Wednesday, 11 March 2015

God Bless The Sisterhood of the Stick

            Let me speak of that noblest of professions – the bartender. Now one could write tomes on the gentlemen keepers of the sacred stick – the exploits of Steve Duggan and Malachy McCourt spring to mind, but when it comes to tough love, lady bartenders leave them in the dust!

            I will refrain from mentioning any member of the Irish-American community, since too many know where the bodies are buried; instead I will dwell on the chutzpah and heroics of a Pole, a Finn, and an African-American, three ladies who took no nonsense from their clientele.

            The Polish woman ran a saloon on the corner of First and First, now owned by that infamous Dubliner, Terry Dunne. Known simply as Ma’am, she was on the wintry side of 70; yet she had your measure taken in the time it took you to shuffle from the door to the bare-bones bar. Nor did she offer a word of greeting - or gratitude - as you forked over your three bucks for a Heineken.

            She employed an alcoholic Polish accordionist who played Chopin with much feeling. She demanded silence for these performances and all banter halted as he labored over his melancholic sonatas.

            One night Milan, a fearsome Ukrainian of quicksilver temperament, expressed his homophobic opinion of Chopin and Poles in general.

            Without a flicker of emotion Ma’am leveled him with a baseball bat. Blood spurted from Milan’s bald pate while we drinkers scattered to the four walls. Whereupon Ma’am called a round on the house and nodded her approval as the accordionist abandoned his beloved Chopin for a wild Gypsy Mazurka.

            The Finnish lady had to be close to 90. At least I assume that was her nationality for she presided over The Finland Bar on 86th Street. I never saw her commit any act of violence, although her Louisville slugger nestled snugly next to the antediluvian cash register.

            She was lively, opinionated, and preferred that gentlemen greet her with one word - “Wodka!” One could wave a hundred-dollar bill while soliciting a Budweiser, and it would get you nowhere. No, “wodka” ruled, and she poured shots so liberal men were known to shake hands with themselves after a couple. Women, as a rule, did not frequent this saloon.

            A big silent hulking fellow sat in the corner; he was variously described as her son, or lover. One night an inebriated companion of mine ventured to suggest that he might be both. A frigid silence descended upon the room. The Finnish lady glared at us with such cold disdain that we promptly downed our “wodkas” and skipped to the door - some steps ahead of the big hulking fellow. 

I was furious at my companion, for good bars are hard to come by and liberal shots even rarer, but perhaps it’s just as well for my liver is pickled enough as it is.

            There are some who would say that Maria, the bartender at the Kiwi on East 9th Street, was not even a woman, but no one ever suggested that this tall, willowy transvestite was not a lady. She could converse on any subject, social, political or philosophical with clarity, erudition and grace. She was also quite an impressive sight for she favored six inch heels and towered above all and sundry.

            One evening a Hells Angel of much girth and little discretion expressed the view that he would prefer to be served by a “real woman.” In one fell swoop, Maria reached down and came up swinging with a spike heel. No blood spurted as she struck the Angel right between the eyes; nonetheless, this hirsute gentleman burst into tears claiming that his mother had, just that very morning, threatened to throw him out of house and home if he got in another fight.

            Ah yes, those were the days when men were men, and women occasionally were too. It’s probably safe to say, they don’t make lady bartenders like they used to.

Still, let us raise a glass to the sisterhood of the stick – when the world has turned its back on you, they’ll still slip you a drink and a knowing wink – just remember to behave yourself in their sacred presence.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Fine Girl You Are, Beyonce!

            Where does the time go these days? Have you noticed that you’re busier than you’ve ever been but never seem to get much done? And despite all that, you’re sleeping less, and always have a nagging feeling that there’s something you’re forgetting? Welcome to the modern world!

            What’s going on? No matter how hard I work I still go to bed at all hours with many the task still incomplete.

            It has to be computers, Internet, smart phones and all the other agents of benign digitalia. The fact is - I’m so hooked up and ahead of myself, I don’t know whether I’m coming or going.

            You know where I’m writing this? Somewhere out over the Caribbean. I woke up in a sweat a few minutes ago on a plane to Barbados dreaming about Ray O’Hanlon, the editor of this newspaper.

            Now, not to worry Mrs. O’Hanlon, it was all quite chaste. But your husband was frowning at me – and, as you know, Ray is a very affable and understanding man. So, I thought to myself, “Jeez, I must have forgotten the column.”

            Instead of ordering another beer and ogling the latest Beyonce video like any self-respecting rock ‘n’ roller, I guiltily grabbed my laptop and began tapping out this missive from a mile high.

            Now, wouldn’t you know it, while grabbing the laptop I dropped my iPhone and iPad, and panicked that both might not be charged for this 4 hours plus jaunt with Jet Blue. Time, after all, is money nowadays.

            It was then I had my Eureka moment – too many gadgets, too many apps, too many calls on my time! 

And I don’t even text that much. Much to the chagrin of those around me, my text alert is switched off.

“What’s the point in getting texts if you don’t know they’re there?” This is a question often fired at me.

            Perhaps it’s self-preservation – since the vast majority of my texts demand accusingly, “Where are you?”

            Now be honest with yourself, when was the last time you got a bit of good news in a text?

Well, I have to admit there was a recent one I received that read, “Mary had a 7 lb baby boy!!!” However, that was followed by four others demanding in increasingly graphic terms, “Where the hell are you?”

            Where was I, indeed? I was indulging in my latest crusade – Phone Free Fridays. Yeah, just take your eyes off me for five seconds on the best day of the week, and I’m out that door, cruising up Broadway with the damned iPhone forced to fend for itself amidst the detritus of my cluttered desk.

Granted, I felt very guilty about these unaccompanied walks at first. But I did reason with myself that Mary was unlikely to have another seven pounder for at least fifteen months – and knowing Mary it will probably be longer since she’ll spend so much time in the gym getting slim again, she’ll be fast asleep every night before her geeky husband clambers in next to her, worrying about what he’s forgetting.

            And that’s the problem nowadays. We’re always turned on, plugged in, hooked up – and in all the wrong ways! Right now the plane is hopping around like a herring on the griddle-oh, and still I write on for fear this column is due.

Back in the late lamented 20th Century, before digitalia enslaved us, I’d be so looped on shots and beers I’d be either humming Buddy Holly songs or passed out and dreaming of something a lot more delectable than Ray O’Hanlon.

            What’s the solution? Retire to the Dingle Peninsula and put up a “Gone Fishing” sign on my Beehive hut? Nah, I’d never hack the wet winters.

How about only checking texts and emails three times a day. No way, think of all I might be missing!

Still, would the world be a much worse place if we didn’t know the latest Kardashian tidbit or Manchester United disappointment? And even Mary’s news wasn’t any less joyful for hearing it in the evening than the afternoon.

            So, here’s to Phone Free Fridays! Pass the rum and coke, fine girl you are, Beyonce! Barbados here I come!

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Sandy Denny

A hush often falls on conversation when the name, Sandy Denny, arises, usually accompanied by sighs and a gentle shaking of the head.  The initial pain at her passing over thirty years ago has eased but many of her admirers still experience a deep sense of loss.

What is it about Alexandra Elene Maclean Denny?  And why does she touch us still?  I really don’t know, but even as I write this I’m filled with a sense of gentle melancholia.  It definitely had something to do with her voice.  Even as a very young woman, that instrument ached with experience.

How could she have written a masterpiece like “Who Knows Where The Time Goes” as a teenager?  And to compound matters, it was rumored to be her first composition.  During an interview with Richard Thompson for Celtic Crush, I asked him if this was true.  He replied that to the best of his knowledge it was and, at any rate, she’d had the song when he first met her.

Fairport Convention are merely a footnote now in rock history but there was a time in the late 6o’s/early 70’s when their influence was huge and their star shone brightly.  There wasn’t a woman singer at the time that didn’t look up to Ms. Denny.  Sandy, herself, was racked by insecurity.  She longed for mainstream success but was unsure about, among other things, her appearance.  Add to that a harsh shyness and an uncertainty about celebrity.

Despite these doubts she was an electric performer who devoured light.  When she was onstage it was hard to take your eyes off her, notwithstanding the fact that she was always accompanied by stellar and equally charismatic musicians the like of Richard Thompson and her husband, Trevor Lucas.  I guess it was her intensity.  The song was everything to her and she effortlessly channeled the times, along with the ghosts of the people she sang about.

Take a listen to Banks of the Nile with her band Fotheringay.  I still delight in the perfection of the song’s arrangement; and then that voice – laying bare the story of a girl who dresses as a soldier to find her lover in England’s army fighting Napoleon in Egypt.

Or lose yourself in the longing and regret of No End where she mourns for the idealism of an artist she loved and admired.  Now that he’s forsaken his craft – and her – what’s left?  Well, actually, a lot, in particular that ineffable feeling we’ve all experienced at being let down but were never quite able to put into words.

Sandy died from a brain hemorrhage after a fall down a stairs in 1978.  At the end of our interview, I asked Richard Thompson to describe Sandy.  After praising her originality, voice and craft, he halted for a moment then continued in his very understated English manner, “she was a woman of considerable appetites.”

Lucky for us, I suppose, for her songs, though delicate, throb with life, loss and pain.  She was the best and we’re lucky to have been touched by her considerable talents, spirit and soul. 

Monday, 9 February 2015

1992 All Over Again?

            Ah, it’s a great old country. We might only have presidential elections every four years, but candidates may toss their hats in the next ring before the last winner has even waltzed into the Oval Office.

            However, in the interests of sanity, I never write about upcoming elections until 21 months beforehand, which makes me a Johnny-Come-Lately, for the fields on both sides are already teeming with candidates.

            Still, it looks like 1992 all over again with the Clinton-Bush dynasties squaring up.  
There’s a calming quality to these names, in that neither seems likely to drive the car off the cliff. Though, on closer inspection, both already did in a little matter concerning the invasion of Iraq that a Bush initiated and a Clinton okayed.

            Toss in the near collapse of capitalism in the financial crisis of 2008 and you get another strike against the Bush clan. But that’s all ancient history, since most of us can barely remember last week, let alone Autumn 2008 or Spring 2003.

            Besides what Democrat in their right mind would run against Mrs. Clinton? Oh I forgot - she isn’t even running yet. But she’ll need to decide soon, if only to give her party a viable chance of retaining the White House. So, let’s check out the Democratic field.

            Gov. Martin O’Malley could move into the White House right now – he only lives up the road in Maryland. Don’t underestimate this Celtic Rocker. He may not be showing well in polls, but he’s smart and tenacious, and knows all the words to The Fields of Athenry. Besides, he’s principled, pragmatic and a friend of 20 years. I’d vote for him.

            Senator Jim Webb is intriguing and may be a dark horse. He’s one of our Scots-Irish brethren and had no problem in standing up to President Bush over Iraq.

            Then there’s Vice-President Biden – a decent man, a big ego, and lots of chits to call in, but he doesn’t seem to be anyone’s flavor nowadays.

            Senator Elizabeth Warren is the other great lady in waiting! The stock markets would swoon, and she’d put manners on the financial industry; but she’s not running – for now.

            What’s not to love about Senator Bernie Sanders - the Vermont socialist from Flatbush? Raise the red flag, comrade! He’ll enliven any debate with his sharp tongue and intellectual heft.

            Given the Sheldon Silvers fiasco, it’s unlikely that Gov. Cuomo will even test the waters. 2020 seems a far safer option.

            Now I know Mr. Jeb Bush is the most formidable Republican: he’s a Catholic convert, speaks Spanish, will have loads of money, and doesn’t frighten old ladies. 

But take a look at Senator Rand Paul. Sure, he’s got loads of libertarian baggage, but heck I’m even drawn to him for his opposition to blowing the hell out of other countries. This ophthalmologist sees what the Bushes and Clintons don’t – a $100 Iraqi IED can destroy a $150,000 American armor-plated Humvee.  

            The guy can play all sides too: while singing Hallelujah with the God and Guns brigades, he’s not quite Attila The Hun on immigration; and I’ve yet to hear anyone question his integrity.

            The Rev. Huckabee will split the fundamentalist vote in Iowa with Mr. Santorum, and both will run out of God and cash in New Hampshire.

Gov. Christie still has the George Washington Bridge hanging over him – besides Mr. Bush will wipe the floor with him in the financial donors department – and having cash to burn on two projected Republican Super-Tuesdays, March 1 and 14th, 2016 will be essential.

            Senator Cruz will raise hopes and dreams with the Tea-Party faithful, but he’ll have to watch his back since he’s the most hated man in Congress. Senator Rubio will raise his profile for 2020, but he’s going nowhere with his state-mate Bush at the starting gate.

Governors Jindal, Pence and Kasich will be pawns on the board. However, Gov. Walker, the Wisconsin union destroyer, will be there at the finish. And perhaps, beyond!

            Still, it will likely come down to the old guard, Bush and Clinton, and the perception that neither will drive the family car off the cliff. How soon we forget!

Monday, 26 January 2015

de Valera, Collins, and the price of water

            While on a recent tour of Ireland our bus was brought to a sudden halt on Wexford’s historic quayside by a large crowd protesting the proposed water taxes.

            Having come from the protesting class myself, I recognized many old comrades. What surprised me was the new universality of the protesters: farmers, shopkeepers, civil servants – people from strong Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael stock - marched in solidarity with the great unwashed.

            Although it seems ironic to charge anything for water in Ireland, given the annual level of rainfall, still water tariffs are common enough in developed countries. This proposed new taxation, however, appears to be the straw that has broken the Irish camel’s back.

            Probably because it feeds into a longstanding fury over the mishandling of the country’s finances back in 2008; you might remember, the then coalition government led by Fianna Fáil’s Brian Cowen agreed to unconditionally guarantee the loans, deposits, bonds and other liabilities of all Irish banks. That the debts incurred turned out to be even more than expected was bad enough, but that government politicians were seen to be hand in hand with profligate bankers caused even more anger.

            This led to a general election in 2011 where the once almighty Fianna Fáil Party was humiliated and its Dáil Éireann (parliament) representation severely reduced. The opposition Fine Gael Party was swept into power and entered a coalition with the Labour Party.

            Two other forces gained in that election – Sinn Féin led by Gerry Adams, and a large group of independent deputies led by – well, no one.

Due to the ongoing bleak economic outlook and mass youth emigration, things have since gone from bad to worse for the three establishment parties, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour.   
With a general election mandated before April 3, 2016, current polls show Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and Sinn Féin support each hovering around 20%. Amazingly, Sinn Féin has become the most popular party in the Republic. Independents, however, are drawing over 30% support, while Labour appears to be headed for oblivion with 6%.

            One way or another the next election will be groundbreaking as Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael may be forced into coalition, thus finally bringing to a close the Civil War hostilities of almost a century ago. How stunning that a simple water tax might bring together what giants like Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera could not.

            There’s even a possibility that Sinn Féin could gain enough seats to enter into coalition with either Fianna Fáil or a combination of independents. Hey, we could have our first Irish Echo columnist elected Taoiseach!

            The ghost of de Valera must be raging around Dáil Éireann at the thought of his sacrosanct Fianna Fáil Party playing second fiddle to Gerry Adams and his ilk; but then, a movement will always trump a party and Sinn Féin, known for its financial probity, is becoming much more acceptable to an electorate disgusted by crony capitalism.

            Though there are many Irish citizens who will never vote for the old guard leadership of Sinn Féin because of its association with the Troubles, yet there are many new faces in the party including Vice President, Mary Lou McDonald, who have broad national appeal, especially to the young.

            One way or another, great change is coming, and about time. There’s a desire for a new beginning in Ireland, a feeling that the old ways haven’t worked, the old parties are indistinguishable, so throw all the bums out.

            Emigration is finally being seen for what it is – a failure of a country’s institutions to look after its people. My own generation who fled in the 70’s and 80’s were part of the old solution – when you’ve wrecked the economy, open the floodgates and let the people go – some other country can deal with them.  

But times have changed – unlike our parents the Celtic Tiger generation actually lived through a decade of prosperity. They didn’t raise their kids to mix cement or waitress in Sydney, Toronto or London.

            That’s why change is inevitable. It will be an exciting year in Irish politics, though not a particularly happy one for the establishment parties.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Bob Dylan - the greatest artist?

            Is Bob Dylan the greatest artist of our time? 

Probably, if you use three recognized criteria: sustained creative brilliance, influence on others, and length of career. Oddly enough, his main challenger could well be Andy Warhol, not known for originality but whose concepts have inspired a myriad of cultural movement from Hip-Hop Music to Facebook.

From the start Dylan was like a sponge – appropriating influences across the spectrum from folkie Woody Guthrie to rocker Buddy Holly.

When he got to New York in 1961 he threw himself into the Folk renaissance and became friends with Liam Clancy from whom he learned Dominic Behan’s Patriot Game. Recognizing the song’s brilliance Dylan adopted its template for his own anti-war anthem, With God On Our Side. Luckily for him the aggrieved Behan had himself employed a traditional melody, The Merry Month of May. Dylan never made the same mistake again.

He found his own creative voice by spending months in the New York Public Library poring over every available newspaper of the American Civil War period - distilling not only subject matter but speech patterns and cultural trivia. He emerged poet laureate of the “old, weird America” as Greil Marcus termed it.

Despite huge success he totally cast aside the Woody Guthrie mantle by teaming up with members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band at the Newport Folk Festival in July 1965 thereby creating Folk-Rock.

However, no one was prepared for the sheer aural and lyrical brilliance of Like a Rolling Stone when it was released that same month and many of us have spent a lifetime aspiring to its standard. Back then “singles” clocked in well under the three minute mark, but Rolling Stone was over six – it even contained a number of “mistakes” with the inexperienced Al Kooper playing well behind the beat on the Hammond B3 organ.

Dylan didn’t care. A groundbreaking song demanded an innovative hook. He urged the producer to turn up the organ and changed the course of music.

I once had the same manager, Elliot Roberts, who assured me that “there is nobody quite like Bobby Dylan” – he cared nothing for critics or indeed anyone else. The man just liked to play, if he ran out of major markets look elsewhere; that’s how they came up with staging concerts in minor league baseball parks.

Dylan’s been an icon for over 50 years now but he reinvents himself often on a nightly basis. At a Radio City show I only recognized Like a Rolling Stone during the second chorus – and that’s a song I’ve performed hundreds of times.

Like another semi-recluse, Neil Young, Dylan is leery of mass exposure, valuing creativity before all else. At the height of his fame in 1966 he retired to Woodstock - sick of celebrity and being viewed as the new Jesus.

But even in the solitude of the Catskills he combined with The Band to produce musical magic as demonstrated by the recent release of the Full Basement Tapes. On even a cursory listen you can hear an artist delving into the weird music of America’s past as an impetus for a further creative jump forward.

I went to a Dylan show in Bridgeport last summer. I hadn’t seen him since the Radio City gig twenty years previously; I was probably one of the few people who enjoyed his performance.

He no longer plays guitar – apparently suffering from arthritic fingers – he ether sings out front or from behind a keyboard. He dressed like a 19th Century prairie preacher, never acknowledged the audience and performed few of his expected standards. Most songs appeared to be of a recent vintage – all showed flashes of brilliance.

I worked my way up to the front of the stage – not hard as many were drifting towards the exits. This didn’t seem to bother Bobby in the least. His band, as ever was great. And so was he.

As far as I know he didn’t perform Like A Rolling Stone, or perhaps he did; but it hardly mattered. He was still the man, challenging, shape shifting, forever the joker and the tramp. Go see him while you can – they don’t make the like of Bob Dylan any more.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

American Wake

            His mother called a couple of days after he got his Green Card. He could almost feel her tears flow down the phone.

            “You’ll surely come home for Christmas, Sean. How many years has it been now – seven, eight?”

            He’d been dreading the question. Besides, why go back now? He’d settled into his own Yuletide customs. Work late Christmas Eve, then a big night out on Bainbridge with the lads; hungover as hell on Christmas day he’d barely make dinner with the cousins on Long Island. Before you knew it was over, back to work again Stephen’s Day.

            Things were finally going well with the flooring business, and with the Green Card he could put the deposit down on the house up in Pearl River. Fix it up by the summer, have his mother over for a couple of weeks, take her up the Catskills, the usual.

            It wasn’t that he didn’t miss her but it was a small town back home and you never knew who you’d run into.

            His mother was waiting at Shannon. He hadn’t been able to say no and in the warmth of her hug all his apprehension drained away.

            It was all good, the sight of familiar places, the deep green of the grass that he’d forgotten. His sister had the big breakfast ready the minute he walked in the door, the perfect taste of the tea, the smell of the fry. The visits to aunts and uncles, the first night down the pub - all of it coalescing in a swirl of Christmas lights, smiles, hugs and jet lag.

            He stayed off the main streets. You never knew who you’d run into and as the days counted down to the return flight he began to relax.

            He shouldn’t have gone to the disco. The DJ played all the old familiar songs and every step of the way home provoked a memory.

            He only went to mass on Sunday to please his mother. He’d barely been inside a church in The Bronx except for weddings and christenings.

            He went through the motions, more interested in the crowd than the proceedings - guitars and folk songs now rather than incense and the old hymns. Fr. Joyce still ran the show, his face creased with age, far less sure of himself than when he was curate and they used to argue about faith.

            He was thinking about the big job in Pelham that he’d bid on when the mass ended. He was shuffling down the aisle in the thick of the crowd when he saw her. 

Her hair was shorter but there was no mistaking the color, and anyway James was ushering her along. He had filled out and there were flecks of grey in his hair.

            Sean tried to turn around but the crowd pushed him forward. He lowered his head and was almost past them unnoticed when Fr. Joyce called out, “I thought that was you, Sean!”

            The crowd parted and there she was holding firmly onto two fidgeting children.

            He’d always imagined that the girl would look like her. But no, she was bland and uninteresting like James. The boy though had his mother’s sensitive green eyes and the perfect shape of her face.

            James dropped his wife’s elbow and over-eagerly thrust out his hand. “I’d heard you were home, Sean, you never called.”

            Sean muttered some banality.

            “I’m sure he’s too busy for us now.” His wife stated calmly.

            She hadn’t changed much, just a little older but it suited her. She held his eyes unflinchingly and the years drifted away. She was as lovely as ever.

            Then the boy dropped his coloring book. As she rose from picking it up, their eyes met and for an instant she was her old self again. She took his hand as if to shake it but instead squeezed it gently.

            Then she was gone in a flurry of embarrassed goodbyes, off home to cook the Sunday dinner.

            “I suppose you’ll be having the American wake tonight, Sean?” Fr. Joyce diplomatically broke the silence as Sean counted the devastating hours until the flight from Shannon.