Thursday, 8 April 2021

The Best Concert I've Ever Seen

I’m sometimes asked what was the best concert I’ve ever seen. It’s a tough call.


People usually refer to rock concerts, but I’d be remiss in not mentioning the New York Philharmonic as they raised Napoleon from the dead during the 1812 Overture in Central Park one July 4th; while it would be hard to surpass Pavarotti’s sublime interpretation of Nessun Dorma on the same stage another summer’s night.


I was very young and innocent when I witnessed Cream perform on the Isle of Man. My teenage friends and I had little idea about the band’s musical roots, and no notion that bad blood was brewing between rival gangs from Glasgow and Liverpool.


The huge stage was covered with wire netting as thousands of us trooped into the “largest ballroom in Europe.”


Cream was the loudest band I ever heard, no small distinction. Eric Clapton played through a 6-stack of Marshall amplifiers and Jack Bruce matched him in both volume and surliness. Meanwhile Ginger Baker needed no amplifiers to be heard in the drum department.


We four yokels from Wexford were crushed up to the lip of the stage, our mouths agape, when skirmishing broke out between the Liverpool and Glasgow contingents. 


I’m not sure Cream even noticed; they appeared to be high as kites, and certainly didn’t respond to bellowed requests from the audience. 


This disconnect caused all manner of objects to be flung at the wire netting. A British brass thrupenny bit snuck through and struck Ginger on the forehead. Whereupon the irate drummer kicked over his massive drum kit, grabbed a microphone and challenged whoever had thrown the coin to mortal combat.


Hundreds surged forward in an effort to oblige him setting off a full-scale riot throughout the hall.  


This incensed Eric Clapton so much he raised his sunburst Stratocaster above his head, slammed it down onstage and strode off to a screech of feedback. The gangs fought on regardless, and I had been initiated into one of the sacred rites of rock ‘n’ roll.


That “concert” undoubtedly veered me towards the shamanistic side of music. Although I appreciated bands like Pink Floyd with their minutely choreographed spectaculars, it all paled compared to the near-mystical experiences provided by Bob Marley and The Wailers, or The Clash.


Marley’s music is now universally loved, but you had to have seen him live. He was ecstatic onstage, totally united with The Wailers, yet a sublime musical being totally unto himself.


The night I saw him in Central Park he was nothing less than a Rastafarian dervish come to proclaim the word of Jah through his wonderful songs.


Some of these were melodic demands for universal spiritual freedom like Get Up Stand Up, and others love songs that go to the heart of romance like No Woman No Cry.


Mr. Marley was an original whose music continues to transcend cultures. I’ve heard his songs in the dusty hamlets of Turkey, the ghettoes of Port-au-Prince, and at parties in grim Moscow apartments. The barefoot kid from Trenchtown, Jamaica truly made his mark on the world.


You could say the same for Joe Strummer although, unlike Bob, Joe needed a band around him.  And what a band he had – The Clash.


Though far from virtuosic they were the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band I ever saw. It was hard to distinguish between them onstage. They played few solos, they didn’t need to; their songs were like great surges of energy that enveloped an audience with power, passion and precision.


The last night they appeared in the old Palladium on 14th Street, the joint was literally rocking. I was in the balcony and could feel the floor shaking beneath my feet. 


I considered running downstairs before the balcony collapsed, but then reasoning it would just fall upon me, I surrendered once more to the decibel induced euphoria.


Joe was a friend and a beautiful person; like Mr. Marley he’s gone a long time. I guess the good do die young. 


So there you have it – a toss of the coin between Bob Marley and The Clash. Both of those shows changed my life, and each in their own way led to the creation of Black 47. And so it goes. Rock on!

Sunday, 28 March 2021

Rockaway Blue


I was checking the Mets box scores when the plane passed over so low I buried my face in the New York Times. Less than a second later I heard a thud akin to a giant sledgehammer pounding concrete.


I rushed up to our roof – the sight was unbelievable – a huge plane embedded in the North Tower, tongues of flame licking outwards through thick black smoke, spars, debris, and God knows what else, cascading down.


When the second plane struck, I knew the city would never be the same.


Being the “house band of New York” it behooved Black 47 to immediately resume our Saturday night residency in Connolly’s of 45th Street.


The word spread among first responders, and those gigs were packed and beyond intense. Everyone needed music and a break from the trauma. We didn’t know who was alive, though we knew many were dead, and my abiding memory is everyone turning to watch the door as it opened.


Then a ripple of relief would surge through the room, “Joe made it,” or “Mary got out alive,” followed by bear hugs of solidarity.


And in the months following as we played the tri-state area, people would show us pictures of lost family members, request the victim’s favorite song, and declare that Jimmy or Joan was our “greatest fan.”


For a couple of hours the music would punch a hole in the grief, and allow people to be as they were before the attack. And I swore that someday I’d tell the story of Jimmy and Joan, and not allow the politicians and media hounds to co-opt the tragedy.


In 2003 we recorded New York Town, an album about the years immediately before and after 9/11, and in a small way paid homage to the priest and the fireman, Fr. Mychal Judge, OFM and Richie Muldowney, Ladder 7, NYFD, two of our friends that perished.


However, huge parts of the story were missing, and I felt a play might get closer to the truth. But as I watched The Heart Has A Mind of its Own unfold on opening night, I knew I’d failed.


There was no way a kitchen-sink drama could capture the sheer magnitude of the catastrophe. But I had created the characters, the Murphy family from Rockaway Beach whose son, Lieutenant Brian Murphy, had perished.


These characters would not let me be, rattling around in my head as though seeking a way out.


So I took the ideas that worked and wove them into a novel. Rockaway and Breezy Point became characters themselves, and the story began to unfold. Det. Sgt. Jimmy Murphy had discovered that his son, Brian, was in the North Tower 30 minutes before the attack. What was he doing there?


Jimmy’s search led him to an old friend, Yussef Ibrahim, and to the Egyptian-American’s daughter, Fatima.


Around then, Colin Broderick introduced me to Jane Dystel, his literary agent, who loved the work, and sent it around to various publishing houses. Everyone seemed to like it but I could sense reluctance and I felt the same – the wounds were still too raw, and they were preventing me from digging deeper to where the full story lay.


And so I withdrew it. As a writer and bandleader there was much else to deal with, the War in Iraq, the corroding of the American dream during the financial collapse, then the final frantic years of Black 47. 


But all the while the wounds were healing, and in 2018 I told the story of the Murphy family on Celtic Crush, my SiriusXM show.


A listener, Dean Smith of Cornell University Press asked for a draft, and then offered to publish the book.


I worked with Dean and another fine editor, Michael McGandy, to not only capture the humbling magnitude of 9/11, but to find its place in a troubled era bookended by the Vietnam and Iraq wars.


It’s a tale of love, loss, and ultimate redemption. It took almost 20 years for the dust of that awful morning to settle and allow me to tell the story through the eyes of the Murphy family. 


It’s called Rockaway Blue, and it’s finally ready for reading.


(Rockaway Blue, published by Three Hills/Cornell University Press, is available at all online platforms and at your local bookstore)

Thursday, 11 March 2021

My New York City Academic Life

 Within a couple of years of arriving in New York City I had enrolled in two universities. 


One stood forlornly across the street from my apartment on barren E. 9th Street, the other preened on tree-lined W. 13th.


The latter font of learning was disguised as a saloon known as The Bells of Hell. Its provost, for want of a better title, was one, Malachy McCourt, from the back lanes of Limerick; the former sheltered behind the innocuous name of the Kiwi Social Club, its president went by one name only - Nash!


Judging by his temperament and the company he kept, I suspect that Nash has long since departed this vale of tears. 


Mr. McCourt on the other hand is still hale and hearty, and displays at least as much distaste for conservatives as he did while presiding over his seat of higher learning.


Many sterling men and women achieved tenure at both universities, but their visiting professors influenced me most.


I studied under Frank and Angela McCourt at the Bells, each took an interest in my moral and intellectual development.


It’s no wonder that Frank became one of the most successful memoirists of the 20th Century – in pre-Ashes days he said little but made every syllable count.


Angela, for her part, was an astute judge of character, and could flay a man at 40 feet without removing the perennially drooping Woodbine from her lower lip, or favoring her victim with a glance.


Norman Mailer dropped in on occasion and I studied under his tutelage, and even added a smidgen of arcane knowledge to Ancient Evenings, his Egyptian novel.


And where would any of us have been without benefit of the acumen and chiseled words of Pete Hamill. 


Any small talent I have for writing a column came from that man, and his friend/rival Jimmy Breslin.


I was introduced to critical theory during adrenalized, all night tutorials delivered by Lester Bangs; while in the legendary back room, I absorbed the ins and outs of improvisation from the last of the Beats, David Amram, who awarded me a Ph.D. in Hangoutology.


I was to need all these skills and more when I attended classes at Kiwi University from 4am to whenever, at least three times a week.


The Kiwi bore a resemblance to Howard University with its large African-American student body, along with a generous sprinkling of LatinX students.


I was the token Irish student and had gained acceptance only because I had complained bitterly to my landlord about lack of heat in the winter. 


This gentleman intervened with the Kiwi administration across the street on my behalf, and gained me a scholarship - with the admonition: “no more whining, you now have a warm collegial hall to attend any time of night or day.”


It was within the Kiwi’s hallowed halls I learned to listen – that most valuable life lesson.


I was in a foreign and dangerous world and was forced to quickly learn how to fit in. And oh, the stories I heard, and the drama that I observed, and eventually became a part of!


I was fortunate, for I was taken under the wing of a philosopher of note, James Reece – known to his legion of friends as Jimmy.


In short order he instructed me how to survive in that netherworld – how to move, how to fade into shadows, and how to be, if not cool, then at least not too tepid. 


Every night he played mix tapes of bebop and red-hot jazz. At first I couldn’t make head nor tail of it, but Jimmy Reece was patient, he explained not just the mechanics of jazz but the history and philosophy behind it.  He told me what to listen for – and I did. 


One night he yelled in delight down the bar as I moved like a spastic whippet to John Coltrane’s dizzying horn – “He’s got it, the Irish kid is finally hearing it.”


It was an immeasurable gift, and I still cherish Professor Reece whenever I listen to Miles, Trane, Bird, Monk, and a host of others.


Tuition was free at each of these priceless seats of knowledge. Alas, they’re both gone, along with their faculties, leaving little hope of class reunions. But oh, what nights and the memories they’ve become!


Tuesday, 9 February 2021

North East Blues


I often wonder what am I doing in the frozen North East around this time of year? Now that I don’t have the responsibilities of a bandleader I could be down in Miami, New Orleans, or a dozen other warm locales, and not shivering my you-know-what up here.


I can hear Yer Man up in Pearl River slyly suggesting, “You could go back to Cuba – that hot enough for you?”


Nah, they don’t allow Americans in at the moment, for fear we’d infect them.


Growing up in Ireland weather was a bit more humdrum - something to be endured, though endlessly commented on.


When I got here I exulted in the snows of January and the dog days of August. Humidity never cost me a thought. In the East Village few people had air conditioning; if it got too hot you could always chill out in a bar or an after hours.


But lately, come bleak winter, I’ve been getting the urge to head south. Part of that is from the mild insomnia I’m cursed with. 


In the spring to autumn months I’ve no problem getting up in the middle of the night and knocking out some pages of whatever play or novel I’m wrestling with.


But in the dead of winter that’s not such an easy proposition.


To counter my nocturnal mind spinning, I take a three-mile walk every day. Yesterday it was freezing as I set off into a stunning dawn. Is it my imagination or have this winter’s dawns been particularly vivid?


I could almost hear celestial music as the sun shyly peaked its head above the Long Island Sound.


Even the gulls stopped their skimming and gliding to note this new presence. But when “that lucky old sun” majestically burst forth from its crimson background, the gulls too soared in appreciation, and for minutes on end their snow white feathers melded into a delicate shade of pink.  


I strolled on keeping an eye on Charles Island. How different it is from the wind-blasted Saltee Islands off south County Wexford.


Charles is fully wooded and serves as an Egret preserve in the summer. Oddly enough, I prefer its winter barrenness, for only then can I can feel the presence of the Native Americans who once lived out there.


Likewise I can sense the English Puritans who settled nearby and within a couple of generations eliminated the first Americans from their Eden.


In summer I barely give them a thought but in winter there’s no doubting what a tough, uncompromising people these “pilgrims” were.


Nestled in my down coat I marveled at how they survived their first winters on this frozen coast.


Though their history is written in blood and intolerance one has to admire their fortitude - if not their humanity.


As I ambled on I missed the migratory snow-white egrets and most of all the swooping ospreys. But lo and behold, I was suddenly blessed with a sighting of the lone Blue Heron who had chosen not to depart for southern climes in October.


Was he injured back then or just didn’t feel up to such a long journey? I’ll never know but I mostly see him now at dusk as he swoops across the bay onto a stretch of bog that had once been the town dump.


Yesterday he glided in so low I could almost feel the beat of his wings as he came to a graceful landing, and with a toss of his head glared back at me.


Had I disturbed some mouse he was hunting, a soft-shell crab perhaps, or did he consider this whole bog to be his province, and what the hell was I doing up at that hour of the morning anyway.


We share a kinship, I suppose. Neither of us went south. Each of us stayed in the frozen north for our own reasons.  And so, I glared back at him – it’s my bog as much as yours, buster! 


He held my eye for a moment before returning to his real business – what was on the menu for a boggy breakfast?


After our stand off I strode on, but couldn’t help but wonder where we’d both be this time next year.

Sunday, 31 January 2021

The Winter of our Discontent

So he’s finally gone. Many couldn’t wait to hear the door slam on his derriere.


Though the quality of life has already improved without the constant bleat of his Twitter feed – what a mess he’s left behind.


The pandemic is not President Trump’s fault, but his inept handling of it is. Then again most New Yorkers were well aware that our homie, Donald Trump, couldn’t organize a two-car funeral.


However, the man never lacked tenacity and the seeds of division he has sown will continue to produce bitter harvests. 


Who could have imagined four years ago that we’d have turned against each other so violently? Now we can’t even agree on something that we once took for granted – the truth!


I love this country and am optimistic about its future. But I never had illusions about its history. Modern America was founded by groups of sectarian, self-righteous exclusivists quaintly known as “the pilgrims.”


Their “shining city on a hill” was for themselves alone. Other races and creeds were not welcome. Slavery was institutionalized and it took a brutal civil war to banish it.


The country might then have achieved real freedom and democracy, but for the assassination of President Lincoln and the succession of another impeached president, the racist Andrew Johnson.


Still there have been great Americans who struggled and often succeeded in turning the US into a nation admired around the world.


But it’s an ongoing battle as was demonstrated with the insurrection of January 6th.


This outrage has been brewing for a long time - the “pilgrims” sowed their divisive seeds so well too.


The taking of the Capitol was no surprise to me. I recognized these men as they careened through the sacred halls – not the clown with the horns or the creep in the Camp Auschwitz shirt, more the clueless guys and the occasional harridan in jeans and sweatshirts. 


I met them in the 48 states that I traveled with Black 47 and often marveled at their reality disconnect in our late night bar conversations.


You might wonder why a left-leaning band would even run into such characters. But that’s the nature of the craziness in this country. Many of these rioters like the same music you do and were previously Obama voters.


What drove them to such lawlessness on January 6th? The universal feeling that they’ve been screwed.

By whom? It doesn’t matter – Nancy Pelosi, Jews, the elite, Satan, cannibalistic pedophilic Democrats, the crazier the notion the better. 


Why was the hatred unleashed right now? Because an imperial president harnessed their reality disconnect to further his own ambitions.


But it’s not just Trump, this willful delusion has been going on ever since Nixon’s Southern Strategy through Lee Atwater’s Willie Horton stunt and Cheney’s weapons of mass destruction.


It has, however, been given a shot of steroids by the digital hate and disinformation spewed out by our unfettered social media. 


And now the genie is out of the bottle.  Words that used to be whispered in late night bar conversations are blaringly out in the open.


Who’s to blame? We all are. We tolerated conspiracy theories from our friends and family members. “Ah sure, it’s just a phase they’re going through, they’ll get over it.”


I don’t know about you but none of my “conspiracy acquaintances” ever read a newspaper or a book, they get their news online from hearsay.


The end result, 74 million Americans voted for a man who lies without compunction and has blanketed us in his narcissistic fictional reality.


And though he was thrashed by 7 million votes in 2020 he fought like a wounded lion to retain power. Amazingly many of his Republican allies pragmatically acquiesced in his delusions.


But now in this winter of our discontent how do we begin to heal our poisoned city upon a hill?


Well, the party of Lincoln has some big decisions to make. But we citizens have an even bigger task – how to restore the very concept of truth?


I imagine we’ll have to look back to people like Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dwight Eisenhower, Bobby Kennedy, and others who faced dark nights of the soul and overcame them.


Hard though the task may be - it’s time we put our battered city in order.

Wednesday, 20 January 2021

Pavarotti on the town

 It breaks your heart to walk around New York City these days. 


Of course many of us have had our hearts broken here before, whether through an event like the attack on 9/11 or some personal matter. 


This city is not a place for the faint of heart.


To say that it’s now a ghost town would be an overstatement. People are working away, adapting to this time of pause, making the best of things. There’s just an overall pervading feeling of “what’s coming next?”


Will this new Covid-19 variant sweep through the city like the original did in Spring 2020?  Will the new president succeed in taming the pandemic where his predecessor so dismally and cavalierly failed?


One thing seems likely, many beloved Irish bars and restaurants will not reopen. However, New York City will rise again – just not in the old familiar way.


I’ve always considered the city to be a magical place – right from the first smoggy June afternoon I arrived on a student work visa.


New York was a very different city back in the 1970’s. Times Square was like a circus, but not of the Barnum and Bailey type, more an arena with adrenalized gladiators on the make.


One had to be either very aware or fleet of foot to escape being mugged on a regular basis. 


I once had a bayonet stuck in my throat by a very nervous junky who was wary of me putting my hand in my pocket to surrender my few dollars. It took Kissinger-like diplomacy to emerge broke, but otherwise unscathed, from that encounter.


Back then New York was unpredictable. This scared the hell out of many, but as a musician it was important to not know what was coming next, for fear you’d throw your hat at it and return to the Emerald Isle with your tail between your legs.


Still there was usually magic in the air. One such time was when my parents visited and I took my mother on a cultural jaunt around town. 


We visited The Met, The Frick, had lunch in some over-priced restaurant, and as we passed by Lincoln Center I told her how I’d never seen her favorite, Luciano Pavarotti, perform there, but had thrilled to him in Central Park with 200,000 others as he nailed Nessun Dorma.


She adored that man and delighted in every detail I rattled off about that legendary free concert.


It was a beautiful summer day but I could tell she was tiring from the humidity and the heat rising from the pavement. I knew the cure – some first class air-conditioning.


She said she’d love to wander around one of the big department stores so I suggested Bloomingdale’s.


I had never been there myself. Why would I? They didn’t sell the tight black jeans and t-shirts that were de rigueur on the Lower East Side.


Her eyes lit up at the expensive jewelry, perfume and couture then fashionable on the Upper East Side. But after a couple of floors of such excess I could tell she was fading and asked one of the clerks where we might buy some coffee.


He directed us to the Italian exhibition and intimated that the Cappuccino served there would be free – a bonus in itself.


We were ushered into the exhibition by an agitated Italian man who bade us stand just inside the door.  We hastened to obey for we could hear a multitude of footsteps thundering behind us.


The door was thrown open and in glided, for want of a better word, Pavarotti himself.


Obviously expecting some sort of formal reception he held out his huge arms to my mother. She fell into them as if she had been awaiting him forever. He shook hands with me and moved on, gaily greeting the line that had gathered behind us.


My mother was flushed and excited in a way I’d never seen her before.


“Did you know about this,” she gushed. “Did you plan this for me?”


I almost lied but it didn’t seem quite right.


“No, Mam, that’s New York for you.  Haven’t I been telling you for years that this city is magical.”


It is, and it will rise again bigger and better, if somewhat different than many of us can imagine.

Sunday, 10 January 2021

Fake News and Other Mindbenders

What a year it’s been - so many people dead from a pandemic that at the least could have been handled in a better manner. Even as I write more Americans are dying daily from Covid-19 than perished during the attacks on 9/11.


But help is on the way from two vaccines, although the number of people who say they will refuse inoculation is staggeringly high.


That will change as they see family and friends take their shots and become immune to this highly contagious disease.


The same cannot be said for another malady that is gnawing away at a pillar of our democracy – the attack on the very concept of truth.


The phrase “fake news,” popularized by our soon to be ex-president, is top of the pops among other Trumpian truth-benders such as “alternative facts,” “Russian hoax,” “deep state,” et al. 


“Fake news” is the ultimate verbal weapon for it can be breezily tossed off to dismiss any fact or opinion that one disagrees with.


As an Irish Echo columnist my gig is to give opinions on various subjects. 


Simple as pie, you might think, but as pleasurable as it is I still have to check and validate every concrete statement I make or quote.


Take my opening homily on “fake news” a few lines back. Although Donald Trump claimed to have originated the phrase, it was actually coined by Craig Silverman in 2014 while he was running a research project at Columbia University.


Since Mr. Trump takes credit for so many innovations it behooved me to check out the truthfulness of his claim; accordingly, I was forced to change “originated” for “popularized.”


Luckily I have an editor who would likely have caught my error before “yer man from Pearl River” would have taken me to task with a scathing public letter and cost me a free drink at the Echo Christmas party.


Personally I read the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal for news. I’ve found that both esteemed newspapers invariably print the same informed facts.


Their opinion pieces, however, wildly differ. Yet you can tell even those have been given the factual once over by experienced editors. Besides, both papers have “apology” columns where factual mistakes and misstatements are corrected within days.


And yet so many people get their unfiltered news from Facebook, Twitter, and friendly Russian bots.


That’s like hearing “facts” at Paddy Reilly’s at 4am with 6 or 7 pints aboard. 


Recently I was informed by a number of social media adherents that, “Joe Biden intends taxing our 401(ks) and IRAs.”


I reassured these troubled souls that they should rest easy – it’s unlikely that our future president would wish to commit political suicide before even being handed the keys of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.


Upon looking into the matter I discovered that Mr. Biden had mentioned a desire to give more 401 (k) tax breaks to lower and middle income earners to bring them up to par with the relative breaks afforded upper income earners


The truth, apparently, got skewered intentionally in the telling.  But without truth and a modicum of decency where will we be?


This year we’ve lost two journalists who are the epitome of truth and decency.


Mark Shields has retired after 33 years of giving opinions on PBS NewsHour. I haven’t always agreed with him but there’s something so utterly American and sensible about the man.


After the invasion of Iraq he stumped David Brooks, his conservative partner on the popular show, by inquiring if he really thought that an American Christian occupying force would succeed in subduing a Muslim country?


One of the measures of Shields’ influence is that Brooks has moderated his views over the years and become a thoughtful and very informative centrist.


Pete Hamill is another case in point. I happened to be in a group with him when someone ventured that given the catastrophe of 9/11 the practice of waterboarding terrorists was justified.


Pete didn’t even raise his voice when he replied, “We’re Americans, we don’t do torture.”


He didn’t need to elaborate for he had made a simple but profound statement.


Let’s hope in 2021 we’ll aspire to be more than we are again, and return to core American values, in particular, truth and decency.