Monday 23 December 2019

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 plus 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.

Hollywood Here I Come

I once woke up outside Bakersfield hungover and disoriented. I should have known exactly where we were as hometown hero Merle Haggard had just come on the car radio. 

We had intended to visit LA but the back seat of our car went on fire somewhere in the Mojave Desert so instead we pressed on for our ultimate destination, San Francisco.

If that all sounds a little vague, that was the mood back in the GPS-less mid-70’s whilst doing one’s obligatory Keroauc On The Road trip from Brooklyn to the Wild West.

My friend, Bob Schwenk and I had contracted to drive a brand new Audi to the City on the Bay for a very unlucky stockbroker who was relocating there. 

We hit black ice some hours out of NYC, barely missed a state trooper and collided with a jackknifed truck on Route 80.

After managing to beat a reckless driving charge, a very large auto mechanic stood on the hood of the brand new Audi with a sledgehammer and beat it back into some kind of shape, then bound it with a huge metal chain and off we went. 

Let’s just say it was not a happy day for the stockbroker when we chugged down the driveway of his lovely Mill Valley residence.

I did finally make it to LA in some triumph in the early 90’s when Black 47 was the next big thing. 

Funky Ceilí had just been deemed the most played song on Alternative Radio when EMI Records flew Chris Byrne and yours truly out to do two solid 10-hour days of radio interviews. 

Now anyone can have a great time talking about themselves for an hour or so, but try doing it 10-hours straight two days in a row! It literally drove us to drink, not an unknown destination in those years.

Soon thereafter, the whole band and crew were flown out to do the Jay Leno Show. What an hilarious, salty guy – offstage - and then so staid the minute the cameras rolled!

I didn’t care, George Foreman was also a guest and being a boxing fanatic I couldn’t believe I was shaking hands with the man. His hands, by the way, were incredulously large and soft.

Hollywood was like a dream, but then Elliot Roberts was our manager and Elliot knew everyone – from the busboys all the way up to God. He never introduced me to God but just about everyone else.

Speaking of God, Black 47 always stayed at the Continental Hyatt (Riot House) on Sunset Boulevard, wherein lived Little Richard. At that time he was the self proclaimed King - and Queen - of Rock & Roll.  

Imagine a punk kid from Wexford hanging with this jewel-bedecked legend packing a large bible under his arm. 

He appeared to be preaching a mixture of fundamentalist Southern Christianity and equal opportunity sexuality – a lethal combination.

One of the Black 47 members after encountering him in the elevator famously noted, “I didn’t know whether he wanted to save me or… (I’ll leave it to your imagination.)

Ah, there was nothing quite like the dying days of Rock & Roll hedonism on Sunset Boulevard when men were men and sheep were nervous.

Hollywood was the land of opportunity. I got a call one day from a Vice-President of Fox TV wishing to buy the rights of Liverpool Fantasy, a play I’d written about The Beatles – if they hadn’t made it.

I made a huge mistake by asking Elliot Roberts to negotiate the deal. Elliot, without ever reading the play, stated straight out to the Vice-President that Liverpool Fantasy was a big-screen movie and that we were merely dropping by as a courtesy while on our way to gather offers from the major studios.

The Fox guy offered 50 grand on the spot as a good faith payment with more to come and a definite shooting schedule.

We passed. That was Southern California for you – the golden land of missed opportunity.

But hey, I’m ready for another shot. I just need to find a brand new Audi drive away and locate my well-thumbed copy of On The Road.

With a GPS this time there’ll be no stopping me. Hollywood, here I come!

Sunday 15 December 2019

Gay Byrne - The Man Who Rocked Our World

Sive, a play written by John B. Keane, caused a sensation in Wexford Parish Hall in early 1962. Its subject was illegitimacy.

Up until then this matter was spoken of in whispers, though God knows it was common enough given that contraception was banned by both church and state.

There were three main outcomes for pregnancies among the unwed in Wexford: the couple got married in a hurry, the lady went to England and returned without the baby after a seemly time, or the man absconded leaving the lady, and eventually the baby, in the lurch.

Anti-contraception laws were not fully amended until 1985 and yet in 1962 Ireland began to experience great social change due to the introduction of the Late Late Show on RTE-TV. 

The host was Gabriel Mary Byrne. Always recognized as Ireland’s most influential broadcaster, there are those who believe “Gay” singlehandedly dragged the country into the 20th Century.

From this vantage point it’s almost hard to imagine just how socially backward and repressive Ireland was on July 5, 1962 when the Late Late Show debuted.

Almost immediately Gay Byrne did something revolutionary. He got Irish people to talk about themselves and their experiences, thereby shining a light into all the dark places that existed in a Catholic theocracy.

Emigration, as you might imagine, had much to do with Ireland’s backwardness and social problems. From the time of the Great Hunger in the 1840’s people had been streaming out of the country. 

“The best left” was a common saying – after all, they were the ones with the get-up-and-go attitude.

There was a moment during the War of Independence (1919-1921) when things might have changed, then Michael Collins was killed, and much of the Republican leadership was annihilated during the ensuing Civil War.

The pro-Treaty conservative forces allied with the Catholic Church took control of the country and people either buckled under the new regime or emigrated. 

Forty years later Gay Byrne drew back the curtains on Irish life and within months the country came to a halt for the duration of his Saturday night show. 

It was television at its best and you dared not miss it, for you were never sure what taboo subject might arise. But right from the start guests began to question the right of the Catholic Church to run the country.

A silence would descend on those watching. It was as if President Éamon de Valera or Archbishop John Charles McQuaid might come hurtling through the television screen and demand that you drop to your knees and recite the rosary for merely entertaining such blasphemous thoughts.

You can’t believe just how refreshing it was to hear people finally speak their minds on a public forum. 

Conservatives had their say too. Oliver Flanagan TD famously informed Gay that, “there was no sex in Ireland until television came along.”

On the contrary it seemed like everyone was at it around the clock, including the Bishop of Kerry, Eamonn Casey, and the singing priest, Fr. Michael Cleary, both of whom had children out of wedlock.

Eventually the show would broach such thorny subjects as divorce, homosexuality, abortion, censorship, and other issues that had been consigned to dark corners.

Gay was more popular with women than men. My father thought he was “smarmy,” and he did have a very smooth delivery. He was definitely unafraid to show the female side of his character, something that was anathema to most Irish men of the time.

Probably for the same reason, my mother and countless other Irish women adored him.

I got a look at Gay Byrne up close when Black 47 appeared on The Late Late in 1996. He was relaxed, welcoming, and totally in control. It was like stepping into someone’s warm parlor and having a chat.

How did he compare to American late night hosts? 

From my own perspective as either a guest or performer on Leno, Letterman, O’Brien, Fallon and Maher, he was as good or better than any of them.

He had the intelligence and acuity of Letterman and Maher, the warmth and comedic chops of Leno, O’Brien and Fallon. 

But unlike his American peers, Gay Byrne actually changed his country for the better, and for that we’ll always be grateful.

Sunday 1 December 2019

Charles Stewart Parnell and Wexford Quare Wans!

A girl from Liverpool once told me I was “smashing.” It was probably the best compliment I’ve ever received, coming as it did with a Beatles accent.

She definitely had more than a couple of drinks taken but what matter? How many compliments does a man get in the dreary daylight hours of sobriety?

Nowadays there are only two compliment choices - you’re either “hot” or more likely you’re not – “smashing” only applies to atoms and pumpkins.

Words are indeed on the decline. Some feel that President Trump got elected because his vocabulary doesn’t make the less loquacious feel inadequate. 

“Great,” “sad,” bad,” “perfect” do the trick – and who can argue, after all he’s the president and we’re not!

He’d never get elected in Wexford – you can bet the Bull Ring on that, hon - for the vocabulary back home is ever mutating and takes skill to deploy.

For over two thousand years Wexford has been sacked and settled by all manner of bowsies from Celts to Vikings, Normans to Limeys and returned Yanks.

No joke, but it gave us our own language – Yola – a mix of Middle English, Gaelic, and French, with smatterings of Saxon, Hessian, and Dutch – double and otherwise. 

When these invaders weren’t raping and pillaging down our narrow streets they were adding their linguistic licks to our arcane dialect, Wexford “shpake.”

Here’s a gentle introduction: a gentleman describing the looks of a lady might describe her thus: “She’s the real segocia, I’m not coddin’ yeh, boy, and not hard to look at either!”

Whereas a lady of my acquaintance upon being accused of fluttering her eyelids at a local Lothario was heard to declare, “If he was the last creatúr this side of the cyrpt, I wouldn’t ride him for the exercise!”

Words have always mattered in Wexford. When Charles Stewart Parnell gave a speech at the Imperial Hotel in October 1881 he was promptly accused of “seditious language” and deposited in Kilmainham Gaol.

His crime - denouncing Prime Minister Gladstone as a “a masquerading knight errant, the pretending champion of the rights of every other nation except those of the Irish nation.” (Try that line on your base, Mr. Trump!)

Whereupon, a Wexican hard chaw was heard to retort, “Divil a word of sedition did the man utter! Sure wasn’t he only actin’ the gatch.” (the clown)

As one approached puberty you had to delve even deeper into “Wexican shpake” to figure out the birds and the bees. What would you say this following statement meant?

“Did you get a gander at the quare wan from the Red City and her skidaddlin’ off to the Harbour bundled up to her tonsils on the lethalest day of the year?”

Well, simply put, this is a coded reference to a young unmarried lady from the Maudlintown area seen leaving for Rosslare Harbour to take the ferry to the UK while wearing a long coat to hide the evidence of her pregnancy on the hottest day of the year.

Ah now, “family way” used to be the great Wexford gossip item, and yet notice that even in our barbarous past the unfortunate lady was not named. 

With no contraception available “quare wans” (queer ones) were ubiquitous back then, but if you were of a charitable nature you could let matters rest and inquire no further into the lady’s identity.

Alas, all in the past, for on a recent visit I heard an auld wan comment on the current crop of unmarried pregnant girls: “Sure dem young hussies do be going around as brazen as brass monkeys, they’d do anything for a medical card!”

Take note of the “do be going around” for in Wexford we’ve always put great store in the continuous present tense and lament that proper English do be wanting in that department.

Americans, however, do be very welcome in our metropolis, for as Wexicans fondly note, “Sure didn’t we give yez John Barry, John F. Kennedy and ran Kirwan the hell out of here to New York!”

But always remember, the past is ever present in the old town, and the present is beyond active, and there’s often more to Wexican shpake than meets the eye – or the ear. And whatever you do, don’t go drinking with quare wans!