Wednesday 23 March 2011

Aidan and George - Cousins Finally United

Aidan Ffrench died a few weeks back. In his day he was a well-known figure around County Wexford.

He had a beautiful voice and was lead singer of the Visitors Showband. I wouldn’t say I rocked out to him, as big ballads were his forte; but if Aidan was no rocker he had rock hard credentials. For he was a cousin of George Harrison’s and, in music mad Wexford, this was second only to being related to John F. Kennedy or John XXIII.

Up until the 1920’s Wexford had a bi-weekly shipping connection with Liverpool and George’s grandmother, a Miss Ffrench, apparently availed of it to seek her fortune Merseyside. Had she not, I suppose, there would have been no Beatles.

When the Fab Four struck it big Aidan dropped a line to his cousin offering to forward some tapes. George never replied. Perhaps that’s why I can’t recall Aidan ever tackling a Beatles song, though I’m convinced he could have done a first class version of “Something.”

Ah well, now that they’re both playing in the big orchestra in the sky, no doubt George can give a good excuse for his lack of etiquette.

Whenever I play The Beatles on SiriusXM I always call them “the greatest Irish band.”

This often occasions letters from Anglophiles – a pity about them! For both Lennon and McCartney have deep Irish connections and, with a name like Starkey, it’s hard to imagine that Ringo hasn’t a bit of Paddy in him too.

Indeed many people consider Liverpool to be the “capital of Ireland,” since so many Merseysiders have Irish roots. Not surprising, I suppose since Liverpool is so close to Dublin in both miles and attitude. But the real reason is that the ‘Pool was the main point of embarkation for the US.

Thus, during the Potato Famine most Irish had to travel to Liverpool before taking the boat to America. Many ran out of money or were too ill to go any further, while at the same time the Industrial Revolution was taking hold and there was much need of cheap labor in Lancashire. America’s loss was Liverpool’s gain.

What an amazing band The Beatles were! We sometimes forget that their recording career stretched barely more than seven years. Think of the sheer output and the efficiency of their genius.

They completed their first album in two four-hour sessions and still had time to take the van home and do a late night show at The Cavern. The key to their success, apart from having three top-shelf songwriters, is that they were an amazing live band.
However, they were just another group of young R&B aficionados until they went to Hamburg in 1961. They stayed many months playing six sets a night, seven nights a week; it worked, for on their return they blew everyone away Merseyside.

None of them went to college, in fact only Paul graduated high school, and yet they had something that cannot be taught in a classroom – a total belief in themselves. As John Lennon once put it, “we knew we were the best, everything else was easy.”

Nor could any of them read music – although Paul learned later in life – consequently they didn’t know the rules, but they sure as hell rewrote them. Take a look at the wonderfully innovative chordal structures of their songs.

McCartney recently attributed their success to the fact that they were the first Post-War British generation not to undergo the mandatory two years of national service – “they never got a chance to shape us,” he claimed.

There was a lot of shaping back in Wexford. You were reminded over and over of all the things you couldn’t be, and that failure was inevitable; if you disagreed you were considered “too big for your boots.”

Aidan Ffrench died largely unknown. Had he grown up in Liverpool, could he have become as famous as his cousin? We’ll never know but maybe he’s singing “Something” right now while George’s guitar gently weeps – cousins finally united!

Wednesday 16 March 2011

Irish Need Not Apply

The old country is bleeding. Over one thousand young people are leaving every week. Someone remarked recently, “It’s just one going-away party after another.”

Where are they heading, this best educated Irish generation? Not here – many to EU countries, some to the UK, but mostly to the new land of opportunity, Australia.

Once we would have heard their accents ricocheting around Bainbridge, Woodside and all the various South sides around the country but that’s a thing of the past.

What went wrong? Well, the long and the short of it - we don’t want them in Fortress America.

And so on this St. Patrick’s Day eve it’s time to take stock before we dive into our annual orgy of self-congratulation – some deserved, some not so.

The man reason these young Irish are not coming to the US is that it is almost impossible to do so legally – Irish need not apply. And it is hardly worth their time coming illegally, the few avenues that used to be open towards gaining a green card and eventual citizenship have been closed off. What’s the point in spending a life on the shadowy margins when somewhere else better appreciates the talent on offer?

Irish-America could do with some new blood. I recently stood outside the shell of the old Bunratty Pub on Kingsbridge Avenue and remembered nights when men wild with drink blasted jigs and reels the like of which I’d never heard in Ireland. There wasn’t an Irish face to be seen - nor any outside the Archway where only a couple of decades ago hundreds lined up to dance.

It’s the same story all over this city and the country – old neighborhoods are dying for lack of immigrant youth. Irish need not apply and most of us take it lying down.

A new Taoiseach will go hat in hand to present shamrock at the White House on St. Patrick’s Day but DC wants nothing to do with a fair immigration law. The new Know-Nothings rule the roost – Irish need not apply.

But we must face the fact that many of these young emigrants no longer see the US as the land of opportunity. Now I still stand by the claim that this is the best country in the world. But a country is only as great as the aspirations of its people.

It is indeed time to look in the mirror and examine what these emigrants see - a country at permanent war hemorrhaging its youth and wealth in endless conflicts half way around the world. A society that, instead of strengthening its social safety net, is talking of dismantling it, thus inevitably impoverishing large sections of an aging working and middle-class.

Still, these trends can be reversed – but only if we shake ourselves free from a national lethargy. It’s easy to be cynical, after all 99% of us didn’t cause the recent financial meltdown. But the fact is we didn’t keep an eye on those who were supposed to be keeping an eye on the store for us.

Most of us didn’t want to invade Iraq and, according to polls, would rather be the hell out of Afghanistan. Yet, we allow our leaders to prosecute policies that are driven by outdated 9/11 related strategies.

These are hardly just Irish-American issues but, from both left and right, we’ve always been known for our advocacy and our desire for justice, whether it be Bobby Kennedy or Ronald Reagan, William F. Buckley or Pete Hamill. Right now we badly need a comprehensive reform of emigration law no matter how difficult it may be to pass through an increasingly Know-Nothing congress.

We have inherited a country and a proud Irish-American mantle. We have need of new blood, while at the same time there are those undocumented amongst us who would only love to set foot on Irish soil again to visit aging parents.

It’s time our politicians heard that message. Many of them, Democrat and Republican, take our votes for granted. That has to end.

Then perhaps someday we’ll hear those mad flutes and fiddles blasting jigs and reels on Kingsbridge Avenue once again.

Wednesday 9 March 2011

Bad Timing and a Ferocious Thirst

Timing is everything, they say. You may have the goods and the right intentions but, if you’re not in the right place at the right time, forget about it!

Take the case of Major Thinkers – surely one of the most unfortunate band names when it came to critical reviews. However, our song “Avenue B Is The Place To Be” was once all the rage south of14th Street.” Whatever about Lower Manhattan, Belfast circa 1981 was most definitely not the place to be.

On the strength of this anthem we were invited by an Irish record company to tour the country. And so Pierce Turner, Thomas Hamlin, Peter Collins and I hit the green fields of Ireland.

The dates in the South went off riotously enough; it was when we hit the North of Ireland that our timing and luck ran out. Bobby Sands went on hunger strike.

I’m not quite sure what we were thinking but we had already reached Belfast when we discovered that “because of mounting tension” our date was “postponed until further notice.” Derry and Omagh followed suit. But Gloria Hunningford still resolved to host us on her widely watched television show.

Belfast was dark and rainy, and the tension was, indeed, rife. The streets were deserted but the city was not without color, what with each neighborhood bedecked with either Union Jacks or Tricolors.

We taped a performance of our song and both Gloria and her technical crew felt Major Thinkers “were on the edgy side.” How right they were, for a revolution was mounting within the band - our bass player, Peter, had grown tired of Turner and Kirwan forever doing the interviews.

I, somewhat unselfishly, relinquished my chat with the beautiful Gloria - for the chance of doing some sightseeing, aka drinking.

Thus did Mr. Hamlin and I hit the streets. We both had ferocious thirsts and, in an effort to quench them, soon ran out of pounds sterling. However, a number of pubs were accommodating and changed our few dollars – albeit at exorbitant rates. And then we were down to Irish punts and thus did our misfortune begin.

After various bartenders had diplomatically notified us that they could not change “Irish money,” we way cool New Yorkers decided on stealth tactics. At this point we had entered a small pub, well away from the city center. I humbly requested two pints of Guinness.

The barman, a rather charmless individual, was far from friendly; nonetheless, he put time and care into pulling two magnificent Imperials whereupon I produced a nice crisp Ten Punt note.

At the sight of this he curled his thin lips in a most alarming manner before stating in a flat East Belfast accent, “We don’t accept Free State money in here.”

The affable hum of conversation stopped dead and I should have cut my losses but a raging thirst knows no bounds for I foolishly inquired, “So what are you going to do with the two pints?”

He never took his eyes off me as he slowly tipped the two gorgeous Imperials into the sink. The silence now was deafening as I backed towards the door and into the unflappable Mr. Hamlin who had missed this exchange while trying to make sense of some political posters – not of the Republican persuasion.

That may well have been one of the longest walks of my life back to the television studios. Belfast was a maze of speed bumps so every car that passed us had to slow down, leaving us with lurid visions of being kidnapped by the UVF for the heinous crime of attempting to purchase pints of plain with Fenian money.

But we survived and life went on. Bobby Sands MP would die some months later, round about the time Major Thinkers scored an unlikely hit with “Avenue B Is The Place To Be.”

Thirty years have passed and Belfast is a pleasant bustling city despite some sectarian undercurrents. Major Thinkers, alas, are barely a memory.

Many things have changed but bad timing and a ferocious thirst can still get you in a lot of trouble.

Wednesday 2 March 2011

Rave On Gene O'Neill

I’ve often felt that O’Neill is to Shakespeare as Van Morrison is to Bob Dylan. Van wears his grumpy soul on his sleeve while the guy from Minnesota will always dazzle us with his poetic, kinetic footwork.

For many of us, though, O’Neill is the man - probably because we recognize so much of ourselves in his writings. His characters almost leap off the stage into our addled heads, there to be measured against the memory of long gone family members. His father and mother figures are not totally identical to grandparents of mine, but all the traits are there – the grandstanding, liquored-up, disappointed males holding centre stage in the kitchen, while the secretive, troubled, fading and regretful women throb with resentment over in the corner.

There were many good evenings in my grandparents’ kitchens but they fade to insignificance when measured against volcanic whiskey midnights when secrets came flushing out never again to be successfully put under lock and key.

O’Neill captured those nights so well, aye, and with them the interred secrets; for he instinctively recognized that all drama springs from family. You may go out into the world, cross oceans and continents, and battle with giants; but, in the end, it’s what you learned at the hearth that enables you to exist in such company, pick yourself up when knocked down, nurse the resentments, reinvent yourself one more time, and come back swinging in the final rounds.

I once had a troubled director squire one of my plays onto the boards. Come to think of it, aren’t most directors troubled in some way or another? Anyway, he had some personal issues, as they say, and was hourly awaiting redemption. Although I’m a great believer in the big R myself, this particular play almost sent him off the deep end, for it mirrored my feeling that 99% of people never escape heredity. It’s as if they’re in quicksand, the more they try to escape the deeper they sink.

I love O’Neill but I don’t always wish to attend his post-mortems. He stirs up memories and forces me to confront issues long buried. And yet, I’m one of his bastard children: perennially at home in saloons, particularly in the witching hours when the booze banishes all inhibitions and we walk with God, sons and daughters of kings and cardinals. I also inherited his sweet sixteenth sense for approaching trouble; though it may not materialize for a score of years I can spot its signs etched deep in the soft faces of boys, though rarely girls.

I see it in my own writing and, even worse, in my life – that desire to break free and be myself without always being yanked back by some rapacious ancestor. O’Neill wrote the book on that curse – hence, the ineffable despair that permeates all his writing.

There’s little irony in Eugene, he’s all passion spiced with regret. In our current age of anorexic irony and humorless comedy, he is an anomaly and perceived as outdated and lumberingly old-fashioned. To hell with such naysayers! O’Neill had little time for fashion or fads, he was always his own man - all thunder and lightning, obsessed with the heroic, but preposterous idea that we’ve been placed here for a reason.

O’Neill didn’t need kings or queens like Shakespeare. They were already present in his family, posturing and striding across grand stages of their own imaginings. By placing them in the glare of the footlights, he peeled back layers of skin and calcification, and showed us ourselves as we really are. In so doing, he lit a way for those of us who have chosen to measure our small selves next to his giant footprints.

Rave on, Gene O’Neill, in the worst moments it’s helpful to know that you suffered more than any of us; in the best, what a thrill to realize that, despite it all, you triumphed.