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.

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