Sunday, 17 September 2017

Van and Rory - Linked by Glory


They were like two local knights who ventured out from safe havens and inadvertently conquered the world.

One from Belfast, the other from Cork - both womblike and claustrophobic cities - how wrenching it must have been to break free!

One is truculent, as befits his embattled East Side Belfast, the other remained the quiet, mannerly boy from the banks of the Lee. Regardless Van Morrison and Rory Gallagher were driven loners who did it in their inimitable way.

Belfast and Cork were very different places in the 1950’s when these two aspiring musicians hit the streets. 

Van’s father introduced him to the R&B music that would shape his life. Rory, on the other hand, was a knob twirler who hunted down exotic music in the white noise hiss of old tube driven, cloth-covered wirelesses.

That’s how he found AFN (American Forces Network) and one night was rocked back on his heels to hear Blues courtesy of Muddy Waters on an electric Fender. Small wonder that Rory would become one of the world’s great Stratocaster players.

Oddly enough both got their professional starts in that much maligned Irish institution – the showband - Van began with The Monarchs, Rory debuted with The Fontana.

Showbands could be soul-killers – you copied whatever was current in the Top Twenty – a set of three swingers, followed by three smooches ad infinitum.

But showbands provided three invaluable foundation stones:  stamina, for you played four to six hours every gig. You also learned to wing it in every key because of demanding brass sections. And most importantly, you got paid!

After my first showband gig back in Wexford I was still tingling from the sheer exhilaration of playing a four-hour set. I would gladly have swept the filthy stage in gratitude. Instead the gaffer handed me a pound note and a bottle of Harp, and with that I became “a professional.”

Van had an advantage – though from a Belfast backwater he was raised as a son of the British Empire with all the accompanying illusions of superiority. 

Rory came of age in the land of de Valera where inferiority was baked into your DNA. But the Corkman had a dream, kept his head down, and knocked a hole in the wall big enough for many of us to sneak through.

“Business associates” ripped off both of them. Van made pennies from his early hits including the massive selling “Gloria.” Due to various legal hassles, Rory actually lost money playing with Taste, his highly successful trio.

Neither cared in the least for the trappings of superstardom. To this day Van has an acrimonious relationship with the media and his adoring fans. 

Rory, the nice guy, submitted to interviews but took little pleasure talking about himself. But get him going on Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters, and his face would glow with awe and delight.

The one thing they really shared was a vision for their work, and an endless search for innovation that might lead them closer to perfection. 

Though friends, they never jammed. On their only arranged recording date for Van’s Wavelength sessions, “The Man” didn’t show. Rory shrugged it off but even years later it irked the hell out of him.

Their various romantic relationships could be intense and dizzying, but in the end readily discarded, for ultimately the work was all that mattered.

Van is alive and raring to go with his 37th album, Roll with the Punches. Rory departed way too soon – all we have left are the memories of those blazing, sweat-soaked, Strat-man nights when he’d stretch out multiple extended encores rather than go home to four lonely pulsing walls.

Perhaps he sums up both their lives. "I've toured too much for my own good. It hasn't left time for very much else, unfortunately. You don't develop any family life or anything like that and it makes all your relationships very difficult. 

There's always a certain percentage missing from your life. As a human being, you only have so much to give, not just in terms of your physical body but in how you deal with people.”

We’re the lucky ones. We gained so much from our two local knights who while battling with their demons lit up our lives with their visions.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

The Priest and the Fireman


            Anyone knocking around Manhattan in those days knew people who perished, but for me it all comes back to the priest and the fireman.

            Even sixteen years later I can look offstage and imagine where each would be – Father Michael Judge standing by the bar, impeccably coiffed, surrounded by friends; and Richie Muldowney NYFD, darting around the room bantering with all and sundry, crooked smile lighting up the joint.

            Though both frozen in time they summon up the city as it used to be. For New York changed ineffably on 9/11when the spirits of so many unique people departed. They’ve been replaced, of course, great cities do that, but it’s not quite the same, is it?

            I often thought of Mychal as a mirror, he was so empathetic he seemed to reflect your own hopes and fears. I never knew anyone who helped so many people; he was always concerned, forever providing a shoulder. 

I guess he came to see Black 47 to let off a little steam. I’m not even sure he liked our music – his own taste ran towards the more conventional – but the rhythms, juxtapositions and overall message fascinated him and, anyway, he liked to be in the thick of the action. 

            Richie was hard-core Black 47. He knew all the words, the players, the other fans. He delighted to show up unexpectedly at out-of-town gigs; the moment you saw him you knew it would be a good night. To think such an irrepressible spark was extinguished so early.

            I remember jaywalking across Times Square the first September Saturday the band returned to Connolly’s. The “crossroads of the world” was so deserted in those immediate post-9/11 nights it felt like a scene from a cowboy movie where sagebrush is blowing down the street.

            But cops, firemen, emergency workers, the mad, the innocent and those who just couldn’t stay at home needed somewhere to go – to let the pressure off – and that was the band’s function. 

Those first gigs were searing. You couldn’t be certain who was missing, who had survived, who was on vacation, who just needed a break from it all. When a familiar face walked through the door the relief was palpable, someone else had made it. 

The atmosphere – though on the surface subdued - was charged with an underlying manic energy, a need to commemorate, celebrate, to show that life was going on. That would be some small revenge on the bastards who had caused all the heartbreak.

And yet, what an opportunity was missed in those first weeks. That smoldering pit down on Rector Street had galvanized the country. We were all so united; we would have done anything asked of us.

Republican, Democrat, Independent, we all came together as Americans. We would have reduced our dependence on foreign oil, rejuvenated poor neighborhoods, taught classes in disadvantaged schools. You name it - nothing would have been too big, too small either.

But no sacrifice was asked, much less demanded. Instead, 9/11 was used by cheap politicians to get re-elected; patriotism was swept aside by an unrelenting xenophobic nationalism that brooked no dissent. The US was converted into a fortress and the lights were dimmed in the once shining city on the hill. Worst of all, our leaders sought to use the tragedy as an excuse to invade Iraq.

Look at us now, dysfunctional, walled off from each other and the rest of the world. That began when the national will for a positive response was squandered in the aftermath of 9/11.

Though he was finally hunted down, sometimes it seems as though Osama Bin Laden won, for we’ve become a fearful, partisan people, unsure of ourselves, uncertain of our future.

But then I think of Mychal and Richie, their smiles beam across the years and I know that the current national malaise is just a patina that covers the soul of the country – it can be wiped away. It’s not permanent. We have greatness in us yet. 

That’s the hard-earned lesson of 9/11 and will always be the message of the priest and the fireman.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Tower Records and the Analog Rain


Feeling stressed, overworked, not enough hours in the day, can’t seem to catch up? Welcome to the modern world!

When was the last time you read a book, went for a walk, gloried in a sunset, or bet on two flies inching up a wall?

On the other hand when did you last delete an email, reply to a text, flip through your Instagram, or check your online bank balance?

It’s a strange new relentless world we’ve tumbled into. I only became aware of its all-encompassing nature upon discovering an old phone-message book that lay abandoned in all its triplicate glory. 

I used to keep it by my landline but it had been banished to an overstuffed drawer; it was like a glimpse back into a less stressed life. The last entry was September 21st, 2003. And then nothing – just acres of blank pages!

I was startled by how legible my handwriting was. Now it often takes me minutes to decipher the words of a new song that I might have scribbled on a bar coaster or the back of an envelope. 

I used to carry a notebook for such jottings. I thought of searching for it, but I hadn’t checked my emails in over an hour.

It was then I remembered a particular night I returned to my apartment to find the light of my answering machine blinking. When I pressed “play” my mother spoke to me from across five time zones. 

She didn’t call often and there was nothing sensational in her news, just a meandering day-to-day account of my family’s doings back in Wexford. 

But oh, the casualness of that message, the “couldn’t care less as rain” nature of it!

If she was still alive she’d probably be texting or Facebooking me. She’d be far less unhurried though for even retired mothers nowadays are bombarded by communication in this age of anxious expectancy.

And then I remembered a long ago night at The Bottom Line when, I saw a guy called Tom Waits open for someone. No one paid him much attention – he seemed like some bum off the Bowery imitating Satchmo.

I happened to be standing by the public phone when he shuffled out after his set to make a call. He was short a couple of quarters and asked if I could help out. That was about all I had to my name after downing some Heinekens so I surrendered the coins somewhat reluctantly. 

When she finally picked up I heard him say, “Hi honey… I miss you badly.” There was a yearning to those simple words that I can still recall. I could tell he hadn’t heard her voice in a while.

He’d be bent over a glaring iPhone today in some 24/7 text dialogue, and “honey” would have to fish for his exquisite longing amongst the cold letters of her own digital screen.

If our damned devices would only knock us out at night we could dream about those we love; instead we sleep fitfully and drift through anxious days slipping ineffably further away from a time when we more valued face-to-face communication, awkward though that often was.

It was raining as I walked home past Tower Records on Broadway. I thought of going in and checking up on this Tom Waits – did he have an album out? Had he made an impression yet on the LP cowboys who patrolled the record racks, and knew everyone who was anyone before they even knew themselves.

But the rain felt good on my face and, anyway, I was missing my own “honey” far away. Things hadn’t been going well between us. Maybe there’d be a blinking light awaiting me on my answering machine.

I knew that was unlikely so I cursed Tom Waits for I had a burning urge to speak to her. If I’d only kept a quarter I could have called her collect from the phone booth on Second Avenue.

Would a modern cell phone have made any difference back then? I doubt it; all of the Apps in the digital universe can’t help when someone else’s mind is made up. And so I strolled on through the analog rain and walked right out of her life.