The creative life of a playwright or novelist tends to be one long hard slog. Oh, there’s the initial inspiration for a project, and the occasional day when the gods favor you, but for the most part a career in the Sanitation Department makes a lot more sense.
Songwriting is a whole different kettle of fish. Like play and novel writing it takes craft, but the art springs from that magic moment when your musical and lyrical sensibilities collide – hopefully in a hail of sparks.
I had one such moment out in the Noble Maritime Museum in Staten Island last year. Now unlike certain MLB batters I can’t point at the sky claiming divine intervention, but I wonder if I didn’t get a little nudge from beyond the grave.
I had been impressed with the gracious 19th Century building – once a home for aged sailors - when taken on a tour prior to the gig by Dawn Daniels, director of programming. While staring at a picture of an old sailing ship, a tragic piece of family history came to mind.
My great-grandfather, Capt. Thomas Moran, was lost with all hands when his ship, City of Bristol, went down off Cornwall in 1898. Over the next six weeks his body floated 150 miles north towards his home in Wexford, but ultimately washed ashore directly across the Irish Sea in Pembrokeshire, Wales.
As a boy my grandmother, Maggie Moran, often told me this story. She always finished with the words, “he loved us so much he was trying to get home.”
Even back then I knew someday I’d capture the tragedy in a song. I failed a number of times – the words and melody were always decent but a certain spark was missing.
My father had little time for such romantic tales. In his view, Capt. Moran ran into a storm he couldn’t handle. Life at sea, as he put it, was not for the faint of heart – ships he had served on in WWII had been torpedoed twice by German U-Boats.
After the second such incident, Jim Kirwan spent a couple of months in New York City, in no big hurry to renew his acquaintance with German submarines. He never talked much about his wartime experiences, but mentioned washing dishes on 42nd Street and that he occasionally found lodgings in an “old sailors’ home in Snug Harbor.”
I had forgotten this last detail but it sprung to mind while onstage at the Noble Museum; I realized I was actually in the “old sailors home in Snug Harbor” my father had mentioned.
It was a riveting moment but I was totally unprepared for what happened next.
A window into the night of Capt. Moran’s shipwreck was suddenly thrown open and I experienced the terror, loss and longing of the man in a rush of words:
“Now the waves they are like mountains
And the wind’s a howling gale
And I know for surely certain
I’ll never kiss your mouth again.”
I might as well have been on board the City of Bristol with the captain as he came to terms with the fact that the ship was lost, all aboard would drown, and that his wife and three young children would go through life without him.
On the trip back to Manhattan I was fearful I’d lose the vital spark that fused the lyrics and melody of “Floating.” But there was no problem. The song was like a gift - there for the taking.
At my next gig in the Noble, Dawn Daniel’s brother, Dave Cook recorded my performance of “Floating” live and it can be purchased on iTunes, Amazon, and most digital platforms, with all proceeds going to The Noble.
Snug Harbor is one of New York City’s treasures. It’s serene and beautiful, and the grounds and buildings pulse with the restrained sensibility of another era.
It’s a short bus or cab ride from the Staten Island Ferry terminal. Take a trip someday and visit the Noble Maritime Collection – there’s magic in the air out there, maybe you’ll strike it lucky too.
Noble Maritime Collections, 1000 Richmond Terrace # 8, Staten Island, NY 10301 (718) 447-6490 www.noblemaritime.org