Thursday, 6 September 2018

Book Store Blues & The President Swears Off Tweeting!


I was staying a dozen or so miles from New Haven when my laptop crashed. After a fruitless couple of hours on the phone with a technician it was mutually decided that I should visit the nearest Apple Store.

I was in a bit of a panic as I had a number of deadlines, so I arrived 40 minutes early for my appointment. No dice!  I was instructed to come back in half-an-hour.

To my delight, Yale Book Store was next door. What a break! As I was entering I realized that I hadn’t darkened such a door in a long time.

Strange, because I used to spend much time in both book and record stores; yet it all seemed so long ago.

Whenever I had nothing to do, which was often enough, I frequented a legion of such stores within walking distance of my East Village apartment.

But even the notion that I had “nothing to do” seemed very distant. I don’t know about you, but nowadays I have to write down a list of the things I MUST do for fear of my universe collapsing, and another list of things I SHOULD do before they too migrate to the cataclysmic column. 

How did my life get so busy and needlessly complicated, I wondered, as I stepped through the portals of Yale’s gleaming bookstore?

All was familiar - tables of cut-price tomes up front and in the distance great shelves of volumes awaiting my touch and appreciation.

I smiled as I picked up a new edition of Justine by Lawrence Durrell – I had bought my old battered copy thirty years ago at The Strand on Broadway; it opened a universe that I’m still exploring.

I moved on to familiar sections: poetry, biography, history, and of course, recent arrivals, for one must keep up with and support current writers.

I saw a book by a new Irish author that had been well reviewed. It was somewhat bulky and I knew in my heart that I’d never read it in hard cover; no I’d buy it later on Amazon and read it on my phone or iPad.

A wave of sadness swept over me, as happens when one realizes that an old romance is irrevocably over. When was the last time I read a hard cover – bulky or otherwise?

With a pang of guilt I had to admit that I long ago gave away my treasured collection of LPs – battered and scratched though they may have been. 

To add insult to injury I had recently been wondering if I had any more need of my CD collection. Shouldn’t I be converting all my favorites? After all, the writing now appears to be on the wall for CD players.  

Where would it all end? And then I realized that I was some minutes late for my Apple appointment. I rushed next door. 

My “genius “impatiently awaited me – smile firmly attached, but no doubt wondering if this analog miscreant was going to blow his appointment.

To make a long story short, the genius fixed my computer and explained in detail what had gone wrong. Once I realized I’d make my deadlines I blanked her out. I knew I’d never remember the helpful advice anyway.

I had other matters on my mind. To hell with deadlines! I strode back into the hallowed halls of Yale Bookstore. I picked up the voluminous Collected Stories by William Trevor then made a dash for the Classics shelves.

I knew it would be there – Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. I had last tried to read Volume One on the riotous Black 47 tour bus back in 1994. Not a prayer - I had thrown in the towel long before we staggered into Cleveland.

Will I ever read Monsieur Proust? Probably not, but I grabbed it anyway - another foolish act of defiance? Perhaps, but even a couple of chapters might work wonders on my frazzled digitized brain!

I even made a vow while speeding out of New Haven - less deadlines and more reflection! About the same chance as the president swearing off tweeting! 

Still, stranger things have happened – or have they?

Monday, 27 August 2018

Take Me Back To The Village Pub


BB King’s of Times Square closed its doors recently and another concert venue bit the dust. 

There was once a string of such clubs from New York City to San Francisco where a band could hang its hat – most, alas, now mere memories.

Just as important, pubs that acted as minor league venues for these clubs dotted the country. Nowhere boasted as many of these musical saloons as The Bronx.

What was it about “the only borough on the mainland” that made it stand out musically from Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, and Staten Island?

Well, for starters, Bronxites expected live music with their booze. This could range from a solitary box player to a full fledged Irish showband or Latino orchestra, dolled up to the nines and shaking the very rafters with their rhythm and brass sections.

I have to confess that my various landlords in the East Village would have had even less hair for the pulling if a number of disparate Bronx pub owners hadn’t thrown me a gig from time to time.

Chief among them were Phil Delaney from Carrick-on-Suir who operated Durty Nelly’s on Kingsbridge, Tom Brogan and his bon vivant manager Sean Lynch of The Archway, and the mighty John Flynn of The Village Pub.

Ah, I can sense that eyes are misting up in Woodlawn, Pearl River, and all other points of the compass at the memories these revered names are conjuring. 

It’s amazing there are any memories at all, for the sheer rate of drinking in each of these establishments seems staggering in retrospect.

Back in the years I’m referencing, the 70’s and 80’s, many of us were undocumented (don’t tell Mr. Trump), rents were cheap as was booze, the craic was mighty, and there was a flirtatious sparkle in many the eye.

Allow me to dwell on The Village, as it was fondly known. I’m afraid I have trouble describing this hallowed establishment since I never darkened its door in daylight – I did spend dawn-lit morning there but who was observing décor then?

However, as best I can recall, it was small, woody, full to the gills, throbbing with music, and conversation often peppered with first class slagging.   
      .
It was also very dark; on my first visit, while lugging in an amplifier, I tripped over a customer who was taking a nap on the carpeted floor.

Upon offering my bruised apologies his friends informed me there was no problem - Paddy often lay there to regroup out of harm’s way after the long day on the site and the prospect of a night’s dancing ahead in the Archway.

Unlike many Bronx establishments you were not required to play any particular type of music, still John Flynn expected it to be top shelf. 

I would go so far as to say that John was mainly responsible for the nurturing of original music in the Irish Bronx, for he demanded that at some point in the evening musicians stretch beyond their usual repertoire and highlight their chops to the best of their abilities.

With many of our Northern brethren present there was little love for the British Army, and a radical anarchistic Republicanism reigned. 

I’ve always found such circumstances conducive to experimentation, for it’s far easier put an original spin on Sean South of Garyowen than Cracklin’ Rosie.

“Nice girls did not go The Village,” a somewhat matronly lady informed me recently. I was forced to disagree, for ‘twas there I met Morningstar. Mary Courtney, Margie Mulvihill, and Carmel Johnston were not only crack musicians but unfailingly friendly and ladylike, which was saying something given the state of many of us.

The music ranged from Jazz to Trad – with many detours in between - and I can visualize a legion of players not limited to Paddy Higgins, Eileen Ivers, Gabriel Donohue, Chris Byrne, Joanie Madden, Pierce Turner, Robbie Furlong, Morningstar et al, jamming late into the night.

It was a passionate place, and there were disagreements aplenty, many a heart was broken, but many a match also made in this small heaven.  

I often think of The Village for it left a decided mark on me. I hope all the friends I made there are thriving. What nights – and early mornings – we had!

Monday, 20 August 2018

Happy Birthday Phil Lynott


            He was the most charismatic man I’ve ever met. Even before he “made it,” he cut a figure the length and breadth of Dublin. Phil Lynott was black, beautiful and sported a gurrier accent that could peel the skin off a turnip. 

            In the early days, Hendrix was his role model but I’m now reminded more of Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. Loping down O’Connell Street like some psychedelic Pied Piper, he was usually trailed by a bunch of kids. His white teeth gleamed in a perpetual smile and he winked or bade hello to anyone who caught his eye.

            I knew him by repute before I ever laid eyes on him - his small triumphs on the Dublin beat scene were trumpeted in Spotlight Magazine. His humiliations were even more public: Skid Row broke up to get rid of him, then reformed without him.

            But nothing could stop Philo – within months he’d mastered the bass and formed Thin Lizzy. Soon thereafter, I met him.

            On good weeks Pierce Turner and I would treat ourselves to a curry in the Luna Restaurant on O’Connell Street, a popular hangout for showband heads and rockers. To our delight we were given a table right behind Phil and Eric Bell.

            Eric who? Oh, you know him well enough – you listen to guitarists emulate his lines on Whiskey in the Jar damn near every time you enter an Irish bar.

            I can still recall Phil in the Luna declaiming, “we’re goin’ nowhere in Ireland, man!” He was trying to convince a skeptical Eric that they should decamp for England. They did and the rest is history.

            Have you any idea of what it was like to first hear Whiskey in the Jar explode out of car radios and cloth covered transistors? Roll over Amhrán na bhFiann, we’d just found our own national anthem – Eric’s overdriven guitar and Phil’s cathartic voice took that old tune to places we’d never dreamed of.

            Even now when I play it on SiriusXM I’m struck by its sheer originality. It always raises my spirits and shoots me back to a time when rock & roll was fresh and adventurous and unaware of itself.   
        
A couple of years later Eric quit the band onstage in an orgy of smashed amps and overdriven dreams. I guess he really hadn’t wanted to go to England. 

            It took two guitarists to replace him but Lizzy stormed on. Phil used his presence, voice and songwriting chops to propel them far beyond his Crumlin roots. Their concerts were riotous mind-bending affairs, pulsing with life and dicing with controlled chaos. You could almost touch the adrenaline – and it wasn’t always natural.

            Those were the days when rockers lived on the jittery edge, forever on the road with a costly album to promote, and another to write and record before they’d even unpacked – everything speeded up in a crashing, burning, collapsing cycle. The highs so high - a pity they couldn’t be bottled. And the lows, well, you don’t want to go there.

            Phil was so intense onstage it almost hurt to watch him. He was living his dream and he demanded 120% of those around him – 150% from himself. He knew the difference between poise and posture, and dare any of his band-mates indulge themselves. You could catch his curses and exhortations from the side of the stage – never from the front. Every molecule had to be directed at the audience – they’d paid good money, they deserved a show! It was the Dub working class ethic colliding head on with the rock & roll dream. 

            The band was not at its best the last time I saw him in NYC. New Wave was all the rage, Graham Parker opened and, to the critics - if not the fans - Lizzy seemed a trifle overbaked. Yet, back in the dressing room Phil was as ever polite, welcoming and delighted to meet someone who “knew him back when.”

            It was like being hit with a hammer that Christmas Day in 1985 when the news of his collapse spread, but I didn’t shed a tear. By then I’d learned the hard way that you can’t trade tomorrow’s energy for tonight’s performance.

            Still, whenever I hear Whiskey in the Jar, I sit back, close my eyes and relive the sheer exhilaration and Paddy pride of those days when Philo’s Dub accent exploded through car radios and cloth-covered transistors like a tricolor siren.

Thursday, 2 August 2018

Fake News and The Holy Family


I had occasion to be in Madrid recently and took the opportunity of visiting the legendary Prado Museum.

I went with the intention of viewing their collection of Francisco Goya paintings.  I have long been an admirer of this radical visionary as much because of his unbending moral and political principles as his skill with a paintbrush.

He appears to have been constitutionally unable to obfuscate the truth – while an artist at the court of Spain’s Ferdinand VII, at the risk of his life he portrayed the king as a vacuous popinjay.

Goya later became the first major artist to depict in realistic terms the grinding poverty of the common people. 

Neither did he shy away from representing the actual horror of warfare at a time when the artist’s job was to highlight its patriotic glory. 

Eventually, however, he did pay a price for his independence - deaf, depressed, and elderly, he was exiled to France for his political views.

I thought that in these days of “fake news” in our “deep state” there might be lessons to be learned from this unreconstructed radical.

To my surprise, however, my eyes were instead opened by El Greco the very conservative Christian artist whose work had never touched me before.

Although few Spaniards now appear to be practicing Catholics, yet the country continues to be defined by its history of militant Christianity. 

In 1492 Muslims and Jews were forced to convert or choose exile, while 80 years ago Catholic Nationalists defeated Left Wing Republicans in a brutal civil war.

El Greco (so called because he was born in Crete) believed that Christian heaven and earth are inextricably linked and separated by only the flimsiest of veils.

Whatever your views on such matters, there’s little doubt that this 16th Century artist reflected the beliefs and mores of his times.

After viewing a number of his overblown, if legendary, pictures I was drawn to his very simple and beautiful The Flight into Egypt. 

Mary and her infant, Jesus, are mounted on a donkey while Joseph attempts to drag the frightened beast across a bridge.

The Holy Family was fleeing the oppression of King Herod and seeking asylum in Egypt.

How often had I been told this tale as a boy and how little impact it had made on me. Just another “holy story” that droned on in another Wexford sermon.

It seems to have just as little resonance in contemporary USA, one of the most Christian of countries.

Then again the teachings of Jesus have been twisted to suit political expediency time and again. The Nazarene carpenter is often portrayed as a righteous militant rather than the compassionate visionary who delivered his bedrock moral principles in the Sermon on the Mount.

I gazed again at El Greco’s luminous portrayal of the Holy Family. Though the painting was over five hundred years old, yet I was reminded of a recent newspaper photo of a Guatemalan couple and their child apprehended on our borders as they sought political asylum.

Is the analogy too simple? Perhaps, and yet I remember nothing in the Sermon on the Mount that would justify separating young children from their families as has been done lately in this country.

Jesus, as far as we know, was not taken away from his family in Egypt. Joseph was allowed to practice his craft as carpenter and when the danger from Herod had passed years later, the family returned to their native land.

Although we have no way of knowing, it seems probable that the “dreamer” Jesus would have had little problem remaining in Egypt had he so chosen.

I turned away from the painting. I had intended to take another look at some of the radical Goya’s s masterpieces, but I had learned enough lessons for one day – and from a conservative visionary too.

As I strolled out into the blazing Madrid afternoon, however, the words of another radical thinker, Ewan McColl, echoed from somewhere within my consciousness:

“Two thousand years have passed and gone
Many a hero too
But the dream of that poor carpenter
Remains in the hands of you…”

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

A Secret Garden


I often wonder how her garden is doing now?  It was my mother’s pride and joy.  Like many such an oasis in the heart of Wexford Town it was long and narrow, and nestled behind crumbling stone walls.

We hadn’t been raised in the house on John’s Road, yet I came to love it. From my mother’s garden you could see the twin diocesan church spires, the Franciscan Italianate belfry, and the sweep of the narrow streets down to the harbor.

This view gave you a sense of the town, its bloody history, and the quiet determined stoicism of its citizens.

After I had my own children I stopped going home at Christmas and instead spent a vacation there every summer.

At first this was hard – Christmas being such an integral part of the Irish psyche - but the long quiet summer days possessed their own charms.

Like many emigrants my notion of “home” was challenged; I no longer totally fit in anywhere, constantly tugged between two vital forces with the new gradually gaining ground.

And yet the old maintained its own inviolable encampment deep within my psyche. My mother’s garden came to embody that particular place.

It was a quiet spot and I was often reminded of Yeats’ “bee loud glade,” for it would be in full bloom in those mid-summer days.

The sweet pea was my favorite; with its vivid colors and seductive fragrance, I found this plant calming and loved to sit nearby. My mother, however, informed me it was invasive and had to be kept in check or “it would take over the whole place.”

The Buddleia also comes to mind. She had taken a root from my grandfather’s headstone yard. It grew there out of the very walls – she suspected it liked the limestone dust.

It certainly favored her garden and butterflies swarmed around it. I could never settle on the color of its blooms. Was it mauve or purple?

I asked her opinion on this once. She looked at me oddly and said that depended on the quality of the day’s sunlight.

Many Wexford Town people of her era were but a generation or two removed from farms and had an instinctive knowledge of nature. My parents’ greatest pleasure was a drive to a rural seaside spot on a Sunday afternoon. The slow meandering passage through the countryside seemed to replenish their souls.

Perhaps that’s why I never minded the long grueling journeys around America with Black 47 – there was always something to look at, to compare with the gentler vistas of County Wexford.

Her roses were the crowning glory of her garden. She didn’t go in for the more delicate types, although she appreciated them. No, her first requirement was that they bloom throughout the summer. And they did.

She liked to study her demesne from a glass encased “sun room,” often consulting some old gardening books. My father would sit there too, his face buried in the “racing pages” of the Independent until he dozed off in the gathering heat.

In the ensuing quiet she would plan her horticultural moves. I could always tell, for a quiet look of determination would settle on her face.

My father might be resistant – he’d wonder, for instance, why a butterfly plant or rose with such deep roots had to be moved. But she was insistent and always got her way.

Those were the last pre-digital years. News came by the morning paper and the radio. Life was slower, perhaps deeper, and certainly less frazzled.

By the time I’d return to New York my own biological clock would seem to tick a little slower and less loudly. I would have had time to reflect, and plan my own creative endeavors – what book, play, or album would I attempt in the coming year?

The house is leased out now. Tenants come and go, most with little time for the garden.

And so I often picture it – the sweet pea running riot, the Buddleia high over the walls, and the roses intertwining with each other in a riot of glorious libertarian color.

Even though she’s long gone, my mother’s garden still provides the same safe center in an ever-roiling world.

Jimmy Joyce on the Streets of New York


New York is James Joyce’s kind of town - lots of bars, fevered conversations, the occasional buyback, and many the soft touch.

Well, many more than his usual stalking grounds in Dublin, Trieste, Zurich, or Paris; it is estimated that Mr. Joyce borrowed the equivalent of $500,000 in his lifetime.

New York definitely has a soft spot in its gruff heart for Sunny Jim, and why wouldn’t it? James Joyce was the most egalitarian of writers. He described in voluminous detail exactly what Joe and Josephine Citizen were thinking, doing, and fantasizing about.

Still the man does have a rap for being difficult to comprehend. The key is to either read him aloud behind closed doors, or tread downtown to Ulysses on Stone Street on June 16th.

Need another excuse to attend this annual Joycean shenanigan – well, pints are free between 4 and 6pm. Mr. Joyce would most definitely have approved.

What makes this particular shindig so special is its populist nature. Begun by Colum McCann and Frank McCourt fifteen years ago, the emphasis is on irregular New Yorkers declaiming their favorite passages of Ulysses.

These readings range from hilarious, droll, pedantic to just plain unintelligible, but as the booze and sunshine kick in they all mesh together into a bloody great “Blooming” afternoon.

To top it all we have Aedín Moloney and Patrick Fitzgerald! I often marvel that Joyce doesn’t come bounding out of his grave in Zurich when these two hit the outdoor stage on Stone Street.

Talk about living their parts! They positively exude the life and times of Ulysses. Mr. Joyce would have adored their devotion to substance and detail, and promptly solicited a short-term loan from each. 

Aedín is the finest Molly Bloom I’ve ever experienced and that’s saying something. There’s a fierceness to her interpretation - a willingness to wholeheartedly embrace the stark and stunning sexuality of Joyce’s greatest creation.

I’ve seen blasé men of the world blanch at her ecstatic embrace of Molly’s desires and carnal tastes.

Of late though she’s been homing in on Mrs. Bloom’s apprehension of aging, and that’s added a new dimension of courage to an already heroic character. 

Of course Molly had lost her only child and her determination not to surrender to “the glooms” has always been inspiring.

Suffice it to say that this year’s performance was Aedin’s best.

Do yourselves a favor, go to iTunes and download a copy of "Reflections of Molly Bloom" Vol. 1 and 2, with music by Paddy Moloney (The Chieftains) and Carlos Nunez.

With Aedín, piper Paddy Moloney, and Molly Bloom at home with you – what more could you ask for? Jimmy Joyce himself might even drop by for a listen – and perhaps a loan.

I’ve watched Patrick Fitzgerald since he was the young stud-star in residence at The Irish Repertory Theatre. In fact his portrayal of Christy Mahon in Playboy of the Western World back in 1990 remains my favorite.

He also played Dr. Noel Browne in my play, Rebel in the Soul, at The Rep, so I’m hardly lacking in appreciation of his acting. 

And yet nothing prepared me for this year’s fiery Bloomsday performances – both from Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake.

His timing, pitch, and attack are galvanic. I often feel that he’s channeling Joyce’s verbose, articulate and outraged father particularly in the strident “Citizen” passages. He and our expansive host Colum McCann are a great stage pairing and bring the dead soaring back to life on Stone Street. 

Patrick has written his own play 'Gibraltar: An adaptation after James Joyce's Ulysses' and performed it to acclaim in Dublin, Philadelphia, and New York.

A member of the James Joyce Foundation USA he leads a Ulysses Reading Group at the Irish Consulate on the 3rd Tuesday of every month. Judging by the robust performances of the group’s members on Stone St., the New York Irish diplomatic day must get off to a blistering start.

Is it a coincidence that New York City has spawned the two most exciting contemporary interpreters of James Joyce?

I think not! By adding a shot of Gotham grit to Ulysses Aedín Maloney and Patrick Fitzgerald drag James Joyce roaring out of academia, and resurrect him on our raucous streets where he belongs.

Big Tom & The Jive


I played Four Roads to Glenamaddy by Big Tom recently on Celtic Crush, my SiriusXM radio show. It seemed only fitting as the Big Man had just departed this earthly coil.

I tried to highlight the importance of Mr. McBride to Ireland’s social and sexual scene back in the 1960’s through 70’s.

Everyone danced back then and if you were a genuine culchie you frequented huge ballrooms in the middle of God-Knows-Where.

Be that as it may there was a schism in the dance world. Pop bands led by the inimitable Freshmen from Ballymena competed with Country bands led by Big Tom from Castleblaney, and rarely did the twain meet!

Being a teenage musician in an “opening band” I got to experience both sides of this societal divide. 

It was great training as you got to play before a couple of thousand people who didn’t give a fiddler’s if you dropped dead as long as you kept the beat. 

You were there solely to “black the floor” so that the stars could nonchalantly stroll onstage to a full house.

And yet I recall a traumatic humbling while opening for Big Tom and The Mainliners in Adamstown Ballroom, in the far recesses of County Wexford’s back of beyond.

It had all to do with the Jive – a particular Irish form of Rockabilly social dancing. Back in those simple days dancers liked their three fast songs so that they could check out the looks, wealth, and general mobility of the opposite sex. 

That being established they then clung to their partners for three slow smooches, the closest thing to sex they were likely to experience in County Wexford.

We were not a good band. We had no problem with the smooches. But we met our Waterloo with Big Tom’s disciples, for they only wished to jive to the fast sets.

Now I knew Buddy Holly, and Rockabilly songs in general, were ideal for jiving, but around an hour into our set I had run out of such numbers with still an hour to go.

Our elderly bandleader saved the day for he had a store of old Jazz standards like Down By The Riverside, Bill Bailey, etc. that the local farmers, commercial travelers, artificial insemination agents, and shop assistants could shake a leg to.

The memory of this humiliation led me to ponder the “Jive” and just how it came to be so embedded in Irish rural culture.

For all I know it may have been invented by the Parish Priest of Cultimagh to keep virginal Irish ladies safe from the clutches of sex-mad Mayo cowboys.

But I’ve come to the conclusion that the common Jive has Harlem and ultimately African roots. But then how in the name of Our Lady of Knock did it end up ruling the roost in rural Ireland?

While researching the origins of Tap Dancing (Famine Irish meet African Americans in the Five Points) I discovered a riveting exhibition of the Lindyhop performed in the movie Hellzapoppin. 
   
Lindyhopping became popular in American ballrooms of the 1930’s. And spread like wildfire courtesy of the Duke Ellington and Count Basie orchestras.

As ever white musicians imitated the sounds and rhythms of their black brothers & sisters. Glen Miller in particular spread the word throughout Europe and when WW2 broke out and American servicemen and women hit England they took their dance-floor moves with them.

The many Irish who worked in Britain during the war years brought these dances home to parish and townsland. 

Not to be outdone Irish musicians formed “seated” big bands, until The Clipper Carlton from Co. Donegal, stood up, kicked out the jams, and laid down the onstage schematic for showbands.

Lindyhopping might have been okay for Harlem but the Irish country punter preferred a more conservative take on such moves and voila – the Jive in all its glory! 

Take my word for it, there was nothing quite like witnessing a couple of thousand sex-deprived culchies moving to the same twirling quickstep tempo.

So farewell Big Tom! You taught this smart Alec from the metropolis of Wexford a thing or two about rhythm. Safe travels down those roads to Glenamaddy, and long live the multi-cultural Jive!

Whiteys Lindy Hoppers… Hellzapoppin https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ahoJReiCaPk