Monday 25 January 2016

A Strange But Fascinating Race

           What a strange but fascinating race for the Republican presidential nomination this year.

            Whatever one thinks of Donald Trump’s candidacy there is little doubt but that he has turned this contest on its ear. Six months ago the cognoscenti were certain that he would have faded by now, and yet here he is as bold as brass and still the straw that’s stirring the drink, as Reggie Jackson might have put it.

            He may be the post-reality show candidate but he certainly reflects our times. Fascinated by power, riches, and celebrity, many are thrilled that he talks back to “the man;” especially when politically incorrect.

            Although he repels others with his outrageous statements he has obviously tapped into a national vein of discontent, particularly in the ranks of the Republican Party.

            I often wonder if he is for real or, like a gifted carnival barker, does he merely sense which way the wind is blowing? We’ll begin to find out on the night of Feb. 1st at the Iowa caucuses.

            Will Mr. Trump’s disaffected legions show their muscle and turn out? It’s one thing to pick up a phone and lambast some faceless pollster. Quite another to brave the Iowan winter on a freezing Monday night, stand before your neighbors,and declare your contrarian views.

            Much will depend on the weather. Should Mr. Trump’s troops confound the skeptics by caucusing en masse in sub-zero temperatures then he will have proved that he’s not just a curiosity candidate but a Huey Long who has correctly taken the pulse of America.

            He doesn’t even have to win Iowa just not lose in an embarrassing manner; victory will more than likely go to Senator Ted Cruz. No, the Kardashian candidate just has to demonstrate that celebrity and obnoxiousness can transfer into votes. For if a somewhat socially liberal New York Republican can insult a war hero like John McCain and still poll well in evangelical Iowa, there’s no limit to how he can do in the rest of the country.

            And what of Mr. Cruz? Despised by his senate colleagues he has gauged correctly that this lack of affection does him little harm nationally where DC power players have never been so unpopular. Oddly enough it’s rarely ever been harder to unseat a sitting member of congress – go figure. 

            Well, Senator Cruz has figured it out. God, money, and boundless ambition allied with a terrific work ethic will get you far in contemporary politics. Add the fact that he’s a great debater - although he does succumb to the occasional slip. Pledging to “carpet bomb” areas of Syria and Iraq so thoroughly that he’ll discover if “sand can glow in the dark” will hardly endear him to humanitarians around the world, let alone the citizens of those much blitzed countries.

            Make no mistake, though, this man has a distinct chance to go the whole way. We should be elated; after all, leaving aside Gov. Martin O’Malley, Senator Cruz would appear to be our most Irish-American candidate.

            And what of Senator Rubio? A couple of months ago his star seemed on the rise. He’s obviously a man in a hurry, unwilling to wait his turn and back his mentor and once close friend, Governor Jeb Bush. 

But is it just me or is there something insubstantial about the man, he brings to mind Madonna for some reason. Everything seems on the surface with him, especially as he pivots rightward to keep within an ass’s roar of Mr. Trump and Senator Cruz. 

            I will say that for sheer drama the Republican race leaves the Democratic one in the dust, although a win for Senator Sanders in Iowa would put the cat amongst the proverbial pigeons. Still, I feel certain that the surprises are far from over on the Republican side – never count out a Bush or a New Jersey governor. 

Eventually, however, the Republican establishment will settle on a candidate who will challenge the two brash outsiders, Trump and Cruz. Then what? 

With the South and evangelicals behind him, Senator Cruz could be the premier Irish-American candidate in 2016. The Lord save us, I suppose there’s an outside chance that we’ll find out if sand indeed can glow in the dark.

Thursday 14 January 2016

Van Morrison - The Mystic From The East

            Some fans call him “the Mystic from the East.” I’m talking Belfast, by the way – not some Himalayan Shangri-La.

Recently turned 70, Van Morrison is wary of such accolades and yet many feel that he is one of the great artists of the last hundred years.

            With James Brown and Bob Marley gone to the great soul house in the sky, Bob Dylan would appear to be Morrison’s only living musical peer.

            Both handily pass the “great artist qualifying tests” of singularity of vision and a voluminous body of groundbreaking successful work; in fact they share so many traits, obsessions, and dislikes as to make them seem like cosmic twins. But what really unites them is a fierce and unrelenting drive to create.

            Cosmically related or not, they have shared tours and stages frequently over the last fifty years and seem at the least to have a grudging admiration for each other.

            Both have little use for the press or publicity. While Dylan remains enigmatically aloof, the Belfast mystic has made it clear that he considers explanations about his art entirely superfluous, and that he despises the trappings and business of music.

            Some of this antipathy may date back to his teenage years when he was shamelessly ripped off by record and music publishing companies. Rumor has it that Bert Berns, legendary head of Bang Records and producer of much of Morrison’s early work, dropped dead after one of their rancorous phone calls.

            Dylan and Morrison share a deep personal connection to their music with little thought to commercial success. They have scant interest in contemporary social media and, indeed, at recent concerts I attended neither seemed to acknowledge the presence of the audience, much less tailor their set-lists to suit its tastes.

            Both come from fundamentalist backgrounds. Dylan’s family in Hibbing, Minnesota clung to its immigrant Jewish roots while Van’s mother was a seeker of divine inspiration in evangelical East Belfast.

            Infused with spirituality each man’s songs long for truth and ultimate peace. Luckily for us they rarely find either, and thus go on recording and performing. Dylan, in particular, is still out there on his endless tour, crisscrossing the country, delighting in visiting smaller markets where he loves to play minor league baseball parks.

            It was while on a visit to East Belfast, however, that I found the deepest link between them: their work is firmly rooted in place and time.

Dylan’s songs range all across the US on an eternal Highway 61 with mentions of Memphis, Nashville, New Orleans, and New York City among others.

            Van is much more firmly rooted in his hometown, in particular, the area around his parents’ house that he celebrated in one of his great tone poems.

            “On Hyndford Stree where you could feel the silence…
            As the wireless played Radio Luxembourg
            And the voices whispered across Beechie River…”

            Violet and George Morrison raised their only child in one of the old red-bricked terraced houses built for Belfast’s shipyard workers.

            Close by you can still see The Hollow referenced in his pop classic, Brown Eyed Girl, and the towering electric pylon that he mentions in various songs and introductions.

            It’s but a short walk from Hyndford Street to Cyprus Avenue – the names of both roads are employed as titles of Morrison classics - and yet there’s a wide sociological gulf in between. Van bridges it with his bluesy, moody treatments of both songs but you’re never less than aware of the class divide between his red-bricked working class street and the leafy avenue he was drawn to.

            That’s the genius of the Belfast mystic. In a couple of songs he can summon up his hometown to the outsider – its dour impenetrability as well as its worldly sophistication.

            Like James Joyce, Van had to go away to find home. Now that there’s relative peace in Belfast we can all visit the mystical claustrophobic “East” that spawned this great artist. We can also measure the reality against the images that we have constructed from his melodies and lyrics.

            Hallelujah that both Van Morrison and Bob Dylan, his American twin, are still out there yearning, learning, and supplying us with songs of innocence, passion, and truth.

Monday 4 January 2016

Wexford's Magical Main Street

            Wexford’s Main Street always looked majestic to me back then. Sure, I knew O’Connell Street left it in the ha’penny place but how often did I get to Dublin?

            The Main Street was particularly magical around Christmas when the shopkeepers strung lights like jungle vines across its narrow expanse.

            Everyone walked the town on those December evenings before television cast its spell over the country; in fact, you could say the Main Street was our interactive television. You were there to see and be seen.

You meandered from Selskar Abbey at one end up to the Capitol Cinema at the other, and back ad infinitum, stopping only to yell at friends or whistle at the convent girls.

            On weekend afternoons the country people would arrive in town. They had a different routine. The women would attend to their shopping while their menfolk waited for them in the few pubs where culchies were welcome. Everyone knew their place in Wexford and townies ruled their medieval streets with an iron fist.

            I was a rarity and mixed easily with both sides, for though I lived in the town my grandfather farmed a hundred of the finest acres a mile or so out.

            My father and grandfather were alike in many ways – independent men who didn’t take well to receiving orders. My grandfather, being well off, didn’t need to heed anyone; my father, being the eldest son, did.

            They rarely argued, in fact they didn’t speak much, until everything would come to a head. Then my father would storm out and return to his other more remunerative life as a merchant marine. With my grandfather getting on in years, however, there was always a need for my father to return, and being the loyal eldest son he’d put bygones behind him.

            My father was far from blameless for this state of affairs for he could never bring himself to ask for whatever money was his due. Pride, indeed, can cause all manner of heartbreak.

            I can still summon up the memory of that bicycle in Alfie Cadogan’s shop window. It was a lovely bright blue color and had cutting edge gears. I had tracked it patiently through the autumn and it was still there in mid December.

            I took a shot and requested it as a Christmas present though I knew it was far too expensive. We used to write letters to Santa Claus back then although I was having doubts about this old guy’s ability to negotiate the slated, sloping rooftops of Wexford town.

            I noticed the occasional anxious look on my father’s face as Christmas approached. He had been home for over a year and the tension between him and my grandfather was mounting by the day. I prayed there would be no explosion until after the holidays.

            My father seemed preoccupied that Christmas Eve when we walked downtown. However, he did stop outside Alfie Cadogan’s window and cast a wary glance at the brand new bicycle and its exorbitant price.

            “Is that it?” He inquired before throwing back his shoulders and entering the shop. Then began the haggling which was excruciatingly embarrassing to me; so much so that my father became impatient with my fidgeting and told me to go on about my business, and that he’d see me on the town later.

            He went to the pub instead and I slunk home to bed with all hope lost. On Christmas morning I tiptoed down the stairs dejected, but to my astonishment the beautiful blue bicycle stood gleaming beside the Christmas tree.

            I knew how scarce money was, but at that age you don’t ask questions. Years later my mother let slip that my father ate his pride, phoned my grandfather and demanded his monetary due.

            I don’t know if that was the cause but it all came to a head between them a couple of weeks later when my father stormed out and signed on a Blue Star vessel heading for South America.

They’re all long gone now but it’s a rare December I don’t think of that beautiful blue bicycle, my father and grandfather, and Christmas Eve on Wexford’s magical Main Street.