Thursday, 28 September 2017

A Night Out With Labor


The Irish Echo Labor Awards is always one of the best nights of the year. 

Let it not be said that union members don’t know how to have a good time, for The Edison Ballroom was throbbing on a recent Friday night, much as it used to when David Bowie and Elvis Costello rocked the joint back in the 90’s. 

However, if we were all there to celebrate the achievement of the current leaders and awardees of the Irish-American Labor movement, we were never less than aware of the men and women who made it all possible; for it was a rare speech where James Connolly and Big Jim Larkin were not saluted or quoted.

How these two names still resound today! Both were children of the Diaspora born to abject poverty in Edinburgh and Liverpool; each spent time in New York City.

Connolly organized for the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies) until he returned to Ireland and was defeated in successive major strikes and lockouts in Belfast, Wexford, and Dublin. Despairing of meaningful change he led his Irish Citizen Army in the 1916 Insurrection and was executed for his troubles.

Larkin got stranded here during the First World War and ended up in Sing Sing on a charge of “criminal anarchy.” But he never stopped exhorting workers that, “The great appear great because we are on our knees. Let us rise!”

The spirit of these two legendary revolutionaries electrified not only the Edison but speakers like Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan and Christine O’Connor. And when Terry O’Sullivan, President of LiUNA, and John Samuelson, President of the Transport Workers Union took to the stage they brought the assembly to its feet.

Unfortunately, these are not great days for unions. Membership continues to dwindle and the “bosses” have definitely won the propaganda war. How many times have you heard it trumpeted that unions wrecked this or that industry with excessive demands – and nary a voice raised in protest?

Yet unions helped tame the exploitative heart of this country by demanding decent wages and working conditions for the  of immigrants, including the Irish; in so doing they laid the foundation for a civilized society and a vibant middle class.

Alas, as union influence has waned, so too has the size and vitality of the middle class. And there’s a lot worse in store as the “gig economy” takes root.

Can you imagine what Connolly and Larkin would have thought of this new scam? Hard as it is dealing with an employer – try arguing with an APP!  You have to hand it to these dot.com bosses, they really have their game down!

But it’s not just them - inflation-adjusted compensation for most workers has barely increased over the last 40 years. Still, the boot was really put in during the “great recession” of 2007. 

Even though the “recovery” began in 2009, the psychological impact of the brutal layoffs is still being felt. Think about it – when was the last time you asked for a raise?

Corporate profits, on the other hand, have been rising at a steady rate since 2000 and are near an all time high. 
 
With unemployment touching 4.3%, one would imagine that wages would be skyrocketing, but after nine years of near stagnation the corporate credo is still – “live horse ‘til you get grass.”

Little wonder, considering that only 11% of American workers now belong to a union. Compare that to the 35% of the 1950’s – a time of steadily rising prosperity for all. 

Then again the startling news that 43% of members of union households voted for Donald Trump last November gives one pause. Despite copious lip service, this president has never been a friend of unions or workers.

Unions obviously have a lot of work to do getting their own house in order. But we should wish them well. They provide a bulwark against a diminishing middle class, and they can once again offer a ladder into it, as Mike Quill and other 20th Century Diaspora union leaders did.

Connolly and Larkin fought mighty battles in their day. O’Sullivan, Samuelson, and the many inspiring union leaders at the Edison Hotel have a war ahead of them. But they have history, statistics – and right – on their side.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Van and Rory - Linked by Glory


They were like two local knights who ventured out from safe havens and inadvertently conquered the world.

One from Belfast, the other from Cork - both womblike and claustrophobic cities - how wrenching it must have been to break free!

One is truculent, as befits his embattled East Side Belfast, the other remained the quiet, mannerly boy from the banks of the Lee. Regardless Van Morrison and Rory Gallagher were driven loners who did it in their inimitable way.

Belfast and Cork were very different places in the 1950’s when these two aspiring musicians hit the streets. 

Van’s father introduced him to the R&B music that would shape his life. Rory, on the other hand, was a knob twirler who hunted down exotic music in the white noise hiss of old tube driven, cloth-covered wirelesses.

That’s how he found AFN (American Forces Network) and one night was rocked back on his heels to hear Blues courtesy of Muddy Waters on an electric Fender. Small wonder that Rory would become one of the world’s great Stratocaster players.

Oddly enough both got their professional starts in that much maligned Irish institution – the showband - Van began with The Monarchs, Rory debuted with The Fontana.

Showbands could be soul-killers – you copied whatever was current in the Top Twenty – a set of three swingers, followed by three smooches ad infinitum.

But showbands provided three invaluable foundation stones:  stamina, for you played four to six hours every gig. You also learned to wing it in every key because of demanding brass sections. And most importantly, you got paid!

After my first showband gig back in Wexford I was still tingling from the sheer exhilaration of playing a four-hour set. I would gladly have swept the filthy stage in gratitude. Instead the gaffer handed me a pound note and a bottle of Harp, and with that I became “a professional.”

Van had an advantage – though from a Belfast backwater he was raised as a son of the British Empire with all the accompanying illusions of superiority. 

Rory came of age in the land of de Valera where inferiority was baked into your DNA. But the Corkman had a dream, kept his head down, and knocked a hole in the wall big enough for many of us to sneak through.

“Business associates” ripped off both of them. Van made pennies from his early hits including the massive selling “Gloria.” Due to various legal hassles, Rory actually lost money playing with Taste, his highly successful trio.

Neither cared in the least for the trappings of superstardom. To this day Van has an acrimonious relationship with the media and his adoring fans. 

Rory, the nice guy, submitted to interviews but took little pleasure talking about himself. But get him going on Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters, and his face would glow with awe and delight.

The one thing they really shared was a vision for their work, and an endless search for innovation that might lead them closer to perfection. 

Though friends, they never jammed. On their only arranged recording date for Van’s Wavelength sessions, “The Man” didn’t show. Rory shrugged it off but even years later it irked the hell out of him.

Their various romantic relationships could be intense and dizzying, but in the end readily discarded, for ultimately the work was all that mattered.

Van is alive and raring to go with his 37th album, Roll with the Punches. Rory departed way too soon – all we have left are the memories of those blazing, sweat-soaked, Strat-man nights when he’d stretch out multiple extended encores rather than go home to four lonely pulsing walls.

Perhaps he sums up both their lives. "I've toured too much for my own good. It hasn't left time for very much else, unfortunately. You don't develop any family life or anything like that and it makes all your relationships very difficult. 

There's always a certain percentage missing from your life. As a human being, you only have so much to give, not just in terms of your physical body but in how you deal with people.”

We’re the lucky ones. We gained so much from our two local knights who while battling with their demons lit up our lives with their visions.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

The Priest and the Fireman


            Anyone knocking around Manhattan in those days knew people who perished, but for me it all comes back to the priest and the fireman.

            Even sixteen years later I can look offstage and imagine where each would be – Father Michael Judge standing by the bar, impeccably coiffed, surrounded by friends; and Richie Muldowney NYFD, darting around the room bantering with all and sundry, crooked smile lighting up the joint.

            Though both frozen in time they summon up the city as it used to be. For New York changed ineffably on 9/11when the spirits of so many unique people departed. They’ve been replaced, of course, great cities do that, but it’s not quite the same, is it?

            I often thought of Mychal as a mirror, he was so empathetic he seemed to reflect your own hopes and fears. I never knew anyone who helped so many people; he was always concerned, forever providing a shoulder. 

I guess he came to see Black 47 to let off a little steam. I’m not even sure he liked our music – his own taste ran towards the more conventional – but the rhythms, juxtapositions and overall message fascinated him and, anyway, he liked to be in the thick of the action. 

            Richie was hard-core Black 47. He knew all the words, the players, the other fans. He delighted to show up unexpectedly at out-of-town gigs; the moment you saw him you knew it would be a good night. To think such an irrepressible spark was extinguished so early.

            I remember jaywalking across Times Square the first September Saturday the band returned to Connolly’s. The “crossroads of the world” was so deserted in those immediate post-9/11 nights it felt like a scene from a cowboy movie where sagebrush is blowing down the street.

            But cops, firemen, emergency workers, the mad, the innocent and those who just couldn’t stay at home needed somewhere to go – to let the pressure off – and that was the band’s function. 

Those first gigs were searing. You couldn’t be certain who was missing, who had survived, who was on vacation, who just needed a break from it all. When a familiar face walked through the door the relief was palpable, someone else had made it. 

The atmosphere – though on the surface subdued - was charged with an underlying manic energy, a need to commemorate, celebrate, to show that life was going on. That would be some small revenge on the bastards who had caused all the heartbreak.

And yet, what an opportunity was missed in those first weeks. That smoldering pit down on Rector Street had galvanized the country. We were all so united; we would have done anything asked of us.

Republican, Democrat, Independent, we all came together as Americans. We would have reduced our dependence on foreign oil, rejuvenated poor neighborhoods, taught classes in disadvantaged schools. You name it - nothing would have been too big, too small either.

But no sacrifice was asked, much less demanded. Instead, 9/11 was used by cheap politicians to get re-elected; patriotism was swept aside by an unrelenting xenophobic nationalism that brooked no dissent. The US was converted into a fortress and the lights were dimmed in the once shining city on the hill. Worst of all, our leaders sought to use the tragedy as an excuse to invade Iraq.

Look at us now, dysfunctional, walled off from each other and the rest of the world. That began when the national will for a positive response was squandered in the aftermath of 9/11.

Though he was finally hunted down, sometimes it seems as though Osama Bin Laden won, for we’ve become a fearful, partisan people, unsure of ourselves, uncertain of our future.

But then I think of Mychal and Richie, their smiles beam across the years and I know that the current national malaise is just a patina that covers the soul of the country – it can be wiped away. It’s not permanent. We have greatness in us yet. 

That’s the hard-earned lesson of 9/11 and will always be the message of the priest and the fireman.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Tower Records and the Analog Rain


Feeling stressed, overworked, not enough hours in the day, can’t seem to catch up? Welcome to the modern world!

When was the last time you read a book, went for a walk, gloried in a sunset, or bet on two flies inching up a wall?

On the other hand when did you last delete an email, reply to a text, flip through your Instagram, or check your online bank balance?

It’s a strange new relentless world we’ve tumbled into. I only became aware of its all-encompassing nature upon discovering an old phone-message book that lay abandoned in all its triplicate glory. 

I used to keep it by my landline but it had been banished to an overstuffed drawer; it was like a glimpse back into a less stressed life. The last entry was September 21st, 2003. And then nothing – just acres of blank pages!

I was startled by how legible my handwriting was. Now it often takes me minutes to decipher the words of a new song that I might have scribbled on a bar coaster or the back of an envelope. 

I used to carry a notebook for such jottings. I thought of searching for it, but I hadn’t checked my emails in over an hour.

It was then I remembered a particular night I returned to my apartment to find the light of my answering machine blinking. When I pressed “play” my mother spoke to me from across five time zones. 

She didn’t call often and there was nothing sensational in her news, just a meandering day-to-day account of my family’s doings back in Wexford. 

But oh, the casualness of that message, the “couldn’t care less as rain” nature of it!

If she was still alive she’d probably be texting or Facebooking me. She’d be far less unhurried though for even retired mothers nowadays are bombarded by communication in this age of anxious expectancy.

And then I remembered a long ago night at The Bottom Line when, I saw a guy called Tom Waits open for someone. No one paid him much attention – he seemed like some bum off the Bowery imitating Satchmo.

I happened to be standing by the public phone when he shuffled out after his set to make a call. He was short a couple of quarters and asked if I could help out. That was about all I had to my name after downing some Heinekens so I surrendered the coins somewhat reluctantly. 

When she finally picked up I heard him say, “Hi honey… I miss you badly.” There was a yearning to those simple words that I can still recall. I could tell he hadn’t heard her voice in a while.

He’d be bent over a glaring iPhone today in some 24/7 text dialogue, and “honey” would have to fish for his exquisite longing amongst the cold letters of her own digital screen.

If our damned devices would only knock us out at night we could dream about those we love; instead we sleep fitfully and drift through anxious days slipping ineffably further away from a time when we more valued face-to-face communication, awkward though that often was.

It was raining as I walked home past Tower Records on Broadway. I thought of going in and checking up on this Tom Waits – did he have an album out? Had he made an impression yet on the LP cowboys who patrolled the record racks, and knew everyone who was anyone before they even knew themselves.

But the rain felt good on my face and, anyway, I was missing my own “honey” far away. Things hadn’t been going well between us. Maybe there’d be a blinking light awaiting me on my answering machine.

I knew that was unlikely so I cursed Tom Waits for I had a burning urge to speak to her. If I’d only kept a quarter I could have called her collect from the phone booth on Second Avenue.

Would a modern cell phone have made any difference back then? I doubt it; all of the Apps in the digital universe can’t help when someone else’s mind is made up. And so I strolled on through the analog rain and walked right out of her life.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Tramore and the Feast of the Assumption


How many children could fit in the back seat of a battered, blue Morris Minor? Five of us, though it seemed we had enough writhing knees and sharp elbows to suggest a dozen.

Who cared? It was August 15th and we were on our way to Tramore in the County Waterford to celebrate the Feast of the Assumption.

We had gone to early mass, my mother packed sandwiches and flasks of hot tea, my grandfather sat stiff-backed behind the steering wheel, and with a roar we shuddered out of sleepy Wexford.

We were not on some pilgrimage, however - far from it - we were hotfooting it to the Mecca of secular excitement in the Sunny South East.

Tramore, as its Gaelic name "Trá Mór" implies, may have had a gigantic strand but it also boasted a veritable Disneyland of swings, rings, carousels, bumpers, and sundry other amusements.

My grandfather, a taciturn widower, even seemed to perk up as we crawled through Waterford City and got in line behind the other culchie cars on our odyssey to wonderland.

Dowdy Waterford had assumed a Vegas-like sheen since the local Royal Showband catapulted into Irish superstardom. Everyone was familiar with Brendan Bowyer, the “Irish Elvis,” who could shake a leg and rattle a tonsil as soulfully as the King himself. 

And hadn’t The Royal got their start playing in Tramore’s Atlantic and Silver Slipper ballrooms. Oh, the glamour of it all!

By the time we caught sight of the rolling waves Tramore’s fabled beach was already packed with countrymen in their dark suits, starched white shirts, and rolled-up trousers.

The ladies’ hair was tall and teased as Dusty Springfield’s, and their bright summer dresses swirled around naked sunburned legs in the devilish South wind.

The Blessed Virgin Mary may have ascended into heaven on Aug. 15th but in Tramore Lugh, the Celtic god of light and plenty ruled that rollicking seaside town.  

Teddyboys in drainpipe trousers, pink shirts and multi-colored jackets, cruised the proceedings seeking fights with red-faced chaps who’d bicycled in from the country.

But a spirit of randy frivolity prevailed; this was not a time for aggression or repression – either secular or religious. The smell of Brylcreem and Woolworths perfume melded in the breezy Atlantic sun, and sparks of freedom ricocheted all around that brazen gathering.

Old Ireland had come out for the day in the form of itinerant cardsharps, tricksters, contortionists, and the choice of fabled musicians. I saw Maggie Barry there one year, Pecker Dunne another – the last voices of an ancient, if fading, tradition.

They faced a fierce challenge from Bowyer and early Beatles singles blasting from a myriad of tinny speakers. New and old co-existed uneasily but there was little doubt that the times were indeed a changin’ as a nasal young American voice kept on insisting.

My grandfather watched over us in a very unfussy manner; even in our delirium we respected that and stayed within his sight. And yet I sensed his unease. Though he smiled reassuringly he longed for his wife and was wary of this new world that everywhere was swamping the old.

And then a flash of violence – a Teddyboy and a big rawboned country chap went at it, fists striking bone with a sickening thud, sweat and blood flying, until separated by the ebullient crowd. 

At the same moment Maggie Barry’s banjo and George Harrison’s guitar locked horns before waltzing off together in joyful, pagan counterpoint.

The world was changing. Kennedy had been assassinated, rumblings were being heard up North, people were no longer content with sparks of freedom – they desired a cleansing flame.

The shadows were lengthening; it was time to go home. One last tear-around on the bumpers, one last bottle of orange, and if there was enough change from a ten shilling note, some bars of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut for the road.

After we cleared Waterford City, my grandfather began the Rosary. Some of us were already asleep in the back seat. 

A seasoned altar boy, I recited those sorrowful mysteries by heart, but my soul was a million miles away floating along on that mystical lick from George Harrison’s weeping guitar and Brendan Bowyer’s velvety voice.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Radio Dreams


I’ve always loved radio. I can still recall the old cloth-covered Siemens that my grandfather set up next to my bed back in Wexford. The tubes glowed in the dark and cast a ghostly blue light on the fading wallpaper as voices and music drifted in from all over Europe.

I got over television and its force-fed images round about the time I figured that the wondrous equine, Mr. Ed, wasn’t really talking. 

Radio, on the other hand, was transformative. Hearing Like a Rolling Stone and Bob Dylan’s taunting defiance changed my life.

Likewise Van Morrison’s depiction of Madam George conjured an erotic aura of Presbyterian Belfast that we in the South had never imagined.

It wasn’t just music - each of the Soviet bloc countries broadcast English hours on state radio. Propaganda it might have been still it definitely broadened adolescent horizons.

But the real prize was AFN (American Forces Network). On clear nights this station beamed laser-like from West Germany to Wexford and all of a sudden you’d have James Browne, Otis Redding, Gene Vincent, and Eddie Cochran proclaiming the real truth about what it meant to be alive.

And so it was like a dream come true to get my own three-hour radio show on SiriusXM Satellite Radio twelve years ago.

As with many good things in life it came out of the blue. I was up at Sirius doing an interview with Meg Griffin for a newly released Black 47 CD when one of the executives overheard my accent. Turned out they needed such a blas to host a Celtic show!

Nor was anyone exactly sure what a Celtic show might be – including me. But one was needed for the following weekend, so into the studio I went - with Meg to teach me the technical side.

Sirius had around 100 vaguely themed “Celtic songs” in their vaults and I initially brought roughly the same from my own collection. At first I stuck to the music from the 8 Celtic nations: Ireland, Scotland, Wales, The Isle of Man, The Dutchy of Cornwall, Brittany in France, and Galicia and Asturias in Spain. 

Meg suggested I follow the old FM Radio strategy of a set containing three songs followed by a chat about the music, the musicians, or the price of turnips should nothing else spring to mind.

Unbeknownst to me Sirius had been banging the gong about this new Celtic experiment so I had an audience from the git-go - and a fairly informed one at that - from all over the US and Canada.

One of the few Sirius stipulations was that your show be not parochial or too New Yawk based – North America is a big bloody place, they reasoned, and since the introduction of the SiriusXM App the world is your oyster.

SiriusXM (the two satellite channels merged 9 years ago) is personality driven and you’re encouraged to air your views. Hardly a problem, since it would be difficult to ignore the historical and political roots of Celtic music.

Besides there’s a great hunger for heritage and a visceral need to connect with the past – something I learned on my trips around the continent with Black 47.

In an increasing age of disconnection and banal perfection, there’s also a growing taste for a human voice that improvises, riffs, and even falls flat on its face. 

The show is about the song rather than the singer. Perhaps that’s self-preservation for with Howard Stern down the hall and 150 other channels competing for the 32 million subscribers you’d better have interesting and compelling content. 

But it’s more than that, most radio is so programmed nowadays, it’s important that the unknown with a dream back in one of the 8 Celtic nations, or adrift in the Diaspora, has the same shot as U2, Christy Moore, The Dropkick Murphys or other stars in the Celtic firmament.

Yeah, it’s a long way from a cloth covered old Siemens wireless back in Wexford to the 36th Floor SiriusXM studios in Midtown Manhattan but what a thrill to be a weaver of my own radio dreams!

Celtic Crush can be heard on The Loft, Channel 30, SiriusXM Satellite Radio Sundays 9amET, Tuesdays 9pmET, Wednesday MidnightET or On Demand.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Ireland and Irish-America


Ireland and Irish-America are drifting apart. The links between the two countries remain strong but the dearth of Irish immigrants is finally taking its toll.

I began to notice the change in the late-90’s around Irish saloons in Chicago, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Detroit, and other cities in the greater Mid-West. But I attributed it to the return home of so many Irish during the Celtic Tiger Years.

One could say the change really began with the Hart-Celler Act of 1965. This ended a long-standing quota system based on national origin that favored Irish immigration. One side effect of this act was that during the watershed 1960’s, with the lack of new blood arriving, values and attitudes calcified.

When I first played at dance-pubs like Durty Nelly’s and The Archway in The Bronx in the mid-70’s, I often felt like I was stepping back in time. 

I was with Turner & Kirwan of Wexford then – a progressive duo who specialized in long, complicated musical pieces. We quickly had to revert to sets of three fast songs and then three smooches in order to retain the gigs and keep the patrons happy.

The ladies, for the most part, wore dresses and heels, the gentlemen suits. The only difference between a Kingsbridge Road saloon and a 1950’s Irish ballroom was that everyone got blasted and danced until near dawn.

The 80’s quickly changed this state of affairs. Mass unemployment in the Republic and violence in the North led to a surge in illegal immigration. Bainbridge, Woodside, Bay Ridge, and other Irish enclaves around the country thrummed to the beat of the “New Irish” who transformed Irish-America in that rollicking decade.

Those Northern Irish immigrants who had come of age in “the struggle” radicalized Irish-America in the years between the Hunger Strikes and the Peace Process. 

In fact it could be argued that many Irish-Americans knew far more about what was going on in the Falls Road or South Armagh than most residents of the Republic.

A somewhat blind eye was turned towards the undocumented Irish back then. Stay out of trouble and you had little to fear; it didn’t hurt that many in the law-enforcement community were of Irish descent.

All changed after 9/11. Fortress America clanged shut with a vengeance and there’s little likelihood of the doors opening anytime soon.

Ireland, however, was changing too. The ongoing scandal of pedophilia destroyed the power of the Catholic Church, while a booming economy opened minds as well as wallets. Ireland truly became a European country and a young person was as likely to move to Berlin as The Bronx.

The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was one of the breaking points. While approval ratings for this disaster were in the 70% range in the US, Irish disapproval numbers were roughly the same.

Why go to a country where you were unwelcome and forced to bite your tongue before making a political statement? Better instead emigrate to more liberal Australia, Canada, or mainland Europe.

Socially, the gulf continues to grow. Ireland has just elected a gay man of Indian descent as Taoiseach; such an event is unlikely to happen here in the near future.

Nonetheless Native Irish and Irish-Americans still share many bedrock values. But as someone who has visited every major Irish-American community with Black 47, the divide seems to be widening rather than diminishing.

Who knows if President Trump will be re-elected in 2020 or even survive until then? But he has unleashed some serious Nativist and Know-Nothing forces that don’t bode well for Irish immigration, legal or otherwise.

Meanwhile most young native Irish never even cast a thought about moving to The Bronx, Beverly, Tipperary Hill or the hundreds of other once bustling Irish-American centers. They have Sydney, Toronto, Paris and Berlin on their minds.

What a waste! And how shortsighted that we’re driving away a well educated and dynamic demographic that once naturally gravitated to the US.

In a fractured political environment, it’s time to put pressure on politicians from both parties to come together and introduce new legislation that would encourage young Irish people to come here once again and help revivify the connection between the “old country” and Irish-America.