Friday, 13 April 2018

Bob Dylan's Everlasting Tour

I went to see Dylan in Bridgeport, CT some years back. It was during my Black 47 touring days when I rarely attended other shows – but, hell, it was a free box seat for Bobby. How could I refuse?

I might never have become a musician if I hadn’t heard Like A Rolling Stone. That groundbreaking single sent me helter-skeltering out of womb-like Wexford and into the maelstrom of Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

I never met Dylan, though we briefly shared the same manager. However, one hung over snowy morning in Tribeca I overheard his unmistakable drawl. Sure enough, he and a lady friend were approaching me on the icy sidewalk.

As you might imagine I did a double take, whereupon he threw me a frigid glance that thundered, “Stroll on, pal!”

And I did, though I wouldn’t have known what to say anyway except, “Hey, man, any chance of an Alka-Seltzer?”

But here I was – almost a lifetime later - in Webster Bank Arena in the unaccustomed comfort of a boxed seat, far from my roots in the mosh pits of CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City.

The opening bands, Wilco, and My Morning Jacket, were excellent – for about 30 minutes - but as their sets stretched beyond the hour mark, I had to wonder, “What are you thinking, Bobby? These guys are wearing out your audience!”

But after the rigors of 4000 or so gigs I guess Dylan doesn’t concern himself with such trivialities.

Then he was suddenly, if laconically, onstage – no announcement, just a stroll on with his band. 

Nor did things click straight away. The guitarist was new, and unfamiliar with some of the songs.
The audience too seemed underwhelmed. As I made my way towards the stage people were already leaving. And then there were only three rows of diehards between me and The Man.

It was a surreal scene. Dylan doesn’t play guitar anymore and the band was gathered around him in a semi-circle. They were dressed in Tex-Mex style, but they had found the groove and were beginning to swing.

Occasionally Bob tinkered with a keyboard, but for the most part he stood out front like a weathered Old Testament prophet; however, as the set progressed and the audience thinned he became more defiant, his shades unable to mask the brittle flashes of anger.

That mattered little to the audience, many of whom were wondering aloud when he would play Just Like A Woman, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, or other classics.

I didn’t care. That familiar nasal voice from my youth washed over me like warm Wexford rain - comforting, nourishing, and ultimately healing.

The new songs sounded good, though I couldn’t distinguish many words; but who cared, I knew exactly what he was saying. 

Dylan may be our most gifted and enduring lyricist but, like Joyce, he has transcended mere words – he speaks his own language now and its snarls, sighs, and syllables are imbued with a universe of moods and meanings. 

Still the crowd got smaller and I found myself in the front row, as close as I had been on that long-ago, hung over Tribeca morning.

Then he began She Belongs To Me and I remembered singing that song for my first girlfriend back in Wexford, and with that the dam broke.

I might have been rooted to the floor in Bridgeport but I was also ricocheting around the country through a Montana sunset, a Geary Street midnight, an East Village afterhours, a Key West dawn - down all the years of knocking about on a rock & roll journey that for once made some sense.

And in those hallucinogenic moments I experienced all the strains of poetry and music in Dylan’s voice - from Congo Square in “Nawlins” up the Mississippi Delta to Route 66, and back East to Washington Square, in shades of Kerouac and Liam Clancy, Blind Willie McTell and Buddy Holly, Walt Whitman and crazy-man Allen Ginsburg howling to the moon on East 12th Street.

And then Bobby was bowing, smirking like the joker he’s always been, heading for his bus - the Voice of America off on the next leg of his everlasting tour.

Thursday, 15 March 2018


New York was a different place back then.  Smaller, less complicated, when you went out for a night, it was just you, the world and whomever you ran into.

Thus it came to pass that Phelim Lunny and I ended up one night in the early 80’s at Tier 3, a “happening” club in Tribeca. 

After a pint or so there was a commotion at the door and in bounded Jayne County, as only Jayne – once known as Wayne - could do. 

All heads turned, especially when a sheepish looking David Bowie was spotted in her entourage.

Phelim and I, being ultra-cool Lower East Siders, spun nonchalantly back on our stools and stared stone-faced at the bar mirror.

Perhaps David was tired of Jayne’s shenanigans for he suddenly materialized behind us inquiring if he might join our company.  

To say we were shocked would be an understatement but Phelim had enough presence of mind to include him in our round. Whereupon the former Ziggy Stardust said he’d have the same as ourselves.  

Meetings with superstars can be fraught with questions of etiquette. For instance, how does one begin?

Our coolness prevented us from us from dropping to the floor and licking the soles of his shoes – although if he had suggested such an action we would have gladly obliged.

However, David was very down to earth and instantly put us at our ease.

He was wearing a trendy tweed overcoat and looked extremely healthy.  This had not been the case the last time I had seen him perform when he was rail thin and shivering from stress. 

In fact at each performance he seemed to adopt a different persona. Then I had a moment’s panic, was this “very natural David” just another act.

Then he smiled gently while relating some anecdote about a visit to Ireland and all doubt fled. Although very handsome, up close he looked much more like the slightly tweedy English gentleman than the “thin white duke” of his staged photos.

It was around the time of the Hunger Strikes and we spoke about Belfast - what a great but troubled city. He left little doubt that he was not well disposed to Mrs. Thatcher or her handling of Irish issues.

Over some more pints the talk swung back to Berlin. Both Phelim and he had lived there. I told him that his classic Heroes – the city’s signature rock anthem - was one of my favorite songs.

He thanked me and gave a brief, but insightful, account of how he, Brian Eno, and Tony Viscont had concocted this sonic masterpiece.

There were more pints, the club had filled up and the word had inevitably spread that Bowie was in the house. A crowd had gathered behind us, their eyes wide with expectation. David sighed and said he must be going, we shook hands and wished him the best.

As he was putting on his coat he leaned over and said, “You know I could just as easily have written Heroes about Belfast as Berlin – two cities with walls between them.”  

When I heard of his death those last words of his resurfaced.  Like many I was devastated for he had been a great influence, and I thought how lucky to have experienced his charming spirit for an hour or two. 

And in that instant Berlin and Belfast magically morphed and these words gelled into a chanted bridge for Heroes:

You were from the East I was from the West,
You were wearing orange I was wearing green.
You adored in your church, I adored in mine
All we had in common was a special dream
That we could live together, never be apart
No walls could separate the union of our heartsa
Until the bullets ricocheted along the Shankill Road
You became a memory I would always love, forever…

I recorded a version of Heroes/Belfast recently and it’s now available on iTunes and all other digital outlets.

It’s a tribute to David Bowie, and all the brooding joy and inspiration he gave us. But it’s even more for those of us who violently disagree but day by day tear down the walls that keep us apart.

Available Now

Or on iTunes (…/album/heroes-belfast-…/1351583349) and Amazon (…/…/ref=sr_1_1…).

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Crazy Eddie

I sometimes think we’re living in a country run by Crazy Eddie.  Remember him?

There was a certain novelty to the guy at first – an endearing quality to his shouting and haranguing on television ads. 

Same story in his stores, you were barked at, belittled, and hustled like a lamb to the slaughter of his cash register. Eventually, however, old Eddie went bust.

President Trump almost makes you long for the simple homespun qualities of George W. Bush. But that’s hardly fair to our present POTUS, for so far he hasn’t destroyed the Middle East, nor does he have a budget surplus to blow.

Still, it would be a nice break to bask in Barack Obama’s icy calmness or Ronald Reagan’s reassuring smile every now and then.

For President Trump is wearing us all out. The man thrives on trouble and strife.

But I’ll grant him one thing – he’s enabled this political junky to go cold turkey. I’ve sworn off politics and returned to more important matters - like worrying about The Mets and Manchester United.

This doesn’t preclude me from considering the consequences of the president’s policies.

For instance, the new corporate tax rate of 21% will definitely enrich corporations and their 1% handlers, leaving the frothy promise of one-off bonuses for lesser souls like you and me – if we’re lucky.

What the new tax rate does guarantee is a huge bump in the deficit. The piper will have to be paid and cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are inevitable.

The carried interest loophole for hedge fund executives, however, remains untouched, while a last minute provision to the new tax legislation will benefit wealthy real estate investors. Eddie may be crazy but he ain’t stupid!

Forget about any meaningful infrastructure investment. Of course, the president’s idea of such spending is that the private sector should provide the bulk with the Feds kicking in a minute remainder.

Speaking of which I have a nice little stretch of the Connecticut Turnpike up around Greenwich available at a bargain price; you can charge your own tolls, and before you know it you could end up in the White House.

On the plus side, assuming the stock market is still booming, a congratulatory fist-bump for El Presidente and everyone else with some bucks in the game! And yet, personally, I prefer a cool hand on the rudder when the markets swoon which they inevitably will.

What does this president really believe? Between lies and exaggerations it’s hard to tell. You have to hope he doesn’t believe his own hype. The alternative of a self-deluded, nuclear-packing narcissist running the show is too frightening for words.

I always felt better knowing that the actor who played Crazy Eddie went straight to the pub then home to his wife after his manic TV rants.

But then our guy in the White House doesn’t even take a pint, and Melania doesn’t seem to be very good company these days.

On a private matter, doesn’t Mr. Trump understand that the US eventually benefits from mass immigration? Back in the mid 19th Century many Irish immigrants arrived unwashed, hungry, and illiterate from a broken, priest-ridden land. Now their descendants are running the US.

Because they have less choices immigrants tend to start their own businesses, thereby creating jobs for native-born Americans. A case in point - Steve Jobs’ father was a Syrian immigrant, Abdul Fattah Jandali.

Donald Trump hasn’t cracked a book since Goodnight Moon, but he’s a TV junky, and thus instinctively knew that there’s little difference anymore between reality shows and reality itself – whatever that is. Just keep shouting, threatening and tweeting, and you never know what you might achieve. 

Anything is possible when the Democratic Party is led by Chuck Schumer who puts all his cards on the table by offering funding for a Mexican wall in exchange for long term amnesty for Dreamers.

Crazy Eddie understood that if he got you inside his store he’d make a sale.

Likewise President Trump knows you don’t have to be lucky for four full years – you just need to keep the waters muddied and get a couple of breaks around polling day.

Bah humbug, enough of this politics, the Mets and Manchester United need my attention!

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Seán MacDiarmada, John Redmond and Wexford

I must have been around seventeen when I realized I had never seen my grandfathers in the same room together. They were both quite old by then and this behavior had been going on for well over fifty years.

One lived on a stately farm less than a mile outside town – now sadly buried beneath estates full of houses – the other, a headstone maker, occupied a big old barracks of a house near Wexford’s Selskar Abbey.

The cattle dealer drove into town most mornings for a shave, and a whiskey in The Wren’s Nest; he passed close to the headstone maker’s yard, yet their paths never seemed to cross.

By the same token, I never heard either of them say an unkind word about each other.

Lest you think this tale somewhat odd, there were many similar stories in the Ireland of my childhood. Most had their genesis in the brutal civil war of 1922-23.

This one, however, began some years earlier, yet it retains a certain resonance.

You see, the cattle dealer was a follower of John Redmond, leader of the Home Rule Party and a local Member of the British Parliament, while the headstone maker was an admirer of Seán MacDiarmada, one of the leaders of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

In a major parliamentary victory in 1914, the bookish, uncharismatic Redmond gained Home Rule for Ireland – something that Daniel O’Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell failed to do in their legendary careers.

Alas, that August the “war to end all wars” broke out between the Allies – Britain, France and Russia – and the Central Powers of Germany, and Austria-Hungary.

Redmond’s allies in the British Government prevailed upon him to postpone enactment of Home Rule until the war ended. Redmond advised Irish men to enlist in the British Army in a show of good will.

It was commonly expected that the war would be over by Christmas 1914 and that the young men would return matured and all the better for their great adventure; however it stretched on until 1918 and over 40 million people would perish in the years of combat.

One of them was my grand uncle, John Kirwan, aged 22, the cattle dealer’s only brother. Thus did the lofty affairs of Europe play out on the narrow provincial streets of Wexford.

John was among 59,247 British soldiers killed at the Battle of Loos over a couple of days in the Autumn of 1915 - in what was later deemed a suicidal advance towards the German lines.

He’s buried somewhere over there – another undistinguished pawn in the “great game.”

His death, however, had grave repercussions in Wexford. John’s mother, my great-grandmother, was consumed with grief and in the whispered words of my granny, “she lost her senses.”

Apparently she would accost other returned soldiers on the street and demand why they survived while “my John” did not.

My grandfather never spoke about the loss of his brother. He was a taciturn man at best, and I can only imagine that the event deepened his somewhat pessimistic take on life.

The headstone maker always spoke kindly of John Kirwan, and admired his athletic prowess and general character; though he would usually sigh about “the great mistake” such a fine man had made in joining the British Army.

For my grandfather Hughes was a supporter of the 1916 Uprising – a minority group in the Home Rule citadel of Wexford.

My grandfather Kirwan considered this “suicidal debacle” the ultimate “stab in the back” to the young Wexford men off fighting the Great War.

John Kirwan considered himself to be no less an Irish patriot than any republican; he gave up his life in a foreign land to achieve Home Rule for Ireland.

Alas for him and the thousands of other Home Rule Irish dead and injured, they were essentially written out of history, for they became an inconvenient fact in the new 26 County Free State where the Republican sacrifice of 1916 was venerated.

Every year, however, on Poppy Day they were uneasily celebrated and memorialized in the streets of Wexford, on a day you can be certain that my two grandfathers took more than usual care not to meet.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Sean O'Casey - Unrepentant Playwright/Navvy

I heard the song, Red Roses For Me, recently. Written by Sean O’Casey in 1943 for his play of the same name, it unleashed a wave of memories.

The commercial failure of the play caused O’Casey to veer away from theatre and write an amazing autobiography. We’re all the better for it.

Born in 1880 into the shabby genteel world of a lower middle class Dublin Protestant family, Sean was six when his father died leaving a family of 13 to fend for itself. As O’Casey would later somewhat drily recall, “All the world’s a stage and most of us are woefully unrehearsed.”

Because of an eye disease Sean’s schooldays were few; however, he taught himself to read and in his early teens mastered Shakespeare.

His lifelong passions were theatre, music, and politics; he mixed them with abandon.

Long on principles, short on patience, Sean O’Casey did not suffer fools easily and never forgot a slight.

If his life was etched in poverty O’Casey refused to be humbled by it. Indeed he was fired from his position as a lowly clerk in Eason’s newspaper business for refusing to doff his cap when receiving his wages. 

Sean O’Casey doffed his cap to no man and was consequently often unemployed.

He was even less successful in affairs of the heart, for his lack of income and Protestantism severely limited his marriage prospects in the largely Catholic world he inhabited.

Nonetheless, he threw himself into the churning political and cultural life of early 20th Century Dublin, and crossed paths – and often swords – with many of the prominent men and women of his day.

Along with Pádraig Pearse and other nationalists he founded the famed St. Lawrence O’Toole Pipe Band, and took up that most difficult of instruments, the Uilleann pipes. In a fury over his constant rehearsing, Sean’s brother eventually took an awl to his wailing pipes.

Outraged by the living conditions in Dublin slums O’Casey became an avid trade unionist and socialist revolutionary. He came under the influence of Jim Larkin’s towering personality and was one of the founders of the Irish Citizen Army. However, he cared little for his comrade, James Connolly, and they clashed over the Scottish socialist’s perceived tilt towards Irish nationalism.

After disagreeing with Countess Markievicz on similar issues he resigned as Secretary of the Citizen Army.

This would ultimately save his life, for it’s hard to imagine that the British authorities would have shown clemency towards the fiery proletarian revolutionary after the 1916 Uprising.

With time on his hands O’Casey began to write for the theatre and after many rejections he scored three massive successes with Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock, and The Plough and the Stars. Each a perfect blend of tragedy and comedy these searing plays laid bare the effects of poverty, and religious and patriotic cant on the Irish soul.

But O’Casey was never totally accepted in any field - riots broke out in the Abbey Theatre during The Plough and The Stars over his portrait of a prostitute in “holy Catholic Ireland.”

After The Abbey rejected his anti-war drama, The Silver Tassie, Sean moved to England. Though he is recognized as one of the world’s greatest playwrights he never repeated the success of his dramatic Dublin trilogy. 

And so he turned to memoir, and in six volumes with the umbrella title, Mirror in My House, we get a detailed insight into eighty years of Irish political, social, and theatrical history from an acid-tongued observer. 

Sure he settled a score here and there, and if he was harsh on James Connolly at least we get to see the man rather than the legend.

And oh the heartbreak! Was there ever a more searing rejection than his beloved ignoring the impoverished workman when out walking with her well heeled friends?

Sean O’Casey not only changed the world of theatre, he took the time to put the passion and pain of his eventful life into print for the rest of us to marvel at.

He may have been peevish, harshly ideological, and easily wounded, but the Dublin playwright/navvy summed himself up best.  “I’ll go the last few steps of the way rejoicing; I’ll go game, and I’ll die dancing.”

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Hendrix and Christmas

The past and the present are inexplicably interlinked, yet we often forget how closely.

I had been thinking of writing a particular musical for some time – oh, perhaps twenty years; like many things it seemed to fit nicely on the back-burner. I had a good idea of its shape, scope, cast of characters, and theme but couldn’t quite figure how to begin.

Then I got the call. Stewart Lerman, a producer friend, had left a package for me at Electric Lady Studios - could I pick it up?

Nothing like a bit of a stroll on a December day, particularly to the recording studio built by Jimi Hendrix!

It was always a magical place but never more so than when Pierce Turner and I recorded there one Christmas Eve in the 1970’s. The song was called “Neck and Neck (in the race of life)” and I hummed it as I set out on my journey up to 8th Street.

I remembered little of the nuances of the session, but for the first time one of our songs sounded as good on tape as it did in our heads. 

I vividly recalled the psychedelic mural that Hendrix had painted on a corridor wall. Years ago I’d heard that a new owner had painted over Jimi’s vision.

Such is life in New York, and yet to many musicians this was considered sacrilege.

I have two favorite streets for my rambles north through Soho – Mercer or Greene. Back in the 19th Century the former was known colloquially as Oyster Row due to the number of fish merchants peddling their wares on its pavements.

I’m sure Greene Street too had a suitably serviceable name, as it was known internationally for its brothels. Queen Victoria’s son, the future King Edward VII famously paid his amorous respects there in 1860.

Since I was on a rock & roll mission, I chose Mercer Street so as to pass the site of the old Bottom Line club, now unfortunately displaced by a dispassionate New York University office. 

I had seen Springsteen there three times on his legendary five-night stand, and had been ejected for gregariously toasting Peter Gabriel with my own half-pint bottle of Southern Comfort when he danced on my table.

As I approached Washington Square I could hear the drums. The Bottom Line may be history but the Square has always marched to its own different drummer - each decade to its own inimitable beat.

This percussionist was precise and totally on the beat, the product of a life listening to Hip-Hop – so unlike the drummers from the 70’s and 80’s who grooved around a much more spacious pocket.

He was young, dreadlocked, tatted to the hilt, and he shook the Square as he hammered an upturned plastic bucket – no kick drum, just a sheet of beaten aluminum for his high-hat.

The receptionist was expecting me in Electric Lady. She smiled and was so friendly I inquired what year Jimi’s mural had been painted over. 

“It’s still there.” She pointed downstairs. “Why don’t you take a look?”

And there it was, much as I remembered it – a bit faded, but then which of us isn’t?

I stared down that long corridor – each panel a different psychedelic vista. It was like traveling back in time - coming home in a way.

I remembered how full of hope and optimism Pierce and I had been that Christmas Eve. And how that song Neck and Neck had hurled us on to a career in music, and how in some small way Hendrix had been a part of it.

In my head I could still hear the beat of the dreadlocked drummer, and his precise beats deepened the vibe of the mural until the colors and forms seemed to pulse out at me. I was taking a furtive picture on my iPhone when I felt I was being observed.

I spun around certain it was a security guard about to complain– but no, it was Jimi, young and forceful, and glaring out of a frame as if to say “get on with it.” 

And then I heard the opening song from the new musical - the Hendrix magic had worked all over again. Some things never change.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Ewan MacColl

I was reminded of his influence recently when playing three covers of his songs on Celtic Crush/SiriusXM Radio. 

An avowed Marxist he was once considered too dangerous to be allowed into the US, yet he changed the way we listen to music. Born James Miller in 1915, you might know him better as Ewan MacColl.

He was such a towering cultural figure in my youth it never occurred to me that he didn’t hail from the Highlands. His parents were indeed Scottish, but Jimmy Miller was born in Salford, part of Greater Manchester.

You probably never heard of the joint but you’ve hummed along to Millar’s hymn to its industrial dourness - Dirty Old Town.  

Millar couldn’t wait to get out of there. He quit school at 14, was organizing on the streets at 15, began his own theatre company at 16, while the British Secret Service opened their first file on him at 17.

Eventually he would shed his given name too. Ewan MacColl had a better ring for a man intent on changing the world.

He had plenty to revolt against - of four children born to his blacklisted ironworker father and charwoman mother, he was the only survivor. He grew up in a house throbbing with political songs, radical dogma, and a desire for universal revolution.

A voracious reader and self-educated man, he greatly resented the fact that people of his class were rarely granted entry to the halls of academia, much less the corridors of political power. 

Through his travels with his theatre company he came to understand that Britain’s old rural way of life was fast disappearing; and so he set out to record the songs and stories of the poor and dispossessed.

He presented a series of programs on BBC Radio and for the first time many “common folk” heard their accents, vocal mannerisms, and traditions broadcast on a medium that had been the exclusive preserve of the upper classes.

This was to open the door for “regional” people like Brendan Behan, Michael Caine, and The Beatles, all of whom would have been considered figures of fun in earlier decades.

MacColl was a hard, flinty man whose extreme Left Wing views barely softened with time. 

He could be intolerant and though almost singlehandedly responsible for the British folk revival of the 1950’s/60’s, he drew up strict rules for what songs could be sung in his folk club and how the performers should dress and present themselves.

He cared little for public opinion, and caused grave scandal by leaving his second wife while in his ‘40’s to marry Peggy Seeger, Pete’s 21-year old half-sister. Still he wrote one of the great love songs for her, First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, and their union lasted until his death.

I hear his influence often especially in Celtic Music for he was a strict taskmaster to Luke Kelly of The Dubliners who apprenticed at his school for folksingers. 

MacColl’s credo was to dig deep and find the inner core of a song, then sing it from the soul without any kind of ornamentation. He took this to rather absurd lengths with women for he frowned on the use of make up during performance. 

The Pogues would have appalled him and yet Shane McGowan’s delivery is vintage MacColl courtesy of his adoption of Luke Kelly’s soulful, stringent technique.

I once saw MacColl at Folk City in Greenwich Village. Finally admitted into the US, he dominated the stage – and yet there was a sadness about him. It was during the age of Reagan and it was obvious that time had passed the old Marxist by – his revolution would never come.

Oddly enough, the sadness humanized him and as I shook his hand after the gig I was never less than aware that the man who had written Dirty Old Town, The Traveling People, School Day’s Over, and a hundred other great songs, had indeed changed the way we listen to music.

I told him that Turner & Kirwan of Wexford had recorded a heavily synthesized version of Traveling People. With a glint in his eye he said, “I’ve heard of it.”

Choosing discretion over valor, I did not tell him I’d worn mascara many times while performing it.