lace-curtain parlors of that time.

Luke had sensed its presence in Enniscorthy Town Square and harnessed it to further his performance.

There were other occasions when I saw him torn and almost hesitant to get on stage. As the years passed, the venues he performed in with The Dubliners were often very rowdy – people were more interested in hearing their own voices than creating the space and silence he needed to delve into the heart of some lyric and find its truth.

In the course of the night he always silenced them once, or even twice, but in the end what was the point in trying to contain a Niagara of noisy banality fueled by flashfloods of Guinness.

And so, with a shrug of his shoulders, he’d belt into some up-tempo sing-a-long, but you could almost touch a thin shroud of despair that cloaked him no matter how much he beamed.

My other favorite performance of this galvanic talent was at the Television Club on Dublin’s Harcourt Street. Cahir O’Doherty and The Gentry was the featured band.

Now a renowned balladeer in Florida, Cahir had a tremendous soulful voice while The Gentry were very hip and cutting edge.

In the midst of the dancing, Cahir announced that he had a special guest. Everyone assumed it would be some other showband luminary, instead out strode Luke, resplendent in a flower-power shirt and matching turquoise velvet pants.

This caused consternation for Luke was after all a folk-singer and tended to dress in puritanical blue denim.

The shock did not stop there, for he launched into a bluesy, boozy, version of With a Little Help From My Friends replete with Rockette kicks. And, oh my God, was he good – hilarious and having the time of his life. 

That was Luke Kelly – troubled and triumphant – a rebel in the soul unafraid to question tradition or himself.  

He’s still the man and a whole host of us influenced by him will always be boys in his shadow.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Immigrant dreams

           You really have to wonder about Donald Trump and his views on immigration. I’m not even talking about his scabrous, hate-filled opinion of Mexican immigrants. (Like most who have worked in the bar/entertainment business I admire and respect Mexicans – in particular their work ethic and generosity of spirit.)

            No I’m talking about the economic boon that immigrants (both legal and otherwise) provide to the US.

            And by the way, a very hearty farewell to Governor Walker of Wisconsin! I can’t say he’ll be missed – anyone who builds his resume on eviscerating labor unions has little interest in preserving a very challenged American middle-class.

However, the good governor did provide one of the great comic moments of this campaign by suggesting that a wall be built the length of the Canadian border. I was never quite sure who we were keeping out – ISIS or the Blue Jays?

Mr. Trump may be a very successful entertainer, and I’m told the golf courses that bear his name are top class, but doesn’t he understand that with the US population rapidly aging and work force participation tumbling, immigrants are essential to help expand the economy.

Right now there’s a shortage of workers in the building trades – particularly in Arizona and Southern California. Many Mexican workers went home during the Great Recession and show little sign of returning.

A healthy housing market is synonymous with a thriving economy and lack of skilled labor in this important field is contributing to the sluggish recovery. Like it or lump it, we’re dependent on foreign labor.

Should there be a general immigration amnesty. From a purely economic point of view – yes! Imagine the benefits of adding over 11 million undocumented people to the tax rolls.

Most credible schemes for legalizing the undocumented also demand that back taxes be paid; imagine the enormous benefit to the country’s finances on both a state and federal level.

I know there’s a pervasive fear that the undocumented are putting huge pressure on schools and social services. This does happen. But we are a civilized nation that strives to educate and care for all children. The alternative is a huge permanent uneducated lower class that would be even a worse drain on society and the economy.

And what of our own undocumented Irish people? Having been one myself I know what it’s like to fear a telephone call in the night informing you of the illness or death of a relative. To know you can’t risk returning home and offering support is a cruel thing.

It’s always stunning to hear a person of Irish descent rave on in a Know-Nothing manner about “these people” who should be repatriated, when only generations ago their own forebears were derided and insulted by nativist politicians.

And what of the Republican Party and its near paranoiac fear of “big government? Has the GOP forgotten that its greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, won the Civil War and abolished slavery only by harnessing and expanding the might of the Federal Government to suppress “states rights?”

            The GOP’s patrician leader, Teddy Roosevelt considered it his patriotic duty to trust-bust the railroads and other monopolies with the help of the federal government. While its war hero, General Dwight Eisenhower, built a system of national highways and bridges that not only unified the country but led to a generation of economic expansion.

            One need hardly mention that the same highways and bridges are slowly falling apart because of the reluctance of many Republican legislators to borrow money at current minimal rates, not to mention that this common sense action would create jobs and speed up economic recovery.

            It’s time for Republican voters to demand credible economic plans from their remaining candidates.

Of course many have enjoyed the previous two xenophobic, militaristic reality shows also known as Republican debates; but many more tremble at the thought of any of these participants getting elected and implementing their corporate trickle down economic policies.

            As for Mr. Trump, since he seems short of ideas on how to implement his nativist policies, how about marching the eleven million undocumented north instead of south – there’s a lot of empty space up there in Canada.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Irish American Writers & Artists honors Patricia Harty & Irish America Magazine

           The thought that there’s a carpenter in Queens who could be the next Sean O’Casey, or a waitress in Staten Island with the unrecognized talent of an Edna O’Brien, is the reason I agreed to serve as president of the Irish American Writers and Artists.

            God knows I had enough on my plate, but raw talent has always fascinated me – particularly when it hasn’t had the good fortune to be nourished by an expensive education.

            O’Casey and O’Brien acquired their chops in the ivy league university of hard knocks, and the passion that oozes from their work is a direct result of difficult life experiences.

            The people who read and perform at the twice-monthly IAWA salons arrive directly from their workplaces; you can almost witness them morph into writers and artists as they shuffle through the door of The Cell on 23rd Street or Bar Thalia on Upper Broadway, Manhattan. To watch them strut off stage to applause, their eyes sparkling, their creative energies renewed, is a joy to behold.

            IAWA is a proudly progressive organization. We formed in 2008 as a direct response to the suggestion that Irish-Americans would not support an African-American presidential candidate.  So much for that archaic notion!

By the same token we’re non-sectarian, non-partisan and we accept members from all nationalities, creeds, and walks of life. In seven years, under the leadership of Presidents Peter Quinn and TJ English, we have helped save St. Brigid’s Famine Church, raised over $100,000 for victims of the Haitian earthquake, and inaugurated The Frank McCourt Literary Prize to be given annually to a high school student who shows a flair for creative writing.

We also seek to instill in our members the idea that their work is of value; that it’s not to be bartered away for a monetary pittance or a bucketful of digital “likes.”

This is one of those do-or-die times for the arts. Musicians have already lost the battle for meaningful copyright control; technology and general avarice have stranded us in a nowhere land – for who buys CDs anymore, who even legally downloads when you can pay Spotify $9.99 per month for access to a universe of music?

The likelihood is that most artists will eventually suffer the same fate; still there is strength in numbers and, at the least, these issues are being raised by IAWA and occasionally solutions are offered.
Whether you are an artist or someone interested in the arts you can become a member. It costs less than a buck a week to join IAWA, and for that you are guaranteed an outlet for your creative work, be it literature, drama, music, poetry or some personal amalgam of these disciplines.

Every salon is free to the public; you can audit to your heart’s content. It’s our privilege to give back something of value to New York and any of the other cities we hold salons in.

We fund our programs by throwing a hooley every year in honor of the great Irish-American playwright, Eugene O’Neill, at which we present an award for a lifetime of artistic achievement. The honoree on Oct. 19th at The Manhattan Club/Rosie O’Grady’s will be Patricia Harty, a founder and co-publisher of Irish-America Magazine.

Trish is the first Irish born woman to receive the O’Neill award. She arrived in this country from her native Tipperary with little but a dream; over a thirty-year period she has turned that dream into a superb magazine that successfully fuses the often incompatible worlds of Ireland and Irish-America. 

The O’Neill Award night is considered one of the social events of the year, where well known writers, artists, actors, musicians and dignitaries rub shoulders with would-be Sean O’Caseys, Edna O’Briens, Van Morrisons, and Liam Neesons.

Perhaps, you’ll come. One thing you can be certain of – you’ll be welcome. And if not, then maybe we’ll see you at one of our salons in New York City or around the country. Remember - it’s never too late to become an Irish American writer or artist.

The 2015 IAWA Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award Benefit & Cocktail Party - Monday, October 19, 2015, 6:00 to 9:00 pm The Manhattan Club (upstairs at Rosie O’Grady’s) 800 7th Ave. (52nd St), Manhattan - open bar & hors d'oeuvres Tickets: or at the door.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Dark Horse/New Mood?

            There is something strange going on in the country that should have the financial markets rattling and the establishment quaking in its boots.

            In some circles it’s being written off as September madness, and yet how do you explain that well over 50% of Republicans favor a bombastic businessman, a retired African-American neurosurgeon, and a failed CEO over a cabal of experienced Republican governors and senators.

            Nor is this giddiness confined to the party of Lincoln. On the Democratic side, a Vermont socialist with a Brooklyn accent shows many signs of whipping a former senator who up until recently was a dead cert to win the nomination of her party.

            Are Americans finally sick of a stagnant two party system? Or is it something deeper – a new order arising from the cult of celebrity, the breakneck pace of communication, and an electorate that demands outrageous statements along with simple solutions from its leaders?

            Of course we could still end up in 2016 with Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton charging neck and neck down the home straight as I predicted in a February column. But I don’t think so and, though I blush at the omission, I didn’t even mention Donald Trump in that column.

            But that’s my point – the normal has been turfed out the window and the unexpected rules.  Although I don’t have a great opinion of Mr. Trump, yet he has introduced some long needed common sense to the Republican economic platform by demonizing “the hedge fund guys” and their lucrative tax loophole of carried interest. Talk about instant populism!

            My own feeling, though, is that The Donald will bail out at, or before, the Republican Convention in Cleveland next July. I doubt he has the commitment to memorize the names of various Arab potentates let alone deal with the burdens of leading a democracy.

Besides look at poor Mr. Obama’s rapidly graying hair. You think Mr. Trump would welcome such an affliction! And anyway, the Trump brand has been well and truly burnished in his scene-stealing presidential run. So why bother taking on a thankless job.

            A New York Times columnist recently described Dr. Ben Carson as someone who has woken from a nap and can’t find his glasses. Insipid though he may seem, is it possible to take seriously a candidate who states that an American citizen of Muslim faith should not run for president? John F. Kennedy must be twitching in his grave.

            I must say that Ms. Fiorina riveted me with her horrifying description of a Planned Parenthood video that I find hard to even quote. That this video arose from her twisted imagination says more about her than an organization that has helped countless poverty-stricken women since its foundation in 1916 by two Irish-American sisters, Margaret Higgins Sanger and Ethel Higgins Byrne.

            For these and other reasons I very much doubt that any of the above three will become the Republican nominee. Throwing caution to the wind, my own reconsidered prediction is Senator Marco Rubio. He’s young, media savvy, and for the most part has managed to keep his foot out of his mouth – never an easy task when one must impress the conservative brethren of Iowa and South Carolina.

Of course, there may yet be a dark horse waiting in the wings of each party. Which brings me to the Democrats. One has the feeling that the field is not yet complete – and I’m not talking about Vice-President Biden.

Senator Sanders has nailed his radical, if sensible, goals for a fairer society to the mast and, my friend, Gov. O’Malley may yet garner more media attention and make a gallant run down the back stretch. However, the nomination is still Mrs. Clinton’s to lose.

But first she must shed her pollsters and moribund advisors, and remember that she would be president today had she followed her heart rather than her head in the Iraq War senate vote.

There’s a new mood sweeping this country and it has little time for entitlement or the politics of the past. Those running for election had better be out in front of it; for this new beginning has little mercy for those it leaves broken in its wake.

Monday, 21 September 2015

The Wild, The Innocent & Born To Run

            It’s been 40 years now since Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run album was unleashed on an unsuspecting American public.

            The street had been buzzing about this galvanic talent for some time; Springsteen had recorded two albums: Greetings From Asbury Park and The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, and many of us had been blown away by his incendiary live shows. It wasn’t a question of whether Bruce would make it, but to what pedestal he would ascend.

            Neither was it a surprise that he had inspired a substantial group of doubters, for back in the 1970’s there was a gaping divide between devotees of British and American Rock. 

            David Bowie and T-Rex reigned among glittery Anglophiles while The Dead and The Allman Brothers were favored by the flannel-shirted masses. Where would Bruce fit in this delineated spectrum?

            For many the fact that he hailed from the Jersey Shore - mecca of cover bands – was criminal in itself. Yes, indeed, people took their rock music seriously back in those delirious days!

            Bruce’s case was not helped by opening for Anne Murray in Central Park; but hey, a gig’s a gig and the Snowbird never knew what hit her – people were still shouting for an encore 30 minutes into her easy listening set. Wherever he played stormy chaos ensued; at Lincoln Center the stage collapsed during the riotous encore.

            I’ll make no bones about it - my favorite Springsteen album is still The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle. I remember every word, every guitar lick, and back in his pre-superstar days I saw the man any chance I could. 

Hence I was exposed to many Born To Run tracks as they were being written and rehearsed; I still prefer a number of these songs in their nascent form. Brue often performed them with just the marvelous David Sancious playing piano. He delivered these anthems in a highly theatrical manner and at funereal tempos where every word was dramatically articulated.

            One such song was Thunder Road. When done in the original manner you could almost hear that “screen door slam,” and Mary was more like a tragic Eugene O’Neill character than the heroine of a rock saga. The song is cinematically intense either way but 40 years later I still pine for the original Jersey Shore Mary “whose dress sways as she dances across the porch.”

            Born To Run was a wildly anticipated album, as much because Clive Davis, President of Columbia Records, had promised to “break” it. So imagine my delight as I passed the Bottom Line on 4th Street to discover that tickets had just gone on sale for a ten-show album release run. To top it all I had a pocketful of money – a rare enough occurrence in those East Village days.

            Throwing rent and caution to the wind I purchased three tickets for three nights and so Pierce Turner, Jacques Delorme (a French poet) and I attended three of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll shows. 

Not only that but we lined up outside The Bottom Line with quarts of beer in the early afternoons so as to snag front table seats. In my delirium I even grabbed Bruce by the foot as he leaped from atop the grand piano, earning myself a smiling lecture from saxman, Clarence Clemons.

            In those sweaty, adrenaline nights Bruce Springsteen made the transition from street poet to superstar, and he did so without sacrificing any of his principles or street smarts. What set him apart?

            Well, he had an encyclopedic knowledge of Rock and Soul music. I still hear traces of so many influences from James Brown to Eddie Cochran, Phil Spector to Woody Guthrie. But more than anything he possessed Eugene O’Neill’s ineffable “touch of the poet” – and he’s never lost it.

            Born to Run coalesced all that was great in Rock ‘n’ Roll up to that moment. Just in time too, for Punk was about to explode in CBGB’s, a couple of blocks over on The Bowery.

            How thrilling that Bruce is still making a principled, ecstatic difference 40 years later!

Thursday, 10 September 2015

The Priest and the Fireman

            Anyone knocking around Manhattan in those days knew people who perished, but for me it all comes back to the priest and the fireman.

            Even ten years later I can look offstage and imagine where each would be – Father Michael Judge standing by the bar, impeccably coiffed, surrounded by friends; and Richie Muldowney NYFD, darting around the room bantering with all and sundry, crooked smile lighting up the joint.

            Though both frozen in time they summon up the city as it used to be. For New York changed ineffably on 9/11when the spirits of so many unique people departed. They’ve been replaced, of course, great cities do that, but it’s not quite the same, is it?

            I often thought of Mychal as a mirror, he was so empathetic he seemed to reflect your own hopes and fears. I never knew anyone who helped so many people; he was always concerned, forever providing a shoulder.

I guess he came to see Black 47 to let off a little steam. I’m not even sure he liked our music – his own taste ran towards the more conventional – but the rhythms, juxtapositions and overall message fascinated him and, anyway, he liked to be in the thick of the action.

            Richie was hard-core Black 47. He knew all the words, the players, the other fans. He delighted to show up unexpectedly at out-of-town gigs; the moment you saw him you knew it would be a good night. To think such an irrepressible spark was extinguished so early.

            I remember jaywalking across Times Square the first September Saturday the band returned to Connolly’s. The “crossroads of the world” was so deserted in those immediate post-9/11 nights it felt like a scene from a cowboy movie where sagebrush is blowing down the street.

            But cops, firemen, emergency workers, the mad, the innocent and those who just couldn’t stay at home needed somewhere to go – to let the pressure off – and that was the band’s function.

Those first gigs were searing. You couldn’t be certain who was missing, who had survived, who was on vacation, who just needed a break from it all. When a familiar face walked through the door the relief was palpable, someone else had made it.

The atmosphere – though on the surface subdued - was charged with an underlying manic energy, a need to commemorate, celebrate, to show that life was going on. That would be some small revenge on the bastards who had caused all the heartbreak.

And yet, what an opportunity was missed in those first weeks. That smoldering pit down on Rector Street had galvanized the country. We were all so united; we would have done anything asked of us.

Republican, Democrat, Independent, we all came together as Americans. We would have reduced our dependence on foreign oil, rejuvenated poor neighborhoods, taught classes in disadvantaged schools. You name it - nothing would have been too big, too small either.

But no sacrifice was asked, much less demanded. Instead, 9/11 was used by cheap politicians to get re-elected; patriotism was swept aside by an unrelenting xenophobic nationalism that brooked no dissent. The US was converted into a fortress and the lights were dimmed in the once shining city on the hill. Worst of all, our leaders sought to use the tragedy as an excuse to invade Iraq.

Look at us now, dysfunctional, walled off from each other and the rest of the world. That began when the national will for a positive response was squandered in the aftermath of 9/11.

Though he was finally hunted down, sometimes it seems as though Osama Bin Laden won, for we’ve become a fearful, partisan people, unsure of ourselves, uncertain of our future.

But then I think of Mychal and Richie, their smiles beam across the years and I know that the current national malaise is just a patina that covers the soul of the country – it can be wiped away. It’s not permanent. We have greatness in us yet.

That’s the hard-earned lesson of 9/11 and will always be the message of the priest and the fireman.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Joe Strummer, we hardly knew ye

           A wave of melancholy swept over me when I played Joe Strummer’s version of The Minstrel Boy on SiriusXM last Saturday morning. It was the last song of my Celtic Crush show and I was in the midst of putting the studio in order for the next host.

I was surprised, to say the least, for though Joe was a friend and like many I mourned the passing of The Clash leader, still, that was over twelve years ago and life moves on.

            His Minstrel Boy featured prominently in the movie, Black Hawk Down. The song obviously lends itself to marital issues for I used it myself in Black 47’s Downtown Baghdad Blues. Then I remembered a night in Paddy Reilly’s back in the early 1990’s when we’d talked about the transforming power of old Irish melodies.

            Joe was familiar with a lot of Irish music and was aware of Thomas Moore who wrote The Minstrel Boy.

            The most famous Irish poet, singer, and songwriter of the 19th Century, Moore was a friend of Robert Emmet and Lord Byron. A diminutive bantam-cock of a man, Thomas Jefferson famously mistook him for a child, which probably led to Moore’s distaste for the slave-owning third president of the United States.

He cared little for Daniel O’Connell either dismissing the Liberator as a demagogue; nonetheless, Moore held an exalted place in Irish society, for The Minstrel Boy was the national anthem of its day – particularly to the millions forced to emigrate during the Great Hunger of the 1840’s.

There wasn’t an Irish saloon in the world where glasses were not raised to its soaring melody, while the toast was often a vow to return home and finally rout the perfidious English invader. The Irish on both sides in the American Civil War chanted its stormy lyrics and the Fenians sung it when invading Canada.

Without losing any of the song’s essence Strummer’s version is distinctly contemporary – dry-eyed and defiant; and as I listened I remembered the first night the Prince of Punk strolled into The Bells of Hell.

David Amram, Pierce Turner and I were gathered around Al Fields who was ripping it up on the perennially out-of-tune piano. Al was a fiery player, especially when fueled by a vodka-based concoction he labeled “kerosne.”

Strummer sidled into our group and without the least pretention joined in the raucous merry-making. He was enthralled by Al’s playing which was heavily steeped in Stride, Boogie-Woogie and other African-American styles.

Much later that night Al took me to one side and inquired if I’d ever heard of The Clash? Would they be like The Rolling Stones, he wondered. I told him that if one were to stretch a number of points there were indeed similarities.

This brought a mercenary gleam to Al’s eyes. He confided that Strummer had invited him to play on a track from the next Clash record and wondered if he might demand the then dizzying fee of $500. I told him to go for it but be prepared to accept $100 along with the glory.

The next night Al showed up ordering doubles of kerosene. He’d been paid “his worth,” he smirked, but he might have to see a doctor. Since he always stomped to the beat while playing, the producer had insisted he perform with his shoes off; consequently Al had strained an ankle. The dangers of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle!

All of these memories came flooding back as Joe’s brilliant reimagining of The Minstrel Boy washed over me in the sterile studio.

Given the quantities of kerosene I saw Al imbibe in both lean and flush times I doubt if he’s alive today. Thomas Moore is definitely long gone to meet his maker, but The Minstrel Boy lives on.

Joe Strummer walked away from The Clash when they were about to become the biggest band in the world. True to his Punk ideals he refused to be limited by other people’s expectations. Instead he swept the dust off a stagnant anthem and returned The Minstrel Boy to us – alive, vital, and dangerous – the way Thomas Moore always intended it to be.

Ah, Joe, we hardly knew ye.