Monday 22 November 2010

Runrig and my father

My father never cared much for rock & roll.

He was a big band man, loved Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, that type of thing. Tango and calypso were also favorites and our house used to swing to those grooves. I daresay they reminded him of the various South American ports that he was so familiar with for he spent much of his life as a merchant marine on the London to Buenos Aires run.

We had a strange family life by most standards, much coming and going, lots of goodbyes and much expectant waiting. But children are adaptable and my father’s tipsy returns inevitably brought gifts.

Yet I was surprised when, on one such occasion, from out of his battered suitcase he handed me an LP, and muttered, “all the highland lads love this band.”

He was working on the oil rigs up in the North Sea by this time and I had left home.

The LP was by a band called Runrig, some of it sung in Scottish Gaelic. I liked the music but neglected to take the LP back to New York and over the years I forgot about the band and its music.

In one of my other gigs I host Celtic Crush for SiriusXM Satellite Radio and often encourage people to send me their favorite CDs.

Thus you could have knocked me over with a feather when a thirty-year compilation of Runrig arrived in the mail. All the memories of my father’s hellos and goodbyes came flooding back. It was like a letter from the past.

I didn’t dare play the CD at first for fear the music wouldn’t hold up. Where had Runrig been, what had they been up to? I hadn’t heard of them since that long ago day back in Wexford.

I could almost smell the old leather of my father’s suitcase, the neatly packed clothes of the sailor, the LP stored safely between them. How strange that a digital disc should bring back such strong memories of an analog era when my parents were both alive.

I need have had no worries about Runrig. The music was powerful, sophisticated, full of longing, it spoke of history and struggle, and as with all good songwriting it swept you away to a time and place of its own evoking.

It was calm and unhurried and yet the passions ran deep. The music had a certainty about itself; although the composers were masters of their craft, they had obviously made a decision early on that they would plough their own furrow, dance to their own different drummer.

The music was not unlike a mixture of Pink Floyd and The Waterboys, but that fails to do it justice for Runrig posses a unique Celtic depth.

The band has managed to infuse modern music with the soul of Scotland - not its more obvious manifestations of pipes and kilts, but the highlands that have seen the displacement of the cotters - the glens and valleys once alive with people now inhabited only by ghosts.

In five magical minutes, their song Empty Glens summonses up the pain of a displaced people; while Abhainn an t-Sluaigh speaks of a visit to London and being almost swept away by a “river of people,” all the while longing for the western islands where a man might breathe.

On their live version of Loch Lomond they’re joined by 50,000 people in Hamden Park. Sound hokey? Not at all, for eighth exhilarating minutes they take you deep into the recesses of the Celtic soul. This excursion never fails to move me - and the listeners, judging by the volume of emails.

My father never used the word - soul. It was too highfalutin and anyway he didn’t believe in such things. Yet when I listen to Runrig I find a connection to him that we often didn’t share when he was alive.

How strange that a Celtic Rock band from the Isle of Skye should furnish that link for as I said, my father never cared much for rock & roll.

Tuesday 16 November 2010

Republocrats and Elvis

Though there were winners and losers in the recent election, one thing for certain, the next two years should be a blast.

Why so? Well, the Republican Party of No will now have to pull a nice plump white rabbit from its magic hat in the form of how to balance the budget and reduce the deficit while cutting everyone’s taxes and not laying a finger on defense spending or entitlements. Rock on!

Not to mention that they want to ditch the Health Insurance Bill which will actually reduce the deficit over the next ten years.

These magicians however need not hold their breath for support from the health insurance industry that, despite the occasional self-righteous squawk, is quite happy to accept the fifty million new customers the government will be consigning to its tender mercies.

Welcome to DC, you Tea-Partying Republicans, you are about to provide a valuable public service; for in your misguided attempts to eviscerate this decent piece of legislation you will actually highlight its many beneficial provisions and banish some of the lies and innuendo created by your corporate and media sponsors.

Your concern for giving a tax break to those clearing a quarter of million a year, however, is really touching especially when matched up against your unwillingness to pony up a couple of hundred bucks a week for the many unemployed who will be cut off from benefits next month.

Now I ask you who’s more likely to put their money back in the economy, a mother of four living on pasta and hope, or the Lexus owner who just might order Yankee season tickets or a Kate Spade pocketbook?

And what about the party of Bobby Kennedy and FDR? If the Democrats’ sole ambition is to become Republican Lite, you’ve hit the jackpot, guys! Few even deign to mention, let alone defend, a health insurance bill that offers broad protection to the consumer.

And how about their other accomplishments that Democrats ran from faster than any of Steve Duggan’s tips out in Belmont - the stimulus that helped avert a depression; and the bailout of banks and the car industry that not only succeeded but will eventually turn a profit for the country?

“Don’t get me started,” as Elvis warned when speaking about Lisa Marie marrying Michael Jackson.

But let’s talk about the real winners - Big Money, in its various permutations and combinations. As if it wasn’t already calling the shots in this republic, the gutting of the Feingold-McCain Act by the recent Supreme Court ruling put it firmly in the driver’s seat. With no legal need to claim credit for the ads that flooded television, the lies and negativity unleashed were positively eye-popping.

The biggest target – Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin! This decent man who bucked Democrats and Republicans alike, in league with the old John McCain – remember him - had the temerity to pass reasonable legislation on campaign donations. Well he may have got the heave ho but we’re the big losers, for Feingold was a true champion of the republic and its citizens.

Some people in the business community feel that the upcoming gridlock will be good for the country; and in the short term they may be right. Company profits are up, cash reserves high, why bother to hire new people when your current overworked employees can carry the load?

Besides, there’s bound to be a couple of scared Democrats who’ll help eviscerate the Finance Reform Bill, especially that pesky little provision that demands that derivative trading be done publicly.

Are you kidding me? The whiz kids down on Wall Street almost pulled off what Lenin and Mao never came close to doing – the destruction of American capitalism – with their unethical and irresponsible creation and trading of stealth bomb derivatives for short term gain.

The president and his party would do well to recall the mid-term elections of 1946. Had Harry Truman buckled under that defeat and dismantled the New Deal, where would we be?

Ah well, where’s my remote, time to check out Rachel Maddow’s hairstyle. The blood sport of politics is about to become interesting again.

Wednesday 10 November 2010

Amram and Kerouac

The Bells of Hell was the best saloon I ever drank in.

“And that’s saying something,” nods your man up in Pearl River.

It was opened by Malachy McCourt, noted raconteur, author, scourge of Bush, Giuliani and anyone with a kind word for conservatism.

Malachy may have been long on charm and good fellowship but he definitely never gained an MBA from Harvard. In fact such were the number of slates, buybacks and general dispensing of free drinks to the needy, it’s a tribute to capitalism that the Bells was able to limp through the swinging 70’s before finally expiring in Ronald Reagan’s Morning in America 80’s.

The joint boasted only three rules: all fisticuffs to be conducted on the sidewalk, fornication and drug use confined to bathrooms and basement; and, most importantly, boring your neighbor was strictly prohibited.

This den of literary iniquity was frequented by journalists, poets, musicians, communists, noblemen, libertarians, urban farmers, refugees from the Bronx, defrocked priests and Christian brothers, an occasional bishop, many the radical nun and a healthy sprinkling of young ladies from the nearby Evangeline Residence, along with hard-bitten nurses from St. Vincent’s emergency room who took the occasional lucky young Irishman under their experienced wing.

Thus you could sit between a Clancy Brother and a Hamill, Lester Bangs and a Tipperary carpenter, a politician in drag and a lady of a certain age looking for a husband but willing to settle for the next best thing. To top it all, money, as I’ve said, was no object.

Many of the clientele dwelt in the uncertain past or the unfocused present, few gave much thought to the future. One visionary, however, jumps to mind. And what a past he’s had, not to mention a future that’s so stuffed with goals and ambitions it would turn a teenager off texting.

David Amram will be celebrating his first 80 years tomorrow night in New York’s Symphony Space.

“Who the hell is he when he’s at home,” mutters your man up in Pearl River.

Well, Mr. Amram was chosen by Leonard Bernstein to be the first composer-in-residence at the New York Philharmonic, he has written over 100 symphonies and choral pieces, mastered an array of instruments exotic and otherwise, but more amazingly, he and his bosom buddy, Jack Kerouac, invented the modern jazz-poetry reading.

And neither of them even wore berets that first night in Greenwich Village back in 1957 when David improvised on French Horn behind the author of On The Road. Then again, David Amram was a fully paid up Karmic member of the Beat Generation himself, along with Ginsberg, Burroughs, Ferlinghetti and Neal Cassady.

But fast forward to the back room of the Bells where Liam Clancy, Turner & Kirwan of Wexford, King Rude, Flying Cloud, Lester Bangs, Mike OBrien & Chris King and a host of others were wont to do their thing.

David never heard a piece of music that he couldn’t add some wonder to. In fact, he may have invented the term World Music; at least he was the first person I ever heard use it and, more to the point, demonstrate that all music is interconnected and will fit together provided you have the pertinent chops and taste.

Take a look at what’s in store tomorrow night. In The Fox Hunt From Cork Meets The Blues From New York, for instance, Joseph Mulvanerty from Black 47 and I will be collaborating with Malachy, John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Amram's Latin/Jazz Ensemble and dancers from the Stella Adler School of Acting.

But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. There’ll be diverse musical and lyrical communal explorations conducted by a man who has collaborated with everyone from Dizzy Gillsepie to Johnny Depp, Willie Nelson to Arthur Miller; it will all be filmed and you never know who will show up. That’s the Amram magic.

But more than anything, the evening will serve as a springboard to David’s next 80 years, and I ain’t kidding.

The Bells, the Beats and Bohemian New York City will live for one more evening in Symphony Space. Be there or be square, man!

Wednesday 3 November 2010

Election - Where Have You Gone Mister Hamilton...

Has anything changed after yesterday’s election? Probably not, but the current national malaise has come more into perspective.

Answers, as usual, are scarce on the ground, but one question continues to rear its head. Why is it so hard for us to talk to each other?

Of course, it was ever so. Take a swing back through American history and you’ll find it brimming over with political argument spiced by plain old partisan politics.

The Revolutionary period, however, does provide insight into how the country once overcame this divisiveness when a conservative giant insisted on doing the right thing.

Alexander Hamilton’s life reads like a novel - born illegitimately into modest circumstances in the West Indies. A merchant’s clerk, he was sent to New York to further his studies. There he became a street instigator against British rule, aide-de-camp to George Washington and after the war a very rich lawyer; he was blackmailed by a femme fatale, and eventually killed in a duel.

In his spare moments, as first Secretary of the US Treasury, he insisted that all loans made to the revolutionary movement should be honored by the federal government, this, at a time, when the country was financially destitute and weakened by rivalry between states.

There were universal howls of rage against Hamilton’s suggestion but through sheer force of personality, arm-twisting and favor pulling, he succeeded; the country never looked back and the dollar, despite many buffetings, has been the favorite international currency for almost a century.

What would Hamilton think of us today? Everyone is angry about deficits, although many only since the financial crisis or, dare I say it, the election of a Democratic administration.

And yet our deficits are intrinsically bipartisan and caused by a refusal to pay for social services, the prosecution of ongoing foreign wars, and a diminution of the tax base due to the economic downturn.

While there are cyclical and structural reasons for the latter, it would be hard to argue that the current recession was not accelerated by an unregulated financial industry that put profit before public trust.

With the introduction of the recent Finance Reform Bill, there is hope that the financial system of the country is now on a sounder footing. Company profits are high, credit is cheap, if US capitalism works in its normal cyclic manner, the economy should expand leading to a higher tax base and a reduction of the deficit, much as happened in the Clinton years.

That won’t really bring long term relief though if we keep bleeding the country’s wealth with unnecessary foreign wars. Leaving aside any moral issues, we are being held hostage by small, driven nationalist movements half way around the world similar to the way that our revolutionaries bled the British Empire.

It’s time to make whatever dignified departures possible from Iraq and Afghanistan and then really debate the reasons we’re still in Germany, Korea and Japan while those countries have thriving democratic societies and economies.

The real deficit inducer, however, is that we refuse to pay for our social services. In fact, we can’t even have a meaningful discussion about their funding. Apart from a couple of wealthy libertarians and some Yuppies who have yet to feel the cold finger of ill-health, no one I know wants to privatize social security and most people are just dying to get to sixty-five and Medicare so that they can be somewhat shielded from a rapacious health insurance industry.

In fact, everyone I’ve lobbied would gladly sacrifice a couple of bucks extra a week in taxes to ensure that they have a meaningful safety net in their golden years.

So why do we allow blow-dried politicians and smarmy lobbyists to impose their will on us by muddying the debate?

Well we don’t vote in sufficient numbers. We get our news from television sound-bite messiahs who deal in fiction rather than fact. And we’d sooner howl to the heavens rather than grapple with thorny and weighty matters.

One way or another, there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell of solving any of the above issues until we can engage in sane, substantive and non-partisan discussions.

“Where have you gone, Mister Hamilton, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you…”