Saturday, 4 July 2020

University of the Streets

New York City has many fine universities, some more exclusive than others - yet the one to which I was accepted required neither superior SATs or a small fortune in tuition fees. 

In fact, it’s still free and only yards away – the University of the Streets!

It can be a challenging institution – I once had a bayonet tickle my Adam’s Apple in Tomkins Square, and was jumped on by 3 desperados near Gramercy Park; but despite these inconveniences I received my bachelors summa cum laude at NYC’s extensive classroom of taverns, saloons, and most importantly, its rigorous after-hours establishments.

I also studied abroad for the occasional semester. Just before the collapse of the Soviet Union I traveled to Lithuania with the free-form poet, Copernicus.

After our concert and reception in Vilnius I listened to my companion converse with our taxi driver in a scholarly mixture of French and German. Suddenly he shattered the Soviet silence with a Brooklyn bellow, “Are you kiddin’ me! Every city in the universe has an after-hours bar!”

When the taxi-driver reassured him that such was not the case under “these damned Russians,” I knew this would be a wasted semester. 

My favorite campus was the Kiwi Social Club on 9th Street and Avenue A, technically speaking it wasn’t even an after-hours as it operated 24/7 including Christmas Day.

 I had a “Road to Damascus” moment therein when I awoke to the genius of John Coltrane’s music.

My mentor, Jimmy Reece, an African-American academic and student of the night sensed my breakthrough and heartily congratulated me, “You got it, man.  You finally got it!”

And I had. From Trane I went on to specialize in Miles, Monk and a host of other Jazz innovators.

Consider just how much all those hours of delight would have cost me at Columbia or Fordham – not to mention that in those hallowed halls I’d have done so in scholarly sobriety.

On another occasion at a Mafia joint mere yards from NYU I took a class at dawn on William Butler Yeats from a well-oiled Lou Reed that forever opened my soul to the genius of the Irish poet. Talk about a “walk on the wild side!”

While at the renowned UK Club on 13th Street and 3rd Avenue I received an ominous lecture on behavioral science from that formidable Professor of Punk, Rockets Redglare, which made my hair stand on end and put me back on the scholarly straight and narrow. 

On another liquidy morning Frank McCourt gave me an intense private tutorial wherein he declared that any Irishman who wasn’t writing his memoirs was “a feckin’ eejit” after all the fame and fortune that he had achieved with Angela’s Ashes.

I soon after buckled down and wrote my own autobiographical thesis “Green Suede Shoes – an Irish-American Odyssey.”

I received no words of wisdom from Norman Mailer but deep gratitude for fixing his beloved but debilitated Porsche. This fluke came about through a chance meeting with a Puerto Rican technical scholar at Save The Robots an early morning educational establishment on Avenue B. 

I can still picture the glow of appreciation in Mr. Mailer’s amazing blue eyes when Professor Mendez and I parked his purring, souped-up vehicle outside his Brooklyn Heights apartment.

How much did all of this late night cavorting cost me, you might inquire. It’s hard to say but I did get at least a 40% discount on my fees, for back in the old New York late night academia one always received the 3rd drink on the house, and thereafter the 5th, 7th until class ended or the professor behind the stick dismissed you for the day.

To top it all, when I was finally awarded my PhD I was gloriously debt free. Now match that against the debilitating student loans that most scholars will have accrued in their pursuit of academic excellence.

Alas in these troubled times the hallowed institution of the after-hours appears to have been supplanted by the gym and the Internet.

And yet who knows what the future will bring in this looming recession. The thirst for knowledge will never be satisfied and there will always be those who seek it out in the University of the Streets.

Sunday, 28 June 2020

An Irish Elvis and so much more!

I once remarked to Brendan Bowyer that he was responsible for the sexual revolution in Ireland.

He gazed back with that slightly worried look that creased his face whenever he feared he was being criticized.

I hastily reassured him that it had all to do with the packed floors of dancers who had no choice but to cling to each other whenever his Royal Showband appeared in the 1960’s.

And with that we both dissolved into laughter at the memory of jammed sweaty nights in Wexford’s Parish Hall.

Back then, The Royal were synonymous with excitement and glamour. The Miami, The Capitol and The Freshmen were as accomplished but the men from Waterford had Brendan Bowyer.

With that big voice and personality he- seemed to explode from the stage. He could rock like Elvis and yet could bring his classical instincts to bear on show-stopping versions of Love Thee Dearest and Jerusalem.

He had a special charisma that I recognized later in the young Springsteen – the ability to make you feel that he was singing just to you. All you had to do was gaze around at other audience members and you could tell they were under the same spell.

When I left Wexford for ultra-cool Dublin I stopped seeing showbands, and their long social and musical reign was coming to a close when I departed for New York.

Brendan and his new outfit The Big Eight missed this demise for they moved to Las Vegas around the same time and went on to even greater fame on the strip.

I never forgot Brendan nor the effect he had on me as a star-struck boy.

Fast forward to the 1990’s, I became friends with his two daughters, Clodagh, a New York based actress, and Aisling who sang with her father’s bands. And so I wrote him a fan letter.

He couldn’t have been more gracious and was fascinated that someone from left-of-center Black 47 would have an interest in him.

One night in Salt Lake City he showed up at a punk club to see Black 47. It was one of those rowdy mosh-pit affairs and Brendan was thrilled with the rawness of the scene and the band’s “performance.”

I don’t think he ever fully understood what it meant for me to have The Royal Showband’s renowned vocalist in the audience. It was a squaring of the circle, as it were.

We had something in common. I knew what it took for him to come from a small city like Waterford and make it in Vegas. Such things don’t come easy. You often lose as much as you gain on the way.

Brendan wasn’t one to blow his own horn so late one night I wrote his story. I called it Break Like Crystal - in reference to his Waterford roots. 

I wanted a fast-forgetting world to know what he had gone through – and accomplished. He loved the song and soon after he showed up in New York and we recorded it with members of Black 47. 

He fit in instantly with this motley crew for Brendan was a bandsman and came alive around other musicians.

He asked me as producer how I wanted him to treat the song. 

I just said, “Be yourself, Brendan. It’s your story, sing it from the heart like you always did in Wexford’s Parish Hall.”

He smiled, took control, and nailed the song on the first take. He also knocked off a heartfelt version of Black 47’s emigrant anthem, American Wake, both of which are available on YouTube.

And then he was gone, off to some gig in The Bronx or wherever. I sat there at the controls and mixed that great soulful voice - full of wonder and life - that I’d first heard as a chiseler back in Wexford.

Here’s to you, Brendan, you’ll always be a legend. Thanks for the memories, man, and for blazing a path that so many of us followed.

Then I heard Elvis and it changed everything
And I set off on at the age of 19
To follow a rock ‘n’ roll dream
I don’t break like crystal

Monday, 22 June 2020

Our Most Important Election

There are lots of things we don’t know yet about November’s presidential election.

Still, I have little doubt this will be the most brutal confrontation since the 1828 battle between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson.

In that sordid rematch accusations of murder, adultery, bribery, and prostitution were tossed around like confetti.

Like many New Yorkers I’ve often found it hard to take President Trump seriously. 

How bad could his reign of chaos be - he inherited a dynamic economy, unemployment was down, the stock market up, and despite his bellicosity, veiled racism and xenophobia he had no plans to invade Canada, or marry Madonna. 

There was always the niggling fear that eventually he would face a major crisis. Unfortunately, that’s what has happened. His luck - and ours - ran out.

His reliance on his own “instincts” and refusal to takeCovid-19 seriously has cost a multitude of lives and our economic health. Time and history will show that he was just not up to the job. Whose fault is it?  Ours – we elected him!

However, with a burgeoning deficit and trillions more needed to salvage the economy, the time for amateurs is over. President Trump has neither the skills nor the temperament to lead us in 2021.

By then we’ll be in debt up to our eyebrows. Any kind of meaningful jump in interest rates could wreck our economic system once and for all.

The one thing we can be certain of when we do emerge from this crisis – income inequality will have increased - the rich will be much richer and the poor infinitely poorer.

How did we get into this situation? Well, who could have foretold that Hillary Clinton would make such a spectacularly bad candidate?

Not I! And yet I voted for her even after I swore I’d never vote for anyone who voted for the War in Iraq.

And now I’m about to vote for another candidate who made a similar deal with the devil, Vice President Joseph Biden. But I’ll do it gladly because I don’t want to give President Trump the opportunity to use his considerable expertise in bankruptcy laws on behalf of our great nation.

Joe Biden is a decent man but I tremble at the thought of him going mano a mano with Donald Trump in a presidential debate.  Not that the president is such a good debater but he is deft communicator and reality star who knows that elections often swing on a glib phrase. 

Remember, “Where’s the beef.” Walter Mondale never forgot it. Let’s not even talk about, “Lock her up!”

Mr. Biden needs your vote if you want this country to in any way still resemble that shining city upon a hill that the Pilgrims rhapsodized and so many of us admired.

He also needs an African-American running mate who can really turn out her people – the backbone of the Democratic Party - to vote despite their ongoing oppression and the disproportionate pain they have suffered from Covid-19.

Mr. Biden also needs to fully employ his Democratic primary opponents in the coming brutal campaign.  
Bernie, Buttigieg, Warren, Klobuchar, et al are all people of talent and drive – each with their own particular constituencies.

There’s not one of them who couldn’t excel in a cabinet position in the manner of President Lincoln‘s “team of rivals.”

But most of all he needs a platform that will strengthen our economic system so that we’re not subject to economic upheaval every decade. At the very least access to a Medicare-like Public Option, and an end to corporate stock buybacks allied with some form of worker representation on corporate boards.

President Trump will not go gently into that good night. He will not be above contesting November’s results in the courts, while on the streets he has those “very fine” people who paraded through Charlottesville to raise hell.

This cannot be a close election. Mr. Trump needs a substantial electoral defeat that will send him home to Mar-a-Lago where he can write his memoirs in pithy Twitter installments.

Vice President Biden is far from a dream candidate but we need his steady hand to guide us through the greatest challenge the country has faced since the Civil War.

Monday, 25 May 2020

The Man in the Wardrobe

My Uncle Paddy was a strange bird, even in the town of Wexford where there were many such characters.

I grew up with him in a big draughty barracks of a house within shouting distance of Selskar Abbey where King Henry II did penance for the murder of St. Thomas Beckett.

Perhaps the bitter ghost of auld Beckett affected us for Paddy and I were in constant warfare.

My grandfather, Thomas Hughes, ruled supreme in our household, likewise in the yard where he and Paddy made headstones. 

Miss Codd, a spinster, was our housekeeper; for most of her life she had performed the same duties for a saintly parish priest and was keenly aware of her precipitous drop in social status.

It was an uneasy household to say the least. My grandfather and Paddy didn’t speak because of some longstanding grievance. 

Add to that the many times Miss Codd wasn’t on speaking terms with any of us either. 

I was my grandfather’s confidant and his go-between to Paddy which gave me a certain amount of power, if not gravitas.

Paddy was a creature of habit and in his leisure time a sharp dresser. He left the house on the stroke of 9 every night for Joe Hearn’s pub where he drank four large bottles of Guinness; most nights he arrived home moments before midnight.

He wore his oldest suit to the yard, sometimes with loose patches on the seat of his pants. This bothered me greatly for as he lolled in front of the fire after work I often bore witness to the flesh of his rump.

One night, wholly as an experiment, I barely touched this unexposed flesh with the tip of the red-hot poker.

Paddy arose from his armchair in the manner of a Disney cartoon character. He turned in mid-air and sought to strangle me but I held him off with the poker – the smell of singed flesh wafting between us.

This, as you might imagine, did little for our relationship. But my story has more to do with Paddy’s momentous brush with the local constabulary over a licensing infringement in Joe Hearn’s.

Joe was a decent man who ran a good house. He was abstemious during regular hours but occasionally invited favored customers to “stay behind” while he locked up.

However, he lost the run of himself and began to hold these soirees more frequently, even worse he boasted about it and word got back to both the guards and the clergy that women too were known to “stay behind.”

It all came to a boil one Easter Sunday morning. The guards raided at the ungodly hour of 2am. Joe being three sheets to the wind refused them entry.

The guards waited patiently and Joe surrendered at 6:32am.

The People newspaper gave a detailed account of the court proceedings. Two of the women represented by legal counsel were “married,” Miss Codd noted, scandalized by such carryon in Catholic Wexford. 

Paddy too had his fifteen minutes of fame. As the revelers streamed out into the street roughly around the same time on Easter Sunday morning that Jesus had arisen from the dead, my uncle crept upstairs to Joe’s living quarters and hid in a wardrobe where he was eventually apprehended large bottle in hand.

The judge at the end of his tirade against the offenders demanded, “what about this man in the wardrobe?”

Paddy declared a truce with me over the poker incident and I was enlisted to apprehend the edition of the People that carried the court proceedings for fear my grandfather would disinherit him.

But Wexford was a small gossipy town and some weeks later my grandfather accosted Paddy behind closed doors; Miss Codd and I overheard bitter roars concerning “married women, “the priests AND the guards,” and “change your ways or take the emigrant boat to London!”

Paddy brooded by the fire for weeks for weeks after but he did change – at least his pub, from Joe Hearn’s to the more up-market lounge of the County Hotel where he continued to down his four large bottles nightly.

He did gain a certain notoriety in our town without pity, for I often heard people remark as he strode along the narrow streets, “There goes The Man in the Wardrobe.”

Monday, 11 May 2020

Live Music in the wake of Covid-19

What kind of world will we inherit when Covid-19 is finally brought to heel? I’ve been asked this a number of times recently – in particular in relation to music, both its performance and the business.

Because those who look at a musician’s world from the outside often see it as vaguely glamorous and self-contained, they often miss how frequently it is impacted by world events.

Within a year of arrival in New York City Turner & Kirwan of Wexford had secured an album deal with Audio Fidelity Records and was enjoying considerable radio play with our first single, Neck & Neck.

Alas after the 1970’s Oil Embargo vinyl was rationed, whereupon our record company suspended operations and our dreams of stardom were put on ice.

Some years later Pierce Turner and I became the nucleus of the New Wave band, Major Thinkers. Our timing left much to be desired for in 1981 we began an Irish Tour in the midst of the Hunger Strikes, most gigs were cancelled and we limped back to New York penniless.

In our absence, however, a track of ours called Avenue B (is the place to be) had become a radio hit and we were signed to Epic Records.

We were on the pig’s back for the next few years touring the country with Cyndi Lauper and UB40; but unbeknownst to us large corporations were busy consolidating independent record companies and radio stations.

Progressive Radio died, and Major Thinkers became a minor casualty of this corporate takeover. 

The rise of Black 47 in the 1990’s has been well chronicled, however in retrospect much of it was fueled by our constant presence in the music and gossip columns of a thriving independent press. 

But this mighty industry was already being supplanted by the Internet and within 10 years few newspapers could turn a profit because of the availability of free news.

9/11 changed the world of music irrevocably. By the time New York City recovered 3 years later most Americans had curtailed their partying to weekends.

This wreaked havoc on national touring as a band driving from NYC to LA had to play at a loss on weekdays and hope to balance the budget with well paying weekend gigs.

Oddly enough Black 47 did well in the immediate post-9/11 years as we were regarded as “New York City’s house band” and greeted everywhere with open arms. This changed quickly in 2003 when we came out against the Iraq War. 

You get the picture – your simple rock & roller is forever at the mercy of world events.

So how will Covid-19 affect music and musicians?

Badly, I’m afraid. The very essence of live music is challenged. Social distancing will kill any kind of gig profitability, while band and audience must now consider the threat of mutual contagion.

Even with a vaccine we’re talking years until people feel safe again in confined spaces. But music is like water – it always finds its own level, and musicians are nothing if not innovative.

If you can’t go to the musician, then the musician must come to you. Take the large numbers who tuned into the recent Irish-American Heavy Meitheal Watch Party In Support Of Healthcare Workers.

Now I know none of the artists participating got into this business to perform for a camera lens. It’s a cold, distant medium but I enjoyed watching my New York peers, and I got to try out a new song for a large, if socially absent, audience.

If I were a young hopeful I’d be setting up a video studio, forming a band called Mask 47 and creating a sight and sound tailored for these dark days. Think Devo with a brogue!

But I have enough irons in the fire. A heads up for pub owners though – unlikely as it seems the humble seisiún is made for our strange new world. 

Point a camera at whatever corner Tony DeMarco, Mary Courtney, Chris Byrne or Margie Mulvihill are playing in, broadcast the session and I’ll be at home watching, pint in hand, enjoying the craic and slyly commenting on the “rare shtyle” of masks being flaunted nowadays. And the message? 

“We will come through this together
We will come through this stronger and better.”

Sunday, 26 April 2020

Henry VIII & Donald Trump in a time of pause...

Feel like your life is on pause right now? It’s a stressful, anxious time – fearful too, especially if you wake at 3am with little hope of sleep.

I don’t have a cure but I do have a suggestion – a good book or two or three.

I’m reading two at the moment – wildly different but both engrossing. One, I’d been waiting for a long time, and the other I came upon by accident, more or less.

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel was worth the wait. If by chance you haven’t read the first two books of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, I envy you.

Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies were mesmerizing accounts of commoner Cromwell’s rise through the perfidious court of Henry VIII.

It’s hardly letting the cat out of the bag to reveal that we witness his comeuppance in the final book. 

It’s a rare person, indeed, who fared well in Henry’s narcissistic presence – the parallels with the present White House are startling.

Henry is better spoken than our current president and more interesting, perhaps because in his autocracy the Tudor king need only lie to himself.

Whatever your political persuasion you will find yourself rereading paragraphs both for the power of the prose and the sheer thrill of comparison.

You’ll emerge from an hour or so of this book steeped in the fascinating lore and the machinations of Henry’s world; alas when you switch on Fox or CNN you will be catapulted back into a comparable litany of delusion without the buffer of history for protection.

Ask Again, Yes: A Novel by Mary Beth Keane is on more familiar ground – the Irish-American family – but it is no less gripping. 

From the first page you’re enmeshed in the net of this finely honed story and instantly rooting for the well-drawn characters even as you sense their flaws and fear for them.

Then just when you believe you’ve arrived at the core of this interlocking drama of the Gleeson and Stanhope families another twist is introduced and you’re once again skating on dramatic thin ice.

For me this is a story of heredity and what happens to the good and bad we Irish bring with us when dropped into the far larger pool of Irish America. Mary Beth Keane suggests various possibilities all of which are believable - many riveting.

Although as different as chalk and cheese she sometimes reminds me of Edith Wharton, one of my favorite writers. Each has the capacity of ensnaring you within a couple of paragraphs.

Might I suggest any collection of Ms. Wharton’s short stories for these difficult times? You’ll meet a cast of characters well suited to these troubled times. 

I’d recommend Age of Innocence, perhaps her best known novel, but while I love the two women characters May Welland and Countess Ellen Olenska, I’m always disappointed with Newland Archer’s practical but bloodless decision in the final chapter. But then who knows what that says about myself?

I’ve read Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls three times now and I’d recommend it to anyone. It’s a terrific story of the Spanish Civil War. It’s also about the power of idealism and the willingness to sacrifice oneself for a greater cause.

Hemingway’s genius is that you never fully understand protagonist Robert Jordan or why he persists on his mission. In some circles Hemingway has fallen from favor because of his macho reputation, and yet there’s a tender, if fragile, romance at the heart of this book that is very compelling.

Two slim books from the backwaters of different continents will have you in stitches – An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth) by Flann O’Brien and A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole; they will also provide limitless stories and quotes with which you can regale your friends when the pubs finally reopen.

And if plays be your thing read the exquisite Girl From The North Country, the collaboration between Conor McPherson and Bob Dylan.

And for fans of Nobel Prizewinner Bobby, listen to his aural treatise on the Kennedy Assassination, Murder Most Foul. At 17 minutes it will either put you soundly asleep on some dark night of the soul or confirm that he is the greatest living artist. Your call!

Monday, 13 April 2020

Wexford Quare Fellahs and the Price of Bullocks

Toddy Kirwan was a quare fellah back in Wexford, a town that boasted many such characters.

He was a first cousin of my grandfather, Lar Kirwan, a renowned cattle dealer. Lar was reputed to be capable of estimating the weight of any sized bullock to the nearest pound.

Toddy was a cattle dealer too but no one ever made such a boast about his bullock-estimating capabilities.

My grandfather was very successful in his chosen field and owned two big farms full of bullocks fattening up before being shipped to the slaughterhouses of England; while Toddy resided with his two sisters in Carrigeen in the heart of Wexford town. 

Both men drank at The Wren’s Nest on Wexford Quay in the cordial company of others engaged in the cattle trade.

My grandfather was a severe man who rarely loosened up before his first glass of Powers. 

Toddy, on the other hand, though quiet and kindly, never seemed to let his hair down – or what was left of it. Perhaps, my grandfather’s success and bullock-estimating ability cowed him. It’s hard to tell. 

Back in those simple times I hadn’t as yet delved into Freud or Jung – or as my grandfather would have called them, Fraud and Junk. 

Apart from estimating the weight of bullocks and the form of racehorses my grandfather was not greatly interested in the subconscious.

Between the jigs and the reels Toddy got into some manner of financial scrape – a not unheard of occurrence in the boisterous world of cattle dealing.

I never heard a figure mentioned, but the affair had something to do with a miscommunication with my grandfather. 

It was all very mysterious but my grandfather, a man of few words, was heard to comment, “You might as well be talking to the bloody wall!” 

There was rash mention of solicitors and a day in court to sort matters out.

Then drama! Toddy’s elder sister announced that her beloved brother had disappeared. He had last been seen on the boat train to Rosslare Harbour on his way to London.

There was much headshaking at my grandfather’s house that led to his cryptic question, “What the hell is that fellah going to do in London?”

The years passed but matters did not rest. There was occasional word of Toddy sightings around Cricklewood, and eventually a rumor that he had met his Waterloo over a game of cards.

Then very late one stormy night a carouser while heading up Summer Hill had the wits frightened out of him by Toddy’s ghost flitting across the road between St. Peter’s College and the Bishop’s residence.

And soon thereafter a motorist nearly crashed into the Bishop’s ornate gates when Toddy’s ghostly head peered out from a crack in the wall.

A priest from St. Peter’s blessed the haunted wall and we were all warned to give up the drink and choose another route home after midnight. 

Then one day out of the blue Toddy resurrected in the flesh on Wexford’s Main Street. Women fainted, hard chaws fell to their knees, even John Wilson’s placid dray horse neighed in terror at the sight of this walking cadaver.

But it was merely the bould Toddy jauntily heading down to the Wren’s Nest for his first glass of Powers in years. 

It is one of the regrets of my life that I wasn’t present for the reunion of these cattle-dealing first cousins. But I was in the kitchen when my grandfather proclaimed, “He’s made a holy show of us! Sure wouldn’t I have forgiven him the bloody money if he’d asked!”

It would appear that Toddy, rather than face his day in court, had hatched a plot whereby he retired to his room and never stepped out except for an occasional stroll up nearby Summer Hill in the dead of the night.

I met Toddy soon after and he greeted me in his usual affable manner, but not a word about his lengthy disappearance.

When I inquired of my father – another man of few words - why Toddy had re-emerged he merely shrugged, “He probably got a pain in his arse staring at the same four walls day in day out.”

That’s Wexford for you, a town of masterful understatement and a cast of characters to beat the band.