Tuesday 18 January 2011

Ike Rules

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. The cost of one heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities.

We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.”

What tree-hugging, pinko is responsible for this diatribe? Paul Robeson, Bobby Kennedy, Malachy McCourt?

None of these esteemed gentlemen. Such words were uttered by the last great Republican president, Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Much attention has been given of late to Ike’s farewell warning against the influence of the military-industrial complex. The poor man must be twisting in his grave, for the US has become a military-industrial complex.

Cut education, cut social security, cut your granny’s bingo allowance, but don’t even dream of examining a defense budget! Might as well toss the baby Jesus out of the crib before you cut a buck from this sacrosanct military shopping list.

The waste, over-run budgets, out-of-date weaponry is astounding; the money galore seeping from the pentagon to the military suppliers, defense contractors and security firms is common knowledge and yet with a few honorable exceptions our political representatives adopt a hands off attitude.

What kind of madness is this? We don’t have enough money to rebuild roads, bridges, schools, or rail lines, but amazingly we spend more on our military than the countries with the next fifteen largest budgets combined.

Now I’m not talking about the wage or salary of the soldier or sailor, nor of the benefits they receive when they come home – they deserve everything they get and more. What is troubling is the mindset that defense budgets are holy cows to be held in awe but never touched.

Have you ever considered that the US has been at war – or on a war footing – ever since Eisenhower vacated the White House in 1960? We careen internationally from local vendetta to civil conflict often taking sides indiscriminately, usually without any sense of realpolitik.

It was so nice of us to go into Iraq, lose 4,400 US lives, waste billions borrowed from China, with the end result of handing the joint over to Iran. But even before we’re shown the door out of Baghdad, we’ve already shifted most of the troops to another un-winnable war supporting a narco-based, ultra-corrupt Afghani government.

Who is our next bogeyman, Ahmadinejad, Kim Jong-il, Bono? Hey, with oil running out, how about we resurrect the Fenian Brotherhood and invade Canada?

The real problem is that our political culture doesn’t allow us to discuss defense budgets. You have to hand it to these military-industrial dudes - they really run a tight game with bone-deep roots in both political parties, the media, and the national psyche; just as soon as anyone even mentions this madness, out come the flags, and the “hey, commie, why don’t you buzz off to Cuba” chants erupt.

The celebrity warrior culture does us no favors. Now I think General Petraeus is a sound man and an astute tactician; but even he would tell you that his “surge” worked because our former enemies, the Sunni Sons of Iraq, were added to the US employment rolls. Money well spent, I say, even if it never appeared in any budget – defense or otherwise.

His new surge in Afghanistan will work too. The Pashtun clans, AKA Taliban, will melt away – for the time being. Why not, they know we’ll eventually leave, might as well take a paid vacation courtesy of our Pakistani allies, and return when the heat dies down.

But then, General Petraeus is a soldier, unlike President Eisenhower who became a statesman. The general sees only the short-term. Ike looked down the road and saw what we could, and have, become – a nation at permanent war afraid to ask the reasons why.

Tuesday 11 January 2011

Dr. Strangelove, what about you?

Have you ever been out to the Aran Islands - in particular, Inishmaan, one of the most beautiful, if strangest, places on earth? Should you ever suffer a bout of heart-scald, it’s a destination to consider.

I spent a couple of soothing days there once. Now granted, the weather was spectacular – the sun was splitting the rocks and there’s no shortage of boulders on Inishmaan. It did occur to me, however, that there must be long spells of rain and low cloud cover that could drive a man to drink, or worse.

After a day’s exploration capped by an hour or so sitting in Synge’s Seat awaiting inspiration, the auld heart was feeling a good deal better when a ferocious thirst hit me - always the first sign of recovery. And so, wouldn’t you know it, I made my way to the local pub – An Córa.

The scene within verged on the surreal. Six elderly men, in dark suits, white shirts and ties were murdering pints of Guinness while they watched the movie, Dr. Strangelove, on an antiquated 17” black & white television set.

They appeared to be having some difficulty comprehending Stanley Kubrick’s farce about a nutty American general ordering a nuclear strike on the Soviet Union, for they were firing questions at a young barman who was attempting to translate the zany dialogue into Irish for their benefit.

After some minutes of this inquisition, the barman lost both patience and cool, “Ah will yez ever shut up and figure it out yourselves. I’ve a pain in me arse explaining this thing to you!”

I often feel the same way when elucidating on the goings on down in Washington, DC to some foreigner; for instance, try getting your head around the recent debates, votes, threats, pay-offs and eventual begrudging ratification of the START Treaty with Russia.

Any kind of agreement that would lead to some form of inspection and verification of 23,000 stray nuclear weapons would, you might think, be a no-brainer, especially for those of us who grew up saying the rosary every night in hopes that the godless commies wouldn’t lay a big one on us in our sleep.

I happened to mention this paranoia while in the Soviet Union years back and got the instant reply, “Why do you think we drink so much vodka, you guys actually used nuclear weapons - twice.”

Actually, I used to feel a lot more secure when the comrades were ruling the roost over there – atheists are less likely to push the button since they don’t expect to be seeing Jesus later in the evening.

I much prefer them to Senators Kyl and DeMint who scare the hell out of me with their concern that signing nuclear treaties over Christmas is somehow sacrilegious. Then again, the prospect of Jim DeMint running for president would have been too farcial for even Kubrik to include in Dr. Strangelove. Such is the world we live in.

But it’s the horse-trading around this START deal that really boggles the mind! In order to secure ratification, poor President Obama, decent man that he is, had to promise to pony up 80 billion bucks for three new nuclear bomb factories and100 billion for new delivery systems. Add that to Michele’s Christmas present and no wonder the deficit is exploding.

I haven’t even mentioned the undisclosed but astronomical cost of a missile defense system to be placed around the perimeters of Russia, with a couple of first class shields around Arizona tossed in to ensure that Senators Kyl and McCain get a decent god-fearing night’s rest.

Apart from the fact that missile defense systems rarely work, do these nuclear warriors really think that the mafia now running Russia has the least interest in blowing up the “West” when all they really want to do is sell us vodka and bootleg Celtic Woman DVDs?

Sometimes I think we’d all be better off out on Inishmaan sculling pints and explaining Doctor Strangelove to them auld fellahs in the suits. It would be a damn sight simpler than figuring out what’s going on in Washington DC.

Thursday 6 January 2011

In Memory of Philo

He died 25 years ago on January 4th. It's still hard to believe. What a force! What a memory!

He was the most charismatic man I’ve ever met. Even before he “made it,” he cut a figure the length and breadth of Dublin. Phil Lynott was black, beautiful and sported a gurrier accent that could peel the skin off a turnip.

In the early days, Hendrix was his role model but I’m now reminded more of Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. Loping down O’Connell Street like some psychedelic Pied Piper, he was usually trailed by a bunch of kids. His white teeth gleamed in a perpetual smile and he winked or bade hello to anyone who caught his eye.

I knew him by repute before I ever laid eyes on him - his small triumphs on the Dublin beat scene were trumpeted in Spotlight Magazine. His humiliations were even more public: Skid Row broke up to get rid of him, then reformed without him.

But nothing could stop Philo – within months he’d mastered the bass and formed Thin Lizzy. Soon thereafter, I met him.

On good weeks Pierce Turner and I would treat ourselves to a curry in the Luna Restaurant on O’Connell Street, a popular hangout for showband heads and rockers. To our delight we were given a table right behind Phil and Eric Bell.

Eric who? Oh, you know him well enough – you listen to guitarists ape his lines on Whiskey in the Jar damn near every time you enter an Irish bar.

I can still recall Phil in the Luna declaiming, “we’re goin’ nowhere in Ireland, man!” He was trying to convince a skeptical Eric that they should decamp for England. They did and the rest is history.

Have you any idea of what it was like to first hear Whiskey in the Jar explode out of car radios and cloth covered transistors? Roll over Amhrán na bhFiann, we’d just found our own national anthem – Eric’s overdriven guitar and Phil’s cathartic voice took that old tune to places we’d never dreamed of.

Even now when I play it on SiriusXM I’m struck by its sheer originality. It always raises my spirits and shoots me back to a time when rock & roll was fresh and adventurous and unaware of itself.

A couple of years later Eric quit the band onstage in an orgy of smashed amps and overdriven dreams. I guess he really hadn’t wanted to go to England.

It took two guitarists to replace him but Lizzy stormed on. Phil used his presence, voice and songwriting chops to propel them far beyond his Crumlin roots. Their concerts were riotous mind-bending affairs, pulsing with life and dicing with controlled chaos. You could almost touch the adrenaline – and it wasn’t always natural.

Those were the days when rockers lived on the jittery edge, forever on the road with a costly album to promote, and another to write and record before they’d even unpacked – everything speeded up in a crashing, burning, collapsing cycle. The highs so high - a pity they couldn’t be bottled. And the lows, well, you don’t want to go there.

Phil was so intense onstage it almost hurt to watch him. He was living his dream and he demanded 120% of those around him – 150% from himself. He knew the difference between poise and posture, and dare any of his band-mates indulge themselves. You could catch his curses and exhortations from the side of the stage – never from the front. Every molecule had to be directed at the audience – they’d paid good money, they deserved a show! It was the Dub working class ethic colliding head on with the rock & roll dream.

The band was not at its best the last time I saw him in NYC. New Wave was all the rage, Graham Parker opened and, to the critics - if not the fans - Lizzy seemed a trifle over-baked. Yet, back in the dressing room Phil was as ever polite, welcoming and delighted to meet someone who “knew him back when.”

It was like being hit with a hammer that Christmas Day in 1985 when the news of his collapse spread, but I didn’t shed a tear. By then I’d learned the hard way that you can’t trade tomorrow’s energy for tonight’s performance.

Still, whenever I hear Whiskey in the Jar, I sit back, close my eyes and relive the sheer exhilaration and Paddy pride of those days when Philo’s Dub accent exploded through car radios and cloth-covered transistors like a tricolor siren.

Wednesday 5 January 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 Cavan 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.