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.