Tuesday 17 April 2012

Goin' to Kansas City

I got my first impressions of Kansas City through music. I can still remember belting out:

“Well I might take a train
I might take a plane, but if I have to walk
I'm gonna get there just the same.”

Sounded like a hell of a place and it didn’t disappoint. But whereas I visualized stockyards full of baying cattle and cowboys chatting up floozies in saloons, instead KC had more fountains than any city this side of Rome and was intensely Irish too boot.

Then again, the Irish seem to end up everywhere. They had already reached the town of Westport on their way to the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails; but it was a priest from Co. Cavan who single-handedly turned KC into an Irish town, proving once again that it’s hard to beat a Cavan man when he has his mind set on something.

Before his arrival in Missouri Fr. Bernard Donnelly had worked as a stonecutter in his native Kilnacreeva and as an engineer in the shipyards of Liverpool. He intrinsically understood that if his Kansas City parish were to flourish roads would need to be cut through the bluffs that bordered the river’s edge.

What better men to do it but the boys from home! He recruited 300 Irish day- laborers to not only slice the bluffs but level the ground and establish a brickworks. Thus was modern Kansas City born!

It’s interesting how the lie of the land affected the Irish that settled near the confluence of the Missouri and Kaw rivers. Say what you like about the merits of the East Coast Irish, it would be hard to argue that we haven’t been affected by close contact and the general lack of space in our cities. There’s a scrappiness to our nature and long may it live.

Likewise there’s a natural expansiveness to the KC Irish. And why wouldn’t there be – on the ride in from the airport you can’t help but be struck by the broad landscape and the sight of one beautiful fountain after another. The Van Wyck Expressway may have its charms but beautiful it ain’t!

Though it must be tiresome getting whipped by the Yankees on a regular basis – and I’m a Mets fan - KC has its compensations. They’re mad about music out there – not surprising in a city that fostered Count Basie, Charlie Parker and Big Joe Turner.

It doesn’t take more than a couple of pints to see horn-carrying ghosts in Zoot suits glide by, for if jazz was born in New Orleans it grew up around 12th Street in this “Paris of the Plains.”

The fact that local Irish political boss, Tom Pendergast, allowed liquor to flow during prohibition didn’t hurt when it came to attracting top-flight musicians.

When I first played the local Irish Festival it seemed as if it was being held in someone’s back yard but you could sense the enthusiasm and spirit of both organizers and patrons. Now the KC Irish Festival draws over 100,000 people to Crown Center Square usually with their own Celtic Rock phenomenon, The Elders, topping the bill.

But you can always measure the vibrancy of Irish culture by the strength of its Irish Center and how involved the local people are in its doings. With concerts, book clubs, dance and language classes the KC Irish Center located at historic Union Station is on a roll.

Having the vivacious and enterprising Nancy Wormington as executive producer doesn’t hurt. When I ran into her in New York last year she insisted I come down and do a Rock & Read solo show.

How could I resist? Fountains are good for the soul anytime of the year but particularly in this cruelest of months. Besides, Kansas Citians make for a lively audience, especially when they have a drink or two taken.

Though, no doubt, the teetotaler Fr. Bernard Donnelly would turn up his nose at the mere sniff of alcohol, I bet his ghost is never far from the Irish Center seeking recruits for his brickworks.

I’ll keep a weather eye out for him this coming Saturday night. Rockin’ & Readin’ is one thing – cutting through bluffs quite another!

Tuesday 10 April 2012

Staff Sergeant Robert Bales

There seems little doubt that Staff Sergeant Robert Bales will be proved guilty on 17 charges of murder in Afghanistan. The real question is – what guilt do we share?

Sergeant Bales didn’t want to go to Afghanistan. He’d had enough - three tours in Iraq, a piece of his foot missing, concussed in a bombing, obviously suffering from some form of Post Traumatic Stress.

What makes a man like that crack? War! Not to be mistaken with the sanitized “surgical strike” trotted out by Pentagon apologists, or the edited photo ops we witness on television where we’re warned beforehand if a drop of blood will be shown.

And it’s far from the trumpets, the drums and the self-righteous trash-talk of politicians as they dispatch fellow Americans to fulfill their think-tank theories and power-point strategies.

No war is always brutal, undiluted violence that solves little but ruins much. And when the curtain comes down on Sergeant Bales he’ll have been isolated and discarded – portrayed as nothing less than a bad apple who let the team down.

But was he a rogue soldier or a damaged person who broke under the unrelenting pressure of four tours of duty? By the time the lawyers and the media have done with him we’ll likely never know.

What he did was heinous, almost beyond belief, yet perhaps it will finally awaken us to the fact that we should have been out of Afghanistan a long time ago. Sergeant Hales’ murderous rampage may yet prove to be a tipping point as Lieutenant Calley’s gruesome My Lai incident was for the folly of Vietnam.

Unlike Iraq the vast majority of Americans did favor going after Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Very few, however, envisioned still being there ten years later. We could rehash the reasons we’re mired in this modern day Vietnam until the cows come home but let’s deal with the here and now.

We’re supporting a breathtakingly corrupt regime yet our presence is so toxic its leader, Hamid Karzai, has little choice but to rant against us even though he risks lynching on our departure. But by then he’ll likely be living it up with his cronies in Dubai where most of them have stashed their siphoned-off American Aid dollars.

Will women’s rights be trampled on as soon as we leave? Of course, but we should have thought of that back in the 1980’s rather than supporting Osama Bin Laden and the Mujahideen in their holy war against the Soviet supported secular government. Chickens inevitably come home to roost.

Don’t any of these Washington warriors ever read history? Afghanistan has always been the graveyard of empires – Alexander The Great even took the long way home to Greece rather than set foot there again.

It would be nice to think that we have at least planted the seeds of democracy but most Afghanis view us as invading infidels. Burning their Korans and destroying their villages by drone attack hasn’t helped.

True, Afghanis care little for the religious zealots and drug dealers we dignify with the name Taliban, let alone foreigners like Al Qaeda. But they do share the same faith and culture and in a deeply religious country those certitudes will always trump mom, CNN and apple pie.

And now we’ve whisked Sergeant Bales away to be tried in a court and country that many Afghanis can’t even imagine. That won’t be the final nail in the coffin of our occupation but its days are numbered.

And when we’ve gone and Afghanis resume their fratricidal fighting Al Qaeda will have little to do with it. Why should they expose themselves to the Finger of God as they call our relentless drones? No, they’re far safer ensconced in the urban sprawls of Asia and Africa.

It’s ten years now since the shock attacks of 9/11. Yet we continue to fight useless wars based on outmoded strategies devised in the wake of that tragedy.

Just as we continue to send troubled men like Sergeant Bales to Afghanistan when we should be doing everything in our power to heal the damage they suffered in our service.

It’s truly time to go!

Wednesday 4 April 2012

Appointment with Mr. Yeats

How long since you heard a really great new CD?

I’m not talking about something with a couple of decent songs and a truckload of filler. I receive scores of those annually at SiriusXM – many with little thought or notion of originality.

And then you hear an album that floors you and renews your faith in artistry. An Appointment With Mr. Yeats by The Waterboys is such a work.

I’ve rarely liked Yeats set to music, and I know whereof I speak having tried it myself.

Yeats himself was apparently tone deaf although he obviously heard some stellar notes floating around inside his head. But it’s a whole different ballgame getting them down on the page; perhaps that’s why he never tried.

Yet what a poet he was! Every syllable is so sublimely calibrated; every poem finely balanced on some exacting fulcrum of taste and truth.

“Poetry should be as cold and passionate as the dawn,” he demanded. The problem with such a dictum is that should he have written something of sadness or longing and a composer adds a dash more of the same, then the resultant song risks becoming maudlin and morose.

Mike Scott of The Waterboys avoids this temptation like the plague. For one thing he eschews all forms of the twee folkiness that has tainted so much of Yeats set to music.

Instead he uses a full palette of rock & roll that, dare I say it, not only adds to but often deepens our understanding of Yeats’ perfection. Scott shakes the dust of a century from some poems with driving muscular beats, while others he caresses with fine sensitive musical fingers and coaxes forth elements that I had never before noticed.

At times he shouts, occasionally he whispers but even at his most animated there is an odd dispassion in his voice - he instinctively recognize that he must keep a distance for fear of sweeping Mister Yeats’ intricate gossamer web of poetry off its inner fulcrum.

Yet he is rarely reverential. He repeats lines and unleashes structures long calcified by tradition and academic mustiness. My God, he even adds a bridge with some fine lyrics to Sweet Dancer that could send purists howling for the hills. Amazingly, if airwaves weren’t so corporate controlled he’d have a hit single, for Dancer is as catchy as any Lady Gaga anthem.

And what of standards like Song of Wandering Aengus? Well it glides atop a graceful keyboard, anchored to a steady beat and augmented by an improvised flute on the outro that will keep you searching for your own glimmering girl long after you’ve located those fabled silver apples of the moon.

The Lake Isle of Inisfree is likewise a delight. Who would have dreamed that the bee-loud glade would shimmer to a restrained blues shuffle made heady by Steve Wickham’s pyschedelic fiddling?

It wouldn’t surprise me if Let The Earth Bear Witness becomes one of the great rallying cries for human rights. I wasn’t familiar with this piece lifted from Yeats’ play Cathleen NĂ­ Houlihan but Scott transforms it into an elegy as riveting as it is haunting.

Despite its power I’ve always had mixed feelings about September 1913. Written at the height of the Dublin Lockout and printed in the Irish Times, I suppose I resented that the sacrifice of the workers led by James Connolly and Jim Larkin goes unmentioned while Yeats righteously rants against what he considers the greater calamities - the emergence of a new “greasy tilled” merchant class and the era’s general crassness.

Be that as it may, who would have thought that “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone, it’s with O’Leary in the Grave” would make one of the finest rock choruses I’ve heard in many the year.

I’d hold off writing this but given our own insipid times Appointment with Mr. Yeats is unlikely to get the decently funded American release it deserves. So, jump the gun, go to www.mikescottwaterboys.com - and buy this revelatory CD. Believe me, I’ve only touched the surface; there’s genius to be had within.