Saturday, 13 July 2019

The Boy From The Bronx


You can take the boy out of the Bronx but you can’t take the Bronx out of the boy. That thought struck me when I first met Elliot Rabinowitz back in 1992.

He was charming, intelligent, and hilarious but he had never lost his sense of the immigrant underdog going one on one with the system.

By then he was known as Elliot Roberts, one of the world’s most powerful talent managers.

Who had he not handled – Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Still & Nash, The Cars, Devo, Tom Petty? And now he wished to manage Black 47.

He loved our songs, the explosive stage shows, and the political beliefs that led Time Magazine to pronounce, “Finally, Rock ‘n’ Roll that means something again.”

Elliot and I shook hands on a very simple and fair management deal – “no need for a contract,” he said.  “That way either of us can walk without putting our lawyers in a higher tax bracket.”

Within a month the scouts from every major record company were lined up outside Paddy Reilly’s, for in our proletariat zeal we insisted that they pay admission like every other punter.

We eventually signed with EMI. Rick Ocasek of the Cars and I produced Fire of Freedom, and the world and her mother seemed to be dancing to Funky Ceili or pumping their fist to James Connolly.

It all came back recently when I heard that Elliot passed away.

What a character, as tough as barbed wire and yet with a degree of sensitivity and understanding rare in a man!

He was a joy to hang out with, he rarely gave any direction, and yet he could be lacerating if he felt you weren’t living up to the band’s talent and potential.

I once tried to explain that we played loud because it enabled us to jam better. He dismissed such twaddle with the cursory, “People come to hear your songs for the stories. If they can’t hear the words they won’t come back.”

Being Irish and a musician I’ve often felt that if you ignore a problem for long enough it may go away.

Elliot knew better. “Who do I call and what’s the number?” was his standard response to any crisis. Whereupon he would suavely fix the issue or engage in a blistering phone rant regardless of where we were or who might be listening.

He loved musicians, probably because he understood just how rigged the music biz is. 

There are no pensions or 401(Ks) in this game. There’s no longer even a Bowery to plant your butt on if all else fails. That’s why he treasured all our dreams and fought like a lion for his artists.

Lately, I’d often thought of calling him to get his take on Spotify, Apple and all the other “dot commers” who have finally beggared musicians in a way that the most cutthroat suits up on 57th Street never managed to do.

It wouldn’t surprise me if this issue was on his mind in his final days, for despite his battling soul and native optimism Elliot took things personally.

Losing Bob Dylan as a client was a blow that weighed deeply on him during our business relationship.

It didn’t surprise me for Bobby could never play second fiddle to any other artist, and Neil Young was Elliot’s main man. The affection and loyalty between these two titans was legendary. 

They once gave me a beautiful turquoise Stratocaster that Fender had made for Mr. Young. 

“Neil has hundreds of guitars,” Elliot waxed eloquently, “You only have one. What’ll happen if you break a string on stage? 

Neil winked at me. He’d obviously heard the line before but he enjoyed his manager’s Bronx shtick.

When it was time to end our business agreement, Elliot was as good as his word. We shook hands, called it a day and remained friends.

The boy from The Bronx traveled many roads and lit up the lives of those he loved and represented. I continue to learn from his example.

Saturday, 15 June 2019

The Most Transformative President


Donald Trump may be the most transformative American president ever! Look what he’s done to the GOP – once the bastion of free trade the party of Lincoln has effortlessly morphed into the party of tariffs.

As if that wasn’t enough, with a couple of waves of his tweety wand he’s converted the party of fiscal rectitude into a posse of hardcore deficit ballooners. 

But perhaps his greatest achievement is to defang the anti-Soviet, All-American party and unite it in a mutual admiration society with Mr. Putin’s Kremlin oligarchy.

That’s not to take away from his stunning political feat of converting blue Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan to red in the 2016 election; if he holds on to those gains in 2020, he will have done the near impossible - unite large swathes of the American working class with its union-hating bosses.

Only Abraham Lincoln comes close to Mr. Trump in the transformative stakes and it took him a four-year civil war to achieve limited emancipation.

Meanwhile President Obama’s “Change We Can Believe In” era is now little more than a vague memory. In these braying days it’s hard to remember that the first African-American president inherited a tanking economy and saved our economic system from collapse.

Lucky for us Donald Trump wasn’t elected in 2008, a time when a steady hand was sorely needed. In fact, every time he mentions Iran I check my fridge to make sure I have a six-pack of strong IPA to soothe my own nerves. 

Brinksmanship on tariffs is one thing, these Persians under Xerxes The Great were ruling the roost a thousand years before St. Brendan caught sight of the green hills of America. They won’t fold easily and are not people to be messed with.

But let’s get back to the Republicans. They must be wondering what hit them! Everyone and their granny knows that free trade ultimately trumps tariffs.

Sure, some industries suffer and workers need help in making a transition to other fields of employment; but on the plus side, imported goods become less expensive and working families can afford more. 

But whatever your views, trade wars are never a good thing – because like all conflict we have no idea where it will end. We do know, however, that the less wealthy will suffer most.

The blink-of-an-eye conversion from a deficit-fearing Republican Party to one that embraces massive debt is truly stunning. Though perhaps not for President Trump, the so called “King of Debt” – and in fairness he’s always managed to walk away relatively unscathed from his financial disasters, albeit with the help of bankruptcy.

And the man has a point – the country has dealt with ever-increasing debt since President George W. Bush frittered away a $200 billion surplus given him by President Clinton back in 2001. 

President Trump is also correct in stating that a growing economy can sustain more debt now than ever before. But only while interest rates stay low!

A rise of a couple of percent could balloon the deficit, and guess who’d end up paying for it – President Trump’s purported “base” in the form of slashed Social Security and Medicare benefits.

Still, these are all greenback matters easily settled with a timely lottery win or a lucky streak out at Belmont. What is going on with Russia? 

Our president is nothing if not an alpha-male! Yet, any time I’ve seen him with Vladimir Putin, he seems deferential, even cowed.

What’s wrong with that picture? This ex-KGB dude has been meddling in our elections. Can you imagine how Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, or Reagan would have handled such an affront?

It was a sad day for the US when John McCain departed this mortal coil. For it would appear that no other elected Republican will demand answers from their leader.

I have many friends among the president’s base, most of whom intend voting for him in 2020, basically because they don’t see any politician improving their lives, and at least Mr. Trump “speaks truth to power.”

But President Trump is the “power” now. He has transformed the Republican Party beyond recognition. The question is – how far has he transformed the country? 

I guess we’ll find out a year from November when the election results start pouring in.

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

Wexford - A Quare Auld Place!


Wexford was a “quare auld place” to grow up in and I doubt if any of it’s 12,000 or so inhabitants back then would have disagreed with me.

It perched precariously on the banks of the River Slaney where it thumbed its nose at the rest of the world.

I often wonder if its as quare an auld place nowadays, for though I return once a year it’s only for a night and I’m accompanied by a couple of busloads of friends and fans.

Probably not, for with television and the Internet you can now visit so many other worlds. Whereas back in my day, we had the “pictures,” the daily newspaper, and the county library for inspiration – the rest of the time you lived in your own imagination and that could be a quare auld place unto itself.

Auld, indeed, Wexford was, for Ptolemy charted it on his third century maps when it was known as Menapia. The Vikings thought it was a hell of a place for looting and called it Weissfjord, and Strongbow’s Normans took over the joint in 1169.

From my grandfather’s house on George’s Street where I grew up I could see Selskar Abbey, the Norman stronghold and church where King Henry II came to do penance for the whacking of Archbishop Thomas รก Beckett in Canterbury Cathedral.

One of our pet peeves was that the bould Henry did not declare Wexford a city – no, to our mortification, Waterford, Kilkenny and even Sligo were deemed cities while a metropolis the like of ours will always be a town, even though it’s a far quarer and older place.

Such is life and one must suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune without too much bellyaching.

One of Wexford’s great attractions was that, given its size and narrow streets, you ran into people on a regular basis. This could also be a trial, for if someone disliked you they could beat the head off you regularly too.

My guess is that I knew upwards of 1000 people while living there, not intimately, for there was little sex in Wexford back then, or so the priests and Christian Brothers reassured us. That was something that happened in faraway pagan places the like of Waterford, Kilkenny, and even Sligo.

But given that there was only one degree of separation in Wexford, if I was curious about someone, then I could ask one of my 1000 non-intimate friends for a report on this stranger and get a full account of their background, vices, who their family supported in Parnell versus the Bishops, and if any of the girls of that family had to flee to London after finding themselves in the family way, the Lord save us!

I mean who in God’s universe needed television or the Internet with so much information to be had without stepping beyond the walls of our quare auld town.

The Kardashians had nothing on some of Wexford’s characters. For once you had done something of note then you or your family would be elevated or more likely tainted forever. 

And God help you should you have some pronounced physical feature. Say for instance I had a set of big ears - then I, and all of my progeny until kingdom come might be called “The Jennet Kirwan.”

Luckily I had no such affliction so I escaped that bullet, but with bright red hair, I was called everything from Ginger to Carrot Top. I don’t have to worry much about that anymore although some people still call me “red” because of my political opinions.

Wexford still has characters but they are fast disappearing, including my dear friend, Pat Kehoe, once proprietor of the notorious rock & roll Imperial Bar. 

Pat bit the bullet recently but as he was being wheeled into Macken’s crematorium he had Black 47’s Funky Ceili blasting! It goes to show that you never know where your songs will end up.

Ah yes indeed, from the mighty King Henry II doing his fake confession in the cauld auld draughty Selskar Abbey to Rebel Pat Kehoe bidding a boisterous farewell to his hometown, there’s no denying that Wexford was, and always will be, a quare auld place, God save it!

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Donald Trump & Wexford Teddyboys


Anyone care to speculate on who might end up Democratic candidate in 2020?

That race seems not unlike the Aintree Grand National – it’s long and winding, with lots of steep fences and plenty of time for every participant to fall or self-destruct.

Bear in mind too that front-runner Joe Biden tossed in the towel in 1987 when caught lifting a few lines from British Labour leader, Neil Kinnock. 

Good man though he is, will Joltin’ Joe have the stamina to survive the intense primary season ahead, let alone withstand the mountain of sludge headed his way should he gain the nomination?

On the Left, Bernie and Elizabeth will ultimately have to duke it out, a shame since both are principled and have done much good for the country.

Beto and Mayor Pete will ultimately go mano a mano for the cute young white guy title, while either Kamala or Cory are likely to meet their Waterloo early on in South Carolina, or three days later on Super Tuesday when the field will be reduced to the few left standing with sufficient money and buzz.

Senator Harris in particular has much going for her with early primaries in South Carolina and her home state of California, and could be a formidable November foe for President Trump.

Still, my only prediction is for the Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee. Should Senator Harris not make top of the ticket, either she, Senator Klobuchar, or Sherrod Brown of Ohio will get the nod.

Which leaves me still pondering something the Democrats have ignored these last two and half years – why was Hillary Clinton such an awful candidate back in 2016?

Water under the bridge, you might haughtily declare, or “we wuz robbed!” I beg to differ and until the party takes the time to figure this out they might as well be doing you know what into the wind.

You can be sure Donald Trump spends his tweetless hours ruminating on this. Because he knows he’d be currently living on Fifth Avenue if he’d been running in 2016 against Bernie Sanders who would have beaten him handily in the Rust Belt.

On paper Secretary Clinton looked invincible, she was eminently qualified, the first viable woman presidential candidate, she had a huge war chest, and yet it all came to naught over 77,744 votes in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

That she didn’t even campaign in Wisconsin is a black mark, but hey, we all make mistakes.

Many women of my acquaintance feel that misogyny was the issue, and I’m sure it played a significant part.

I used to feel it was because of over-familiarity with the Clintons and their fondness for big fee speeches, but Donald Trump has made a career of flashing his money around like a Wexford Teddyboy on a Saturday night booze-up.

Still, you have to hand it to the man from Fifth Avenue, for he persuaded the white working class to vote against their best interests. 

Sure, he made them false promises about returning well-paying factory jobs from overseas, and that he would provide first-class health care insurance at reasonable prices, and so on.

But his stunning victory may have more to do with the perception that he cared more for the regular person than Mrs. Clinton. Given his history and public persona that’s pretty astounding.

I thought he was dead in the water until late October when I began to hear back from wherever I inquired, “Yeah, Hillary has it sown up but everyone around here is voting Trump.”

I also experienced a “eureka” moment myself when a very smart union leader confided that while he and other officials were voting Hillary, the membership was all behind the Donald.

It’s a long way to Nov. 2020, and there’ll be many the slip twixt between the cup and lip, but if the economy stays strong, the market remains high, and the creek don’t rise, then it’s won’t matter if the Republicans haven’t a clue how to provide decent health care insurance, or return manufacturing jobs to the US.

Donald Trump, the king of compassion and guardian of the American working class, will romp home in a canter.

Sunday, 5 May 2019

"Famine" Irish and Fundamental Decency


It was a tough life on the streets of New York for the “Famine Irish” who poured into the city from 1845 onwards. Few had any idea of urban living and many did not speak English.

Most had sold anything they had of value to pay for the fare over, while others were packed like beasts on to coffin ships by “sympathetic” landlords, eager to be rid of them in order to lessen the hated poor tax.

As long as their names were on the list of ship’s passengers presented to immigration officials - and in reasonable health - they were accepted into the United States. Indeed, immigration was almost unrestricted until the first federal laws regulating entry were passed in 1875.

The Famine Irish were despised for their Catholic religion, their perceived ignorance and lack of hygiene, and the widespread belief that they carried disease and would add to the growing crime rate.

In a boom and bust economy poor immigrant women were sometimes forced to resort to prostitution and broken men often found solace in shebeens where rotgut rum was cheap.

They lived in fear of uptown social reformers who considered them morally unfit to raise families.

Vagrancy was a crime and many poor Irish children were swept up and sent to foster homes in rural America where they were expected to change their religion and labor from dawn to dusk for their meager keep. 

Some escaped and made their way back to New York, while many just simply vanished into the vastness of America.

I can’t help but think that there are similarities and parallels with the migrant children separated from their asylum-seeking parents on our southern border.

Amazingly, no one knows for certain but it’s estimated that between 1500 and 5000 migrant children recently taken from their families by government agencies are now unaccounted for. It is feared that some children may never be reunited with their parents.

Most of these asylum seekers are fleeing repressive regimes and gang violence in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.

Are they really that different from the million or more Irish who fled oppression and official negligence during the Great Hunger? They too sought – and gained - a new life in the United States?

Even with his bellicose pronouncements and policies, the problem predates Mr. Trump’s presidency.

 For many years there’s been a general unwillingness to come up with a sane system for immigration into the US.

This has as much to do with xenophobia, prejudice, and racism as good old economic suicide.

For with an aging population the country needs immigrant workers of all abilities and education levels, if nothing else to bolster the Social Security Fund.  Not surprisingly, there’s a particular need for those who will take unwanted jobs in the low paying agricultural and hospitality sectors.

No matter what “base” you’re playing to, Mr. President, the country is not “full”. Take a look around the decaying rust belt cities and the dying small towns in the rural heartland.

All of these areas could do with an infusion of new immigrants who would eventually add to the local tax base.

When the Famine Irish arrived they worked at anything to get their start; they were also willing to live in any part of the country, even when unwelcome. So too would these new refugees and asylum seekers. 

It’s high time Democrats and Republicans came together and devised an immigration policy that suits the country’s current needs – rather than looking back nostalgically at an America that never was.

In the meantime, the missing migrant children are a blight on our country’s good name. As Sen. Portman (R-OH) said, "I don't care what you think about immigration policy, this is wrong.”

For President Trump to suggest that the policy of separating children from their  asylum-seeking parents may be reinstated makes you wonder what type of country we have become.

Perhaps it’s time to ask the question once put to Senator Joseph McCarthy by Joseph Welch, chief counsel to the US Army – “Have you no sense of decency, sir?”

We’re not a country that “loses” children, migrant or otherwise. It’s not just a matter of law - it’s one of fundamental decency.

Thursday, 25 April 2019

Take me home, mon, to the Irish Caribbean!


Every year immediately after St. Patrick floats off on an ocean of beer I head for the Caribbean.

It doesn’t cost much as long as you book ahead and don’t fly on weekends.  The price of living down there is also reasonable especially if you stay away from tourist traps and the playgrounds of the 1%.

Right-wingers can even savor the considerable fruits of socialism in Cuba. At one of the top Afro-Jazz Club in Havana when paying for a couple of Mojitos I was informed that my admission charge of $10 had covered my tab.

But there’s another reason to go down the islands – they’re so Irish.

For those who arrived voluntarily down the centuries what a paradise it must have seemed – balmy waters, silver sands, with exotic fruits and vegetables there for the picking. Oh yeah, mon, there’s nothing quite like island living!

Vitamin starved Northern Europeans were convinced that limes and lemons were miracle fruits for they cured so many diseases. The wonders of Vitamin C!

Unfortunately, many Irish arrived in chains to work the sugarcane fields of Barbados and other island hellholes.

Their fate was terrible and, given the working and living conditions, inevitable. Many died in the first years of servitude. And yet there are inspirational stories of escape from this human bondage. 

I was reminded of these recently while at a post-St. Patrick’s Day party on a floating bar off the island of Bequia. The green was flying, the rum was flowing, and the color of your skin unimportant – we were all Irish. 

The talk soon turned to the nearby island of St. Vincent’s, a legendary safe haven for pirates.

Roughly 100 miles from Barbados across a stretch of beautiful, but often turbulent, water St. Vincent’s was a magnet for both black and white slaves. 

However, while visiting Barbados some years back I learned about some of the obstacles to escape. 

The sheer heat - while toiling from dawn to dusk in the sugarcane fields - sapped the spirit of so many.

Even as a relatively pampered visitor this heat could be debilitating – you quickly learn the value of a siesta. Rise at 6am, go about your business, nap from 1 to 3pm then take to the streets or beach again in the cool of the evening.

Irish slaves soon gained the name Red Legs - plantation owners did not provide sunscreen.

Nor was there much chance of stealing or building a boat for escape; the shores were so well patrolled. 

The only hope was to find discarded planks or malleable branches from trees, hide them in caves or bury them in the sand. Then steal rope, paddles and material for a rudimentary sail; water also had to be stored and some small portion of one’s daily food allotment. 

Wait for a moonless night with calm waters. Lash together a raft then row quietly, but with determination, for it was essential to be beyond the horizon by dawn.

At sea, the problems of sun, thirst, sudden squalls, and interception by unfriendly craft were ever present.

Who knows how many escapees died on those voyages? But some did make it to the pirate camps where they were welcomed – probably because of their legendary bravery when attacking English vessels. Revenge, no doubt, played a part.

Back at the party on the floating bar I recalled my visit to Barbados. It’s a beautiful island but there’s a brooding quality to the countryside – not unlike the feeling you get when you look up at a Mayo mountain and see the remains of abandoned cabins.

It’s only then that you grasp in some superficial way the fate of the people who dealt with The Great Hunger.

Likewise a visit to the undeveloped East coast of Barbados provides some understanding of the savagery of Caribbean slavery.

I have to say I identified far more with the pirate islands of St. Vincent and Bequia where our people found acceptance and blended in with the oppressed Afro-Caribbean culture.

And so I bellied up to the swaying bar, melded in with these island folk proudly wearing their green. I had found my people and ordered another rum punch.

Sunday, 7 April 2019

Johnny Reck & the Great Wexford Showband Blackmail



“There are only two rules for being in a band, Kirwan, get paid and get out alive – not necessarily in that order!”

Thus did Johnny Reck induct me into his showband. I’m not sure I was even shaving yet but I had joined the august ranks of professional musicians.

Johnny had managed and played in a band around Wexford for much of his life. He kept an eye on local talent and either felt my star was on the rise or, more likely, he needed a live body to play bass. 

Whatever, he couched his offer thus: “Seeing you’re not bad on six strings, young fellah, there’ll be no stopping you on four!”

Problem was I had never even held a bass before and couldn’t get over the weight of it, or the thickness of its four strings.

Johnny felt that time would sort out these issues, and advised me to practice scales, and show up at the CYMS Hall the following Friday night.

At this notorious bucket of blood the other band members wouldn’t speak to me, and refused to tell me what keys we were playing in. 

To add to my anxiety, a major gang fight broke out during which a drunken teddyboy got his head split open and for some reason blamed me.

After four hours of trying to stay in tune and ignore the teddyboy’s threats, Johnny gave me a bottle of Harp (although I was a Pioneer), and slipped a ten-shilling note in my breast pocket.

He also advised me to pay no heed to “the other gobshites in the band,” that given time they’d recognize my genius.  More importantly, I should smile at the girls – “you never know your luck!”

Johnny was wrong about the gobshites, a couple of them quit in protest the next week. And so I brought along my friend, Pierce Turner who played piano and saxophone. 

Pierce’s debut was a lot more civilized, for our next gig was at Wexford Boat Club and boasted a decidedly more up-market clientele.

There I smiled at the girls until my face ached though my luck didn’t change, but at least there were no teddyboy threats.

Pierce smiled too. He was delighted to be allowed play music for a full four hours, and on our walk home he marveled, “and you get paid too.”

Johnny was thrilled with his two newest members. We were far from musical prodigies, but neither of us complained and we gave 120% every night.

The gigs started rolling in – probably because we had many names: The Johnny Reck Showband, The Palladium, and The Liars are three that spring to mind. If we hadn’t impressed a promoter  – usually the case unless he was deaf – we merely showed up for the next gig at his dancehall with a different name.

Then Johnny pulled off his major coup. He enrolled us in the Musicians Union of Ireland and demanded that we fill the opening slot for every union showband that played County Wexford.

And so we opened for fabled giants like The Royal, The Miami, Joe Dolan & The Drifters. Didn’t matter if they liked or despised us – Johnny threatened to bring the whole of County Wexford out on strike should they replace us with a non-union band.

This all worked like a charm until Turner and I neglected to attend the annual high mass for departed members in Dublin, whereupon we were summarily dismissed from the Musicians Union – I kid you not – and thus did Johnny’s socialist blackmail scheme come screeching to a halt.

But through thick and thin Mr. Reck stood by us as the gigs diminished and promoters gained their revenge.

Pierce and I eventually moved to New York where we scandalized staid audiences as Turner & Kirwan of Wexford.

After a long eventful life Johnny passed away some years back. His last words to me were, “Oh to be 80 again, Kirwan!” 

Bob Dylan, Luke Kelly, and Jimi Hendrix may have been major influences, but no one shaped me like Johnny Reck.

I think of him and his two rules every time I get paid after a gig - while pinching myself to make sure I’m alive. 

Here’s to you up in Rock & Roll heaven, Johnny, long may you boogie!