Sunday 9 February 2014

David Amram - Keeping the Beat

He was a legend long before I met him. When he sauntered into the Bells of Hell the joint would come to a standstill. The Clancy Brothers might have had more star power but David Amram had a word for everyone, and still does.

            It would take him a couple of hours of bantering before he’d end up in the back room where Turner & Kirwan of Wexford held court on weekends.

Their psychedelic Yellowbelly music was not for the fainthearted, but it might just as well have been Swahili Polka, Mr. Amram could, and did, jam with everyone.

Even at a distance you could feel him soak up your vibe. By the time he’d hit the stage he already had your measure. I could never get over the ease with which he could blend into the most esoteric and chord-plagued of our songs.

The guy could play the kitchen sink. He must have had pockets built into his skin for he could produce an endless supply of tin whistles and flutes, not to mention ethnic instruments whose names I still haven’t learned.

Come to think of it, he was the first person I ever heard employ the term World Music. He should have copy-written it for, to me, he’s the genre’s living embodiment.

The French Horn was his main axe and, oh man, could he make that sing! Perhaps, his greatest musical feat however was that he made the Bells’ beer-soaked, perennially out-of-tune, upright piano sound like a Steinway.

One night Frank McCourt, then a discontented, somewhat curmudgeonly schoolteacher, filled me in on David. The Limerick man could be as sharp as a tack and even less charitable if the mood was on him, but his eyes lit up as he rattled off his friend’s achievements.

“Do you know,” said he, “that David was a Beat?”

“Like Jack and Alan,” I replied without missing a beat, as if Kerouac and Ginsburg took daily strolls along Wexford’s broad boulevards.

Namedropping was an art form in the Bells but you had to be careful around McCourt for he could spot a poseur a mile away.

With great gusto he informed me that Amram and Kerouac invented the Poetry/Jazz combination. Doesn’t surprise me now for David could put sweet music behind a crowd of braying donkeys, and often did when Turner and I drank too much Southern Comfort.

Frank’s list went on and on. Was there anyone this man hadn’t played with - Bob Dylan, Dizzy Gillespie, James Galway, Tito Puente?

The next time he graced the stage with Turner & Kirwan I was a tad nervous but there was no need, for David’s belief is that everyone has music within them, some just have to dig deeper to find it.

A few years back he celebrated his 80th birthday with a show at Symphony Space. It was vintage Amram – he began with some of his symphonic and chamber pieces. Then, as if tiring of such formality, he joined a succession of musical friends in jams that he initiated, but then allowed to progress in whatever way the moment called for.

He began the Black 47 piece with a slip jig that ended up in some alternate Celtic Jazz universe and had me high for a week following.

Coming up on February 16th he’ll celebrate his 59 years of keeping downtown Manhattan hip with a world premiere of Greenwich Village Portraits at Poussin Rouge on Bleecker Street. It’s dedicated to three of his many friends, Arthur Miller, Odetta and, you guessed it, Frank McCourt.

I can only imagine how he’ll musically sum up the Limerick seanchaĆ­ but I’m sure it will be with much the same sparkle as I saw in Frank’s eyes when he boasted to me long ago of the achievements of his dear friend, David Amram.

How often do you get to see and experience a living legend? Miss this show at your peril! There’ll be some famous ghosts bellying up to the bar. But even more important, David Amram will be the straw stirring the musical drink. As he said to me on his 80th birthday, “this is just a warm up for the 80 years ahead!”

Greenwich Village Portraits An evening with David Amram and Friends
 Celebrating the music, the artists and spirit of New York’s beloved Greenwich Village
Feb 16th 7-9 pm at the Poisson Rouge  Bleecker and Thompson Streets in Greenwich Village

Pete Seeger

He called me Lang for many years. Back in those antediluvian days when people communicated through letters, my scrawl turned the two “R’s” in Larry to a barely legible “N.” He addressed me with such authority I never had the gumption to point out the error of his ways.

            After all, he was Pete Seeger and I was barely off the boat. He seemed a bit like Mount Rushmore with a rare trace of Abraham Lincoln about him.

            I can’t even remember how I met the man. The East Village was a churning place at the time and I was introduced to many a radical by Brian Herron, grandson of James Connolly, and founder of the Irish Arts Center.

            Though Pete would have been considered a Leftist I don’t recall him ever saying anything the least ideological. It was more that he was on the side of the angels and you didn’t think twice about following him – or as he preferred marching shoulder to shoulder.

            He always seemed like a very solid island in a roiling ocean. He and that banjo of his were like a calm in the psychedelic musical storm that raged at the time.

            We were all aware of his past and how he had been shamelessly blacklisted. He may have suffered privately over this issue but he never betrayed the least self-interest or even a hint of self-pity. Once he touched your life you never forgot him. He was the embodiment of the Bobby Sands mantra – no one can do everything but everyone has their part to play. You couldn’t help but be moved by him.

            He once told me that what you leave out in music is more important than what you put in. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I mouthed to myself, for I was at the stage when throwing the kitchen sink in the mix made eminent sense.

            Given that he was one of the stern folk Nazis at Newport when he threatened to cut the power to the electric Bob Dylan on stage, he loved Turner & Kirwan of Wexford and our eclectic ways. He used to stand at the side of the stage and quizzically study us – a rare occurrence because he usually masked his thoughts with either a stern or mildly amused visage.

            During a sound-check at New York’s Town Hall he bounded onstage inquiring the whereabouts of our bagpiper. We though he had taken the bad acid and were about to put him on the right track until we discovered that he was referring to our moog synthesizer and the plaintive wails Pierce could coax from it. We were playing Traveling People at the time and he told us he would write straight away to his brother-in-law, Ewan McColl, and inform him of the miracle that was transposing his folk anthem.

            Later that night one of our Shure speakers toppled over and came within inches of decapitating him. It was probably my last chance to become a Right Wing hero. In typical Pete fashion he didn’t even acknowledge the crash as the audience leaped to their feet suspecting an FBI plot.

            He called me out of the blue some years back. We hadn’t spoken in an aeon but, as usual, there were no formalities. He wanted help in writing a play about George Washington and the occasion he refused the entreaties of his followers to declare himself king.

Pete felt this story had to be told as we were in a dangerous age of presidential power and overreach. Much as I loved the man, I didn’t have the time to go traipsing up to his house in the back of beyond, for Pete could be a very exacting and deliberative person.

            We never spoke again but I thought of him recently while mixing the final Black 47 CD. Some songs seemed to cry out for embellishment; then I remembered his “what’s left out is more important…” dictum. I played back the songs in question. Sure enough, everything was already there – and maybe too much of it.

            I went back to mixing. Pete Seeger had made my life easier and more understandable. I suspect he did that for a lot of people.