Sunday, 1 July 2018

Astral Weeks


I first heard Astral Weeks while lying in bed in the darkness of a coldwater Rathmines flat.

I was listening to BBC Radio late at night on my old transistor radio. I must have been dozing for I don’t remember any DJ introduction – just the familiar, womblike G-C-D chords of an acoustic guitar.

But there was something about the dreamy delivery that arrested by attention. And then the voice that I was so attuned to from his days with Them and Brown Eyed Girl, cut through the hushed Dublin night.

“Down on Cyprus Avenue
With a childlike vision leaping into view
Clicking clacking of the high heeled shoes
Ford and Fitzroy, Madam George…”

So many years ago now, and I have listened to that track and album so many times since.

I’m far from alone. Astral Weeks has sent a battalion of musicians galloping down the road to ruin.

Phil Lynott once told me he’d probably never have persevered on his brutal path to stardom if he hadn’t heard it. 

Midwesterner Bob Seger temporarily forsook Rock ‘n Roll and reinvented himself as a folkie under its Belfast influence; while it crippled rock critic Lester Bangs, for he knew he’d never come close musically – better instead to write a heartfelt treatise about “the greatest album ever.”

And yet, Astral Weeks was a flop at first. Warner Brothers had expected Van to deliver an album of Brown Eyed Girls and had no idea what to do with it. But Lew Merenstein, its producer, was certain that something timeless had been created.

In fact, without Lew’s guiding hand it’s unlikely we’d even be talking about Astral Weeks now.

Merenstein had come from a jazz background and was asked by Warner Brothers to go listen to Van up in Boston where the 23-year old Belfast man was hiding out. Bert Berns who had signed him to Bang Records had died suddenly, supposedly after a vitriolic phone call between them.

Berns had shady connections and “the men in suits and pinky rings” were dismayed by Morrison discarding his Brown Eyed Girl for the more sultry, cross-dressing Madam George.

Merenstein, however, was ecstatic about the new material and its jazzy free-form nature. He immediately thought of Richard Davis, the reigning double bass player on the New York scene.

Because of Van’s unwillingness to give any kind of direction, both producer and bassist, knew that the project would demand unobtrusive but adventurous musicians.

Most of those chosen had already done two sessions that day, and they assembled after dinner at Century Sound Studios on 52nd Street. Some drink had been taken, and the studio lights were low.

Van was already seated in a vocal booth with his acoustic guitar and didn’t care to introduce himself; when the drummer, Connie Mack, inquired what the Belfast man would like him to play, he was cryptically informed, “whatever you like.”

But Merenstein and Davis were prepared. They encouraged Van to lay down his vocal and guitar tracks. Davis listened for the groove of Van’s acoustic and the metre of his vocal, and then swooped in with the musical intelligence and distinct touch that have graced hundreds of recordings. 

When he’d settled within “the pocket”, the other band members followed him. It’s still fascinating for me to hear a killer musician teetering on the edge before diving in and, within fractions of a second, nailing the groove.

The New York “pocket” is wide and deep, second only to New Orleans, and oh how that fantastic band careened around it.

Occasionally they did a second take, but they recorded most of Astral Weeks in two 3-hour sessions. No need for computers, click-tracks, or punch-ins - what you hear is what you get - the triumph of poetry over machines and banal perfection.

And when it was over Van didn’t even bid the band good night. Merenstein reckoned he was being reborn in those days. He caught no hint of the surly superstar Morrison has since become, nor any echo of the rebellious teenage leader of East Belfast’s Them.

Instead, a half-century later, so many of us are still stunned, uplifted, and in a strange manner, redeemed every time we step into the mysterious aural back streets of Astral Weeks.

Monday, 11 June 2018

A Post-Truth Society


You have to wonder what the end result of the Donald Trump presidency will be?  I’m not talking about impeachment or a second term in 2020, no I mean how will the US emerge from this post-truth era – or will it? 

With President Trump’s absolute unconcern for any concept of truth – he has apparently made well over 3000 false or misleading claims since inauguration – what effect is this having on the country or, indeed, on its befuddled citizens?

The common conceit is that come 2020 the 77,744 voters in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania who swung the electoral college to Mr. Trump will see the light, and elect a god-fearing Democrat who’d sooner steal his mom’s social security check than tell a white lie.

But “it’s a long way to Buffalo,” as Van Morrison proclaimed, and it’s an even longer way to 2020 - much can happen. 

Bob Dylan probably nailed our era best with his enigmatic, “Nowadays, I don’t even know what normal is anymore.”

So true, for often when I hear a presidential whopper I find myself rationalizing, “Ah, it’s only the Donald, what else is new?”

But will I still be able to differentiate between truth and pathological obfuscation by 2020?

All presidents lie and as yet Mr. Trump hasn’t blown the hell out of Iraq like cuddly George W. Bush.
Still, how is Mr. Trump getting away with his arsenal of fibs and falsities in this once rather puritan, upstanding democracy?

We blame it on his “base,” and to listen to the pundits the president’s partisans are a collection of toothless good ol’ boys and unemployed Rust Belt factory workers, all barely a step away from opioid addiction.

However, the reality is that 85 % of Republicans believe Mr. Trump is the hottest thing since fried bread, while 46% of all voters favored him in 2016. This particular politician is far from marginal.

His dumber-than-ditchwater environmental policies may ultimately bring catastrophic flooding to Miami and New York City, but “the economy, stupid” will be what re-elects him or sends him packing to Mar-a-Lago in 2020.

And as long as his “base” doesn’t wake up someday and wonder why the top 20% of households in this country owns 90% of the nation’s wealth then Mr. Trump will likely get another four years to look after his real “base” – commercial real estate owners and the super-wealthy.

Like many I’m adapting to the Trumpian post-truth society, but I draw the line at the man’s persistent whining.  

One thing that puzzles me - is the president a manifestation of our modern moaning society or is he indeed pushing the envelope in the whine stakes?

Look at any sports game, from Little League up to the NFL. Every player believes that he or she is being routinely dissed and cheated by referees, linesmen, and even God Almighty; while fan-whine has reached Caligula-like proportions.

Did Donald Trump start this? Hardly, but does a day go by when he doesn’t exhibit a first-class persecution complex?

As for his “fake news” accusations, they would be funny if they weren’t so dangerous. Because where Mr. Trump leads, so many lemmings are only dying to follow.

Now, I proudly read the New York Times and am aware of some of its liberal foibles, but I find the actual news reporting to be fair and consistent.

Likewise, the Wall Street Journal; I steered away from this right-wing colossus for years fearing my virginal left wing principles might get contaminated. 

I still make a sign of the cross when dipping into Journal editorials, but their reporting of current events is spot on, and often better than the Times in my not so humble opinion.

It’s time to quit whining, Mr. Trump! Take your lumps and criticisms like every other president. And dare I suggest - quit watching dumbed-down television; instead read a book, have a couple of beers, or visit the Bronx.

No doubt Mr. Trump would consider what I’ve just written “Fake News;” but it’s really an attempt to re-establish my own personal “normal” in a world where our president is estimated to tell 6.9 lies a day.

Ah well, there’s always the prospect of 6-pack, and I’m long due a pilgrimage up to An Béal Bocht.

Go Back To Cuba Part 2


The Irish came to the Caribbean in many ways – as Oliver Cromwell’s slaves, sailors in British naval fleets, even pirates. 

But the greatest early influx came courtesy of the Spanish army that employed four regiments of Wild Geese – those who fled Ireland rather than submit to British rule.

That’s how Dubliner General Alejandro O’Reilly arrived. He took control of the Spanish Army in Cuba after a humiliating defeat by the British, restructured Havana’s fortifications, and set the city on a course to become the jewel of the Caribbean.

There’s a street named after him - and a decent pub - but perhaps more importantly there’s a plaque on the corner of O’Reilly and Tacon that states, “Cuba and Ireland, two island peoples in the same sea of struggle and hope.”

The Irish play a prominent part in Cuban history:  Poet Bonifacio Byrne wrote the patriotic and inspirational Mi Bandera (My Flag) still quoted frequently, the O’Farrills of Longford became one of the wealthiest families (slave trading didn’t hurt their coffers), while Irish-American Johnny “Dynamite” O’Brien is revered for running much needed arms to Cuban revolutionaries in the 19th Century. 

But there is little doubt that Che Guevara Lynch had the greatest impact.

He still holds an almost mystical sway over the island. Physician, poet, writer, political theorist, military commander and ultimate martyr, he was the spark plug of the Revolution.

His literacy campaign led to universal education. He demanded and achieved free universal health care; he was also the force behind the Agrarian Reform Law that redistributed land to the peasants, and limited the size of private farms to one thousand acres. 

He often reminds me of Michael Collins – another man of huge ambitions and abilities; it should be noted that neither had the least compunction about executing political opponents. 

Che will always be the young, handsome, idealistic hero urging his people onwards, for he was executed at age 39 in Bolivia while on his quixotic mission to pursue world revolution.

The pertinent question is: What does Cuban youth now think of Che’s ongoing revolution?

There are more hip-haircuts on the Malecón waterfront than on New York’s Lower East Side, while Beyonce’s commercial paeans can now be heard arising amidst the Afro-Cuban chants on the narrow back streets of Havana.

And yet there’s a widespread acceptance of La Revolución as homegrown and part of intrinsic local culture. Cuba’s socialist state has its problems but it does inure the populace from the black hole of college debt and the financial uncertainty of US health care. 

While everyone seems to have some complaint with their economic system Cubans take pride in what they’ve achieved as a people. In the words of one person – “We’re not all about money. There are other things in life.”

Part of that has to do with Castro culture. Though Raul is seen ambivalently, Fidel is their George Washington. He may have his failings but there’s never been a suggestion that he – or his family – have lined their pockets at the expense of the people.

That’s a huge thing in an island nation that has dealt with an economic embargo for almost sixty years. “As long as everyone is in it together,” a waiter stated, “one can accept sacrifice.”

Cuba is a strange and often fascinating country where the Yoruban religion of the African slaves has syncretized with Catholicism, and co-exists with a James Connolly style socialism.

Where Iyawó (initiates) in the all white garb of their Santería religion stroll past giant etchings of Che and Fidel. I never saw anything of that nature in the old Eastern Bloc countries where religion was at best frowned upon. 

But that’s modern day Havana for you. Rum, rumba, and politics jig together in a great big Caribbean cocktail under the shadow of a giant statue of Jesus.

But now it’s late - tomorrow I go home. The windows are wide open in this mosquito-banished city.
A television drones in the distance, a Salsa band kicks into gear, while down on the Malecón Latino lovers walk arm-in-arm.

“Go back to Cuba!” A memory taunts.

“Yeah, I probably will, and you should come too. You never know, you might like it.”

Go Back To Cuba


“Go back to Cuba!” was a refrain shouted at me for half a lifetime.

“I wish!” was my silent reply, as I jacked my amp to lay a little hurt on the heckler.

Truth was, though, I’d never been to Cuba as I recently watched Havana merge with the shimmering Caribbean on my Jetblue descent.

I had gone on an impulse; besides, the price has been right ever since President Trump’s hissy fit restriction on US travel last November.

I’ve always felt strong parallels between Ireland and Cuba, not the least is that both island countries have fraught relationships with neighboring empires.

Right from its first European settlement in the 16th Century Cuba has had many Irish connections – mostly courtesy of Wild Geese regiments in the Spanish army.

In fact, the emblematic El Morro Lighthouse that dominates Havana’s harbor was once called O’Donnell’s Lighthouse - built by a relative of Red Hugh’s.

I had another reason for going – in the summer of 1989 I had played with the Brooklyn performance poet, Copernicus, on a chaotic tour of Eastern Europe and the USSR.

The Berlin Wall came down some months later and we may have knocked a few chinks in it, particularly in Prague where unknown to us the dissident promoters used our shambolic visit to challenge the government.

When we voiced discomfort at the idea of playing the national ice hockey stadium with militia rifles aimed at the stage, we were reassured that “zey will not keel us all.”

The Eastern Bloc is barely a repressive memory now but Cuba is still celebrating its Revolución.

And with good reason: whereas the Eastern European communist countries were drab, dreary and oppressive, Cuba is a vivacious society, proud of its achievements and determined to plough its own furrow. 

Still, you can feel change in the wind and it’s always exciting to be present as the hammer hits the anvil.

Free universal health care and education have invigorated this largest of the Caribbean islands, and life expectancy has rocketed from just over 60 when Fidel Castro took control in 1959 to almost 80, as we speak.

Lest I’m painting too pretty a picture there are major problems: a lack of housing, too much bureaucracy, and a continuing failure to develop agriculture necessitating much importation of food. 

And there are many, no doubt, who would like a crack at the capitalist society they have been warned about since the cradle.

The real achievement though is that Cuba is a post-racial society. Black, white, and all shades in-between mix easily and on an equal footing. Since everyone receives the same education, there is a social fluidity that makes you painfully aware of the lack of integration back home.

While the US blockade - in effect since 1960 - does hold Cuba back economically it seems to have little effect on the spirit of the people. 

They’ve survived worse, particularly the “special period” during the 1990’s when the USSR collapsed thereby eliminating favorable trade deals and subsidies. Food was scarce for many years and public transport rare.

The blockade, however, has had some positive effects, particularly on Cuba’s lifeblood: music. 

Afro-Cuban Jazz is thriving – the integrated bands, left to their own devices, have syncretized their distinct culture and history with the universal jazz tradition.

At times you feel the whole country is grooving to the addictive 1-2, 1-2-3 Afro-Cuban syncopated beat.

But all cultures are equally valued. My friend and guide, Enrique Núnez, took me to meet Rafael Fernández Moya, the local expert on Cuban-Irish history. 

This former diplomat now works with elementary school children explaining Irish culture and its effect on Cuba.

The vibrant elementary school Pioneers, with their distinctive red neckerchiefs, were bubbling with questions about the life of a New York Irish musician.

Barely out of Pre-K many are already invested in Ireland courtesy of their hero, Che Guevara Lynch.

You should visit Cuba, go with an open mind and savor the experience. Your airline company will advise you on how to get a visa. 

Raúl Castro retires this month. A new leader will be elected from a younger generation.

Change is inevitable and on the way but La Revolución is strong and there’s a rebel Irish tradition close to the heart of it.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

Nights in Reilly's


The word was that it had been a “classy kind of joint.” Those days were long gone by the time we moved in.

Probably the only reason we got a gig in the first place was that no one else really wanted to play there.

Years later I was quoted as saying, “The place was so deserted even the cockroaches were jumping ship.” A bit of an exaggeration as it had a diverse, though small, clientele – most of whom became fast friends.

Whatever – within a year Paddy Reilly’s was one of the best-known bars in America. With lines around the block, it was New York’s in-spot. 

What a place! People were jammed so tight you had to love your neighbor for you would inevitably share some physical intimacy by the time you were poured out onto the corner of 28th Street and 2nd Avenue.

There was an attempt to turn an abandoned kitchen into a “Green Room,” but eventually even that was knocked down to provide space, and celebrities had to shoehorn among the swaying, sweaty crowd of New Yorkers and astute out-of-towners.

It was Black 47’s Cavern. We played there Wednesdays and Saturdays. In the beginning we did two long sets; eventually we combined them into a marathon that often stretched until the cows came home. We never tired, though fingers, lips, and voices took a beating.  

It was a scene! And it set the stage for 25 years of performances by Black 47. 

We never rehearsed although we performed hundreds of original songs. Why spend money on rehearsal studios when you could work out material onstage in Reilly’s and get paid for it.

This strategy demanded a certain fearlessness. Chris Byrne or I would bring a song in with lyrics and chords, and during sound check we’d work out an intro, and mark out a space for an improvised instrumental section, then it was 1-2-3-4 and we were off to the races.

Perfection was the last thing on our minds – as long as we all started and finished together, who cared? You’d learn more about the song in that first outing in front of an audience than you ever could in a couple of prissy rehearsal hours.

Though we eventually played stadiums, theatres and legendary clubs, my favorite moment on stage was the night we first performed the complex James Connolly in Reilly’s.

There was the usual jostling and shouting when we began but as we entered Connolly’s inner dialogue, an odd hush descended as both audience and band realized something special was happening.

When the song ended that hush lingered. Between us we had created something new – that rarest of things in music. 

Monsignor Steve Duggan presided over the place with a deft hand and a ready smile. Manager Dympna McDonald became best friend, and champion to a host of bands.

And what a line up it was in those early days – Friday, Spéir Mor, Sunday Roguesmarch, Monday Eileen Ivers & Seamus Egan, Tuesdays Paddy-A-Go-Go, Thursdays a seisiún led by that infamous Sligo Indian, Tony DeMarco, and John Dillon. 

Eventually, The Prodigals and other great bands would gain their residencies.

The doors may have been locked at 4am but the partying continued until whenever.

It was a time of intense politics both in the North of Ireland and the US. Passions were high and many a dignitary stood next to a felon, many a cop next to a robber, and so many superstars next to their fans. 

No one received preference. It was first come, first served - you stood in line with the punters outside and waited your turn.

I could fill a page with the names of the celebrities but who cares – the music is what counted – raw, in your face, full of passion, urgency, and a yearning for originality. It’s hard to ignore that Joe Strummer was a regular, but he was there for the music and cared little for celebrity.

And one day it was over; then 9/11 drained the remains of the wildness out of our insomniac city. 

But the memories remain and so does Paddy Reilly’s still pumping live music, although now on 29th Street. Say hello to the Monsignor when you next venture in. 

What nights we had – what a scene we created!

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

From Bank Clerks to Chieftains


“55 years on the road?“ Said I.

“56 and counting, actually.” Paddy Moloney of the Chieftains coyly smiled.

Since Paddy took up the Tin Whistle at 6 yars of age he’s probably knocked off over 5,000 gigs. But I let that thought rest during our recent interview at SiriusXM.

Paddy is the surviving godfather of Irish Traditional Music; he and Seán O’Riada created the genre as we know it now.

But even within Ceoltóirí Chualann, O’Riada’s masterful ensemble, Paddy was a driving force.

The interview bounced along merrily with PR maestro, Anita Daly, in attendance, and SiriusXM A&R rep, Liam Davenport - himself a bagpiper – dropping by for an earful of a living legend. 

My only fear was that we were laughing so much the listeners might not be able to decipher what we were actually talking about.

The Chieftains were already a household name before I first saw them perform at a festival in Wexford in the early 70’s. Apart from Irish acclaim, John Peel played them regularly on his groundbreaking BBC radio shows.

How odd to hear Irish Traditional Music sandwiched in between Cream and Frank Zappa. But it all fit seamlessly for each was plowing their own furrow, and to hell with the begrudgers!

I reminded Paddy about that Wexford gig. With his near photographic memory he recounted the scene. 

“Out we shuffled onto the stage before the progressive band, Curved Air. We must have looked like a crowd of bank clerks in our dark suits.”

Up near where I sat in the balcony Curved Air fans hooted their displeasure until threatened by veterans of local Teddyboy rumbles.

Then Paddy recalled his involvement with the movie Barry Lyndon. 

“It was a Friday afternoon and I was doing an interview in Dublin when I got a phone call from a Mr. Stanley Kubrick who wished to speak to me. Unfamiliar with his name, I asked if he could give me a shout back on Monday and hung up. Luckily the world famous director persisted and the rest was history.”

Talk about the right music for the right scene. I can still recall the emotion I felt when hearing Mná na hÉireann during a Times Square showing of Kubrick’s iconic film.

If Seán O’Riada’s Mise Éire sountrack changed the way Irish people thought of themselves, then Moloney’s scoring of Barry Lyndon for this Academy Award winner put Irish Traditional Music on the international stage.

But then Paddy has received many awards including a doctorate from Trinity College Dublin. That finally put paid to his mother nagging him about giving up his “nice steady job” as an accountant for the uncertain life of a gigging musician.

The Dublin of the 1950’s was a quiet, but seething, backwater when Paddy took his first steps on the road to fame. Was there anyone of note he didn’t know?

Brendan Behan was a friend and “had a lovely voice. He could hit a high G effortlessly and was a nice man – most of the time.”

Paddy, in his work for Claddagh Records, actually recorded Patrick Kavanagh and recounted the poet’s volcanic and argumentative nature while imbibing in McDaid’s Pub.

Another poet, John Montague, suggested the name The Chieftains when the boys were contemplating calling themselves “The Quare Fellahs” in honor of Brendan Behan. 

Think how Irish Traditional Music might have been perceived down the years if they’d been known as “The Quare Fellahs!”

Though he’s recorded with everyone from The Stones to Pavarotti, Paddy is at his hilarious best talking about the Chieftains’ outings with Van Morrison. His take on the East Belfast man’s accent and eccentricities is spot on.

And yet Moloney has a reverence for musicians, and is well aware that together Van and The Chieftains created Irish Heartbeat - a classic in modern Irish music – in five frantic days. 

As you read this The Chieftains are touring America. As ever they mix the mad, the merry and the melancholic.

Go see them. They are a link to both the past and the future, and will work wonders on your soul.
Not bad for a crowd of bank clerks!

Friday, 13 April 2018

Bob Dylan's Everlasting Tour


I went to see Dylan in Bridgeport, CT some years back. It was during my Black 47 touring days when I rarely attended other shows – but, hell, it was a free box seat for Bobby. How could I refuse?

I might never have become a musician if I hadn’t heard Like A Rolling Stone. That groundbreaking single sent me helter-skeltering out of womb-like Wexford and into the maelstrom of Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

I never met Dylan, though we briefly shared the same manager. However, one hung over snowy morning in Tribeca I overheard his unmistakable drawl. Sure enough, he and a lady friend were approaching me on the icy sidewalk.

As you might imagine I did a double take, whereupon he threw me a frigid glance that thundered, “Stroll on, pal!”

And I did, though I wouldn’t have known what to say anyway except, “Hey, man, any chance of an Alka-Seltzer?”

But here I was – almost a lifetime later - in Webster Bank Arena in the unaccustomed comfort of a boxed seat, far from my roots in the mosh pits of CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City.

The opening bands, Wilco, and My Morning Jacket, were excellent – for about 30 minutes - but as their sets stretched beyond the hour mark, I had to wonder, “What are you thinking, Bobby? These guys are wearing out your audience!”

But after the rigors of 4000 or so gigs I guess Dylan doesn’t concern himself with such trivialities.

Then he was suddenly, if laconically, onstage – no announcement, just a stroll on with his band. 

Nor did things click straight away. The guitarist was new, and unfamiliar with some of the songs.
The audience too seemed underwhelmed. As I made my way towards the stage people were already leaving. And then there were only three rows of diehards between me and The Man.

It was a surreal scene. Dylan doesn’t play guitar anymore and the band was gathered around him in a semi-circle. They were dressed in Tex-Mex style, but they had found the groove and were beginning to swing.

Occasionally Bob tinkered with a keyboard, but for the most part he stood out front like a weathered Old Testament prophet; however, as the set progressed and the audience thinned he became more defiant, his shades unable to mask the brittle flashes of anger.

That mattered little to the audience, many of whom were wondering aloud when he would play Just Like A Woman, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, or other classics.

I didn’t care. That familiar nasal voice from my youth washed over me like warm Wexford rain - comforting, nourishing, and ultimately healing.

The new songs sounded good, though I couldn’t distinguish many words; but who cared, I knew exactly what he was saying. 

Dylan may be our most gifted and enduring lyricist but, like Joyce, he has transcended mere words – he speaks his own language now and its snarls, sighs, and syllables are imbued with a universe of moods and meanings. 

Still the crowd got smaller and I found myself in the front row, as close as I had been on that long-ago, hung over Tribeca morning.

Then he began She Belongs To Me and I remembered singing that song for my first girlfriend back in Wexford, and with that the dam broke.

I might have been rooted to the floor in Bridgeport but I was also ricocheting around the country through a Montana sunset, a Geary Street midnight, an East Village afterhours, a Key West dawn - down all the years of knocking about on a rock & roll journey that for once made some sense.

And in those hallucinogenic moments I experienced all the strains of poetry and music in Dylan’s voice - from Congo Square in “Nawlins” up the Mississippi Delta to Route 66, and back East to Washington Square, in shades of Kerouac and Liam Clancy, Blind Willie McTell and Buddy Holly, Walt Whitman and crazy-man Allen Ginsburg howling to the moon on East 12th Street.

And then Bobby was bowing, smirking like the joker he’s always been, heading for his bus - the Voice of America off on the next leg of his everlasting tour.