Thursday 31 July 2014

Bert Berns - The Bronx Explorer

            Bertrand Russel Berns from The Bronx never set foot on the Emerald Isle yet he irrevocably changed Irish music.

            Okay, so only his Jewish-Russian socialist parents ever addressed him as Bertrand Russell - in honor of the British philosopher-activist; but, without Bert Berns, Van Morrison would likely be a grouchy curmudgeon still slouching around East Belfast.

            Berns is barely remembered nowadays but he’s about to come back with a bang courtesy of a recently published biography, Here Comes The Night by Joel Selvin, and a new theatre production, Piece of My Heart, currently running at New York’s Signature Center.

I first became aware of him as a boy while jamming my ear into an old cloth-covered wireless. On clear nights back in Wexford you could pick up the crackly sounds of AFN (American Forces Network) broadcasting from Germany.

            Berns’ songs and productions pulsed through those GI airwaves. Along with Carol King & Phil Spector he was one of the most brilliant graduates of the music scene centered around the Brill Building and 1650 Broadway.

            Bert’s effective career lasted only seven years, yet in that short span he wrote or produced 51 hit songs including Twist and Shout, Hang on Sloopy, Little Piece of My Heart and Here Comes The Night. He also owned and operated Bang Records where he nurtured the solo careers of Neil Diamond and Van The Man.

            Although a human dynamo who rarely slept Berns had a severe heart condition from boyhood. His parents worked long hours at their dress shop on the Grand Concourse and legend has it that their convalescent son became interested in music on account of the pounding radio of his Cuban neighbors.

            Infatuated with the Samba he became an accomplished dancer and even moved to Batista’s Cuba to follow his passion.

            Was it in Havana or The Bronx that he first became acquainted with certain shady figures from the New York Crime families? Of course, back then if you were involved in music it would have been hard not to cross paths with “made men.”

            Bert hustled around The Bronx and got by with handouts from his mother until well into his 20’s, but eventually moved to Times Square where he honed his skills as a singer, guitarist and pianist cutting demos for songwriters. They soon discovered that he was equally adept as a lyricist.

Many feel he was responsible for introducing the Latin tinge that made New York pop music of the 60’s so irresistible. He was also deeply influenced by R&B or race music, as it was often called. He got The Isley Brothers to record Twist and Shout. That song became the climax of live shows for then unknown Beatles, and was the standout track on their best selling first EP.

            That’s how Bert came to be in London where he was hired to produce Them, a raw Belfast R&B band. He instantly recognized the brilliance of vocalist, Van Morrison. Less enthusiastic about the band’s musicians he brought in 20 year-old guitar whiz, Jimmy Page, and organist, Phil Coulter, to record his desolate ballad, Here Comes The Night. That hit record by Them still sends shivers down my spine.

            When Them imploded and surly Van retired to his mother’s East Belfast home Berns sent him the fare to New York and turned Van’s Brown Eyed Girl into the exuberant Latin-tinged classic that still fills summer dance floors.

            By then Bert’s time was running down literally and figuratively. Corporate America was buying up the small independent labels; paranoid and under financial pressure he turned to his shady friends in the “families” for support.

When Neil Diamond wanted to break his Bang contract a veiled warning was delivered about the consequences. Meanwhile Van, wrestling with the complexity of his Astral Weeks masterpiece, had neither time nor inclination to deliver another Brown Eyed Girl.

            Shortly after a telephone screaming match with Mr. Morrison, Berns’ heart finally gave out on Dec. 30th 1967.  He was 38.

Hopefully, the musical, Little Piece of My Heart, will catch the effervescence, complexity and volcanic talent of the forgotten genius from The Grand Concourse who changed the face of pop music and rescued Van Morrison from East Belfast anonymity.

For tickets, information and a video visit

Sunday 27 July 2014

Support Your Irish Festival!!!!!

support your irish festival!!!

They’re everywhere now. Increasing and expanding by the year, Irish festivals have outgrown their natural roots on the East Coast and the Rust Belt of the Midwest. Now they flourish in Kansas City, Savannah, Manheim, and places you’ve never even heard of. Every month I get a call from some savvy All-American wondering about his or her chances of pulling off an Irish Festival.

And why not? Get yourself a fenced-in space, a stage, a workable PA, a headlining band, beer company support, a volunteer staff, some fine weather and you could be on your way to being the next Milwaukee Irish Fest.

Where did it all start? Well, that’s a bit like the Ray’s Pizza conundrum, isn’t it? But my gut instinct is that it all began back in the New York Irish community of the 50’s. Okay! South Side Chicago and Boston, you’ve got documented proof that your festivals were celebrating their centenaries when wide-trousered Galway men and their petticoated dates from Leitrim, Mayo and Tyrone were chastely cheek-to-cheeking to Micky Carton’s Orchestra at the Jaeger House on Lexington Avenue.

My theory, though, is that when these young immigrant Irish trooped out to the Rockaways on pre-air-conditioned summer weekend and danced and drank in the haunts along the Irish Mile, that the seeds were sown for the modern Irish Festival.

With time, those dancers married, had children and didn’t get out as much. Besides, the urban decay of the 60’s hit the Rockaways hard. Most of Irish Town was demolished and the streets were no longer as safe; but the couples still wished to meet, reminisce and show off their kids. So, they unfolded their beach chairs, bought a keg, finagled a couple of hungover musicians into playing and before you knew it, they had a rip-roaring block party on their hands.

The Rockaway Festival that grew out of those innocent Sunday afternoons is one of my favorites – although, one year I was almost brained by a beer cooler thrown by an appreciative fan.

But I digress. A number of veterans of the Rockaway bash who relocated to Southern Florida, Sheila Hynes and Rory O’Dwyer (son of the great Irish American Civil Rights activist, Paul O’Dwyer) amongst other longed for an authentic hooley around St. Patrick’s Day. They hired a park, a PA and engaged Adrian Flannelly to snare some top class musicians. A couple of decades later, their festivals in Ft. Lauderdale and West Palm Beach are still setting the pace and, given the location, they almost always have good weather.

The first festival I performed at was the Catholic Charities event out in Coney Island. Chris Byrne and I were in the midst of a very earnest version of The Patriot Game” at the end of which, to the wail of the pipes, I would denounce every Taoiseach, Tanaiste and elected rat-catcher for betraying the Cause when, to my amazement, I glimpsed the sight of a nun in full habit sweeping past me. Figuring it was some kind of flashback, I returned to my denunciations but there she was again, this time fiddling with a boom-box from which emanated the heavenly sound of synthesized strings. After the set, I found out that we had overstayed our allotted time, the good sister had a second gig to get to, and it was “later for you, Black 47, whoever the hell you are!” Sister Mary Beata is a trooper who will be playing festivals a long time after more trendy musicians have hung up their guitar straps.

Speaking of divine intervention, ask Frank Bradley about weather. Frank is the visionary behind the great South Side Chicago Festival held every Memorial Day Weekend. Sounds balmy, right? On our first appearance in 1991, snow began falling as we hit the stage. We were contracted for a 90 minute set and, fearful of not being paid, we blazed on through a gathering blizzard to about 50 hardy souls who danced to our frantic pleas for James Connolly to rise up, initiate a proletarian revolution and liberate us from the frozen stage. When we shuffled off like six emasculated snowmen, Frank stood there, check in hand (plus bonus) silently marveling at the lunacy of certain New York musicians. The Festival now takes the precaution of erecting an enormous tent. You just can’t trust that Lakeside weather. But you can depend on the warmth and rowdy loyalty of the South Side Irish.

For my money, having a headlining act is a must for a successful festival. Ask Cavan man Steve Duggan, whose Belmont Family Festival had chugged along to respectable successes. Some years back he nailed down the Saw Doctors for his Saturday night extravaganza and hit the jackpot with a record-breaking attendance.

Of course, when you have built up a reputation like the Milwaukee Irish Fest, you don’t really need a headliner. Back in 1981, the goals of the organizers were modest, hoping in some small way to emulate the successful local Fest Italiano. Now over 100,000 pass through their turnstiles annually. Founded by Chuck and Ed Ward and a loyal, hard-working committee, Milwaukee has become the Mother of all Irish Festivals. One of the projects funded by the Festival is the Irish Music Archives; it now contains almost 50,000 pieces of Irish recordings and sheet music.

Festivals, of course, reflect the current dynamics of Irish American life. There is the eternal battle between those more attuned to the homeland who cringe at leprechauns, green beer, freckle-faced competitions, and those who see no harm or, indeed, make a buck from such shenanigans. Then there are the various political activists who consider it their right to set up a table on the big day versus those who feel that festivals should be apolitical or that Irish politics ended circa 1916. This has led to friction at many festivals. But now, with peace in the ascendancy in the North of Ireland this issue shows every sign of becoming a memory. Besides, a vast majority of people now feels that festivals are about celebrating Irishness in its myriad forms and the tent is big enough for all.

I’m forever impressed by the level of altruism at festivals. Practically all of the money raised goes to an array of charities and quite often of the construction or maintenance of Irish Community Centers. Volunteers spend many months prepping, primping and preparing for their big weekend.

But in the end festivals are about community. Whether this means a return to the old neighborhood of Rockaway, a celebration of being South Side Irish in Chicago or a uniting of the clans in Patchogue, North Haven, Hartford or Herkimer, the festival is a way of getting together and celebrating heritage. In a society that becoming ever more white bread and homogenized, it’s an affirmation of all the things that make us different.

So, you want to start your own Irish Festival? Just get a fenced off space, a stage, a PA, a good band, a Mussolini-like stage manager and everything Irish you can think of – except the weather. Maybe I’ll see you there this summer.

Monday 14 July 2014

Breezy Point Think Tank

            Economic forecasting is the perfect mix of art and science: you may blame either component if you don’t get it right! Not unlike horse racing you need to know the form and conditions, but you must also be able to sniff the wind, and be on speaking terms with lady luck.

            Some calls are beyond obvious: when shacks in Ireland were selling for a half million Euros it was apparent that one hell of a bubble was about to burst.

            Likewise back in 2007 when Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, stated that financial markets would self-regulate, it was time to head for the hills.

            The most glaring current red flag is the number of over-capitalized start-ups that still haven’t figured how to turn a profit. In other words, don’t bet Auntie Eileen’s jewelry on the next Facebook.

            So how is the American economy really doing? You’ll find an expert to confirm any opinion you might possibly hazard.  Me?  I stick to two bellwethers - one without cost, the other the price of a round of Coors Light.

            The freebie merely requires a walk up the East Side of Broadway (once known as the plebian “shilling side,”) from Canal to Houston. In the aftermath of the 2008 Financial Debacle you could walk in a straight line up that once congested commercial boulevard marveling at the sight of the empty flagstones ahead of you.  

Around 2010 shopaholics returned only to stare longingly in store windows. In the last year, however, I’m forced to swear like a trooper to clear the way while zigzagging around laden down shoppers dazed as two-bit junkies after a fix.

This leads me to believe that happy days are ahead for the economy unless the bankers and gangsters wreck the joint again.  

However, before certifying imminent boom times it would behoove one to journey out to Breezy Point on the Irish Riviera. My brother Jimmy holds court there in the Blarney Castle – a renowned economic think tank that doubles as a watering hole.

The assembled fellows of this vaunted institute have little time for the Economist or Wall Street Journal – they tend to be more News and Post aficionados. Yet it was on this sacred ground in 2007 the tragic news was revealed to me that hard times would soon be upon us.

            You see Jimmy is a waterproofer – one of that doughty band who keeps the buildings of this town from collapsing on our noggins; and when Mr. Trump and other real estate titans are not employing these gentlemen, then things are going to hell in the proverbial breadbasket. Union members, I was informed, had been told to expect the worst and, even more ominous, official applications for building maintenance and repairs were at an all time low.

            The current forecast from the Blarney is mixed. Things look good in the short term, the union is hiring - but there are grave concerns about future climatic conditions, and for good measure don’t hold your breath for a Mets or Jets renaissance. However, Jimmy and his assembled think tank brethren stand at the ready to deliver forecasts for a mere round of Coors Lights!

            Perhaps I can explain one puzzling statistic that is stumping the experts – the number of unemployed abandoning the workforce. Experts be damned! Do you know any regular person with enough stashed away to actually quit working?

What’s happening is that since most jobs being created are in the lower paid service and health care industries many unemployed have begun their own small businesses. These range all the way from financial consulting to grandparents becoming daycare givers and pocketing some of the money saved.

            Many people, however, are taking social security at 62 rather than waiting for full payment at 66. This will inevitably cause immense social and financial problems for the country down the line. But as they say out in Breezy, “What are you gonna do?”

            Oh well, it’s a nice day for a stroll up the Shilling Side of Broadway, or maybe I’ll head out to the Blarney, shell out for a round of Coors Lights and find out what’s really going on in this country.

Gerry Conlon Mo Chara

             It was a crazy time back in late 1989.  Black 47 had just been formed and was making waves. Chris Byrne and I were political and there was much to be political about.

            The four main Irish causes were the wrongful convictions of The Guildford Four, The Maguire Seven, and The Birmingham Six in the UK, and the attempt to deport Joe Doherty from the US.

            There were many benefits and demonstrations and we helped supply the music – often while on the way to a paying gig.

            There was great buoyancy in the Irish Republican and Civil Rights movement back then – great unity too, especially after the squashing of the rigged convictions of the Guildford Four. If the Brits could admit they were wrong in this case, then there was hope for the others; and with Prime Minister Thatcher facing down a Tory rebellion perhaps negotiations for a just end to the conflict were finally at hand.

            When Paul Hill, Gerry Conlon and Paddy Armstrong came to New York to thank the many people who had campaigned for their release, Black 47 played at the reception. Paul, Gerry and Paddy were music fans and took great interest in the new style we were creating. Their favorite songs were Free Joe Now, Land of de Valera and a version of Patriot Game we curried with a hip-hop beat.

            On the face of it, they appeared to be three slightly dazed, working class Belfast men whose lives had been cruelly interrupted. After a horrific mainland bombing the British authorities needed convictions in a hurry – for whatever inane reasons these three adrift Paddies and an English friend, Carole Richardson, fit the bill. Confessions were extracted under duress, evidence was concealed, lies were told, the cell doors slammed and the case closed.

            Newly freed, they were treated like heroes and celebrities in New York City; still on a high, it was like they were on a mission to make up for lost time. 

Though very distinct personalities, all three were lovely people, albeit with that endearingly sardonic Belfast sense of humor.

            Paddy was quiet and didn’t care much for celebrity; Paul was stately and intense, while Gerry was voluble and passionate. Not surprisingly they had a powerful sense of the injustice that had been visited upon them, and were vividly aware of the many others around the world languishing in jails for unjust convictions.

            They loved to party and stay out late and, oh man, did they hit the right city! They were a staple at our gigs, holding court by the bar and soaking up the atmosphere. You could tell Gerry and Paddy had never been political before their prison terms – they just weren’t the type. Paul, on the other hand, had strong political convictions.

            By their second visit to New York Black 47 were the talk of the town, and home base, Paddy Reilly’s, had become a hotbed of politics awash with musical and Hollywood celebrities. Paul’s soon to be wife, Courtney, added the Kennedy mystique. Few went home before dawn. Gerry, in particular, never seemed to want the night to end. Darkness and solitude didn’t sit well with him. As soon as one party showed signs of flagging he was off to find another.

            I thought of all three of them when news came of Gerry’s death, of the good times in London when we lived in Paul’s apartment while opening for The Pogues. But most of all I felt for Gerry and how he must have suffered on all the long nights down the lonely years when there were no more parties and he had to wait for the dawn alone.

            I hope Paul and Paddy are well and, despite all the darkness they experienced because of a cruel and inept British legal system, they think fondly of the nights we rocked and rolled in New York City.

            It’s a different town now and the Republican movement is no longer unified. As my grandfather used to say about the Irish Civil War, “it was a lot easier be against something than be for it.”

            But, oh those were great days – and nights – when Gerry, Paul and Paddy first came to town.