“It was twenty years ago today,
Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play…”
Well maybe not to the exact day but sometime in November1989, Chris Byrne and I headed for the Bronx to play Black 47’s first gig.
So much has changed and yet so little. The country was in recession then and would soon head into the Gulf War. We’re in a depression now, winding down an Iraqi disaster and about to dig a real hole in Afghanistan. Makes you almost long for George H. Bush.
The Guildford Four were just out, the Birmingham Six still in, Joe Doherty battled extradition, and Margaret Thatcher was slouching towards irrelevance.
We both felt there was a need for a band that would tell it like it was - to the beats and rhythms of New York City. It didn’t take genius to realize that combatants prefer negotiations to ultimatums, and bringing Sinn Fein in from the cold would lead to all sorts of dividends. How alien that idea was in so many circles back then.
It was a harsh winter but other conditions seemed favorable. Bainbridge Avenue and 204th Street was the beating heart of the modern Irish Diaspora and a plethora of bars had opened in the vicinity during the cash rich mid-80’s. In the downturn that followed most of them needed music to draw a crowd; thus, it was no bother to knock out four or five gigs a week – just what a new band needed
One problem was the “New Irish,” remember them? They adored U2, the Waterboys and the Pogues; we were sure they’d appreciate a blast of originality. Fat chance! All they wanted was U2, the Waterboys and the Pogues, or any carbon copy thereof.
But who wanted to look back at Dublin or London? We were in the city of Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and Public Enemy. Why not put a New York stamp on Irish music?
Eyes on the prize! We recorded on the nights we weren’t being fired up and down Braindamage, as the Avenue was fondly referred to.
Then just in time young Irish-Americans began showing up. They were familiar with James Connolly and Bobby Sands. They liked the beats and the attitude. They spread the word through colleges and cousins around the country.
Fred Parcells arrived one night with his trombone, Geoffrey Blythe with his saxophones, Thomas Hamlin began on percussion and ended up on drums; and before long we were all over the media, and movie stars were lining up to see us at Paddy Reilly’s.
But it was always the music and the message, for who cared if Matt Dillon or Brooke Shields were watching as long as you’re gliding across the beat and stretching notes in a way you never thought possible; for that’s what being a musician is all about, finding your voice and going way beyond yourself.
Yet glancing back down a glittery road littered with broken dreams, bodies and bottles, it’s not the nights on Leno or Letterman that spring to mind, for they only confirmed the plastic nature of transient celebrity.
No, rather you think of your first soundman, Johnny Byrne, and wonder if he’d still be alive if you had said what you should have, and of a St. Patrick’s night shooting when your world turned upside down, and of a freezing February morning of splintering glass and screeching metal while the van hurtled head over heels across the black ice of Route 95.
But measured against those disasters was the gay couple from Woodside who told you that life was much safer now that young Irish-Americans were listening to your take on Danny Boy. Or the night you first played James Connolly in rowdy Paddy Reilly’s and you could have heard a pin drop because you’d finally created a new kind of song. Or the barbed-wire riffs you played behind Chris when he took the paint and hypocrisy off the walls and Mayor Giuliani with Walk All The Days.
And what’s next? Well, a new CD in February and after that who knows, for as Jim Morrison was heard to say, “the future’s uncertain and the end is always near.” That realization makes every night special and we’ve never repeated a set in well over 2000 gigs.
We’ll celebrate 20 years on the road on four consecutive Saturday nights at Connolly’s, 121 W. 45th Street beginning Nov. 21st. Who knows what we’ll play? Some things never change – especially echoes of Bainbridge 1989.