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!