Friday 28 October 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 Monaghan 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.

Saturday 22 October 2011

Rock Seen- Bob Gruen

So you wanta be a Rock & Roll star? Well, it might be a bit late in the day.

But oh, there was a time and it all came flooding back when I opened Bob Gruen’s beautiful new book, Rock Seen – a sparkling collage of live concert shots and portraits from the last 40 years.

Who the hell is Gruen, you might ask. Well, he’s the guy who’s always there when scenes begin and is long gone before they become stale.

I used to wonder about Joe Strummer. Was he really so tuned in that he found Black 47 at Paddy Reilly’s early on?

Nah, Gruen took him, for Bob could hear the grass grow when it came to new music.

Strummer is on the cover of Rock Seen. Funny how you can miss something so obvious - even though I’d been up close to the Clash at their ferocious best I never realized Joes was such a knockout.

That’s Bob’s magic – he didn’t just click on a camera until he struck lucky. No, he waited until the moment was right and mainlined straight into the soul of his subject.

I used to see Bob at shows all over town but I’ve little memory of him with a camera stuck to his face. He was part of the scene – he loved the music and the players - he didn’t just run off home to bed as soon as he’d nailed a decent shot.

And that’s why if you want to know what Rock & Roll was all about in New York City don’t bother reading some self-serving rock critique. You’ve got the real deal now – a book reeking with the magic of so many electric nights. It may not be for you, but there’s a music head in your circle who has need of remembering, or someone who cares but was too young to be there when it mattered.

That was what they said about The Clash – “the only band that mattered.” But there were legions of others and many are nailed to the pages of Rock Seen – Chuck Berry, Ike & Tina, The Stones, The Boss, Bowie, Tom Waits, Led Zep…

Of course Gruen is synonymous with John Lennon. He took the iconic portrait in the New York City T-shirt. In fact Bob gave that shirt to his mate. Took the lovely Statue of Liberty portrait too – to hammer home the point that Lennon was a New York City treasure and shouldn’t be deported.

But, for me, it’s the downtown gang that lights up this book. The New York Dolls at the Mercer Arts Center before it collapsed. Johnny Thunders, young and beautiful, before the dope ate a hole in him. Debbie Harry, our Marilyn, in a tiger striped dress, and The Ramones so young and almost vulnerable.

Have you ever seen the inside of Max’s Kansas City? I nearly cried. Bob’s pictures brought me back to a Christmas Eve when I stood in a darkened corner with my Irish American Princess, Sid and Nancy next to us, listening to their junky conversation and observing that, “this guy will be lucky to be alive next year.” It never struck me that Nancy wouldn’t make it either.

There are scenes from CBGB’s so vivid the familiar lines of graffiti jump from the walls and I can almost inhale the particular smell of beer, sweat, leather and cheap perfume that pervaded this dump on the Bowery that changed music!

And friends in the crowd that I haven’t seen in thirty years! What are they doing now - gone like Strummer and Joey, or alive, survived and gratefully older like David Jo and Debbie?

Open up Bob Gruen’s book and the throbbing nights will come flooding out at you and with them the faces, wild-eyed but far from innocent, without a hint of irony, parody or American Express exclusivity - a lovingly detailed kaleidoscopic account of a bygone time when Rock & Roll was bible strong in this town.

Rock Seen captures the visual beauty and integrity of a precious scene before MTV and corporate greed irrevocably cheapened and distorted it.

Rock Seen by Bob Gruen Abrams Books

Tuesday 11 October 2011

The Irish Rep and the IAW&A Eugene O'Neill Award

You begin something without knowing what you’re really getting into. Twenty or more years later, you look back and discover that it has defined your life. Any awards that come are at best icing on the cake. It’s the work that counts and that’s always been the ethic at the Rep.

Nonetheless, Gabriel Byrne will present Charlotte Moore and Ciarán O’Reilly of the Irish Repertory Theatre the Irish Writers and Artists annual Eugene O’Neill Award on Monday 17th October at Rosie O’Grady’s in Midtown Manhattan.

And what work they’ve accomplished! Armed with the bare bones of an idea and fueled by a desire to do things their way they’ve come to define Irish theatre in New York.

They jumped in off the deep end with The Plough and The Stars back in 1988. I’ve always loved O’Casey, his Protestant working class sensibility strips away much of the sanctimonious green paint and shows us post-1916 Dublin as it really was.

There was a joy to the Rep’s first outing and an energy that radiated off the stage. From that moment on things changed for Irish actors in New York. The Rep meant business and would mount a full season every year, come hell, high water or whatever dollars needed raising.

A theatre is only as strong as the ambition - or madness - of its founders. Even by theatre standards, Charlotte and Ciarán were an unusual partnership.

Charlotte positively glows with a refined theatricality. Still, this woman from the farmlands of Southern Illinois has a will of steel - a legacy no doubt bequeathed by her emigrant Wexford forebears. Razor-sharp and beautiful she had reached the actor’s Rubicon – continue manifesting someone else’s vision or do it your way, aka become a director!

Ciarán matched her in intensity but was also blessed with that particular native-born Irish quality – the quiet determination to follow your dream despite, or even because of, the begrudgers.

To my mind this Cavan man has always shared a unique trait with David Byrne of Talking Heads, he improves with every outing – be it acting or directing.

With such different personalities at the helm, the Rep must have had some humdinger early production meetings before a modus operandi was worked out.

Their first production that knocked my socks off was Tom Murphy’s violent A Whistle in the Dark. The ructions sparked onstage by a dysfunctional Irish emigrant family were so alarming that, in the pub afterwards, one stood back and allowed the actors time to shed the sheer aggression of their characters.

Still, I felt the Rep really came of age with Philadelphia Here I Come. Such was the truth in their rendering of Brian Friel’s masterpiece I swore never to see the play again. It had hit too close - this tale of a father emotionally unable to ask his son to remain at home.

And the Rep has done it all so professionally. Back in 2002 I wrote music for their Playboy of the Western World and was thrilled just to have the opportunity to weave Synge’s brilliant intent into rhythms and melodies.

On opening night while lost in the magic unfolding onstage, a check was slipped into my pocket – unasked for and unexpected. But that’s the Rep for you - providing a safe haven for those dreamers who have no other option but to test the rocky waters of theatre.

How fitting then that they should receive an award that also celebrates America’s greatest playwright, Eugene O’Neill, the turbulent narrowback who insisted he could recreate the universe onstage through the characters in his own family.

The Rep have never made such claims but every week in their beautiful playhouse on West 22th Street they fashion a world of dreams, ideas and magic, that take us far beyond this threadbare Facebook universe we inhabit.

They have an appointment with their own destiny on Oct. 20th when they tackle the luminous, but thorny, Dancing At Lughnasa. Miss it and it’s your loss.

But before then come and celebrate, Ciarán O’Reilly and Charlotte Moore, two remarkable people, at Rosie O’Grady’s, Manhattan Club, 800 7th Ave/52nd Street at 6pm, Monday 17th Oct. For tickets and information go to

Wednesday 5 October 2011

Christy's Close Shave

“Sunlight pouring across your skin, your shadow
Flat on the wall.
The dawn was breaking the bones of your heart like twigs.
You had not expected this,
The bedroom’s gone white, the celestial light
Pummeling you in a stream of fists.”

I had been through it before, waiting by a hospital bed while a dear friend lay in a coma, wondering if he’d ever resurface.

Johnny Byrne, Black 47’s soundman, didn’t make it, but this time there was a happier outcome. Chris Kelly, poet and college professor, awoke eventually and with the help of his wife, Ally, and his many friends has slowly but surely returned to us.

Many of you know Chris; some of you have been touched by his extraordinary kindness and humanity. I first met him in Paddy Reilly’s in the early 90’s with a crew of visiting Clare men. He was studying at NYU at the time. I can still remember his eager face, full of life and so thrilled to be part and parcel of New York City.

Though bursting with ideas he was equally interested in yours; you only had to mention a dream or problem and he was right back at you with some suggestion or solution. It wasn’t just barroom talk either; soon after you would receive a phone call informing you of a train of events he’d set in motion only waiting for you to jump aboard.

He became a professor at NYU and was beloved by his students. In his official capacity he escorted groups to Ireland where he introduced the students to other writers and immersed them in the cultural life of the country. Who knows how many have nurtured these links, but none will ever go thirsty in Dublin for lack of knowledge of pubs with a first class pint.

Chris has turned his hand to many kinds of writing but it’s his poetry that inspires. As Miles Davis said, “I could look at a great picture and come up with a thousand musical ideas but none of them meant anything until I found my voice.”

Chris found his voice early on and, despite the horror he has been through, he still retains it.

“Here is the known hand again remembering silently
Lifting the rafters of shadow into an opening of sky
Where the hidden children we were are greeting those
We've yet to become…”

Step by painful step, he’s fought his way back until a year after his accident, he’s walking, laughing, joking with friends, and chomping at the bit to get back to teaching in his beloved Columbia and NYU.

But as with every Traumatic Brain Injury there’s a ways to go and miles to be traveled, and health insurance only covers so much.

Chris is a proud and obstinate man, the very thought of pity or patronization would be like a knife in his heart; in fact, he’ll probably kick my butt when he reads this column. But it will be worth it for there are bills to be paid and the man is too damned valuable to New York and our community to be denied a full recovery because of a lack of some small change.

Take a look at this site to see some more of his writing and the problems he faces. I’m sure you know how it is, the thought counts - knowing that people are rooting for you makes a difference on the bad days.

Chris has been there for so many people – students, writers, musicians, the man and woman on the street. He’s beaten the odds and it’s nothing short of bloody marvelous that he’s back with us again.

“You raised your hand to your face as if
To hide, the pink fingers gone gold as the light
Streamed straight to the bone,
As if you were a small room enclosed in glass
With every speck of dust illuminated.
The light is no mystery,
The mystery is that there is something to keep the light
From passing through.”

Monday 3 October 2011

Nick Drake

A friend first pointed it out to me in the 70’s – an appreciation that appeared on the back page of the Village Voice every November. Nothing fancy – just a plain “Nick Drake 1948-1974, thank you for the music.”

Back then very few people had even heard his name. I had - through listening to John Peel play his incandescent songs on BBC Radio. Still, I only possessed one of his albums, the debut, Five Leaves Left. It’s funny, I can remember the cover so well – green bordered with a picture of a willowy young man looking out from an attic window. I had to be in a certain mood to play it – besides there were times when you just wouldn’t want Nick in the room – especially if you thought someone with you wouldn’t appreciate him. If it was someone you were romantically involved with – you especially thought twice about it - supposing they didn’t like Nick, then what? One of them had to go and I well knew which one. I can summon up that mood and a lot of other old feelings by just thinking of that album cover and the songs within.

Nick Drake’s music was enigmatic – deep and churning but deceptively calm on the surface. It never seems to date, perhaps, because he captured a mood, rather than a time and place.

His other two albums, Bryter Layter and Pink Moon are no less enthralling. They too evoke the same mood. He died in 1974 – a failure, in his own eyes at any rate. He is now best known in the US for a Volkswagen ad but you can hear his influence on so many artists. Many of them are attracted to his essence – none grasp it. All three of his albums sold less than 5000 copies in his lifetime. But obviously each person who bought one treasured it and the mood it identified, then passed on the word. Incredibly, his three albums keep getting better with time.

The memorial in the Voice eventually stopped. Did the admirer die, move on, move out of New York? I watched the back page of the Voice for a couple of years and then I too moved on. Just another New York oddity that I rarely give thought to, until Saturday mornings on Celtic Crush when I play Nick.

It never seemed like morning music to me back in the day – I rarely listened to it before midnight. But Nick Drake’s songs have become timeless and hourless – much like the man himself.