Saturday 27 December 2014

American Wake

            His mother called a couple of days after he got his Green Card. He could almost feel her tears flow down the phone.

            “You’ll surely come home for Christmas, Sean. How many years has it been now – seven, eight?”

            He’d been dreading the question. Besides, why go back now? He’d settled into his own Yuletide customs. Work late Christmas Eve, then a big night out on Bainbridge with the lads; hungover as hell on Christmas day he’d barely make dinner with the cousins on Long Island. Before you knew it was over, back to work again Stephen’s Day.

            Things were finally going well with the flooring business, and with the Green Card he could put the deposit down on the house up in Pearl River. Fix it up by the summer, have his mother over for a couple of weeks, take her up the Catskills, the usual.

            It wasn’t that he didn’t miss her but it was a small town back home and you never knew who you’d run into.

            His mother was waiting at Shannon. He hadn’t been able to say no and in the warmth of her hug all his apprehension drained away.

            It was all good, the sight of familiar places, the deep green of the grass that he’d forgotten. His sister had the big breakfast ready the minute he walked in the door, the perfect taste of the tea, the smell of the fry. The visits to aunts and uncles, the first night down the pub - all of it coalescing in a swirl of Christmas lights, smiles, hugs and jet lag.

            He stayed off the main streets. You never knew who you’d run into and as the days counted down to the return flight he began to relax.

            He shouldn’t have gone to the disco. The DJ played all the old familiar songs and every step of the way home provoked a memory.

            He only went to mass on Sunday to please his mother. He’d barely been inside a church in The Bronx except for weddings and christenings.

            He went through the motions, more interested in the crowd than the proceedings - guitars and folk songs now rather than incense and the old hymns. Fr. Joyce still ran the show, his face creased with age, far less sure of himself than when he was curate and they used to argue about faith.

            He was thinking about the big job in Pelham that he’d bid on when the mass ended. He was shuffling down the aisle in the thick of the crowd when he saw her. 

Her hair was shorter but there was no mistaking the color, and anyway James was ushering her along. He had filled out and there were flecks of grey in his hair.

            Sean tried to turn around but the crowd pushed him forward. He lowered his head and was almost past them unnoticed when Fr. Joyce called out, “I thought that was you, Sean!”

            The crowd parted and there she was holding firmly onto two fidgeting children.

            He’d always imagined that the girl would look like her. But no, she was bland and uninteresting like James. The boy though had his mother’s sensitive green eyes and the perfect shape of her face.

            James dropped his wife’s elbow and over-eagerly thrust out his hand. “I’d heard you were home, Sean, you never called.”

            Sean muttered some banality.

            “I’m sure he’s too busy for us now.” His wife stated calmly.

            She hadn’t changed much, just a little older but it suited her. She held his eyes unflinchingly and the years drifted away. She was as lovely as ever.

            Then the boy dropped his coloring book. As she rose from picking it up, their eyes met and for an instant she was her old self again. She took his hand as if to shake it but instead squeezed it gently.

            Then she was gone in a flurry of embarrassed goodbyes, off home to cook the Sunday dinner.

            “I suppose you’ll be having the American wake tonight, Sean?” Fr. Joyce diplomatically broke the silence as Sean counted the devastating hours until the flight from Shannon.

Monday 15 December 2014

Paddy and the velvet revolution

           We were lost – gloriously lost in the enveloping darkness – at a crossroads in the middle of nowhere with no signpost. We had crossed into Czechoslovakia from East Germany some hours earlier and were trying to reach Prague before the following afternoon when we were scheduled to play at a boys club.

            We were a band of fractious New York improvisational musicians that raised hell behind a poet named Copernicus whose philosophy was:  We do not exist.

            For once he appeared to be on the mark as our driver pored over his maps unable to nail down our location.

            “I could use a drink,” muttered Thomas Hamlin, later to become drummer of Black 47.

            It was then I spotted a flicker of light in the distance. It could have been Dracula luring us to a necking session but the thirst was upon us.

            To our amazement we stumbled into a candlelit tavern occupied by a group of surly peasants not one of whom turned a head to look at us in our black leather New York splendor.

            Not until I flashed a $20 bill and was almost knocked down such was the stampede to fulfill our every desire. When it was established that our only wish was for a couple of cases of beer, these were carried out to the van and we were dispatched without delay on the correct road to Prague.

            It was past midnight when we reached Wenceslas Square and met the very anxious looking dissidents who were promoting our show. In broken, but very familiarly accented, English they informed us that the gig had been transferred to the National Ice Hockey Stadium and we would be headlining.

            It was June 1989 and the dissidents had decided to challenge the government by running an unauthorized rock concert. In order to hire the stadium, however, they needed “an international act of considerable cultural and popular appeal.”  Though we emphasized that we had never played to more than 50 people and had yet to receive a kind review we were shushed into silence.

            The next day we could barely get near the stadium such was the crowd outside jostling for tickets. We had apparently attained star status overnight. It didn’t hurt that the best bands in Czechoslovakia, including members of the banned, but internationally renowned, Plastic People of the Universe, were on the same bill.

            The scene backstage was chaotic but it was then I identified the familiar Czech-English accent. It was Lou Reed’s “take ze walk on ze wild side,” since hey had all learned their English from Velvet Underground records.

            After a couple of slugs of Armenian brandy I was beginning to enjoy my elevation to superstardom until a phalanx of the Czech State Militia marched to the top rows of the stadium and aimed their weapons at the stage.

            When I notified the chief dissident, he smiled conspiratorially and replied in his best Lou Reed, “Zey will not kill all of us.”

            “Yeah, right,” I replied in some dudgeon, “but you won’t be a sitting duck on stage.” 

            He appeared to find the idea of a duck on stage the height of hilarious originality; apparently Lou had never mentioned such a sighting in a Velvet Underground song. He did however give me another bottle of Armenia’s best and on stage we trooped to a rapturous welcome.

            It was one of those nights a musician dreams about. Everything went perfectly from the moment Copernicus screamed to the 12,000 people, “I have always been in trouble with the authorities” and flung a bible down on the stage. Every note, tone and movement gelled; the audience cheered us from start to finish.

            We were the kings of Prague that night, feted wherever we went. Our dissident friends told us we’d helped light a spark. Five months later the Velvet (Underground) Revolution swept away the communist regime and dissident hero Vaclav Havel became president.

            I came home a changed man. I had regained faith that music could make a difference. A couple of months later I met Chris Byrne and we formed Black 47.

            Sometimes you have to be really lost before you learn to find your way.

Wednesday 3 December 2014

Which Side Are You On?

            What a craven political party! Relax, oh ye Republicans, I’m not addressing you this time. In fact, congratulations on your recent election victories, you had one big message and you stuck to it like white on rice – blame the guy in the White House for everything including the sorry state of the Mets, Jets and Giants!

            The fact that you didn’t come up with an iota of a plan for running the country hardly matters except in the grand scheme of things – but who cares about that!

            No I’m talking about the Democratic Party and its lack of principles. All those nice shiny suits – and dresses – in Congress jumped ship as soon as President Obama’s ratings dipped below 50% - despite voting with him to restore the economy and extricate us from two foreign wars of choice.

            Now far be it from me to say that this first African-American president hasn’t made mistakes – I’m looking over my shoulder even as I type in case one of his NSA spooks is monitoring these treasonous words.

But get a grip! The man became president as the economy was flushing down the tubes. He didn’t freak out – unlike many across the political spectrum – no, he kept a cool head and has brought the unemployment rate down from a dismal 10% to the current 5.8%.

            Many people lost their jobs, savings and dreams during the Great Recession but that’s hardly the president’s fault. Could he have battled recalcitrant Republicans more strenuously and increased the stimulus – definitely. Could he have whipped them into raising the federal minimum wage – perhaps; but, at the worst, he’s got us back to a place where we can even argue about such things.

            Another little detail that goes without much notice – he saved the American car industry when the free market consensus was to let it go and re-invent itself. That would have been a catastrophe. The Mid-West would still be reeling and god knows what ripples would be coursing through the rest of the country.
            I followed the elections closely and I never heard a Democratic candidate mention any of this.     No, they fled from any meaningful dialogue for fear they might end up whipping boys and girls on the Fox Network and who wants to be on the bad side of Rupert Murdoch if you’re running in a tight race.

            But such cowardice has consequences. The Democratic Party ran on one unifying platform – stay the hell away from the President! And it showed. I could barely muster up the energy to go to the polls myself - and I even vote for dogcatcher.

            You think African-Americans didn’t notice the shunning. Look at the returns from Georgia where Michelle Nunn took a royal shellacking because of low African-American turnout. Try explaining to an African-American that racism plays no part in the South being so overwhelmingly anti-Obama.
             Sometimes you have to forget polls and stick to facts and principles. Ask Mrs. Clinton – she’d be president now if she hadn’t voted for the invasion of Iraq back in 2003.

            And while we’re talking foreign affairs how about Syria? Did President Obama vacillate about helping the so-called “secular” resistance? Sure he did and for good reason - that is one god-forsaken country to keep far away from. You can’t win there, just as you couldn’t win in Iraq despite the bales of 100-dollar bills thrown at the region and the countless lives lost.

            And what about Ukraine? Shouldn’t the president have gone bare-chested mano a mano with Putin over another civil war halfway around the world? No way - just stay cool; eventually Putin’s petro-dollars will run out.

            The two Democratic success stories were John Hickenlooper in Colorado and Andrew Cuomo in New York who ran against the gun lobby and retained their governorships - albeit with reduced majorities.

            But in the end the only thing that saved the Democrats from a total thrashing was that the Republican Party is even more disliked by the electorate. 

So as you go forward towards 2016, oh ye lords of the Democratic Party, forget about polls and take some time to find out what you actually stand for. You’ll be amazed how many people care.