Friday, 10 September 2021

Remember The Lost - Commemorate The Survivors

I was checking the Mets box score when the plane thundered overhead. I slammed my forehead onto the table, certain my building would be hit. Moments later there was a thud in the distance, not unlike a giant sledgehammer striking concrete.

Counting my blessings, I rushed up to the roof and beheld an unforgettable sight – an airliner jammed into the upper floors of the North Tower, with tongues of flame darting out of thick black plumes of smoke.

The world changed that morning and New York City went into a tailspin. The once throbbing streets of Midtown were deserted - who knew what skyscraper would be the next target?

There was a need for normalcy, but what was normal anymore?

Well, for the “house band of New York City” it was simple enough. If we weren’t on the road Black 47 played Saturday nights at Connolly’s of 45th Street.

Talk about intense gigs! I can still feel the early aching chill that in the course of the night would morph into emotional abandon.

Many in those full houses were first responders who had come up from the pit, eager for drink, company, and some manner of release. But not for a moment were any of us unaware of what we were trying to escape.

Many who had been in the vicinity of the Towers were still deemed “missing” – their pictures, accompanied by scrawled notes seeking information, littered the railings of St. Paul’s Chapel on Broadway.

And every time Connolly’s door opened heads swung round and people rushed over to hug someone else who had survived.

And the talk would be, “John made it out,” or “Mary hadn’t gone into Cantor Fitzgerald that day.”

But after a month of such Saturdays it became obvious we’d never again see Michael, Michelle or the many others whose names we never knew.

That was the genesis of Rockaway Blue – to tell the story of the regular New Yorkers who hadn’t survived, and to commemorate those who had.

Even on those early blistering Saturdays their story was already being highjacked by the politicians, the media, and the barstool patriots who would lead us into their disastrous wars of choice.

Left behind in the dust and rubble of downtown were the stories of John and Mary, Michael and Michelle.

It should have been an easy enough task. I had the lives of friends like Richie Muldowney FDNY and Father Michael Judge OFM to draw on, and God knows there are so many broken hearts still desperately holding on to the fading essence of those they lost.

But for a long time the task was beyond me. Black 47 gave its all with the New York Town album, that contained Mychal and Orphan of the Storm, songs that captured some spark of those who didn’t make it out alive.

But that was only half the story. What of those who had no choice but to pick up the pieces and carry on?

And so I turned to playwriting. And in The Heart Has a Mind of its Own, I created the Murphys of Rockaway Beach who lost their son, Lt. Brian Murphy NYPD, on the fateful day.

But though audiences liked the play I knew I’d blown it – I hadn’t come to terms with the complexity of Brian’s father, Det. Sgt. Jimmy Murphy, and the difficult relationship he’d had with his son.

And so I let the story rest but the memory of those galvanic September Saturday nights wouldn’t let go.

Finally I set the story in novel form, and it began to work because I could delve deeper into the characters of the Murphys, their stoic heroism, but also their human flaws and fractured relationships.

Years of frustration followed, flinging one draft after another at the wall, until one dark night I discovered that the story wasn’t working because I had made Brian’s mother a victim.

Despite all she had gone through Maggie Murphy still needed to rekindle the faith and love that might save her marriage.

And with that, Rockaway Blue finally knit together and became what it was always meant to be – the story of the regular New Yorkers who sacrificed so much, yet came through the tragedy of 9/11.

Friday, 27 August 2021

A "What If" Presidency?

I’ve always been interested in political history, particularly when an interesting or controversial character is involved.


Michael Collins and Dr. Noel Browne jump to mind from an Irish perspective, Franklin Roosevelt and Robert Kennedy from an American one.


Browne and Roosevelt left indelible marks on their countries – one banished TB, the other gave hope and sustenance to millions during the Great Depression. 


Meanwhile, Collins and Kennedy still shine like beacons from the past, particularly because of the “what if” aspect to both their careers.


For better or for worse, Donald J. Trump has dominated our era of political affairs.


I never liked the man; still, back in the 70’s and 80’s he had a certain buffoonish cachet, courtesy of his self-promoting high jinks lovingly detailed by Page 6 of The Post.


But his true colors surfaced in 1989 during the brouhaha regarding capital punishment for the Central Park Five. These unjustly sentenced young African-American men were later released from prison, but Mr. Trump’s inflammatory newspaper advertisements showed the depths to which he would sink to promote himself.


His march to the presidency in 2016 was both uproarious and Napoleonic. He demolished the competing Republicans, and then defeated the accomplished Hillary Clinton – though not by popular vote. 


After four years of his “presidency by tweet” I was relieved when Joseph Biden beat him in both Electoral College and popular votes.


I had been prepared for Mr. Trump’s sore loser shtick; after all he had declared early on, “the only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election has been rigged.”  But I figured he would eventually fade away into the manicured golf links of Mar-a-Lago.


I reckoned that gigantic egos such as Cruz, Cotton, Rubio and DeSantis would chip away at his Republican Party hegemony.


Alas, the principled party of Lincoln and Eisenhower had long before been swept into the trashcan of history.


Even though Trump’s own election officials declared the 2020 presidential election the most secure in history, and every meaningful court challenge has been dismissed, the new Republican Party continues to hide behind such lame catch cries as “Stop the Steal.”


In short, Mr. Trump sought to interfere with the country’s electoral process.


His plea to Georgia Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes” and his partisan interference with the Department of Justice were more becoming to some South American tin-pot dictator than the president of these United States.


Still, if his shenanigans had only ended there, then we might rest easy. 


Instead, after weeks of riling up his base with false charges of fraud, in a speech on the “Glorious 6th of January,” he exhorted his “great patriots” to march on the Capitol with these stirring words: “You’ll never take back this country with weakness; you have to show strength and you have to be strong.”


The pictures and videos of the ensuing carnage do not lie. We’ve all seen the sickening violence perpetrated by Mr. Trump’s patriotic legions in the Capitol grounds and buildings. 


Two instances stand out for me – the patriot roaming the halls of the Capitol with his Confederate flag, and the police officer crushed between doors while patriots tear at his facemask.


At least 4 police officers have died of suicide in connection with the Jan. 6th assault, while 140 officers were injured in this glorious uprising.


The insurrectionists were not tourists or members of the ghostly ANTIFA. They came to DC at the invitation of the president to subvert a lawful election and to prevent a legal transfer of power.


Our lives pass in a blur of 24/7 reportage, but we should not forget this assault on our democratic traditions. No doubt, Mr. Trump will continue to shrug off his attempted putsch, while his new Republican Party gazes on adoringly.


It’s easy to dismiss what happened on January 6th as a manifestation of white rage, but once opened those sluice gates of “patriotic dissent” are not easily closed. 


The sad part is – think of what Mr. Trump might have achieved if he had set his mind to the betterment of his country rather than the stoking of his insatiable ego. 


It’s unlikely he would have achieved the stature of a Collins or a Kennedy, but he could have become an interesting “what if.”

Saturday, 14 August 2021

A gig again

I did a gig last week. 18 months ago such a statement wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow. But it’s been a long pandemic so this performance was indeed a cause for celebration.


It was held at the Salt Gastro Pub in Stanhope, NJ and was scheduled to be outdoors, but due to the threat of inclement weather the show was moved inside.


This change would have raised hackles only months ago and would have been unthinkable last year. The difference – vaccination!


So there we were, a full house and barely a mask in sight, though discreet social distancing was observed.


The owner, Bradley Boyle, runs a tight ship and kept a watchful eye on us all. The food was as good as ever, the booze even better, but to be part of a live music event again was nothing short of life affirming.


A bracing air of expectation rippled through the premises. The audience was so hyped up they cheered through the sound check.


I was a bit apprehensive. I had stayed musically busy during our “time of pause” writing songs for various theatre projects but I hadn’t actually performed a song since 2019.


Would my stamina hold up, would I remember words, chords, would my timing be at least somewhere “in the pocket?” 


I was playing with Deni Bonet, a superb violinist and performer. We had walked through the songs a few days previously. It was hardly a rehearsal, more like a marking of the way, and yet I’d been exhausted afterwards.


But the audience was a force unto itself. You could almost touch their need for music, for the songs, the stories, and the distinct community that’s only found at a live gig.


It took me back to the days I began playing at pubs and dancehalls in Wexford. The sheer joy as people forgot their cares and long workweeks, that first magic moment of union when band and punters came together as one.


People have missed music and performance this past 18 months, they’ve missed the spontaneity, and the spirit of improvisation that ricochets back and forth between performer and audience.


They cheered for old songs, new songs, the reading I did from Rockaway Blue, and it struck me that there’s now a great opportunity for musicians to go beyond themselves, because there’s no going back to normal – who knows what normal is anymore? 


This damned Covid has stripped us of experience; we’ve been living in a form of limbo for 18 months. It’s time for a new normal.


The experience reminded me of the days after 9/11. There was such a desire to come together and do something for our country. But nothing was asked of us. And so we regressed, became a fearful, divisive people; we even started a war of choice in Iraq under false pretences.


Now we have another chance to come together and really make this country “great again.” I was reminded of that as I signed books and CDs, hugged people and took selfies with them.


It was only then I wondered who had been vaccinated? There was no way of knowing and I experienced that flash of paranoia we’ve become so familiar with.


But by then my die had already been cast, it was too late to be cautious, so I had another drink and returned to the signing and general merriment.


I’ve had no symptoms and will get tested, but it’s not for myself I’m worried. I’ve been vaccinated and the worst I might expect is akin to some form of mild flu.


But what of those who won’t take the jab? The enemy is at the gates again in the form of the Delta variant. The unvaccinated continue to end up in hospital and death rates are rising.


It’s a race against time now, new and worse variants are likely on the way and may negate all our sacrifices.


I know my life changed when I took the double shot of Moderna. I had zero side effects. I merely went back to enjoying life, including dining and drinking in bars and restaurants, along with entertaining friends last Sunday in “sweet New Jersey.”


Join me, get the vaccine of your choice and allow those around you to go back to enjoying their lives again too.

Monday, 2 August 2021

Have You Ever Been Down Argentina Way?

 Have you ever been down Argentina way? Talk about the 8 Celtic nations - I’ve often felt that Argentina could claim number 9 with its strong Irish, Welsh & Galician populations.


I went down with Black 47 in 2000, but I already had deep connections through my father, a merchant marine, who had been sailing there since his teenage years.


In fact, he almost moved our family to the mysterious land of the Pampas when I was a boy. I could now be writing for the Southern Cross rather than the Irish Echo.


My father was a bit of a mystery himself: he had gone to sea as a cadet and celebrated his 15th birthday in Russia.


That much I knew from my grandmother, but like many of his generation, he spoke little about his past. We only found out close to his death that he had been torpedoed twice during World War II.


When questioned on this he said, “Sure, the first time wasn’t worth speaking about, we were only in the water minutes before being hauled out.”


The second instance we knew about for he and his crewmates were lost for a considerable time before being rescued off the coast of Sierra Leone.


However we were very familiar with his side-hustle of smuggling goods both into and out of Buenos Aires – we were well fitted out for Wexford winters in leather, suede and sheepskin coats.


Perhaps, his most noted feat was bringing 20 hurleys from Wexford for the Buenos Aires GAA team. During the height of the Troubles British authorities threatened to charge him with transporting lethal weapons.


“Microfilm is much less hassle and far more profitable,” I once heard him murmur to another sailor in a Brooklyn bar. He was, indeed, a man of few words but many connections.


It was a dream come true when Black 47 was asked to tour Argentina. Not only could we expand our musical horizons but I might learn more about this mysterious father of mine who was by then spending his waning years in Wexford courtesy of Parkinson’s.


We arrived into the teeth of an economic and political crisis – not that we had much notion of what was happening given our limited knowledge of Spanish. 


Still jet lagged we topped the bill at the prestigious Buenos Aires Opera House. The black-tied gentlemen applauded politely while their beautiful be-gowned ladies rattled their jewelry to anthems like James Connolly and Bobby Sands MP. The Black 47 faithful danced in the far off balconies.


Talk about surreal! But there was a jittery feeling around town with people lined up outside banks attempting to withdraw their savings.


We did a couple of promo gigs in recently opened Irish pubs. The bartenders and waiters all spoke flawless English. Most had advanced college degrees. With unemployment skyrocketing these were prestigious jobs.


And everywhere the older Irish smiled and remembered my father fondly - the “contrabandista Irelandis” who had smuggled in the hurls.


We drove up the country to the city of Rosario, birthplace of Che Guevara Lynch, for a performance at their Opera House. Was I being confused with John McCormack?


Before the show I was a guest of honor at an Irish convention where I got into an argument with a drunken cleric from Limerick over the McCourts, and was then misidentified as a member of Riverdance. I’ll spare you the humiliation of my turn on the dance floor.


The gig at the opera house was tense – rumors abounded about the army taking control of the country so I never got to see the birthplace of Che.


On our last day in Buenos Aires the peso collapsed, but our farewell party was rip-roaring and continued at the airport.


I had made many friends and intended staying an extra week. Buenos Aires was unlike any other city and I was beginning to make sense of my father, but discretion proved the better part of valor.


My father smiled coyly when I told him about my trip and accelerated departure. He’d take his secrets with him. 


Twenty years later I wish I’d stayed that extra week. Hopefully I’ll get back someday to the 9th Celtic nation. Maybe I’ll bring some hurleys with me.

Tuesday, 20 July 2021

The Sound of Silence and the days of Answering Machines

 Remember last year in the thick of the pandemic when everyone was talking about how loud the birds were singing?


Guess what? They’re still at it. I was recently awakened before dawn by a finch kicking up a hullabaloo, while later that evening a clapper rail hoarsely serenaded the full moon.


This begs two questions: were we all speaking in hushed tones last year because Donald Trump was making enough noise for all of us? Or has the pandemic caused us to finally appreciate the sublime qualities of silence?


Whatever your politics, things do seem quieter of late.


I can’t say I miss Mr. Trump’s bracing presence but he did unwittingly cause me to alter my lifestyle. Soon after the 2016 presidential election, I de-pinged my iPhone.


This was not, I hasten to add, a political gesture, more an effort to lower the general volume.


This action did bring me some measure of peace, although I still occasionally miss my late night texts from a Nigerian prince informing me of an inheritance I had overlooked.


Some years back I even turned off my ring tone and have not suffered greatly from this loss. I mean, when was the last time you got good news by phone? 


My sons were aghast at my rationale. One was even heard to moan, “Supposing I needed you in an emergency?”


I thought about this for a couple of days before replying out of context, “I lived wild on the streets of the Lower East Side when I was your age and never even considered calling my father.”


Forgetting his earlier emergency plea, this particular son merely rolled his eyes, assuming I was having “an old dude” moment.


This exchange reminded me of a time when the humble answering machine was the highest tech device in most households; that being said, many people ignored its blinking light for we had yet to hear about thoughtful Nigerian princes.


Back then I only pressed the “listen” button when the humor was on me – there was even an occasion when a lady had already terminated our relationship for three days before I chanced upon her “dear John” message.


For you see, I’ve always enjoyed silence – a strange admission for a rock musician. Or perhaps I just don’t like total surprises. 


This is a common Wexford trait. There’s an odd diffidence in the air down in the sunny South East. 


“Manana,” “We’ll circle back to that,” and “Are you coddin’ me?” are phrases readily bandied about.


 Passion rarely raises its mangled head on our narrow streets until at least 6 pints have been consumed. 


Maybe that’s why I like President Biden – even though I know President Trump leaves him in the ha’penny seats when it comes to drama or excitement. In fact, I can almost sense the little wheels and springs ticking away inside Uncle Joe’s brain, as he laboriously comes to terms with a problem.


He’s not a man for sudden pronouncements which is why I got alarmed when he declared that US troops would be history in Afghanistan by this coming September 11th.


Now I’m all on for doing away with foreign wars, but to quote Yogi Berra, this seemed like déjà vu all over again.


After all we’d shamelessly walked away from wars in Vietnam and Iraq and left our interpreters, translators, and other civilian allies to the fond embraces of commies, cranks, and religious fanatics; and, God knows, the Taliban are not exactly fans of Elvis Costello’s “Peace, Love, and Understanding” ditty.


However, Sleepy Joe finally roused himself and put forth a plan to evacuate our endangered Afghan allies, thus minimizing another moral debacle and leaving one less thing to worry about in this oddly quiet summer.


It’s true, economists, capitalists, and the few surviving Mom & Pop proprietors are worried about the proletariat refusing to return to dead end jobs.


My guess is that all of these salary shirkers have de-pinged their smart phones and purchased antique answering machines.


They sit at home drinking cold beer and smirking at the blinking light as The Mets steadily advance towards the World Series, all the while luxuriating in Simon & Garfunkel’s soothing Sound of Silence.

Tuesday, 6 July 2021

The Sad Saga of Bertrand Russell Bernstein and Sir Ivan Morrison

 Talk about odd couples, they didn’t come much stranger than the Russian Jew from The Bronx and the surly genius from East Belfast. I’m talking about Bertrand Russell Bernstein and Sir Ivan Morrison.


I’m sure you know Van Morrison. However, Bert Berns died young, yet in a short life he was very influential in the world of music production and songwriting.


I’m still astounded at the list of his hits: Twist and Shout, Piece of My Heart, Hang on Sloopy, Here Comes The Night, and so many more. In fact Bert’s whole life is like a dizzying movie – and what a soundtrack!


His parents were Russian immigrants, obviously well read, given that he was named after Britain’s premier philosopher; they founded a successful clothing business in midtown Manhattan.


Born in 1929, Bert early on contracted rheumatic fever that damaged his heart. In an age before organized child care his parents left him at home to be checked upon by friendly neighbors.


The Bronx, then as now, throbbed to the music of immigrants, and Bert fell for the Samba music of the Cubans who lived next door. 


The Blues and Gospel music of African-Americans only added to the cultural riches of the sick little boy consigned to his bed.


But Bertrand Russell Bernstein had a will of iron and as a teenager sought out music and dance lessons; soon he was taking the subway down to Manhattan.


Rebellious and driven, he eventually made his way to Cuba where he faked his way into Samba dance groups and worked in Havana’s casinos. Was that where he first came in contact with the mob? 


Probably, though Cosa Nostra was always a presence in his native Bronx.


When Castro closed the casinos Bert returned home and began his songwriting career in the Brill Building next to Carol King, Phil Spector, and Neil Diamond. 


Right from the start he had the ability to turn three chord tricks like Twist and Shout and Hang on Sloopy into pulsing teenage anthems. 


But Bert was also adventurous. From the moment he heard British Invasion songs, he recognized that groups like the Beatles and Stones were using his same musical building blocks of R&B and Rock ‘n’ Roll.


Already an accomplished producer with tracks like Under The Boardwalk by The Drifters, he took his skills to London and there in a recording studio he heard a teenage Van Morrison.


Bert had always wanted to discover a white singer with a voice to match Sam Cook’s and he struck gold with Van.


Them, Morrison’s group, was struggling in the studio until Bert put some shape on their first single, the Blues standard Baby Please Don’t Go, and wrote Here Comes The Night for the boys from East Belfast.


Them had a legendary two-year run until they imploded, returned to Belfast and anonymity. But Bert was haunted by Van’s voice, invited him to New York City, and put his three-chord production stamp on Brown Eyed Girl, Van’s first single.


He also signed Morrison to Bang Records and a rapacious music publishing deal. 


Did I mention that Tommy Eboli, boss of the Genovese crime family, was rumored to be Bert’s protector and silent business partner, and it was nigh impossible to walk away from Bang Records. Ask Neil Diamond.


Things appear to have come to a head in 1967. Van wished to go Jazzy with songs that would later feature on his iconic Astral Weeks album, while Bert and shadowy others wished for more Brown Eyed Girls.


Following a tempestuous phone call between the two quarreling friends, Bert died of heart failure leaving Van on shaky terms with Bert’s widow and the other owners of Bang Records.


Van went to ground in Boston and it would be some time before he would sign a deal with Warner Brothers Records, courtesy of a brown paper bag full of cash delivered, it is rumored, to some characters in a parking lot.


Would Van have ever risen to his successful artistic heights without the influence of Bertrand Russell Bernstein? 


Van’s social skills were never the best, and in their early partnership Bert did all the “moving and shaking.”


It’s a question that will never be answered, and therein lies the legend of Bert, Van, and the big Bang!

Saturday, 19 June 2021

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes!! Or What's Normal Anymore?

 So, it looks like widespread vaccination has stopped the pandemic in its tracks and our time of pause may be coming to an end.


Are you ready to go back to normal or, like Bob Dylan are you unsure what normal is anymore?


Like many you may be rejecting the old order and refusing to return to work for dead end wages.


While economists scratch their heads about this state of affairs, why rush back when wages will rise - if raw capitalism is allowed to have its way? 


Employers have held the whip hand since union membership and middle class income began shrinking over 50 years ago. Meanwhile the Great Recession of 2008 only reinforced that great corporate adage – don’t ask for a raise, be grateful you have a job!


And still employers wonder why so many people have opted out of the workforce? 


It’s simple. Some can’t afford to return because of low pay and the lack of affordable childcare. To add fuel to this fire, many seniors of working age now look after grandchildren, thereby allowing their daughters to work.


And then there are those who are rethinking their priorities and considering a change in their lives. There’s no better time than when things are really in a state of flux.


Take the music business.  It changed irrevocably in the years following 9/11 but such was the competition for gigs very few musicians even noticed.


However, two far-seeing Irish-Americans, Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning, had just founded Napster, whose credo was that all music should be free and available.


This revolutionary concept was perfected by Spotify and other streaming platforms on a two-tier basis.


For a small monthly fee you may now lease all the music in the world, and even get it free if you don’t mind being interrupted by advertisements.


This has resulted in the .01% of the world’s top recording artists taking the lion’s share of streaming income, leaving an infinity of lesser-known artists to share the remaining income between them.


Of course, this roughly mirrors what has happened in broader society where the top .01% controls much of the world’s wealth.


The end result for musicians has been the shrinking sales of CDs – the one really profitable item of merchandise that helped subsidize their performance fees. 


The lesson is – worlds change after cataclysms. You’ll never figure it all out, but if you’re thinking of making a change, now is the hour.


And yet, I can think of only one instance when I made the correct choice during a life crisis. Back in the 1980s, Pierce Turner and I founded a New Wave band called Major Thinkers (not a great name to dangle in front of hard-bitten music critics).


Nonetheless, we scored a big record deal with Epic Records and toured the country with Cyndi Lauper and UB40 – glory days, indeed.


We had a radio/dance hit with Avenue B is the Place to Be and recorded Terrible Beauty, an album still to see the light of day. To make a long story short, we were summarily dropped by Epic, who knows why, who cares anymore? 


Hardly a cataclysm, though it seemed like one at the time. We returned to Ireland for Christmas and one night in my parents’ house I had what Graham Greene might call a “dark night of the soul.”


No matter how I looked at it, I could see no future in the music business.


As a grey, rainy dawn broke over the grim spires of Wexford town I resolved to chuck it all in and become a playwright. 


Out of the frying pan, into the fire, you might think, but I wrote, directed, and produced every day thereafter, and eventually cleared my head of the music business. Four years later, Chris Byrne and I formed Black 47 and that kept me busy for the next 25 years.


Still, I continued to hone my playwriting craft and last week I got word that Paradise Square, a musical I conceived and co-wrote, will open on Broadway next year.


I guess you could say that dark night back in Wexford finally paid off. 


Whatever, in these post-pandemic times, the world is changing faster than you can imagine.  If you’re thinking of making a change – do it now, there’ll be no better time.