Friday 23 December 2011

The Irish-American Princess

She was my first IAP (Irish-American Princess). Well the first that I lived with at any rate. Tara had somehow made her way down to the Lower East Side from the leafy, lace-curtain environs of Westchester, although she was anything but stuck up.

Back then I had a regular Sunday gig in the less than ritzy Archway up the Bronx and she fit in there like a fist in a glove. Of course, she was quite a looker so that didn’t hurt with the lovesick Paddies.

She had beautiful grayish green eyes that would mist over in any kind of conflict or passion; there was much of both in our relationship. The boys said that she could twist me around her little finger. They were right, but oh that twisting could be so sweet.

Things came easy to Tara. She had succeeded at everything she’d turned her hand to. But she wished to become a successful singer, the rock that many have foundered upon.

I must have seemed like a good step up the ladder; along with gigs in the Archway and John’s Flynn’s Village Pub, I regularly strutted my stuff at CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City.

It was to be a match made in purgatory for both of us. Whatever, as they say, I was in need of some stability and moved into her apartment on First Avenue.

I always seemed to have “just missed” her parents on their visits to the city. That should have set the bells ringing but I guess when you’re in love…

Actually, our first major disagreement was over my parents - when I announced I’d be spending Christmas with them in Wexford.

“Our first Christmas together?” She shuddered.

“Well, you can come too.” Although I broke into a cold sweat at the thought of telling the Mammy that we’d be bunking together in the ancestral homestead.

“I couldn’t desert my parents,” she countered as though I was sentencing her whole white-picket-fenced clan to twenty out on Rykers.

“But what about my parents?” I retorted. And on it went as lovers’ quarrels do until her eyes were so misty and beautiful I feared that her heart might indeed break.

Well, I wrote my Mother a particularly tear-stained letter full of half-truths (God rest her soul, I suppose she knows the full story now). I didn’t dare telephone; I wasn’t man enough to bear two loads of womanly angst.

In truth though, the part that really hurt was that I would miss the traditional Wexford boys’ night out on Christmas Eve. And so I extracted a promise from Tara that we’d at least tie on a decent substitute.

“No problem,” she said and was good to her word. She was fairly abstemious for those times but, when called upon, could drink like a fish with little ill effect.

We bought a tree, decorated it, and strung flashing lights all around the apartment. I almost felt like Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life. Almost! For around 7pm I slipped on my black leather jacket, she dressed up to the nines and off we strutted up First Avenue to get well and truly shellacked.

God knows how many bars we hit, I certainly don’t; but I was feeling no pain by the time we reached Max’s Kansas City. Why Max’s on Christmas Eve? Well Tara liked to make the scene, besides I knew the doorman and got in free.

I was also familiar with the bartender who slid many the shot of watered-down whiskey towards us. And then, through the shroud of smoky darkness, I heard the London accent.

“Roight!” The spiky-haired ghost in black leather wearily exclaimed.

The platinum blonde next to him droned on as junkies do.

“Roight.” Sid Vicious reiterated whenever a response was expected.

I casually whispered his name to Tara.

“Oh my God!” She shrieked as though Jesus had just hopped down off the cross and offered to buy a round.

Sid looked up blearily, whereupon Tara flashed him a smile that would have done justice to Marilyn Monroe on steroids.
“The blonde looks like a piece of all right,” I countered and winked at Nancy Spungen.

“From a bottle!” Tara sniffed just as Sid laboriously hauled himself off his stool and stumbled towards the restrooms; whereupon Ms. Spungen laid her head down on the counter for a wee snooze.

We were still awaiting Sid’s return when Tara looked at her watch and gasped. “It’s ten minutes to twelve.”

“Expecting to turn into a pumpkin?”

“No,” she moaned, “we won’t get into St. Patrick’s!”

“What for?”

“Midnight mass, of course. What do you think?”

Was she kidding - from Max’s to matins?

When we arrived at the church off Avenue A, I could tell it wasn’t exactly what Ms. Westchester had in mind. For one thing, the priests all wore shades and spoke Polish.

Still, the place was packed and we reverently stood in the transept in close proximity to an ornate candelabra - wax dripping from its many branches.

Perhaps, it was the heat, though it could have been Max’s watery whiskey; for one moment I was sweating and swaying, the next I was writhing on the marble floor painfully disengaging myself from a myriad of hot waxy candles.

There was immediate uproar with many Eastern European ladies screaming at me, and Tara, no doubt, wishing she was safely home in leafy suburbia.

When I awoke on Christmas morning much of her extensive wardrobe was laying atop me. She was modeling a matronly gray jacket and skirt, the hem inches below her knees, damn near a foot down from its usual height.

I leaped from the bed and grabbed my Doc Martens, pink shirt, and black leather tie and jacket. Unlike my dearest, I had long before settled on an outfit appropriate for my first appearance in Westchester.

“You don’t look well, baby,” she laid a cool hand on my brow and cooed, “You’re just burning up.”

I did feel as though one of those monsters from Alien was ready to hop out of my stomach but I had much experience of that condition. “No, it’s okay. I want to do this for you.”

She hemmed and hawed before blurting out the truth, “It’s my mother…she wouldn’t like you.”

“What’s there not to like?”

“Well, your clothes, for one thing. I mean, are you serious?”

And with that, the fight fled from me. I could just picture the whole clan dressed in Kelly green singing Danny Boy around a turf fire - her auld one, no doubt, peering out at me through lace curtains.

Tara took me in her arms whispered that I should go back to sleep, and hinted that on her return Santa might provide some x-rated delights. But I wasn’t that easily mollified and delivered one last parting shot as the door closed behind her, “So what am I supposed to do, have Christmas dinner in an Indian restaurant?”

Well, I didn’t fall back asleep and the hangover was of the galloping nature, gaining ground all afternoon. But the hunger was no joke either and when I eventually sauntered up First Avenue the only places open were of the Indian persuasion.

A dusting of snow was descending as I stormed into The Taj Mahal. The lone customer didn’t even bother to look up from his book; I sat there glaring at him, cursing all cruel-hearted IAPs and wishing I was home with my Mammy in Wexford.

The snow was swirling around First Avenue and White Christmas was leaking from doorways as I headed back to the apartment. I turned on the blinking Christmas lights and took a couple of fierce slugs of Jameson’s whiskey, turned the Clash up to eleven and rehearsed ever more vicious and vengeful ways of breaking up with Ms. Westchester.

She must have forgotten her keys for, at first, I didn’t hear her knock above Strummer’s bawling. I strode over to the door, angrier than any Old Testament prophet.

She stood there, face flushed from the cold, snow in her hair; she was expecting my fury and accepted it with grace. She smiled gently, her grayish green eyes misting over, and I barely heard her murmur, “I missed you so much.”

She reached up, held a sprig of mistletoe over my head and kissed me as if for the first time. And when she whispered, “Merry Christmas, baby,” all the fight fled out of me and young love in all its passion returned.

Wednesday 21 December 2011

A Christmas Candle

Every Christmas Eve I place a lighted candle in my window – less for any cultural or religious reason than for fear my granny might appear and scare the wits out of me.

She always claimed that such a gentle flame helped guide lost souls home. I think she may have been theologically mistaken and its purpose was to assist the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph find a safe spot to deliver the baby Jesus; still I never disagreed, for my granny was a formidable woman.

It wasn’t that she was inflexible; she merely went her own way without regard for the world or its ways. In fact she was of an extremely sympathetic nature and, when given, her love was unconditional and never withdrawn despite all grievances, real and imagined.

I don’t think the term “drama queen” had been coined in her day, but it summed her up to a tee. There was little she couldn’t make much of.

She shed copious tears every time she heard “Too Soon To Know” by Roy Orbison. She claimed he had written it in honor of his wife who had been burned alive. I’ve never corroborated the veracity of this showbiz tragedy – sometimes ignorance is bliss with regard to family statements.

She claimed to be married to “the most unimaginative man in the world.” And perhaps she was for I never heard my grandfather reply to this particular charge, often as it was hurled at him.

In fact I don’t think I heard him say much of anything to her; men back then didn’t say a whole lot to women, especially when children were around. He must have murmured “sweet nothings” on a number of occasions, however, for they had five children not counting three that died soon after birth. She missed those three souls dearly and often whispered their names.

Silent though her relationship was with my grandfather she called out mightily to him as the undertakers wrestled with his coffin the night he died; my father matched her grief in sheer blasphemy as he labored unsuccessfully to unhinge the jammed door of the bedroom.

Through gales of tears my granny cried out that she would soon be joining my grandfather. My father, a rather salty and unsentimental merchant marine, in the midst of all this keening declared loudly that, “this goddamned door will have to be crow-barred off.”

When such a tool could not be located he removed the windows instead and we managed to lower the coffin into the hearse through gale-force wind and rain.

The shenanigans did not stop there. My grandfather was a much-respected man and the ensuing well-oiled wake reached riotous proportions. So much so that when we arrived at the graveyard two days later amidst the still blowing gale, the conditions were, in the words of the race-horsing community, extremely soft.

My two brothers and I along with three of our male teenaged cousins had been conscripted to carry the coffin from the hearse to the graveside on woefully hungover shoulders. Lo and behold, the youngest cousin slipped on the wet clay of St. Ibar’s cemetery and, but for a leap across the grave by my ever-profane father, all half-dozen of us would have ended up six feet under the coffin.

Regarding this save, my Uncle Sean was heard to murmur that if Wexford ever had such a goalkeeper, Kilkenny would have won far fewer All-Irelands.

My father was apparently not blessed with great imagination either for later that night after my granny had retired to her own room, spent from his labors he lay down on my grandfather’s bed. His last words before slipping into coma-like sleep were, “out with the old, in with the new.”

As Malachy McCourt once opined, “I come from a long line of dead people.” I suppose we all do. Whatever imagination I’m blessed with, I daresay my granny had a large say in it.

So, this Christmas Eve, in her honor, I’ll light a candle in the window for I know she’s hovering out there somewhere keeping a melodramatic eye on me. I just hope to God she doesn’t read this column.

Tuesday 13 December 2011

Thanksgiving in Australia

I was in Sydney for Thanksgiving. A long way to go for a bite of turkey!

Over 10,000 miles, in fact, but I’ve been working on Transport - a musical - with Thomas Keneally of Schindler’s List fame, and had the opportunity to do a workshop of the piece Down Under.

Keneally was inspired to write the book on account of his wife Judy's great-grandmother who was transported to Botany Bay in 1839 for stealing a bolt of cloth in Limerick.

It was a riveting experience to collaborate with new directors and a cast on a piece so central to the Australian psyche; to tell the story of four young Irish women sentenced to penal servitude who ultimately went on to create a new country.

And what a country Australia is. At times it takes your breath away - a mixture of opposites, the familiar and the strange.

Tom Keneally is emblematic of the place. Educated by the Christian Brothers, a wonderful writer with deep roots in Irish literature, he has a rare and uncanny facility for creating fully fleshed women characters. However, just when you think you have him nailed, he slips away from you for he sees the world through uniquely Australian eyes.

You could say much the same for Sydney. The churches and bank buildings might have been lifted straight from Dublin or London, and yet instead of granite or limestone they’re hewed from a dusty red sandstone that gleams oddly in the harsh sunshine.

When you visit The Rocks – the equivalent of New York’s rowdy 19th Century Five Points - you can almost hear the bustle and boozy banter of freed convicts creating an alternative culture to their conservative English masters and jailers.

The two traditions have only recently, and uneasily, coalesced; scratch the surface and you’ll find a caustic rebelliousness beneath the tanned skin of most Australians.

The country is booming, largely because its mineral resources are in demand by China; nor has it been scarred by recession because its well-regulated banks were unable to behave like casinos as happened in the US and Europe.

Sydney actually felt like Clinton-era New York. One almost expected to see Bill and Hil gliding by on surfboards such was the sheer optimism in the air.

A cautious understated people, Australians however were not trumpeting their good fortune; rather they seemed content with their lot, much in the way that we were back in the 90’s.

Yet there’s a definite “can-do” feeling in Sydney. It was ricocheting around the theatre the first morning Keneally and I walked in.

The actors and musicians had 18 new songs to learn and a whole script to flesh out onstage in five days. A tall order to my mind, but they seemed, if anything, under-whelmed by the task ahead.

Sure, they had their problems in the course of the rehearsal process but they never doubted that they would come up with the goods.

Contrast that with the “Super Committee” in DC charged with reducing a small chunk of the US deficit. Given the self-imposed strictures on revenue raising and reducing benefits, was there ever a chance of success in an environment that has been poisoned by lobbyists, ideologues and a scavenging 24/7 media?

Don’t get me wrong! Australians are no saints: their politicians are raucous and self-centered, and yet they’re able to agree to disagree and ultimately come to a consensus for the general good.

It used to be that way in this country and, with a bit of luck, it will be someday again – but not until we turn away from televisions and computers, take off the headphones, look each other in the eye, and seek common ground.

Australia was inspiring. It reminded me of how we used to be a decade or two ago. And on the last night of Transport, as the audience gave a standing ovation to the cast, the thought struck me that if four chained and destitute Irish women prisoners could go on to create a great country, then why can’t we come together and do the right thing by ours?

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Bert Jansch

Bert Jansch passed away recently. As Earle Hitchner noted: his death was overshadowed by that of Steve Jobs.

It probably wouldn’t have bothered Bert; he had grown used to being a footnote. Nonetheless, guitarists all over the world picked up their axes and had another run at Angie, the instrumental that gained Jansch his most renown. Kind of fitting, I suppose, since he didn’t write it.

Though unknown to most, Bert Jansch was treasured by musicians and those with an ear for innovation. Neil Young once said that what Hendrix did for the electric, Jansch did for the acoustic.

Quite an endorsement! To add to it, Neil took him around the US as an opener on his last year’s solo tour, even as Bert’s health was fading.

Perhaps, the greatest compliment – and heartbreak – was when Jimmy Page lifted Bert’s arrangement of the traditional Blackwaterside and turned it into Led Zeppelin’s Black Mountain Side! Listen to them back to back sometime.

There was no acknowledgement of the influence and a lawsuit was threatened but the prospective costs caused Bert and his label, Transatlantic Records, to let the issue slide.

Odd, in an of itself, since Page adored Jansch’s playing and haunted his appearances in London’s folk clubs back in the mid-‘60’s. Strange too that these two brilliant musicians were both addicted for long stretches of their lives – Jansch to alcohol, Page to heroin.

What is it about musicians and addiction? I have only to figuratively glance over my shoulder to witness a trail of destruction and heart-scald amongst friends and acquaintances.

Perhaps it’s generational, for many younger musicians lead relatively straight lives. Was it something in the times, the general fracturing of society that occurred in the 60’s and 70’s?

One thing I am certain of - there’s a marked difference between musicians and performers. Many musicians are simply not born for the stage. Their focus is music – you'd be surprised at how many are even quite shy; and yet, almost all are forced to stride the footlights to pursue their craft.

That shyness has to be blotted out in some form or other; add the sheer availability of free booze to the boredom of the road and you have one hell of a lethal cocktail.

Bert Jansch’s drinking was a problem through much of his career, although he always showed for gigs – sometimes, however, without a guitar. There’s many the guitarist whose sole claim to fame is that Bert borrowed his instrument before hitting the stage.

But whatever his state, his playing was magical. Despite his innovative work with Pentangle - the groundbreaking folk/jazz group he formed with John Renbourn - I still love his first album, simply called Bert Jansch, recorded by Bill Leader on a reel-to-reel tape recorder.

Leader sold the tapes outright to Transatlantic Records for 100 pounds; the album has sold over 150,000 copies – a whole bitter story in itself. Sometimes his guitar slightly distorts when he hammers a chord in his distinctive percussive style but it’s all Bert and in your face. You’ll hear his arrangement of Angie just as Paul Simon did; Garfunkel’s better half copied it and changed its name to Anji – without an acknowledgement either.

You’ll also hear the chilling Needle of Death, a tribute to his addicted friend, Buck Polly. In three minutes and twenty seconds you’ll learn why you should never mess with heroin.

Ironic, in ways, because for all Jimmy Page’s adoration of Jansch, he didn’t take this advice to heart!

The redeeming part of this story is that both men kicked their habits and went on to live very productive lives. Jimmy Page is a rock legend – and rightly so – one can tire of Robert Plant’s affected keening but Page’s riffs, writings and production still make Zeppelin the pride of their field.

And Bert Jansch? Will he forever remain a hidden gem? I have a feeling that his star will glow in the years to come – a pity that he had to die for that to happen.

But that’s the crazy world of guitars, shyness, and taking that one step too far over the line.