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!