Thursday 21 May 2009

The Night I Almost Whacked Pete Seeger

I have something of a grave nature to confess. Many years ago I came within a hair of whackin’ Pete Seeger. Well, I shouldn’t take full responsibility; Pierce Turner was equally involved in this dastardly deed.
Those who braved the watering holes of the Bronx and Greenwich Village when Ed Koch ruled the roost will remember Turner and Kirwan of Wexford fondly – or otherwise!
Whatever, as they say. One evening we found ourselves in the company of Pete Seeger and Malachy McCourt playing a benefit in Manhattan’s Town Hall. I can’t remember for whom but, given the nature of the bill, it probably wasn’t the National Rifle Association or the British Conservative Party.
The plan was as follows: Malachy would MC, we would “get the crowd going,” and Pete would headline. However, upon our arrival, Town Hall was in a state of pandemonium for no one had thought to hire a PA. To add insult to injury, the crowd was already filing in.
“No bother,” says Turner, “sure haven’t we the auld Shure system outside in the back of the van.”
And so we hauled in speakers and amp – the smell of last night’s spilled pints from Durty Nellies still fresh upon them. Since we had some fears that this utilitarian sound system might not be heard in the far recesses of the towering balcony, we humped the pristine grand piano to the front of the stage and hoisted one of the speakers atop.
Though gasping from the exertion we finished setting up on the stroke of 8 and, with the sweat pouring off us, lashed straight into a 15-minute deconstruction of Ewan McColl’s “Traveling People,” replete with a 12-minute moog synthesizer solo.
Pete Seeger - who had threatened to cut the cables on Bob Dylan’s first electric performance - was astounded that we could coax the sound of bagpipes from this box of knobs and wires, and enthused to all and sundry that he’d never heard the beatings of these sweating boys from Wexford.
So all was hunky-dory until after the intermission, when out strode Pete strumming away on his banjo to rapturous applause from the packed house. Unfortunately, however, the stage curtain had got stuck on the Shure speaker propped atop the piano. Unaware of this impediment, the stage manager kept tugging for dear life until the speaker began to wobble and then sway in an alarming manner.
Turner and I watched from the wings, paralyzed with fright. Casting his eyes neither left nor right, up stepped up Pete to the microphone and exhorted the crowd to join him in “This Land Is Your Land.” Rising to their feet, 1500 left-wingers, tree-huggers and other ne’er-do-wells did so with gusto.
Then, proving my theory that the good god in heaven has definite subversive leanings, Pete suddenly was moved to stride forward onto the lip of the stage just as the Shure speaker gave one last wobble and came crashing down on the very spot where he had been standing only milliseconds before.
Suspecting a capitalist plot, the crowd gasped, but so focused was Pete that he didn’t even hear the crash behind him. Red-faced and trembling, Turner and I scurried out onstage and righted the offending speaker, and the star continued the show unaware that he had just been within a hair of meeting Jesus.
I recalled that night on Pete’s 90th birthday and celebrated the 30 extra years that the good god in heaven had granted one of the greatest living Americans. I also muttered a prayer of thanks that Turner and I had not joined the despised ranks of Lee Harvey Oswald, Mark Chapman and other well-known assassins.
Pete Seeger has always stood by his convictions even when they were unfashionable and deemed treasonous. Like such diverse figures as Tom Paine and Alexander Hamilton, he is convinced that Americans should have the right to express their own political beliefs, without having to tip their cap to those who would define patriotism in a narrow and factional manner.
Here’s to you, Pete, may you have another thirty birthdays. Just keep a weather eye open, J. Edgar Hoover might not have been able to lay a finger on you, but Turner & Kirwan of Wexford could be lurking in the wings.

Wednesday 13 May 2009


Where do you stand on the “torture” debate that’s been roiling the national consciousness of late? Like many, I wish it would just go away. After all, there are so many serious economic problems to deal with. What’s there to gain in rehashing thorny issues that are receding ever more quickly into the past?
The problem, as ever, is not the past – it’s the future. Although it seems unlikely, now that we have a pragmatic idealist in the White House, there will come a time when the drums will beat, the flags wave and we’ll be asked to rush off to war again.
We won’t be asked to fight a noble enemy – has there ever been one? More likely it will be a group of psychopaths seeking to destroy as many civilians as possible in order to gain publicity for their cause. Then what?
I remember standing on a rooftop in Lower Manhattan watching the twin towers collapse. Within seconds a rumor swept the neighborhood that a third plane was on its way. At that moment if some “foreigner” in a turban or dashiki had been accused of harboring relevant information, I wouldn’t have given much for his chances of survival. Such is the heat of the moment.
Apologists for torture reason that the country was under severe stress from the catastrophe of 9/11 – that the end justified the means. Tell that to Winston Churchill who resisted calls for extreme measures to be meted out to enemy detainees during the London Blitz.
The Spanish Inquisition perfected the technique we know as waterboarding but I doubt if even those noble men of god used it a hundred or more times on individual heretics, as happened on our behalf during 2003. It goes without saying that using simulated drowning even once is repugnant to most Americans, no matter what claims of legality are argued by former White House lawyers.
I think that many of us are wary of a real investigation for fear of what it may uncover. We’ve come to terms with the indecencies of Abu Ghraib but so far we’ve not had to confront the things done on our behalf by our Eastern European and Middle Eastern allies. Some of the “suspects” we handed over to these paragons of human rights were innocent of any major crime; we just did not wish them “questioned” under the safeguards provided by American jurisdiction.
And to think much of this illegality - for want of a better word - was conducted in a vain attempt by the Bush Administration to link Al Qaida with Saddam Hussein. The sad part is, while Bush, Cheney, et al are inking their book deals, we’re still mired in Iraq preventing the inevitable confrontation between Sunni and Shia in their thirteen hundred year old schism.
To say that American goodwill has been shamelessly squandered is an understatement. We used to be the good guys - and for the most part we still are – it’s just that we’re not seen that way anymore. We can sweep the mess created by a paranoid, brainless administration under the carpet and get on with putting the country back on a sound economic footing as President Obama and a majority of the country would prefer.
The problem is: with the recent release of classified information regarding the noble art of waterboarding the genie has now well and truly been let out of the bottle
So, what to do? Well, how about appointing an independent commission - but spare us the usual grandstanding bipartisan politicians. There are many women and men of sound judgment who could dispassionately disclose what actually happened to the country in our rush to war back in 2003.
That story would make gripping reading and, who knows, perhaps things weren’t as bad as some people suspect. One way or another, with the truth revealed we could finally put this fiasco behind us, reset our moral compass, and once more become the “good guys.”
If nothing else, those who perished on 9/11 will rest easier for they will no longer be used to justify perverse policies that the vast majority of them would never have condoned while alive.

Thursday 7 May 2009

A Horse or a Pub?

No one can be certain when the US will emerge from this recession but we will do so a different country.
We will rally much faster than the nations of the EC for there is little other choice – lacking their social safety net we will change careers, work at jobs “beneath us,” invent new ways of making a living, even create industries; in fact do anything to survive.
Anyone familiar with Ireland of the 70’s will not need to be reminded of the mass stasis and depression that blighted the country; remember the saying – “last one out, lock the door and turn out the lights!”
It’s a toss of the coin, though, whether the US or China will recover first. Both sets of people are industrious: they are more frugal and thrifty; we tend to be more inventive. They need us to purchase their products, while we cannot fund our lifestyle without their credit.
It’s amazing that two such disparate systems are so interdependent. At the moment they have the more dynamic government, willing and eager to spend on capital projects so that when this crisis passes their county will have benefited – they are currently building or are have plans for a dozen new subway systems in order to lessen their dependence on foreign oil. With a bit of luck we’ll have the 2nd Avenue line in operation around the time the Mets next win the World Series. Hey, you gotta believe!
So far, however, we have always trumped Mao’s children when it comes to putting original ideas into operation - especially, in the midst of recessions. Witness the groundbreaking advances in computer technology during the recession of the 70’s and the boom in related industries soon after.
Now that the junk bond dreams and credit default schemes of the financial industry are behind us, expect a surge in entrepreneurship and the creation of new industries. That’s the American way.
Like it or not, though, we’re entering an age of the self-employment, part-time work and internships. Because we didn’t reform the health insurance system in flusher times most of the onus still remains on employers to provide that service; this puts American business at a disadvantage with most of the industrialized world where private citizens tend to pay into government backed schemes. Hopefully, the situation will be remedied in the coming four years, but the world will be a very different place by then with new challenges – and challengers.
Where will we be socially when the dust clears? I’ve always felt that the 60’s actually ended around 1983 - along with the preceding recession. Yuppies swept away the final vestiges of the counter-culture and it became cooler to work rather than party all night.
Tell me about it – I’m writing this at six in the bloody morning! Either we need another 60’s or more hours in the day. Come to think of it - where are my bell-bottoms?
And yet, tough times beget opportunities. During the recession of the early 90’s Black 47 got its start in the Bainbridge Avenue/204th Street area of the Bronx – then the center of Irish immigrant life.
It’s said that every Irishman would like to either own a pub or a racehorse. I don’t know about the ponies, but during the construction boom of the mid-80’s it seemed as though a pub opened weekly around Bainbridge where live music was deemed essential to the success of saloon or shebeen.
And so Black 47 headed up the Major Deegan three or four times a week all through 1990-91. We worked our way up and down Braindamage (as it was affectionately known), getting fired more often than not, but there was always a new pub with need of a band.
By the time the recession ended in 1993 we had moved on to Letterman and the rest of the country. I never found out exactly what happened up on the street of dreams, but by the time we returned some years later, the Bainbridge we all knew and loved had disappeared.
This current recession will change us all and the way we look at life – the question is, how?