Tuesday 29 January 2013

Frank McCourt and your Memoir

Frank McCourt, in the wake of his success with Angela’s Ashes, felt that any Irish person who fails to jot down his or her story is beyond an eejit. So what are you waiting for?

I didn’t set out to write my own memoir, Green Suede Shoes; truth is, I was having problems following-up a mildly successful novel when my publisher suggested that I throw a few stories around a dozen Black 47 songs and use the result as a stop-gap.

One thing led to another and after a couple of tales I found myself shoveling through the murky past trying to make sense of an un-sensible life. Unbeknownst, however, I had overcome the first major hurdle to all memoir writing – where to begin?

Right at the beginning, says you! Fair enough, but it’s a rough old trek uphill when your first sentence is, “I was born in the back streets of Ballyhaunis” or “I drew my first breath in Brooklyn.”

I would suggest that you don the old thinking cap and hone in on the first event in your life that continues to have an ongoing effect on you. I was lucky in that I had already written a song, Life’s Like That, Isn’t It, about waiting with my mother for my father’s return home from sea.

It was a beautiful summer morning and as the three of us walked up the Main Street of old Wexford town I heard a long lonely trumpet note and a few steps later saw a guitar in a shop window. Crazy as it may seem, I might not be writing this had it not been for that morning stroll.

I bet something similar happened in your life; you just have to dig deeply enough. If you already know then it’s time you got out the pen and paper or fired up the computer.

You’ll be amazed at what you’ll uncover. The revelations will be painful, joyous, humbling and even hilarious, but they will never be less than interesting, especially as you veer off on tangents you had forgotten existed.

Things will begin to make sense; now and then you’ll even find that adjustments can be made to your current compass, moral and otherwise.

One dilemma you’ll hit early on: how truthful should you be, for full disclosure will hurt many of those around you – and is unvarnished truth worth the pain you’ll cause?

I don’t think so; besides you’ll be up to your neck dealing with the truth about yourself. To paraphrase Pete Seeger – what you leave out may improve what you decide to leave in.

Now you may consider that you have no writing skills to speak of and you may be right. But I guarantee that by the time you get to the end of your story your penmanship will have improved markedly and you will look at other writers with a new appreciation.

On the other hand, the very slow, methodical act of writing will cause you to question facts that you have always taken for granted. Memory is, indeed, subjective; and anyway, even in autobiography one should never let awkward details get in the way of a good tale – a little seasoning only adds to the stew.

You may never write an Angela’s Ashes but you will tell your story – and even more importantly – leave an account of your family history. How many times have you heard the lament – “if only I had asked my parents or grandparents while they were alive?”

In this age of haste and anxiety we have barley time to ask the time of day, and God save us if the jolting vapidity of Facebook and Twitter become the sole narrative of our family history.

Maybe Frank McCourt wasn’t referring to fame or money at all when he declared that every Irish person should write a memoir; perhaps he meant that in the act of confronting our lives we leave an echo of our times for those who come behind us.

Tuesday 22 January 2013

Forest and trees.. and that voice!

How are you doing with your New Year’s resolutions?

“It’s damn near the end of the month!” Says your man up in Pearl River. “Will you for god’s sake stop twisting the knife!”

Well, it takes me about a week to recover from playing in Times Square every New Year’s Eve, so bear with me. To add fat to the fire it takes me another fortnight to shovel aside the problems I caused the year before.

Truth be told, however, I tend to make the same resolutions year in, year out – one practical, the other more philosophical.

“God be with the days they used to write about boy bands in this paper,” observes my Pearl River conscience.

So, first for the practical – “Never touch the same piece of paper twice!”

In the current digital age, you’d think this old saw would be for the birds. But I’m still bombarded by paper – bills, threats, demands, and advertisements for everything from Andy Cooney cruises to Bronx cemetery plots. I’ve tried fancy filing trays, shredders, bonfires, you name it – but the paper Tsunami keeps rolling at me.

The only thing that inspires a grand clean-up is the memory of the voice that first suggested I never touch the same piece of paper twice – oozing with moral superiority, curried by the pity she felt for this lesser mortal whose workspace looked like the aftermath of a Nor’easter.

That voice – or it’s memory - still catapults me into action, garbage bag at the ready, shredder chomping, until I can glimpse again the scratched surface of the rickety table that serves as my desk.

She was a major figure in my life back when social media meant getting drunk with journalists at the Bells of Hell; still, I can imagine her practical advice for handling the digital age: “Reply instantly to any piece of important email, ignore all but life and death texts. Don’t answer phone calls, especially from family members.”

Yes, she was indeed a woman of fixed tastes and firm opinions; I still feel bad for the poor unfortunate she ran off with! The last time I saw him the little hair he had left was grey as a ghost.

Ah well, no point in crying over spilt milk; let’s deal with my more philosophical resolution - “Don’t miss the forest for the trees.”

There are many ways this can be applied but I always begin by jotting down the myriad problems that have been taxing my brain.

As I gaze wearily down a list of fifty or more pinpricks, I put a mark next to the really important issues. I can only handle one of these at a time so, being an Irish guy, I pick the least thorny and deal with it.

The solution is often easier than I had anticipated so I feel a towering sense of accomplishment and store away the rest for the following year! No point in going over board, Rome wasn’t built in a day and so on and so forth…

Resolutions aside, it’s still easy to get derailed nowadays. I’m of the firm opinion that the reason we daily lurch from fiscal cliff to political crisis is our refusal to distinguish the forest from the trees. Instead of arguing over every little point we need to sit down and figure out just what kind of country we’d really like to live in.

Of course, that takes listening, and who has time for such a pursuit in our very connected universe. It’s so easy to find some media clown (present company excepted) who not only agrees with us but makes us seem moderate by comparison.

Still, despite all the bluster, we’re really not as far apart as we might seem. We all have a vital stake in the forest; it’s just that it’s so easy to get hung up arguing about the color of the bark on our favorite trees!

Ah well, my desk is showing the first signs of clutter, time to sweep it all into the garbage bag and fire up the shredder before that patronizing voice start ricocheting around in my head again!

Friday 18 January 2013

Yellow Moon, Shane McGowan, and Polished Dust

“Kirwan,” the old showband head addressed me. “There are only two types of music, good and bad. Now step aside!”

With that he belted into “Down By The Riverside,” and soon had the dance floor “black” with delighted jivers and quicksteppers who had been ominously absent during my previous pop meanderings.

The head’s judgment may still stand but what would he think of today’s polished mediocrity? For with the advent of computer software even your Aunt Gerty can “make a record.”

Not everyone, however, is a songwriter. That breed appears to come in two types: volcanic talents like Van Morrison or Brill Building types who master their craft after years of trial and error.

In one of my other gigs I host Celtic Crush for SiriusXM. This entails a lot of listening – more like scratching around for diamonds in piles of polished dust. One thing you learn quickly on Satellite Radio - every song must be distinctive; with over 100 competing music channels, not to mention the lurking appeal of Howard Stern, each number must capture and hold the listener’s attention or else it’s “c u l8r.”

Originality, unfortunately, is a rarity and though you may long for it like a cat in a tripe shop, you’re more often forced to settle for a dollop of emotion chiseled into some decent lyrics and arresting melodies.

Shane McGowan still stands out for his ability to encapsulate the Irish soul – a rare diamond, indeed; and yet, I often rue the effect he’s had on Irish-American songwriting. While aping the man’s phrasing and subject matter can work on stage before a boozed-up audience, more often than not it comes off as parody in the recording studio.

Far better that Shane’s musical disciples mine his original sources - Brendan Behan, Irish showbands, London punk and Tipperary Trad. Channeling these through the prism of a unique creativity McGowan gave us The Pogues.

Shane would be the first to note that there are still vast virgin tracts of the Irish Folk Tradition to draw from. Time to get cracking, Shaneheads! You have the chops - all you’re lacking is the material and that divine spark of originality necessary to ignite it.

Which brings me to Yellow Moon. You might wonder what’s the connection between the Neville Brothers from New Orleans and anything remotely Irish? Oddly enough, quite a bit!

Yellow Moon has long been one of my favorite albums but I hadn’t listened to it since the 90’s. Was I afraid it wouldn’t stand up – or perhaps I didn’t want to mess with the memory of sharing a stage with them some years back?

Neville is a very popular name in my neck of the woods. Were the Brothers descended from long-ago Wexford emigrants or, as some of you are probably muttering, had their slave masters hailed from the Model County?

Perhaps, both! When Black 47 first played Tipitinas in New Orleans’12th Ward we were treated like royalty by the city’s music lovers and local Irish-Americans.

At the end of our “meet and greet” line stood a dozen or so of what I took to be African-Americans. Each one, however, exulted in trumpeting Irish surnames like Murphy and Doyle. They told me that their forefathers had come to Crescent City in the 1860’s to dig the canals and married “locally.”

Yellow Moon not only stood up - it floored me all over again. Each song was a gem, from the title track to My Blood, from Rosa Parks to A Change Is Gonna Come. It’s the story of a people rooted in one of the world’s great musical melting pots. And, sure enough, beneath Daniel Lanois’ incandescent production, one can glimpse sparks of the Celt.

Listen to Aaron Neville update Sean-Nós on Bob Dylan’s With God On Our Side – itself lifted from Dominic Behan’s Patriot Game - and you feel the ineffable pain of all the world’s dispossessed reclaiming their dignity.

Like much great art, Yellow Moon is timeless and self-reflecting. By flirting with perfection this album allows us to reflect on what we were when we first heard it, while revealing what we have become down the years in between.

It’s a diamond that still sparkles; pulsing with raw humanity it helps us differentiate between genius, and the curse of mediocrity and parody. That’s no small thing in an age of polished dust.

Monday 14 January 2013

The Pecker Dunne

So, the Pecker Dunne finally bit the dust. Must have been one hell of an ailment that laid him low, for neither wind, rain, rough living, or a rake of alcohol made much dent in him in his heyday.

Though born in a tinker’s caravan outside Castlebar we always considered Paddy Dunne one of our own. Perhaps, it was because so many traveling families hailed from Wexford but our town was more welcoming to Pavees than most; and yet, in his classic song, Wexford Town, Pecker wasn’t shy about identifying the veiled local hostility he experienced.

I can still recall the cut of him as he stood outside the L&N Stores on South Main Street, banjo slung over his broad shoulders, eyes flashing, voice plaintive or harsh depending on the song, but never acknowledging the coppers or silver that we tossed in his busker’s cap.

Pecker had a rare air of danger about him and Wexford people knew better than to stare or expect thanks.

I once followed him up Corn Market into Kielty’s bar, one of the few pubs that served drink to travelers.

He stood apart, eyes locked on the top shelf bottles. Though he was invariably courteous, there was a remoteness to the man: you could tell he had little problem enjoying his own company.

I never spoke to him although we were on nodding terms. In truth I was awestruck for he had written “Sullivan’s John,” a song to die for. It tells of a man who leaves his father’s farm and goes off “with the tinker’s daughter far along the road to roam;” unlike “Raggle-Taggle Gypsy” and other merry romps, it gives a much starker account of the consequences of such behavior - and from the Pavee perspective.

There are people who say that Pecker never wrote the song – just as there are those who pronounce that Shakespeare was too lowborn to have written his great plays. But someone constructed this masterpiece, so why not a traveling man who knew more about the ways of the road than any academic or “buffer” (Pavee word for settled person).

Pecker hailed from the “hidden Ireland” as Daniel Corkery called it. You could still experience that universe when I was a boy. It was in the air at country fairs and point-to-points where hucksters hawked their wares, and you could sense it in the songs of buskers like Maggie Barry who entertained outside GAA grounds on big match days.

Pecker was a man apart even in that world because of his wild looks and the chip he wore so brazenly on his shoulder. John Huston latched on to that immediately and cast him in Sinful Davy. He knew Paddy Dunne was his own man and his powerful essence would light up the screen.

Though he had the look of a Mexican revolutionary yet when he played the banjo his music reeked of the Irish countryside. His voice, a powerful instrument, spoke of a different time far removed from the lace-curtain gentility of small towns or Grafton Street posturing.

He was the toast of folk-singing Dublin for a while and looked like he was on his way, as they say, but while he appreciated the easy money, he wasn’t someone who could be trusted to say the right thing – there was always that otherness to him. I suppose deep down he didn’t care to place his trust in those who weren’t from his background.

Sinatra used to defiantly croon that he did it his way. The Pecker never needed to make a song and dance about such claims for he was the real deal and everyone knew it. Besides, he wrote Sullivan’s John and in so doing gave us buffers a rare glimpse into the shrouded life of the Pavee.

You had to see him as a young man with his back up against the L&N Stores, banjo in his arms, eyes blazing, singing songs from God knows where. He made small-town Ireland a more interesting and imaginative place.

They don’t make them like the Pecker Dunne any more.

Tuesday 8 January 2013

Avenue B Was The Place To Be

I lived on Avenue B and 3rd Street during the heroin epidemic in New York City. That intersection was ground zero for junkies, dealers and the network of watchers, carriers, and enforcers that facilitated this lucrative and soul-destroying business.

I had no air-conditioning so kept the windows ajar from April to October. Gunshots rang most nights – and days – for trade was brisk and competition fierce.

I have since been to every red state in the union - all quite tame places in comparison to the Lower East Side. I also recorded two albums in a studio down the road from the massacre of the innocents in Newtown, CT so am familiar with the area.

In my years of living in the battleground of the Lower East Side, I never carried a gun – or knife. Very few residents did. Why not?

Well, it was dangerous; since I was always under the threat of burglary or assault my weapon could be used against me.

One hot summer night a junkie stuck a bayonet in my throat. While negotiating the exchange of my few dollars, his hand shook as he gave me the once-over for any bulges that might betray a weapon. He was faced with the existential choice of what to do if I was “carrying.”

He would have had to disable me so that I wouldn’t have been able to shoot him or give chase with my own knife.

It was a great lesson – weapons kill – especially your own.

What in the name of God was that unfortunate woman, Nancy Lanza, doing with such an arsenal of lethal, semi-automatic weapons?

She was a gun-enthusiast, one hears. She liked to go to the shooting range – with and without her children. Fair enough. But did she ever give thought to the fact that her legal cache could lead to the deaths of so many others?

We faced that choice every day on Avenue B. Any weapon we chose to keep could be used upon us – and others.

The Bill of Rights does grant the right to bear arms. It is a fine document, though introduced by some men who owned other humans and considered their wives and sisters second-class citizens.

But their main aim was to encourage the citizenry to keep arms handy so that they could be summoned quickly into militias; thus, there would be no need to keep an expensive standing army that might subvert their nascent flawed democracy.

They were wise in many ways. They knew that armies eat up a nation’s resources. They must be turning in their graves at the cost of America’s vast military-industrial complex. I daresay they wouldn’t rest much either if they knew there would come a time when up to 300 million weapons would be rattling around their United States of America.

I wrote somewhat of a similar column after the massacre in the Colorado movie theatre. Recent as that was, I was less optimistic of any “meaningful” change. But I think something broke in this country with the slaughter of these children – just as it did in Ireland when the Catholic Church was seen to protect those who ruined their children’s lives on an institutional basis.

Will we allow this tragic moment in Newtown to pass without seeking to halt the current, and often casual, violence that we take for granted in this country?

Will we allow this moment to pass without politicizing it? For that’s what it will take to drag it screaming into the halls of power – local and national.

We have a choice – just as we had on Avenue B & 3rd. We can hound our representatives and let them know that they will not get our votes or money if they do not ban assault rifles, high-capacity ammunition clips, and institute thorough background checks on all who wish to buy weapons including those by transactions with “occasional sellers” at gun shows and over the internet.

Or I can just copy this column and change the names and locations when the next atrocity takes place – and rest assured it won’t be long in coming.