Tuesday 21 June 2011

Summer in the City

“Hot town summer in the city
Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty
Been down, isn’t it a pity
Doesn’t seem to be a shadow in the city…”

C’mon, Lovin’ Spoonful, what’s a little sweat between friends? Didn’t you know that when the fabulous leave for the traffic-jammed Hamptons New York becomes a playground for the rest of us?

You don’t need deep pockets either. The subway is safe and efficient – well, compared to other eras. It runs 24/7 and is a veritable living theatre chockfull of character actors who would put Jack Nicholson to shame.

The same goes for walking. And there’s so much to see. A smorgasbord of buildings erected over the last four centuries preen and lean against each other without even a nod to conformity.

On a good day even Mr. Trump’s monstrosities have a certain buffoonish charm. You’d have to wonder, though, if The Donald has ever even noticed the Chrysler or Woolworth in their stately elegance?

After scores of visits to the Metropolitan Museum I still marvel that I’m allowed stand within sniffing distance of Van Gogh’s Starry Night; however, if the sheer profusion of masterpieces becomes too much for you, then surrender yourself to the moody serenity of a Vermeer at the more negotiable Frick Museum.

Want to wear the kids out and still feel good when you hit the saloons unencumbered later? The Museum of Natural History is your man. Go early and saturate them with dinosaurs, pharaohs, whales and fossils, they’ll be crying out for a long peaceful evening of Facebook and video games back at the hotel.

But New York is so much more than Manhattan. Take a walk down the West Side to Battery Park and hop aboard the Staten Island Ferry, doesn’t cost a dime.

Even on the most blistering of days it’s cool out in the harbor where you can still sense what it must have been like to arrive on an emigrant ship. You’ll see the skyline and bridges from a whole different angle while the Statue of Liberty will only gain in the grandeur of its scale and message.

When you land at St. George board the train to Tottenville but get off at a couple of the leafy small towns. After an hour or two of a ramble you’ll understand why so many people from Aaron Burr to Keith Richard made their home in this least lauded of boroughs.

Are beaches your thing? Then like Duke Ellington take the A train to the Republic of Rockaway. They do things their own way out on this wave pounded peninsula and my one fear is that someday they’ll pack up their splendor and secede from the city. Cadge an invitation to Breezy Point, the gated Irish Riviera at the west end. Ask for my brother, chances are you’ll find him holding court at the Blarney Castle.

You want music? The axis has shifted from Manhattan to Brooklyn. Try the Knitting Factory in Williamsburg – this unique club prides itself on showcasing musicians from all continents.

And for an authentic Irish-American saloon, where Jimmy Cagney trumps Colin Farrell and Notre Dame football is preferred to its Kerry equivalent, seek out Rocky Sullivan’s in Red Hook. Seanchai and The Unity Squad pump their fists for culture in the back room every Saturday night.

Do you have a yen for flowers, exotic and otherwise? Then get thee to the only borough on the mainland, The Bronx! The Botanical Gardens are a thing of rare beauty and if you want to go nose to nose with a gorilla the magnificent zoo is close by.
You don’t have tickets for the Yankees game? Go on up anyway and ask if they’ve got any last minute deals. Chances are you’ll get great seats and at a discount too.

Don’t forget Upper Manhattan – it’s a different country. Stroll through the wildness of Inwood Hill Park before hoofing it down to The Cloisters. You’ll fancy you’ve stepped right back into medieval Europe.

That’s New York City - all you need is a subway card, a sense of adventure and a sensible pair of shoes. See you on the town.

Wednesday 15 June 2011

Who'll Be The Last One To Die?

Who’ll be the last one to die?

How long now since John Kerry, a decorated hero, asked that question in relation to the Vietnam War as it lurched to its unseemly conclusion?

Despite the pundits, the military brass and the politicians who enable our support of a civil war in Afghanistan, the die is cast there too. We won’t be leaving tomorrow but the countdown has begun.

So who’ll be the last American to give up his or her life for another country far outside our sphere of influence and with little or no strategic importance? The place was even too forbidding for Osama Bin Laden; far better set up house for his three wives within spitting distance of the US financed Pakistan Army.

Luckily for us, that unremitting hater of all things American, Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Mahdi Army, is refusing to let our major thinkers keep us indefinitely enmeshed in Iraq, a country we should never have invaded in the first place.

Pity there’s not an Afghani Muqtada. But that’s hardly on the cards, everyone’s too much on the make, including the corrupt Karzai government and various Taliban allies who offer protection so that roads can be built and those oh-so elusive hearts won.

In the end money too will drive our exit strategy - or rather the lack of it. There was a time we could write blank checks and impose our will on the world; but according to Congressman Paul Ryan we can no longer even afford to cover our seniors’ medical care or the pittance we call social security.

In the meantime, however, we can still pour over a hundred billion a year into Afghanistan and that’s just the military cost. Who even wants to think of the money and lives that have been squandered in Iraq?

Oh, by the way, for those of you who were opposed to bailing out our financial institutions, you ever hear of the Kabul Bank? Well it’s hitting some hard times right now - almost a billion bucks was given out in loans to politically connected shareholders including the president’s brother, Hamid Karzai, already suspected of having a hand in the booming opium trade. It would appear that most of those loans lacked collateral and even documentation.

The government of Afghanistan barely takes in revenues of a billion a year, so it’s highly unlikely they’ll be ponying up; and since we can’t continue propping up the world’s 2nd most corrupt government if their financial system collapses, guess where the buck stops?

And that’s not even taking into account the human dimension. Because we’re fighting a wily resourceful enemy who can melt into the population we continue to kill innocent civilians, often women and children. Even our paid pawn, President Karzai, recently warned that such conduct was unbecoming – of course, he had his hand out at the same time.

So why stay? Bin Laden’s dead and Qaeda prefers beachfront property in Yemen and Somalia.

Many of us came down heavily on President Bush for invading Iraq but we continue to turn a blind eye to President Obama’s endless war in Afghanistan. After all, those horrible Republicans and Tea Partiers would flay him alive if he cut and ran, right?

Perhaps, but when the American Embassy was blown up in Beirut, President Reagan moved the marines out of Lebanon posthaste. No one called him a quitter.

Nor did President Clinton allow us to become enmeshed in Somalia after Black Hawk Down. Those were different days, however, before the National Security cabal committed us to permanent war.

And have all the lives lost and money wasted made us the least bit safer? I think not. Blowing up God-crazed peasants half way around the world does little but line the pockets of corrupt foreign governments and our own military industrial complex.

Together they’ll tease out this endgame until the ultimate question remains - Who’ll be the last one to die?

Wednesday 8 June 2011

Punk Rock Meditations

Black 47 played the recent Joey Ramone birthday party at Irving Plaza.

Now lest you think we were kissing the pinky rings of the men in suits, let me explain that Joey was lead singer for the punk rock band, The Ramones. He tragically passed away ten years ago and proceeds from the annual bash go to the Lymphoma Research Foundation.

Back in the 70’s rock music had become so complicated you needed the chops of a Franz Lizt or Django Reinhart to cop a gig. Then came The Ramones – play loud, fast, hard, simple and to hell with the consequences, the same spirit that had inspired Eddie Cochran, Jerry Lee Lewis and Gene Vincent a generation earlier.

The Ramones got their start in CBGB’s, a dump on the Bowery. Coincidentally, I happened to be there for their first performance. They weren’t very good, but who was back then? Debbie Harry had trouble singing in tune; Talking Heads were still searching for a sound.

But The Ramones knew exactly what they were after and within three months they were knocking cobwebs off the walls.
CBGB’s is gone but The Ramones legacy lives on, and at Irving Plaza many survivors of the original bands and audiences strutted their stuff. Most everyone looked in decent shape; then again, the lights were low and shades were de rigueur. Black leather for the men, black lace and micro-skirts for the ladies and it was the 70’s all over again.

Sheena Is A Punk Rocker, Rockaway Beach, I Wanna Be Sedated still sounded fresh and immediate. Those Ramones songs have morphed into nostalgic fun-filled anthems, but how strange to think that a hole-in-the wall scene at CBGB’s had such an effect on music and the general culture.

As I took in the scene from the balcony I was struck by how much things had changed. Although the stage was in full view, many people watched the show through the ubiquitous closed circuit TV monitors. The only television I ever saw in CB’s was the one a near naked Wendy Williams of the Plasmatics chain-sawed through.

The audience was lit up by cell phones held aloft to take pictures while many tapped away on keyboards, no doubt updating their Facebook pages – all well and good, but when I watched The Ramones, Television or the Dead Boys back on the Bowery, all I cared about was being blasted by the white heat that each of those bands was creating. I have no need of pictures; those fiery nights are forever stamped on my consciousness.

I left before the final song. I didn’t care to be there when the lights came up. The past is better preserved in darkness and as I strolled down Broadway through the midnight crowds - most of them hooked to iPods like junkies to the needle - I wondered why people choose to block out the distinctive beat of New York City.

Joey Ramone, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan and Dion DiMucci tapped into this perpetual poetry in motion. Then again, those guys were all about the music and taking it to another plane - they didn’t give a damn about celebrity, the modern Holy Grail.

The beat of the city turned them on, that holy rhythm that cares nothing for nobody just pulses on regardless. Walt Whitman identified it first; it’s unique and God given and you wonder why people have such a need to shut it out.

Joey, you were many things to many people. There were times I thought you’d stepped full-blooded out of a comic book. You were always a gentleman to me and I have many memories of you, but the best is seeing you stand alone on a hot, rancid East Village street, long, lean and lanky, soaking in the metronomic music of the streets.

Hopefully, there are kids out there who are just as disgusted with today’s music as you were back in the early 70’s. They’ve seen the light, they know just what they want to do; they’ve just got to find their own dump on the Bowery to do it in!