It was one of those sunny afternoons when you shouldn’t be belly-up to a bar. There were many such days at the Bells of Hell in Greenwich Village.
I was part of a hungover group of scribes that included Lester Bangs when the door opened and a high school kid stepped in, followed by a dozen or more classmates who lined up silently behind us. Then a slim unprepossessing man slammed the door behind him and addressed the nervous teenagers, “So you want to be writers?”
Thereupon he dismissively waved his arm at us and concluded sadly, “look at the end result.”
That was Frank McCourt – entertaining and original, but always with that razor edge that kept you on your toes.
I remembered the incident at Rosie O’Grady’s last week when President Clinton in a glowing eulogy remarked that he wished he’d met Frank before he became “a big shot.”
That would have made him more familiar with the Limerick man’s acidic wit, some of which was surely inherited from his mother. One night at the Bells she confided that her four sons were a “private Gethsemane” to her; and when an aspiring writer arrived wearing a broad brimmed hat favored by poets, Mrs. McCourt hissed, “will you look at the head on that fellah and the price of turnips!”
Many of Frank’s buddies from the Bells and the Lion’s Head surfaced for the memorial, among them Pete Hamill, Jack Deacy, Sheila McKenna, Dennis Smith, Don Berger, and David Amram. Amid the tributes to Frank’s many qualities, one went unmentioned – he kept us honest.
Back then, Frank tended to cede the floor to his younger brother Malachy, the ebullient Denis Duggan, the saturnine Nick Browne, or any of a dozen other hard-boiled wits and raconteurs. But dare anyone affect a false air or go beyond an accepted level of exaggeration and Frank would flay the offender with a deliciously acerbic quip.
It was a delightful shock to all of us – Frank included - when Angela’s Ashes catapulted him into literary center stage, ordaining him “chief Mick,” into the bargain.
I was in Rosario, some hundreds of miles up the River Plate when this ascension finally hit home. Having a few hours to kill before a gig I dropped in on a convention of Irish-Argentinians where I was introduced to a somewhat intoxicated missionary cleric from Limerick.
Stuck for words, I remarked “McCourt country;” whereupon, this guardian of virtue cursed Frank into a knot for besmirching the good name of their native city. During our ensuing “frank exchange of views,” I marveled at the sheer irony of the impoverished boy from the back lanes causing such uproar six thousand miles from rainy Limerick.
Frank would have reveled in this brouhaha for he had a rare appreciation of the absurdity of life. Literature, though, was his chief delight and it saved him from the darkness he could so easily have slid into. In Frank’s universe, good writing was an end in itself and, though he immensely enjoyed his celebrity, he had little time for the pretensions that abound in literary circles. He once told the story of having a drink with a lady officer who took a shine to him while he was serving with the US Army in Germany.
“Are you familiar with Joyce?” She inquired
“No, is she here yet?” Frank replied.
I could scarcely believe my eyes when this lovely, but sometimes morose and moody, man showed up at one of Black 47’s earliest gigs accompanied by a beautiful younger woman. He was positively beaming and chatting her up a mile a minute – the sparkle of his conversation reflecting in her eyes. Ellen eventually became his wife and brought him a great store of happiness.
And as I listened to the musicians play The Parting Glass at the memorial, the heart nearly fell out of me recalling all the nights the words of that song were bellowed out in the Bells. So many of that unruly choir have been silenced, for as Pete Hamill put it, “they’re shooting at my regiment now.”
But then I remembered we still have Frank’s luminous words and the smile in Ellen’s eyes to remind us of the man and his magic.
So long, Frank, there’s not a prayer in hell we’ll ever see your like again.