Monday 26 January 2015

de Valera, Collins, and the price of water

            While on a recent tour of Ireland our bus was brought to a sudden halt on Wexford’s historic quayside by a large crowd protesting the proposed water taxes.

            Having come from the protesting class myself, I recognized many old comrades. What surprised me was the new universality of the protesters: farmers, shopkeepers, civil servants – people from strong Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael stock - marched in solidarity with the great unwashed.

            Although it seems ironic to charge anything for water in Ireland, given the annual level of rainfall, still water tariffs are common enough in developed countries. This proposed new taxation, however, appears to be the straw that has broken the Irish camel’s back.

            Probably because it feeds into a longstanding fury over the mishandling of the country’s finances back in 2008; you might remember, the then coalition government led by Fianna Fáil’s Brian Cowen agreed to unconditionally guarantee the loans, deposits, bonds and other liabilities of all Irish banks. That the debts incurred turned out to be even more than expected was bad enough, but that government politicians were seen to be hand in hand with profligate bankers caused even more anger.

            This led to a general election in 2011 where the once almighty Fianna Fáil Party was humiliated and its Dáil Éireann (parliament) representation severely reduced. The opposition Fine Gael Party was swept into power and entered a coalition with the Labour Party.

            Two other forces gained in that election – Sinn Féin led by Gerry Adams, and a large group of independent deputies led by – well, no one.

Due to the ongoing bleak economic outlook and mass youth emigration, things have since gone from bad to worse for the three establishment parties, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour.   
With a general election mandated before April 3, 2016, current polls show Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and Sinn Féin support each hovering around 20%. Amazingly, Sinn Féin has become the most popular party in the Republic. Independents, however, are drawing over 30% support, while Labour appears to be headed for oblivion with 6%.

            One way or another the next election will be groundbreaking as Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael may be forced into coalition, thus finally bringing to a close the Civil War hostilities of almost a century ago. How stunning that a simple water tax might bring together what giants like Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera could not.

            There’s even a possibility that Sinn Féin could gain enough seats to enter into coalition with either Fianna Fáil or a combination of independents. Hey, we could have our first Irish Echo columnist elected Taoiseach!

            The ghost of de Valera must be raging around Dáil Éireann at the thought of his sacrosanct Fianna Fáil Party playing second fiddle to Gerry Adams and his ilk; but then, a movement will always trump a party and Sinn Féin, known for its financial probity, is becoming much more acceptable to an electorate disgusted by crony capitalism.

            Though there are many Irish citizens who will never vote for the old guard leadership of Sinn Féin because of its association with the Troubles, yet there are many new faces in the party including Vice President, Mary Lou McDonald, who have broad national appeal, especially to the young.

            One way or another, great change is coming, and about time. There’s a desire for a new beginning in Ireland, a feeling that the old ways haven’t worked, the old parties are indistinguishable, so throw all the bums out.

            Emigration is finally being seen for what it is – a failure of a country’s institutions to look after its people. My own generation who fled in the 70’s and 80’s were part of the old solution – when you’ve wrecked the economy, open the floodgates and let the people go – some other country can deal with them.  

But times have changed – unlike our parents the Celtic Tiger generation actually lived through a decade of prosperity. They didn’t raise their kids to mix cement or waitress in Sydney, Toronto or London.

            That’s why change is inevitable. It will be an exciting year in Irish politics, though not a particularly happy one for the establishment parties.

Thursday 15 January 2015

Bob Dylan - the greatest artist?

            Is Bob Dylan the greatest artist of our time? 

Probably, if you use three recognized criteria: sustained creative brilliance, influence on others, and length of career. Oddly enough, his main challenger could well be Andy Warhol, not known for originality but whose concepts have inspired a myriad of cultural movement from Hip-Hop Music to Facebook.

From the start Dylan was like a sponge – appropriating influences across the spectrum from folkie Woody Guthrie to rocker Buddy Holly.

When he got to New York in 1961 he threw himself into the Folk renaissance and became friends with Liam Clancy from whom he learned Dominic Behan’s Patriot Game. Recognizing the song’s brilliance Dylan adopted its template for his own anti-war anthem, With God On Our Side. Luckily for him the aggrieved Behan had himself employed a traditional melody, The Merry Month of May. Dylan never made the same mistake again.

He found his own creative voice by spending months in the New York Public Library poring over every available newspaper of the American Civil War period - distilling not only subject matter but speech patterns and cultural trivia. He emerged poet laureate of the “old, weird America” as Greil Marcus termed it.

Despite huge success he totally cast aside the Woody Guthrie mantle by teaming up with members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band at the Newport Folk Festival in July 1965 thereby creating Folk-Rock.

However, no one was prepared for the sheer aural and lyrical brilliance of Like a Rolling Stone when it was released that same month and many of us have spent a lifetime aspiring to its standard. Back then “singles” clocked in well under the three minute mark, but Rolling Stone was over six – it even contained a number of “mistakes” with the inexperienced Al Kooper playing well behind the beat on the Hammond B3 organ.

Dylan didn’t care. A groundbreaking song demanded an innovative hook. He urged the producer to turn up the organ and changed the course of music.

I once had the same manager, Elliot Roberts, who assured me that “there is nobody quite like Bobby Dylan” – he cared nothing for critics or indeed anyone else. The man just liked to play, if he ran out of major markets look elsewhere; that’s how they came up with staging concerts in minor league baseball parks.

Dylan’s been an icon for over 50 years now but he reinvents himself often on a nightly basis. At a Radio City show I only recognized Like a Rolling Stone during the second chorus – and that’s a song I’ve performed hundreds of times.

Like another semi-recluse, Neil Young, Dylan is leery of mass exposure, valuing creativity before all else. At the height of his fame in 1966 he retired to Woodstock - sick of celebrity and being viewed as the new Jesus.

But even in the solitude of the Catskills he combined with The Band to produce musical magic as demonstrated by the recent release of the Full Basement Tapes. On even a cursory listen you can hear an artist delving into the weird music of America’s past as an impetus for a further creative jump forward.

I went to a Dylan show in Bridgeport last summer. I hadn’t seen him since the Radio City gig twenty years previously; I was probably one of the few people who enjoyed his performance.

He no longer plays guitar – apparently suffering from arthritic fingers – he ether sings out front or from behind a keyboard. He dressed like a 19th Century prairie preacher, never acknowledged the audience and performed few of his expected standards. Most songs appeared to be of a recent vintage – all showed flashes of brilliance.

I worked my way up to the front of the stage – not hard as many were drifting towards the exits. This didn’t seem to bother Bobby in the least. His band, as ever was great. And so was he.

As far as I know he didn’t perform Like A Rolling Stone, or perhaps he did; but it hardly mattered. He was still the man, challenging, shape shifting, forever the joker and the tramp. Go see him while you can – they don’t make the like of Bob Dylan any more.