Wednesday 23 December 2015

A Lower East Side Christmas

She was my first IAP (Irish-American Princess). Well the first that I lived with at any rate. Tara had somehow made her way down to the Lower East Side from the leafy, lace-curtain environs of Westchester, although she was anything but stuck up.

Back then I had a regular Sunday gig in the less than ritzy Archway up the Bronx and she fit in there like a fist in a glove. Of course, she was quite a looker so that didn’t hurt with the lovesick Paddies.

She had beautiful grayish green eyes that would mist over in any kind of conflict or passion; there was much of both in our relationship. The boys said that she could twist me around her little finger. They were right, but oh that twisting could be so sweet. 

Things came easy to Tara. She had succeeded at everything she’d turned her hand to. But she wished to become a successful singer, the rock that many have foundered upon.

I must have seemed like a good step up the ladder; along with gigs in the Archway and John’s Flynn’s Village Pub, I regularly strutted my stuff at CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City.

It was to be a match made in purgatory for both of us. Whatever, as they say, I was in need of some stability and moved into her apartment on First Avenue. 

I always seemed to have “just missed” her parents on their visits to the city. That should have set the bells ringing but I guess when you’re in love…

Actually, our first major disagreement was over my parents - when I announced I’d be spending Christmas with them in Wexford.

“Our first Christmas together?” She shuddered.

“Well, you can come too.” Although I broke into a cold sweat at the thought of telling the Mammy that we’d be bunking together in the ancestral homestead.

“I couldn’t desert my parents,” she countered as though I was sentencing her whole white-picket-fenced clan to twenty out on Rykers.

“But what about my parents?” I countered. And on it went as lovers’ quarrels do until her eyes were so misty and beautiful I feared that her heart might indeed break.

Well, I wrote my mother a particularly tear-stained letter full of half-truths (God rest her soul, I suppose she knows the full story now). I didn’t dare telephone; I wasn’t man enough to bear two loads of womanly angst.

In truth though, the part that really hurt was that I would miss the traditional Wexford boys’ night out on Christmas Eve. And so I extracted a promise from Tara that we’d at least tie on a decent substitute.

“No problem,” she said and was good to her word. She was fairly abstemious for those times but, when called upon, could drink like a fish with little ill effect.

We bought a tree, decorated it, and strung flashing lights all around the apartment. I almost felt like Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life.  Almost! For around 7pm I slipped on my black leather jacket, she dressed up to the nines and off we strutted up First Avenue to get well and truly shellacked.

God knows how many bars we hit, I certainly don’t; but I was feeling no pain by the time we reached Max’s Kansas City. Why Max’s on Christmas Eve? Well Tara liked to make the scene, besides I knew the doorman and got in free.

I was also familiar with the bartender who slid many the shot of watered-down whiskey towards us. And then, through the shroud of smoky darkness, I heard the London accent. 

“Roight!” The spiky-haired ghost in black leather wearily exclaimed.

The platinum blonde next to him droned on as junkies do.

“Roight.” Sid Vicious reiterated whenever a response was expected.

I casually whispered his name to Tara.
“Oh my God!” She shrieked as though Jesus had just hopped down off the cross and offered to buy a round.

Sid looked up blearily, whereupon Tara flashed him a smile that would have done justice to Marilyn Monroe on steroids. 

“The blonde looks like a piece of all right,” I countered and winked at Nancy Spungen.

“From a bottle!” Tara sniffed just as Sid laboriously hauled himself off his stool and stumbled towards the restrooms; whereupon Ms. Spungen laid her head down on the counter for a wee snooze.

We were still awaiting Sid’s return when Tara looked at her watch and gasped. “It’s ten minutes to twelve.”

“Expecting to turn into a pumpkin?” 

“No,” she moaned, “we won’t get into St. Patrick’s!” 
“What for?”

“Midnight mass, of course. What do you think?”

Was she kidding - from Max’s to matins?

When we arrived at the church off Avenue A, I could tell it wasn’t exactly what Ms. Westchester had in mind. For one thing, the priests all wore shades and spoke Polish. Still, the place was packed and we reverently stood in the transept in close proximity to an ornate candelabra - wax dripping from its many branches. 

Perhaps, it was the heat, though it could have been Max’s watery whiskey; for one moment I was sweating and swaying, the next I was writhing on the marble floor painfully disengaging myself from a myriad of hot waxy candles. There was immediate uproar with many Eastern European ladies screaming at me, and Tara, no doubt, wishing she was safely home in leafy suburbia.

When I awoke on Christmas morning much of her extensive wardrobe was laying atop me.  She was modeling a matronly gray jacket and skirt, the hem inches below her knees, damn near a foot down from its usual height.

I leaped from the bed and grabbed my Doc Martens, pink shirt, and black leather tie and jacket.  Unlike my dearest, I had long before settled on an outfit appropriate for my first appearance in Westchester.

“You don’t look well, baby,” she laid a cool hand on my brow and cooed, “You’re just burning up.”

I did feel as though one of those monsters from Alien was ready to hop out of my stomach but I had much experience of that condition.  “No, it’s okay. I want to do this for you.”

She hemmed and hawed before blurting out the truth, “It’s my mother…she wouldn’t like you.”

“What’s there not to like?”

“Well, your clothes, for one thing. I mean, are you serious?”

And with that, the fight fled from me. I could just picture the whole clan dressed in Kelly green singing Danny Boy around a turf fire - her auld one, no doubt, peering out at me through lace curtains.

Tara took me in her arms whispered that I should go back to sleep, and hinted that on her return Santa might provide some x-rated delights. But I wasn’t that easily mollified and delivered one last parting shot as the door closed behind her, “So what am I supposed to do, have Christmas dinner in an Indian restaurant?”

Well, I didn’t fall back asleep and the hangover was of the galloping nature, gaining ground all afternoon. But the hunger was no joke either and when I eventually sauntered up First Avenue the only places open were of the Indian persuasion.

A dusting of snow was descending as I stormed into The Taj Mahal. The lone customer didn’t even bother to look up from his book; I sat there glaring at him, cursing all cruel-hearted IAPs and wishing I was home with my Mammy in Wexford.

The snow was swirling around First Avenue and White Christmas was leaking from doorways as I headed back to the apartment. I turned on the blinking Christmas lights and took a couple of fierce slugs of Jameson’s whiskey, turned the Clash up to eleven and rehearsed ever more vicious and vengeful ways of breaking up with Ms. Westchester.

She must have forgotten her keys for, at first, I didn’t hear her knock above Strummer’s bawling. I strode over to the door, angrier than any Old Testament prophet. She stood there, face flushed from the cold, snow in her hair; she was expecting my fury and accepted it with grace. She smiled gently, her grayish green eyes misting over, and I barely heard her murmur, “I missed you so much.”

She reached up, held a sprig of mistletoe over my head and kissed me as if for the first time. And when she whispered, “Merry Christmas, baby,” all the fight fled out of me and young love in all its passion returned.

Wednesday 16 December 2015

Art Foley - The Greatest Goalie

            I once had a conversation with Johnny Cash, an experience akin to having a pint with one of the figures on Mount Rushmore.

            And yet, meeting Art Foley, the goalkeeper of the great Wexford hurling team of the 1950’s, trumped that. I guess you’d have to be from the Model County to appreciate the moment.

            Wexford has had some success in hurling since that golden era, but for many time halted in 1956 when Foley stopped a rocket from Cork’s Christy Ring in the dying minutes of the All Ireland final.

            It was as if the spirit of the 1798 Rebellion had been rekindled. Tar barrels burned all the way from Gorey to Wexford Town the night the victorious team arrived home. And it was all relived at the Wexford Association’s recent dinner.

There are not many Wexford people in New York. To this day I’m more likely to meet my fellow county people in Cricklewood or Camden Town rather than Woodlawn or Sunnyside, for London is a mere boat and train ride from Rosslare Harbour.

            But John Murphy, the indefatigable president of the Wexford Association, twisted arms, cajoled and pleaded, and there was a full house of us at Rosie O’Grady’s Manhattan Club on a recent Friday night.

            It was an interesting mix of people – the old timers who had come out in the 1950’s and the more recent arrivals like Barbara Jones, Irish Consul General in New York, along with keen young lawyers, hawkeyed bartenders, and fearless entrepreneurs. We were joined by Jimmy Van Bramer, New York City Council Majority Leader, some of whose people came from Enniscorthy.

            And there in the thick of it all was the mystery man, Art Foley. While on a trip to New York soon after the momentous 1956 final Art decided to stay. He didn’t make a big deal about his decision – so in essence the greatest goalkeeper of his era just disappeared.

            When his name would arise in Wexford sporting conversations – which it often did – the best that could be offered was, “I think he went to America.” And that was that.

            Of course, Art and his wife, Anne, were getting on with their lives. They would eventually have six children and make their home in Mastic, Long Island.

            Art knocked around at different jobs doing “anything and everything” until eventually joining TWA where he worked as a crew chief for 37 years.

Back in the 1950’s. Irish sportsmen might have been heroes but like everyone else they had to scuffle for employment. That innocent, almost threadbare, world came leaping back to life on the video screen of the Manhattan Room.

            We were transported to Croke Park in September 1956 to cheer along with 83,000 enthusiasts - the men in their Sunday-best dark suits, the ladies in their flowing summer dresses.

            It was the old Ireland with pre-Riverdance steppers out on the pitch, the Artane Boys Band playing up a storm, and then two teams of Brylcreem warriors going at it hell for leather for 60 minutes.
Back then people didn’t travel outside their native counties very often – going to Croke Park was a major event to be planned for weeks ahead.

            In pre-TV innocence people gathered in kitchens to socialize or went to ballrooms to dance; the parish priest was more important than any politician, and there was a respect for authority that would only begin to crumble a decade later.

            Art Foley was a hero in that world – a name that was spoken of with awe. Christy Ring even complimented him immediately after his game winning save. Imagine that happening today?

            Almost 60 years later it was hard to take your eyes off the soft-spoken Enniscorthy man in the Manhattan Club – still vital and self-possessed in his mid-80s. The keeper who had saved the certain goal and restored a county’s sense of itself, in typical modest fashion accepted the various awards on behalf of his teammates, almost all of whom had passed away.

            Long may you hurl, Art! It was great to see you there in the midst of your loving family. I hope you realize that you’ll never be forgotten back on the banks of the Slaney.

Sunday 6 December 2015

Nick Drake - Timeless and Hourless

A friend first pointed it out to me in the late 1970’s – an appreciation that appeared on the back page of the Village Voice every November.  Nothing fancy – just a plain “Nick Drake 1948-1974, thank you for the music.”

Back then very few people had even heard his name.  I had - through listening to John Peel play his incandescent songs on BBC Radio.  Still, I only possessed one of his albums, the debut, Five Leaves Left.  It’s funny, I can remember the cover so well – green bordered with a picture of a willowy young man looking out from an attic window.

I had to be in a certain mood to play it – besides there were times when you just wouldn’t want Nick in the room – especially if you thought someone with you wouldn’t appreciate him.  If it was someone you were romantically involved with – you especially thought twice about it - supposing they didn’t like Nick, then what?  One of them had to go and I well knew which one.  I can summon up that mood and a lot of other old feelings by just thinking of that album cover and the songs within.

Nick Drake’s music was enigmatic – deep and churning but deceptively calm on the surface.  It never seems to date, perhaps, because he captured a mood, rather than a time and place.

His other two albums, Bryter Layter and Pink Moon are no less enthralling.  They too evoke the same mood.  He died in 1974 – a failure, in his own eyes at any rate.  He is now best known in the US for a Volkswagen ad but you can hear his influence on a multitude of artists.  Many of them are attracted to his essence – none grasp it.  

All three of his albums sold less than 5000 copies in his lifetime.  But obviously each person who bought one treasured it and the mood it identified; then passed on the word.  Incredibly, his three albums keep getting better with time.

The memorial in the Voice eventually stopped.  Did the admirer die, move on, move out of New York?  I watched the back page of the Voice for a couple of years and then I too moved on.  Just another New York oddity that I rarely give thought to, until Sunday mornings on Celtic Crush when I play Nick. 

It never seemed like morning music to me back in the day – I rarely listened to it before midnight.  But Nick Drake’s songs have become timeless and hourless – much like the man himself.

Tuesday 1 December 2015

Four countries - a similar sense of unease?

             I spent time in four countries in little over a week recently and recognized a sense of unease about the future in all.

            Much of this stemmed from a fear that people are no longer in control of their destinies – that outside forces have far too much power over their lives.

            With US elections looming both Republicans and Democrats are focusing on their respective fields of candidates and while both parties share concern for a sluggish economic recovery, there is also a nagging feeling that the spirit of the country has been sapped and will never be rejuvenated.

            Republicans often see the cause as illegal immigration and a weak president, while Democrats fault income equality and the influence of “big money” on the electoral process.

            There is little doubt that the presidential election of 2016 will be the most rancorous in modern times. Indeed, all one can hope is that the boil will be lanced and things will return to normal – whatever that is.

            Since Liberal, Justin Trudeau, defeated incumbent Conservative prime minister, Stephen Harper, Canada has much cause for optimism.

And yet around Toronto many people I spoke to fretted that something ineffable had been lost – a native courtliness and collegiality. Mr. Harper’s TV attack ads, in particular, were straight out of Lee Atwater’s book, all about tearing down opponents rather than offering any coherent plans, or even hopes, for the future.

With candidates chosen the Republic of Ireland is already on general election battle footing. Unemployment is down and the economy has some of the highest growth rates in Europe. Dublin has regained some of its characteristic zest but the “recovery” is at best regional. In Wexford the talk is all about local owned businesses on the verge of closing with only multi-national concerns flourishing.

The pervasive feeling is that few lessons were learned from the property and financial crash, and that things will never be the same again.

With Sinn Fein having peaked in the opinion polls, it seems that the austerity minded Fine Gael led government may be returned to power – but without its coalition partner, The Labour Party. Could that mean a Fine Gael/Fianna Fail national coalition? At the least the Civil War split would finally be settled.

Despite much social welfare concerns, I found considerable optimism and hope in the state of Northern Ireland. Belfast is definitely buzzing. The downtown bars and restaurants were full and it was hard to reconcile the upbeat mood with the despair and violence of previous decades.

Although the government staggers from one crisis to the next, yet there is little doubt that power sharing has well and truly taken root.

The peace walls still divide the communities but I sensed impatience with old ways and prejudices, particularly amongst the young. There is a yearning to engage with the outside world and a desire to measure the country against its neighbors.

My greatest cause for optimism came in visits to two solidly Loyalist areas. On Shankill Road, our guide Robert Campbell, a former combatant, talked of reconciliation and his hopes that his Republican counterparts will someday come to respect his traditions.

Sporting his poppy emblem he looked forward to visiting Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin to commemorate the many Southern Irish who had lost their lives in the First World War while serving in the ranks of the British Army.

On a visit to the new East Side Visitors Center on Newtownards Road, with Union Jacks and the Red Hands of Ulster billowing in the surrounding streets, we were greeted by Wendy Langham.

This remarkable woman is helping oversee the establishment of the Connswater Community Greenway, a green belt that will run for miles through some of the most disadvantaged areas of the city.
Al Bodkin escorted us on the Van Morrison Trail. He identified a myriad of local sights referenced in Van’s songs. One felt like a pilgrim standing in front of Morrison’s first modest home on Hyndford Street or strolling down leafy Cyprus Avenue immortalized on the Astral Weeks album.

There’s a long way to go but the Van song on everyone’s lips was Bright Side of the Road. Maybe we can all learn from East Belfast now that The Healing Has Begun.

Sunday 22 November 2015

Luke Kelly - Troubled and Triumphant - Still The Man

I first saw him at a Fleadh Cheoil in the packed town square of Enniscorthy, the very walls throbbing with music, good fellowship and liquor.  As a wild-looking, red-headed man - banjo in fist – climbed to the roof of a car, whispers swept the square, “It’s Luke Kelly.”

For a long moment, he stood still as a statue and stared out at us. A hush swelled and spread outwards. I was stunned by the power of any man to still that unruly crowd.

And then Luke began to sing Kelly The Boy From Killane and his words ricocheted across the same square that Father Murphy and his Pikemen had stormed through in the rebellion of 1798.

It was one of those moments of revelation, and I knew I’d never be happy if I didn’t at least try to do the same myself some day.

When he finished the last thrilling chorus he laughed heartily at the thunderous applause; with a shrug of his shoulders he took a slug from a bottle handed up to him, then wiped his mouth with his sleeve.

His point made, he continued with The Leaving of Liverpool. This sailors’ work song gave us the freedom to join in and we did with gusto on the choruses – our voices reverberating off the walls until you could almost see the beautiful girl on the banks of the Mersey that we were all leaving behind.

I prefer to think of Luke at that moment – young and in control of his destiny. I suppose it had something to do with the times: there was an air of possibility abroad, a sense that things were changing.

Still, Luke’s vision was rooted in the past, for he had that innate power of the seanchaĆ­ to summon back to life a revolutionary spirit that had lain dormant in Enniscorthy for almost 170 years.

He summoned something achingly familiar that had been kept at arm’s length from us - our own sense of Irishness – something fierce and untrammeled that one never heard on the radio, a dissident spirit that did not sit easy in the musty, lace-curtain parlors of that time.

Luke had sensed its presence in Enniscorthy Town Square and harnessed it to further his performance.

There were other occasions when I saw him torn and almost hesitant to get on stage. As the years passed, the venues he performed in with The Dubliners were often very rowdy – people were more interested in hearing their own voices than creating the space and silence he needed to delve into the heart of some lyric and find its truth.

In the course of the night he always silenced them once, or even twice, but in the end what was the point in trying to contain a Niagara of noisy banality fueled by flashfloods of Guinness.

And so, with a shrug of his shoulders, he’d belt into some up-tempo sing-a-long, but you could almost touch a thin shroud of despair that cloaked him no matter how much he beamed.

My other favorite performance of this galvanic talent was at the Television Club on Dublin’s Harcourt Street. Cahir O’Doherty and The Gentry was the featured band.

Now a renowned balladeer in Florida, Cahir had a tremendous soulful voice while The Gentry were very hip and cutting edge.

In the midst of the dancing, Cahir announced that he had a special guest. Everyone assumed it would be some other showband luminary, instead out strode Luke, resplendent in a flower-power shirt and matching turquoise velvet pants.

This caused consternation for Luke was after all a folk-singer and tended to dress in puritanical blue denim.

The shock did not stop there, for he launched into a bluesy, boozy, version of With a Little Help From My Friends replete with Rockette kicks. And, oh my God, was he good – hilarious and having the time of his life. 

That was Luke Kelly – troubled and triumphant – a rebel in the soul unafraid to question tradition or himself.  

He’s still the man and a whole host of us influenced by him will always be boys in his shadow.

Sunday 1 November 2015

Immigrant dreams

           You really have to wonder about Donald Trump and his views on immigration. I’m not even talking about his scabrous, hate-filled opinion of Mexican immigrants. (Like most who have worked in the bar/entertainment business I admire and respect Mexicans – in particular their work ethic and generosity of spirit.)

            No I’m talking about the economic boon that immigrants (both legal and otherwise) provide to the US.

            And by the way, a very hearty farewell to Governor Walker of Wisconsin! I can’t say he’ll be missed – anyone who builds his resume on eviscerating labor unions has little interest in preserving a very challenged American middle-class.

However, the good governor did provide one of the great comic moments of this campaign by suggesting that a wall be built the length of the Canadian border. I was never quite sure who we were keeping out – ISIS or the Blue Jays?

Mr. Trump may be a very successful entertainer, and I’m told the golf courses that bear his name are top class, but doesn’t he understand that with the US population rapidly aging and work force participation tumbling, immigrants are essential to help expand the economy.

Right now there’s a shortage of workers in the building trades – particularly in Arizona and Southern California. Many Mexican workers went home during the Great Recession and show little sign of returning.

A healthy housing market is synonymous with a thriving economy and lack of skilled labor in this important field is contributing to the sluggish recovery. Like it or lump it, we’re dependent on foreign labor.

Should there be a general immigration amnesty. From a purely economic point of view – yes! Imagine the benefits of adding over 11 million undocumented people to the tax rolls.

Most credible schemes for legalizing the undocumented also demand that back taxes be paid; imagine the enormous benefit to the country’s finances on both a state and federal level.

I know there’s a pervasive fear that the undocumented are putting huge pressure on schools and social services. This does happen. But we are a civilized nation that strives to educate and care for all children. The alternative is a huge permanent uneducated lower class that would be even a worse drain on society and the economy.

And what of our own undocumented Irish people? Having been one myself I know what it’s like to fear a telephone call in the night informing you of the illness or death of a relative. To know you can’t risk returning home and offering support is a cruel thing.

It’s always stunning to hear a person of Irish descent rave on in a Know-Nothing manner about “these people” who should be repatriated, when only generations ago their own forebears were derided and insulted by nativist politicians.

And what of the Republican Party and its near paranoiac fear of “big government? Has the GOP forgotten that its greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, won the Civil War and abolished slavery only by harnessing and expanding the might of the Federal Government to suppress “states rights?”

            The GOP’s patrician leader, Teddy Roosevelt considered it his patriotic duty to trust-bust the railroads and other monopolies with the help of the federal government. While its war hero, General Dwight Eisenhower, built a system of national highways and bridges that not only unified the country but led to a generation of economic expansion.

            One need hardly mention that the same highways and bridges are slowly falling apart because of the reluctance of many Republican legislators to borrow money at current minimal rates, not to mention that this common sense action would create jobs and speed up economic recovery.

            It’s time for Republican voters to demand credible economic plans from their remaining candidates.

Of course many have enjoyed the previous two xenophobic, militaristic reality shows also known as Republican debates; but many more tremble at the thought of any of these participants getting elected and implementing their corporate trickle down economic policies.

            As for Mr. Trump, since he seems short of ideas on how to implement his nativist policies, how about marching the eleven million undocumented north instead of south – there’s a lot of empty space up there in Canada.

Thursday 15 October 2015

Irish American Writers & Artists honors Patricia Harty & Irish America Magazine

           The thought that there’s a carpenter in Queens who could be the next Sean O’Casey, or a waitress in Staten Island with the unrecognized talent of an Edna O’Brien, is the reason I agreed to serve as president of the Irish American Writers and Artists.

            God knows I had enough on my plate, but raw talent has always fascinated me – particularly when it hasn’t had the good fortune to be nourished by an expensive education.

            O’Casey and O’Brien acquired their chops in the ivy league university of hard knocks, and the passion that oozes from their work is a direct result of difficult life experiences.

            The people who read and perform at the twice-monthly IAWA salons arrive directly from their workplaces; you can almost witness them morph into writers and artists as they shuffle through the door of The Cell on 23rd Street or Bar Thalia on Upper Broadway, Manhattan. To watch them strut off stage to applause, their eyes sparkling, their creative energies renewed, is a joy to behold.

            IAWA is a proudly progressive organization. We formed in 2008 as a direct response to the suggestion that Irish-Americans would not support an African-American presidential candidate.  So much for that archaic notion!

By the same token we’re non-sectarian, non-partisan and we accept members from all nationalities, creeds, and walks of life. In seven years, under the leadership of Presidents Peter Quinn and TJ English, we have helped save St. Brigid’s Famine Church, raised over $100,000 for victims of the Haitian earthquake, and inaugurated The Frank McCourt Literary Prize to be given annually to a high school student who shows a flair for creative writing.

We also seek to instill in our members the idea that their work is of value; that it’s not to be bartered away for a monetary pittance or a bucketful of digital “likes.”

This is one of those do-or-die times for the arts. Musicians have already lost the battle for meaningful copyright control; technology and general avarice have stranded us in a nowhere land – for who buys CDs anymore, who even legally downloads when you can pay Spotify $9.99 per month for access to a universe of music?

The likelihood is that most artists will eventually suffer the same fate; still there is strength in numbers and, at the least, these issues are being raised by IAWA and occasionally solutions are offered.
Whether you are an artist or someone interested in the arts you can become a member. It costs less than a buck a week to join IAWA, and for that you are guaranteed an outlet for your creative work, be it literature, drama, music, poetry or some personal amalgam of these disciplines.

Every salon is free to the public; you can audit to your heart’s content. It’s our privilege to give back something of value to New York and any of the other cities we hold salons in.

We fund our programs by throwing a hooley every year in honor of the great Irish-American playwright, Eugene O’Neill, at which we present an award for a lifetime of artistic achievement. The honoree on Oct. 19th at The Manhattan Club/Rosie O’Grady’s will be Patricia Harty, a founder and co-publisher of Irish-America Magazine.

Trish is the first Irish born woman to receive the O’Neill award. She arrived in this country from her native Tipperary with little but a dream; over a thirty-year period she has turned that dream into a superb magazine that successfully fuses the often incompatible worlds of Ireland and Irish-America. 

The O’Neill Award night is considered one of the social events of the year, where well known writers, artists, actors, musicians and dignitaries rub shoulders with would-be Sean O’Caseys, Edna O’Briens, Van Morrisons, and Liam Neesons.

Perhaps, you’ll come. One thing you can be certain of – you’ll be welcome. And if not, then maybe we’ll see you at one of our salons in New York City or around the country. Remember - it’s never too late to become an Irish American writer or artist.

The 2015 IAWA Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award Benefit & Cocktail Party - Monday, October 19, 2015, 6:00 to 9:00 pm The Manhattan Club (upstairs at Rosie O’Grady’s) 800 7th Ave. (52nd St), Manhattan - open bar & hors d'oeuvres Tickets: or at the door.

Sunday 4 October 2015

Dark Horse/New Mood?

            There is something strange going on in the country that should have the financial markets rattling and the establishment quaking in its boots.

            In some circles it’s being written off as September madness, and yet how do you explain that well over 50% of Republicans favor a bombastic businessman, a retired African-American neurosurgeon, and a failed CEO over a cabal of experienced Republican governors and senators.

            Nor is this giddiness confined to the party of Lincoln. On the Democratic side, a Vermont socialist with a Brooklyn accent shows many signs of whipping a former senator who up until recently was a dead cert to win the nomination of her party.

            Are Americans finally sick of a stagnant two party system? Or is it something deeper – a new order arising from the cult of celebrity, the breakneck pace of communication, and an electorate that demands outrageous statements along with simple solutions from its leaders?

            Of course we could still end up in 2016 with Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton charging neck and neck down the home straight as I predicted in a February column. But I don’t think so and, though I blush at the omission, I didn’t even mention Donald Trump in that column.

            But that’s my point – the normal has been turfed out the window and the unexpected rules.  Although I don’t have a great opinion of Mr. Trump, yet he has introduced some long needed common sense to the Republican economic platform by demonizing “the hedge fund guys” and their lucrative tax loophole of carried interest. Talk about instant populism!

            My own feeling, though, is that The Donald will bail out at, or before, the Republican Convention in Cleveland next July. I doubt he has the commitment to memorize the names of various Arab potentates let alone deal with the burdens of leading a democracy.

Besides look at poor Mr. Obama’s rapidly graying hair. You think Mr. Trump would welcome such an affliction! And anyway, the Trump brand has been well and truly burnished in his scene-stealing presidential run. So why bother taking on a thankless job.

            A New York Times columnist recently described Dr. Ben Carson as someone who has woken from a nap and can’t find his glasses. Insipid though he may seem, is it possible to take seriously a candidate who states that an American citizen of Muslim faith should not run for president? John F. Kennedy must be twitching in his grave.

            I must say that Ms. Fiorina riveted me with her horrifying description of a Planned Parenthood video that I find hard to even quote. That this video arose from her twisted imagination says more about her than an organization that has helped countless poverty-stricken women since its foundation in 1916 by two Irish-American sisters, Margaret Higgins Sanger and Ethel Higgins Byrne.

            For these and other reasons I very much doubt that any of the above three will become the Republican nominee. Throwing caution to the wind, my own reconsidered prediction is Senator Marco Rubio. He’s young, media savvy, and for the most part has managed to keep his foot out of his mouth – never an easy task when one must impress the conservative brethren of Iowa and South Carolina.

Of course, there may yet be a dark horse waiting in the wings of each party. Which brings me to the Democrats. One has the feeling that the field is not yet complete – and I’m not talking about Vice-President Biden.

Senator Sanders has nailed his radical, if sensible, goals for a fairer society to the mast and, my friend, Gov. O’Malley may yet garner more media attention and make a gallant run down the back stretch. However, the nomination is still Mrs. Clinton’s to lose.

But first she must shed her pollsters and moribund advisors, and remember that she would be president today had she followed her heart rather than her head in the Iraq War senate vote.

There’s a new mood sweeping this country and it has little time for entitlement or the politics of the past. Those running for election had better be out in front of it; for this new beginning has little mercy for those it leaves broken in its wake.

Monday 21 September 2015

The Wild, The Innocent & Born To Run

            It’s been 40 years now since Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run album was unleashed on an unsuspecting American public.

            The street had been buzzing about this galvanic talent for some time; Springsteen had recorded two albums: Greetings From Asbury Park and The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, and many of us had been blown away by his incendiary live shows. It wasn’t a question of whether Bruce would make it, but to what pedestal he would ascend.

            Neither was it a surprise that he had inspired a substantial group of doubters, for back in the 1970’s there was a gaping divide between devotees of British and American Rock. 

            David Bowie and T-Rex reigned among glittery Anglophiles while The Dead and The Allman Brothers were favored by the flannel-shirted masses. Where would Bruce fit in this delineated spectrum?

            For many the fact that he hailed from the Jersey Shore - mecca of cover bands – was criminal in itself. Yes, indeed, people took their rock music seriously back in those delirious days!

            Bruce’s case was not helped by opening for Anne Murray in Central Park; but hey, a gig’s a gig and the Snowbird never knew what hit her – people were still shouting for an encore 30 minutes into her easy listening set. Wherever he played stormy chaos ensued; at Lincoln Center the stage collapsed during the riotous encore.

            I’ll make no bones about it - my favorite Springsteen album is still The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle. I remember every word, every guitar lick, and back in his pre-superstar days I saw the man any chance I could. 

Hence I was exposed to many Born To Run tracks as they were being written and rehearsed; I still prefer a number of these songs in their nascent form. Brue often performed them with just the marvelous David Sancious playing piano. He delivered these anthems in a highly theatrical manner and at funereal tempos where every word was dramatically articulated.

            One such song was Thunder Road. When done in the original manner you could almost hear that “screen door slam,” and Mary was more like a tragic Eugene O’Neill character than the heroine of a rock saga. The song is cinematically intense either way but 40 years later I still pine for the original Jersey Shore Mary “whose dress sways as she dances across the porch.”

            Born To Run was a wildly anticipated album, as much because Clive Davis, President of Columbia Records, had promised to “break” it. So imagine my delight as I passed the Bottom Line on 4th Street to discover that tickets had just gone on sale for a ten-show album release run. To top it all I had a pocketful of money – a rare enough occurrence in those East Village days.

            Throwing rent and caution to the wind I purchased three tickets for three nights and so Pierce Turner, Jacques Delorme (a French poet) and I attended three of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll shows. 

Not only that but we lined up outside The Bottom Line with quarts of beer in the early afternoons so as to snag front table seats. In my delirium I even grabbed Bruce by the foot as he leaped from atop the grand piano, earning myself a smiling lecture from saxman, Clarence Clemons.

            In those sweaty, adrenaline nights Bruce Springsteen made the transition from street poet to superstar, and he did so without sacrificing any of his principles or street smarts. What set him apart?

            Well, he had an encyclopedic knowledge of Rock and Soul music. I still hear traces of so many influences from James Brown to Eddie Cochran, Phil Spector to Woody Guthrie. But more than anything he possessed Eugene O’Neill’s ineffable “touch of the poet” – and he’s never lost it.

            Born to Run coalesced all that was great in Rock ‘n’ Roll up to that moment. Just in time too, for Punk was about to explode in CBGB’s, a couple of blocks over on The Bowery.

            How thrilling that Bruce is still making a principled, ecstatic difference 40 years later!

Thursday 10 September 2015

The Priest and the Fireman

            Anyone knocking around Manhattan in those days knew people who perished, but for me it all comes back to the priest and the fireman.

            Even ten years later I can look offstage and imagine where each would be – Father Michael Judge standing by the bar, impeccably coiffed, surrounded by friends; and Richie Muldowney NYFD, darting around the room bantering with all and sundry, crooked smile lighting up the joint.

            Though both frozen in time they summon up the city as it used to be. For New York changed ineffably on 9/11when the spirits of so many unique people departed. They’ve been replaced, of course, great cities do that, but it’s not quite the same, is it?

            I often thought of Mychal as a mirror, he was so empathetic he seemed to reflect your own hopes and fears. I never knew anyone who helped so many people; he was always concerned, forever providing a shoulder.

I guess he came to see Black 47 to let off a little steam. I’m not even sure he liked our music – his own taste ran towards the more conventional – but the rhythms, juxtapositions and overall message fascinated him and, anyway, he liked to be in the thick of the action.

            Richie was hard-core Black 47. He knew all the words, the players, the other fans. He delighted to show up unexpectedly at out-of-town gigs; the moment you saw him you knew it would be a good night. To think such an irrepressible spark was extinguished so early.

            I remember jaywalking across Times Square the first September Saturday the band returned to Connolly’s. The “crossroads of the world” was so deserted in those immediate post-9/11 nights it felt like a scene from a cowboy movie where sagebrush is blowing down the street.

            But cops, firemen, emergency workers, the mad, the innocent and those who just couldn’t stay at home needed somewhere to go – to let the pressure off – and that was the band’s function.

Those first gigs were searing. You couldn’t be certain who was missing, who had survived, who was on vacation, who just needed a break from it all. When a familiar face walked through the door the relief was palpable, someone else had made it.

The atmosphere – though on the surface subdued - was charged with an underlying manic energy, a need to commemorate, celebrate, to show that life was going on. That would be some small revenge on the bastards who had caused all the heartbreak.

And yet, what an opportunity was missed in those first weeks. That smoldering pit down on Rector Street had galvanized the country. We were all so united; we would have done anything asked of us.

Republican, Democrat, Independent, we all came together as Americans. We would have reduced our dependence on foreign oil, rejuvenated poor neighborhoods, taught classes in disadvantaged schools. You name it - nothing would have been too big, too small either.

But no sacrifice was asked, much less demanded. Instead, 9/11 was used by cheap politicians to get re-elected; patriotism was swept aside by an unrelenting xenophobic nationalism that brooked no dissent. The US was converted into a fortress and the lights were dimmed in the once shining city on the hill. Worst of all, our leaders sought to use the tragedy as an excuse to invade Iraq.

Look at us now, dysfunctional, walled off from each other and the rest of the world. That began when the national will for a positive response was squandered in the aftermath of 9/11.

Though he was finally hunted down, sometimes it seems as though Osama Bin Laden won, for we’ve become a fearful, partisan people, unsure of ourselves, uncertain of our future.

But then I think of Mychal and Richie, their smiles beam across the years and I know that the current national malaise is just a patina that covers the soul of the country – it can be wiped away. It’s not permanent. We have greatness in us yet.

That’s the hard-earned lesson of 9/11 and will always be the message of the priest and the fireman.

Sunday 6 September 2015

Joe Strummer, we hardly knew ye

           A wave of melancholy swept over me when I played Joe Strummer’s version of The Minstrel Boy on SiriusXM last Saturday morning. It was the last song of my Celtic Crush show and I was in the midst of putting the studio in order for the next host.

I was surprised, to say the least, for though Joe was a friend and like many I mourned the passing of The Clash leader, still, that was over twelve years ago and life moves on.

            His Minstrel Boy featured prominently in the movie, Black Hawk Down. The song obviously lends itself to marital issues for I used it myself in Black 47’s Downtown Baghdad Blues. Then I remembered a night in Paddy Reilly’s back in the early 1990’s when we’d talked about the transforming power of old Irish melodies.

            Joe was familiar with a lot of Irish music and was aware of Thomas Moore who wrote The Minstrel Boy.

            The most famous Irish poet, singer, and songwriter of the 19th Century, Moore was a friend of Robert Emmet and Lord Byron. A diminutive bantam-cock of a man, Thomas Jefferson famously mistook him for a child, which probably led to Moore’s distaste for the slave-owning third president of the United States.

He cared little for Daniel O’Connell either dismissing the Liberator as a demagogue; nonetheless, Moore held an exalted place in Irish society, for The Minstrel Boy was the national anthem of its day – particularly to the millions forced to emigrate during the Great Hunger of the 1840’s.

There wasn’t an Irish saloon in the world where glasses were not raised to its soaring melody, while the toast was often a vow to return home and finally rout the perfidious English invader. The Irish on both sides in the American Civil War chanted its stormy lyrics and the Fenians sung it when invading Canada.

Without losing any of the song’s essence Strummer’s version is distinctly contemporary – dry-eyed and defiant; and as I listened I remembered the first night the Prince of Punk strolled into The Bells of Hell.

David Amram, Pierce Turner and I were gathered around Al Fields who was ripping it up on the perennially out-of-tune piano. Al was a fiery player, especially when fueled by a vodka-based concoction he labeled “kerosne.”

Strummer sidled into our group and without the least pretention joined in the raucous merry-making. He was enthralled by Al’s playing which was heavily steeped in Stride, Boogie-Woogie and other African-American styles.

Much later that night Al took me to one side and inquired if I’d ever heard of The Clash? Would they be like The Rolling Stones, he wondered. I told him that if one were to stretch a number of points there were indeed similarities.

This brought a mercenary gleam to Al’s eyes. He confided that Strummer had invited him to play on a track from the next Clash record and wondered if he might demand the then dizzying fee of $500. I told him to go for it but be prepared to accept $100 along with the glory.

The next night Al showed up ordering doubles of kerosene. He’d been paid “his worth,” he smirked, but he might have to see a doctor. Since he always stomped to the beat while playing, the producer had insisted he perform with his shoes off; consequently Al had strained an ankle. The dangers of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle!

All of these memories came flooding back as Joe’s brilliant reimagining of The Minstrel Boy washed over me in the sterile studio.

Given the quantities of kerosene I saw Al imbibe in both lean and flush times I doubt if he’s alive today. Thomas Moore is definitely long gone to meet his maker, but The Minstrel Boy lives on.

Joe Strummer walked away from The Clash when they were about to become the biggest band in the world. True to his Punk ideals he refused to be limited by other people’s expectations. Instead he swept the dust off a stagnant anthem and returned The Minstrel Boy to us – alive, vital, and dangerous – the way Thomas Moore always intended it to be.

Ah, Joe, we hardly knew ye.