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!