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)

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