Friday 23 December 2011

The Irish-American Princess

She was my first IAP (Irish-American Princess). Well the first that I lived with at any rate. Tara had somehow made her way down to the Lower East Side from the leafy, lace-curtain environs of Westchester, although she was anything but stuck up.

Back then I had a regular Sunday gig in the less than ritzy Archway up the Bronx and she fit in there like a fist in a glove. Of course, she was quite a looker so that didn’t hurt with the lovesick Paddies.

She had beautiful grayish green eyes that would mist over in any kind of conflict or passion; there was much of both in our relationship. The boys said that she could twist me around her little finger. They were right, but oh that twisting could be so sweet.

Things came easy to Tara. She had succeeded at everything she’d turned her hand to. But she wished to become a successful singer, the rock that many have foundered upon.

I must have seemed like a good step up the ladder; along with gigs in the Archway and John’s Flynn’s Village Pub, I regularly strutted my stuff at CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City.

It was to be a match made in purgatory for both of us. Whatever, as they say, I was in need of some stability and moved into her apartment on First Avenue.

I always seemed to have “just missed” her parents on their visits to the city. That should have set the bells ringing but I guess when you’re in love…

Actually, our first major disagreement was over my parents - when I announced I’d be spending Christmas with them in Wexford.

“Our first Christmas together?” She shuddered.

“Well, you can come too.” Although I broke into a cold sweat at the thought of telling the Mammy that we’d be bunking together in the ancestral homestead.

“I couldn’t desert my parents,” she countered as though I was sentencing her whole white-picket-fenced clan to twenty out on Rykers.

“But what about my parents?” I retorted. And on it went as lovers’ quarrels do until her eyes were so misty and beautiful I feared that her heart might indeed break.

Well, I wrote my Mother a particularly tear-stained letter full of half-truths (God rest her soul, I suppose she knows the full story now). I didn’t dare telephone; I wasn’t man enough to bear two loads of womanly angst.

In truth though, the part that really hurt was that I would miss the traditional Wexford boys’ night out on Christmas Eve. And so I extracted a promise from Tara that we’d at least tie on a decent substitute.

“No problem,” she said and was good to her word. She was fairly abstemious for those times but, when called upon, could drink like a fish with little ill effect.

We bought a tree, decorated it, and strung flashing lights all around the apartment. I almost felt like Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life. Almost! For around 7pm I slipped on my black leather jacket, she dressed up to the nines and off we strutted up First Avenue to get well and truly shellacked.

God knows how many bars we hit, I certainly don’t; but I was feeling no pain by the time we reached Max’s Kansas City. Why Max’s on Christmas Eve? Well Tara liked to make the scene, besides I knew the doorman and got in free.

I was also familiar with the bartender who slid many the shot of watered-down whiskey towards us. And then, through the shroud of smoky darkness, I heard the London accent.

“Roight!” The spiky-haired ghost in black leather wearily exclaimed.

The platinum blonde next to him droned on as junkies do.

“Roight.” Sid Vicious reiterated whenever a response was expected.

I casually whispered his name to Tara.

“Oh my God!” She shrieked as though Jesus had just hopped down off the cross and offered to buy a round.

Sid looked up blearily, whereupon Tara flashed him a smile that would have done justice to Marilyn Monroe on steroids.
“The blonde looks like a piece of all right,” I countered and winked at Nancy Spungen.

“From a bottle!” Tara sniffed just as Sid laboriously hauled himself off his stool and stumbled towards the restrooms; whereupon Ms. Spungen laid her head down on the counter for a wee snooze.

We were still awaiting Sid’s return when Tara looked at her watch and gasped. “It’s ten minutes to twelve.”

“Expecting to turn into a pumpkin?”

“No,” she moaned, “we won’t get into St. Patrick’s!”

“What for?”

“Midnight mass, of course. What do you think?”

Was she kidding - from Max’s to matins?

When we arrived at the church off Avenue A, I could tell it wasn’t exactly what Ms. Westchester had in mind. For one thing, the priests all wore shades and spoke Polish.

Still, the place was packed and we reverently stood in the transept in close proximity to an ornate candelabra - wax dripping from its many branches.

Perhaps, it was the heat, though it could have been Max’s watery whiskey; for one moment I was sweating and swaying, the next I was writhing on the marble floor painfully disengaging myself from a myriad of hot waxy candles.

There was immediate uproar with many Eastern European ladies screaming at me, and Tara, no doubt, wishing she was safely home in leafy suburbia.

When I awoke on Christmas morning much of her extensive wardrobe was laying atop me. She was modeling a matronly gray jacket and skirt, the hem inches below her knees, damn near a foot down from its usual height.

I leaped from the bed and grabbed my Doc Martens, pink shirt, and black leather tie and jacket. Unlike my dearest, I had long before settled on an outfit appropriate for my first appearance in Westchester.

“You don’t look well, baby,” she laid a cool hand on my brow and cooed, “You’re just burning up.”

I did feel as though one of those monsters from Alien was ready to hop out of my stomach but I had much experience of that condition. “No, it’s okay. I want to do this for you.”

She hemmed and hawed before blurting out the truth, “It’s my mother…she wouldn’t like you.”

“What’s there not to like?”

“Well, your clothes, for one thing. I mean, are you serious?”

And with that, the fight fled from me. I could just picture the whole clan dressed in Kelly green singing Danny Boy around a turf fire - her auld one, no doubt, peering out at me through lace curtains.

Tara took me in her arms whispered that I should go back to sleep, and hinted that on her return Santa might provide some x-rated delights. But I wasn’t that easily mollified and delivered one last parting shot as the door closed behind her, “So what am I supposed to do, have Christmas dinner in an Indian restaurant?”

Well, I didn’t fall back asleep and the hangover was of the galloping nature, gaining ground all afternoon. But the hunger was no joke either and when I eventually sauntered up First Avenue the only places open were of the Indian persuasion.

A dusting of snow was descending as I stormed into The Taj Mahal. The lone customer didn’t even bother to look up from his book; I sat there glaring at him, cursing all cruel-hearted IAPs and wishing I was home with my Mammy in Wexford.

The snow was swirling around First Avenue and White Christmas was leaking from doorways as I headed back to the apartment. I turned on the blinking Christmas lights and took a couple of fierce slugs of Jameson’s whiskey, turned the Clash up to eleven and rehearsed ever more vicious and vengeful ways of breaking up with Ms. Westchester.

She must have forgotten her keys for, at first, I didn’t hear her knock above Strummer’s bawling. I strode over to the door, angrier than any Old Testament prophet.

She stood there, face flushed from the cold, snow in her hair; she was expecting my fury and accepted it with grace. She smiled gently, her grayish green eyes misting over, and I barely heard her murmur, “I missed you so much.”

She reached up, held a sprig of mistletoe over my head and kissed me as if for the first time. And when she whispered, “Merry Christmas, baby,” all the fight fled out of me and young love in all its passion returned.

Wednesday 21 December 2011

A Christmas Candle

Every Christmas Eve I place a lighted candle in my window – less for any cultural or religious reason than for fear my granny might appear and scare the wits out of me.

She always claimed that such a gentle flame helped guide lost souls home. I think she may have been theologically mistaken and its purpose was to assist the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph find a safe spot to deliver the baby Jesus; still I never disagreed, for my granny was a formidable woman.

It wasn’t that she was inflexible; she merely went her own way without regard for the world or its ways. In fact she was of an extremely sympathetic nature and, when given, her love was unconditional and never withdrawn despite all grievances, real and imagined.

I don’t think the term “drama queen” had been coined in her day, but it summed her up to a tee. There was little she couldn’t make much of.

She shed copious tears every time she heard “Too Soon To Know” by Roy Orbison. She claimed he had written it in honor of his wife who had been burned alive. I’ve never corroborated the veracity of this showbiz tragedy – sometimes ignorance is bliss with regard to family statements.

She claimed to be married to “the most unimaginative man in the world.” And perhaps she was for I never heard my grandfather reply to this particular charge, often as it was hurled at him.

In fact I don’t think I heard him say much of anything to her; men back then didn’t say a whole lot to women, especially when children were around. He must have murmured “sweet nothings” on a number of occasions, however, for they had five children not counting three that died soon after birth. She missed those three souls dearly and often whispered their names.

Silent though her relationship was with my grandfather she called out mightily to him as the undertakers wrestled with his coffin the night he died; my father matched her grief in sheer blasphemy as he labored unsuccessfully to unhinge the jammed door of the bedroom.

Through gales of tears my granny cried out that she would soon be joining my grandfather. My father, a rather salty and unsentimental merchant marine, in the midst of all this keening declared loudly that, “this goddamned door will have to be crow-barred off.”

When such a tool could not be located he removed the windows instead and we managed to lower the coffin into the hearse through gale-force wind and rain.

The shenanigans did not stop there. My grandfather was a much-respected man and the ensuing well-oiled wake reached riotous proportions. So much so that when we arrived at the graveyard two days later amidst the still blowing gale, the conditions were, in the words of the race-horsing community, extremely soft.

My two brothers and I along with three of our male teenaged cousins had been conscripted to carry the coffin from the hearse to the graveside on woefully hungover shoulders. Lo and behold, the youngest cousin slipped on the wet clay of St. Ibar’s cemetery and, but for a leap across the grave by my ever-profane father, all half-dozen of us would have ended up six feet under the coffin.

Regarding this save, my Uncle Sean was heard to murmur that if Wexford ever had such a goalkeeper, Kilkenny would have won far fewer All-Irelands.

My father was apparently not blessed with great imagination either for later that night after my granny had retired to her own room, spent from his labors he lay down on my grandfather’s bed. His last words before slipping into coma-like sleep were, “out with the old, in with the new.”

As Malachy McCourt once opined, “I come from a long line of dead people.” I suppose we all do. Whatever imagination I’m blessed with, I daresay my granny had a large say in it.

So, this Christmas Eve, in her honor, I’ll light a candle in the window for I know she’s hovering out there somewhere keeping a melodramatic eye on me. I just hope to God she doesn’t read this column.

Tuesday 13 December 2011

Thanksgiving in Australia

I was in Sydney for Thanksgiving. A long way to go for a bite of turkey!

Over 10,000 miles, in fact, but I’ve been working on Transport - a musical - with Thomas Keneally of Schindler’s List fame, and had the opportunity to do a workshop of the piece Down Under.

Keneally was inspired to write the book on account of his wife Judy's great-grandmother who was transported to Botany Bay in 1839 for stealing a bolt of cloth in Limerick.

It was a riveting experience to collaborate with new directors and a cast on a piece so central to the Australian psyche; to tell the story of four young Irish women sentenced to penal servitude who ultimately went on to create a new country.

And what a country Australia is. At times it takes your breath away - a mixture of opposites, the familiar and the strange.

Tom Keneally is emblematic of the place. Educated by the Christian Brothers, a wonderful writer with deep roots in Irish literature, he has a rare and uncanny facility for creating fully fleshed women characters. However, just when you think you have him nailed, he slips away from you for he sees the world through uniquely Australian eyes.

You could say much the same for Sydney. The churches and bank buildings might have been lifted straight from Dublin or London, and yet instead of granite or limestone they’re hewed from a dusty red sandstone that gleams oddly in the harsh sunshine.

When you visit The Rocks – the equivalent of New York’s rowdy 19th Century Five Points - you can almost hear the bustle and boozy banter of freed convicts creating an alternative culture to their conservative English masters and jailers.

The two traditions have only recently, and uneasily, coalesced; scratch the surface and you’ll find a caustic rebelliousness beneath the tanned skin of most Australians.

The country is booming, largely because its mineral resources are in demand by China; nor has it been scarred by recession because its well-regulated banks were unable to behave like casinos as happened in the US and Europe.

Sydney actually felt like Clinton-era New York. One almost expected to see Bill and Hil gliding by on surfboards such was the sheer optimism in the air.

A cautious understated people, Australians however were not trumpeting their good fortune; rather they seemed content with their lot, much in the way that we were back in the 90’s.

Yet there’s a definite “can-do” feeling in Sydney. It was ricocheting around the theatre the first morning Keneally and I walked in.

The actors and musicians had 18 new songs to learn and a whole script to flesh out onstage in five days. A tall order to my mind, but they seemed, if anything, under-whelmed by the task ahead.

Sure, they had their problems in the course of the rehearsal process but they never doubted that they would come up with the goods.

Contrast that with the “Super Committee” in DC charged with reducing a small chunk of the US deficit. Given the self-imposed strictures on revenue raising and reducing benefits, was there ever a chance of success in an environment that has been poisoned by lobbyists, ideologues and a scavenging 24/7 media?

Don’t get me wrong! Australians are no saints: their politicians are raucous and self-centered, and yet they’re able to agree to disagree and ultimately come to a consensus for the general good.

It used to be that way in this country and, with a bit of luck, it will be someday again – but not until we turn away from televisions and computers, take off the headphones, look each other in the eye, and seek common ground.

Australia was inspiring. It reminded me of how we used to be a decade or two ago. And on the last night of Transport, as the audience gave a standing ovation to the cast, the thought struck me that if four chained and destitute Irish women prisoners could go on to create a great country, then why can’t we come together and do the right thing by ours?

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Bert Jansch

Bert Jansch passed away recently. As Earle Hitchner noted: his death was overshadowed by that of Steve Jobs.

It probably wouldn’t have bothered Bert; he had grown used to being a footnote. Nonetheless, guitarists all over the world picked up their axes and had another run at Angie, the instrumental that gained Jansch his most renown. Kind of fitting, I suppose, since he didn’t write it.

Though unknown to most, Bert Jansch was treasured by musicians and those with an ear for innovation. Neil Young once said that what Hendrix did for the electric, Jansch did for the acoustic.

Quite an endorsement! To add to it, Neil took him around the US as an opener on his last year’s solo tour, even as Bert’s health was fading.

Perhaps, the greatest compliment – and heartbreak – was when Jimmy Page lifted Bert’s arrangement of the traditional Blackwaterside and turned it into Led Zeppelin’s Black Mountain Side! Listen to them back to back sometime.

There was no acknowledgement of the influence and a lawsuit was threatened but the prospective costs caused Bert and his label, Transatlantic Records, to let the issue slide.

Odd, in an of itself, since Page adored Jansch’s playing and haunted his appearances in London’s folk clubs back in the mid-‘60’s. Strange too that these two brilliant musicians were both addicted for long stretches of their lives – Jansch to alcohol, Page to heroin.

What is it about musicians and addiction? I have only to figuratively glance over my shoulder to witness a trail of destruction and heart-scald amongst friends and acquaintances.

Perhaps it’s generational, for many younger musicians lead relatively straight lives. Was it something in the times, the general fracturing of society that occurred in the 60’s and 70’s?

One thing I am certain of - there’s a marked difference between musicians and performers. Many musicians are simply not born for the stage. Their focus is music – you'd be surprised at how many are even quite shy; and yet, almost all are forced to stride the footlights to pursue their craft.

That shyness has to be blotted out in some form or other; add the sheer availability of free booze to the boredom of the road and you have one hell of a lethal cocktail.

Bert Jansch’s drinking was a problem through much of his career, although he always showed for gigs – sometimes, however, without a guitar. There’s many the guitarist whose sole claim to fame is that Bert borrowed his instrument before hitting the stage.

But whatever his state, his playing was magical. Despite his innovative work with Pentangle - the groundbreaking folk/jazz group he formed with John Renbourn - I still love his first album, simply called Bert Jansch, recorded by Bill Leader on a reel-to-reel tape recorder.

Leader sold the tapes outright to Transatlantic Records for 100 pounds; the album has sold over 150,000 copies – a whole bitter story in itself. Sometimes his guitar slightly distorts when he hammers a chord in his distinctive percussive style but it’s all Bert and in your face. You’ll hear his arrangement of Angie just as Paul Simon did; Garfunkel’s better half copied it and changed its name to Anji – without an acknowledgement either.

You’ll also hear the chilling Needle of Death, a tribute to his addicted friend, Buck Polly. In three minutes and twenty seconds you’ll learn why you should never mess with heroin.

Ironic, in ways, because for all Jimmy Page’s adoration of Jansch, he didn’t take this advice to heart!

The redeeming part of this story is that both men kicked their habits and went on to live very productive lives. Jimmy Page is a rock legend – and rightly so – one can tire of Robert Plant’s affected keening but Page’s riffs, writings and production still make Zeppelin the pride of their field.

And Bert Jansch? Will he forever remain a hidden gem? I have a feeling that his star will glow in the years to come – a pity that he had to die for that to happen.

But that’s the crazy world of guitars, shyness, and taking that one step too far over the line.

Wednesday 30 November 2011

Enniscorthy & Brooklyn

One upon a time I was in a teenage band. The drummer, not fancying our prospects, got married and moved to his wife’s hometown fourteen miles up the Slaney River. A rather laconic type, when next I met him he growled uncharacteristically, “You think Wexford is bad, it’s got nothin’ on Enniscorthy.”

I wonder if he’s read Colm Toibín’s wonderful novel, Brooklyn. It opened the eyes of this Wexford man – opened the heart too for I’m haunted by its heroine.

This is hardly surprising since Toibín, like Australian Thomas Keneally, is that rarity: a male novelist who brings women to life on the page.

Though I’ve long admired his writing, I picked up Brooklyn because it’s situated in two very disparate areas I’m familiar with – the borough of the title and Colm’s hometown of Enniscorthy. Oddly enough, I have more affinity for the former though I grew up a figurative stone’s throw from the latter whose inhabitants we called “scalders.”

Back then Enniscorthy seemed never less than gloomy and claustrophobic, perhaps because it doesn’t gaze out onto the sea as Wexford does. I suppose I just didn’t understand the place.

I do now. For Toibín casts light into the dark corners of this small Irish town in the 1950’s, allowing us to experience both a womb-like familiarity along with the class-consciousness and innate nosiness that paralyze such places.

Colm’s genius is that he contrasts this brooding parochialism with the turmoil of immigrant Brooklyn where cultures collide indiscriminately and the recently arrived are forced to shed whole layers of identity in order to fit into a complex and self-assured new world.

And then there is Eilis Lacey, the book’s central character. I know her. Well, not specifically but she’s a dead ringer for the older sisters of a number of my childhood friends, though instead of returning from New York City, these ladies took the boat train from Paddington for their fortnight’s holidays home from London.

Nurses or secretaries with money to burn, they were glamorous in their Cricklewood fashions as they shattered hearts in Wexford pubs and hotel dancehalls. But after a couple of Babychams, you could almost touch the longing in them to be what they once were but could never be again.

You’re on Eilis’ side from the first page of Brooklyn and you’re still there at the bittersweet ending. For like the sisters of my friends, she is loyal, lovely and brave, and will ultimately do the right thing, even if it means hurting herself and others.

In some ways, this is a tale of two cities, for Enniscorthy is a metropolis when you’ve never been anywhere else - while in Brooklyn the best of times and the worst are always close to hand.

As you might imagine, there’s a love interest in both locations and they couldn’t be more different. Each is viewed unsparingly through the prism of class-consciousness. One promises a rise in stature, reassuring but ultimately suffocating; while the other is “beneath” Eilis, and yet in such a union she might one day reach beyond herself.

I wonder do we root for her because we feel she could “do better?” Or perhaps the book leads us to question some of the choices we ourselves have made?

In real life Eilis would probably be a grandmother now, either living in one of those McBungalows that bruise the stalwart Wexford countryside, or presiding over a large, fractious Italian-Irish family in Long Island.

During the final pages she must make her choice and your heart is in your mouth for her.

I’ll never look at Enniscorthy in quite the same way again. The town seems brighter to me now, the gloom is gone and with it the claustrophobia; even the Slaney jigs to a different beat as it rushes under the new bridge on its way to Wexford and the sea.

Or have I changed and am seeing the old town through different eyes? Who knows, who cares? Great books do that to you.

Wednesday 23 November 2011


So it’s finally over – well almost – the long national nightmare of Iraq. All American combat troops are to be withdrawn by Dec. 31st. Halelujiah!

We’d still be there, of course, if Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of the radical Shia Mahdi Army, hadn’t insisted we depart.

Still, almost 9 years later, 4400 deaths, 30,000 wounded, more than a trillion dollars wasted we’ve finally thrown our hat at this hellhole.

Only time and the VA will tell how many who served now suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress – upwards of a quarter of a million?

Oh, I almost forgot to mention the countless Iraqis slaughtered, maimed and dislocated.

Sorry to upset you with these figures, but they’ve been on my mind since catching a glimpse of President Bush doting on his beloved Texas Rangers during the World Series. God bless him, he still has no problem sleeping through the night.

And the outcome was all so obvious. Like Yugoslavia splintering into religious and ethnic factions after the death of Marshall Tito, something similar was bound to happen in Iraq as soon Saddam Hussein was deposed by foreign forces.

People just don’t like being invaded, simple as that! Put Iraqi troops on the streets of America you think the natives will be saying, “Yoh, how you doin’, Ali? Nice to see you bro!”

How could we have been so hoodwinked into allowing Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and the others talk us into this foreign misadventure?

Well, we’re suckers for good old razzmatazz. Just wave the flags, blow the trumpets, and we’ll follow any dingbat, especially with a media only too willing to be manipulated. The New York Times even saw some sense in this looming disaster, and forget about the Post, News and the puppets at the various TV networks.

President Bush and his team were not bad people, in and of themselves. I never thought they were going to war to enrich the oil industry – no, they did so on the somewhat plausible idea that if you create an American style democracy in Iraq it will fan out over the region. Hey, given time, these new Iraqi Republocrats might even accept Israel.

The best laid plans of mice and DC dreamers! Was there ever a chance of such success? Sure, the occasional nag comes in at 60/1, but your doddery old Aunt Statia is the only one with a couple of bucks on it.

You would think that after the 50,000 lost in Vietnam lessons would have been learned. But, no, hope springs eternal for the best and the brightest - especially when neither they nor their children will do the fighting.

The big question is: will we allow it to happen again?

Given the economic climate, there’s a decent shot we’ll give up the ghost on Afghanistan in 2014. Karzai’s corrupt government will fall, the Taliban and Haqqani syndicates will nail down their piece of the action, Pakistan and India will go on squabbling, and so it goes…

Then what? Will the trumpets blare and the flags wave someday for another foreign misadventure disguised as a national crisis?

The Republican presidential contenders are understandably reticent on such matters - apart from Ron Paul who level-headedly questions our armed and expensive presence in Germany and South Korea. It’s vitally important that we hear their foreign policies – or lack thereof.

Iran has already been set up as the next bogeyman – “let’s take out their nuclear weapons!” – when, given time and demographics, the mullahs will be unseated by their own people, just as would have happened with Saddam.

In memory of the 4400 who didn’t make it back alive from Iraq, let us vow that this travesty not be repeated.

And for those who did serve – especially the injured – let’s be sure we honor them not just with yellow ribbons and hollow words but with education, jobs and the simple slogan – never again!

Nothing against Texas, but there was a certain symbolism in seeing the Cardinals win the World Series. Would that all victories came at such little cost and over seven games on a bloodless October.

Wednesday 16 November 2011

Occupy Wall Street

The main rap against the Occupy Wall Street Movement is that it has no discernible goals.

Contrast that with the Tea Party whose desires are easily articulated – defeat “Obamacare,” reduce deficits, and send the sheik in the White House back to Kenya or wherever he came from.

So, let me suggest three goals; but first, let’s examine the roots of the Occupy Wall Street Movement and why it’s unlikely to dissolve with the snows of winter.

Americans have been distinguished by their lack of envy of the rich, mainly because they’ve always felt there was a pathway - albeit narrow and crowded – to their own life of luxury.

Protesters would not be quite so vocal against the fabled upper 1% if they thought there was a prayer in hell of joining them in their penthouses and McMansions. What really irks the noble souls down in Zuccotti Park is that even if you’re willing to bust your butt nowadays you may never make it to the shrinking middle-class.

Once upon a time if you got into a union or went to college you could bet the farm you’d end up in the suburbs. Now graduate from Harvard and you’re still not guaranteed a gig; or get a gold-plated membership in the UAW, you’ll step onto the assembly line for 14 bucks an hour. You won’t even afford a shack out in Levittown on that paycheck – let alone get a mortgage.

To say that there’s a mass disenchantment with the state of the union would be putting it mildly.

And so to the three goals!

Number one, reform the political process. Nothing of significance can be achieved while the system is clogged and corrupted by money.

Politicians may huff and puff about issues but nowadays politics is all about the mighty buck – raise enough of them, stay off Page 6, and you too can get elected.

And you ain’t seen nothing yet! With the new Super PAC bundlers and the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision allowing unlimited corporate donations, the floodgates of crony capitalism have just opened.

There is a solution – tighter campaign donation laws. But this obviously won’t come from politicians; it has to come from us – and the good God in heaven who might whack a couple of backwoodsmen on the Supreme Court.

With or without divine help - if we don’t act soon the Republic will sink even deeper into this current cesspit of legal bribery known as politics.

There is no way to create the new industries that will provide well-paying jobs for the protestors – and everyone else - unless we invest in research, education and the national infrastructure. But where will the money come from, unless taxes are raised – and who wants to pay the piper nowadays?

Which brings us to goal number two: there is no reason - philosophical or practical - why the US has to spend more on defense than every other country in the world combined.

The armed forces are a great employer of last resort but few would dispute that defense budgets are bloated, while the cost of weapons perennially exceeds estimate.

President Eisenhower warned against the growth of the military-industrial complex. The poor old soldier must have been doing somersaults in his grave watching arms industry lobbyists and alarmist hawks double the defense budget since 9/11.

On to goal number three: Healthcare! We spend double the amount of every other industrialized country but trail much of the world in actual good health.

Costs must be reined in before the whole country is turned into a hospital waiting room. A decent first step would be for opportunistic politicians to stop their paranoiac and misleading yelping about “death panels” and “socialized medicine.” Some hope, right?

A federally guaranteed single-payer system is the only shot. Administrative costs would drop, deals could be cut with a rampaging drug industry, and businesses could actually budget ahead. As it stands, employers can’t afford to hire new workers because of burgeoning health insurance costs – hence, so much outsourcing.

Enough said! I’ve got some flyers to print. See you down Zuccotti Park!

Tuesday 8 November 2011

Killing The Thing You Love

Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

Oscar Wilde wrote many a brilliant verse but none more troubling than the above.

I was reminded of it recently when a young man spoke to me about his hope for a career in the music industry.

Oddly enough, I never thought of such a step back in Wexford. Music was something I more or less fell into.

The conditions were very different; rock music was then on the cutting edge of politics and social change. Few people saw it as a business.

The genre has very little connection to politics nowadays as demonstrated by its pathetic reaction to the War in Iraq. Hip-Hop has long supplanted it as a vital social force, though more so internationally where it continues to fuel the Arab Spring.

I considered warning the young man about the heartbreaks ahead but he had the fire in his eyes. Besides he could spend his life in many a more boring and equally financially insecure career. The once $20 an hour jobs that he might aspire to are being downgraded to $10, sometimes even less; not to mention that most musicians get to sleep late in the morning!

Rock music, unfortunately, lost much of its social drive – and some would say, soul - when it was co-opted by MTV and the advertising industry in the plastic 80’s.

How ironic though that fans of the genre are now themselves killing the very thing they love by both legal and illegal downloading.

Not that there won’t be interesting “serious” artists and even superb cookie-cutter pop; those with the fire in their eyes will adapt to the changing fortunes of the biz. But the era of the independent rock & roll band touring the country is winding down because of the imminent disappearance of the CD.

Why so? Well, sales of CDs subsidize traveling bands, particularly if the musicians retain their proprietary rights and can manufacture them inexpensively.

What about downloads? Well, an album of them retails for $9.99 at the most, whereas a CD brings in $15. Do the math!
But even worse, most people nowadays download individual songs for 99 cents rather than whole albums. Give Steve Jobs his 30% and the vendor who has set up the deal another 10%, and you get the picture.

But that’s only a start. Many managers now advise artists to give their music away free; and they have a point, since 90% of downloads are illegal and available at no cost.

And forget about Spotify and all the other new fangled rip-off platforms – do you actually think musicians are getting much of this pie – no it’s a carve-up between the old baronial record companies, the few platinum artists and the new digital cowboy start-ups funded by investment bankers.

Depressing? Each man kills the thing he loves? Well, it’s just the way of the world. My generation downsized to groups from the larger showbands who in turn had shrunk the big band ethos. Life goes on and we’ve entered the age of the downsized, economically viable unit.

It often amazes me how few musicians are aware of the shifting ground beneath their feet. Don’t get me wrong, I love albums/CDs – the idea that an artist can stretch and deliver a work defined by a concept, sound or series of lyrics.

Unfortunately, “it’s the economy, stupid!” The new breed of musicians will more likely be entrepreneurs who record a series of singles at home using computers; they’ll come to terms with the financial reality of iTunes and Spotify, and supplement their income by branding themselves in the worlds of advertising, fashion and pop culture.

They’ll love music just as much as Kurt Cobain, Bob Dylan, Brendan Bowyer and Benny Goodman. Hopefully, some will be real innovators and, while creating music, will change society rather than merely reflecting it.

And perhaps they won’t kill the thing they love and prove old Oscar wrong once and for all.

Tuesday 1 November 2011

Slouching towards DC

As we slouch towards another presidential election the common wisdom is that we are undeserving of the current crop of Washington politicians, as if they were foisted upon us by some divine hand.

This is probably inevitable since many of the elected feel that the much-saluted deity who provides home runs to baseball sluggers has also had a hand in guiding their footsteps into congress.

Still the sad fact is – we voted for this posse of political procrastinators, grandstanders and poll watchers.

So, what to do in 2012? Well, a rule of thumb would be to vote for some person, idea or course of action rather than against.

Cutting spending in the midst of an economic downturn is like closing the stable door long after the nag has wandered off. The time to do that was when we were cutting taxes and fighting two wars on a Chinese credit card.

And you’re quite right, that is water under the bridge, besides which the current occupant of the White House is indeed still fighting a war without end in Afghanistan and has as yet been unable to turn the economy around.

You’d also be right in saying that, just like President Bush after 9/11, President Obama blew a great watershed moment after his election by a reluctance to go for the political jugular coupled with a lofty desire to rule by consensus.

And yet, let’s consider the alternatives. I seem to hear just two major ideas from the Republican Party – cut taxes and regulations. Am I mistaken or were those not the two domestic policies at the core of the Bush presidency?

I beg your pardon I have not mentioned Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 tax policy - all credit to a candidate who has at least offered a concrete suggestion. His proposal would certainly bring change – an even greater handover of wealth to the top 10% earners and a further flaying of the working and middle classes.

And all hail Michele Bachman for reminding us that if you turn Mr. Cain’s figures on their heads you will be confronted with the mark of the devil – who would have suspected that she was a closet Black Sabbath fan!

There is no doubting that either Mr. Cain or Rep. Bachman would provide more exciting presidencies than the present ho-hum and steady-as-we-go office-holder. But I’m still flummoxed that an electorate so badly burned by the recent financial crises would be willing to jump straight out of the frying pan and back into the fire of tax and regulation cuts.

How anyone can be for eviscerating the anemic Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act baffles me? But I suppose credit card companies, mortgage brokers and banks have mothers that love them too and should be protected from a rapacious public sick of being overcharged and taken advantage of.

Even more troubling - neither the SEC nor the Treasury has a finger upon the almost daily dizzying lurches on various stock exchanges. Has anyone even suggested regulating high frequency program trading on super-computers? But that will come too – after a seismic crash.

Less regulation, you say, Governors Romney and Perry? You obviously haven’t got your 401(k) shekels invested in mutual funds like many regular Americans.

Tax cuts should work to some degree but of late that hasn’t been the case; probably because of the double-whammy housing bubble-burst and the reluctance of banks to give credit. Tax cut recipients are wisely paying down debt rather than rushing out to buy new flat-screens or Manolo stilettos.

Now is the hour for investment in American infrastructure; the cost of labor, capital and equipment will never again be as inexpensive – and it better be done soon or the joint will come crashing down around our ears.

Sure, it will raise the deficit in the short term but a resurgent economy will inevitably reduce it as happened in the Clinton years.

Tax and regulation cuts are yesterday’s solutions. In fact they caused today’s problems.

So come on you nattering nabobs of negativity, time to reboot and come up with a couple of decent new ideas.

Friday 28 October 2011

On Raglan Road

She was one of the most beautiful women in Dublin; fashion designers sought her out to wear their creations. She could often be seen strolling along Grafton Street or sitting in its more fashionable cafes attended by her many admirers. Intelligent, vivacious, a medical student, the world lay at her feet.

He was eighteen years her senior, a crotchety character at best, often enough a mean drunk. A small farmer he had turned his back on the stony grey soil of Monaghan and walked to Dublin with a view to becoming a poet.

He fell hard for Hilda Moriarty the dark haired beauty who loved the poems but not the man. He became a nuisance, showing up uninvited and behaving badly.

She married a dashing young politician and broke the poet's heart. But his unrequited passion spawned one of the great love songs - Raglan Road.

Patrick Kavanagh's poetry has aged well; it often captures a lost rural Ireland tinged with violence and mystery. Like the poet himself, this landscape is unruly and unpredictable.

One can imagine the young woman being flattered by the poet's attention while at the same time embarrassed, and even frightened, by the intensity of his passion. And yet, there is a gentility and acceptance of the price of love in these lines that also give us an idea of Hilda Moriarty's dangerous allure.

On Raglan Road of an autumn day
I saw her first and knew
That her dark hair would weave a snare
That I might someday rue
I saw the danger and I passed
Along the enchanted way
And I said "Let grief be a falling leaf
At the dawning of the day."

Kavanagh is often compared unfavorably with Yeats - too parochial, not universal enough - but Yeats never fulfilled his ambition to write the lyrics of a great song. He once said, "Poetry should be as cold and passionate as the dawn." And perhaps Yeats' words are too finely calibrated, so that when a composer seeks to do them justice, the end result is off kilter, invariably mawkish and melodramatic.

Kavanagh's lyrics are more pliable and natural as befits a man used to saving hay. To my ear, most interpretations of Raglan Road are over-sentimental, yet I'm always moved, no matter how limpid the rendering. The song is damn nigh indestructible; still the hint of bitterness that pervades Raglan Road is very rarely explored so the true potential of the piece usually goes unrealized.

The greatest version is by Luke Kelly of the Dubliners who delivers the song in a powerfully stark voice; as befits an acolyte of Ewan McColl who demanded that his students find the inner core of a song and then get out of the way of its message.

Kavanagh gave Kelly the words while both were drinking in The Bailey in 1966. He instructed the young singer to set the verses to the melody of Fáinne Geal an Lae (The Dawning of the Day).

Kelly was awestruck when he matched words and music to discover a masterpiece. It became his signature song, though it has been suggested that it eventually broke his heart for as the Dubliners' popularity mushroomed their audiences preferred the bawdiness of Seven Drunken Nights to Luke's sensitive interpretation of Raglan Road.

Tragedy followed Hilda too. Her husband - Fianna Fail minister, Donagh O'Malley - died at an early age leaving her with two children and never achieving the office of Taoiseach as many expected.

She outlived Kavanagh also but never forgot his unrequited unruly love. She sent a wreath of red roses to his funeral. Her beauty had faded by then. But she did not need a mirror to summon up her youth or the fragility of love and life; the poet had already done that for her.

On a quiet street where old ghosts meet
I see her walking now
And away from me so hurriedly
My reason must allow
That I had loved, not as I should
A creature made of clay,
When the angel woos the clay, he'll lose
His wings at the dawn of day.

Saturday 22 October 2011

Rock Seen- Bob Gruen

So you wanta be a Rock & Roll star? Well, it might be a bit late in the day.

But oh, there was a time and it all came flooding back when I opened Bob Gruen’s beautiful new book, Rock Seen – a sparkling collage of live concert shots and portraits from the last 40 years.

Who the hell is Gruen, you might ask. Well, he’s the guy who’s always there when scenes begin and is long gone before they become stale.

I used to wonder about Joe Strummer. Was he really so tuned in that he found Black 47 at Paddy Reilly’s early on?

Nah, Gruen took him, for Bob could hear the grass grow when it came to new music.

Strummer is on the cover of Rock Seen. Funny how you can miss something so obvious - even though I’d been up close to the Clash at their ferocious best I never realized Joes was such a knockout.

That’s Bob’s magic – he didn’t just click on a camera until he struck lucky. No, he waited until the moment was right and mainlined straight into the soul of his subject.

I used to see Bob at shows all over town but I’ve little memory of him with a camera stuck to his face. He was part of the scene – he loved the music and the players - he didn’t just run off home to bed as soon as he’d nailed a decent shot.

And that’s why if you want to know what Rock & Roll was all about in New York City don’t bother reading some self-serving rock critique. You’ve got the real deal now – a book reeking with the magic of so many electric nights. It may not be for you, but there’s a music head in your circle who has need of remembering, or someone who cares but was too young to be there when it mattered.

That was what they said about The Clash – “the only band that mattered.” But there were legions of others and many are nailed to the pages of Rock Seen – Chuck Berry, Ike & Tina, The Stones, The Boss, Bowie, Tom Waits, Led Zep…

Of course Gruen is synonymous with John Lennon. He took the iconic portrait in the New York City T-shirt. In fact Bob gave that shirt to his mate. Took the lovely Statue of Liberty portrait too – to hammer home the point that Lennon was a New York City treasure and shouldn’t be deported.

But, for me, it’s the downtown gang that lights up this book. The New York Dolls at the Mercer Arts Center before it collapsed. Johnny Thunders, young and beautiful, before the dope ate a hole in him. Debbie Harry, our Marilyn, in a tiger striped dress, and The Ramones so young and almost vulnerable.

Have you ever seen the inside of Max’s Kansas City? I nearly cried. Bob’s pictures brought me back to a Christmas Eve when I stood in a darkened corner with my Irish American Princess, Sid and Nancy next to us, listening to their junky conversation and observing that, “this guy will be lucky to be alive next year.” It never struck me that Nancy wouldn’t make it either.

There are scenes from CBGB’s so vivid the familiar lines of graffiti jump from the walls and I can almost inhale the particular smell of beer, sweat, leather and cheap perfume that pervaded this dump on the Bowery that changed music!

And friends in the crowd that I haven’t seen in thirty years! What are they doing now - gone like Strummer and Joey, or alive, survived and gratefully older like David Jo and Debbie?

Open up Bob Gruen’s book and the throbbing nights will come flooding out at you and with them the faces, wild-eyed but far from innocent, without a hint of irony, parody or American Express exclusivity - a lovingly detailed kaleidoscopic account of a bygone time when Rock & Roll was bible strong in this town.

Rock Seen captures the visual beauty and integrity of a precious scene before MTV and corporate greed irrevocably cheapened and distorted it.

Rock Seen by Bob Gruen Abrams Books

Tuesday 11 October 2011

The Irish Rep and the IAW&A Eugene O'Neill Award

You begin something without knowing what you’re really getting into. Twenty or more years later, you look back and discover that it has defined your life. Any awards that come are at best icing on the cake. It’s the work that counts and that’s always been the ethic at the Rep.

Nonetheless, Gabriel Byrne will present Charlotte Moore and Ciarán O’Reilly of the Irish Repertory Theatre the Irish Writers and Artists annual Eugene O’Neill Award on Monday 17th October at Rosie O’Grady’s in Midtown Manhattan.

And what work they’ve accomplished! Armed with the bare bones of an idea and fueled by a desire to do things their way they’ve come to define Irish theatre in New York.

They jumped in off the deep end with The Plough and The Stars back in 1988. I’ve always loved O’Casey, his Protestant working class sensibility strips away much of the sanctimonious green paint and shows us post-1916 Dublin as it really was.

There was a joy to the Rep’s first outing and an energy that radiated off the stage. From that moment on things changed for Irish actors in New York. The Rep meant business and would mount a full season every year, come hell, high water or whatever dollars needed raising.

A theatre is only as strong as the ambition - or madness - of its founders. Even by theatre standards, Charlotte and Ciarán were an unusual partnership.

Charlotte positively glows with a refined theatricality. Still, this woman from the farmlands of Southern Illinois has a will of steel - a legacy no doubt bequeathed by her emigrant Wexford forebears. Razor-sharp and beautiful she had reached the actor’s Rubicon – continue manifesting someone else’s vision or do it your way, aka become a director!

Ciarán matched her in intensity but was also blessed with that particular native-born Irish quality – the quiet determination to follow your dream despite, or even because of, the begrudgers.

To my mind this Cavan man has always shared a unique trait with David Byrne of Talking Heads, he improves with every outing – be it acting or directing.

With such different personalities at the helm, the Rep must have had some humdinger early production meetings before a modus operandi was worked out.

Their first production that knocked my socks off was Tom Murphy’s violent A Whistle in the Dark. The ructions sparked onstage by a dysfunctional Irish emigrant family were so alarming that, in the pub afterwards, one stood back and allowed the actors time to shed the sheer aggression of their characters.

Still, I felt the Rep really came of age with Philadelphia Here I Come. Such was the truth in their rendering of Brian Friel’s masterpiece I swore never to see the play again. It had hit too close - this tale of a father emotionally unable to ask his son to remain at home.

And the Rep has done it all so professionally. Back in 2002 I wrote music for their Playboy of the Western World and was thrilled just to have the opportunity to weave Synge’s brilliant intent into rhythms and melodies.

On opening night while lost in the magic unfolding onstage, a check was slipped into my pocket – unasked for and unexpected. But that’s the Rep for you - providing a safe haven for those dreamers who have no other option but to test the rocky waters of theatre.

How fitting then that they should receive an award that also celebrates America’s greatest playwright, Eugene O’Neill, the turbulent narrowback who insisted he could recreate the universe onstage through the characters in his own family.

The Rep have never made such claims but every week in their beautiful playhouse on West 22th Street they fashion a world of dreams, ideas and magic, that take us far beyond this threadbare Facebook universe we inhabit.

They have an appointment with their own destiny on Oct. 20th when they tackle the luminous, but thorny, Dancing At Lughnasa. Miss it and it’s your loss.

But before then come and celebrate, Ciarán O’Reilly and Charlotte Moore, two remarkable people, at Rosie O’Grady’s, Manhattan Club, 800 7th Ave/52nd Street at 6pm, Monday 17th Oct. For tickets and information go to

Wednesday 5 October 2011

Christy's Close Shave

“Sunlight pouring across your skin, your shadow
Flat on the wall.
The dawn was breaking the bones of your heart like twigs.
You had not expected this,
The bedroom’s gone white, the celestial light
Pummeling you in a stream of fists.”

I had been through it before, waiting by a hospital bed while a dear friend lay in a coma, wondering if he’d ever resurface.

Johnny Byrne, Black 47’s soundman, didn’t make it, but this time there was a happier outcome. Chris Kelly, poet and college professor, awoke eventually and with the help of his wife, Ally, and his many friends has slowly but surely returned to us.

Many of you know Chris; some of you have been touched by his extraordinary kindness and humanity. I first met him in Paddy Reilly’s in the early 90’s with a crew of visiting Clare men. He was studying at NYU at the time. I can still remember his eager face, full of life and so thrilled to be part and parcel of New York City.

Though bursting with ideas he was equally interested in yours; you only had to mention a dream or problem and he was right back at you with some suggestion or solution. It wasn’t just barroom talk either; soon after you would receive a phone call informing you of a train of events he’d set in motion only waiting for you to jump aboard.

He became a professor at NYU and was beloved by his students. In his official capacity he escorted groups to Ireland where he introduced the students to other writers and immersed them in the cultural life of the country. Who knows how many have nurtured these links, but none will ever go thirsty in Dublin for lack of knowledge of pubs with a first class pint.

Chris has turned his hand to many kinds of writing but it’s his poetry that inspires. As Miles Davis said, “I could look at a great picture and come up with a thousand musical ideas but none of them meant anything until I found my voice.”

Chris found his voice early on and, despite the horror he has been through, he still retains it.

“Here is the known hand again remembering silently
Lifting the rafters of shadow into an opening of sky
Where the hidden children we were are greeting those
We've yet to become…”

Step by painful step, he’s fought his way back until a year after his accident, he’s walking, laughing, joking with friends, and chomping at the bit to get back to teaching in his beloved Columbia and NYU.

But as with every Traumatic Brain Injury there’s a ways to go and miles to be traveled, and health insurance only covers so much.

Chris is a proud and obstinate man, the very thought of pity or patronization would be like a knife in his heart; in fact, he’ll probably kick my butt when he reads this column. But it will be worth it for there are bills to be paid and the man is too damned valuable to New York and our community to be denied a full recovery because of a lack of some small change.

Take a look at this site to see some more of his writing and the problems he faces. I’m sure you know how it is, the thought counts - knowing that people are rooting for you makes a difference on the bad days.

Chris has been there for so many people – students, writers, musicians, the man and woman on the street. He’s beaten the odds and it’s nothing short of bloody marvelous that he’s back with us again.

“You raised your hand to your face as if
To hide, the pink fingers gone gold as the light
Streamed straight to the bone,
As if you were a small room enclosed in glass
With every speck of dust illuminated.
The light is no mystery,
The mystery is that there is something to keep the light
From passing through.”

Monday 3 October 2011

Nick Drake

A friend first pointed it out to me in the 70’s – an appreciation that appeared on the back page of the Village Voice every November. Nothing fancy – just a plain “Nick Drake 1948-1974, thank you for the music.”

Back then very few people had even heard his name. I had - through listening to John Peel play his incandescent songs on BBC Radio. Still, I only possessed one of his albums, the debut, Five Leaves Left. It’s funny, I can remember the cover so well – green bordered with a picture of a willowy young man looking out from an attic window. I had to be in a certain mood to play it – besides there were times when you just wouldn’t want Nick in the room – especially if you thought someone with you wouldn’t appreciate him. If it was someone you were romantically involved with – you especially thought twice about it - supposing they didn’t like Nick, then what? One of them had to go and I well knew which one. I can summon up that mood and a lot of other old feelings by just thinking of that album cover and the songs within.

Nick Drake’s music was enigmatic – deep and churning but deceptively calm on the surface. It never seems to date, perhaps, because he captured a mood, rather than a time and place.

His other two albums, Bryter Layter and Pink Moon are no less enthralling. They too evoke the same mood. He died in 1974 – a failure, in his own eyes at any rate. He is now best known in the US for a Volkswagen ad but you can hear his influence on so many artists. Many of them are attracted to his essence – none grasp it. All three of his albums sold less than 5000 copies in his lifetime. But obviously each person who bought one treasured it and the mood it identified, then passed on the word. Incredibly, his three albums keep getting better with time.

The memorial in the Voice eventually stopped. Did the admirer die, move on, move out of New York? I watched the back page of the Voice for a couple of years and then I too moved on. Just another New York oddity that I rarely give thought to, until Saturday mornings on Celtic Crush when I play Nick.

It never seemed like morning music to me back in the day – I rarely listened to it before midnight. But Nick Drake’s songs have become timeless and hourless – much like the man himself.

Tuesday 20 September 2011

Happy Birthday, Malachy!

Happy birthday, Malachy! You once told me that if you were lucky you’d still be working at 90. Well, my dear friend, you’re now within 10 years of your target.

You also once proclaimed that you’d never want to be Grand Marshall of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, “for who’d want to walk up Fifth Avenue with 50,000 Irishmen at your back!”

And yet, for all your bitter-sweetness, you’re the real deal - an Irishman unto yourself.

Your mother, the infamous Angela, once murmured to me over a fag and a drink in the Bells of Hell, “Each of my sons is a private Gethsemane to me.” You’ll be happy to know she didn’t single you out, although she was looking directly at you and Frank doubled over with laughter.

The bad Limerick years were far behind you all by then. Life was full of laughs, and the particular warmth that comes when the booze is flowing freely in the company of good friends.

But in quieter moments the wistfulness was palpable; that’s when the pain and despair of your upbringing could flare suddenly at some perceived slight to the weak or oppressed.

I could never understand the accusation that the poverty of body and spirit in Frank’s book was exaggerated. Wexford in the late 50’s still had streets reeking of malnutrition and ignorance, what must Limerick of the 30’s and 40’s been like?

Others from such backgrounds could put maters in perspective, but not you. Injustice was a cancer to be confronted, head-on if possible.

I know you attended many protests, for any I showed up to you were already there. It was reassuring to see your girth and conviction and to fall in step behind you. One was heartened to know that if blows would be struck or rocks thrown you’d be a bigger and better-known target.

You were the first shock-jock I ever heard – articulate and egalitarian, unlike most current rating-obsessed ranters. I once accompanied you to the studios at WMCA. At that time you were on Nixon’s enemies list. Little wonder, for you cleaned his clock in your opening soliloquy.

The phone banks instantly lit up; most callers were Irish-Americans who, at the least, cast doubt on your parentage, manhood and various imagined peccadilloes, sexual and otherwise.

You retorted in kind and I was amazed at your pointed, slanderous, scathing eloquence until I remembered that you were a product of the back lanes of Limerick where a sharp tongue was more common than a hot dinner.

You were often seen at Irish Republican protests and why not – your father was from the North, and Sean South wasn’t just a name in a drunken sing-along to you. But it was more than that: Habeas Corpus and the right to dream have always been sacrosanct in your book, as is the belief that democracy means a lot more than just having a vote.

When you “stood for” Governor of New York I supported you because I’d never seen you being dishonest, except when you refused to pay the Con Edison bill for the Bells of Hell and got poor Jimmy Gavin to drill a hole through the wall to hook up to your neighbor’s power lines.

But to tell you the truth, Malachy, I always felt you should run for Pope! We’ve never had an Irish one but you look the part and you’d do a slap-up job.

I know, you’ve been happily married for 45 years and your wife’s a carpenter, but every pontiff has drawbacks and wouldn’t Diana be great around the Vatican. There must be a rake of unhinged doors, warped windows and the like.

The truth is, you’d suit any office for you’re a man of principle. I never saw you turn down a fight for justice no matter how daunting. You’ve lost many, but won a few humdingers. More than anything else, though, you’ve been a light in the darkness for those coming behind you.

Happy 80th, Malachy! By the way, I think you’d make one hell of a Grand Marshall – sure, you could always walk backwards.

Tuesday 13 September 2011

Up The Republic!

What is the nature of a republic?

Well, broadly speaking, it could be described as a political system where each citizen has an equal say in governance.

A worthy aspiration but hardly the case throughout history! The vaunted Greek and Roman republics indulged in wholesale slavery. The first French Republic violently repressed its citizens. While the founding United States of America granted voting rights only to its male propertied class, and might not have come into existence had it confronted its own slavery issues.

And yet all three provide the DNA of our current republic which not only grants universal suffrage but allows us to “throw the bums out” on a regular basis.

Then why do so many people feel disenfranchised? From Tea Party to egalitarian dreamer there is a negative mood abroad concerning the efficacy, and even the need, of government.

Cynics can handily say, “You get what you vote for!” And with barely half the American electorate even bothering to pull a lever they have a point.

Money has corrupted the republic. It’s not just that this is the era of the permanent campaign where candidates step off the victory podium and immediately dial their donors; if you’re plain old Joe Blow from Jericho you can’t afford to run for congress.

66% of Senators and 41% of representatives are millionaires, whereas the general population boasts only 1%. Even in the great pitchfork revolution of 2010, the average worth of a newly minted senator was $4 million, that of a rookie representative $500,000.

1% of the population now owns 35% of the wealth of the nation while the top 20% possesses 85% of the national pie. So, where does that leave everyone else? You got it - buying Powerball tickets!

Such wealth distribution figures closely resemble those of the Gilded Age of 1870-1890. Thus, after 140 years of striving that gained universal suffrage, the right to collective bargaining, and a once expanding middle class, the country is in many ways back to square one.

That’s not to say that there have not been huge advances in health and education, although each is getting progressively more expensive, in some cases prohibitively so.

But not to worry, at our fingertips we have access to whole worlds of sports, music and celebrity gossip that would dazzle previous generations. Or is this just “bread and circus?” Keep the plebs occupied while you loot the treasury.

Take the current efforts to regulate the financial industry - one would imagine that the 80% of have-nots who suffered the brunt of the recent economic downturn would welcome any efforts to protect them.

Not so! By merely waving the banner of “over-regulation” financial industry lobbyists are merrily de-fanging this crucial legislation. In our 24/7 ADD cable culture, judicious sloganeering will always whack common sense.

In previous eras – both Republican and Democrat – the rising tide lifted all boats. Now only the yachts are rising.
Basic capitalism has been upended – where once profit was reinvested in industrial expansion and human capital, now many companies are sitting on huge cash reserves or paying outlandish salaries to top executives while making do with fewer workers.

Given the recent whiplash dips and jumps in stock prices does anyone have confidence in the integrity of stock markets now dominated by high-frequency trading programs? And yet a large percentage of the private retirement capital of the nation is at risk in these Wall Street casinos.

Surely it’s time for the federal government to offer some kind of well-publicized, tax-free retirement bond that could provide ballast to the current roller coaster mentality of the 401(k)?

But that would take a major initiative in a political culture beholden to big money; and that paralysis will likely continue until the bottom-feeding 80% of the population demands a more equitable share of the national pie in a reformed republic.

Unlikely, you might say, but there is a deep unease across the entire political spectrum. Many people feel that it’s finally time to get beyond the dumb slogans that pass for politics today before this “shining city on a hill” becomes just another banana republic.

Wednesday 7 September 2011

The Priest and the Fireman

Anyone knocking around Manhattan in those days knew people who perished, but for me it all comes back to the priest and the fireman.

Even ten years later I can look offstage and imagine where each would be – Father Michael Judge standing by the bar, impeccably coiffed, surrounded by friends; and Richie Muldowney NYFD, darting around the room bantering with all and sundry, crooked smile lighting up the joint.

Though both frozen in time they summon up the city as it used to be. For New York changed ineffably on 9/11when the spirits of so many unique people departed. They’ve been replaced, of course, great cities do that, but it’s not quite the same, is it?

I often thought of Mychal as a mirror, he was so empathetic he seemed to reflect your own hopes and fears. I never knew anyone who helped so many people; he was always concerned, forever providing a shoulder.

I guess he came to see Black 47 to let off a little steam. I’m not even sure he liked our music – his own taste ran towards the more conventional – but the rhythms, juxtapositions and overall message fascinated him and, anyway, he liked to be in the thick of the action.

Richie was hard-core Black 47. He knew all the words, the players, the other fans. He delighted to show up unexpectedly at out-of-town gigs; the moment you saw him you knew it would be a good night. To think such an irrepressible spark was extinguished so early.

I remember jaywalking across Times Square the first September Saturday the band returned to Connolly’s. The “crossroads of the world” was so deserted in those immediate post-9/11 nights it felt like a scene from a cowboy movie where sagebrush is blowing down the street.

But cops, firemen, emergency workers, the mad, the innocent and those who just couldn’t stay at home needed somewhere to go – to let the pressure off – and that was the band’s function.

Those first gigs were searing. You couldn’t be certain who was missing, who had survived, who was on vacation, who just needed a break from it all. When a familiar face walked through the door the relief was palpable, someone else had made it.

The atmosphere – though on the surface subdued - was charged with an underlying manic energy, a need to commemorate, celebrate, to show that life was going on. That would be some small revenge on the bastards who had caused all the heartbreak.

And yet, what an opportunity was missed in those first weeks. That smoldering pit down on Rector Street had galvanized the country. We were all so united; we would have done anything asked of us.

Republican, Democrat, Independent, we all came together as Americans. We would have reduced our dependence on foreign oil, rejuvenated poor neighborhoods, taught classes in disadvantaged schools. You name it - nothing would have been too big, too small either.

But no sacrifice was asked, much less demanded. Instead, 9/11 was used by cheap politicians to get re-elected; patriotism was swept aside by an unrelenting xenophobic nationalism that brooked no dissent. The US was converted into a fortress and the lights were dimmed in the once shining city on the hill. Worst of all, our leaders sought to use the tragedy as an excuse to invade Iraq.

Look at us now, dysfunctional, walled off from each other and the rest of the world. That began when the national will for a positive response was squandered in the aftermath of 9/11.

Though he was finally hunted down, sometimes it seems as though Osama Bin Laden won, for we’ve become a fearful, partisan people, unsure of ourselves, uncertain of our future.

But then I think of Mychal and Richie, their smiles beam across the years and I know that the current national malaise is just a patina that covers the soul of the country – it can be wiped away. It’s not permanent. We have greatness in us yet.
That’s the hard-earned lesson of 9/11 and will always be the message of the priest and the fireman.

Wednesday 24 August 2011

George Kimball and The Bells of Hell

I recently attended George Kimball’s memorial gathering. I’d hardly call it a service, for George bowed his head to Lady Luck alone and then only at the track.

It was a “round up the usual suspects” crowd of Lion’s Head denizens, drinkers with writing problems, hard bitten journalists, with a leavening of the boxing community led by promoter/MC, Lou DiBella, and a host of Boston scribblers who had shared ink and drinks with George during his long sojourn in the land of the Red Sox.

Everyone looked considerably wiser, hair color tended towards the salt and pepper when not albino Irish white; the ladies, lovely as ever, did George proud, dressing to the nines – no one ever accused the deceased of not having an eye for the fair sex.

The speeches were riotous – many drawn from George’s darkly, hilarious letters and emails; all washed down with fine wines and a generous selection of beers.

I gravitated towards the Bells of Hell veterans. A fairly grizzled bunch, none untouched by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune; yet each still blessed with a ribald, if somewhat gallows, humor. As tales were traded, I swear the years tumbled away and a caustic innocence descended on the group.

I’ve hung my hat in many the saloon and yet there was nothing quite like The Bells. It was the mix of people, I suppose, and the times.

It’s hard to imagine the 70’s in New York from the vantage point of today’s overpriced Branson on the Hudson. Don’t get me wrong, I still adore Gotham’s very stones and will only be removed feet first.

Scorsese nailed both town and era in Taxi Driver – not just the outlaw chaos of the city in the 70’s, more the dizzying fatalism – bad things were bound to happen and you had better stay a step ahead.

Your saloon was your sitting room; getting there was often an adventure – navigating your way home always so. My direct route from the Bells took me past the doorway where Harvey Keitel had his East Village encounter with Jodie Foster. It was a rare evening I didn’t encounter some scene just as vivid.

Still The Bells was always worth the trip. The characters were diversely gripping, each one’s flaws usually on display. Cliques abounded. For instance, I’m almost certain that Frank McCourt and Lester Bangs never spoke, although they often stood within earshot of each other.

The egalitarian jukebox united us. I first heard Anarchy in the UK explode from between Ellington’s Take the A Train and The Patriot Game by the Clancy’s - regular patrons themselves.

No one had any idea that Frank even entertained a notion about becoming a writer although he regularly made fun of those who did. An inveterate curmudgeon, he loved to prick the bubble of anyone unwise enough to make a pretentious comment in his presence.

When fame did come, no one enjoyed it more than Frank; he literally lit up, though he never lost his sardonic humor.

Lester, on the other hand, was world famous in those years – at least to Rock cognoscenti. He might show up with Joey Ramone or Joe Strummer in tow, although never as trophies. He fully believed that rock stars should shine only on stage, and never condescend to their admirers.

Mr. Bangs had his demons and they sometimes emerged when he drank – but quietly. Towards the end, he was pushing back against the encroaching straightness that he foresaw strangling New York. I shudder to think what he would make of his city today.

Back at the George’s memorial, Kerouac’s pal, David Amram, jazzily rendered Will You Go Lassie Go – a final farewell on the low whistle. David first introduced us to the concept of World Music in the back room of The Bells – “all music mixes, man; it’s players who don’t.”

Then it was time to go. With hugs and handshakes and promises to stay in touch the grizzled Bells battalion bade farewell. And George Kimball’s spirit set off to join Frank, Lester and The Clancy’s in the ghost of a beloved saloon on 13th Street and 6th Avenue.

Wednesday 17 August 2011

Vote first - Complain later

Voting has consequences – non-voting has even more!

Some hatfuls of votes in Florida caused George W. Bush to be elected 43rd President of the USA. Ten years later we’re still paying for his decisions to return a hefty US Government surplus to the taxpayer while fighting an unnecessary war in Iraq.

In 2008 Barack Obama seemed to promise so much and, in fairness, he inherited a banjaxed financial system and an economy hemorrhaging jobs. He made some unpopular decisions but, at the least, prevented a new depression.

I can’t even remember who got my vote in 2010. I know I voted because I didn’t want my grandfather’s ghost thundering at me as he did in life, “People died for this right, and you’re throwing it away?”

Regardless, voters changed the balance of power in the House of Representatives by electing a significant number of Tea Party candidates.

“A movement will always trump a political party.” Another of my grandfather’s edicts and how the Tea Party has proved him right. The tail now spastically wags the Republican dog.

A coldly cynical move by Senator McConnell and new Speaker Boehner to co-opt the Tea Party by adopting their “slash and burn” tactics brought the US government to the brink of default and tarnished its credit rating and international standing; this despite the fact that both men wholeheartedly supported all President Bush’s profligate spending.

But that’s democracy for you. Now how about a couple of questions for you, President Obama?

Did you ever hear of the Kennedys? Particularly Joe Sr., Jack and Bobby? They had a dictum – don’t get mad, get even.

If by some unlikely chance they’d suffered your recent negotiation humiliation, they would already have set up campaign offices in each Tea Party represented district. Their field coordinators would be shouting from the rooftops that 401(Ks) are down the toilet because of Republican intransigence; likewise no one should bet the farm on ever receiving Social Security and Medicare benefits.

Ever played poker, Mr. President? If so, how come you casually tossed away the ace of the 14th Amendment by revealing beforehand that you wouldn’t use it in the recent negotiations?

You often remind me of the most popular boy in school – top of the class, great sportsman, all the girls love you. There’s nothing you feel you can’t do - including build bridges between the two political parties.

But that’s not on the cards, Mr. President! Republican politicians hate you. You make them look bad. You saved the banks, the car industry, the very capitalist system. Though they’d never admit it, you even pandered to them with your hated stimulus by giving 40% of it back in tax breaks.

“What’s a guy to do?” You must be saying to Michele over your steamed Broccoli every night.

How about toughening up? Start listening to some real pols – even that pearl-draped vixen, Nancy Pelosi; after all she passed your Health Insurance Reform Bill when you were about to cave on it.

You think Standard &Poor would have downgraded US credit if the Kennedys were running the show? That company would have been gelded back in 2008 for giving their clients AAA ratings on toxic derivatives. You didn’t even slap their wrists. No wonder they don’t respect you!

You’ve got one thing going: the lack of any credible Republican policy. Cutting taxes got us into this mess. Slashing budgets does not create jobs. And as for playing their usual God card? Fuggedabout it! I’ve got Him working full time on the Mets for the next couple of years.

All that aside, no one gets re-elected by saying “things will suck twice as bad if the other guy gets in.”

You still have a chance to fulfill your promise, and deliver a healthy economy and decent unemployment figures by 2016. But you won’t do that by patting backs and offering pious platitudes to people whose main objective is seeing the door hit your posterior on the way out.

Nice guys don’t always finish last but they usually come in second. And that’s not where this country needs you to be in 2012.

Wednesday 10 August 2011

A Vast Wasteland and Enya

I’m in a hotel in Gweedore. Donegal have just come from behind to take a tense game from Kildare.

The pints are flowing but the jet lag has finally nailed me; so I beat it upstairs before I’m dragged out to the celebration in Leo’s Tavern. Enya’s family owns the joint, you never know who might be there and it’s a long road to Wexford tomorrow!

Too dazed to read I switch on the television. Maybe get some word on how the Shakespearian drama is unfolding in DC. Will President Hamlet have stiffened his resolve? Will Lords Boehner and McConnell realize that tea parties can be poisonous affairs?

But, as ever, television is a vast wasteland with a dizzying array of talking heads stating the banal obvious in the few moments their corporate masters are not hawking deodorants, gas-guzzlers and Viagra.

“A vast wasteland” – now where did that phrase come from?

Oh, a little speech given fifty years ago by Newton M. Minow, then chairman of the FCC, when he invited America to “sit down in front of your own television set... keep your eyes glued until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.”

At the time the only choices were the three networks. Yet the speech caused uproar because Minow was suggesting that since CBS, NBC and ABC had been given free and exclusive licenses to use the airwaves they should provide bona fide “public service” programming.

Minow’s reward? Well, Gilligan’s Island named a sinking ship, S.S. Minnow, in his honor; but he also received encouragement from Attorney General, Robert Kennedy.

Both men shared the forlorn notion that television could be harnessed to raise public consciousness on national issues and not merely be a cash cow for three lucky corporations.

The networks kept their powder dry – the feisty Kennedy was already tackling the mob, Jimmy Hoffa and southern racists – the center might not hold.

How right they were. Jack Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Lyndon Johnson’s family had extensive radio interests giving the new president little desire to interfere with television’s commercial promise.

Minow eventually got the boot and the wasteland expanded in ways neither he nor Kennedy could have imagined.

Before his departure, however, he helped launch a string of non-profit educational television stations currently known as PBS. Unfortunately, even these timid oases of sanity are now under attack for the heinous crime of balanced news reporting.

“Television deals too much with covering controversy, crimes, fires, and not enough with the country’s great issues. Our presidential campaigns are obsessed with the trivial.” Minow trumpeted.

Jeez, he should check out today’s 24/7 cable coverage! Poor guy didn’t even have to deal with the current mania for celebrity, reality shows, or the unmasking of sexual foible.

But it’s the sheer fakery of TV that offends more than anything. I still cringe at the sight of hepped-up talk show audiences, knowing that they’ve been goaded into action by some gofer moments before the camera rolls; while how sad to watch the salty and hilarious off-camera Jay Leno morph into a puppet mouthing inanities that you wouldn’t tolerate from your neighborhood drunk.

As for content – I was once chided by Bill Maher on Politically Incorrect for having the temerity to suggest that congressmen couldn’t be elected unless they were millionaires (he since appears to have seen the light).

No, my job as a “guest liberal” was to attack Maureen Reagan by ripping into the reputation of her Alzheimer’s suffering father. Controversy and boorishness, as ever, is more important than fact on the boob tube.

Could TV have fulfilled its indubitable promise? Could Minow and Bobby have turned things around? We’ll never know – one nut with a gun rendered such speculation academic.

Ah, to hell with jet lag and the rocky road to Wexford! I’m going out to Leo’s. Maybe Enya will be there; I’ll wear yellow shades and tell her I’m Bono, we can hold hands, sip pints and watch TG4 together.

Tuesday 2 August 2011

Meagher of the Sword

He may have been the most famous Irishman of his generation, definitely the most controversial. Born in Waterford in 1823, he disappeared in Montana 43 years later.

Thomas Meagher was a lawyer, journalist, rebel, soldier, political prisoner, and his admirers would like to erect a memorial to him in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery.

It’s been a long time coming. His greatest achievement, perhaps, is that by example he persuaded many recently arrived Irish to enlist in the Union Army during the Civil War.

In truth, though, Meagher of the Sword, had lived an amazing life before he even set foot in the US. An unlikely revolutionary, his father was a wealthy merchant who sent him to the Jesuit Stoneyhurst College in Lancashire where he picked up an upper-class English accent that often grated on his nationalist admirers.

But could he talk! Throughout his life halls would pack at the mere suggestion of Meagher “speechifying.”

He made common cause with Thomas Davis, John Mitchel and other Young Irelanders who had grown tired of Daniel O’Connell and the system of patronage associated with his Repeal Association.

In their view O’Connell had grown too cozy with the British Whig establishment. During a fiery speech in the midst of the Potato Famine Meagher refused to repudiate the use of physical force to repeal the union between Great Britain and Ireland. Hence, Meagher of the Sword!

After the failed Young Ireland rebellion of 1848, Meagher and his comrades were sentenced to death but later transported to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania).

Always a man for the grand gesture, he promised the sentencing judge, “My Lord, this is our first offense, but not our last. If you will be easy with us this once, we promise on our word as gentleman to try better next time.”

Blessed with great charisma and romantic flair, he married Katherine Bennett, the daughter of a convicted highwayman soon after arrival “on the other side of the world.”

He eventually escaped to New York City where the Irish greeted him as a hero. He studied law and founded the weekly Irish News – a forerunner of the Echo – along with the radical Citizen with his fellow escapee, John Mitchel.

The comrades split at the outbreak of the Civil War. Mitchell supported the South while Meagher who abhorred slavery declared for the Union imploring his fellow Irishmen to join him in a company of the New York State Militia, later to be called the Fighting 69th.

After some early successes he was promoted to Brigadier General and commissioned to lead the Irish Regiment. At the bloody battle of Antietam things began to go wrong for Meagher. Much of his force was decimated and he was blown off his horse. He was accused of drunkenness, a charge he bitterly denied.

This accusation resurfaced throughout his career, it being noted that he “kept the best table in the Union army.” However, in his defense, he aroused much jealousy for he was a garrulous partisan man who made enemies easily.

After the war, Meagher was appointed Acting Governor of the new Territory of Montana. He campaigned to have Montana achieve statehood but became embroiled in local politics when he freed an Irishman who had been sentenced to death by a group of vigilantes.

On July 1st, 1867, he fell from a steamboat into the Missouri River. His body was never recovered. Controversial to the end it has been suggested that he was pushed by the aforementioned vigilantes, old Confederate foes or even English agents. Then again, perhaps he was just drinking too heavily.

Some feel that despite his brilliance he never achieved his potential. Others count him as one of the great leaders of the Irish Diaspora. Green-Wood Cemetery is commissioning a bronze portrait of him.

To make a donation go to For more information, call Green-Wood Cemetery Historian, Jeff Richman, at 718-210-3017. Or just visit peaceful Green-Wood, one of the treasures of New York City, final resting place of so many well known Irish.

Meagher of the Sword stirred great passion in his lifetime. A lightning rod, had he lived he would have changed the course of Irish America.

Saturday 23 July 2011

George Kimball

George Kimball had a glass eye. Oddly enough, that wasn’t the first thing you noticed when he’d barrel through the door of The Bells of Hell. It was more that the general mirth and sense of anticipation rose a notch or two.

His journalist friends used to guffaw about the day in Fenway Park when an acquaintance asked him to keep an eye on his seat while he hit the bathroom. George popped out the glass eye, placed it on the bench, and said, “Sure.”

He passed away last week. Among the many caps George wore effortlessly was columnist for the Irish Times. He was as at ease in Dublin as in Lawrence, Kansas where he once ran for sheriff against a one-armed establishment figure under the slogan, "Lawrence needs a two-fisted sheriff with an eye on the future!"

I’m sure his spirit is drifting between a host of extinct bars today, including The Bells and The Lion’s Head in Greenwich Village, as well as sports emporiums the like of Fenway and Madison Square Garden.

For George liked to take the pulse of a city after he had sent in his reports to the Boston Herald or the Phoenix on the Red Sox and whatever boxing match he was covering. I don’t know about his baseball reporting but could he cover a fight.

He didn’t just report on the blows struck or the usual surface minutiae; he saw the world in all its hepped-up craziness reflected in the “sweet science.” There wasn’t a boxer of note, and many not of, that he wasn’t on familiar terms with. He appreciated them all – the losers as much the winners.

To George sports was life at hyper-speed, the way he often lived it. And all of the fighters, their managers, trainers, cut-men and gofers were worth ink because they were real, unaware and on the money, no matter how close to penury.

He understood the game of music too, the players, their problems and the pain they would face when they slid from the spotlight. He knew age would catch up with them too.

He loved Paul Simon’s song, The Boxer, for it nailed the New York City of the late 60’s that he loved. He appreciated that the writer and song would mature even as the city shed much of its seedy glamour.

Life, sports, music, books, broads, booze and the big city – they were all one big exciting cocktail to George and his circle.

It was into this milieu that I stumbled back in the 70’s. It was centered on the Lion’s Head with outposts in the Bells, Jimmy Days, and a couple of uptown joints.

George was often down from Boston to cover the Sox or a fight. There were Hamills and McCourts too and an array of other colorful characters. Almost to a man – and the occasional woman – they cast a cold eye on the Vietnam War.

They were inspiring: their casual disdain for Nixon and his ilk was far more devastating than the ideological vitriol abroad in the East Village.

In time they shook their heads about the folly of Iraq. Had the clowns learned nothing? Waterboarding was beneath contempt, for to these hardboiled romantics America was the perennial good guy and didn’t engage in torture.

Bars close, times change and I lost sight of George. Then a couple of years back I ran into him – you guessed it, in a bar though he had quit the sauce. There was no distance; it was as if we’d been carousing the night before at the Bells.

I just wish I’d spent more time with him; there were so much I wanted to know about legends like Stanley Ketchel and Billy Conn, and friends of his like Muhammad Ali and Hunter Thompson.

But more than anything, I had a couple of questions about life. He probably didn’t have the answers, but the time spent in his company would have been, as ever, illuminating, irreverent and unforgettable – just like the man himself.

Wednesday 13 July 2011

Social Security Four Years Later

Four years ago this month I wrote a column concerning Social Security and its essential place in the fabric of US society.

Remember those heady days of July 2007. The Dow had just closed above 14,000, house prices made your head spin, President George Bush was still paying for the Iraq war on the Chinese credit card, and those recently converted deficit hawks, Messrs. Boehner and McConnell, were more interested in slashing their golf handicaps than federal budgets.

Salad days, indeed! And yet this pain-in-the-butt columnist was warning that unless we bump up Social Security benefits “we’ll eventually have an army of senior citizens living on cat food.”

I likened the retiree’s economic security to a four-legged stool made up of family home, pensions, savings and Social Security. Let’s check the wobble factor after the last three years of financial turmoil?

Well, home prices have tanked, many are “underwater,” meaning that more is owed than the property is currently worth.

Pensions? Becoming as obsolete as the typewriter, even the once sacrosanct civil service retirement system is under attack.

Savings? A recent poll suggested that over a third of Americans don’t even have a hundred bucks stashed away for retirement. No wonder Powerball is so popular.

One silver lining: after sinking below 7000 in 2009, the Dow Jones Index is back up in the 12,000’s. Small wonder since profits are at record highs for the 30 big Dow companies, in no small part due to reduced costs from firing employees.

And for those lucky enough to have a 401(k), the average balance at retirement is $98,000 – hardly a king’s ransom if it has to stretch for twenty or more years, especially if it’s dependent on yo-yoing stock prices.

So, where does that leave your regular Joe or Jane contemplating retirement? You guessed it – depending big time on the old SS!

Back when FDR proposed Social Security he was accused by Republicans of ushering in socialism. Call it what you like – you think there’s a reason he’s one of the most revered presidents?

Apart from the monthly stipend paid to qualified participants, Social Security bestows a measure of dignity upon those who have toiled for a lifetime, raised families and have little to show for it. Instead of cutting or curtailing its benefits we need to safeguard and strengthen them.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the fiscal health of Social Security. From 1937 through 2009 it took in $13.8 trillion in payroll taxes and paid out $11.3 trillion in benefits. The balance was “borrowed” to fund other programs. Because of the recent recession the system is now taking in less than it is paying out. Should this situation continue Social Security is likely to go bust sometime around 2037.

In other words we’ve torn up the social contract honored by previous generations. We’ve stopped paying our way and to hell with those coming after.

And yet for mere pennies extra a week we could make Social Security fiscally sound again. Is that so far beyond us?

And for an extra couple of bucks a month we could beef up the system so that seniors might enjoy the more dignified, and less worrisome, lifestyle enjoyed by their peers in other developed nations.

I know! Messrs. Boehner and McConnell say we can’t afford to raise taxes in a time of recession – businesses will be less likely to take on new employees. Tell that to the Fortune 500 – many so awash in cash they’re even buying back their own stock and still not hiring.

Medicare is already being threatened by the Ryan voucher proposal that invites recipients to fend for themselves with private health insurance and medical providers. Moan all you like about big government, try going mano a mano with big business!

There are many reasons for the current deficits – a fee for service medical system that encourages overspending, an ongoing war mentality that leads to bulging defense budgets, and a refusal to pay as we go for the services we demand.

Social Security need not be one of those problems, if we pony up and do the right thing. In fact, for senior citizens it may well be the only solution.

Wednesday 6 July 2011

The Big Man

So the Big Man is gone. Headed off down Thunder Road.

We’ll never see the like of Clarence Clemons again, that’s for certain. He did leave the stage on cue, however, for the scene that he sprung from has just about run its course.

Clarence was the archetypal rock & roll tenor sax player, raised on King Curtis and roadhouse gigs. But he’ll be remembered mainly for his work with Bruce Springsteen.

They both emerged in the late 60’s down the Jersey Shore. What is it about those “dusty little seaside towns” and music?

I’ve played many of them from Maryland up to Maine. Cheap little bars, the jukebox pounding, hot chicks, cold beer and pedal to the metal bands. Asbury Park had more than its share including the Wonder Bar, the Student Prince and the big league Stone Pony.

I once heard Bruce describe their first meeting on a windy, rainy Boardwalk night. He saw a giant black man approaching and discreetly stepped inside the doorway of a boarded up arcade. The figure stopped outside, looked in, reached out his hand and then:

“Sparks flew on E Street when the boy prophets walked it handsome and hot.” Bruce sang, the band hit the downbeat and we all tumbled off into the jumbled magic of The E Street Shuffle.

The E Street Band itself could always spin on whatever dime Springsteen’s genius demanded. There was an empathy akin to love between Clarence and the Boss onstage and the sax player could effortlessly turn the singer’s yearnings into soaring solos that took the songs way beyond where mere words go.

That kind of playing doesn’t spring from rehearsal rooms. It comes from long nights balancing riffs and aspirations with the demands of an audience – something damn nigh impossible for a band nowadays. Gigs are scarcer and musicians don’t have the luxury to stretch and learn to trust each other in a business far more concerned with celebrity than content or accomplishment.

Many of the better versions of Springsteen’s songs never made it to the studio. The poetry of Thunder Road was sacrificed to make Born To Run a cohesive, majestic rock & roll album. Take a listen - Bruce can barely fit the words into the speeded-up tempo. Like many others, I’ll always treasure being there at the birth of this incredible song when he used to moan it above an aching solitary piano,

“The screen door slams
Angelina's dress waves
Like a vision she dances across the porch
As the radio plays…”

Yeah, back then Mary was called Angelina. But who cares? Writers change their minds, great bands make that possible, and in the final searing sax solo you became one with the less than lovely woman fretting about not being” that young anymore.”

Rock & Roll has always been a combustible fusion of black rhythms and white working class sensibilities; rock music is its milquetoast middle-class imitation. Kids now attend Rock School. Many of them become great players – they learn all the moves that will serve them well on American Idol.

That’s what rock has become, but the roll has always been about rebelling against parents and the desolation of dead end jobs. It can’t be taught, it’s learned and earned on long nights in sleazy bars from players way cooler than you.

I used to watch Clarence empathizing with Springsteen’s claustrophobic spoken intro to the Animals' It's My Life. It reeked of alienation from his father. Rock & Roll was Bruce’s only escape from their stifling working class home. The Big Man held the door open and helped make the dream possible.

I never met Clarence Anicholas Clemons but one night at the Bottom Line a French poet was so moved at the end of Incident On 57th Street he was unable to stop hollering despite Bruce’s appeal for quiet. Finally the Big Man reached out to Jacques and silenced him with a smile. He understood that music and madness are inextricably linked and on a good night rock & roll makes saints of us all.

So long Big Man. The scene may be coming to an end but there’s always a gig for you somewhere down Thunder Road.