Friday 23 December 2016

Merry Christmas, Baby

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.

The Christmas Gig

Back in the Ireland of the 1970’s the Christmas gig was the highlight of the year. Any band with designs on “making it” had long ago headed to the UK; but homesickness was always a factor and what better way to ensure a Christmas dinner at home than to undertake an Irish tour in late December.

Rory Gallagher, Thin Lizzy and Horslips were the rockin’ Santas. Not only did they strut the boards in their hometowns they played the other major urban centers – including, to their credit, Belfast.
Talk about hitting a warzone! It’s sometimes easy to forget just how dangerous it was up North - as The Miami Showband tragically discovered in 1975.

Rory, in particular, played Belfast religiously. His following had always transcended sectarian divides, besides bassist, Gerry McAvoy, and drummer, Wilgar Campbell, were locals. 

But then Rory would have taken a gig at the gates of hell itself if the bread was decent – for he was a bluesman with a hellhound on his trail!

Rory meant a lot more than music to us. He was the best and what else did we have in Ireland back then? Joyce and Yeats, I suppose, but they were dead as doornails and it was hard to pump your fist in the air for Molly Bloom, or fight your way to the front of the stage to rhapsodize about “bee loud glades.”

But you could scream “Messin’ with the Kid” at the top of your lungs when Rory was leading you, and oh the whiskey-soaked paradise you entered when he shredded his sweat-stained Stratocaster during “Bullfrog Blues!”

Even Hendrix agreed with us – when asked what it was like to be the greatest blues guitarist in the world, the man from Seattle shrugged, “I don’t know, ask Rory Gallagher.”

Rory had a way of placing other artists in perspective. I once saw him open for Rod Stewart on Staten Island and Sir Roderick seem very common after the encounter. Don’t even ask how shabby a very stoned Aerosmith sounded in Central Park after the Corkman’s adrenalized set. It begs the question, why would anyone in their right mind have Rory open for them?

And yet despite all the foreign triumphs, there was nothing quite like Rory on his home turf for the Christmas gig. I was often home on vacation myself in those years, wondering if I could ever fit in again after the delights of New York City. Rory was like a bridge between these two very disparate worlds.

A magician onstage – he wielded that Strat like Merlin waving his wand.  For two solid hours of bluesy mania you could believe that anything was possible. There was a unity to the audience. We screamed in unholy unison when Rory taunted and teased his own particular demons, and we swayed in silence when his sultry guitar lines took us to places we only experienced at his shows.

Did he know the effect he was having on us? I often wondered. With his long hair flowing, the sweat streaking his face and axe, his faded blue denim jacket and red flannel shirt tossed and sometimes tattered, he seemed on a different plane.

Off stage he was polite and distant. He approached me once in Dublin’s Television Club. Shy and standing in the shadows I couldn’t believe it as he strolled across the dance-floor. 

“Any chance of a lift home?” He smiled.

“What?” Said I, only then realizing that he had mistaken me for some young fellow from Cork.

“Oh Jesus, I’m sorry.” He smiled again and turned away.

I watched him edge uneasily through the crowd. I felt like running after him and saying, “Yeah, no problem, man!” 

I was ready to run out onto Harcourt Street, break into a car, jump-start it and drive him home – to hell with the consequences! Instead I stood there paralyzed, rooted disconsolately to that sticky dance-floor.

I never go home for Christmas anymore. Too much has changed. I don’t even know if musicians do Christmas gigs any more. 

It doesn’t matter. I have the memories. Santa Claus knew what he was doing back then. Rory Gallagher’s Christmas gigs were gifts I’ll always treasure

Saturday 10 December 2016

Stardust and Shay (Healy)

When was the last time you heard a song that floored you? I’m not talking about a number that you instantly hum along with, or tap your foot to, but something that really touches you.

It’s a rare Van Morrison album that doesn’t provide one such song. Bob Marley had a way of melding rhythm, rhyme, and melody that could grip your soul; and back in the day Shane McGowan seemed to effortlessly stir the heart.

Because I produce and host Celtic Crush on SiriusXM I’m always on the lookout for great songs. You’d be surprised how rarely I find them. Don’t get me wrong: there are many good songs out there, but play them next to a great one and you instantly notice the difference. Because Howard Stern is down the corridor only dying to snare my listeners, I don’t have much use for the merely “good”.

So, I guess you could say I’m in the business of creating future classics. I also know when I’ve succeeded – or failed - because listeners all over North America aren’t shy in letting me know.

About a year ago I received an email containing an mp3 from an old friend. As I was reading his message I automatically clicked on the link. At first I barely noticed the song. But within 20 seconds I knew I had stumbled upon something wonderful. 

The voice was familiar although I hadn’t spoken to my friend in over 20 years. There was a physical weariness to it, however, that stopped me in my tracks, and yet the old ebullience and optimism was still there at the core. 

“When my life is over I’ll become a bit of stardust
Out there in the heavens out beyond the blue
And if you want to see me just look into the night sky
You will see me shining winking down at you…”

The arrangement was sparse, somewhat like a Billie Holliday torch song, it left acres of room for the singer to get his point across. The words grabbed me with their aching humanity; there was a message here that went beyond your normal pop song. It was about the fragility of life, and the singer’s awareness that he has learned something he’d love to pass on to the rest of us. 

“Stars were made for wishing so make your wish upon me
And I’ll do what I can to make your dreams come true
Dry away your tears now our souls go on forever
And maybe we will meet again when you become stardust too.”

There was a certain humility that you sometimes hear in a Sinatra song – particularly those the man from Hoboken recorded when reeling from the heartbreak of losing Ava Gardner. In Sinatra’s case, though, it’s the young stud realizing that he’ll never find a love like this again.

I can’t say for definite that the Parkinson’s that has afflicted Shay Healy has something to do with the wistfulness of When You Become Stardust Too, but I have no hesitation in saying that my old friend has written and performed a classic that will long outlast his very full and fulfilling life.

As the gripping trumpet solo brought the song near to an end I thought of many things: how African-American Jazz music has spread so effortlessly that an Irish muso can nail its essence as readily as any New Orleans aficionado.

I also remembered a Wexford adolescent buying New Spotlight Magazine to read about the Folk Scene in Dublin catalogued in such detail by Shay Healy, and later on meeting the man himself and getting his encouragement to begin my own musical journey.

That’s what a great song does to you. It provides wings and wheels to your own memories and imagination.

I played Stardust the following Sunday morning on Celtic Crush and the response was immediate. Listeners loved it and I’ve been playing it ever since. People write and tell me they listen to Shay’s song for inspiration, how it gets them through tough moments, and how they love to share it with others.

Thanks, Shay, you created a classic and we’re all the richer for it. Long may your stardust sparkle, old son!

Monday 28 November 2016

Four Hot Years Ahead

The subway train was eerily quiet on the day after the election. As usual my fellow travelers averted their gaze, but there was a certain wariness in the eyes of African-Americans that I hadn’t seen since the Giuliani mayoralty. 

I felt like shouting, “Hey, I didn’t vote for Trump.” But what was the point? Back in the day, I didn’t vote for Giuliani either.

On the other hand, congratulations, President-Elect Trump! You won fair and square, aided by Secretary Clinton’s spectacularly inept campaign.

Leaving aside her email server debacle, ceding the campaign trail to her opponent’s monster meetings, and employing a tone deaf, numbers-cruncher like Robby Mook as campaign manager was political suicide.

Sure, there was anger out in the hinterland that might have swept aside any Democrat this year. That anger will not dissipate under a Trump administration. Coalmines will not reopen due to the availability of cheap natural gas, and the industries that have moved overseas because of lower wages are gone forever. Capitalism, indeed, can be cruel.

A nod to the wise, if you were thinking of nailing down a mortgage or any kind of loan, move fast, interest rates are already rising.

President Trump intends increasing infrastructure spending to the tune of a trillion bucks. Hallelujah! Many of us have been urging such a move for years; however, the Republican controlled congress wouldn’t okay it for President Obama. 

One caveat - fiscal intervention seems to work best when used at the height of unemployment, with the debt repaid during the ensuing boom. But we are already down to 4.9% unemployment while this year’s third quarter boasted a not insignificant 2.9% in US economic growth.

Not to mention that the president-elect is also promising to cut taxes, particularly for the wealthy. These two initiatives combined will lead to a ballooning of the deficit and a consequent increase in interest rates. 

Still, the new president claims to the “the king of debt.” So, let’s hope he knows something we don’t.
Don’t get me wrong! I wish the man and his economic policies much success – we’re all in this together. It’s just that his agenda seems to be a recipe for a bracing increase in the cost of living.

Send millions of undocumented people south and you cut the workforce correspondingly. What native-born American is willing to step into the many poorly paid jobs that will be vacated? 

Dump the Affordable Care Act and health insurance costs will rise – assuming you can get insured in the first place; and forget about crossing state lines for your new inexpensive coverage – imagine showing your doctor’s receptionist your brand new Mississippi insurance card.

Of course we’re all to blame for not questioning Mr. Trump on the specifics of his policies during the campaign. Not that he would have answered – “kings of debt” rarely do – they renegotiate or declare bankruptcy.

I don’t doubt that income inequality and the loss of decent paying jobs fueled the pitchfork uprising that we just witnessed. Unfortunately, Mr. Trump’s policies will likely lead to more of the same, particularly if he gets into trade wars with China, Mexico, or God forbid, Pearl River.

I hope I’m wrong but inflation looms on the horizon. Mercifully we have been spared this specter over most of the Bush/Obama years. Once inflation rises it’s a tough nut to crack, as anyone who lived through the Carter years will remember.

Leaving aside economics, we should not forget that the genie of racism, anti-Semitism, and other taboos were deliberately uncorked during the election. It didn’t take a brain surgeon to notice that Mr. Trump did not disavow the despicable David Duke’s support until after some important Southern Republican primaries were won.

It’s hard to put that genie back in the bottle. This malignant and powerful little fellow was only too apparent on my subway train the morning after the election. 

The country has done major work banishing his like and influence over the last eight years. Let’s hope this genie does not become a major player in President-Elect Trump’s campaign to make America great again.

If so, we have a hot four years ahead of us.

Sunday 13 November 2016

Mary's Bar and the old spirit of Wexford Town

I can measure my life in terms of bars. They stretch across two continents: The Wren’s Nest in Wexford, The Hideaway in Rathmines, Tomorrow’s Lounge in Bay Ridge, Dirty Nelly’s and The Village Pub in The Bronx, Paddy Reilly’s, Rocky Sullivan’s and Connolly’s in Manhattan. 

I only have to hear these names and a host of smiling faces materializes, for we Irish treasure our pubs. When all else fails and the world doubts you, you’ll always find a welcome in your local.

In terms of longevity Mary’s Bar at the top of Wexford’s Cornmarket has a hold on me like no other. I was raised in nearby George’s Street and passed by its old style shop front most days of my youth. 

My grandfather, usually a teetotaler, drank there so I witnessed its once mysterious interior through a child’s eyes, the walls hung with pictures of Robert Emmet, Wolfe Tone and Padraig Pearse.

I didn’t realize it then, but I had stepped into a piece of history. The pub dates back to 1775; an “early house,” it opened at 7am for the Cornmarket workers, and those who unloaded the coal boats down on Wexford Quay. It closed at 3pm.

But then I walked amidst history every day while growing up in George’s Street. Nearby stood Selskar Abbey where Henry II did penance for the murder of Thomas a’Becket. While just down from Cornmarket, Cromwell’s roundheads slaughtered 300 women and children in the town square known as The Bull Ring.

If Mary’s Bar is festooned with rebel pictures there’s a reason. The Cornmarket area was a vital part of Wexford’s Free French Republic declared during the Uprising of 1798. Indeed the leaders of this rebellious secular state held a dinner to celebrate their declaration of independence in a “gentry house” on my own George’s Street.

Built at the same time, my grandfather’s old town house has long ago been converted into flats but the memories throb from within every time I pass by. The little houses on nearby Abbey Street have for the most part been demolished, but the far-flung residents and their children still return to Mary’s Bar.

I only go home now once a year and rarely stay more than a night. I do a concert in Wexford’s Arts Centre, formerly the Town Hall where I learned to play the guitar standing on one foot – the other was often needed to kick away Teddyboys as they fought in front of the bandstand.

I always go to Mary’s Bar after the gig and the smiles of welcome light up as I walk in the door. Catherine Kielty, the proprietor, will stop what she’s doing and give me a hug. It’s the welcome home that every emigrant craves. 

I never know whom I’ll meet: a school friend returned from England, an old girlfriend and her grown children. But ghosts crowd the place too, including my grandfather perched unsmiling on a stool – he found little joy in falling off the wagon. Turn quickly and I might catch Catherine’s father, Joss Kielty, beaming a welcome home from his corner.

I usually have a busload or two of Americans with me. I try to show them the hidden Ireland, untouched by tourists and, often, locals. Through such visits Mary’s has become known in the nooks and crannies of the US and Canada, and few people who have raised a glass there forget its honest charms.

For they recognize the uniqueness of the place. It’s not just a pub; it’s a portal to the past. There’s still a spirit there that speaks of a forgotten Ireland. 

I first heard “One Starry Night” sung on the pavement outside by an old traveler, and as a boy I followed Paddy “Pecker” Dunne into its smoky darkness, entranced by his songs and rugged independence.

Musicians always recognize the essence of the place, for you hear the same soulful echoes as in Tipitinas in New Orleans where Doctor John and Fats Domino presided.

Times have been tough on the old working-class pubs of Ireland. Customers move away or pass on. But Mary’s is more than a bar; it’s a site-specific, living museum that houses the old spirit of Wexford Town. Long may it prosper.

Thursday 3 November 2016

James Connolly forgive me - I'm voting conservative

            I’m voting conservative in this year’s presidential election.

            “What?” Says Yer Man up in Pearl River. “Where’s your James Connolly now?”

            I’m throwing in my lot with Hillary Clinton, even though I swore I’d never darken her door again after she voted to invade Iraq.

            Basically, Donald Trump scares the living daylights out of me. Now I won’t even get into his rooster ranting on the tape with Billy Bush. Anyone who has heard him on Howard Stern knows full well where he stands on such matters; besides, women are only dying to clean his clock on Nov. 8th.

            Mr. Trump claims there’s a media bias against him. Nothing could be further from the truth for he’s been given a free pass on his woeful economic and security policies this whole campaign. 

            I will say one thing for him – he does recognize that investing in infrastructure is vital for our changing economy. 

            If there’s one thing that the Great Recession has made clear – Keynesian economics works. When the economy stagnates it behooves the government to invest in it. Look at how quickly the US economy has recovered compared to the European model where austerity policies were favored.

            So is Mr. Trump a disciple of Keynes? Well, yes, in the sense that he believes in borrowing to promote growth – with the caveat that he prefers to renegotiate loans and has no problem in declaring bankruptcy.

            This would not be a prudent way to run the country, as was shown when the markets swooned on his suggestion that he would renegotiate federal loans; talk about delivering a Ringsend uppercut to US creditworthiness and the dollar.

            Worse still, he favors massive tax cuts that he claims would create a tidal wave of revenue. Bitter experience, however, suggests that this traditional Republican fiscal policy rarely works.

            No problem for Mr. Trump seeing that he doesn’t pay federal taxes anyway; but infrastructure spending plus massive tax cuts equals staggering deficits.

            Now it may seem that I often put undue emphasis on the health of financial markets, but collapsing stock prices are anathema to the many Americans dependent on 401(k) accounts for retirement. Be warned - the occasional time Mr. Trump’s poll numbers rise the markets correspondingly dive.

            Notwithstanding his threat of pitchfork revolution Wall Street does not fear reform under a Trump presidency; however it trembles at his general untrustworthiness and the likelihood that he might cause another “huge” recession.

            I share Wall Street’s pain – recessions are no fun.  So despite Iraq, emails and the hubris that swirls around the Clinton family I’m voting conservative. At least Mrs. Clinton is unlikely to declare bankruptcy and turn the US into another Atlantic City. 

            Let’s take a look at security, and making America great again. Is that code for invading other countries, blowing the hell out of their infrastructures, and then spending billions rebuilding – not to mention slaughtering and maiming their inhabitants?   
None of the last wars of choice have been successful. Raw power doesn’t do the trick any more, as was shown in Iraq where a $15 IED could blow up a $150K US Army Humvee. The world has become very complicated and interconnected; it has little tolerance for Mr. Trump’s bull in a china shop tactics.

            As for slapping tariffs on Mexico and China - be prepared for economic wars and the loss of millions of jobs. Also brace yourself for rising prices on imports that will lead to inflation, soaring interest rates, and another recession. Let’s not even revisit the ridiculous idea of a wall that Mexico will pay for.  

I suppose I should mention that Mr. Trump’s ongoing xenophobic and provocative statements have once again exposed the ugly seam of racism and know-nothing extremism that is only too willing to surface in times of national stress. 

But I’ve little doubt that once he has lost the election and his “brand” has suffered financially that a kinder, gentler Trump will re-emerge. Let’s hope his followers – many of whom have genuine grievances – will then see him for what he really is as the door slams behind him in his ivory New York tower.

            As for me, I’m voting conservative this year. I think the ghost of James Connolly will understand.

Sunday 30 October 2016

Yellow Moon v Polished Dust

           “Kirwan,” the old showband head addressed me.  “There are only two types of music, good and bad. Now step aside!”

            With that he belted into “Down By The Riverside,” and soon had the dance floor “black” with delighted jivers and quicksteppers who had been ominously absent during my previous pop meanderings.

            The head’s judgment may still stand but what would he think of today’s polished mediocrity? For with the advent of computer software even your Aunt Gerty can “make a record.”

            Not everyone, however, is a songwriter. That breed appears to come in two types: volcanic talents like Van Morrison or Brill Building types who master their craft after years of trial and error.

            In one of my other gigs I host Celtic Crush for SiriusXM. This entails a lot of listening – more like scratching around for diamonds in piles of polished dust. One thing you learn quickly on Satellite Radio - every song must be distinctive; with over 100 competing music channels, not to mention the lurking appeal of Howard Stern, each number must capture and hold the listener’s attention or else it’s “c u l8r.”

            Originality, unfortunately, is a rarity and though you may long for it like a cat in a tripe shop, you’re more often forced to settle for a dollop of emotion chiseled into some decent lyrics and arresting melodies. 

Shane McGowan still stands out for his ability to encapsulate the Irish soul – a rare diamond, indeed; and yet, I often rue the effect he’s had on Irish-American songwriting. While aping the man’s phrasing and subject matter can work on stage before a boozed-up audience, more often than not it comes off as parody in the recording studio. 

            Far better that Shane’s musical disciples mine his original sources - Brendan Behan, Irish showbands, London punk and Tipperary Trad. Channeling these through the prism of a unique creativity McGowan gave us The Pogues.

            Shane would be the first to note that there are still vast virgin tracts of the Irish Folk Tradition to draw from. Time to get cracking, Shaneheads! You have the chops - all you’re lacking is the material and that divine spark of originality necessary to ignite it.

            Which brings me to Yellow Moon. You might wonder what’s the connection between the Neville Brothers from New Orleans and anything remotely Irish? Oddly enough, quite a bit!

            Yellow Moon has long been one of my favorite albums but I hadn’t listened to it since the 90’s. Was I afraid it wouldn’t stand up – or perhaps I didn’t want to mess with the memory of sharing a stage with them some years back?

            Neville is a very popular name in my neck of the woods. Were the Brothers descended from long-ago Wexford emigrants or, as some of you are probably muttering, had their slave masters hailed from the Model County?

            Perhaps, both! When Black 47 first played Tipitinas in New Orleans’12th Ward we were treated like royalty by the city’s music lovers and local Irish-Americans.

            At the end of our “meet and greet” line stood a dozen or so of what I took to be African-Americans. Each one, however, exulted in trumpeting Irish surnames like Murphy and Doyle. They told me that their forefathers had come to Crescent City in the 1860’s to dig the canals and married “locally.”

            Yellow Moon not only stood up - it floored me all over again. Each song was a gem, from the title track to My Blood, from Rosa Parks to A Change Is Gonna Come. It’s the story of a people rooted in one of the world’s great musical melting pots. And, sure enough, beneath Daniel Lanois’ incandescent production, one can glimpse sparks of the Celt.

            Listen to Aaron Neville update Sean-Nós on Bob Dylan’s With God On Our Side – itself lifted from Dominic Behan’s Patriot Game - and you feel the ineffable pain of all the world’s dispossessed reclaiming their dignity.  
            Like much great art, Yellow Moon is timeless and self-reflecting. By flirting with perfection this album allows us to reflect on what we were when we first heard it, while revealing what we have become down the years in between.

            It’s a diamond that still sparkles; pulsing with raw humanity it helps us differentiate between genius, and the curse of mediocrity and parody. That’s no small thing in an age of polished dust.

Wednesday 19 October 2016

Malachy McCourt and Eugene O'Neill

            When I first called Malachy McCourt to inform him that he was the choice of the IAWA board to receive the 2016 Eugene O’Neill Award for Lifetime Achievement he laughed.

            It took a minute or so to persuade him I wasn’t joking. That’s our Mr. McCourt – unassuming, humorous and totally without pretension.

            Don’t get me wrong – the man is not without pride. Some would say not without arrogance too, though I feel they confuse that trait with his willingness to speak his mind, particularly on behalf of the less fortunate.

            But then he is a McCourt and that family has never been hesitant to lay it on the line. Malachy went a step further by embracing the public and political arenas.

            His life has been informed by his Limerick childhood. Unlike many he has been unwilling to turn the other cheek; he sees poverty for what it is – a grinding, debilitating, inhumane station.

            There’s little nobility in it – only shame. But if childhood poverty didn’t scar him it did leave a deep bruise that has led him to challenge the spiritual and political status quo both here and in Ireland. He’s never had time for those who insist that political change should come glacially, or that one should suffer here on earth in exchange for a mythical paradise in the hereafter.

            It has always been a joy – and sometimes a relief - to see him on the protest lines against the various US wars of choice of the last 40 years, or in support of the rights of political prisoners in Ireland.

            He has never been without humor, however. Once while unwisely singing Fixin’ To Die Rag at an anti-war rally in Woodside, Queens, a bottle came winging through the air.  

Malachy sauntered out on stage and in regal tones advised Turner & Kirwan of Wexford that “perhaps a strategic retreat is called for;” while we bolted back to the Lower East Side our tails between our legs.

            Like his brother Frank, Malachy left school at 13; that was the system in the Ireland of his youth: schooling is wasted on the poor, continuing education is for your betters. No wonder so many fled the country.

But Malachy never suffered from a lack of formal education for he had a love of books and a burning desire to distill what he read and pass it on.

            You can witness this at the many IAWA salons he attends. He is revered at these gatherings, not so much for what he does – although he is a mighty performer - but for the encouragement he gives the other writers and artists.

            Our goal at the salons - produced by IAWA treasurer, John Kearns - is to provide a safe space for both the experienced and the novice to air their new work. Each participant, well known or otherwise, is given the same time and attention.

            It’s a particular thrill to see someone read or perform for the first time and then bask in the hearty applause. There’s a spring to their step as they stride away from the podium and you know they’ll soon be back with more accomplished work.

We encourage everyone with a story, a song, or a dream, to become a member of the IAWA; it costs less than a buck a week. You never know - that carpenter in Queens who dabbles in plays could be the next O’Casey, or the homemaker in Staten Island with the store of scintillating stories may well be an Edna O’Brien in the making. We have a platform for everyone and admission is free for non-members.

The Eugene O’Neill Award night is our one fundraiser. All monies go towards funding salons around the country and supporting various causes, including The Frank McCourt Award, a financial prize to encourage young writers at the Frank McCourt High School in New York City.

On Monday, October 17th celebrities will rub shoulders with the lesser known at Rosie O’Grady’s Manhattan Club as we come together to honor a man who overcame so many odds to receive our lifetime achievement award. I have a feeling that the brooding spirit of Eugene O’Neill will not be displeased. Join us.

For information about IAWA visit

Sunday 25 September 2016

Nick Drake

 A friend first pointed it out to me in the 70’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 Saturday 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 20 September 2016

Robots, Candidates, and Bartenders

           One of the most striking things about the upcoming presidential election is how both candidates appear to be gazing in the rear view mirror rather than anticipating the problems barreling down the pike.

            That being said, it’s always hard to distinguish between what’s for voter consumption and what each candidate actually believes. Mr. Trump, in particular, is a master at blurring the lines between wishful thinking and bald reality.

            Consider his proposed wall and his conviction that Mexico will pay for its construction. My advice for him is to attend the Irish Rep’s upcoming production of Finian’s Rainbow; perhaps the Leprechaun will throw him a few wishes!

            However, it’s Mr. Trump’s pandering to the working class that is most troubling. His promise to bring back coal mining to West Virginia and other states is blatantly dishonest.
            Coal is dead! Not only is it one of the worst pollutants, there are now so many more economical and cleaner energy sources available. But even if the mines were to be reopened, the only way to make them profitable would be through automation - with a minimum amount of actual miners’ jobs.

            Secretary Clinton does have a plan to rescue the old coalmining communities.  It includes attracting high tech and biochemical industries, and retraining the miners to work in the new plants.

            But it’s too little – and far too late. The cost would be huge and there’s scant hope of an inert congress passing what amounts to an Appalachian Marshall Plan. It would appear that the Invasion of Iraq – which both candidates originally supported – was the last great American initiative.

            Beyond overuse of twitter and emails neither candidate seems to be aware of the effect digital technology is having on the economy. Even in the niche market of music so many people who once made decent livings are abandoning this once profitable business. 

What happened? Digital technology changed the mode of delivery, making record stores obsolete; piracy became rampant, and of late consumers have decided that it makes more sense to rent thousands of songs for $10 a month rather than buy a CD for the same price.

            It’s hardly the worst example though, for most musicians and music biz workers tend to be self-motivated; many have already adapted and are creating new jobs for themselves.

            Not so, miners! It’s a big leap from chipping away at a coal face hundreds of feet under the earth to grappling with an Excel spread sheet in a semi-automated office.

            It’s the lack of imagination from both candidates that troubles me most. For the real threat – industrial robotics - will undoubtedly strike in the coming years and lead to much redundancy and long term unemployment.

            You don’t have to be a weatherman to see this tsunami on the horizon. Isaac Azimov was predicting it back in the 1950’s.

            I recently re-read his Three Laws of Robotics. As ever, this Brooklyn born writer/savant was on the money – apart from one small detail; his robots had designs on world domination, ours merely want our jobs.

            What will we do in this brave new world that’s darkening our horizon? Take the A train out to Rockaway every morning and watch the sunrise? But who’ll pay the rent and cable?

            Uber won’t want us because the damned robots will come with built in GPS. And do you really think that the corporate whizzes at Amazon will prefer a whining human over a silent machine that can cheerfully pack boxes until the cows come home?

            So maybe the Donald and the Hillary know exactly what they’re doing – deal with the dead and dull past rather than confront the uncomfortable future. Most of us will never even meet a miner, let alone attempt to retrain him for a career in biogenetics. And in the end, they say that a discouraged Azimov abandoned science fiction for the certainties of Shakespeare.

            You have to wonder though, given the seeming intractability of future problems, why would either of these candidates wish to be president?

            Ah well, that’s their problem. Time for the pub; at least I’ll never have to worry about a robot replacing my favorite bartender. Or will I?

Thursday 8 September 2016

Paris v New York City?

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
                                                                                    Ernest Hemingway

            I don’t doubt it for a minute, Hem, but I’d stack New York City up against the City of Light any old day of the week, particularly in the wild and wooly 1970’s through the mid 1980’s.

            Not only was New York pulsing with exhilaration, you could have the time of your life for little or no money.

            That’s not to say that present day Gotham hasn’t got its charms, you just have to spend so much time working it’s hard to find time to actually enjoy the place.

            Of course, each generation makes its own terms with New York, but I have to say that mine got one hell of a bargain.

            When I first arrived the city was reeling from debt and crime, and revolution was in the air. The Vietnam War was still in full swing, and everyone seemed to be protesting it.

            Greenwich Village might have seen better days but the nights were electric. Black Panthers, Young Lords, Vietnam Vets Against The War, Official and Provisional IRA, gays, feminists, and every liberation movement worth its salt milled around the storied streets fueled by cheap booze and marijuana.

            Most rented dirt-cheap, bath-in-the-kitchen apartments in the Far East Village and mooned around Tompkins Square Park by day. There were few bars east of Second Avenue back then, apart from some Ukrainian shot and beer joints that tended to be off limits to those of us with anything longer than a short back and sides.

            Who cared, you could pick up a six-pack for $3, and from a comfortable stoop watch the world saunter by. The streets were full of action. Buskers played everywhere, and street theatre flourished, though it was often difficult to differentiate actors from audience.

            Theatre itself tended towards the surreal and fantastical, for realism onstage seemed phony when compared to the actual drama on the street.

            A junky once stuck an 18” bayonet in my throat whilst I was taking my evening constitutional in Tomkins Square. Nothing out of the ordinary, the real crux was how did I give him my few dollars without putting my hand in my pocket – which he explicitly warned me not to do for fear I would produce some weapon of my own.

            It was a rare apartment that cost more than $200 a month – my least expensive went for $95 – eat your hearts out, millennials! I did, however, get cleaned out in my first week – but at least I wasn’t home to upset the burglars.

            Turner & Kirwan of Wexford were perhaps the first band to play CBGB’s but The Bowery was so dangerous few of our following attended; after a couple of weeks we quit our residency and went home on vacation. A bad career move! When we returned Patti Smith had turned the barren bluegrass pub into the Mecca of Punk.

            Despite our disloyalty Hilly Crystal, the owner, still allowed Pierce Turner and me free entry. Thus I saw The Ramones on their first appearance. The English bartender confided that they seemed like fascist thugs in their black leather jackets and torn jeans. He obviously had never met any nice Jewish boys from Queens.

            After a somewhat bizarre on-stage performance Hilly banned me from the club – I may have been the only one to suffer such censure. I was never, however, 86’d from Malachy McCourt’s Bells of Hell, since I took care never to break the one house rule – Thou shalt not bore thy neighbor.

            But since Turner & Kirwan were the house band I drank free there most nights of the week – probably one of the reasons Malachy is no longer in the bar business.

            These salad days came to an end during Ronald Regan’s Morning in America. Rents were raised, Yuppies arrived, and something ineffable departed.

            Ah yes, Mr. Hemingway, I bet Paris was a hoot but I can’t imagine it held a candle to New York. For what’s a stroll by the Seine compared to being the only one banned from CBGB’s?

Sunday 21 August 2016

Fanatic Hearts

   So you wanta be a rock & roll star, or an actor in your own movie? Best thing to do is gather some like-minded ne’er-do-wells, head to The Bronx, and 25 years later the rest will be history!

   That was my immediate reaction after watching an “almost-final cut” of Fanatic Heart, a movie by Vic Zimet and Stephanie Silber, devoted to the music and general shenanigans of yours truly and Black 47.

   19 years ago without a whit of thought, I gave permission to Vic and Stef to become flies on the wall in the rambunctious life and times of “the house band of New York City.”

   They produced a number of official Black 47 DVDs but all the time they were quietly filming hours of material about a band that had no shortage of drama, success and debacle.

   It’s a brutally honest depiction. Laid bare are the excitement, tedium, musicianship, boozing, triumphs, disasters, drive, and devotion of a band that rarely rehearsed but delivered on stage.

   The camera is unsparing as it chronicles a riotous and righteous journey that began in the bars of The Bronx’s Bainbridge Avenue and ended in BB King’s on Manhattan’s Forty-Deuce. There’s no make-up artist present, no remedial paint or powder, just the rawness of passing time taking its toll. And yet the same fist-in-the-air defiance is as evident at the end as the beginning.

   None of it was faked. We were a New York Irish band with attitude. Right from the start if asked to play a U2 song, my standard response was, “next time you hear Bono sing a Black 47 song we’ll cover one of theirs.”

   Fanatic Heart pulses with the joy of musicians thrilled to be adding to the creative mosaic of the city of Lou Reed and Walt Whitman; and that thrill was curried by the delight of a loyal audience that would have followed us to hell – some unfortunately did!

   But it’s the sweat-stained exultant faces of the fans that move me most. Some are still friends, others have sadly departed; at the screening people broke into spontaneous applause as Phyllis Kronhaus RIP, our first merch seller, expounded on our perennially strong Jewish following in her inimitable New Yawk accent.

   I mentally trembled as the first shots of our riotous 2003 Irish Tour streaked across the screen. Ah well, what’s a little nudity among friends; this is a movie about a rock & roll band, not The Legion of Mary!

   But then there’s footage inside Kilmainham Jail and West Belfast, and compelling performances of signature songs like James Connolly, Bobby Sands MP, and The Big Fellah, and you get an inkling of what made Black 47 tick – the core principles of civil rights and human dignity fueled by an unflinching desire to do things our way.

   Many of our supporters would have been happy if we’d dealt only with Irish politics. But perhaps our finest hour was outright rejection of the Iraq War while at the same time supporting those who fought it on our behalf. This stand cost us dearly but was there any other choice for a political band?

   In fact Fanatic Heart makes clear why we never achieved the super-stardom so often predicted for us in our early years. We just weren’t cut out to be “the next U2” - too ornery, too pointedly political, too focused on the new song to be bothered polishing old favorites – we never repeated a set in almost 2500 gigs. Nor did we spend the requisite time kissing the correct posteriors. But what a blast we had!

   How interesting too to watch our beloved New York City transform over the 25 years from $2 a pint Recession Wednesdays in Paddy Reilly’s - where Joe Strummer, Neil Young & Brooke Shields rubbed shoulders with cops, firemen, nurses and nannies - to the current Disneyfied hollowness of Times Square.

   The movie is completed but Vic and Stef must now raise a modest sum to fund post-production. There are many inexpensive ways of getting involved through Indiegogo. Visit for information and to see out-takes and scenes from Fanatic Heart.

   You never know, it might inspire you to form a band, head to The Bronx and begin your own rock & roll journey.

Sunday 14 August 2016

Showbands Forever

   I was talking about Irish showbands on Celtic Crush - my SiriusXM show - recently when I realized I’d never actually played a track by these oft-maligned musical outfits.

   So, off with me to iTunes where I found Irish Showands – The Hits Collection – 50 tracks from greats such as The Royal, The Miami, The Capitol, The Dixies, all the way down to unknowns the like of Trevor Kelly and the Galaxy, and The Epic.

   Showbands ruled the roost in Irish entertainment from the mid-1950’s until the massacre of The Miami Showband outside Newry in 1975. 

    They had a distinctive sound, for they sported a brass section of sax, trombone and trumpet. Since brass was not called for in many songs, it was incumbent upon the section to dance – or at least move in time – hence was born the showband shuffle.

   A raw teenager, I entered the showband ranks towards the end of their reign - recruited by Johnny Reck, a legend in Wexford musical circles. He had observed me playing a pub gig and invited me to become his bassist with the following confidence-building line, “Six strings seem to be a bit beyond you – let’s start you out on four!”

    The other members – a surly bunch somewhat taken with alcohol – were even less impressed; but no matter, there was a shortage of singers and I was hot to trot. As was my friend, Pierce Turner, who joined soon after.

   We were on the far side of atrocious, but Johnny was a nimble thinker for we played under many names including The Liars, The Palladium, and the Johnny Reck Showband to prevent instant identification.

   We did have a bit of a following around Wexford Town with the hip, the hearing-challenged, and rival gangs of teenage psychos. ‘Twas in this band I learned to play standing on one foot while kicking out at combatants sent sprawling onto the stage. This skill would later serve me well in CBGB’s and various drinking emporiums on Bainbridge Avenue.

   At first my teenage girlfriend refused to attend our dances for as she put it, “you’re feckin’ awful, and besides your crowd is fierce rough.”

   She changed her tune soon though, for Johnny had a brainwave: he got the band members to join the Musicians Union of Ireland. Then he contacted all the local big ballrooms and informed the promoters that he’d shut them down if they failed to hire union members for the warm-up band slot.

   We were suddenly catapulted into greatness. From local buckets-of-blood we ascended the majestic stage of Wexford’s Parish Hall, and similar venues.

   We had not, however, improved musically. Most of the starring bands were decent about this but Ben Dolan of the Drifters took grave exception. He basically agreed with my girlfriend’s evaluation of our talents, but his language was far more pointed and profane.

   Not that it mattered for Wexford was a pro-union town – like the revered Larkin and Connolly we were loyal union members and had to be hired.

   Ben’s brother, the mighty Joe Dolan, said little but occasionally he’d sneak into the wings to observe us, for what Turner and I lacked in musical sophistication we made up for in sheer gusto. Chords, harmonies, lyrics, mattered little to us – we were striving for Wexford originality – even if we weren’t quite sure what such a thing might be.

   For about a year we opened for all the big names – we even started to improve - slightly.

   Then catastrophe struck: we were expelled from the union for failing to attend the annual mass for deceased members! To add insult to injury, my girlfriend ditched me for an artificial insemination inspector; so I resigned from Johnny’s band of many names and moved to Dublin.

   I’ve been moving ever since. But one night recently after a couple of drinks I downloaded Irish Showbands – The Hits Collection and turned up the volume full blast.

   I then resurrected my showband shuffle and danced solo to The Royal, The Freshmen, The Pacific, The Dixies, and The Mighty Avons; and for a sweaty hour I was back in my glory nights in Wexford’s Parish Hall with Joe Dolan smiling enigmatically at me from the wings.