Monday 27 July 2015

Here's to The Catskills and O'Shea's Irish Center

            We were fired from The Casino on Cape Cod immediately after we stepped offstage. It came as a total surprise as we’d been hired for the summer and it wasn’t yet Memorial Day.

Not a good night for Turner & Kirwan of Wexford, we were flat broke, our money spent on immigration lawyers and a new van.

            After three nights of cadging drinks around Falmouth I called Mike O’Brien of the infamous Trinity Two - a mentor of sorts to us.

            “Fired again,” says he. “What did you do this time?”

            “Nothing, Mike, everyone loved us, honest to god!”

            “Oh yeah? Well, you’re in luck. The band here just got fired too, and the owners are looking for some bowsies who can make people dance.”

            “No better men,” I volunteered. “Where’s the gig and when do we start.”

            A man of few words, Mike rattled off, “O’Shea’s Resort, Leeds. Tonight!”

            “Where’s that?

            “The Catskills, buy a map. Be here no later than 7pm.”

            With that he hung up.

            Leeds was not as we expected. We sped through the village a number of times, eyes peeled for an Irish Grossinger’s replete with golf course and Olympic style swimming pool.

            Eventually we found the more utilitarian O’Shea’s Irish Center and thus began one of the great summers of my life. It didn’t start too auspiciously, for we knew none of the waltzes and foxtrots favored by the regulars. Luckily, a large group of young waiters from a nearby Italian resort dropped in and we bopped them ‘til they dropped.

            Within a week we were the toast of the town – such as it was – although I suspect people came as much to look as listen. I hadn’t shorn my hair or beard for over a year, and Turner’s cut was akin to David Cassidy’s on steroids.

            If we looked different, we fit right in as regards carousing, gambling, and all the other pastimes that back then attended the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. Though it was the mid-1970’s, that summer the 60’s hit Leeds with a bang.

            Not that Jerry and Mrs. O’Shea seemed to notice. What a lovely couple! Forty years out of Kerry and you could still cut their accents with a knife. Mrs. O’Shea’s specialty was a formidable meatloaf that she served with great regularity; perhaps more to the point she had a kind word for everyone’s hangover.

She did insist that all her staff take three communal meals a day; this caused no end of problems at the breakfast table as few had hit bed before dawn.

            Mr. Jerry O’Shea had been a boxer. His favorite pastime was to feint the unwary with a left hook, then hammer home a straight right to the shoulder that caused near paralysis. Needless to say, his staff was always on its toes.

            Down the street in Gilfeather’s Sligo Tavern, the late, lamented Joe Nellany held court. Joe may have occasionally played his accordion without a lit cigarette dangling from his lower lip, but never in my presence.

Gerry Finlay and Tommy Mulvihill, the soundest of musicians and gentlemen, were stalwarts in his Sligo Aces, while in nearby East Durham, Dermie Mac belted out rockers and, to our considerable chagrin, was adored by the ladies.

We spent our Mondays at the free concerts in Saratoga Springs or in Woodstock where one blessed night we sat next to members of The Band in Tinker Street Café.

            We wasted away steamy days in the river below O’Shea’s; it was on the nearby rocks I began my first novel – it was god-awful, but it hooked me on this writing business.

            The O’Sheas have long gone. But I bet there are many loyal Echo subscribers who remember them, for everyone in Leeds devoured this paper in those serene pre-internet days.

            Eventually, the summer ended and we all went our separate ways. I didn’t return until the 1990’s with Black 47. The world had changed immeasurably but everything in Leeds and East Durham seemed much the same. That’s the glory of the mountains – peace, continuity and simplicity.

            To everyone up there this summer, I wish you the best, and let’s raise a glass for those no longer with us. Here’s to the Catskills!

Monday 13 July 2015

A Great American

            I didn’t totally recognize the voice on the other end of the line but he laid straight into his subject.

            George Washington’s refusal to become king of the newly liberated American states is hardly is hardly an everyday topic; yet the speaker was utterly convinced of its relevance to the then ongoing Iraq War.

            I listened to the laconic, yet impassioned, voice for further clues. But it wasn’t until he inquired, “And how are you, Lang?” that I finally concluded that Pete Seeger had called me.

            I first met him in an era when one wrote letters. He had given me his phone number but I just couldn’t get my head around ringing the great man.

            In my best Christian Brothers’ handwriting the two “r’s” in my first name apparently resembled an “n” and so he called me Lang. After he’d done so a couple of times I couldn’t bring myself to correct his mistake; it would have been akin to lecturing Mount Rushmore.

            He pronounced my new name with a vaguely Scottish burr, so perhaps he thought I’d been named after Robbie Burns’ New Year’s Eve song. It caused many a raised eyebrow when he addressed me in public, but eventually I got used to it - the fact that he was talking to me at all was reason enough for celebration.  

And now, a quarter of a century after our last conversation he wanted my help in crafting a play about a meeting between General Washington and his officers where he declined their offer to declare himself head of state.

            Though the subject was gripping I could sense straight off that it presented problems. From what I knew, old George was already sick to the teeth of public life and wished for nothing more than to get home to Mount Vernon where he could murder pints of homemade dark porter. So where would the drama be?

            Pete swept this niggardly consideration aside.

            “Lang,” said he, “I’m not sure you understand the analogy. The great George Washington could innately understand the dangers of overstepping his mandate, but our current imperial president has no such qualms about dispatching our young people around the globe in wars of choice.”

            There was no two ways about it, Mr. Seeger had a point, and once he had the bit between his teeth, no president or congress would sway his views – let alone some trumped-up Wexford corner-boy.

            I could foresee many aggravated trips up to his house in Beacon and many sleepless nights as I strove to put the great man’s thoughts into a coherent dramatic form. And so we talked on for an hour or more until he had to leave for his ongoing protest against George Bush’s Folly. This consisted of Mr. Seeger standing at a rural crossroads bearing a banner denouncing the Iraq War.

            You had to hand it to him. He’d spent a lifetime in such pursuits and now in his 80’s he showed no signs of flagging. He expected no less of those around him.

He seemed unaware of, or impervious to, any kind of danger. I remember Turner & Kirwan of Wexford performing for him outdoors in Beacon in the 1970’s.

            The show was running an hour late and we were about to take the stage when the soundman declared that our set would be cut to 15 minutes. When we protested the gentleman informed us we could play as long as we liked but we would do so acoustically as the town was dangerous and he would be on the highway with the PA system before the sun went down.

            I looked out and there was Pete strolling around like a pied piper surrounded by the local urban youth. Color, creed, nor class meant little to him. He thought the best of everyone until proved otherwise. And so we played our full set regardless of the soundman’s protestations and everyone got home safe and satisfied.

            We never did get around to writing the Washington play but I often think of Pete when confronted by the demands of principle and pragmatism. What a privilege to have had dealings with someone who embodied so much of what’s great about America.