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.