Tuesday 21 April 2009

Ewan MacColl

I listened to Raglan Road by Luke Kelly recently. The song tells the story of Patrick Kavanagh’s unrequited love for the beautiful young Hilda Moriarty.
Kavanagh scribbled down the words of his poem and bade Kelly sing them to the air of Dawning of the Day one evening in the Bailey, a literary watering hole off Dublin’s Grafton Street. What a performance that must have been!
I hadn’t heard Kelly’s austere version in some years and was struck by the way he mines the diamond hard words for their inherent longing and regret without employing even a smidgen of melancholy.
It brought to mind the towering influence of Jimmie Miller. Who? Well, you might know him better as Ewan MacColl. Writer, singer, collector, poet, playwright, broadcaster, political activist, MacColl’s shadow still looms large over those of us from all shades of the spectrum who dabble in folk music.
Opinionated and authoritative, the man even ran a “school” where singers sat at the feet of the master, Luke Kelly amongst them. There MacColl pounded home the idea of the song’s sanctity and the duty of singers to immerse themselves in the words and music, then get out of the way and let the voice deliver the unadorned message.
Did he come to that understanding from Yeats’ dictum that “poetry should be as cold and passionate as the dawn,” or from the Calvinist heritage of his Scottish ancestry?
The man himself was born in Salford, home of fabled Manchester United. He would later immortalize this dingy conglomeration of factories and small terraced houses in “Dirty Old Town,” a song usually attributed to Shane McGowan.
McGowan doesn’t hesitate to credit MacColl’s influence, stating that in his youth he would never be caught dead in some stultifying folk club unless MacColl was performing within.
MacColl’s influence has transcended folk music. Listen to the restrained reading Roberta Flack gives “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” The man from Salford wrote that one too. In fact he first sang it over the phone as a gift to girlfriend Peggy Seeger while she was performing in the US. MacColl was for many years banned entry to the country because of his political views.
A confirmed Marxist, he had a fierce and uncompromising conviction in the dignity of workers – not just in their right to a fair standard of living, he also believed that many of the proletariat’s cultural values could be uplifting.
With that in mind, he set out to collect the songs and reminiscences of crofters and laborers, tramps and travelers, and the factory workers of the English industrial heartland.
He presented these in a series of groundbreaking BBC radio shows, though not in the dry anthropological manner of the day. Instead he introduced these “hidden” people in their unadulterated accents and earthy vitality, and bade them tell their own stories.
The shows caused a sensation because working people for the first time heard their own accents and experiences on the hitherto class-conscious national radio station. We’re long accustomed to this format now and perennially hear it exploited on call-in radio; but MacColl was an original who helped to give voice to the pent-up energy and raw talent that was being wasted and frustrated by the British class system.
I met him once in Folk City. He had finally been allowed into the US. He was older and there was a wistfulness in his eyes - there would be no working class republic built on truth and human decency. The room wasn’t even sold out, but everyone present was touched by the simple conviction of the man and the abiding power of his message.
And if some of his political ideas now seem outdated, his cultural ideals live on – one in particular, the notion that the singer is the servant of the song and not vice versa.
The next time you hear Raglan Road, if you can actually touch that “quiet street where old ghosts meet.” then you’ll know that Paddy Kavanagh’s unrequited love lives on - courtesy of one of MacColl’s children.

Tuesday 7 April 2009

Astral Weeks Revisited

Earle Hitchner’s sterling review of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks recreation launched many trains of thought as I rattled around in the back of a van some weeks back.
What’s so special about the original album? Suffice it to say that although it is decidedly of a time and place, Astral Weeks is timeless.
Interestingly enough, Van had already attempted to record some of the songs a short while earlier in 1968 and failed to capture their haunting essence - although many artists would give their eyeteeth to have these “failures” on their resume.
But luckily for us, the man from East Belfast persisted and his producers, sensing that the songs needed more than the R&B setting of the “failures,” hired four jazz musicians including the bassist, Richard Davis.
Davis, a giant of modern jazz, is still flummoxed that he is best known for his work on Astral Weeks. He recalled that back in ’68 he and his three comrades typically did a couple of sessions in the course of a day, then broke for dinner, and often a drink and a joint, before heading back to the studio for the night session.
On one such occasion, the artist had already locked himself in the vocalist booth with an acoustic guitar. When Davis asked what kind of music was required, he replied in a thick, almost unintelligible Belfast accent, “play whatever you like.”
And therein lies the magic. Without further ado Morrison let forth, leaving the band to catch his vibe. A number of the songs are slightly out of sync until Davis finds the pocket of Van’s strummed guitar and incandescent vocals. It’s a joy to hear the musicians search for each other then actually gel together, for nowadays such “imperfections” would be fixed digitally. There are times too when Davis exuberantly overplays his hand but this only serves to drive Morrison to stretch and slide along and in between the tones and tempos of his lyrics and melodies. But no matter where Van strays, this band of adventurous New York session heads is right there with him in a way that you’ll recognize from the best albums of Miles and Coltrane.
To be honest, I was relieved that I couldn’t attend the Madison Square Garden concerts. I’m sure they were great but it wasn’t hard to predict what Van would do. And he did it marvelously, if the CD “Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl” is any indicator.
I’m sure the man himself feels liberated. For a true artist refuses to get stuck in time but blazes on regardless; and Van has perennially been measured by this beautiful and ephemeral work he created back in ‘68.
Oh God, is it that long ago? And was my old buddy, the legendary rock critic, Lester Bangs, who Earle quotes liberally, a mere 34 when he so stupidly passed away? Bouncing around in the back of a van, I recalled many of our booze-fueled conversations at the Bells of Hell in those golden days before people began to take Ronald Reagan seriously.
Was there something intrinsically Irish about Astral Weeks, Lester would often ask.
Yes, there was, Lester. Joyce is there in spades: “The love that loves to love the love…” along with the Calvinist repression of East Belfast’s rainy back streets. You can almost touch the sexual longing of the shy, but purposeful, exile lately arrived in New York City. At twenty-three, Van already had ten years of hymns and blues and soul and showbands and beat groups under his belt and it all came streaming to the surface on those two magical nights.
And that’s why I didn’t want to see Van in the Garden. It would have been like coming face to face with your first love. After the initial hug and the inevitable catching up, what would you talk about? Better leave the past where it belongs – in a different country.
On the new CD Van is his powerful, brilliant self, controlling every note and tempo, but the jittery genius of Davis’ bass playing is missing. Van knows what he wants nowadays – and he always gets it!
All well and good, Astral Weeks will forever capture those two extraordinary nights when jazz and poetry, blues and folk, love and longing came “slim slow sliding” together.
More power to you, Van! You created a timeless moment and you’ve finally liberated yourself from it. Your best days may yet be ahead. Rave on, indeed, a chara.

Let's Go Murphys!

Unlike many New Yorkers I’ve always enjoyed my trips to Boston. There’s a sense of tradition that stretches back to the soulful philosophies of Thoreau and Emerson, while a stroll over to Cambridge can send your IQ soaring as you ingest the rarified air around Harvard.
And yet it’s hard not to be conscious that Boston is a city of divisions. When first playing up there in the 70’s it would not have been hard to imagine that African-Americans had not made it quite so far north such was the general pale complexion of the downtown area. In those days I had yet to become acquainted with Roxbury and its surrounding areas.
Playing in the various pubs and saloons of Somerville, Charlestown and Brighton, I was never less than aware of the huge Irish influence. The Boston Irish had come a long way from those tired and hungry who were dumped dockside after fleeing the ravages of the Potato Famine. And yet, literally and figuratively, it was still a long way from the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Southie to the Harvard-Yale game.
One could be forgiven for feeling that some things never change, because as enlightened as Thoreau, Emerson and the other Transcendentalists were, it’s possible to catch whiffs of class and even race prejudice in their references to the recently arrived Irish. Indeed, it is not unlike some of our own “there goes the neighborhood” attitude to the Latino emigrants of these times.
Such thoughts were on my mind some weeks back as I stood in Kenmore Square and watched a green shirted army descend on the House of Blues to cheer on the Dropkick Murphys. I have seen many bands from Boston capture the local imagination and become major hometown favorites including J. Geils, The Cars, Aerosmith, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones among others, but I’ve never witnessed anything like the Murphs. They not only represent Boston – they own the joint.
What’s it like to play a set before them? Well, it can be a formidable sight to gaze out at 2500 avid fans chanting “Let’s go Murphys” before you’ve even played a note. Luckily, all remnants of sensitivity were long ago stripped from Black 47 in raucous nights of apprenticeship on Bainbridge Avenue; we could at this stage give a decent account of ourselves opening for Godzilla.
But the Murphys and their audiences are a phenomenon. It’s like battling Tom Brady, Jon Papelbon, The Fields of Athenry, The Sex Pistols and the ghost of every immigrant who ever raised a glass in Dorchester all packed together into one adrenalized clenched fist.
It’s the spirit of ’76 Punk throbbing like a piston through the Black Velvet Band. It’s hardcore, three chord chants from the late lamented “Rat” meets the Wolfe Tones and Paddy Reilly leaping out of the juke boxes in the pubs of Quincy and Dorchester, and to top it all it’s coming at you at one hundred and forty beats a minute.
It may be loud and obnoxious to some but that’s the point. It’s pride and prejudice brought screaming to the surface. Pride in being Irish and strong enough to finally sweep away the second class tag that the Paddies endured across the centuries up in the stately red brick environs of Boston.
With fists in the air the Murphy army sang along to the working class anthems of their homegrown heroes. And their sweaty jubilant faces proclaimed that they had the last laugh on the Transcendentalists. For if the audience was largely of Irish descent, many of WASP heritage moshed and shouted along with their Gaelic sisters and brothers.
It’s far from everyone’s cup of tea: Irish ballads infused with the raw feral power of punk and a “to hell with the begrudgers” sense of entitlement. But at the end of the night, as the sweaty green shirted army filed out onto the street, I could have sworn I saw the ghosts of some of those tired and hungry from 1847 dance along beside them.
The square had truly been circled. Let’s go Murphys!

Death of the Bishop

“Another One Bites The Dust.” The title of the email gave me pause.
It was from an old Wexford friend, Jack O’Leary and my heart sank. It’s a wonder anyone is still standing in my hometown such is the rate of deaths and suicides. Indeed, so many people have been hopping into the Slaney, the Gardai have been summonsing those lucky enough to be fished out.
Ah well, nothing for it but a double click.
“Oh no, not the Bishop Rossiter!”
No one knows exactly how Anthony Rossiter got the nickname; he certainly didn’t act like one of those grave men wielding a crosier. Always smiling, a scallywag glint in his eye, the Bishop was a dancer of renown with the combined moves of Rod Stewart, Mick Jagger and Delaney’s donkey.
To top it all, he ran five miles a day. In fact, the Bishop moved in such a blur, it was hard to figure just how Death The Leveler managed to get a decent skelp in at him.
The news put a considerable dent in my day. Rossiter had been one of the gang – cavorting around the streets, pubs and discos of the old Wexford, not a tosser to his name but full to the gills of auld chat, charm and life.
An hour later I was still conjuring up memories when another email from O’Leary hopped into my box bearing the title: “Hold The Obituaries!”
I double clicked with ferocity and read, “Anthony Rossiter deceased - but not our one! More to follow.”
Thrusting my fist in the air I bellowed, “YES!” Me auld segosha had hopped from the coffin, ripped off his shroud and done a victory lap around the statue of Commodore John Barry. Even now he was tossing back pints at his own wake.
It got me thinking though, no matter how bad things are, there’s nothing sweeter than life. You can keep your heavens, hells and nirvanas – I’ll trade them all for an extra twenty-four hours on this mortal coil.
Bad as these economic times are, they pale in comparison to an eternity spent squinting up at the daisies. Things have been bad before – in the end, what results from them is all that counts.
Take the Great Depression - the money invested back then in roads, bridges and dams laid the foundation for the relative prosperity of the last seventy years.
And how about Social Security introduced as a safety net in 1935? It may go kaput in the next couple of decades, despite the fact that it’s all many will have in their golden years to keep the wolf from the door.
Surely, it’s time to re-examine this great program? If there’s one thing we can learn from the current financial debacle it’s that you cannot depend on the stock market to keep rising – have you had nerve enough to check out your 401(k) lately?
Small wonder! At a time when we should have been shoring up the social safety net, we were wasting billions blowing up Fallujah while running up the national credit card with Chairman Mao’s children.
It’s not an ideal time to reform the health insurance system, but if we don’t employers cannot afford to create meaningful jobs.
Nor are these great days to edge social security towards a workable European style pension plan, still FDR faced an even more daunting task in daring to propose the original program. He was called a communist and a traitor to his class who would pulverize capitalism. Yet he persevered and set the stage for a fairer and more compassionate America.
Now it’s our turn. It won’t be easy with unemployment rising, but the system has been broken for a long time - almost 50 million citizens uninsured, the infrastructure collapsing, a college degree costing upwards of six figures, and on and on…
Meaningful change won’t happen overnight, but there is a time to sow and a time to reap. We’ve been reaping the hell out of the system for many years with scarcely a seed tossed into the earth.
But it’s spring again. The Mets are playing ball - this is our year! Hey you gotta believe! After all, who could have guessed that the Bishop Rossiter would be drinking pints at his own wake?