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!