Friday, 10 September 2021

Remember The Lost - Commemorate The Survivors

I was checking the Mets box score when the plane thundered overhead. I slammed my forehead onto the table, certain my building would be hit. Moments later there was a thud in the distance, not unlike a giant sledgehammer striking concrete.


Counting my blessings, I rushed up to the roof and beheld an unforgettable sight – an airliner jammed into the upper floors of the North Tower, with tongues of flame darting out of thick black plumes of smoke.


The world changed that morning and New York City went into a tailspin. The once throbbing streets of Midtown were deserted - who knew what skyscraper would be the next target?


There was a need for normalcy, but what was normal anymore?


Well, for the “house band of New York City” it was simple enough. If we weren’t on the road Black 47 played Saturday nights at Connolly’s of 45th Street.


Talk about intense gigs! I can still feel the early aching chill that in the course of the night would morph into emotional abandon.


Many in those full houses were first responders who had come up from the pit, eager for drink, company, and some manner of release. But not for a moment were any of us unaware of what we were trying to escape.


Many who had been in the vicinity of the Towers were still deemed “missing” – their pictures, accompanied by scrawled notes seeking information, littered the railings of St. Paul’s Chapel on Broadway.


And every time Connolly’s door opened heads swung round and people rushed over to hug someone else who had survived.


And the talk would be, “John made it out,” or “Mary hadn’t gone into Cantor Fitzgerald that day.”

But after a month of such Saturdays it became obvious we’d never again see Michael, Michelle or the many others whose names we never knew.


That was the genesis of Rockaway Blue – to tell the story of the regular New Yorkers who hadn’t survived, and to commemorate those who had.


Even on those early blistering Saturdays their story was already being highjacked by the politicians, the media, and the barstool patriots who would lead us into their disastrous wars of choice.


Left behind in the dust and rubble of downtown were the stories of John and Mary, Michael and Michelle.


It should have been an easy enough task. I had the lives of friends like Richie Muldowney FDNY and Father Michael Judge OFM to draw on, and God knows there are so many broken hearts still desperately holding on to the fading essence of those they lost.


But for a long time the task was beyond me. Black 47 gave its all with the New York Town album, that contained Mychal and Orphan of the Storm, songs that captured some spark of those who didn’t make it out alive.


But that was only half the story. What of those who had no choice but to pick up the pieces and carry on?


And so I turned to playwriting. And in The Heart Has a Mind of its Own, I created the Murphys of Rockaway Beach who lost their son, Lt. Brian Murphy NYPD, on the fateful day.


But though audiences liked the play I knew I’d blown it – I hadn’t come to terms with the complexity of Brian’s father, Det. Sgt. Jimmy Murphy, and the difficult relationship he’d had with his son.


And so I let the story rest but the memory of those galvanic September Saturday nights wouldn’t let go.


Finally I set the story in novel form, and it began to work because I could delve deeper into the characters of the Murphys, their stoic heroism, but also their human flaws and fractured relationships.


Years of frustration followed, flinging one draft after another at the wall, until one dark night I discovered that the story wasn’t working because I had made Brian’s mother a victim.


Despite all she had gone through Maggie Murphy still needed to rekindle the faith and love that might save her marriage.


And with that, Rockaway Blue finally knit together and became what it was always meant to be – the story of the regular New Yorkers who sacrificed so much, yet came through the tragedy of 9/11.

Friday, 27 August 2021

A "What If" Presidency?

I’ve always been interested in political history, particularly when an interesting or controversial character is involved.

 

Michael Collins and Dr. Noel Browne jump to mind from an Irish perspective, Franklin Roosevelt and Robert Kennedy from an American one.

 

Browne and Roosevelt left indelible marks on their countries – one banished TB, the other gave hope and sustenance to millions during the Great Depression. 

 

Meanwhile, Collins and Kennedy still shine like beacons from the past, particularly because of the “what if” aspect to both their careers.

 

For better or for worse, Donald J. Trump has dominated our era of political affairs.

 

I never liked the man; still, back in the 70’s and 80’s he had a certain buffoonish cachet, courtesy of his self-promoting high jinks lovingly detailed by Page 6 of The Post.

 

But his true colors surfaced in 1989 during the brouhaha regarding capital punishment for the Central Park Five. These unjustly sentenced young African-American men were later released from prison, but Mr. Trump’s inflammatory newspaper advertisements showed the depths to which he would sink to promote himself.

 

His march to the presidency in 2016 was both uproarious and Napoleonic. He demolished the competing Republicans, and then defeated the accomplished Hillary Clinton – though not by popular vote. 

 

After four years of his “presidency by tweet” I was relieved when Joseph Biden beat him in both Electoral College and popular votes.

 

I had been prepared for Mr. Trump’s sore loser shtick; after all he had declared early on, “the only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election has been rigged.”  But I figured he would eventually fade away into the manicured golf links of Mar-a-Lago.

 

I reckoned that gigantic egos such as Cruz, Cotton, Rubio and DeSantis would chip away at his Republican Party hegemony.

 

Alas, the principled party of Lincoln and Eisenhower had long before been swept into the trashcan of history.

 

Even though Trump’s own election officials declared the 2020 presidential election the most secure in history, and every meaningful court challenge has been dismissed, the new Republican Party continues to hide behind such lame catch cries as “Stop the Steal.”

 

In short, Mr. Trump sought to interfere with the country’s electoral process.

 

His plea to Georgia Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes” and his partisan interference with the Department of Justice were more becoming to some South American tin-pot dictator than the president of these United States.

 

Still, if his shenanigans had only ended there, then we might rest easy. 

 

Instead, after weeks of riling up his base with false charges of fraud, in a speech on the “Glorious 6th of January,” he exhorted his “great patriots” to march on the Capitol with these stirring words: “You’ll never take back this country with weakness; you have to show strength and you have to be strong.”

 

The pictures and videos of the ensuing carnage do not lie. We’ve all seen the sickening violence perpetrated by Mr. Trump’s patriotic legions in the Capitol grounds and buildings. 

 

Two instances stand out for me – the patriot roaming the halls of the Capitol with his Confederate flag, and the police officer crushed between doors while patriots tear at his facemask.

 

At least 4 police officers have died of suicide in connection with the Jan. 6th assault, while 140 officers were injured in this glorious uprising.

 

The insurrectionists were not tourists or members of the ghostly ANTIFA. They came to DC at the invitation of the president to subvert a lawful election and to prevent a legal transfer of power.

 

Our lives pass in a blur of 24/7 reportage, but we should not forget this assault on our democratic traditions. No doubt, Mr. Trump will continue to shrug off his attempted putsch, while his new Republican Party gazes on adoringly.

 

It’s easy to dismiss what happened on January 6th as a manifestation of white rage, but once opened those sluice gates of “patriotic dissent” are not easily closed. 

 

The sad part is – think of what Mr. Trump might have achieved if he had set his mind to the betterment of his country rather than the stoking of his insatiable ego. 

 

It’s unlikely he would have achieved the stature of a Collins or a Kennedy, but he could have become an interesting “what if.”


Saturday, 14 August 2021

A gig again

I did a gig last week. 18 months ago such a statement wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow. But it’s been a long pandemic so this performance was indeed a cause for celebration.

 

It was held at the Salt Gastro Pub in Stanhope, NJ and was scheduled to be outdoors, but due to the threat of inclement weather the show was moved inside.

 

This change would have raised hackles only months ago and would have been unthinkable last year. The difference – vaccination!

 

So there we were, a full house and barely a mask in sight, though discreet social distancing was observed.

 

The owner, Bradley Boyle, runs a tight ship and kept a watchful eye on us all. The food was as good as ever, the booze even better, but to be part of a live music event again was nothing short of life affirming.

 

A bracing air of expectation rippled through the premises. The audience was so hyped up they cheered through the sound check.

 

I was a bit apprehensive. I had stayed musically busy during our “time of pause” writing songs for various theatre projects but I hadn’t actually performed a song since 2019.

 

Would my stamina hold up, would I remember words, chords, would my timing be at least somewhere “in the pocket?” 

 

I was playing with Deni Bonet, a superb violinist and performer. We had walked through the songs a few days previously. It was hardly a rehearsal, more like a marking of the way, and yet I’d been exhausted afterwards.

 

But the audience was a force unto itself. You could almost touch their need for music, for the songs, the stories, and the distinct community that’s only found at a live gig.

 

It took me back to the days I began playing at pubs and dancehalls in Wexford. The sheer joy as people forgot their cares and long workweeks, that first magic moment of union when band and punters came together as one.

 

People have missed music and performance this past 18 months, they’ve missed the spontaneity, and the spirit of improvisation that ricochets back and forth between performer and audience.

 

They cheered for old songs, new songs, the reading I did from Rockaway Blue, and it struck me that there’s now a great opportunity for musicians to go beyond themselves, because there’s no going back to normal – who knows what normal is anymore? 

 

This damned Covid has stripped us of experience; we’ve been living in a form of limbo for 18 months. It’s time for a new normal.

 

The experience reminded me of the days after 9/11. There was such a desire to come together and do something for our country. But nothing was asked of us. And so we regressed, became a fearful, divisive people; we even started a war of choice in Iraq under false pretences.

 

Now we have another chance to come together and really make this country “great again.” I was reminded of that as I signed books and CDs, hugged people and took selfies with them.

 

It was only then I wondered who had been vaccinated? There was no way of knowing and I experienced that flash of paranoia we’ve become so familiar with.

 

But by then my die had already been cast, it was too late to be cautious, so I had another drink and returned to the signing and general merriment.

 

I’ve had no symptoms and will get tested, but it’s not for myself I’m worried. I’ve been vaccinated and the worst I might expect is akin to some form of mild flu.

 

But what of those who won’t take the jab? The enemy is at the gates again in the form of the Delta variant. The unvaccinated continue to end up in hospital and death rates are rising.

 

It’s a race against time now, new and worse variants are likely on the way and may negate all our sacrifices.

 

I know my life changed when I took the double shot of Moderna. I had zero side effects. I merely went back to enjoying life, including dining and drinking in bars and restaurants, along with entertaining friends last Sunday in “sweet New Jersey.”

 

Join me, get the vaccine of your choice and allow those around you to go back to enjoying their lives again too.


Monday, 2 August 2021

Have You Ever Been Down Argentina Way?

 Have you ever been down Argentina way? Talk about the 8 Celtic nations - I’ve often felt that Argentina could claim number 9 with its strong Irish, Welsh & Galician populations.

 

I went down with Black 47 in 2000, but I already had deep connections through my father, a merchant marine, who had been sailing there since his teenage years.

 

In fact, he almost moved our family to the mysterious land of the Pampas when I was a boy. I could now be writing for the Southern Cross rather than the Irish Echo.

 

My father was a bit of a mystery himself: he had gone to sea as a cadet and celebrated his 15th birthday in Russia.

 

That much I knew from my grandmother, but like many of his generation, he spoke little about his past. We only found out close to his death that he had been torpedoed twice during World War II.

 

When questioned on this he said, “Sure, the first time wasn’t worth speaking about, we were only in the water minutes before being hauled out.”

 

The second instance we knew about for he and his crewmates were lost for a considerable time before being rescued off the coast of Sierra Leone.

 

However we were very familiar with his side-hustle of smuggling goods both into and out of Buenos Aires – we were well fitted out for Wexford winters in leather, suede and sheepskin coats.

 

Perhaps, his most noted feat was bringing 20 hurleys from Wexford for the Buenos Aires GAA team. During the height of the Troubles British authorities threatened to charge him with transporting lethal weapons.

 

“Microfilm is much less hassle and far more profitable,” I once heard him murmur to another sailor in a Brooklyn bar. He was, indeed, a man of few words but many connections.

 

It was a dream come true when Black 47 was asked to tour Argentina. Not only could we expand our musical horizons but I might learn more about this mysterious father of mine who was by then spending his waning years in Wexford courtesy of Parkinson’s.

 

We arrived into the teeth of an economic and political crisis – not that we had much notion of what was happening given our limited knowledge of Spanish. 

 

Still jet lagged we topped the bill at the prestigious Buenos Aires Opera House. The black-tied gentlemen applauded politely while their beautiful be-gowned ladies rattled their jewelry to anthems like James Connolly and Bobby Sands MP. The Black 47 faithful danced in the far off balconies.

 

Talk about surreal! But there was a jittery feeling around town with people lined up outside banks attempting to withdraw their savings.

 

We did a couple of promo gigs in recently opened Irish pubs. The bartenders and waiters all spoke flawless English. Most had advanced college degrees. With unemployment skyrocketing these were prestigious jobs.

 

And everywhere the older Irish smiled and remembered my father fondly - the “contrabandista Irelandis” who had smuggled in the hurls.

 

We drove up the country to the city of Rosario, birthplace of Che Guevara Lynch, for a performance at their Opera House. Was I being confused with John McCormack?

 

Before the show I was a guest of honor at an Irish convention where I got into an argument with a drunken cleric from Limerick over the McCourts, and was then misidentified as a member of Riverdance. I’ll spare you the humiliation of my turn on the dance floor.

 

The gig at the opera house was tense – rumors abounded about the army taking control of the country so I never got to see the birthplace of Che.

 

On our last day in Buenos Aires the peso collapsed, but our farewell party was rip-roaring and continued at the airport.

 

I had made many friends and intended staying an extra week. Buenos Aires was unlike any other city and I was beginning to make sense of my father, but discretion proved the better part of valor.

 

My father smiled coyly when I told him about my trip and accelerated departure. He’d take his secrets with him. 

 

Twenty years later I wish I’d stayed that extra week. Hopefully I’ll get back someday to the 9th Celtic nation. Maybe I’ll bring some hurleys with me.

Tuesday, 20 July 2021

The Sound of Silence and the days of Answering Machines

 Remember last year in the thick of the pandemic when everyone was talking about how loud the birds were singing?

 

Guess what? They’re still at it. I was recently awakened before dawn by a finch kicking up a hullabaloo, while later that evening a clapper rail hoarsely serenaded the full moon.

 

This begs two questions: were we all speaking in hushed tones last year because Donald Trump was making enough noise for all of us? Or has the pandemic caused us to finally appreciate the sublime qualities of silence?

 

Whatever your politics, things do seem quieter of late.

 

I can’t say I miss Mr. Trump’s bracing presence but he did unwittingly cause me to alter my lifestyle. Soon after the 2016 presidential election, I de-pinged my iPhone.

 

This was not, I hasten to add, a political gesture, more an effort to lower the general volume.

 

This action did bring me some measure of peace, although I still occasionally miss my late night texts from a Nigerian prince informing me of an inheritance I had overlooked.

 

Some years back I even turned off my ring tone and have not suffered greatly from this loss. I mean, when was the last time you got good news by phone? 

 

My sons were aghast at my rationale. One was even heard to moan, “Supposing I needed you in an emergency?”

 

I thought about this for a couple of days before replying out of context, “I lived wild on the streets of the Lower East Side when I was your age and never even considered calling my father.”

 

Forgetting his earlier emergency plea, this particular son merely rolled his eyes, assuming I was having “an old dude” moment.

 

This exchange reminded me of a time when the humble answering machine was the highest tech device in most households; that being said, many people ignored its blinking light for we had yet to hear about thoughtful Nigerian princes.

 

Back then I only pressed the “listen” button when the humor was on me – there was even an occasion when a lady had already terminated our relationship for three days before I chanced upon her “dear John” message.

 

For you see, I’ve always enjoyed silence – a strange admission for a rock musician. Or perhaps I just don’t like total surprises. 

 

This is a common Wexford trait. There’s an odd diffidence in the air down in the sunny South East. 

 

“Manana,” “We’ll circle back to that,” and “Are you coddin’ me?” are phrases readily bandied about.

 

 Passion rarely raises its mangled head on our narrow streets until at least 6 pints have been consumed. 

 

Maybe that’s why I like President Biden – even though I know President Trump leaves him in the ha’penny seats when it comes to drama or excitement. In fact, I can almost sense the little wheels and springs ticking away inside Uncle Joe’s brain, as he laboriously comes to terms with a problem.

 

He’s not a man for sudden pronouncements which is why I got alarmed when he declared that US troops would be history in Afghanistan by this coming September 11th.

 

Now I’m all on for doing away with foreign wars, but to quote Yogi Berra, this seemed like déjà vu all over again.

 

After all we’d shamelessly walked away from wars in Vietnam and Iraq and left our interpreters, translators, and other civilian allies to the fond embraces of commies, cranks, and religious fanatics; and, God knows, the Taliban are not exactly fans of Elvis Costello’s “Peace, Love, and Understanding” ditty.

 

However, Sleepy Joe finally roused himself and put forth a plan to evacuate our endangered Afghan allies, thus minimizing another moral debacle and leaving one less thing to worry about in this oddly quiet summer.

 

It’s true, economists, capitalists, and the few surviving Mom & Pop proprietors are worried about the proletariat refusing to return to dead end jobs.

 

My guess is that all of these salary shirkers have de-pinged their smart phones and purchased antique answering machines.

 

They sit at home drinking cold beer and smirking at the blinking light as The Mets steadily advance towards the World Series, all the while luxuriating in Simon & Garfunkel’s soothing Sound of Silence.

Tuesday, 6 July 2021

The Sad Saga of Bertrand Russell Bernstein and Sir Ivan Morrison

 Talk about odd couples, they didn’t come much stranger than the Russian Jew from The Bronx and the surly genius from East Belfast. I’m talking about Bertrand Russell Bernstein and Sir Ivan Morrison.

 

I’m sure you know Van Morrison. However, Bert Berns died young, yet in a short life he was very influential in the world of music production and songwriting.

 

I’m still astounded at the list of his hits: Twist and Shout, Piece of My Heart, Hang on Sloopy, Here Comes The Night, and so many more. In fact Bert’s whole life is like a dizzying movie – and what a soundtrack!

 

His parents were Russian immigrants, obviously well read, given that he was named after Britain’s premier philosopher; they founded a successful clothing business in midtown Manhattan.

 

Born in 1929, Bert early on contracted rheumatic fever that damaged his heart. In an age before organized child care his parents left him at home to be checked upon by friendly neighbors.

 

The Bronx, then as now, throbbed to the music of immigrants, and Bert fell for the Samba music of the Cubans who lived next door. 

 

The Blues and Gospel music of African-Americans only added to the cultural riches of the sick little boy consigned to his bed.

 

But Bertrand Russell Bernstein had a will of iron and as a teenager sought out music and dance lessons; soon he was taking the subway down to Manhattan.

 

Rebellious and driven, he eventually made his way to Cuba where he faked his way into Samba dance groups and worked in Havana’s casinos. Was that where he first came in contact with the mob? 

 

Probably, though Cosa Nostra was always a presence in his native Bronx.

 

When Castro closed the casinos Bert returned home and began his songwriting career in the Brill Building next to Carol King, Phil Spector, and Neil Diamond. 

 

Right from the start he had the ability to turn three chord tricks like Twist and Shout and Hang on Sloopy into pulsing teenage anthems. 

 

But Bert was also adventurous. From the moment he heard British Invasion songs, he recognized that groups like the Beatles and Stones were using his same musical building blocks of R&B and Rock ‘n’ Roll.

 

Already an accomplished producer with tracks like Under The Boardwalk by The Drifters, he took his skills to London and there in a recording studio he heard a teenage Van Morrison.

 

Bert had always wanted to discover a white singer with a voice to match Sam Cook’s and he struck gold with Van.

 

Them, Morrison’s group, was struggling in the studio until Bert put some shape on their first single, the Blues standard Baby Please Don’t Go, and wrote Here Comes The Night for the boys from East Belfast.

 

Them had a legendary two-year run until they imploded, returned to Belfast and anonymity. But Bert was haunted by Van’s voice, invited him to New York City, and put his three-chord production stamp on Brown Eyed Girl, Van’s first single.

 

He also signed Morrison to Bang Records and a rapacious music publishing deal. 

 

Did I mention that Tommy Eboli, boss of the Genovese crime family, was rumored to be Bert’s protector and silent business partner, and it was nigh impossible to walk away from Bang Records. Ask Neil Diamond.

 

Things appear to have come to a head in 1967. Van wished to go Jazzy with songs that would later feature on his iconic Astral Weeks album, while Bert and shadowy others wished for more Brown Eyed Girls.

 

Following a tempestuous phone call between the two quarreling friends, Bert died of heart failure leaving Van on shaky terms with Bert’s widow and the other owners of Bang Records.

 

Van went to ground in Boston and it would be some time before he would sign a deal with Warner Brothers Records, courtesy of a brown paper bag full of cash delivered, it is rumored, to some characters in a parking lot.

 

Would Van have ever risen to his successful artistic heights without the influence of Bertrand Russell Bernstein? 

 

Van’s social skills were never the best, and in their early partnership Bert did all the “moving and shaking.”

 

It’s a question that will never be answered, and therein lies the legend of Bert, Van, and the big Bang!

Saturday, 19 June 2021

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes!! Or What's Normal Anymore?

 So, it looks like widespread vaccination has stopped the pandemic in its tracks and our time of pause may be coming to an end.

 

Are you ready to go back to normal or, like Bob Dylan are you unsure what normal is anymore?

 

Like many you may be rejecting the old order and refusing to return to work for dead end wages.

 

While economists scratch their heads about this state of affairs, why rush back when wages will rise - if raw capitalism is allowed to have its way? 

 

Employers have held the whip hand since union membership and middle class income began shrinking over 50 years ago. Meanwhile the Great Recession of 2008 only reinforced that great corporate adage – don’t ask for a raise, be grateful you have a job!

 

And still employers wonder why so many people have opted out of the workforce? 

 

It’s simple. Some can’t afford to return because of low pay and the lack of affordable childcare. To add fuel to this fire, many seniors of working age now look after grandchildren, thereby allowing their daughters to work.

 

And then there are those who are rethinking their priorities and considering a change in their lives. There’s no better time than when things are really in a state of flux.

 

Take the music business.  It changed irrevocably in the years following 9/11 but such was the competition for gigs very few musicians even noticed.

 

However, two far-seeing Irish-Americans, Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning, had just founded Napster, whose credo was that all music should be free and available.

 

This revolutionary concept was perfected by Spotify and other streaming platforms on a two-tier basis.

 

For a small monthly fee you may now lease all the music in the world, and even get it free if you don’t mind being interrupted by advertisements.

 

This has resulted in the .01% of the world’s top recording artists taking the lion’s share of streaming income, leaving an infinity of lesser-known artists to share the remaining income between them.

 

Of course, this roughly mirrors what has happened in broader society where the top .01% controls much of the world’s wealth.

 

The end result for musicians has been the shrinking sales of CDs – the one really profitable item of merchandise that helped subsidize their performance fees. 

 

The lesson is – worlds change after cataclysms. You’ll never figure it all out, but if you’re thinking of making a change, now is the hour.

 

And yet, I can think of only one instance when I made the correct choice during a life crisis. Back in the 1980s, Pierce Turner and I founded a New Wave band called Major Thinkers (not a great name to dangle in front of hard-bitten music critics).

 

Nonetheless, we scored a big record deal with Epic Records and toured the country with Cyndi Lauper and UB40 – glory days, indeed.

 

We had a radio/dance hit with Avenue B is the Place to Be and recorded Terrible Beauty, an album still to see the light of day. To make a long story short, we were summarily dropped by Epic, who knows why, who cares anymore? 

 

Hardly a cataclysm, though it seemed like one at the time. We returned to Ireland for Christmas and one night in my parents’ house I had what Graham Greene might call a “dark night of the soul.”

 

No matter how I looked at it, I could see no future in the music business.

 

As a grey, rainy dawn broke over the grim spires of Wexford town I resolved to chuck it all in and become a playwright. 

 

Out of the frying pan, into the fire, you might think, but I wrote, directed, and produced every day thereafter, and eventually cleared my head of the music business. Four years later, Chris Byrne and I formed Black 47 and that kept me busy for the next 25 years.

 

Still, I continued to hone my playwriting craft and last week I got word that Paradise Square, a musical I conceived and co-wrote, will open on Broadway next year.

 

I guess you could say that dark night back in Wexford finally paid off. 

 

Whatever, in these post-pandemic times, the world is changing faster than you can imagine.  If you’re thinking of making a change – do it now, there’ll be no better time.

Friday, 4 June 2021

Dreams of Dolores

 I was recently listening to Dreams by The Cranberries when it occurred to me that Dolores O’Riordan was one of the great vocalists of her generation.

 

“What took you so long?” You might wonder.

 

Well, I did miss the ascent of The Cranberries to stardom in the early 90’s when I was much on the road myself with Black 47.

 

One night, however, somewhere in Missouri, our road manager asked if we’d be interested in partying with the Limerick born band who were playing in the vicinity.

 

It sounded like a good idea – there’s nothing like kicking back with some fellow road warriors, particularly if they’re Irish.

 

It didn’t happen, our record company insisted we move on to our next destination to play some “important shock-jock, early morning radio show.” Talk about much ado about nothing!

 

It would be another 15 years before I’d meet Dolores. She walked into the SiriusXM studios already exhausted from a full day of interviews. I could tell there were many other places she’d rather be. 

 

An intense, spiky presence she had large luminous eyes. She was quite beautiful, small in stature, but did she dominate that room!  

 

When confronted with any threat from Limerick, I always mention Malachy McCourt. She smiled, and confessed she’d never had the pleasure of meeting this back-lanes icon, and from that moment our interview took off.

 

I reminded her of the broken party engagement in Missouri.  

 

“You’re Irish?”  She said, as though it was more likely I was from the outer rings of Saturn. 

 

She added that her shoes were killing her, and did I mind if she kicked them off.

 

Like many stars she was wary of interviews, mostly because in these days a successful one demands that some piece of intimate information be teased out and then plastered online.

 

I was more interested in how a young woman from Ballybricken, County Limerick had written such wonderful songs as Zombie and Linger?

 

With that she relaxed and told me some of the story of Dolores, as opposed to the buffed biography constructed by her publicist.

 

I could tell almost instantly that there was a private darkness at her core, a pain that would always curdle despite her mega-success. 

 

I knew better than to go there – such heartaches are revealed in their own time, and for now, she had come to terms with hers. 

 

All that aside, I was reminded of some lines from her song, Dreams:

“And oh, my dreams

It’s never quite as it seems…”

 

It was obvious that the 12 year old who stood up in her new school and declared, “My Name is Dolores O’Riordan and I’m going to be a rock star” had achieved her ambition - but it had left her wanting.

 

In the course of the interview she veered from fierce to tender, often harkening back to the ever-present pressure of her popularity. 

 

In the end we agreed that in one’s musical career the songs are all that count. The gigs, the glamour, the admiration of the crowds, just fade away, but the songs are your legacy.

 

And with that, two culchies from Limerick and Wexford found common ground on the snazzy 36th Floor of a Manhattan skyscraper. 

 

Then in 2017 she showed up with an entourage who sat in on the interview. 

 

The publicist whispered that Dolores was in pain from a back ailment, and that Noel Hogan, her band mate, would answer my questions.

 

Noel is a gentleman, songwriter, and a fine guitarist, but there was little intimacy and the interview dissolved into your standard rock grilling. 

 

And then they were gone. Our personal interaction was so curtailed, I actually wondered if she remembered me.

 

Then the muffled studio door opened suddenly, there she was beaming, and giving me a big sisterly Irish wink.

 

I smiled back, the door closed silently, and I never saw her again.  She died in a London hotel room some months later.

 

What a journey for a wonderful young countrywoman – from Ballybricken to the stars.  Despite her tragic end, her starkly revealing songs continue to enhance her brilliant legacy.

Thursday, 27 May 2021

Man U - Mets - Too Late to Turn back?

What is it about sports teams? You don’t know their players, never been for a pint with the owners, and yet you follow them from near cradle to the grave.

 

There are two such teams in my life, though on reflection my loyalty has faced some challenges down the years.

 

I’ve never even seen Manchester United play in the flesh, a situation that’s unlikely to change. I’ve rarely even watched them on television over the last five years, because for the most part they’re a crowd of unmotivated, overpaid wasters who regularly ruin my Saturdays and have wreaked havoc with my liver.

 

I won’t even get into their managers. Since the almighty Alex Ferguson retired 8 years ago and took his “half-time hairdryer” with him we’ve had four who wouldn’t have lasted a week with the vaunted Bells of Hell XI.

 

Well, Ole Solskjaer is decent, with a bit of luck we might finish second in this year’s Premier League; but his game plan for inspiring his prima donnas by giving up an early goal is severely wanting.  Oh for the days of Roy Keane!

 

Still Man. U have finally found Edinson Cavani, an hombre who knows how to score goals – and there’s always next year – if my sanity and liver hold up!

 

As to my dark secret: I once considered changing allegiance to our sworn enemies, Liverpool FC.

 

This all came about in Paddy Reilly’s. In Black 47’s early days when the lines snaked around the block, a group of Liverpool supporters showed up and became fervent fans.

 

Sensing a lucrative entry to the UK market, I passed off my allegiance to Man. U as a casual crush. Besotted by our music, these lovable Scousers forgave me. 

 

As it turned out, they regularly flew back to the ‘Pool on Friday nights and began to sing our “Livin’ in America” song on the Anfield terraces.

 

Lo and behold, their chant became popular with the locals and I was eventually presented with a cassette of a full-blooded version that would make your hair stand on end.

 

Had Livin’ in America even approached the stature of Gerry Marsden’s You’ll Never Walk Alone I might well have swopped sides, and thus saved my brittle constitution from regular bouts of Saturday morning indigestion.

 

Talk about “wait until next year!” What team comes automatically to mind? You got it, the Amazin’ Mets! What masochist bestowed that particular adjective on the boys from Flushing?

 

I didn’t even like baseball at first, it reminded me of an unending, lethargic game of Rounders. How did I first get introduced to it? You guessed it – in a saloon, by name of Tomorrow’s Lounge in Bay Ridge where I resided.

 

And guess who was the favorite team in that wondrous haven. Let’s just say it wasn’t the Yankees. My romance with the Mets blossomed over long sultry evenings spent amidst the pale fumes of Rheingold.

 

The game suited me. You don’t have to pay much attention, just sense the tension rising from the crowd, then cheer along or curse your head off as the case may be, before turning once again to solve the world’s problems with your cronies.

 

Of course there was Keith Fernandez! I loved him as a player and still hang on his every irreverent syllable as a commentator. He has told more truths than any president, an easy task over the last four years.

 

My faith in the Mets was shook to the core in 1986, for my first cousin, Charlie Kerfeld, a relief pitcher with the Astros, almost sent them packing from the playoffs.

 

Talk about a game of divided loyalties.

 

But after striking out two batters, Charlie was pulled for the closer who imploded, and the Amazin’s went on to win the World Series.

 

Amazin’ or not, my bond with these boys of summer is bone deep – because of the Mets, Black 47 played Shea Stadium more times than the Beatles, albeit for Irish Night. 

 

Has all the passion and energy spent been worth it?  Well, I shudder to think what else I might have been up to! 

 

Besides, I perennially live in hope that a time will come when you won’t have to hear this Man-Met say, “Wait until next year!”

Friday, 7 May 2021

Bobby Sands MP - 40 years on

 "They came from all over the city, down by subway from Inwood and the Bronx, over the bridges and through the tunnels from Queens and Brooklyn, or by ferry in from Staten Island. They drove or took buses from Jersey, Connecticut, Upstate, Pennsylvania. 

 

They came from far and wide to make their views known and their voices heard outside the British consulate on Third Avenue.
 
They were all part of the tribe, come to protest the imminent death through voluntary starvation of a young chieftain. And make no mistake Bobby Sands was a leader to these people with more moral authority than any trumped up Taoiseach back in Dublin…”
 
Forty years ago today Bobby Sands passed away. Many of us were changed by those strange, foreboding days. The tribe never changed, never forgot either nor forgave.
 
“Not a lace curtain to hang between them, they were the faithful who kept the flame of Irish Republicanism alive in the back rooms of smoky pubs at Sunday evening socials throbbing with the music of accordions, fiddles and banjos.
 
They were the hard core who gladly forked out crumpled twenty-dollar bills in the hope that one day a united Ireland might become a reality, and not just another pipe dream fueled by chasers of cheap beer and shots of Powers Whiskey.”
 
I called them the tribe because you always saw the same faces at protests, although they held widely varying views on the nature of their mythic united Ireland. 
 
Accordingly, they were the first to show up outside the British Consulate when Sands went on hunger strike. They could have made it there blindfolded for many had been tramping up and down Third Avenue since the Troubles flared once more in1968.
 
“They were an odd bunch: serious and cerebral by times, chatty and cliquish at others, but I liked them and admired both their integrity and single-minded devotion to Irish unity. I suppose they reminded me of my grandfather. One in particular even looked like him: white haired, squat and muscular with a face set in granite, conviction cased in steel, all his instincts tuned to the force of his own moral compass.”
 
My grandfather had raised me in an old barracks of a house in Wexford. I had ingested his version of Irish history and, at an early age, could debate all the old arguments, though I disappointed him with my love for the “turncoat” Mick Collins.
 
He had been dead some years and I was now living on the Lower East Side, frequenting CBGB'S and other temples of the cool. Long before his passing I had distanced myself from the old ideologies and the violence that attended them. Still every now and then in the back of my mind I’d hear his echo, “Every generation must do their part to solve the British problem in the North of Ireland.”
 
Bobby Sands had his own mantra, “No one can do everything, but everyone has their part to play.”
 
Both voices had begun to reassert themselves in my psyche when Sands had invoked an ancient Irish tribal right, “When wronged by your more powerful neighbor go starve yourself on his doorstep until the shame causes him to relent.”
 
It was a battle to the end. The Iron Lady, Mrs. Thatcher, would prevail but it would be a hollow Pyrrhic victory, for a new generation had been politicized by Sands’ protest and would hand down its own folk memory. 
 
There would be many dark and dangerous days before the ballot box would finally replace the Armalite but, oddly enough, the first seeds were scattered on poisoned soil forty years ago.
 
“Still the tribe never faltered or lost faith. Right to the bitter end, they came in by subway from Inwood and the Bronx, over the bridges and through the tunnels from Queens and Brooklyn, or by ferry in from Staten Island. They drove or took buses from Jersey, Connecticut, Upstate, Pennsylvania. And I will never forget them.”
 
Excerpts from “Green Suede Shoes – An Irish-American Odyssey” by Larry Kirwan, published by Thunder’s Mouth Press/Avalon.

The Healing Has Begun

 

The ospreys are back. I began looking out for them in early March, but it took at least four weeks before I could confirm my first sighting. 

 

From a distance it’s easy to mistake these raptors for large seagulls; gulls however don’t tend to hover in the same manner, and certainly don’t dive at such vertical angles into shallow waters.

 

As they say back in Wexford, “the rale thing don’t disappoint.”

 

I had heard that ospreys are often exhausted from their long journey back to the North-East from Florida, the Caribbean, or even South America, but the first one I spotted was in fine fettle as she carried a sizeable fish back to her nest in the nearby bogland.

 

Ospreys tend to keep the same mate but they return from their winter home separately. The female is often first back, perhaps to make a dent in the spring-cleaning, or more likely to secure last year’s nest.

 

She will wait a goodly time for the male’s arrival, but only so much and no more.

 

The procreative instinct is apparently stronger than romantic loyalty, and the female will choose another male if her mate is too tardy.

 

Since my ospreys were fishing in tandem within days of first sighting I can only surmise that this particular union continues.

 

Last year I didn’t even realize they had departed until mid-October. Do you remember those days? We were six or seven months into the pandemic and in the thick of the presidential election. It was a turbulent time, to say the least.

 

Ospreys were way down most people’s list of important matters. I missed them keenly though. They had been faithful companions through many a bleary dawn.

 

It was a grim autumn, with promise of a bitter winter. Not to put too fine a point on it, the country was reeling.

 

That tends to happen when the highest official in the land has little concern for truth and scientific fact. You begin to feel that things you took for granted are based on a flimsy foundation.

 

Who would have imagined that truth could be so easily swept aside by the poisonous babble of social media’s echo chamber?

 

Take away scientific fact and what’s left - the biggest pig at the trough, the loudest, most aggressive bawler?

 

This is nothing new in American politics – after all, Burr shot Hamilton, and people of color, immigrants, Catholics, socialists, and many others have felt the lash of political recrimination and discrimination.

 

But truth and scientific fact have always somehow managed to reassert themselves and help redress grievances.

 

You could feel the pressure building last fall after the sitting president made the outrageous statement, “the only way we’re going to lose the election is if the election is rigged.”

 

It didn’t help that Covid-19 was sweeping the land, the economy was tanking, and millions had lost their jobs. Was it any wonder our foundation quaked?

 

America was experiencing a dark night of the soul that culminated in a day of bullyboy disgrace on January 6th.

 

But the foundation held. Many people drew on the reserves of their core beliefs, be they Bible, Quran, or just plain logic. 

 

We saw QAnon and all the other craven fantasies for what they are – rubbish. Truth and scientific fact may not always be comforting, but when the chips are down they wipe the floor with unfounded conspiracy theories.

 

There’s a new president in office now. He’ll undoubtedly make his mistakes – but he doesn’t have a psychotic need to be at the center of every argument. Does he even have a Twitter account? I don’t know and I care less. I value silence and have no interest in being anyone’s follower.

 

A corner has been rounded – vaccination is in full swing and we seem to have blunted the razor edge of this pandemic.

 

Everything is far from okay in our democracy – that’s the nature of the beast. But it beats the yokel mob rule of January 6th.

 

The country is coming to its senses, the weather is improving, we can mix again without too much risk of infecting each other, and the ospreys have returned. 

 

Soon their chicks will be born, and they’ll work from dawn to dusk to feed them.  A new cycle has started. The healing has begun.


Monday, 19 April 2021

The Bell Still Tolls

 I often dropped into the second-hand bookshop on Rathmines Road. I lived close by in 15 Belgrave Square, now an upscale single residence, then a warren of cold-water flats in the heart of culchie-land.  

 

Many Dublin neighborhoods had such a shop and they all smelled alike – fusty, dusty, and with a hint of carbolic to keep the bugs away.

 

I hated my day gig and was very delicate in those Gingerman days. I had discovered that just a hint of a cold, when added to a hangover, could gain you a “sick note” and some days off for recuperation. 

 

It was on one such break that I came across For Whom The Bell Tolls in the bookshop. I was familiar with Hemingway’s name but rarely saw his books around Dublin. Was he also banned? 

 

Perhaps, Spanish Civil War books were not popular with Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, unless Generalissimo Franco was the hero.

 

It seems strange now that the Church had such a stranglehold on Irish society. Nobody really talked about it – it was just another fact of life in the land of de Valera.

 

The Gingerman itself had been banned, then un-banned, then banned again. I can’t even remember if there was a decent sex scene in this harmless. I guess the Church believed censorship kept a lid on Ireland’s churning cauldron of sexuality.

 

Forget about James Joyce, he and his Molly Bloom were a universe beyond our frigid pale; we were barely introduced to Mr. Yeats in our English classes. After all, he was Protestant and had railed about our apostolic state denying his co-religionists their right to divorce.

 

Little wonder that For Whom The Bell Tolls “blew my mind.” Not only was the writing clear, and incisive, it was also austerely poetic, unlike the flowery stanzas beaten into us by the Christian Brothers.

 

The protagonist was different too. Robert Jordan had gone to Spain to fight for the Republican cause and was on a mission to blow up a bridge.

 

But what was he really doing there? I suppose he was “trying to find himself.” And so was I in that musty second-hand bookshop on Rathmines Road. 

 

I eventually tracked down The Sun Also Rises, and by the time I finished that ode to the lost generation I knew my Dublin days were nearing an end. Despite its many delights the city was too isolated, too controlled, if I was to make anything of myself, I’d have to leave. The following summer I struck out for New York.

 

I was reminded of all this while watching the recent three-part PBS Hemingway series.

 

I had been lucky to be introduced to Hem in Dublin. We knew little of the macho-man or his self-created tabloid reputation. We just read his books and exulted in the clarity of his craft and vision.

 

By the time I arrived in New York, Hemingway was old hat. Macho was out and to say you liked the clarity and depth of his writing was to invite unmitigated scorn; one definitely had to be careful championing this Nobel winner.

 

So I moved on to other writers and came to know a few also. I soon recognized the corroding effect of fame, and how image often supplanted the actual person you had come to like and admire.

 

Norman Mailer and Lester Bangs had little in common though both were at heart kind and thoughtful men. Yet pour a couple of stiff ones into them and their outrageous public figures often took over.

 

Frank McCourt, on the other hand, improved with fame. The adulation he received only served to wash away our inherent Irish inferiority complex.

 

I thought of these three fine writers while listening to a battalion of literary people dissect Hemingway over three nights on PBS. Many made decent points, others enjoyed their 15 seconds of fame, but the one who got to the heart of Hemingway’s writing was Edna O’Brien, once banned in Ireland herself.

 

Her Clare shrewdness and unsparing disregard for the trappings of the literary life allowed her to get beyond the four wives, the inflated macho legend, and find Hemingway the writer.

 

She transported me back to that musty shop on Rathmines Road where I stumbled upon a book that truly changed my life.

Thursday, 8 April 2021

The Best Concert I've Ever Seen

I’m sometimes asked what was the best concert I’ve ever seen. It’s a tough call.

 

People usually refer to rock concerts, but I’d be remiss in not mentioning the New York Philharmonic as they raised Napoleon from the dead during the 1812 Overture in Central Park one July 4th; while it would be hard to surpass Pavarotti’s sublime interpretation of Nessun Dorma on the same stage another summer’s night.

 

I was very young and innocent when I witnessed Cream perform on the Isle of Man. My teenage friends and I had little idea about the band’s musical roots, and no notion that bad blood was brewing between rival gangs from Glasgow and Liverpool.

 

The huge stage was covered with wire netting as thousands of us trooped into the “largest ballroom in Europe.”

 

Cream was the loudest band I ever heard, no small distinction. Eric Clapton played through a 6-stack of Marshall amplifiers and Jack Bruce matched him in both volume and surliness. Meanwhile Ginger Baker needed no amplifiers to be heard in the drum department.

 

We four yokels from Wexford were crushed up to the lip of the stage, our mouths agape, when skirmishing broke out between the Liverpool and Glasgow contingents. 

 

I’m not sure Cream even noticed; they appeared to be high as kites, and certainly didn’t respond to bellowed requests from the audience. 

 

This disconnect caused all manner of objects to be flung at the wire netting. A British brass thrupenny bit snuck through and struck Ginger on the forehead. Whereupon the irate drummer kicked over his massive drum kit, grabbed a microphone and challenged whoever had thrown the coin to mortal combat.

 

Hundreds surged forward in an effort to oblige him setting off a full-scale riot throughout the hall.  

 

This incensed Eric Clapton so much he raised his sunburst Stratocaster above his head, slammed it down onstage and strode off to a screech of feedback. The gangs fought on regardless, and I had been initiated into one of the sacred rites of rock ‘n’ roll.

 

That “concert” undoubtedly veered me towards the shamanistic side of music. Although I appreciated bands like Pink Floyd with their minutely choreographed spectaculars, it all paled compared to the near-mystical experiences provided by Bob Marley and The Wailers, or The Clash.

 

Marley’s music is now universally loved, but you had to have seen him live. He was ecstatic onstage, totally united with The Wailers, yet a sublime musical being totally unto himself.

 

The night I saw him in Central Park he was nothing less than a Rastafarian dervish come to proclaim the word of Jah through his wonderful songs.

 

Some of these were melodic demands for universal spiritual freedom like Get Up Stand Up, and others love songs that go to the heart of romance like No Woman No Cry.

 

Mr. Marley was an original whose music continues to transcend cultures. I’ve heard his songs in the dusty hamlets of Turkey, the ghettoes of Port-au-Prince, and at parties in grim Moscow apartments. The barefoot kid from Trenchtown, Jamaica truly made his mark on the world.

 

You could say the same for Joe Strummer although, unlike Bob, Joe needed a band around him.  And what a band he had – The Clash.

 

Though far from virtuosic they were the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band I ever saw. It was hard to distinguish between them onstage. They played few solos, they didn’t need to; their songs were like great surges of energy that enveloped an audience with power, passion and precision.

 

The last night they appeared in the old Palladium on 14th Street, the joint was literally rocking. I was in the balcony and could feel the floor shaking beneath my feet. 

 

I considered running downstairs before the balcony collapsed, but then reasoning it would just fall upon me, I surrendered once more to the decibel induced euphoria.

 

Joe was a friend and a beautiful person; like Mr. Marley he’s gone a long time. I guess the good do die young. 

 

So there you have it – a toss of the coin between Bob Marley and The Clash. Both of those shows changed my life, and each in their own way led to the creation of Black 47. And so it goes. Rock on!

Sunday, 28 March 2021

Rockaway Blue

 

I was checking the Mets box scores when the plane passed over so low I buried my face in the New York Times. Less than a second later I heard a thud akin to a giant sledgehammer pounding concrete.

 

I rushed up to our roof – the sight was unbelievable – a huge plane embedded in the North Tower, tongues of flame licking outwards through thick black smoke, spars, debris, and God knows what else, cascading down.

 

When the second plane struck, I knew the city would never be the same.

 

Being the “house band of New York” it behooved Black 47 to immediately resume our Saturday night residency in Connolly’s of 45th Street.

 

The word spread among first responders, and those gigs were packed and beyond intense. Everyone needed music and a break from the trauma. We didn’t know who was alive, though we knew many were dead, and my abiding memory is everyone turning to watch the door as it opened.

 

Then a ripple of relief would surge through the room, “Joe made it,” or “Mary got out alive,” followed by bear hugs of solidarity.

 

And in the months following as we played the tri-state area, people would show us pictures of lost family members, request the victim’s favorite song, and declare that Jimmy or Joan was our “greatest fan.”

 

For a couple of hours the music would punch a hole in the grief, and allow people to be as they were before the attack. And I swore that someday I’d tell the story of Jimmy and Joan, and not allow the politicians and media hounds to co-opt the tragedy.

 

In 2003 we recorded New York Town, an album about the years immediately before and after 9/11, and in a small way paid homage to the priest and the fireman, Fr. Mychal Judge, OFM and Richie Muldowney, Ladder 7, NYFD, two of our friends that perished.

 

However, huge parts of the story were missing, and I felt a play might get closer to the truth. But as I watched The Heart Has A Mind of its Own unfold on opening night, I knew I’d failed.

 

There was no way a kitchen-sink drama could capture the sheer magnitude of the catastrophe. But I had created the characters, the Murphy family from Rockaway Beach whose son, Lieutenant Brian Murphy, had perished.

 

These characters would not let me be, rattling around in my head as though seeking a way out.

 

So I took the ideas that worked and wove them into a novel. Rockaway and Breezy Point became characters themselves, and the story began to unfold. Det. Sgt. Jimmy Murphy had discovered that his son, Brian, was in the North Tower 30 minutes before the attack. What was he doing there?

 

Jimmy’s search led him to an old friend, Yussef Ibrahim, and to the Egyptian-American’s daughter, Fatima.

 

Around then, Colin Broderick introduced me to Jane Dystel, his literary agent, who loved the work, and sent it around to various publishing houses. Everyone seemed to like it but I could sense reluctance and I felt the same – the wounds were still too raw, and they were preventing me from digging deeper to where the full story lay.

 

And so I withdrew it. As a writer and bandleader there was much else to deal with, the War in Iraq, the corroding of the American dream during the financial collapse, then the final frantic years of Black 47. 

 

But all the while the wounds were healing, and in 2018 I told the story of the Murphy family on Celtic Crush, my SiriusXM show.

 

A listener, Dean Smith of Cornell University Press asked for a draft, and then offered to publish the book.

 

I worked with Dean and another fine editor, Michael McGandy, to not only capture the humbling magnitude of 9/11, but to find its place in a troubled era bookended by the Vietnam and Iraq wars.

 

It’s a tale of love, loss, and ultimate redemption. It took almost 20 years for the dust of that awful morning to settle and allow me to tell the story through the eyes of the Murphy family. 

 

It’s called Rockaway Blue, and it’s finally ready for reading.

 

(Rockaway Blue, published by Three Hills/Cornell University Press, is available at all online platforms and at your local bookstore)

Thursday, 11 March 2021

My New York City Academic Life

 Within a couple of years of arriving in New York City I had enrolled in two universities. 

 

One stood forlornly across the street from my apartment on barren E. 9th Street, the other preened on tree-lined W. 13th.

 

The latter font of learning was disguised as a saloon known as The Bells of Hell. Its provost, for want of a better title, was one, Malachy McCourt, from the back lanes of Limerick; the former sheltered behind the innocuous name of the Kiwi Social Club, its president went by one name only - Nash!

 

Judging by his temperament and the company he kept, I suspect that Nash has long since departed this vale of tears. 

 

Mr. McCourt on the other hand is still hale and hearty, and displays at least as much distaste for conservatives as he did while presiding over his seat of higher learning.

 

Many sterling men and women achieved tenure at both universities, but their visiting professors influenced me most.

 

I studied under Frank and Angela McCourt at the Bells, each took an interest in my moral and intellectual development.

 

It’s no wonder that Frank became one of the most successful memoirists of the 20th Century – in pre-Ashes days he said little but made every syllable count.

 

Angela, for her part, was an astute judge of character, and could flay a man at 40 feet without removing the perennially drooping Woodbine from her lower lip, or favoring her victim with a glance.

 

Norman Mailer dropped in on occasion and I studied under his tutelage, and even added a smidgen of arcane knowledge to Ancient Evenings, his Egyptian novel.

 

And where would any of us have been without benefit of the acumen and chiseled words of Pete Hamill. 

 

Any small talent I have for writing a column came from that man, and his friend/rival Jimmy Breslin.

 

I was introduced to critical theory during adrenalized, all night tutorials delivered by Lester Bangs; while in the legendary back room, I absorbed the ins and outs of improvisation from the last of the Beats, David Amram, who awarded me a Ph.D. in Hangoutology.

 

I was to need all these skills and more when I attended classes at Kiwi University from 4am to whenever, at least three times a week.

 

The Kiwi bore a resemblance to Howard University with its large African-American student body, along with a generous sprinkling of LatinX students.

 

I was the token Irish student and had gained acceptance only because I had complained bitterly to my landlord about lack of heat in the winter. 

 

This gentleman intervened with the Kiwi administration across the street on my behalf, and gained me a scholarship - with the admonition: “no more whining, you now have a warm collegial hall to attend any time of night or day.”

 

It was within the Kiwi’s hallowed halls I learned to listen – that most valuable life lesson.

 

I was in a foreign and dangerous world and was forced to quickly learn how to fit in. And oh, the stories I heard, and the drama that I observed, and eventually became a part of!

 

I was fortunate, for I was taken under the wing of a philosopher of note, James Reece – known to his legion of friends as Jimmy.

 

In short order he instructed me how to survive in that netherworld – how to move, how to fade into shadows, and how to be, if not cool, then at least not too tepid. 

 

Every night he played mix tapes of bebop and red-hot jazz. At first I couldn’t make head nor tail of it, but Jimmy Reece was patient, he explained not just the mechanics of jazz but the history and philosophy behind it.  He told me what to listen for – and I did. 

 

One night he yelled in delight down the bar as I moved like a spastic whippet to John Coltrane’s dizzying horn – “He’s got it, the Irish kid is finally hearing it.”

 

It was an immeasurable gift, and I still cherish Professor Reece whenever I listen to Miles, Trane, Bird, Monk, and a host of others.

 

Tuition was free at each of these priceless seats of knowledge. Alas, they’re both gone, along with their faculties, leaving little hope of class reunions. But oh, what nights and the memories they’ve become!

 

Tuesday, 9 February 2021

North East Blues

 

I often wonder what am I doing in the frozen North East around this time of year? Now that I don’t have the responsibilities of a bandleader I could be down in Miami, New Orleans, or a dozen other warm locales, and not shivering my you-know-what up here.

 

I can hear Yer Man up in Pearl River slyly suggesting, “You could go back to Cuba – that hot enough for you?”

 

Nah, they don’t allow Americans in at the moment, for fear we’d infect them.

 

Growing up in Ireland weather was a bit more humdrum - something to be endured, though endlessly commented on.

 

When I got here I exulted in the snows of January and the dog days of August. Humidity never cost me a thought. In the East Village few people had air conditioning; if it got too hot you could always chill out in a bar or an after hours.

 

But lately, come bleak winter, I’ve been getting the urge to head south. Part of that is from the mild insomnia I’m cursed with. 

 

In the spring to autumn months I’ve no problem getting up in the middle of the night and knocking out some pages of whatever play or novel I’m wrestling with.

 

But in the dead of winter that’s not such an easy proposition.

 

To counter my nocturnal mind spinning, I take a three-mile walk every day. Yesterday it was freezing as I set off into a stunning dawn. Is it my imagination or have this winter’s dawns been particularly vivid?

 

I could almost hear celestial music as the sun shyly peaked its head above the Long Island Sound.

 

Even the gulls stopped their skimming and gliding to note this new presence. But when “that lucky old sun” majestically burst forth from its crimson background, the gulls too soared in appreciation, and for minutes on end their snow white feathers melded into a delicate shade of pink.  

 

I strolled on keeping an eye on Charles Island. How different it is from the wind-blasted Saltee Islands off south County Wexford.

 

Charles is fully wooded and serves as an Egret preserve in the summer. Oddly enough, I prefer its winter barrenness, for only then can I can feel the presence of the Native Americans who once lived out there.

 

Likewise I can sense the English Puritans who settled nearby and within a couple of generations eliminated the first Americans from their Eden.

 

In summer I barely give them a thought but in winter there’s no doubting what a tough, uncompromising people these “pilgrims” were.

 

Nestled in my down coat I marveled at how they survived their first winters on this frozen coast.

 

Though their history is written in blood and intolerance one has to admire their fortitude - if not their humanity.

 

As I ambled on I missed the migratory snow-white egrets and most of all the swooping ospreys. But lo and behold, I was suddenly blessed with a sighting of the lone Blue Heron who had chosen not to depart for southern climes in October.

 

Was he injured back then or just didn’t feel up to such a long journey? I’ll never know but I mostly see him now at dusk as he swoops across the bay onto a stretch of bog that had once been the town dump.

 

Yesterday he glided in so low I could almost feel the beat of his wings as he came to a graceful landing, and with a toss of his head glared back at me.

 

Had I disturbed some mouse he was hunting, a soft-shell crab perhaps, or did he consider this whole bog to be his province, and what the hell was I doing up at that hour of the morning anyway.

 

We share a kinship, I suppose. Neither of us went south. Each of us stayed in the frozen north for our own reasons.  And so, I glared back at him – it’s my bog as much as yours, buster! 

 

He held my eye for a moment before returning to his real business – what was on the menu for a boggy breakfast?

 

After our stand off I strode on, but couldn’t help but wonder where we’d both be this time next year.