Tuesday 23 April 2013

Empty Vessels

Empty vessels make most noise, my granny used to mutter. Jeez, she should be around today - the unrelenting chatter would drive her up the walls.

I write this on a train to New Haven. Directly in front of me a master of the universe has made at least seven noisy phone calls berating, cajoling and generally ramming his opinion down a succession of reluctant throats.

Now you might say I should interrupt and demand that he take into account the silent majority suffering around him. I would counter, however, that there are over 300 million guns in this country and nearly as many stressed out people; besides this gentleman does not strike me as a follower of Mahatma Gandhi.

And anyway he’s only at the same annoyance level as the lady across the aisle who seems to think she is the only one who has ever been blessed with children, and that the universe waits with bated breath for the next pearl of wisdom that may drop from the bratty three-year old Einstein accompanying her.

Whatever happened to the etiquette that once governed the sharing of public space? Gone with the cowboys, I suppose.

Some in my carriage have donned earphones to lessen the decibel level, but the majority have become so inured to rudeness they might well be Rush Limbaugh listeners.

Now I hasten to add that I’m far from a Noise Pollutant Nazi. I lived for many years above an after-hours club and slept like an innocent on the rare nights I was not downstairs adding to the pre-dawn hubbub.

On one occasion in a San Franciscan motel room I even slumbered through the hoots and hollers of a party thrown next door by members of the reggae group, Burning Spear. Of course, given their unrelenting smoky Jamaican patois, I couldn’t understand a word they were saying.

I guess my real problem is the sheer inanity of the exchanges one is forced to endure in cell phone conversations, most of which seem to begin with that most existential of questions: “Where are you?”

I know exactly where I am - just past Stamford - and I’ve had a frightening epiphany. The day must nigh be at hand when phone service will be introduced into the NYC subway system.

I’m that rare pilgrim who loves the subways. No one speaks, no one looks at you, and there are 656 glorious miles of non-existent chatter from the top of the Bronx to farthest Rockaway.

Even clueless European tourists instantly recognize the code – “Shut the hell up and don’t even dream of looking at me!” I have little doubt that a posse of zombie aliens in drag could make the ride from 207th to Beach 116th without so much as a raised eyebrow.

I recently wrote to President Obama and Speaker Boehner with my solution to the fiscal crisis. Slap a five-cent tax on every cell phone call; and should these two guardians of the American purse care to resurrect the golden days of the Clinton surplus, then charge a dime for each text and a quarter for every digital Christmas card that takes more than ten seconds to open.

They could save Social Security, Medicare, Steve Duggan’s line of credit out in Belmont, and those beautiful bridges to nowhere beloved by Sarah Palin (Whatever happened to her? Seems like Snooki stole her thunder.)

Ah, peace comes dropping slow, as old Yeats once sighed. The lady with the three year old Einstein departed in Fairfield, probably signing him up for advanced courses with the Jesuits; and halleluiah, the master of the universe has disembarked at Bridgeport lugging two bulging cases – full of assault rifles and 30 rounds magazine clips?

Many passengers have drifted off, mouths open, Bieber or Britney breathlessly pumping through their earphones. The benevolent ticket collector has just heaved a sigh of relief – New Haven in sight and no shoot-ups, shouting or Red Sox-Yankees showdowns.

And my poor granny is safe in heaven - far from those empty vessels that she so abhorred, and blessed that she never made it to this age of ceaseless, noisy vapidity.

Tuesday 16 April 2013

New World Order

I have great respect for the free market system though I grew up in a country unafraid of the occasional brush with socialism.

The US, on the other hand, prefers to let the markets rule, though who knows what would have happened had the federal government not intervened effectively in the financial and economic crisis of the past five years.

Where needs must the devil drives, you might sigh, and the less government the better! But no matter what your ideology, you have to wonder how we ended up with an economic system so seriously out of whack?

Despite the unemployment rate remaining unconscionably high, large companies are making money hand over fist and sitting on mountains of cash. Apple has so much in reserve that they could buy every person on this planet a $20 dinner and still have a wad left over to toast us all with some top shelf champagne!

There’s something intrinsically wrong with this scenario, particularly when the $137 billion they currently have in pocket is projected to grow to $170 billion within the year.

And it’s not just Apple: Microsoft, Google, Pfizer, Cisco and a host of others are hoarding almost unimaginable amounts of cash at a time when common sense – patriotic or economic – would dictate that some of these reserves be invested in job creation.

But why bother investing in America? Steve Jobs himself thought President Obama hopelessly naive for suggesting that a portion of Apple’s overseas manufacturing be returned to the US. Bigger profits are, after all, the name of the corporate game and much more likely to be realized in lower wage countries.

That may, however, be changing. With American productivity soaring, there’s less need for workers, leading to greater competition for jobs and thus lower domestic wages.

The question is – when are Americans going to wake up to the new reality? This is no longer your father’s capitalism; rather it’s a new corporate system where super-executives are paid in the millions while everyone else scrambles to scrape out a decent living.

Politicians have been slow to curtail the new order since both parties are dependent on the financial crumbs falling from corporate tables. This was highlighted when Mr. Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase, lorded it over the Senate Banking Committee’s members as they sought to make sense of the multi-billion dollar trading - aka gambling - losses incurred by his company. The senators’ obsequiousness is understandable, however, given that the bould Jamie controls millions in annual campaign contributions.

There’s little sign of the corporate noose loosening. With the housing market rebounding unemployment rates will inevitably creep down towards “acceptable” levels, but most new jobs created will be low paying. According to the New York Times the preferred new worker is a “22-22-22” - a twenty-two year old college graduate who will work twenty-two hours a day for twenty-two thousand dollars per annum.

What to do? Well, the first step is to figure out how democracy should deal with the new economic reality. Both Roosevelts dealt with comparable crises in the course of their presidencies, is it too much to ask that the President, Congress and the Supreme Court provide us with some safeguards from a rapacious corporate culture?

Corporations and their executives must be made realize that they are partners with US citizenry – not its masters. A little fiscal carrot and stick might help: overseas profits should not need repatriation before taxation, while socially conscious companies could be rewarded with tax breaks for investing stagnant cash reserves in job creation.

We, as consumers in a viral, social-media culture, should also appreciate that we wield considerable power – a boycott of companies who think only of their bottom line would work wonders in refocusing corporate goals.

But first things first - we need to recognize that we have drifted into a new economic world order that has little interest in our welfare or that of our children – only then will we come up with the appropriate solutions to this growing threat to the common good.

Monday 8 April 2013

Dropkick Garden

It’s always great to watch someone’s dream come true. That thought flashed through my mind last month while gazing out from the stage at the multitude mobbing Boston’s famed TD Garden.

It’s a long way from Quincy to headlining the Garden but the Dropkick Murphys had dared dream of such a thing when they first began rehearsing in the basement of a friend’s barbershop.

Even though I had my hands full whipping up the overflow crowd with Black 47, I couldn’t help but reflect on the magnitude of what this Southside band of brothers had accomplished.

From the outside all triumphs seems inevitable, almost pre-ordained; but when you’re in the thick of the music business yourself you soon learn just how improbable any success is.

Giving a mere 100% is useless; anyone can do that. What’s called for is 150% and on a 24/7 basis. I recognized the same elements backstage on that pre-St. Patrick’s night gig at the Garden that I’d seen while on tour with Cyndi Lauper almost thirty years ago – a fierce attention to detail and a blinding desire to be the best.

It goes without saying that there has to be talent involved but even more importantly you must introduce a new dynamic to the mix. Cyndi combined the effervescence of 80’s pop with Ethel Merman; the Dropkicks melded hardcore punk with a streetwise Irish-American sensibility.

Punk music originated in CBGB’s as a reaction to the complexity of progressive rock music. It was thrilling to watch its birth as a generation of unschooled bands crossed the unruly three chord roots of rock & roll with that eternal youthful desire to be true to oneself.

The aggressive and simplistic lyrics of Punk and its younger brother Hardcore were often a problem; though usually serviceable in the heat of a pulsing performance, they could sound strident and one-dimensional the next morning.

However, when the Dropkicks grafted on the mythology of Irish-America to the ferocity of Hardcore a different beast was created, and a new tattooed generation was given its own individual portal into Gaelic culture.

All politics is local, said Boston’s Tip O’Neill. He might have added that the best music is usually site specific too – Springsteen’s Jersey Shore, The Saw Doctors’ rural Galway, Bob Marley’s Jamaica. The Dropkicks not only speak for Boston, they are the personification of the hardscrabble greater south side of that town. Their best songs reek of working class Irish blood, sweat, tears, and angst, shot through with an overwhelming need to keep it real.

Onstage it’s one for all and all for one as they attack the audience like the Bruins on a 5-3 power play; but the driving force and main songwriter is bassist, Ken Casey. Born in Milton, MA, the most Irish town in the US, Casey has been with the band since the beginning.

The Bruins analogy is hardly out of place, for Ken is as happy on the ice as onstage. Teamwork and cohesion are all important to him and before every gig the band huddles as their theme music plays, receiving last minute encouragement from Casey.

From the outside it’s all a beautiful noisy epiphany when a powerful band hits the stage and tears down the fourth wall between performers and audience. But so many vital elements go unnoticed – the tour manager, the front of house soundman, the monitor mixer, the guitar and drum techs, but perhaps most important of all nowadays, the merchandise sellers who drum up the profits that keeps the organization ticking over when the band is off the road.

But none of that would have counted more than a beer-soaked scally cap if Ken Casey hadn’t wondered – what would happen if I mix Hardcore with Boston wit and grit, how wicked cool if I cross The Pistols with Finnegan’s Wake or The Clash with The Wild Rover?

Such ideas are made in heaven; and this particular one erupted fully formed within shouting distance of God’s back garden - on the streets of Quincy and Milton. Let’s go Murphys!