Monday 23 December 2013

Christmas Eve in Wexford

It’s unlikely that I’ll spend another Christmas in Wexford. When I first arrived in America that would have been a doomsday pronouncement but, with time, you come to accept it as the emigrant’s lot. You weave together your own traditions or, as likely as not, adopt and adapt someone else’s.

            And yet the memories draw you back. Wexford’s medieval Main Street was a thrilling place for a child. For weeks before the big day the lights would illuminate the many shop windows, flickering, dancing, and heightening the allure of the finery and toys that would soon find their way to lucky homes.

            No one had much in the way of money and few got more than one Christmas gift, but it would be something you had requested and anticipated since autumn. Things have changed in Wexford; children get more than one gift, while the shops on the once bustling Main Street must now compete with outlying supermarkets and chain stores.

            Wexford was a great place to grow up in. You knew thousands by name or sight, but there were always new people to discover, clubs to join and some festival or event just around the corner. Though it reeked of history and had no little regard for itself, the old town throbbed with an innate sense of excitement.

            When I first moved to Dublin, I lived in Rathmines, then the heart of culchie-land. The craic was mighty, the music and the girls the finest; still on many the Friday evening I could be found out near Bray with my thumb in the air, anxious to hitch a lift home before the weekend revelries got into full swing.

            Back then I wouldn’t have dreamed of missing a Wexford Yuletide. Basically, the town closed down from Christmas Day until January 2nd while the citizens dedicated themselves to feasting, fraternizing and ripping it up in pubs and dancehalls.

            It was a rare family that hadn’t relatives in London, Birmingham, or some other industrial center of the UK. Many returned home in mid-December and the narrow streets would ring with shouts of welcome and recognition. Not many ventured across the Atlantic. I mightn’t have either but for a distaste for British policies in the North of Ireland.

            I spent my first two Christmases in New York in a gentle state of inebriation, as did most homesick illegal immigrants. If you risked a visit home, you might not make it back safely through Kennedy. I feel for those currently undocumented – many with children who rarely see grandparents. When I finally got my papers in order I vowed never to miss another Christmas at home. And I didn’t – for many years.

            But things change with the passing of parents. It’s not that you don’t care for sisters and brothers but with the house gone, there’s an odd lack of center, and anyway isn’t it easier go back in the summer for the good weather!!

            And yet I miss Christmas Eve in Wexford. It would begin in some pub in the early afternoon; there you’d meet friends and friends of friends until the room would be rocking with laughter, joy and music. Still, no matter what the craic, one had to be home for 6 o’clock tea with your mother. She would want to know whom you’d seen, were many out, did you run into this one or that?

Then back to the pub for another marathon. Oddly enough, the evening would be topped off with midnight mass in the Friary. Even to those with less than strident faith there was something magical and reflective about that service.
            The hard chaws stood in the back by the holy water font, and there was always room and nodded acceptance amongst them. We didn’t beat our breasts with the pious; like the poet, Patrick Kavanagh, we were transients, present only to be blessed by a “white rose pinned on the Virgin Mary’s blouse.”

            For Christmas transforms everyone and in the end, it doesn’t really matter if you celebrate it in Wexford or New York. A very happy Christmas to you and yours!

Merry Christmas, Baby... A Lower East Side Serenade

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 countered. 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.

Friday 20 December 2013

From Dingle to the Stars - Walking on Cars!

I don’t know who first turned me on to Walking On Cars. You never heard of them? They’re the rage of the Dingle Peninsula and all points east in County Kerry!

            I get a lot of tips on bands from listeners to Celtic Crush, my show on SiriusXM. Most come to nothing: though the band may be dynamite on stage, they often lack great or distinctive songs; and for radio it’s all about the magic that unfolds in those three for four broadcast minutes.

            I was intrigued that Walking On Cars hails from Dingle. That part of the world may boast the finest traditional players; yet, it has made less than a dent in the international pop charts.

            The first thing that struck me about the band was that Patrick Sheehy sings with his natural Kerry accent. In an odd way it was like hearing The Dubliners for the first time and realizing that the inner city Dublin burr is head and shoulders above any generic mid-Atlantic accent. It’s real, in your face, and reeks of the ancient streets that have nurtured it.

            Two Stones from Walking On Cars first EP, doesn’t immediately jump out at you – most songs that leave a lasting impression don’t – the rule of thumb being: if you like it instantly it’s derivative. But on a second listen I was hooked within minutes.

            Walking On Cars synthesizes so much of the fine pop music of the last 50 years, beginning with The Beatles and ending with the current 17 year old New Zealand wunderkind, Lorde. And yet, Two Stones is its own distinct universe, full of lovely harmonies, simple but affecting piano chords, a driving rhythm section, melodic guitar, and impassioned vocals – all wrapped together with a Dingle sensibility.

            I played the track a number of times on Celtic Crush and was impressed by the reception. One person even pulled his car off the highway just to savor the song.

There’s a deep emotional pull to the music, something you just can’t put your finger on, and yet you know that it’s coming from the singer not the song - the band not the notes they’re playing.

            I was in Dingle for a night in October and met Patrick, Sorcha Dunham (keyboards) and Paul Flannery (bass). I was a bit stunned by Patrick at first, for he bears an odd resemblance to our own late lamented singer, Ray Kelly. Their personalities were not unlike either – friendly, thoughtful, intense, a little shy. Sorcha and Paul, the heartbeats of the band, were more outgoing.

            They invited me to see Walking On Cars the following night in Killarney. I thought it might be a local pub gig; instead it was sold out concert and I had to fight my way to the front through a mob of screaming teenage girls.

And what poise this young band has. They already behave like seasoned professionals. Each has found his/her own place in the spectrum of sound and presence – Paul, chatty and rock solid on bass; Sorcha, appealing and quietly assertive on keyboards; Dan Devane, melodic - even symphonic on guitar; Evan Hadnett propelling the whole thing on drums. And all coalesced around, but not dominated by, a sensitive Kerry heartthrob, Patrick.

            Backstage after I mentioned some of the echoes I’d heard – The Cars, Phil Manzanera; but they’d never heard of Ric Ocasek, though Roxy Music rang a bell. Good for them! Who needs the past when they’ll soon become their own icons.

            Will they make it? In a way they already have – attracting a big following without a hit on the radio – much like Black 47 did in New York City.

            Will they become big stars? Luck, perseverance, and the right connections will be of paramount importance. And so much can go wrong so quickly.

            But I think they’ll be fine. They’re infused with a can-do spirit and are united against the world; and while they posses that great Kerry exuberance, they’re not without a dollop of Kingdom reserve and common sense.

It’s a long way from Slea Head to superstardom, but how great it will be to hear a Dingle accent pealing out from Number one!

Thursday 5 December 2013

You Can't Beat A Good Franciscan!

            I’m a sucker for churches. I can feel at home in a chapel or kirk of any faith. Part of this comes from being raised by a grandfather who was a monumental sculptor - a rather grand term he employed for his craft as headstone maker.

            Most Sunday afternoons would find us pottering around some graveyard in County Wexford. Bored to the teeth I would often retreat to the adjoining church for some shelter from the wind. He would eventually join me and comment on the lines of a statue, the granite in a pillar, the marble on an altar, and more circumspectly: the eccentricities of the parish priest and the prospects of his curate.

            I was influenced too by my love of Wexford’s Friary where I served as an altar boy for five years.

            The Franciscans arrived in Wexford in 1255 and have never left, although they were forced into hiding during the worst days of the Reformation. Enraged by the town’s resistance to siege, Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads slaughtered seven friars before trotting their horses across the high altar of the medieval church.

            The powerful bond between the friars and Wexford people was rarely spoken about; they were just part of the fabric of the town. This union handily survived a wave of anti-clericalism during the Lockout of 1911-12 when the Catholic hierarchy was presumed to support the factory owners rather than the workers. Through all this unrest the Franciscans never stinted in their support for the working poor and were hailed for it.

            Like many I felt more comfortable in the Friary than in the two majestic twin churches whose steeples seemed to egotistically stab at the sky. Even as a boy I found them pompous and they offered little in the way of artistry, apart from their pipe organs that thundered beneath the massed choirs that gathered in both houses of worship.

            But even that show of hymnal firepower paled in comparison to the hushed beauty of the shrine to St. Anthony where I regularly served 7 o’clock mass on Tuesday mornings. There I’d minister to the saintly Father Ignatius as he presided over his congregation of dotty, elderly ladies. One morning I fainted on the altar steps and regained consciousness untended – neither priest nor congregation had noticed such was their devotion to this 12th Century Franciscan.

            I never witnessed a man so consumed with God as Fr. Ignatius until encountering a blind Muslim mystic in Southern Turkey. Nor have I ever met a priest as jolly as Fr. Justin, OFM. He was like a rolling ball of laughs as he traversed the narrow streets and back lanes of Wexford town. He was also a first-rate confessor. Every sin from an anemic fib to fornicating with a thousand naked Cossacks earned the same penance of three Hail Marys.

            When I related this observation to Fr. Mychal Judge OFM one riotous night in Connolly’s he pondered for some moments before murmuring, “three Hail Marys straight from the heart can cure a world of heartbreak.”

            It was in the Friary too that I made my last confession, largely because Fr. Justin had been temporarily replaced by some lunatic cleric who roared to the rafters that I had polluted my eternal soul – and this while I was in the preliminary venial sin stage of my disclosures. I thought it better to spare the poor man a heart attack, and me everlasting Wexford notoriety, and so I fled for the door and years of agnosticism.

            The Grey Friars have taken over the old church now – no doubt they’re a good outfit, although I miss my men in brown. Father Mychal once did some detective work for me and related that Ignatius had become well known as a mystic within the order, while Justin went to his eternal reward with a smile on his face.

            Mychal’s gone now too and what a loss he is to the many who turned to him in times of trial. Yet, no matter how far one strays from the old faith, it’s always a comforting feeling to know that an ancient church continues to stir so many warm and treasured memories.

Sunday 24 November 2013

robert anthony noonan aka willie nile

What do you think of Robert Anthony Noonan? Doesn’t ring a bell? Well, he’s originally from Buffalo but could just as well be hailed as the Mayor of Bleecker Street.

            Oh, you mean Willie Nile? Yeah, the very man!   
I don’t know when I first met Willie thought I do remember his record company president, the legendary Clive Davis, boasting that Willie would be the next Dylan. Back in the early 80’s that was akin to a death sentence.

            Willie has had a number of near misses in the superstar stakes but I’m firmly convinced this is his time. Why, because he’s got great songs and the wherewithal to deliver them onstage. His new album, American Ride, is a revelation.

            It hasn’t been easy for Willie, but then again, the man wanted it all – the family, the music career, the home life, the bright life. He raised four children and still managed to hone his craft and turn out a number of top-class albums – all the while developing his legendary stage presence.

            There were times he had to do without himself in order to put food on the table for his family. That’s the Buffalo Irish ethic. You do it, you do it quietly, and you only talk about it years later when it’s history. “We all got through it, and were tougher and wiser for the experience,” he shrugs, although those of us aware of the full story know the cost.

            That’s what a dream does for you – and no matter what calamity befell him Willie always kept his eyes on the prize. Probably no surprise since he’s descended from Noonans, Kiernans, Kanes, and Gallaghers; from an early age he was determined to fuse the immigrant poetry of their lives with the rock & roll he grew up listening to on FM Radio.

            That’s what propelled him onto the mean streets of New York as a young man. He got a job in the mailroom of a publishing house and played the Bleecker Street strip at night, burning the candle up the middle as well as at both ends. Ending up with an illness that one doctor feared was Leukemia he was forced to return to Buffalo for some years to restore his health.

            No one on the strip doubted that he’d be back and his friends were always there for him. Willie too was never less than encouraging to his peers: I don’t know how many nights I saw him in Paddy Reilly’s bopping to the beat while urging on Black 47.

            But he never lacked for his own fans. The late great Mayoman, Pat Kenny booked him numerous times, and it was while performing at Kenny’s Castaways that the New York Times gave him a spectacular endorsement on his return to New York.

Bruce Springsteen is another admirer and has invited him onstage at Shea Stadium and other arenas.

            I asked Willie about that experience – “It was great, man,” he replied with a glint in his eye, “except that one night Clarence Clemons’ ring fell off and rolled over center stage. When I tried to retrieve it for him, I looked up and Bruce was staring down, no doubt wondering what I was doing on my knees in front of him.”

            Bono too thinks the world of Willie. Speaking about American Ride, he enthused, “There are a few Americas here to discover - the mythic, the magic, the very real. It’s one of the great guides to unraveling the mystery that is the troubled beauty of America.
            Willie’s family is grown now. He raised his kids and did the right thing. But the dream still shimmers before him. He’s on the road much these days, in Europe and all across America, punching the Rock & Roll clock and enjoying every moment of it.

            There’s a lot of ear candy out there – mucho gloss with very little substance. When you want to get to the heart of the matter and come face to face with the real deal, Robert Anthony Noonan is your man – or should I say, Mr. Willie Nile.

Sunday 6 October 2013

The Story So Far Of Black 47

So Black 47 will be disbanding in October 2014 – or as one wag put it, “standing down.” It would certainly seem like that after all the controversy, but to us it’s always been about the music and creating something original.

That’s what Chris Byrne and I had in mind the first night we played the Bronx in October 1989. We were hired to knock out a couple of sets before a speech by Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, no stranger to controversy herself. In the midst of our Reggae tune, Desperate, some loudmouth demanded, “Play something Irish.” To which I replied, “I’m Irish, I wrote it, what does that make it?”

That challenge initiated a veritable war around Bainbridge and 204th Street for the next year. The punters wanted to hear The Pogues, The Saw Docs, The Waterboys – all great bands, but what point in looking back to Galway or London. We were from New York, the city of Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Public Enemy. We were out to create something uniquely Irish-American – and we did.

It wouldn’t have happened, though, without those battles in the Bronx. Within a year we were opening for The Pogues in London, much of the audience screaming, “Get Off!” before we’d even played a note. But that was child’s play compared to 200 pounds of an irate Connemara man waving a bottle in your face in the Village Pub because you wouldn’t play Fisherman’s Blues. We just turned up the amplifiers to eleven and gave them an earful of Home of the Brave; there are Pogues fans in Camden Town still complaining of deafness.

Oscar Wilde said unless people don’t like what you’re doing, you’re not original. That man never played The Roaring Twenties on a hungover Monday night to test his theory. But we did!

Eventually we gained our own large following, though we never lost the “unconverted,” so I guess we’re still doing something right. It was an amazing trajectory from Bainbridge to Leno, Letterman, O’Brien, Farm Aid with Johnny Cash and Neil Young, Joe Strummer saying we were the only band that mattered, and all the other highlights that we’ve been too busy to savor.

Even now we’re working on Last Call, an album of new songs, still trying to stretch the envelope. Because there’s no stasis in this business – you either move forward or you become irrelevant.

I don’t know how many gigs we’ve played – who had time to count – 2500 or more; and in the end, who cares? The songs will remain; they’ll speak for themselves and the times we chronicled. By my lights Chris Byrne’s Time To Go is the best protest song this side of Patriot Game. Think back to the early 90’s, the North of Ireland was a battle zone, Sinn Fein were pariahs. That song brings you right back there and says more in four minutes than any history book.

The first three years of the Iraq War were a low point. People were writing, “Thank you for protesting, I’ll lose my job if I do.” Talk about free speech!

What was often lost in the furor was that on the IRAQ CD we were merely retelling the stories of our fans over there doing the fighting. All water under the bridge now; everyone pumps their fist in the air to Downtown Baghdad Blues or smooches to Ramadi - everyone except wounded warriors and those who didn’t make it home.

Inevitably in a long passionate career there are tragedies: the casualties include our beloved soundman, Johnny Byrne. And who can forget the awful St. Patrick’s night at The Academy when a life was lost and two people seriously injured.

But then you think of the thousands of performances when we lit up venues from small pubs to stadiums. My favorite moment was the first time we played James Connolly in Paddy Reilly’s. In the dead silence that followed the song everyone knew that they’d heard something totally unique; how often do you experience that?

I hope you’ll come see us over the next year. Black 47 is always at its best when hammering out new songs. And though we’ve surely failed many times, we’ve never aspired to be anything less than the best!

Tuesday 1 October 2013

Fast Food Anyone?

What do you think about the fast-food workers walking off their jobs recently?

You can’t be worried over every little thing, right? If it’s not Syria, it’s the government closing down, and what with the NSA and Google scouring your emails, you’ve got enough on your plate. Besides you don’t really know anyone who works in McDonald’s or Burger King.

Well you might soon enough.

I first noticed the change in guard some years back in a god-forsaken rest stop on that nightmare called Route 95. It was the middle of the night and, as usual, the only joint open was the Golden Arches. I couldn’t put my finger on it at first but then realized that the cashier was in his late 40’s, the French-fry shoveler even older.

A recent report on teenage unemployment confirmed that many young people nowadays have to compete with older, more qualified, workers for entry-level, minimum pay jobs.

Since the Labor Department projects that 60% of new jobs created in the next seven years will be lower paying positions in retail, health care and such services it would behoove us all to take an interest in the fast-food token strike.

The real question is – how can anyone afford to work at McDonald’s and all other retailers that offer a buck or so above minimum wage? One would need a car to commute to the rest stop on Route 95; while apartment rents are just too high in most inner cities to be covered by such low paying jobs.

The minimum wage is currently $7.25 per hour. Republicans, as you might imagine, want no part of an increase. Meanwhile President Obama would prefer a bump to $9 and congressional democrats pine for $10.10 an hour; however, even these Dickensian raises would be phased in over a 30-month period. Are our politicians living in the real world?

Now you may be shedding tears for McDonald’s and wondering if I’m conspiring to drive the Golden Arches out of business – or even worse risking an increase in the cost of your Big Mac. But McDonald’s workers in Australia are paid $14 per hour, while even French franchises can afford $12.
Yes, they do charge some cents more per item, but they also provide benefits for all but part-time high school workers. So what gives?

It makes you wonder if those two stellar congressional legislators Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy - both of whom oppose a raise in the minimum wage - ever heard of their fellow Irish-American, Henry Ford.
Now Mr. Ford was far from a socialist. But he recognized the value of a middle-class employee. Pay them enough and they’ll have the wherewithal to buy your product!

That lesson seems to have been long forgotten. American workers have never been as productive, a.k.a. fewer workers are being paid less for more work. Not coincidentally, corporate profits are at an all time high and keep increasing each quarter.

Hallelujah for those invested in the stock market but what about those who must jingle for change in their pockets to top off a tank of gas or buy a subway card to travel to one of these minimum-wage jobs.
We now live in a service economy, driven by retail sales. The new patriotism demands that we all step up to the counter and spend. But that’s becoming increasingly difficult as we slither towards a minimum-wage culture.

It’s hard to understand why Americans are allowing their dreams of a middle- class life to evaporate with so little resistance. Placing their faith in politicians is the ultimate exercise in futility since both parties are funded by the monied corporate class.

Perhaps the humble fast-food workers are making the first real stand for economic sanity. In any case they deserve our support; with many estimates projecting that 50% of all US jobs will be on the lower end of the pay scale in 10 years, it may be only a matter of time, and a flip of the coin, before you or I will be out there protesting with them.

Wednesday 11 September 2013

Brendan at the Chelsea

So Brendan is back – that’s Brendan Francis Behan. The noted actor Adrian Dunbar will strut the boards at the Acorn Theatre tonight in Brendan At The Chelsea, a play written by Janet Behan about her uncle.

I first became aware of Brendan when listening to the BBC news with my granny. A very proper announcer, in somewhat pained tones, was detailing the playwrights’s arrest in Toronto for “drunk and disorderly conduct.” To which the old lady shook her head despairingly and murmured, “He’s letting down the country again.”

At such a tender age I hadn’t seen any of Behan’s plays – still unfortunately the case for most people, for his work is not often produced nowadays. In fact it’s arguable that this working-class hero has currently more influence in rock music than theatre; no less a figure than Shane McGowan has modeled a sizeable chunk of his persona on the man.

It’s hard to know why Behan is not in theatrical favor; but then neither is the brilliant Joe Orton, whose work may be closest in style and, occasionally, substance. Perhaps their corrosive wit and establishment needling is too acidic for a community now so often influenced by the banality of television.

Whatever about theatre’s apathy there are any number of reasons why Irish people prefer to keep this inner-city Dubliner at arm’s length, politics being the most obvious. For Brendan Behan was an unrepentant Irish republican.

Ar the age of 16 he set off for England with the intention of blowing up the Liverpool docks; for his troubles he was sentenced to three years in a Borstal youth prison. Upon being deported back to Ireland he spent much time as a guest of former Republican, Éamon de Valera, at the Curragh Military Camp. No, indeed, Mr. Behan was not the type of person you would take home to your Fine Gael – or Fianna Fail, for that matter - mother in Dublin 4.

His politics did not bother the New York Irish during his visits but his drinking, carousing and negative publicity led to him being banned from the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. This lack of empathy caused him little concern for, as he explained, “I only drink on two occasions - when I’m thirsty and when I’m not.”

More damning, however, were the rumors of his bisexuality which did not sit easily with the wild Irish drinking lad stereotype. Perhaps Ms. Behan will do her uncle a service by airing out this issue and finally putting it to bed, as it were.

For it’s long past time for a reappraisal of Brendan, and indeed his equally brilliant brother, Dominic, one of Ireland’s greatest songwriters. What a family! Both brothers personalized the wit, honesty and general irrepressibility of the Irish people at a time when the soul of the country was being smothered by a conservative political and religious establishment.

And what storytellers! Brendan’s book, Borstal Boy, makes you feel that you really missed out by never having spent time in this grim penal environment. While his play, An Giall (later translated into the more outrageous The Hostage) hilariously lacerates the hypocritical Ireland of the 1950’s sparing few in its gleeful abandon.

And then, almost abruptly, Brendan seemed to run out of steam. Was alcoholism to blame? Hardly that alone for, like Hemingway, he could be hammering away at the typewriter at 7am after the most riotous of nights.

No, I think he was an early victims of celebrity, for he instinctively recognized the value of an outrageous public persona; but in the end that swaggering inebriated alter-ego siphoned off much of his energy leaving little for the artist struggling within. Tellingly enough, while in New York he lived in the Chelsea Hotel, a raffish place, but even in my day a poseur’s palace where reputation was more prized than talent.

Hopefully, Brendan At The Chelsea will mark a major step in a Brendan Behan renaissance. It’s been a long time coming for this very distinctive and authentic voice of the Irish people – now needed more than ever.

Brendan At The Chelsea, Acorn Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd St. Sept. 4-Oct 6 Tickets 212-239-6200

Tuesday 27 August 2013

19th Nervous Breakdown - 41st Futile Vote?

Congratulations to House Republicans, they have now voted forty times to repeal the Affordable Health Care Act (aka Obamacare). You cannot accuse them of giving up easily, despite the fact that this law of the land, passed by both houses of congress, was upheld as constitutional in a 2012 Supreme Court decision.

One might indeed sympathize with these intrepid representatives of the people had they not neglected to vote on funding for a transportation bill which attends to such minor details as building and maintaining roads, bridges, and the like. To add fat to the fire, because of their reluctance to compromise we are now skittering helter-skelter into a budget stand off that could result in a shut down of the federal government.

But not to worry! Apparently some members of their caucus hadn’t been afforded an opportunity of voting to repeal Obamacare and wished to make their views crystal clear for fear of a primary challenge from the Right.

My own preference is for a single payer system that would work somewhat like Medicare; but since this form of advanced Marxism is apparently only suitable for those 65 and over, Obamacare it is!

I have two main questions for the repeal diehards? Don’t you remember that the 2008 presidential election was contested in large part on the notion that the country could no longer suffer the messed-up, costly, discriminatory health insurance system of the time? And secondly, what exactly do they propose putting in place of Obamacare?

There is no going back to the old way, pathetic as it was. The health insurance companies want no part of it, basically because there are substantial profits to be made from the many millions who will enter the system when Obamacare finally gets rolling.

No solace either from the drug companies – they already cut a sweetheart deal with the president that, in return for $80 billion in savings over ten years, these uber-profitable pharmaceutical behemoths would not be troubled with overly burdensome regulations under the new law.

So what’s the plan, guys? I sometimes wonder if the representatives of the party of Abraham Lincoln and Dwight Eisenhower have even read the Affordable Health Care Act? They unanimously oppose the individual mandate that requires everyone to buy health insurance, yet this was originally a Republican idea proposed back in 1993 as an alternative to Hilary Clinton’s dreaded universal system. To top it all a Republican governor, Mitt Romney, put this Republican theory into practice in Massachusetts and it’s working quite well, thank you.

Furthermore, since the vast majority of the country already has employer-provided health care insurance Obamacare, for the most part, doesn’t even affect them. It does, however, bring relief to those with a previously diagnosed condition, and those under 26 – unemployed or self-employed - who can now remain covered under their parents’ policies.

Those without health insurance who tend to frequent emergency rooms - thus straining the finances of the nation’s hospitals - will be mandated to purchase individual policies. But early reports from many states suggest that annual premiums will drop as much as 70% due to competition from the newly formed health insurance exchanges.

True in a number of states premiums will rise but that’s mostly because some bare-boned systems need to be improved to provide coverage in line with national standards.

Some current policyholders may even be due a rebate because of an Obamacare clause that caps the profits of health insurance companies. But the biggest beneficiary from the new law may be the country’s economy. Anytime up to 40 million people are integrated more fully into the economic system, the country’s finances get a shot in the arm – new jobs are created, costs can be better contained, and the nation’s greatest resource, its people, are kept healthier.

So how about it, Republican members of congress, any chance of you using your considerable talents and energies to make this law of the land work better, or do I hear the shuffle of shoe leather as you head back to DC ready to cast your 41st futile vote?

Tuesday 13 August 2013

Dylan - The Greatest Artist of Our Time?

I went to see Bob Dylan recently. I hadn’t been at one of his concerts in a long time and was curious to see the changes time might have wrought.

We shared managers for a while so I have a little extra insight into the man, for all the good that does; the general feeling around “Bobby” is that just when you have him pegged he shifts the ground beneath your feet.

I should come clean and admit that along with Picasso, Yeats and Joyce I think Dylan is one of the most influential artists of the 20th Century. The fact that he’s still adding to an enormous body of great work over a decade later may put him a nose ahead.

Dylan has never been loath to have excellent bands play before him, and both Wilco and My Morning Jacket gave very good accounts of themselves; yet within moments of his taking the stage the gulf was obvious. Bobby has a voice – and I’m not just talking about his distinctive croon - the others are, well, just very good bands.

By Dylan’s second song I was ineffably moved, though I wasn’t sure why. He no longer plays guitar because of severe arthritis, yet he seemed solitary as ever as he swayed in front of a microphone stand, his band in a semi-circle focusing intently on him.

Age had run its jagged nails over him but it also seemed to have scraped away some of his trademark wise guy arrogance; it left in its place an empathy, even an odd humility, that has always been in short supply. Still, he was now very much the bandleader calling the shots and directing solos with a nod of the head from the piano that he often played skillfully despite his damaged fingers.

But his singular voice - searing, bluesy, soulful, revealing - took me places that I’d never been and back to many that he’d introduced me to. That’s the odd thing about Dylan: though it’s always great to hear his classics, the new songs can get you thinking about things that you’d forgotten about.

I used to wonder about his influences, the bible was always obvious as it is in the work of most great American songwriters. Only recently did I discover that when Bobby hit New York City in 1961, intimidated by Liam Clancy and others who drew deeply on the Celtic tradition, he spent months at the New York Public Library on 42nd Street trawling through newspapers from the 1860’s and swallowing whole the stories, language and characters of Civil War America.

That’s all still there and bestows a timeless quality to his songs. Like Stephen Foster before him, he’s the quintessential American writer; in fact over time he has come to personify the “weird and crazy America” that often seems on its last knees and then comes back and bites you.

His 100-minute set played like a highlights reel of my life – and from the rapt faces I don’t doubt that many others were experiencing the same effect. I remembered the first time I heard Like A Rolling Stone, how it caused me to leave Wexford and set out on my own creative journey. Just Like A Woman showed me what a know-it-all prig I once was, and maybe still am at times; while Positively 4th Street demonstrated how lyrics could be carved out of well-earned bitterness and put to good use.

He brought back flashes too of a night in a biker bar in Albuquerque when I danced with a waitress who seemed like she popped fully formed out of a Dylan song. And there was the afternoon when I heard his masterpiece, Time Out of Mind, and knew I’d have to up my own creative game or get trampled once more in his considerable dust.

It was so strange to watch this slight figure I’ve never met and realize the effect he’s had on me. So great to know that he’s still out there pursuing, and often nailing, his lonely vision of America. Then again, he’s Bob Dylan, dream spinner extraordinaire and perhaps the greatest artist of our time.

Tuesday 23 July 2013

Stay Out Of Syria

Are we crazy? After the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan to even entertain the idea of any form of intervention in Syria is an exercise in scaling moonbeams. Yet that’s what those doughty warriors, Senators McCain and Lindsey, are proposing. The toppling of democracy in Egypt only emphasizes the instability of this part of the world and how important it is to cease meddling in Middle Eastern affairs.

Of course part of this rush to conflict is to make President Obama pay for his ill-considered “red line” threat over the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. As if the estimated 90,000 already slaughtered in this civil war weigh nothing in relation to the 150 or so poisoned with Sarin and other types of nerve gas.

It’s time to bite the political bullet, Senators; no matter how much it sticks in the craw, Barack Obama has won two presidential elections and because of his achievements in ending a couple of wars, stewarding the country through a financial meltdown, and extending affordable health care availability, his face will probably end up on some coin or bank note.

Still, not to worry, Hillary Clinton will be a lot easier to deal with in three years – and meanwhile both of you will have major moments in the sun if you can persuade your recalcitrant Republican House colleagues to pass a sensible immigration bill. In the meantime, later for military involvement in any more Muslim countries – this generation has enough wounded warriors, thank you.

You think Iraq was a quagmire? It’s got nothing on Syria. The Crusaders came barreling down this biblical highway on their way to Jerusalem and the natives, understandably, have had a thing about infidels meddling in their internal affairs ever since.

By all means send humanitarian aid and plenty of it, not only are up to 2 million people homeless and hungry, a great deal of the infrastructure of the country has been destroyed. But forget about introducing no-fly zones, taking out the Syrian Air Force or neutralizing Assad’s supply of chemical weapons.

It’s hard to imagine how this conflict can ever be resolved. A small sect of Alawites are hanging on to power for dear life because they know it’s curtains for them if the majority Sunnis ever take control.

The Alawites have always been mistrusted by their Sunni neighbors; if they were just simple Shiites who revere the prophet’s cousin, Ali, they might be acceptable, instead they have the nerve to celebrate Christian and Zoroastrian feast days, believe in reincarnation, and, most importantly, don’t like anyone telling them what to do.

As we know from bitter experience in the North of Ireland, sectarianism is a curse; it’s now playing out its poisoned hand in Syria where the Alawite 12% of the population, led by the Assad family, have been ruling the roost for almost half a century. Russia, with its naval bases, and Iran, with its support of Hezbollah, are major players on the Assad side, but in the end the numbers favor Syrian’s large Sunni population.

This is a battle we should run a mile from; it will play out of its own accord, partition will most likely be the bloody, and perhaps desired, result.

We have our own nation building to do. Instead of sending young men and women off on more impossible foreign adventures, give them employment at home rebuilding roads, bridges and cities. Oh, but I forgot, that would only add to the deficit, as if bombs, bullets, and American lives come cheaply.

The last thing Syria needs right now is a new crusade. The Sunni rebels, including hard-line Al Qaeda sympathizers, will get armaments from their co-religionists in the oil rich Gulf States; any help we give should be in the form of medical supplies and other humanitarian aid.

Senators McCain and Lindsey would be better off employing their considerable political skills in securing decent and sensible immigration legislation. It’s an issue close to Irish hearts and many of us will be very grateful to them for their efforts.

Tuesday 16 July 2013

Where Have You Gone, Franklin Delano...

There’s a feeling of unease infecting the country.

One could attribute it to the recent recession but it’s deeper and cuts right across society. It’s the uncertainty of what’s coming next. What kind of world are we handing over to our children, and will they find a meaningful place in it?

Change follows every big economic upheaval; it’s the sheer suddenness that’s troublesome this time. Take the industrial revolution of the 19th century when people fled their agrarian societies and flocked to cities to spend the rest of their short lives toiling in factories. Drastic though it was, that change played out over decades, and in the end people formed unions, governments intervened on their behalf, and conditions became more acceptable.

Again during the great depression of the 1930’s the patrician president, Franklin Roosevelt, initiated game changing legislation that with time, and the outbreak of World War II, restored full employment to the country.

In the current malaise, however, no one appears to be thinking ahead; if anything we’re living in a fool’s paradise where politicians endlessly jaw on without offering any meaningful solutions to a myriad of social and economic problems.

At a time we should be spending to promote job creation, as Roosevelt did in the 1930’s, the mantra is “cut taxes and deficits,” when it’s now obvious that the 2009 stimulus programs – although heavily weighted in tax cuts - saved us from the long term recessions of many European countries.

But the most troubling aspect is the sense that we’re not all in this together, that those in the top financial echelon share little of the general uncertainty.

“I’m 48, I lost my job. I’ve always played by the rules, but now the system has no use for me.” I overheard a woman say recently.

She has a point, with the weakening of unions she is on her own. A person half her age will be willing to work for a lot less just to get a foot in the door.

Employment may be finally picking up but good jobs are scarce and reserved for those with the requisite skills. Meanwhile many colleges are a joke, even less prepared for the huge societal change than the rest of us. They charge through the nose for degrees that have little relevance, leaving students with debt they’ll likely never repay, especially with Congress unwilling to put a cap on student-loan interest rates.

I’m by no means decrying a Liberal Arts degree, far from it, but to send any graduate into the current specialized workforce without a sound knowledge of Excel and other computer programs is madness. But not to worry debt-ridden graduates can always pick up those skills with an unpaid internship.

The housing market is finally beginning to boom again but it’s a hard nut to crack for those without substantial means. Not only are large institutions buying up property but as many as a third of all purchases are now being made with full cash down. Meanwhile credit is still tight and mortgages difficult to come by for the less affluent.

Is there no hope? Of course there is, but it will only come from the ballot box. Look how pragmatic Republicans have done an about face on immigration after the last presidential election. Their reasoning may have been self-preservation but who cares - the country will receive an economic lift by the introduction of millions of hard working and enterprising people into the system.

Still, real change won’t come without anger – anger at a system that is no longer working for the great majority, anger at a political class that must go hat in hand to corporate chieftains and their moneyed ilk for the funds to run for office, and anger at ourselves for allowing the system to be appropriated.

Of course we can take our anti-depressants and sit around waiting for a new Franklin Roosevelt to make everything okay again. But without a general desire for change I’m not sure even the patrician from Hyde Park could cut through the current national malaise.

Monday 8 July 2013

Jazz and all that Love

What do you think about Jazz? Can’t make head nor tail of it? I used to suffer from the same affliction myself. And yet Jazz may well be the great American cultural creation, so in this season of mom, apple pie and another Mets’ nosedive let’s take a look at it.

First things first - the key to enjoying Jazz is finding your way in. My own initiation came at the Kiwi, a down and out after-hours joint in Manhattan’s East Village half a lifetime ago. The place didn’t even boast a jukebox but when the humor was on him one of the regulars used to blast his cassette mix-tapes from a battered old boom box.

Jimmy Rees had been featuring John Coltrane that uproarious morning though he might as well have been playing Larry Cunningham and The Might Avons for all the attention I was paying.

I’m not sure exactly what happened but suddenly the iconic sax man’s manic stream of notes began to make sense and I swear I could tell exactly what he would play next. It was exhilarating, like deciphering a hidden code that allowed you to enter a wonderful new world.

When I finally looked over at Rees, he was beaming back at me, “You finally got it, man, right?” He called out.

Rees died soon thereafter. They misdiagnosed him in a local emergency room, thought he was just another drunk who needed sobering while he was suffering from a bad dose of Pneumonia.

But let me try and pass on the gift he gave me. First of all, don’t start with Coltrane, he may be a titan and someone you’ll enjoy in time, but he’s too much of a speeding train to safely clamber aboard. Rather go with Miles Davis.

Miles was the coolest and he understood Trane and his addiction to notes per minute delivery. Once when the sax man mournfully concluded that he was so infused with his muse that he could never seem to conclude a passage, Miles dryly suggested, “Did you ever try taking the horn out of your mouth?”

Miles was the man and in more ways than one. When heroin was wiping out the world around him, he locked himself in a room for two months and went cold turkey. He emerged determined to echo the terrifying loneliness he’d just experienced and to do so with the fewest and most relevant notes possible.

Begin your journey with any of his albums, but I would suggest Kind of Blue, Sketches of Spain, or Porgy and Bess.

Kind of Blue is the top selling Jazz record of all time and for good reason – it’s accessible. It sounded like cocktail music to me at first, and therein lies the key: play it in the background while having a brew. If you’re off the sauce, don’t worry – this understated masterpiece will still work its magic but may take a few minutes longer.

Coltrane is on there, restrained for once and interacting beautifully with Cannonball Adderley on alto-sax. But most importantly listen for Bill Evans’ lovely piano chords; they make the perfect bed for the aching sparseness of Miles’ trumpet.

I’ve listened to Sketches of Spain innumerable times and found new reasons to marvel with each hearing. Many would say it’s not Jazz at all – more a mini-symphony - but who cares; after a couple of listens you’ll have gained an innate knowledge of the culture and history of Spain, and you won’t have endured a word of a lecture.

You’ll already be familiar with many of the melodies of Porgy and Bess. George Gershwin may be America’s pre-eminent composer, but Miles and arranger Gil Evans take his music to places that the Bard of the Lower East Side never dreamed of in their scintillating re-imagination.

Try one of these albums for the Fourth of July – you’ll be amazed at how well they go with hot dogs, burgers and cold beer. In a world of hype, Miles remains the man and if you can handle his coolness he’ll open you up to a whole universe of red, white and blue American music.

Sunday 30 June 2013

Support Your Irish Festival!!!

They’re everywhere now. Increasing and expanding by the year, Irish festivals have outgrown their natural roots on the East Coast and the Rust Belt of the Midwest. Now they flourish in Kansas City, Savannah, Manheim, and places you’ve never even heard of. Every month I get a call from some savvy All-American wondering about his or her chances of pulling off an Irish Festival.

And why not? Get yourself a fenced-in space, a stage, a workable PA, a headlining band, beer company support, a volunteer staff, some fine weather and you could be on your way to being the next Milwaukee Irish Fest.

Where did it all start? Well, that’s a bit like the Ray’s Pizza conundrum, isn’t it? But my gut instinct is that it all began back in the New York Irish community of the 50’s. Okay! South Side Chicago and Boston, you’ve got documented proof that your festivals were celebrating their centenaries when wide-trousered Galway men and their petticoated dates from Leitrim, Mayo and Tyrone were chastely cheek-to-cheeking to Micky Carton’s Orchestra at the Jaeger House on Lexington Avenue.

My theory, though, is that when these young immigrant Irish trooped out to the Rockaways on pre-air-conditioned summer weekend and danced and drank in the haunts along the Irish Mile, that the seeds were sown for the modern Irish Festival.

With time, those dancers married, had children and didn’t get out as much. Besides, the urban decay of the 60’s hit the Rockaways hard. Most of Irish Town was demolished and the streets were no longer as safe; but the couples still wished to meet, reminisce and show off their kids. So, they unfolded their beach chairs, bought a keg, finagled a couple of hungover musicians into playing and before you knew it, they had a rip-roaring block party on their hands.

The Rockaway Festival that grew out of those innocent Sunday afternoons was one of my favorites – although, one year I was almost brained by a beer cooler thrown by an appreciative fan. Alas, the festival is no more – our national savior, Mr. Giuliani, put his Puritan kibosh on it by barring the sale of alcohol. And who in their right mind would want to attend a dry Irish Festival?

But I digress. A number of veterans of the Rockaway bash who relocated to Southern Florida, Sheila Hynes and Rory O’Dwyer (son of the great Irish American Civil Rights activist, Paul O’Dwyer) amongst other longed for an authentic hooley around St. Patrick’s Day. They hired a park, a PA and engaged Adrian Flannelly to snare some top class musicians. A couple of decades later, their festivals in Ft. Lauderdale and West Palm Beach are still setting the pace and, given the location, they almost always have good weather.

The first festival I performed at was the Catholic Charities event out in Coney Island. Chris Byrne and I were in the midst of a very earnest version of The Patriot Game” at the end of which, to the wail of the pipes, I would denounce every Taoiseach, Tanaiste and elected rat-catcher for betraying the Cause when, to my amazement, I glimpsed the sight of a nun in full habit sweeping past me. Figuring it was some kind of flashback, I returned to my denunciations but there she was again, this time fiddling with a boom-box from which emanated the heavenly sound of synthesized strings. After the set, I found out that we had overstayed our allotted time, the good sister had a second gig to get to, and it was “later for you, Black 47, whoever the hell you are!” Sister Mary Beata is a trooper who will be playing festivals a long time after more trendy musicians have hung up their guitar straps.

Speaking of divine intervention, ask Frank Bradley about weather. Frank is the visionary behind the great South Side Chicago Festival held every Memorial Day Weekend. Sounds balmy, right? On our first appearance in 1991, snow began falling as we hit the stage. We were contracted for a 90 minute set and, fearful of not being paid, we blazed on through a gathering blizzard to about 50 hardy souls who danced to our frantic pleas for James Connolly to rise up, initiate a proletarian revolution and liberate us from the frozen stage. When we shuffled off like six emasculated snowmen, Frank stood there, check in hand (plus bonus) silently marveling at the lunacy of certain New York musicians. The Festival now takes the precaution of erecting an enormous tent. You just can’t trust that Lakeside weather. But you can depend on the warmth and rowdy loyalty of the South Side Irish.

For my money, having a headlining act is a must for a successful festival. Ask Cavan man Steve Duggan, whose Belmont Family Festival had chugged along to respectable successes. Some years back he nailed down the Saw Doctors for his Saturday night extravaganza and hit the jackpot with a record-breaking attendance.

Of course, when you have built up a reputation like the Milwaukee Irish Fest, you don’t really need a headliner. Back in 1981, the goals of the organizers were modest, hoping in some small way to emulate the successful local Fest Italiano. Now over 100,000 pass through their turnstiles annually. Founded by Chuck and Ed Ward and a loyal, hard-working committee, Milwaukee has become the Mother of all Irish Festivals. One of the projects funded by the Festival is the Irish Music Archives; it now contains almost 50,000 pieces of Irish recordings and sheet music.

Festivals, of course, reflect the current dynamics of Irish American life. There is the eternal battle between those more attuned to the homeland who cringe at leprechauns, green beer, freckle-faced competitions, and those who see no harm or, indeed, make a buck from such shenanigans. Then there are the various political activists who consider it their right to set up a table on the big day versus those who feel that festivals should be apolitical or that Irish politics ended circa 1916. This has led to friction at many festivals. But now, with peace in the ascendancy in the North of Ireland this issue shows every sign of becoming a memory. Besides, a vast majority of people now feels that festivals are about celebrating Irishness in its myriad forms and the tent is big enough for all.

I’m forever impressed by the level of altruism at festivals. Practically all of the money raised goes to an array of charities and quite often of the construction or maintenance of Irish Community Centers. Volunteers spend many months prepping, primping and preparing for their big weekend. It’s a rare festival nowadays that does not have its headliner booked by November. Take for instance the Dublin Ohio Festival. Kay McGovern and the Dublin Irish Celebration Committee work with Sandra Puskarcik and the City of Dublin in apparent harmony to run this ever-evolving event.

When asked the secret of their success they cited the usual suspects: good location, great PA systems, over 1200 dedicated volunteers and draconian stage management – Kay personally has knocked on the hotel doors of tardy musicians and will not allow any act – no matter how big – to go beyond its allotted time. And where do the profits go? A very equitable split between Irish organizations such as Project Children, cultural and sporting activities in schools, theaters, social groups, with the balance going back into the City of Dublin to ensure that the festival is self-sufficient. Their parting advice to prospective promoters: organize, have some money to spare and be prepared for every possible disaster that might happen, because it eventually will.

But in the end festivals are about community. Whether this means a return to the old neighborhood of Rockaway, a celebration of being South Side Irish in Chicago or a uniting of the clans in Patchogue, North Haven, Hartford or Herkimer, the festival is a way of getting together and celebrating heritage. In a society that becoming ever more white bread and homogenized, it’s an affirmation of all the things that make us different.

So, you want to start your own Irish Festival? Just get a fenced off space, a stage, a PA, a good band, a Mussolini-like stage manager and everything Irish you can think of – except the weather. Maybe I’ll see you there this summer.

Wednesday 26 June 2013

Caribbean Kesh

It’s hard to imagine that those who protested the mistreatment of Irish Republican prisoners over the last 45 years are not gravely concerned about the hunger strikes, forced feeding, and lack of due process at the US prison in Guantánamo.

Some, no doubt, are hesitant to speak out for fear of seeming to support the hard core Al Qaeda members interned, but all of these prisoners deserve their day in court if only to uphold American concepts of justice.

Many were swept up in the aftermath of the US invasion of Afghanistan – often by Pakistanis and Afghans eager to collect the $5000 bounty payments offered by the US. Most were low to mid-level Taliban supporters involved in a civil war against the Northern Alliance and others.

Although my sympathies were with the Northern Alliance and their leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, no one would have accused this charismatic man of being a Jeffersonian Democrat. Along with other warlords he was responsible for the destruction of large parts of Kabul. Nor was he a feminist; in fact odious as they eventually became, the Taliban was initially formed to protect village women from rape and to restore law and order in an anarchistic country.

Many of those interned in Guantánamo were not originally committed enemies of the USA; given their background and education they wouldn’t have been able to find New York on a map. You can bet your bottom dollar, however, that after 12 years of forced detention without a trial they’re not exactly whistling Yankee Doodle Dandy.

A sizeable number, including over fifty Yemenis, were given clearance for repatriation to their home countries by a committee of top national security officials, but because of congressional resistance and presidential apathy they’re being held in a legal limbo.

President Obama claims he would close down Guantánamo but House Republicans will not allow him to transfer the prisoners to mainland prisons. What are they afraid of? Contaminating the morals of the heartland? When was the last time anyone broke out of a US high-security prison?

The argument against either a civil or military trial of the top level Al Qaeda operatives is that self-incriminating evidence gained through torture may not be admissible. The Bush/Cheney chickens continue to come home to roost – this time in the form of waterboarding, a.k.a. simulated drowning.

That being said, I’m in no way convinced that, even given the torture issues, some of our keenest prosecutorial minds wouldn’t be able to lay a couple of lifetimes behind bars on Khalid Sheik Muhammed and his Qaeda killers.

The hunger strike was supposedly the last line of defense in ancient Irish life. “If your more powerful neighbor has denied you justice, go sit on his doorstep and starve yourself until he relents,” is the legend handed down.

Both the Red Cross and United Nations recognize that a prisoner of sound mind has a right to hunger strike as a last resource. Right now we have 104 ticking time bombs in Guantánamo, 41 of them being force-fed. You don’t need to be a brain surgeon to know where this will end up.

Shackling prisoners to special chairs with head restraints, while shoving tubes up their noses for over 30 minutes, is not only inhumane, it provides a publicity bonanza and a recruiting tool for Al Qaeda. Forcibly administering them Raglan, an anti-nausea drug with serious side effects, may help keep these hunger strikers alive, but says little for us as a society.

Close down this Caribbean Long Kesh, repatriate the low level prisoners to their country of origin, disperse the actual Al Qaeda supporters to Federal high security mainland prisons and then afford them fair trials. Their day is over. It’s time for us to restore the US to its “shining city on the hill” status. Let’s put these last twelve years of un-American behavior once and for all in the rear mirror.

We, of all people, know the value of symbols. Let’s not create an Al Qaeda Bobby Sands. We’re better than that.

Tuesday 18 June 2013

Welcome to New York - do's, don'ts and dangers

“Ah, the summer time has come
And the streets are thick with tourists…”

So what’s a regular New Yorker to do? Well, accentuate the positive: after all, out-of-towners keep the cash flowing; besides, most of us were once blow-ins too.

With that hippy-dippy sentiment safely put to bed, herewith a couple of practical do’s and don’ts for visitors that will lower the blood pressure of an already over-stressed city.

First and foremost - don’t walk two abreast down narrow city sidewalks, especially if you like to shuffle along at the pace of an exhausted rhinoceros. New Yorkers are all a day late, a dollar short and will be less than complimentary to you and the horse you rode in on if they can’t get past.

Despite our gruff exteriors, however, we’re romantic to a fault. That being said we have zero tolerance for couples – of any sex or preference – holding hands while dawdling along our busy thoroughfares.

We have no problem whatsoever with them hastening into darkened doorways and committing all manner of unspeakable acts from Fifty Shades of Grey. We might even applaud discreetly – for, at least, they’ll be keeping the sidewalks clear.

Ever wonder why New Yorkers charge at you loudly exclaiming, “Excuse me?” It’s because you’re daydreaming on a corner and blocking the bloody way while the pedestrian light is blinking “don’t walk” - which to any self-respecting New Yorker means, “run like hell!”

And, puh-leeze, don’t wear earphones in this city! Many New Yorkers do, you counter. That’s their problem, pal, and a whack on the head will eventually wise them up. It may not be the Fort Apache 70’s but this is still a tough town.

And besides, do you think Walt Whitman, Stephen Foster, Miles Davis or Bob Dylan wore headphones? No way, Jose, that’s because they gleaned their inspiration from the rhythm and beats of this insomniac city, not some wimpy personalized soundtrack that your Great-Aunt Gerty wouldn’t be caught dead listening to.

Open up to the glory of the city; its white noise will rip your staid perceptions to shreds and give your jaded synapses a first class tuning-up. Bet your bottom dollar you’ll see your old hometown in a new light when - or rather if - you ever decide to go home.

Not much of a museum or gallery attendee but you want it on public record that you have more than a passing acquaintance with these joints? Try the Frick Collection at 1 East 70th Street, just off Central Park. There you’ll find Rembrandts, Renoirs, Turners and a couple of Vermeers that will knock your socks off, all in the every serene setting of Henry Clay Frick’s graceful mansion.

The Museum of Natural History is anything but soothing, but it’s an essential place to drag unpleasant adolescents, if only to wear them out. Take my word for it, an afternoon spent tramping these blistering halls and they’ll run for the comfort of their video games, leaving you free to head off for a couple of well earned libations.

Remember, Manhattan is only one fifth of New York City. Check out the other four boroughs and find out what really makes this city tick. Catch the Ikea Ferry to Red Hook and make a beeline for Rocky Sullivan’s. You’ll meet the real Brooklyn there - not the recently arrived Willyburg poseurs. Ask for George - tell him I sent you.

Hop the A train to the Republic of Rockaway. The peninsula is fighting its way back, as it always does, and you can’t beat that Queens ocean breeze.

Take the B, D or 4 trains to Bedford Park and stroll down the Boulevard to the Bronx Botanical Gardens; it’s a wonderland only awaiting discovery.

And whatever you do, board the Staten Island Ferry. You’ll see the greatest city in the world as your forefathers first did – from the harbor – and guess what, it’s free.

One last piece of advice, always look like you know where you’re going, even when you don’t; that’s one sure way of staying safe – and keeping the sidewalks open for the rest of us.

Tuesday 11 June 2013

Gerry Diver's Speech Project

Writing about music is like bottling the wind – difficult at the best of times. Then you hear something like Gerry Diver’s Speech Project and it opens not just your ears, but your eyes too, and other senses that you’d forgotten about.

At first I thought I’d received some kind of dud CD for on the opening track the voice appeared to repeat as on an old scratched record. Soon thereafter a fiddle entered tentatively, like a blind man homing in on the source of the voice and eventually caressing it; and with that the recording had my full attention.

This was obviously no high tech pop song where banality is frozen in place and stitched together perfectly to appeal to the broadest demographic. No, this was real music, more than a little unhinged, but touching me much as it did in childhood.

Gerry Diver’s conceit is to record a human voice while in conversation, find its key, isolate and loop a phrase or two, then add complementary lines of music.

It seems so obvious and yet I can’t recall any precedent; still, there’s no mistaking the album’s ultimate effect for I began to listen to the voices around me in a new way - not just for content but for inherent melody.

Gerry has chosen a number of familiar voices: Christy Moore, Shane McGowan, Damien Dempsey to name a few; they speak quietly but with conviction about matters of importance to them – emigration, the spirit of music, memory. An accomplished multi-instrumentalist, Manchester born but Irish bred Divers clothes these shards of speech with evocative melodies and rhythms that deepen the very nature of the words spoken.

My own favorite piece features Margaret Barry, a traveling street singer who performed at fairs and outside GAA grounds on big match days.

I’d long been fascinated by her, yet I only saw her once. My grandfather had taken me to see Wexford hurl against mighty Kilkenny in the town of Enniscorthy.

Some of you will recall the excitement of match days as diverse streams of people coalesced into a torrent heading for the park while all around hucksters hawked hats and rosettes emblazoned with the colors of the teams; suddenly we were halted by a big crowd, hushed and silent as they craned their necks to catch the clatter of a solitary banjo.

My grandfather reached down, placed me astride his shoulders and murmured almost reverentially, “That’ll be Maggie Barry.”

She stood within a semi-circle of people, her back to the wall of the park, and began to sing as if to herself. Yet her voice and banjo cut through the murmuring silence. She looked vaguely forbidding – a tooth or two missing – but there was an inherent kindness and wisdom about her.

I don’t even recall the song, but it spoke of a different time, one that was already fast disappearing, the old Ireland of glens and boreens that the English had barely touched. The song and its treatment were already old-fashioned, unscathed by the popular music of the day, and yet I can still recall its effect on me.

As if by magic Maggie’s voice again leaked out from Gerry’s CD, though this time it was relating the story of her mother’s passing rather than singing of a fading way of life. Still Gerry had captured her essence - not just her spirit but the times that inspired it. Some of the music he spun around that oddly comforting voice was as old as the hills, more of it was closer to the repeated rhythms and rippling arpeggios of a Philip Glass opera, yet it all meshed seamlessly.

You may need to search the CD for a particular voice that speaks to you, but I’m sure it’s there cloaked in its own exquisitively tailored music. That’s what makes Gerry Diver’s Speech Project an album for the ages. Be sure to pick up a copy, it will restore your faith in music; chances are you’ll remember something about yourself that you’ve either forgotten or misplaced, and you’ll be the better for its return.

Friday 24 May 2013

These Are My Mountains, and I'm Going Home

“For these are my mountains, and I’m going home.”

I didn’t always feel that way about the Catskills. After all l was born near where the South Atlantic and the Irish Sea collide. In a twist of fate, I landed in the East Durham-Leeds area after being fired from a gig on glorious Cape Cod.

As luck would have it another band had been given the heave-ho at O’Shea’s in Leeds, as a result Pierce Turner and I got the job of keeping the punters “thick on the floor” at the Irish Center.

Old Gerry and Mrs. O’Shea weren’t too sure what to make of the “Wexford Hippies” as the locals called us, but Kerry people are renowned for their hospitality and, boy, did we make those patrons dance! It’s no secret that there’s been an epidemic of hip and knee replacements for all who jived and quickstepped to Turner & Kirwan that glorious summer.

I had my first shot at writing a novel down by the “waterfall” at the back of O’Shea’s but, alas, with a bevy of beautiful Bronx ladies working on their tans on those long hot hungover afternoons I never made it beyond the first fifty pages.

This weekend will, I believe, mark my 20th Memorial Day Weekend at The Blackthorne. The uncertainty arises because, like many others, time tends to come careening to a halt the moment I cross the border into the Republic of East Durham. And it’s not just because of the fatigue that follows the wild nights; no, it’s more of a general mountain dazzle that doesn’t dissipate until you hit the thruway on the way home.

I’m always amazed at the number of Irish-Americans who have never experienced the “Irish Alps.” What’s keeping you? Sure, you can fry yourself silly in the Caribbean, but what’s that compared to stretching out on the grass at resorts the like of Gavin’s, The Shamrock House, Michael Dee’s, McGrath’s, The Ferncliff, Hogan’s and a host of others as the wind whispers sweet nothings from among the leaves overhead.

My own favorite activity is strolling the back hilly roads on a sunny afternoon. There’s an old wall within an overgrown field that I like to sit upon. It’s made from the same flat stones and fashioned like those at home in County Wexford.

I often try to picture the people who built this little divide and wonder what became of their hopes and dreams – all long gone now. If you sit still long enough you’ll hear the birds in concert while small things slither by amidst the grass. Sometimes, if you’re on the right side of the wind a deer will amble past and pay you no mind.

There are few frills up in the mountains but the homespun comfort is stitched together with warmth and an easy hospitality; and if you’ve any problems with the head, the heart or the soul – and nowadays, who hasn’t - East Durham will slow the world down to a manageable pace so you can find your place in it again.

If it’s excitement you want you’ll find it this coming Saturday and Sunday at the East Durham Irish Festival. It’s a family affair with many children’s programs and a host of theatre, music and dance workshops. I’ll be doing a reading in the cultural tent at 4pm Saturday afternoon and answering questions for those who wish to know more about the worlds of music, memoir, playwriting and the price of turnips!

All through the afternoon and evening there’ll be the finest of Irish-American music with Shilelagh Law (keep away from my Green Suede shoes this year, you bowsies!), Celtic Cross, Andy Cooney, Hair of the Dog, The Narrowbacks, Band of Rogues, Dicey Riley, Erin's Og, and so many others. Black 47 will close the show at 8:45 Saturday night – then a short break and we’ll play a midnight set at the ever-popular Blackthorne.

It’s all just as it should be – madness in the mountains! Book your rooms now or dust off that old tent in the basement. Life is short! I’ll see you up in the Irish Alps.