Monday 25 May 2020

The Man in the Wardrobe

My Uncle Paddy was a strange bird, even in the town of Wexford where there were many such characters.

I grew up with him in a big draughty barracks of a house within shouting distance of Selskar Abbey where King Henry II did penance for the murder of St. Thomas Beckett.

Perhaps the bitter ghost of auld Beckett affected us for Paddy and I were in constant warfare.

My grandfather, Thomas Hughes, ruled supreme in our household, likewise in the yard where he and Paddy made headstones. 

Miss Codd, a spinster, was our housekeeper; for most of her life she had performed the same duties for a saintly parish priest and was keenly aware of her precipitous drop in social status.

It was an uneasy household to say the least. My grandfather and Paddy didn’t speak because of some longstanding grievance. 

Add to that the many times Miss Codd wasn’t on speaking terms with any of us either. 

I was my grandfather’s confidant and his go-between to Paddy which gave me a certain amount of power, if not gravitas.

Paddy was a creature of habit and in his leisure time a sharp dresser. He left the house on the stroke of 9 every night for Joe Hearn’s pub where he drank four large bottles of Guinness; most nights he arrived home moments before midnight.

He wore his oldest suit to the yard, sometimes with loose patches on the seat of his pants. This bothered me greatly for as he lolled in front of the fire after work I often bore witness to the flesh of his rump.

One night, wholly as an experiment, I barely touched this unexposed flesh with the tip of the red-hot poker.

Paddy arose from his armchair in the manner of a Disney cartoon character. He turned in mid-air and sought to strangle me but I held him off with the poker – the smell of singed flesh wafting between us.

This, as you might imagine, did little for our relationship. But my story has more to do with Paddy’s momentous brush with the local constabulary over a licensing infringement in Joe Hearn’s.

Joe was a decent man who ran a good house. He was abstemious during regular hours but occasionally invited favored customers to “stay behind” while he locked up.

However, he lost the run of himself and began to hold these soirees more frequently, even worse he boasted about it and word got back to both the guards and the clergy that women too were known to “stay behind.”

It all came to a boil one Easter Sunday morning. The guards raided at the ungodly hour of 2am. Joe being three sheets to the wind refused them entry.

The guards waited patiently and Joe surrendered at 6:32am.

The People newspaper gave a detailed account of the court proceedings. Two of the women represented by legal counsel were “married,” Miss Codd noted, scandalized by such carryon in Catholic Wexford. 

Paddy too had his fifteen minutes of fame. As the revelers streamed out into the street roughly around the same time on Easter Sunday morning that Jesus had arisen from the dead, my uncle crept upstairs to Joe’s living quarters and hid in a wardrobe where he was eventually apprehended large bottle in hand.

The judge at the end of his tirade against the offenders demanded, “what about this man in the wardrobe?”

Paddy declared a truce with me over the poker incident and I was enlisted to apprehend the edition of the People that carried the court proceedings for fear my grandfather would disinherit him.

But Wexford was a small gossipy town and some weeks later my grandfather accosted Paddy behind closed doors; Miss Codd and I overheard bitter roars concerning “married women, “the priests AND the guards,” and “change your ways or take the emigrant boat to London!”

Paddy brooded by the fire for weeks for weeks after but he did change – at least his pub, from Joe Hearn’s to the more up-market lounge of the County Hotel where he continued to down his four large bottles nightly.

He did gain a certain notoriety in our town without pity, for I often heard people remark as he strode along the narrow streets, “There goes The Man in the Wardrobe.”

Monday 11 May 2020

Live Music in the wake of Covid-19

What kind of world will we inherit when Covid-19 is finally brought to heel? I’ve been asked this a number of times recently – in particular in relation to music, both its performance and the business.

Because those who look at a musician’s world from the outside often see it as vaguely glamorous and self-contained, they often miss how frequently it is impacted by world events.

Within a year of arrival in New York City Turner & Kirwan of Wexford had secured an album deal with Audio Fidelity Records and was enjoying considerable radio play with our first single, Neck & Neck.

Alas after the 1970’s Oil Embargo vinyl was rationed, whereupon our record company suspended operations and our dreams of stardom were put on ice.

Some years later Pierce Turner and I became the nucleus of the New Wave band, Major Thinkers. Our timing left much to be desired for in 1981 we began an Irish Tour in the midst of the Hunger Strikes, most gigs were cancelled and we limped back to New York penniless.

In our absence, however, a track of ours called Avenue B (is the place to be) had become a radio hit and we were signed to Epic Records.

We were on the pig’s back for the next few years touring the country with Cyndi Lauper and UB40; but unbeknownst to us large corporations were busy consolidating independent record companies and radio stations.

Progressive Radio died, and Major Thinkers became a minor casualty of this corporate takeover. 

The rise of Black 47 in the 1990’s has been well chronicled, however in retrospect much of it was fueled by our constant presence in the music and gossip columns of a thriving independent press. 

But this mighty industry was already being supplanted by the Internet and within 10 years few newspapers could turn a profit because of the availability of free news.

9/11 changed the world of music irrevocably. By the time New York City recovered 3 years later most Americans had curtailed their partying to weekends.

This wreaked havoc on national touring as a band driving from NYC to LA had to play at a loss on weekdays and hope to balance the budget with well paying weekend gigs.

Oddly enough Black 47 did well in the immediate post-9/11 years as we were regarded as “New York City’s house band” and greeted everywhere with open arms. This changed quickly in 2003 when we came out against the Iraq War. 

You get the picture – your simple rock & roller is forever at the mercy of world events.

So how will Covid-19 affect music and musicians?

Badly, I’m afraid. The very essence of live music is challenged. Social distancing will kill any kind of gig profitability, while band and audience must now consider the threat of mutual contagion.

Even with a vaccine we’re talking years until people feel safe again in confined spaces. But music is like water – it always finds its own level, and musicians are nothing if not innovative.

If you can’t go to the musician, then the musician must come to you. Take the large numbers who tuned into the recent Irish-American Heavy Meitheal Watch Party In Support Of Healthcare Workers.

Now I know none of the artists participating got into this business to perform for a camera lens. It’s a cold, distant medium but I enjoyed watching my New York peers, and I got to try out a new song for a large, if socially absent, audience.

If I were a young hopeful I’d be setting up a video studio, forming a band called Mask 47 and creating a sight and sound tailored for these dark days. Think Devo with a brogue!

But I have enough irons in the fire. A heads up for pub owners though – unlikely as it seems the humble seisiún is made for our strange new world. 

Point a camera at whatever corner Tony DeMarco, Mary Courtney, Chris Byrne or Margie Mulvihill are playing in, broadcast the session and I’ll be at home watching, pint in hand, enjoying the craic and slyly commenting on the “rare shtyle” of masks being flaunted nowadays. And the message? 

“We will come through this together
We will come through this stronger and better.”