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?