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.