Wednesday 18 November 2009

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today...

“It was twenty years ago today,
Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play…”

Well maybe not to the exact day but sometime in November1989, Chris Byrne and I headed for the Bronx to play Black 47’s first gig.
So much has changed and yet so little. The country was in recession then and would soon head into the Gulf War. We’re in a depression now, winding down an Iraqi disaster and about to dig a real hole in Afghanistan. Makes you almost long for George H. Bush.
The Guildford Four were just out, the Birmingham Six still in, Joe Doherty battled extradition, and Margaret Thatcher was slouching towards irrelevance.
We both felt there was a need for a band that would tell it like it was - to the beats and rhythms of New York City. It didn’t take genius to realize that combatants prefer negotiations to ultimatums, and bringing Sinn Fein in from the cold would lead to all sorts of dividends. How alien that idea was in so many circles back then.
It was a harsh winter but other conditions seemed favorable. Bainbridge Avenue and 204th Street was the beating heart of the modern Irish Diaspora and a plethora of bars had opened in the vicinity during the cash rich mid-80’s. In the downturn that followed most of them needed music to draw a crowd; thus, it was no bother to knock out four or five gigs a week – just what a new band needed
One problem was the “New Irish,” remember them? They adored U2, the Waterboys and the Pogues; we were sure they’d appreciate a blast of originality. Fat chance! All they wanted was U2, the Waterboys and the Pogues, or any carbon copy thereof.
But who wanted to look back at Dublin or London? We were in the city of Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and Public Enemy. Why not put a New York stamp on Irish music?
Eyes on the prize! We recorded on the nights we weren’t being fired up and down Braindamage, as the Avenue was fondly referred to.
Then just in time young Irish-Americans began showing up. They were familiar with James Connolly and Bobby Sands. They liked the beats and the attitude. They spread the word through colleges and cousins around the country.
Fred Parcells arrived one night with his trombone, Geoffrey Blythe with his saxophones, Thomas Hamlin began on percussion and ended up on drums; and before long we were all over the media, and movie stars were lining up to see us at Paddy Reilly’s.
But it was always the music and the message, for who cared if Matt Dillon or Brooke Shields were watching as long as you’re gliding across the beat and stretching notes in a way you never thought possible; for that’s what being a musician is all about, finding your voice and going way beyond yourself.
Yet glancing back down a glittery road littered with broken dreams, bodies and bottles, it’s not the nights on Leno or Letterman that spring to mind, for they only confirmed the plastic nature of transient celebrity.
No, rather you think of your first soundman, Johnny Byrne, and wonder if he’d still be alive if you had said what you should have, and of a St. Patrick’s night shooting when your world turned upside down, and of a freezing February morning of splintering glass and screeching metal while the van hurtled head over heels across the black ice of Route 95.
But measured against those disasters was the gay couple from Woodside who told you that life was much safer now that young Irish-Americans were listening to your take on Danny Boy. Or the night you first played James Connolly in rowdy Paddy Reilly’s and you could have heard a pin drop because you’d finally created a new kind of song. Or the barbed-wire riffs you played behind Chris when he took the paint and hypocrisy off the walls and Mayor Giuliani with Walk All The Days.
And what’s next? Well, a new CD in February and after that who knows, for as Jim Morrison was heard to say, “the future’s uncertain and the end is always near.” That realization makes every night special and we’ve never repeated a set in well over 2000 gigs.
We’ll celebrate 20 years on the road on four consecutive Saturday nights at Connolly’s, 121 W. 45th Street beginning Nov. 21st. Who knows what we’ll play? Some things never change – especially echoes of Bainbridge 1989.

Wednesday 11 November 2009

Thank you, Sir Bob

It’s not often I tip my cap to royalty, British or Irish, but I am deeply indebted to Sir Bob Geldof. Without him I would never have kissed Debbie Harry.
Now what in the name of God, says you, would the singer from Blondie be doing kissing the likes of you – the head on you and the price of turnips!
Well, it didn’t happen today or yesterday, but back in the mists of time when I nightly made the scene and was known to guest list keepers the length and breadth of Manhattan.
And so it came to pass that the Boomtown Rats made their first New York appearance at the Academy of Music and great was the buzz around town.
I had seen them in Wexford’s Whites Hotel back when they were an excellent R&B type band of the Stones/Doctor Feelgood ilk and was keen to experience their punk incarnation.
With little problem, Pierce Turner and a gang of us finagled our way on to some guest list or other. All credit to the Rats: they were electric that night and, in fact, premiered I Don’t Like Mondays during their encore.
It was during this song that one of our posse, Neil Kempfer-Stocker, a man with much dander and many connections, broke the news that the Rats would throw a post-gig shindig at the very swanky One Fifth, coincidentally enough housed at One Fifth Avenue.
Neil suggested that, on account of our Wexford accents, we should rush down, pretend we were the Rats, eat their food, drink their booze, and if we could bamboozle a few ladies into the bargain, Geldof would hardly miss them.
Everything went swimmingly. Neil rang One Fifth, said our limo was parked around the corner, that the Rats were about to check out the joint, see if it was up to snuff - all to be done with the minimum of fuss.
The manager appeared forthwith; he was from Italy, well used to La Dolce Vita, and appreciated the fact that stars of our wattage might like to have some moments of peace before our admirers descended upon us.
He did appear a little stunned by the voracity with which we attacked the lobster and shrimp. But he was thrilled that we took so well to his own recipe of champagne and Guinness. This mixture, I might add, though rough on the palette, improved mightily by the pint.
Regardless, it possessed a tremendous kick and time seemed to fly – our initial plan had been to duck out the back after a couple of belts; indeed some of our number had already stuffed shrimp and lobster claws into their pockets.
I don’t remember even being particularly perturbed when the manager filled our glasses one more time and confided that we should meet our guests who were clamoring outside in the lobby.
There was nothing for it but to stand in line and shake the hands of every hip, New York City freeloader as they rushed past to partake of the feast. Most of them wouldn’t have known a rat, Boomtown or otherwise, if it had taken a bite out of them.
And then I saw Debbie Harry approaching and whatever notion I had of time stood still. She was beaming at me, though I must confess, she appeared glassy-eyed and a little unsteady.
I reached out for her, unwilling to have her spoil my moment by toppling off her heels. She melted into my arms and, to this day, I can’t believe how well she fit. Then, she murmured, “You were wonderful onstage tonight.”
Who was I to disabuse her? In no uncertain terms, I let her know that she was looking and feeling nothing short of brilliant herself.
She’d obviously never before had a brush with a Wexford Casanova, for she stumbled once again. It was now or never and so I closed my eyes and gently laid my lips on hers. To my amazement she let them linger, although I suppose she could have been using me as ballast to get a grip on her heels. Still, as she pulled away she winked conspiratorially.
Geldof arrived soon after. He appeared somewhat puzzled and then indignant when the manager sought to corroborate his identity.
Ah well, it’s only rock & roll, Sir Bob, thanks anyway. For every time I hear Heart of Glass, no matter where I am I wink back at Debbie’s lovely unsteady memory.

Wednesday 4 November 2009

Pity the poor Health Insurance Industry

All right, I’m giving fair warning to all you Glenn Beck-watching, Rush Limbaugh-listening devotees. Cast your eyes rightward to the writings of Ray O’Hanlon, a sound and decent man, for I’m about to mention both the G and S words many times in the course of this column.
“Oh Jaysus, no! Here he goes again,” murmurs the gentleman up in Pearl River who peppers me with anatomically impossible suggestions of what I should do with myself sexually and otherwise.
But I ask you, what’s a poor Paddy to do? I was raised at a time when the Government was looked upon as an institution that might go to bat for you when all else failed, and in a place where Socialism was just another way of looking at things.
Of course, the times were simpler and you didn’t have to put much thought into health insurance. The Government looked after that by lifting a chunk of change from your weekly pay packet. Far from traumatizing you, this institutionalized lightening allowed more time to ponder important matters like could Christy Moore follow up Lisdoonvarna or would Clare ever manage the hurling and football double?
Health Insurance caused little concern unless you fancied a semi-private hospital room, in which case you dug deep and ponied up a sufficiency of Punts. But even then it was far from an existential, sweat-the-night issue.
Over here, though, I spend a lot of time fretting about the state of the Health Insurance industry. And I’m not even referring to my annual pint-glass smashing rants occasioned when my own beloved provider informs me that it has yet again been forced to raise the premium.
No, like most Americans, I worry about big Government actually going into competition with these altruistic, humanitarian organizations and, horror of horrors, driving them out of business.
After all fair is far, and how can we expect these philanthropic, never-refuse-a-sick-person shrinking violets to go mano-a-mano with over-bloated, steroid-popping, humongous big Socialist Government?
Occasionally, however, in the fleeting moments of clarity around my third pint, I wonder what these humanitarian outfits are so afraid of? Could it be that people might intrinsically prefer big old bumbling Government to private conglomerates who don’t give a tinker’s curse about anything besides the bottom line and senior management bonuses?
I ask you, what’s the most popular institution in this country apart from Oprah and your local Uggs outlet? Hands down, it’s the military, an enterprise run solely by Big Government and funded by our taxes. Sounds suspiciously like Socialism to me. Hey, Bill O’Reilly, you first read about it here.
But let’s give credit where it’s due. Bill, Glenn and Rush have one thing patently correct. This Health Insurance bill inching its way through Congress will cost much more than projected - unless it provides for a Public Option.
The Health Insurance Industry is an ace away from pulling off the score of the century - up to 30 million new suckers being forced into a federally unregulated system where premiums will continue to skyrocket.
Recent polls would suggest that the majority of Americans are ignoring the G and S word phobia fostered by lobbyists and the conservative media. They know that the Health Insurance Industry cleared 26 billion bucks last year. They see the practicality and ultimate benefits of competition.
But with up to 2 million dollars being spent a day to ensure that no meaningful Public Option alternative is offered, I wouldn’t count on big Government arriving with the cavalry. Too many Democrats and Republicans have taken the Health Insurance Industry’s shilling or are up for re-election in states where Bill, Glenn and Rush can make a difference in 2010.
Employing Justice Department statistics it is estimated that the dominant insurance company faces little competition in 94% of markets nationally.
C’mon, guys, give a brother a break! Why not let Big Government take a crack at driving down prices. I mean, everyone and their mother is just dying to live to be 65 so that they can get a piece of Medicare. And Big Government is not doing such a bad job running that.
Oh no, another letter from my friendly health care provider just landed in the hall. Lock up those pint glasses!