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.