Wednesday 28 March 2012

Sandy Denny

A hush often falls on conversation when the name, Sandy Denny, arises, usually accompanied by sighs and a gentle shaking of the head. The initial pain at her passing over thirty years ago has eased but many of her admirers still experience a deep sense of loss.

What is it about Alexandra Elene Maclean Denny? And why does she touch us still? I really don’t know, but even as I write this I’m filled with a sense of gentle melancholia. It definitely had something to do with her voice. Even as a very young woman, that instrument ached with experience.

How could she have written a masterpiece like “Who Knows Where The Time Goes” as a teenager? And to compound matters, it was rumored to be her first composition. During an interview with Richard Thompson for Celtic Crush, I asked him if this was true. He replied that to the best of his knowledge it was and, at any rate, she’d had the song when he first met her.

Fairport Convention are merely a footnote now in rock history but there was a time in the late 6o’s/early 70’s when their influence was huge and their star shone brightly. There wasn’t a woman singer at the time that didn’t look up to Ms. Denny. Sandy, herself, was racked by insecurity. She longed for mainstream success but was unsure about, among other things, her appearance. Add to that a harsh shyness and an uncertainty about celebrity.

Despite these doubts she was an electric performer who devoured light. When she was onstage it was hard to take your eyes off her, notwithstanding the fact that she was always accompanied by stellar and equally charismatic musicians the like of Richard Thompson and her husband, Trevor Lucas. I guess it was her intensity. The song was everything to her and she effortlessly channeled the times, along with the ghosts of the people she sang about.

Take a listen to Banks of the Nile with her band Fotheringay. I still delight in the perfection of the song’s arrangement; and then that voice – laying bare the story of a girl who dresses as a soldier to find her lover in England’s army fighting Napoleon in Egypt.

Or lose yourself in the longing and regret of No End where she mourns for the idealism of an artist she loved and admired. Now that he’s forsaken his craft – and her – what’s left? Well, actually, a lot, in particular that ineffable feeling we’ve all experienced at being let down but were never quite able to put into words.

Sandy died from a brain hemorrhage after a fall down a stairs in 1978. At the end of our interview, I asked Richard Thompson to describe Sandy. After praising her originality, voice and craft, he halted for a moment then continued in his very understated English manner, “she was a woman of considerable appetites.”

Lucky for us, I suppose, for her songs, though delicate, throb with life, loss and pain. She was the best and we’re lucky to have been touched by her considerable talents, spirit and soul.

Wednesday 21 March 2012

Divine Right To Slash and Burn

Sometimes it seems that things are so carved in stone there’s not a prayer of changing them. Though only enacted in 2003 the Bush Tax Cuts are a case in point.

Don’t worry I’m not proposing a raise in taxes. But I am broaching something even more sacrosanct – the idea that a commercial corporation’s only responsibility is to turn a profit.

Geez, exclaims your man up in Pearl River, the next thing he’ll be doing is criticizing Jeremy Lin!

Not really but with profits at an all time high it’s easy forget that corporations do not have a divine right to slash and burn regardless of workers or community.

Travel the roads of America, however, and the scales will soon fall from your eyes at the sight of abandoned factories nestled amidst once bustling neighborhoods. And everywhere workers jittery about their prospects while their unions bend backwards in an effort to save jobs.

What you won’t see is any meaningful effort from large corporations to give back to their communities despite robust balance sheets and unusually large cash reserves.

Why should they? Their god-assumed sole goal is to make a buck.

Take Apple, for instance. The company delivers astounding profits yet never seems to have given a thought to manufacturing its products totally in the US; why bother when big savings can be made by subcontracting to Chinese firms. The irony is that Apple microprocessors are manufactured in Texas, sent to China where they are placed in iPads then shipped back to the U.S.

No doubt it’s more expensive to assemble the iPad in Austin so why not turn a quick buck and to hell with American manufacturing jobs – the portals of entry to the middle class.

But what a battering even those vanishing portals have taken. The $28 per hour UAW contract has been “shaved” to $14. That’s less than $30K per annum - hardly enough to buy the white picket fence let alone the house.

What’s the solution? Well, social media brought the almighty Rush Limbaugh to his knees over his deplorable “Slutgate.” With almost 100 billion dollars in cash reserves I don’t have the least doubt that Apple would “sacrifice” a billion or two for job creation to prevent a community boycott. The same pressure could be applied to every company with the good fortune to be ensconced in the S&P index.

A politician unbeholden to donors and lobbyists wouldn’t hurt either. Perhaps some pale imitation of a Teddy Roosevelt who in similar circumstances challenged the right of the robber barons to ride herd over America workers?

How about Governor Romney? Forget about it! His sole solution is the George Bush vanishing card trick – cut taxes, balloon deficits! Besides, he comes from a venture capitalist background where the standard remedy when acquiring ailing companies is to cut jobs. Imagine letting him loose on an ailing country?

Contrast this approach with how Germany dealt with the recent recession. Its unemployment figures remained remarkably low because many corporations instituted a three-day week rather than cast off their workers like old dishrags.

Nor are German firms unaware of their social responsibility; most maintain an apprenticeship system in association with government, colleges and trade unions that trains young workers while providing them with entry level jobs.

You think President Obama might consider introducing such a practical solution? No way, he’d be accused of being Karl Marx’s bastard son and born in Berlin to boot!

Besides, he’ll have his hands full shaking the corporate money tree in his re-election bid. That in itself should lead to a strategic watering down of the Dodd-Frank Act passed to regulate the financial entities that brought the country to the brink of disaster.

Still, half a loaf or no loaf at all – and there is a slim chance that if he wins in November he just might use his bully pulpit to call out the corporations who continue to view the US as a cash cow instead of the home of a proud people whose only aspiration is an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work.

Tuesday 20 March 2012

Unlucky Green

He was the most famous Irishman of his era and yet he abhorred the color green, considered it the height of bad luck, and blanched at the many gifts and awards presented to him in the national color.

One of the shrewdest political tacticians, his parliamentary battles with Prime Minister William Gladstone were legendary, and yet he was hopelessly superstitious.

A belief in predestination led him into divorce court thereby sacrificing the last chance to gain a united Ireland with a minimum of violence.

Charles Stewart Parnell is no less a paradox now than he was as uncrowned King of Ireland between 1880 and 1891. Mysterious and aloof he rarely entertained questions let alone criticisms.

Though we can now rake through the minutiae of his life, a veil of secrecy and claustrophobia still shrouds the man.

Sound a bit like Sherlock Holmes? Well, the analogy is not far off the mark as the fictional Holmes and the larger-than-life Parnell strode the same foggy Victorian streets of London when a right to privacy was still accepted.

Still, how Mister Parnell could live for almost a decade and raise two children with Catherine O’Shea without the knowledge of his party or the press is hard to fathom in our own media-intrusive age.

And yes, her name was Catherine. In a successful effort to demean her, Tim Healy, one of Parnell’s bitterest opponents, coined “Kitty” – then a codeword for prostitute.

But even Healy had no idea of the depth of attachment of Parnell for Mrs. O’Shea until her husband sued for divorce on Christmas Eve 1889. Nor indeed did anyone suspect that Mrs. O’Shea’s two girls were Parnell’s children.

Ireland was “shook” by the news of the divorce proceedings. In typical fashion, Parnell ignored both the consternation and ramifications. He was the king, what would be would be. Religion and money, however, always trump destiny.

Parnell had aligned himself with Gladstone’s Liberals in a “union of hearts” that promised Home Rule for Ireland. However, the god-fearing Methodist wing of the Liberal Party could have no dealings with an adulterer. The pragmatic Gladstone let it be known that the Irish would need a new leader.

This split the Home Rule Party; many stood with Parnell because of loyalty and a rejection of English interference, but a majority sided with Healy and the Catholic Church, long suspicious of a charismatic Irish Protestant leader. The battle was fierce, sectarian and bitterly personal – many families split on the matter.

And money? Well, back in 1880 when Parnell was first introduced to Catherine O’Shea she was to be the benefactor of an old Aunt’s huge estate. Catherine and her husband, Capt. William O’Shea, had more or less gone their separate ways on the understanding that on the old lady’s demise Capt. Willie would “be well looked after.” Alas, the aunt lived on “to spite them all.”

Shortly after the old lady’s expiration, O’Shea arrived at Catherine’s house expecting that a financial deal would finally be hammered out.

Parnell refused to sully his hands with such negotiations, while Catherine was “short” with Willie who stormed out and filed for divorce.

Parnell achieved one goal – he finally married the woman he loved. However, since his girls were born while Catherine was married to Willie, the good captain threatened to use them in all future legal negotiations.

Undaunted, Parnell fought on believing that “no matter what the Irish will not desert me.” In torrential rain he delivered an election speech at Creggs on the Galway-Roscommon border, took ill and died barely a week later in Catherine’s arms.

Though they had deserted him in large numbers, the Irish people were stunned. Over 200,000 attended his funeral in Dublin.

Catherine was not amongst them. Overcome, she sank into a lonely life hallucinating that Parnell appeared to her late at night.

Ireland never achieved unified Home Rule. Would things have been different had there been another outcome to the negotiations between Catherine and Willie O’Shea on that awful night of Dec. 23rd, 1889?

Perhaps, Parnell was right, green was an unlucky color for him - and Ireland.

Tuesday 13 March 2012

Saint Patrick's Day Message

On one day a year, they congregated outside St. Patrick's Cathedral off Prince Street in New York City and marched in celebration. To some of these immigrant Irish and their American born children it was a religious occasion, but to most the gathering was an affirmation of their right, not only to survive but to thrive in their adopted country.

That's what I sense on St. Patrick's Day - an echo from a time when the Irish were despised outsiders. And that's why I go along with the raucous energy, the excitement and even the green beer, the plastic shamrocks and the ubiquitous leprechaun.

I didn't always feel that way. When I arrived from Ireland, these manifestations of Irish-America were at best embarrassing. Back home, our own celebrations were rigid and religious; we did sport actual sprigs of shamrock but there was no beer, green or otherwise. The Parade up Fifth Avenue and the ensuing bacchanal seemed downright pagan by comparison.

I had other immigrant battles of my own ahead. Black 47 was formed to create music that would reflect the complexity of immigrant and contemporary Irish-American life and to banish When Irish Eyes Are Smiling off to a well earned rest in the depths of Galway Bay.

This idea met with not a little resistance in the north Bronx and the south sides of Boston and Chicago; but when irate patrons would yell out in the middle of a reggae/reel "Why can't yez sing somethin' Irish?" I would return the compliment with, "I'm from Ireland, I wrote it! That makes it Irish!"

With time and familiarity, Irish-America came to accept and even treasure Black 47, probably more for our insistence that each generation bears responsibility for solving the political problems in the North of Ireland, than for recasting Danny Boy as a formidable gay construction worker.

I, in turn, learned to appreciate the traditions of the community I had joined along with the reasons for the ritualized celebration of our patron saint. And now on St. Patrick's Day, no matter what stage I'm on, mixed in with the swirl of guitars, horns, pipes and drums, I hear an old, but jarring, memory of a people rejoicing as they rose up from their knees.

Our battles, for the most part, have been won; indeed, one has to search an encyclopedia for mention of the Know-Nothing Party or various 19th Century nativist politicians and gangs. Anti-Irish sentiment, not to mention Anti-Catholicism is a thing of the past. Might it not be time then that our New York St. Patrick's Day Parade broadens its parameters to celebrate all Irishness no matter what religion (or lack thereof), sexuality or political conviction?

It's a broad step, I know. But with the makings of a just peace finally taking seed in the North of Ireland, might we not some day witness Peter Robinson, Martin McGuinness and various members of the Irish Gay community walk arm in arm up Fifth Avenue. Impossible? Perhaps, but I, for one, would have wagered heavily 20 years ago that the Sinn Fein party would never sit in a Northern Irish Parliament. Times change and with them tactics and even treasured principles!

Whatever about Parade pipe dreams, we still must honor the memory of those who paved the way for us. Part of that responsibility is that Irish-Americans should never forget the new immigrants from other lands, legal and otherwise. Many, like our forebears, are fleeing tyranny and are striving to feed and educate their families. It would be the ultimate irony if an Irish-American were to look down upon the least of them; for, in my mind anyway, there is no place in the Irish soul for racism, sectarianism, homophobia or even dumb old Archie Bunker type xenophobia.

I once heard Pete Hamill ask: "What does the Pakistani taxi driver say to his children when he gets home after 12 hours behind the wheel?" I can't answer for certain but I'll bet he echoes many of the sentiments of those Irish who gathered outside St. Patrick's Cathedral so many immigrant tears and years ago.

Tuesday 6 March 2012


They stared down at us from the walls of musty parlors. Seven somber men, faces cased with conviction - the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation.

There was no escaping them as they glared off into a tomorrow forever anchored to the past. Few denigrated them for they were a breed apart – martyrs!

My father, a caustic merchant marine, said they were nuts! But he was a rarity.

Three of them were of importance to me: Seán MacDermott, James Connolly and Pádraig Pearse.

You could still hear echoes of Connolly down the laneways of Wexford for he’d led a great strike in 1912 that still polarized the town. I’d always wondered at his sudden conversion to Republicanism since he had often been scathing of “advanced” nationalism.

And then I stumbled upon a clue! On January 19th, 1916, Connolly had been “detained” by the Irish Republican Brotherhood; when released three days he said, “I’ve been through hell.” Nonetheless, the following Easter he and his Irish Citizen Army joined the IRB in the uprising.

No account has ever been given about the interrogation, probably because all the participants were executed by British firing squad but Sean MacDermott was a part of it.

The hard man of the IRB, ailing and partially crippled with polio, MacDermott was going to get his revolution come hell or high water. Charismatic, secretive and ruthless, you can trace his DNA down through Michael Collins to the revolutionaries of the recent “troubles.”

The enigmatic Pearse was involved too. A poet, barrister, educator, mother’s boy, he was shy and a trifle vain but possessed a will of iron. This first president of the Republic was a saint-like figure in Ireland until the mid-1960’s when he became a butt of jokes to a generation eager to discard the past and embrace the modern world.

What a dream trio for a playwright! Lock them in a room with the clock ticking. Connolly was plotting his own insurrection, thereby threatening the IRB’s planned uprising on Easter Sunday. Who would blink first?

I wrote Blood almost twenty years ago; it received a number of good outings and I moved on to something else.

Some months back when another New York production was proposed I reopened the play. So many things had changed: peace had come “dropping slow” to the North. Playwrights are hardly impervious to the whirligig of time either.

When I finished a new draft, to my surprise, the play had become as much about MacDermott as Connolly. Stripped of the calcified sanctimoniousness, I was also finally able to see Pearse for what he was - a compelling, driven but ultimately strange man.

And how did these three icons look in the cool digital light of the 21st Century?

Very human but blazing with a craggy idealism almost too powerful for these pragmatic times; each had a goal and was willing to pay the ultimate price. Almost stranger - none of them seemed to have the least interest in materialism or financial wellbeing.

Why did they rise up in what now seems like a suicidal enterprise? Well, Connolly after two huge defeats in the Wexford and Dublin lockouts was determined that the Irish working class should not endure another generation of crushing poverty.

MacDermott, his own clock ticking, considered the Easter Uprising his last chance to make a stand against the inexorable Anglicization of Ireland.

And the genteel Pearse? His brand of Gaelic nationalism mystified even some of his IRB comrades, but like them all it cut him to the core that 100,000 Irishmen were spilling their blood for the British Empire in a catastrophic, meaningless European war.

During rehearsal I looked around at the cast and technical crew, all deeply affected by these three intense characters from a different time.

Ah yes, the theatre, one of the last bastions of idealism where faith and hope daily confront reality with little chance of gain, just as three very different men set out to change Ireland ninety-six years ago – and did.

(Blood by Larry Kirwan and Dancing At Lunacy by Seamus Scanlon will run through March at The Cell Theatre, 338 W. 23rd St. NYC