Wednesday 28 April 2010

Brooklyn Girls

Brooklyn girls just break your heart
Then they watch you fall apart with their incredible eyes
Moistened by the goodbyes
'Til I forget all I ever learned about those crazy Brooklyn girls…

They were all beautiful, as I remember them, friendly too, and they asked YOU to dance.
The first time at Tomorrow’s Lounge on 86th Street – I thought it might have been a prank. Back in those days you could ask a dozen Irish girls before one might trip the light fantastic with you.
I remember very politely inquiring of a young lady in Wexford’s Parish Hall if she’d care to dance. Without missing a beat she replied, “Certainly, if you could find me a partner.”
Moving to Brooklyn was like finding the Promised Land. Not only was I a musician but Irish too and just off the boat, a rare commodity. Pierce Turner and I ended up there by accident – story of our lives. We needed a place to stay, an acquaintance had a room to spare and so we took the Double R train to Bay Ridge – wherever that was.
Eventually, we nailed down three nights a week at Tomorrows, a piano bar, frequented by cops, firemen, transit workers and others of a certain respectability in need of a drink.
And there we met the Brooklyn girls. A couple of them strayed in and found that we were dab hands at imitating Simon & Garfunkel - and with accents too. These lovelies spread the word and their sisters arrived in droves; within months we were the talk of the town – or at least Bay Ridge.
I just couldn’t get over how beautiful they all were – it’s not that ladies in Ireland didn’t have their looks, it was just the sheer variety of those Brooklyn girls. Now I see the melting pot at work, back then I thought I’d won the lottery.
It was the best of times and the worst of times. The Vietnam War was inching to a close, but even though it was the ‘70’s, the ‘60s were still in full flower on 86th Street. Brooklyn’s own Pete Hamill wrote for the New York Post. Different days, indeed! I remember how he brought the war home by describing the carnage in New York if hit by the same tonnage of bombs dropped that day on Hanoi.
He singled out Prospect Park. Never been there? Forget about the Sheep Meadow, Propect is a well-kept Brooklyn secret. And make sure you don’t miss the Botanical Gardens, particularly when the cherry trees are blooming; even better, stroll hand in hand under an eiderdown of pink blossoms with a Brooklyn girl.
‘Twas in Bay Ridge that I was first introduced to the glories of Italian food. To this day I’ve never had chicken cacciatore the beatings of Lentos, a dimly lit family restaurant on Ovington Avenue.
And talk about a variety of bars – from saloons like the Three Jolly Pigeons down around Senator Street up to swanky rock clubs like Bananafish Park, and did Poverty’s Pub really allow you to drink all the beer you could handle over two hours for three bucks? A privilege often abused, I fear – my brother once heroically downed 19 beers. Never made it to the 20, however.
Have you ever lay in the sands of Coney Island, ate oysters in Sheepshead Bay, drank vodka with wanna-be gangsters and Soviet veterans in Brighton Beach? There’s a whole different world out in that borough and I’m just scratching at the surface.
If there’s a nicer walk in the city than Shore Road, let me know. But most of all, I wonder if the Verrazano still “hang like a string of pearls in the night” and did those Brooklyn girls marry and move out to Staten Island?
I don’t know. Vietnam ended and everyone swore there’d be no more unnecessary foreign adventures. We moved on too. CBGB’s was opening and you could get an apartment for a buck and a half a month in the East Village (eat your heart out).
Those Brooklyn girls probably have daughters now every bit as beautiful as they were in that wonderful year. Do they still ask immigrant boys to dance? Maybe they even smooch to the song written about their mothers.

Now I'm on the sidewalk, night lights up your room
Go down to the Narrows, watch the immigrant moon
Beam down on Staten Island with its unforgiving sheen
And I'd give everything not to hemorrhage all of your dreams

Brooklyn girls just break your heart…

Tuesday 20 April 2010


Brace yourself, Bridget. It’s time we dealt with the thorny subject of illegal immigration.
“Undocumented” is a more compassionate adjective but those who oppose any leniency will have no truck with it; besides when I jumped ship here myself, I was aware of the illegality of my actions. With time and assistance I was able to gain a legal foothold then follow the long and winding road to citizenship.
I have a deep sympathy for those currently in this dreaded limbo for I never got a chance to say goodbye to the grandfather that raised me - returning to Ireland during his final days would have jeopardized my status.
Regardless, it’s now or never for immigration reform! Democrats will lose seats in November and Republicans have no intention of grasping this particular nettle.
The once magisterial Senator John McCain has fled the field. There’s nothing quite like a right wing primary challenge to bring this immigration maverick to heel.
However, by bucking the zealots in his own party and co-sponsoring a comprehensive bill on immigration reform, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham may be the most courageous politician to come down the pike of late.
Oddly enough, this controversial proposal could provide part of the solution to our fiscal crisis for there may be as many as ten million people operating outside the taxation system - a huge loss of both state and federal revenue.
Perhaps it’s time to bring them in from the cold? This would, no doubt, cause great concern to those who believe that amnesty is not only unethical but also sends a wrong message. But let’s face it - the current system is just not working.
The proposed Schumer-Graham Bill provides no mere slap on the wrist; it would require the undocumented to not only admit they broke the law but pay fines and back taxes. That would provide a huge revenue bonanza that could go to reducing the national debt.
In addition, all candidates would have to pass background checks and gain a working knowledge of English before being allowed to work toward lawful permanent residence.
Schumer-Graham also proposes that prospective candidates engage in meaningful community service. Think of the positive energy that might unleash nationwide.
For those concerned with security, the bill makes clear that gang members, smugglers, terrorists and those who have committed felonies since arriving need not apply. Added to this, all citizens and legal immigrants would be issued an ID card with embedded biometric information that would make future illegal entry even harder.
Would new unqualified people seek to come here after the present ones gain legal status? Of course, but that will always be the case when there is great economic imbalance between nations. Still, the new security measures will turn a flood into a trickle.
This country was built by immigrants - legal and illegal! It’s time to unleash the potential of those living in the shadows. They’re not going back so let’s harness their capabilities. Most are young, energetic and eager to work their way up the economic ladder.
The “fortress America” attitude fostered in the wake of 9/11 is not only damaging our national psyche but our pocketbooks. What madness to educate the best and brightest of foreign students then send them home rather than utilizing their talents.
Immigrants were at the forefront of the high tech boom until post-9/11 paranoia damned up much of their flow. Schumer-Graham would grant green cards to all immigrants who receive advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering or math.
At the other end of the scale, there are many jobs in the agricultural, food and restaurant industries that Americans will not work at and must be filled.
This proposed law will be a bitter pill for many, but what are the alternatives? Let’s have a positive and meaningful national debate on the subject – not the politically-charged donnybrooks of the past. Sure, Schumer-Graham is radical, dramatic and divisive, but so was the founding of the country.
The US has always been seen as a shining city on the hill. It’s time to switch the lights full on again or at least light the penny candles of compromise and pass a watered-down, or alternative, bill that will give a stake in the country to those who can contribute.
Then many in our own community can finally go home, visit their loved ones and legally return to the lives they have created here.
But it’s now or never. You think April is the cruelest month, you ain’t seen nothing like November.

Sunday 18 April 2010

MacGowan, Satellite and Songwriting

“Kirwan,” the old showband head addressed me. “There are only two types of music, good and bad. Now step aside!”
With that he belted into “Down By The Riverside,” and soon had the dance floor “black” with delighted jivers and quicksteppers who had been ominously absent during my previous pop meanderings.
The head’s judgment may still stand but what would he think of today’s polished mediocrity? For with the advent of computer software even your Aunt Gerty can “make a record.”
Not everyone, however, is a songwriter. That breed appears to come in two types: volcanic talents like Van Morrison or Brill Building types who master their craft after years of trial and error.
In one of my other gigs I host Celtic Crush for SiriusXM. This entails a lot of listening – more like scratching around for diamonds in piles of polished dust. One thing you learn quickly on Satellite Radio - every song must be distinctive; with over 100 competing music channels, not to mention the lurking appeal of Howard Stern, each number must capture and hold the listener’s attention or else it’s “c u l8r.”
Originality, unfortunately, is a rarity and though you may long for it like a cat in a tripe shop, you’re more often forced to settle for a dollop of emotion chiseled into some decent lyrics and arresting melodies.
Shane McGowan still stands out for his ability to encapsulate the Irish soul – a rare diamond, indeed; and yet, I often rue the effect he’s had on Irish-American songwriting. While aping the man’s phrasing and subject matter can work on stage before a boozed-up audience, more often than not it comes off as parody in the recording studio.
Far better that Shane’s musical disciples mine his original sources - Brendan Behan, Irish showbands, London punk and Tipperary Trad. Channeling these through the prism of a unique creativity McGowan gave us The Pogues.
Shane would be the first to note that there are still vast virgin tracts of the Irish Folk Tradition to draw from. Time to get cracking, Shaneheads! You have the chops - all you’re lacking is the material and that divine spark of originality necessary to ignite it.
Which brings me to Yellow Moon. You might wonder what’s the connection between the Neville Brothers from New Orleans and anything remotely Irish? Oddly enough, quite a bit!
Yellow Moon has long been one of my favorite albums but I hadn’t listened to it since the 90’s. Was I afraid it wouldn’t stand up – or perhaps I didn’t want to mess with the memory of sharing a stage with them some years back?
Neville is a very popular name in my neck of the woods. Were the Brothers descended from long-ago Wexford emigrants or, as some of you are probably muttering, had their slave masters hailed from the Model County?
Perhaps, both! When Black 47 first played Tipitinas in New Orleans’12th Ward we were treated like royalty by the city’s music lovers and local Irish-Americans.
At the end of our “meet and greet” line stood a dozen or so of what I took to be African-Americans. Each one, however, exulted in trumpeting Irish surnames like Murphy and Doyle. They told me that their forefathers had come to Crescent City in the 1860’s to dig the canals and married “locally.”
Yellow Moon not only stood up - it floored me all over again. Each song was a gem, from the title track to My Blood, from Rosa Parks to A Change Is Gonna Come. It’s the story of a people rooted in one of the world’s great musical melting pots. And, sure enough, beneath Daniel Lanois’ incandescent production, one can glimpse sparks of the Celt.
Listen to Aaron Neville update Sean-Nós on Bob Dylan’s With God On Our Side – itself lifted from Dominic Behan’s Patriot Game - and you feel the ineffable pain of all the world’s dispossessed reclaiming their dignity.
Like much great art, Yellow Moon is timeless and self-reflecting. By flirting with perfection this album allows us to reflect on what we were when we first heard it, while revealing what we have become down the years in between.
It’s a diamond that still sparkles; pulsing with raw humanity it helps us differentiate between genius, and the curse of mediocrity and parody. That’s no small thing in an age of polished dust.

Tuesday 13 April 2010

Sandy Denny

A hush often falls on conversation when the name, Sandy Denny, arises. It’s usually accompanied by sighs and a gentle shaking of the head. The initial pain at her passing almost 32 years ago has eased, but many of her admirers still experience a deep sense of loss.

What is it about Alexandra Elene Maclean Denny? And why does she touch us still? I really don’t know, but even as I write this I’m filled with a sense of gentle melancholia. It definitely had something to do with her voice. Even as a very young woman, that instrument ached with experience.

How could she have written a masterpiece like “Who Knows Where The Time Goes” as a teenager? And to compound matters, it was rumored to be her first composition. During an interview with Richard Thompson for Celtic Crush, I asked him if this was true. He replied that to the best of his knowledge it was and, at any rate, she’d had the song when he first met her.

Fairport Convention are merely a footnote now in rock history but there was a time in the late 6o’s/early 70’s when their influence was huge and their star shone brightly. There wasn’t a woman singer at the time that did not look up to Ms. Denny. Sandy, herself, was racked by insecurity. She longed for mainstream success but was unsure about, among other things, her appearance. Add to that a shyness and an uncertainty about celebrity.

Despite these doubts she was electric performer who devoured light. When she was onstage it was hard to take your eyes off her, notwithstanding the fact that she was always accompanied by stellar and equally charismatic musicians, the like of Richard Thompson and her husband, Trevor Lucas. I guess it was her intensity. The song was everything to her and she effortlessly channeled the times and the ghosts of the people she sang about.

Take a listen to Banks of the Nile with her band Fotheringay. I still delight in the perfection of the song’s arrangement; and then that voice – laying bare the story of a girl who dresses as a soldier to find her lover in England’s army fighting Napoleon in Egypt.

Or lose yourself in the longing and regret of No End where she mourns for the idealism of an artist she loved and admired. Now that he’s forsaken his craft – and her – what’s left? Well, actually, a lot! That ineffable feeling we’ve all experienced at being let down, but were never quite able to put into words.

Sandy died from a brain hemorrhage after a fall down a stairs in 1978. At the end of our interview, I asked Richard Thompson to describe Sandy. After praising her originality, voice and craft, he halted for a moment then continued in his very understated English way, “she was a woman of considerable appetites.”

Lucky for us, I suppose, for her songs, though delicate, throb with life, loss and pain. She was the best and we’re lucky to have been touched by her considerable talents, spirit and soul.

Wednesday 7 April 2010

Storm Troopers on the Mall?

I question whether this is a democratic constitutional republic anymore,” wailed Lou Dobbs.
“We need to defeat these bastards. We need to wipe them out, everyone of them.” Rush Limbaugh railed.
Did I miss something? Had liberal storm troopers come roaring down the Mall and taken control of Congress?
Not really, a pretty modest health care reform bill passed by 219 votes to 212. The earth didn’t stop spinning, life went on, and as far as I can tell Nancy Pelosi hasn’t moved into my doctor’s office.
But then I’m not even sure who my doctor is anymore. Prior to all this caterwauling, because of escalating premiums I was forced to change insurers; to my dismay the new private arbiter of my health does not do business with my MD of 20 years. Hey, maybe this qualifies me for Tea Party membership!
This is not a great bill because it doesn’t provide a public option - the only way costs will ever be reduced. But it’s not half bad either, if only because insurers will soon be barred from denying coverage to kids with pre-existing conditions – unfortunately, adults must wait four years for the same mercy.
Still, it’s a very practical bill because millions of unemployed college graduates, interns and uncovered workers may stay on their parents’ policies until their 27th birthdays.
Not to mention that many of us will sleep better knowing that insurers will be prohibited from dropping us should we take to our beds with anything stronger than a hangover.
And yet these tidings were like a wet Monday in Cultimagh for the Republican Party, though not for drug companies and the health insurance industry whose stocks advanced. Wall Street recognizes that bringing 32 million people into the system, far from being a government takeover, is a very pro-business initiative.
In fact, this controversial law will soon pay for itself through revenues raised from the jobs created to look after the health of all those newly insured.
The only downside is the Republican Party choosing to play politics rather than helping govern the country. To quote that great maverick Senator John McCain, “There will be no cooperation for the rest of the year.”
So when it comes to dealing with the various ills that beset the country we’re supposed to wait ‘til the balls fall off the Christmas tree before this conservative hissy fit ends?
Right now we need a Republican Party that is actively involved in governance. This is a two party democracy and when one opts out and allows the tail of Dobbs, Limbaugh, Beck and Palin to wag the dog of the Party of Lincoln then we all have problems.
The Bush administration squandered a surplus of billions and saddled us with a staggering deficit. And yet in its current winter of discontent, the Republican Party is unwilling to acknowledge these bald facts much less engage in any meaningful self-reflection.
Rather it has been flirting with a posse of irresponsible demagogues in an effort to return to power. To what end? Re-enact the same failed policies that caused double-digit unemployment and allowed Wall Street gamblers to push the very capitalist system to the brink?
This is no huzzah for the Democrats. The party of Bobby Kennedy is in hock to its own special interests. Big money has far too much influence on the body politic. Yet in fairness, many congressional Democrats put their seats on the line in the recent health care debate while the Party of No unanimously sat on its hands like a pouting teenager.
Notwithstanding this obstructionism, some of the most immediate health insurance ills were dealt with, so it’s on to regulation of a financial industry that almost crippled the country; it will be interesting to note how individual Republicans and Democrats vote apropos the vast amounts of money being poured into this upcoming battle by banks and financiers.
In its great history the Republican Party has been the champion of abolition, nation building at home, and fiscal responsibility. The party of Abe Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower is now, however, at a crossroads. It can continue justifying nihilistic outrage for short-term political gain, or once more open the flaps of its big tent to reason and honest democratic compromise.
This is a dangerous time; it calls for temperate and constructive debate. The country is awash with guns and unruly passions.
All it takes is one lunatic with echoes of demagogic rants ricocheting around his head, then where will we be? Political expediency is one thing, stone cold tragedy another.