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.