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.