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.

Thursday, 31 December 2020

Happy New Year's Eve

 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.

Tuesday, 22 December 2020

Truth, Decency, and 2021

The recent six-weeks Irish National Lockdown designed to stop the gathering spread of Covid-19 was sold to a fatigued public as Save the Christmas.

 

What a compelling title and it resonated with this emigrant, though it’s been many years since I experienced an Irish Christmas. Still, the memories remain vivid.

 

Christmas, of course, is a cherished holiday in the US but its Irish equivalent exists on a different plane. 

 

Perhaps that’s because Thanksgiving occurs in late November over here and there’s no corresponding feast in the Irish autumn. Thus the long, dark Irish evenings seem endless in the chilly, damp weather.

 

But it’s more than that. In the Wexford of my youth Christmas began around December 20th and lasted until January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany or Women’s Christmas.

 

It always used to stun me when I first arrived in New York City that stores would gaily open for winter sales on Dec. 26th. as I lay hungover and homesick in my East Village bed.

 

In a way it was a relief. All guilt and grief about failing to make it home could be extinguished in the company of other subdued ex-pats at Malachy McCourt’s Bells of Hell.

 

Festive lights were already being taken down around the city. Commerce and capitalism were back in full swing.

 

How different back home! You couldn’t even buy a bottle of milk on December 26th or St. Stephen might have arisen in fury and smote you at this insult to his sacred lockdown.

 

He might also have thundered that Christmas in Ireland is about home and the desire of all Irish people to celebrate it there.

 

Thus, from Dec. 20th the streets of Wexford began to fill up with this annual homecoming pilgrimage.

 

Very few Wexicans ventured to these shores; no, it was all about the UK. Like most communities Wexford had suffered mightily from Éamon de Valera’s deflationary economic policies.

 

Simply put there were few jobs in our town and most families had someone over in London, Birmingham, or wherever they had roads to repair, buildings to construct, or cars to assemble.

 

Many fathers came home twice a year – a week in the summer and another week at Christmas.

 

My own father returned from sea every three or four months and usually managed to stretch his stay over Christmas.

 

There was an intensity to the Yuletide homecoming, for unlike in summer so many returned at the same time.

 

The streets would resound with shouts of welcome and recognition, and the pubs were stuffed. 

 

The music and gaiety within could only be imagined by flirtatious boys and girls traipsing by; is it any wonder we all turned to drinking at the earliest age possible?

 

The shenanigans would build to a climax on Christmas Eve and after last call hundreds of revelers would head for Midnight Mass at both Catholic and Protestant churches. Hymns and carols were sung with fiery gusto at cathedral and chapel.

 

Christmas Day was spent strictly at home, as was St. Stephen’s Day, although members of the extended family were welcome to visit.

 

December 26th was the big dancing night of the year. Ballrooms in the town and countryside were packed, for it was rumored that a romance struck up on St. Stephen’s night could very well lead to marriage.

 

December 27th was a day for getting out and about. Hundreds walked out to the Norman Castle at Ferrycarrig, others chased packs of Beagles through the fields, while those with means, or access to some manner of a nag, attended the Hunt.

 

The pubs steadily built to a roaring business that culminated in a farewell debauch on New Year’s Eve.

 

On New Year’s Day the boat train began to steadily empty the streets and by January 6th wives, mothers, girlfriends, and sisters had a free, if lonesome, day with all the émigrés well on their way to London’s Paddington Station and beyond.

 

I’m sure things have changed in Wexford; Zoom, FaceTime, and the Internet have diminished distance, if not dislocation.

 

Whatever, a very happy Irish-American Christmas to all of you and let’s meet safe and sound again in 2021.

Thursday, 3 December 2020

Like A Rolling Stone

 Has a song ever really affected your life? 

 

I suspect it has since I get many emails about such matters at Celtic Crush on SiriusXM – especially in the month preceding Christmas.

 

Something about this time of year tends to stir the embers of memory. It’s usually to do with an old romance, instantly resurrected at the first notes of some musical “blast from the past.”

 

My song has no such romantic connotations; yet, I might still be living back in Ireland if I hadn’t heard it at a certain point in life.

 

I was an adolescent living with my widowed grandfather in a big barracks of a house in the heart of Wexford town. His once large family had dispersed leaving only his oldest son who spent most nights in the lounge bar of the County Hotel.

 

Since my grandfather was hard of hearing I could blast the old cloth-covered wireless in my bedroom to my hearts content.

 

I must have been much smarter back then for I could read Shakespeare and listen to ear-rattling music at the same time. Now I have trouble enough doing either.

 

Anyway, I was tuned into Radio Luxembourg – “the station of the stars” – and reading to my heart’s content when the first chunky chords of a Fender Stratocaster blasted forth, shaking the dust off the glowing tubes of the wireless on their exit.

 

Of course I didn’t know a Strat from a hole in the wall back then, possessing only an acoustic guitar of dubious vintage that I had purchased from “Jap” O’Brien’s furniture store on the never-never system.

 

Nor did I recognize the B6 Hammond Organ that swelled through my bedroom but I was in no doubt as to whose caustic voice declared:

 

“Once upon a time, you feel so fine

Threw the bums a dime, in your prime

Didn’t you?”

 

It was Bob Dylan at his sneering best, ripping apart the pretentions of whatever girlfriend was causing him problems back in 1965.

 

I cast my book aside and sat bolt upright - all ears in that frigid, damp bedroom.

 

By the time Mr. Dylan had reached the first chorus I was hooked forever, as he whined in outraged accusation: 

 

“How does it feel to be on your own?”

 

Up until then singers were either falling head over heels in virginal love or bemoaning the heartache visited upon them when they were inevitably dumped by the object of their affections.

 

Like A Rolling Stone, on the contrary, was like a Rock ‘n’ Roll Nuremburg Tribunal. The very skin was being flayed off Bobby’s offensive paramour.

 

And the seething lyrics only intensified over six glorious minutes and 11 seconds. Even back then, musically unlettered as I was, I could tell that this track had been recorded red-hot live as Mike Bloomfield on lead guitar and Al Kooper on Hammond organ struggled to keep time with Dylan’s impassioned performance.

 

No one in this crack band knew what was coming next as Bob spat out the words in fury while skidding around “the pocket” of the beat; by the same token I recognized that each musician was playing at their instinctive best.

 

And that, in a nutshell, is what great Rock ‘n’ Roll is all about – spark and spontaneity.

 

Finally it was over and some pop inanity followed. I switched off the wireless for fear the magic would dissipate.

 

Those six plus minutes had synthesized so many thoughts and dreams, and I knew I’d never experience any of them if I stayed in Wexford.

 

I followed that song to New York City and sang it in every band I’ve played with – always at night’s end when the whiskey is flowing and inhibitions are few.

 

Was it worth the journey? Well, there have been a lot of ups and downs, but never a dull moment.

 

I heard the song recently; it stirred all the same emotions, and I thought what a perfect song for this “time of pause.”

 

Give it a spin and sneer along with Mr. Dylan – it’s therapeutic and puts this damned pandemic in context. C’mon now, give it a shot, there’s no one listening, and so what if they are!

 

 “How does it feel
To be on your own
Like a complete unknown

Like a rolling stone.”