Monday 21 April 2014

Spring Unleashes Memories

            Isn’t it odd how spring unleashes memories?

            The other morning while looking out the window at the concrete fields of Manhattan I was transported back to a farm on the South East tip of Ireland where the South Atlantic crashes headlong into the Irish Sea.

            It was a wild, salt-sprayed place where shipwrecks were often left to rust on gravelly beaches. On summer days, however, there was nothing like it – no people, just seagulls diving against a backdrop of the moody Saltee Islands. The beach was ever treacherous for the gravel moved under the pounding surf; we children were forbidden to swim there.

            My father, a merchant marine, didn’t give a damn. If the mood was on him, he’d hop in and swim outwards, folly in itself, for the currents and eddies could sweep you out to sea.

            We watched fearfully but he never stayed in long. “Just coolin’ off,” as he put it, “nothin’ like the sting of the salt on your skin!”

            Perhaps he needed it, for he was the eldest son and had a tense relationship with my grandfather who owned the big farm, and another of equal size on the outskirts of Wexford Town some 12 miles away. They clashed often for both were strong-willed, with the result that my father would storm off to sea leaving my grandfather to brood in his absence.

            The old man was beginning to lose it but was unwilling to give up the reins - a common enough situation on the farms of Ireland back then, probably still is today.

            But that’s just the background, the memory is of an early summer’s morning when my father, my brother and I drove fifty or more prime bullocks from the windswept farm to the rich pastures outside Wexford, where they would fatten until the fall before being shipped to Birkenhead for slaughter.

            I was probably eleven years of age, my brother, Jimmy, ten. Strange how huge livestock could be afraid of such tiny drovers, but we wielded our sticks with authority and weren’t shy about whacking an errant bullock on the behind.

            We set off at dawn for it was imperative to get as much of the twelve miles covered while traffic was light. My father drove a grey Volkswagen ahead of the herd while Jimmy and I brought up the rear. Bullocks are stupid but they can be curious too and often wished to make the acquaintance of their peers who watched them pass from behind ditch and fence.

            My father knew all the broken gates and loose palings, and lined up the car beside them; then when the herd had passed, he’d rev up that bug and inch forward to lead the way again.

            The morning was glorious - thrush and lark serenaded us as we passed through land that had been fought over by every invader who ever set foot in Ireland. The roads were narrow and we moved uneventfully with many the wave from laborer’s cottage and farmhouse.

            But our trial came at the village of Killinick on the main road from Rosslare Harbor where we hit traffic arriving off the boat from Le Havre. Many the speeding German and French automobile was stopped in its tracks and forced to fall into convoy behind the ambling herd. A number of motorists jumped out to take pictures of the pint-size herders, but Jimmy and I paid them no heed, though secretly we were chuffed.

            We crossed over Killinick railway bridge then up the steep hill, thirty or more cars straggling in our wake, until we made it to the winding back roads that led to the farm outside Wexford.

            I still retain a sense of power of the land that struck me on that dewy morning. Politicians and priests may think they control it, but they’re just transient possessors. The land endures - or does it?

            Some years later, after another row, my father stormed back to sea, my grandfather died soon thereafter, and the beautiful farm outside Wexford Town was swallowed up in a miasma of housing estates.

            The other farm still stands; I occasionally stroll its salty beaches and look for two worried boys watching a father swim out to sea - when spring unleashes memories.

Tuesday 8 April 2014

Celtic Crush Interview

            Celtic Crush is the only Celtic rock and traditional radio show broadcast throughout all of North America. It can be heard on Saturday mornings 7pm ET and Tuesday nights 11pm ET on SiriusXM Satellite Radio (The Spectrum - Ch. 28).

            “It really makes a difference,” says its host, Larry Kirwan, “when you know you can be heard from Arizona up to Labrador in the Arctic Circle or from Florida to Alaska. Even with the big New York AM channels you can rarely hear them fifty miles from the city.”

            But then Celtic Crush is a unique show no matter what way you look at it. A mixture of music and talk that sometimes harkens back to the glory days of FM radio of but done in a fast paced and modern manner.

            “I grew up listening to the taste and knowledge of John Peel on BBC but I also loved the excitement of the DJs on pirate radio. Then when I came to New York everyone listened to WNEW-FM and I came under the influence of people like Vin Scelsa, Alison Steele, Jonathan Schwartz and Meg Griffin. Yet when I came to do my own show I knew that the world had changed, if you want to tie a lot of different types of music together in an informed manner, then you must do so with contemporary energy.”

            And Celtic Crush pushes the envelope when it comes to the vast array of music you will hear in the course of a three-hour show. As Kirwan promises at the beginning of each show you will hear “a selection of the old, the very old, the new and the very new in music from the 8 Celtic nations and their related cultures.”

            “Celtic music is now so broad-based that it’s almost dizzying. It has infiltrated its way across the whole rock genre and traditional musicians are now combining with the music and musicians of many other cultures. The trick is – how to combine it all so that a three-hour radio show can seem organic. I’ve found that you need two elements, great songs and a style of delivery that is both conversational, dramatic and always tells a story.”

            “I begin work on Saturday’s show early in the week, plotting out thirteen sets of three songs, taking care to repeat no more than one or two songs from the previous show.  The first set will set a theme as I begin each show with a two to four minute monologue that must capture the attention of the listeners. I rarely use notes, in that way there’s always an element of danger and some of the best pieces come when improvising. There’s nothing quite like the live element to radio.”

            How does he choose the songs? On a recent show I heard music ranging from the revered Sean O’Riada to Irish R&B sensations, The Strypes; from The Furey Brothers to Afro-Celt Sound System; from Shaz Oye, a Nigerian-Irish chanteuse to The Pogues.

            “I choose them by the song – not the singer. People who subscribe to SiriusXM are radio heads and they have a vast array of choices – over 150 channels of every type of music and talk – so you have to be able to hold your audience. Your show is only as strong as your weakest song. So every song has to be great. I don’t care if it’s old or new, in fashion or out of fashion, a great song always shines through. And when you’re playing 40 of them in the course of a show then you had better make sure that they’re all top of the line.

            “A Celtic Crush listener may have their favorite genre, say Celtic Punk of the Dropkick Murphys or the musical lyricism of Sinead O’Connor; or a Damien Dempsey ballad or a trad Irish band like Dervish. I have to make sure that the song I choose will be the best so that someone who doesn’t care as much for that genre will be sampling the cream of the crop.”

            How does he get the Dubliners from the 60’s to mix with a more modern band like Swell Season?

“That’s simple,” Kirwan laughs. “Both Luke Kelly and Glen Hansard have red hair! But seriously, both are telling stories and being a musician I can hear the songs in my head and chose ones that will mix well in some way. The rest is done through the magic of the segue, perhaps cross-fade them. And if you can get a couple of seconds of beautiful dissonance before the new song succeeds the old one, then all the better.”

Where does he come up with the various facts and information that spice his voice breaks?

“Well, I’ve been around. Through Black 47 I know many of the acts I play, or else have seen them. I occasionally check some fact on the internet the night before, but for the most part, once I plan out the sequence of songs early in the week, I’m thinking of them and ways of presenting them come to mind. I don’t take notes but then when I’m doing the show I can improvise around some of the ideas.”

I always enjoy Kirwan’s interview. They seem very relaxed even when dealing with occasionally difficult subjects like Sinead O’Connor.

“Well, I’ve given so many interviews myself with Black 47, I know the last thing some stressed out singer on tour needs is another series of banal and generic questions. You’ve got to make it interesting for the artist. I keep it as much as possible focused on the music. That’s the most important thing to any serious artist. It’s a relief for them to deal with someone who knows what they’ve gone through to get this far. And they love to talk about their songs, and their craft and, frankly, that’s what my very informed audience wants to hear about.”

Who were his favorite interviewees?

“Friends like Dave King and Bridget Reagan of Flogging Molly or Rosanne Cash are always great as we just let our hair down and have a chat that can go really deep at times, dealing with fears and failures along with joys and triumphs. Richard Thompson was my first and, after he relaxed, he spoke very movingly about the late Sandy Denny, one of my favorite artists. But perhaps, Ray Davies of the Kinks was the standout.”

What makes The Kinks Celtic?

“Well, Davies is a Welsh name but Ray considers himself very Celtic. He lives part of the year in Cork. And besides he’s one of the great storytellers in rock – a real seanchai. He was utterly charming but in a sincere manner, had total recall of his experiences. He’s also one of my songwriting heroes. He talked at length about the Kinks’ classic, Waterloo Sunset. He remembered every detail of its writing and recording and was thrilled to talk about it. The response from the listeners by email was stunning.”

Does Kirwan respond to every email? He did within hours to mine when requesting this interview.

“It’s an important part of the show – that interaction between host and audience. I give out my email address a couple of times during each show. People love to make suggestions and even send CDs and mp3s of their favorite songs. I listen to them all and choose the best. It’s great to find a powerful song from an unknown artist and give them an outlet.  
So what’s next for Celtic Crush?

“I don’t know, we’ll see who’s coming through town and get them up in the studio. I think Glen Hansard is coming up soon again. I’d like to get Van Morrison in some day and talk about his music.  

But it’s Monday morning and I have Saturday’s show to prepare. I always try to introduce a couple of great new songs every week and then mix them in with selections from a database of what must be around 1500 songs. Then find some interesting subjects to weave in amongst them. I often look at it the way the old bards must have – you’re going into the noble’s house to entertain with a mixture of song and story. You’re singing for your supper – you better get it right.”

Saturday 5 April 2014

The Ballad of Brendan Behan

Born in the glory of Russell Street
You grew up humming Amhrán na Bhfiann
Your auld lad did time in a Free State jail
For Republican activities beyond the pale
You were your Granny’s best boy, your Mammy’s best chap
You loved to butter the old ladies up
But your soul had been scorched with the orange, white and green
You were the one and only Brendan Behan

            I often wonder about biographies. Can you really get to the truth of someone you’ve never met?

            I was an avid reader of biographies until I happened on one about a friend, Lester Bangs, the iconic rock critic. It was well written and researched, and captured the public image of the man to a T but had scarce little to do with the troubled, insecure person that I often encountered late at night in the Bells of Hell.

            Turned out the writer had only met Lester once, and obviously on an occasion when Mr. Bangs was in top myth-making form.

            I was very aware of this when writing The Ballad of Brendan Behan for Last Call, the final Black 47 CD. What was the man really like, and when exactly did he morph from the dynamic, socially conscious writer to the pugnacious, often-inebriated public figure of his later years?

            One thing for sure, Brendan Behan packed a lot of living into a short life before succumbing from drinking and diabetes 50 years ago. Even back then, few had seen his plays or read his books and yet he was the most infamous Irishmen of his time.

            Did the fame kill him or was he always on a one-way track to destruction? One thing I do know, you have to shovel aside a lot of media exaggeration and infatuation to get to the heart of the man. That being done, you come face to face with a force of nature and a very original voice.

            For Brendan Behan was the proud, unfettered spokesman for working class Dublin. True, Sean O’Casey had already paraded vital inner-city characters across the world’s stages; but the abstemious O’Casey wrote about other people, Behan rarely wrote about anyone but himself. And therein, lay the seeds of his downfall. For you need a cool head and a pragmatic disposition to navigate the reefs that separate the private from the public personae.

            Brendan possessed neither. He was all passion and heat, with no little interest in self-promotion and celebrity. It’s interesting to contrast him with his spiritual heir, Shane McGowan, another singular voice of the people.

Shane has never hidden Behan’s influence, and why should he? He’s one of the many who benefited from Brendan’s proletarian trailblazing. And yet the gap-toothed London singer from day one has had a healthy disregard for the media. Perhaps, that’s what has kept him alive.

            “Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it's done, they've seen it done every day, but they're unable to do it themselves.”

            Despite the defiance of this quote, Brendan – unlike Shane - was deeply wounded by criticism, especially in his final years when it became obvious that he had wasted his talent in endless pub-crawls.

            But could his fate have been any different given that he spent so much of his youth in prison, sometimes in solitary confinement? Undoubtedly an alcoholic, he rarely drank at home but was always in need of the warmth of a pub, the liberating effect of gargle, and an audience.

            Without fame and publishing advances he would have been just another garrulous drunk who would eventually stagger home and deal with the hangovers and empty pockets. Instead there was always someone who wanted to bask in his glory or a press photographer with an eye for a juicy story.

            In the end though Brendan opened the door for so many who didn’t have the proper accent, background or education, but like him had the burning desire to tell the unalloyed story of their lives. And that’s why the “laughing boy” still matters 50 years after his death at the age of 41.

You left us your poetry, your soul and your dreams
You’ll always be our one and only Brendan Behan