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.

Friday, 4 June 2021

Dreams of Dolores

 I was recently listening to Dreams by The Cranberries when it occurred to me that Dolores O’Riordan was one of the great vocalists of her generation.

 

“What took you so long?” You might wonder.

 

Well, I did miss the ascent of The Cranberries to stardom in the early 90’s when I was much on the road myself with Black 47.

 

One night, however, somewhere in Missouri, our road manager asked if we’d be interested in partying with the Limerick born band who were playing in the vicinity.

 

It sounded like a good idea – there’s nothing like kicking back with some fellow road warriors, particularly if they’re Irish.

 

It didn’t happen, our record company insisted we move on to our next destination to play some “important shock-jock, early morning radio show.” Talk about much ado about nothing!

 

It would be another 15 years before I’d meet Dolores. She walked into the SiriusXM studios already exhausted from a full day of interviews. I could tell there were many other places she’d rather be. 

 

An intense, spiky presence she had large luminous eyes. She was quite beautiful, small in stature, but did she dominate that room!  

 

When confronted with any threat from Limerick, I always mention Malachy McCourt. She smiled, and confessed she’d never had the pleasure of meeting this back-lanes icon, and from that moment our interview took off.

 

I reminded her of the broken party engagement in Missouri.  

 

“You’re Irish?”  She said, as though it was more likely I was from the outer rings of Saturn. 

 

She added that her shoes were killing her, and did I mind if she kicked them off.

 

Like many stars she was wary of interviews, mostly because in these days a successful one demands that some piece of intimate information be teased out and then plastered online.

 

I was more interested in how a young woman from Ballybricken, County Limerick had written such wonderful songs as Zombie and Linger?

 

With that she relaxed and told me some of the story of Dolores, as opposed to the buffed biography constructed by her publicist.

 

I could tell almost instantly that there was a private darkness at her core, a pain that would always curdle despite her mega-success. 

 

I knew better than to go there – such heartaches are revealed in their own time, and for now, she had come to terms with hers. 

 

All that aside, I was reminded of some lines from her song, Dreams:

“And oh, my dreams

It’s never quite as it seems…”

 

It was obvious that the 12 year old who stood up in her new school and declared, “My Name is Dolores O’Riordan and I’m going to be a rock star” had achieved her ambition - but it had left her wanting.

 

In the course of the interview she veered from fierce to tender, often harkening back to the ever-present pressure of her popularity. 

 

In the end we agreed that in one’s musical career the songs are all that count. The gigs, the glamour, the admiration of the crowds, just fade away, but the songs are your legacy.

 

And with that, two culchies from Limerick and Wexford found common ground on the snazzy 36th Floor of a Manhattan skyscraper. 

 

Then in 2017 she showed up with an entourage who sat in on the interview. 

 

The publicist whispered that Dolores was in pain from a back ailment, and that Noel Hogan, her band mate, would answer my questions.

 

Noel is a gentleman, songwriter, and a fine guitarist, but there was little intimacy and the interview dissolved into your standard rock grilling. 

 

And then they were gone. Our personal interaction was so curtailed, I actually wondered if she remembered me.

 

Then the muffled studio door opened suddenly, there she was beaming, and giving me a big sisterly Irish wink.

 

I smiled back, the door closed silently, and I never saw her again.  She died in a London hotel room some months later.

 

What a journey for a wonderful young countrywoman – from Ballybricken to the stars.  Despite her tragic end, her starkly revealing songs continue to enhance her brilliant legacy.

Thursday, 27 May 2021

Man U - Mets - Too Late to Turn back?

What is it about sports teams? You don’t know their players, never been for a pint with the owners, and yet you follow them from near cradle to the grave.

 

There are two such teams in my life, though on reflection my loyalty has faced some challenges down the years.

 

I’ve never even seen Manchester United play in the flesh, a situation that’s unlikely to change. I’ve rarely even watched them on television over the last five years, because for the most part they’re a crowd of unmotivated, overpaid wasters who regularly ruin my Saturdays and have wreaked havoc with my liver.

 

I won’t even get into their managers. Since the almighty Alex Ferguson retired 8 years ago and took his “half-time hairdryer” with him we’ve had four who wouldn’t have lasted a week with the vaunted Bells of Hell XI.

 

Well, Ole Solskjaer is decent, with a bit of luck we might finish second in this year’s Premier League; but his game plan for inspiring his prima donnas by giving up an early goal is severely wanting.  Oh for the days of Roy Keane!

 

Still Man. U have finally found Edinson Cavani, an hombre who knows how to score goals – and there’s always next year – if my sanity and liver hold up!

 

As to my dark secret: I once considered changing allegiance to our sworn enemies, Liverpool FC.

 

This all came about in Paddy Reilly’s. In Black 47’s early days when the lines snaked around the block, a group of Liverpool supporters showed up and became fervent fans.

 

Sensing a lucrative entry to the UK market, I passed off my allegiance to Man. U as a casual crush. Besotted by our music, these lovable Scousers forgave me. 

 

As it turned out, they regularly flew back to the ‘Pool on Friday nights and began to sing our “Livin’ in America” song on the Anfield terraces.

 

Lo and behold, their chant became popular with the locals and I was eventually presented with a cassette of a full-blooded version that would make your hair stand on end.

 

Had Livin’ in America even approached the stature of Gerry Marsden’s You’ll Never Walk Alone I might well have swopped sides, and thus saved my brittle constitution from regular bouts of Saturday morning indigestion.

 

Talk about “wait until next year!” What team comes automatically to mind? You got it, the Amazin’ Mets! What masochist bestowed that particular adjective on the boys from Flushing?

 

I didn’t even like baseball at first, it reminded me of an unending, lethargic game of Rounders. How did I first get introduced to it? You guessed it – in a saloon, by name of Tomorrow’s Lounge in Bay Ridge where I resided.

 

And guess who was the favorite team in that wondrous haven. Let’s just say it wasn’t the Yankees. My romance with the Mets blossomed over long sultry evenings spent amidst the pale fumes of Rheingold.

 

The game suited me. You don’t have to pay much attention, just sense the tension rising from the crowd, then cheer along or curse your head off as the case may be, before turning once again to solve the world’s problems with your cronies.

 

Of course there was Keith Fernandez! I loved him as a player and still hang on his every irreverent syllable as a commentator. He has told more truths than any president, an easy task over the last four years.

 

My faith in the Mets was shook to the core in 1986, for my first cousin, Charlie Kerfeld, a relief pitcher with the Astros, almost sent them packing from the playoffs.

 

Talk about a game of divided loyalties.

 

But after striking out two batters, Charlie was pulled for the closer who imploded, and the Amazin’s went on to win the World Series.

 

Amazin’ or not, my bond with these boys of summer is bone deep – because of the Mets, Black 47 played Shea Stadium more times than the Beatles, albeit for Irish Night. 

 

Has all the passion and energy spent been worth it?  Well, I shudder to think what else I might have been up to! 

 

Besides, I perennially live in hope that a time will come when you won’t have to hear this Man-Met say, “Wait until next year!”

Friday, 7 May 2021

Bobby Sands MP - 40 years on

 "They came from all over the city, down by subway from Inwood and the Bronx, over the bridges and through the tunnels from Queens and Brooklyn, or by ferry in from Staten Island. They drove or took buses from Jersey, Connecticut, Upstate, Pennsylvania. 

 

They came from far and wide to make their views known and their voices heard outside the British consulate on Third Avenue.
 
They were all part of the tribe, come to protest the imminent death through voluntary starvation of a young chieftain. And make no mistake Bobby Sands was a leader to these people with more moral authority than any trumped up Taoiseach back in Dublin…”
 
Forty years ago today Bobby Sands passed away. Many of us were changed by those strange, foreboding days. The tribe never changed, never forgot either nor forgave.
 
“Not a lace curtain to hang between them, they were the faithful who kept the flame of Irish Republicanism alive in the back rooms of smoky pubs at Sunday evening socials throbbing with the music of accordions, fiddles and banjos.
 
They were the hard core who gladly forked out crumpled twenty-dollar bills in the hope that one day a united Ireland might become a reality, and not just another pipe dream fueled by chasers of cheap beer and shots of Powers Whiskey.”
 
I called them the tribe because you always saw the same faces at protests, although they held widely varying views on the nature of their mythic united Ireland. 
 
Accordingly, they were the first to show up outside the British Consulate when Sands went on hunger strike. They could have made it there blindfolded for many had been tramping up and down Third Avenue since the Troubles flared once more in1968.
 
“They were an odd bunch: serious and cerebral by times, chatty and cliquish at others, but I liked them and admired both their integrity and single-minded devotion to Irish unity. I suppose they reminded me of my grandfather. One in particular even looked like him: white haired, squat and muscular with a face set in granite, conviction cased in steel, all his instincts tuned to the force of his own moral compass.”
 
My grandfather had raised me in an old barracks of a house in Wexford. I had ingested his version of Irish history and, at an early age, could debate all the old arguments, though I disappointed him with my love for the “turncoat” Mick Collins.
 
He had been dead some years and I was now living on the Lower East Side, frequenting CBGB'S and other temples of the cool. Long before his passing I had distanced myself from the old ideologies and the violence that attended them. Still every now and then in the back of my mind I’d hear his echo, “Every generation must do their part to solve the British problem in the North of Ireland.”
 
Bobby Sands had his own mantra, “No one can do everything, but everyone has their part to play.”
 
Both voices had begun to reassert themselves in my psyche when Sands had invoked an ancient Irish tribal right, “When wronged by your more powerful neighbor go starve yourself on his doorstep until the shame causes him to relent.”
 
It was a battle to the end. The Iron Lady, Mrs. Thatcher, would prevail but it would be a hollow Pyrrhic victory, for a new generation had been politicized by Sands’ protest and would hand down its own folk memory. 
 
There would be many dark and dangerous days before the ballot box would finally replace the Armalite but, oddly enough, the first seeds were scattered on poisoned soil forty years ago.
 
“Still the tribe never faltered or lost faith. Right to the bitter end, they came in by subway from Inwood and the Bronx, over the bridges and through the tunnels from Queens and Brooklyn, or by ferry in from Staten Island. They drove or took buses from Jersey, Connecticut, Upstate, Pennsylvania. And I will never forget them.”
 
Excerpts from “Green Suede Shoes – An Irish-American Odyssey” by Larry Kirwan, published by Thunder’s Mouth Press/Avalon.

The Healing Has Begun

 

The ospreys are back. I began looking out for them in early March, but it took at least four weeks before I could confirm my first sighting. 

 

From a distance it’s easy to mistake these raptors for large seagulls; gulls however don’t tend to hover in the same manner, and certainly don’t dive at such vertical angles into shallow waters.

 

As they say back in Wexford, “the rale thing don’t disappoint.”

 

I had heard that ospreys are often exhausted from their long journey back to the North-East from Florida, the Caribbean, or even South America, but the first one I spotted was in fine fettle as she carried a sizeable fish back to her nest in the nearby bogland.

 

Ospreys tend to keep the same mate but they return from their winter home separately. The female is often first back, perhaps to make a dent in the spring-cleaning, or more likely to secure last year’s nest.

 

She will wait a goodly time for the male’s arrival, but only so much and no more.

 

The procreative instinct is apparently stronger than romantic loyalty, and the female will choose another male if her mate is too tardy.

 

Since my ospreys were fishing in tandem within days of first sighting I can only surmise that this particular union continues.

 

Last year I didn’t even realize they had departed until mid-October. Do you remember those days? We were six or seven months into the pandemic and in the thick of the presidential election. It was a turbulent time, to say the least.

 

Ospreys were way down most people’s list of important matters. I missed them keenly though. They had been faithful companions through many a bleary dawn.

 

It was a grim autumn, with promise of a bitter winter. Not to put too fine a point on it, the country was reeling.

 

That tends to happen when the highest official in the land has little concern for truth and scientific fact. You begin to feel that things you took for granted are based on a flimsy foundation.

 

Who would have imagined that truth could be so easily swept aside by the poisonous babble of social media’s echo chamber?

 

Take away scientific fact and what’s left - the biggest pig at the trough, the loudest, most aggressive bawler?

 

This is nothing new in American politics – after all, Burr shot Hamilton, and people of color, immigrants, Catholics, socialists, and many others have felt the lash of political recrimination and discrimination.

 

But truth and scientific fact have always somehow managed to reassert themselves and help redress grievances.

 

You could feel the pressure building last fall after the sitting president made the outrageous statement, “the only way we’re going to lose the election is if the election is rigged.”

 

It didn’t help that Covid-19 was sweeping the land, the economy was tanking, and millions had lost their jobs. Was it any wonder our foundation quaked?

 

America was experiencing a dark night of the soul that culminated in a day of bullyboy disgrace on January 6th.

 

But the foundation held. Many people drew on the reserves of their core beliefs, be they Bible, Quran, or just plain logic. 

 

We saw QAnon and all the other craven fantasies for what they are – rubbish. Truth and scientific fact may not always be comforting, but when the chips are down they wipe the floor with unfounded conspiracy theories.

 

There’s a new president in office now. He’ll undoubtedly make his mistakes – but he doesn’t have a psychotic need to be at the center of every argument. Does he even have a Twitter account? I don’t know and I care less. I value silence and have no interest in being anyone’s follower.

 

A corner has been rounded – vaccination is in full swing and we seem to have blunted the razor edge of this pandemic.

 

Everything is far from okay in our democracy – that’s the nature of the beast. But it beats the yokel mob rule of January 6th.

 

The country is coming to its senses, the weather is improving, we can mix again without too much risk of infecting each other, and the ospreys have returned. 

 

Soon their chicks will be born, and they’ll work from dawn to dusk to feed them.  A new cycle has started. The healing has begun.


Monday, 19 April 2021

The Bell Still Tolls

 I often dropped into the second-hand bookshop on Rathmines Road. I lived close by in 15 Belgrave Square, now an upscale single residence, then a warren of cold-water flats in the heart of culchie-land.  

 

Many Dublin neighborhoods had such a shop and they all smelled alike – fusty, dusty, and with a hint of carbolic to keep the bugs away.

 

I hated my day gig and was very delicate in those Gingerman days. I had discovered that just a hint of a cold, when added to a hangover, could gain you a “sick note” and some days off for recuperation. 

 

It was on one such break that I came across For Whom The Bell Tolls in the bookshop. I was familiar with Hemingway’s name but rarely saw his books around Dublin. Was he also banned? 

 

Perhaps, Spanish Civil War books were not popular with Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, unless Generalissimo Franco was the hero.

 

It seems strange now that the Church had such a stranglehold on Irish society. Nobody really talked about it – it was just another fact of life in the land of de Valera.

 

The Gingerman itself had been banned, then un-banned, then banned again. I can’t even remember if there was a decent sex scene in this harmless. I guess the Church believed censorship kept a lid on Ireland’s churning cauldron of sexuality.

 

Forget about James Joyce, he and his Molly Bloom were a universe beyond our frigid pale; we were barely introduced to Mr. Yeats in our English classes. After all, he was Protestant and had railed about our apostolic state denying his co-religionists their right to divorce.

 

Little wonder that For Whom The Bell Tolls “blew my mind.” Not only was the writing clear, and incisive, it was also austerely poetic, unlike the flowery stanzas beaten into us by the Christian Brothers.

 

The protagonist was different too. Robert Jordan had gone to Spain to fight for the Republican cause and was on a mission to blow up a bridge.

 

But what was he really doing there? I suppose he was “trying to find himself.” And so was I in that musty second-hand bookshop on Rathmines Road. 

 

I eventually tracked down The Sun Also Rises, and by the time I finished that ode to the lost generation I knew my Dublin days were nearing an end. Despite its many delights the city was too isolated, too controlled, if I was to make anything of myself, I’d have to leave. The following summer I struck out for New York.

 

I was reminded of all this while watching the recent three-part PBS Hemingway series.

 

I had been lucky to be introduced to Hem in Dublin. We knew little of the macho-man or his self-created tabloid reputation. We just read his books and exulted in the clarity of his craft and vision.

 

By the time I arrived in New York, Hemingway was old hat. Macho was out and to say you liked the clarity and depth of his writing was to invite unmitigated scorn; one definitely had to be careful championing this Nobel winner.

 

So I moved on to other writers and came to know a few also. I soon recognized the corroding effect of fame, and how image often supplanted the actual person you had come to like and admire.

 

Norman Mailer and Lester Bangs had little in common though both were at heart kind and thoughtful men. Yet pour a couple of stiff ones into them and their outrageous public figures often took over.

 

Frank McCourt, on the other hand, improved with fame. The adulation he received only served to wash away our inherent Irish inferiority complex.

 

I thought of these three fine writers while listening to a battalion of literary people dissect Hemingway over three nights on PBS. Many made decent points, others enjoyed their 15 seconds of fame, but the one who got to the heart of Hemingway’s writing was Edna O’Brien, once banned in Ireland herself.

 

Her Clare shrewdness and unsparing disregard for the trappings of the literary life allowed her to get beyond the four wives, the inflated macho legend, and find Hemingway the writer.

 

She transported me back to that musty shop on Rathmines Road where I stumbled upon a book that truly changed my life.

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!