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Woody lives!

Woody Guthrie, New York, 1943 Pic: Life

Woody Guthrie, New York, 1943
Pic: Life

The closest I got to Woody Guthrie was the morning I quickly shuffled through his personal letters, while a vigilant lady kept a beady eye on me, in a small room in a New York office block.

The office belonged to Harold Leventhal – the legendary music manager who’d worked with Benny Goodman, Pete Seeger, and Guthrie himself. His staff had maintained the folksinger’s archive for decades after Guthrie’s death, and I visited there in 2003 to undertake some research as part of a writing project I’d planned.

My groundwork came to naught, but I did enjoy an hour immersed in manuscripts of Guthrie’s lyrics, letters, and notes (and briefly encountered Leventhal himself). Looking back, the ride up an old escalator to a small room in an ageing Midtown building was the culmination of a journey I’d been on for a few years.

Bruce Springsteen once commented that when he heard the opening of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ for the first time, “that snare shot…sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind”.

My snare shot was the first few fingerpicked bars of ‘This Land Is Your Land’, recorded by Guthrie in 1944 and which I heard for the first time – and listened to heavily afterwards – in my rented room on Cadogan Road in Dublin in the late 1990s.

Every verse hit home, not least the last:

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me

I’ve long since lost the CD that contained that track (and others, including a great Cisco Houston version of ‘Deportee’) – probably because I moved on from it so quickly. Within months, I’d picked up and devoured whatever budget-priced collections of Guthrie’s music I could afford.

Shortly afterwards, on a trip to New York, I came across a copy of ‘Bound For Glory’ at Biography Bookshop on Bleecker Street, five minutes’ walk from ‘Alamanac House’, the apartment Guthrie used as a writing space with Pete Seeger and others in the 1940s.

All the while, I played and sung Guthrie songs on my battered Hohner acoustic guitar – at parties in Dublin, at cook-outs on the shores of Lake Tahoe, and – an occasion which sticks out in my memory – far above New York’s pavements on the balcony of an Upper West Side apartment I crashed at on another brief visit to the city in the 90s.

So Woody Guthrie meant a lot to me back then. He still does – a small part of me takes heart in the fact that every time I see the mighty flow of water which runs 10 minutes from my home in Portland, my first thought is ‘Roll On, Columbia’.

Guthrie’s been back in my mind in recent days, as the 50th anniversary of his death approaches, next Tuesday.

I’ve also seen more of him in recent times – in the humanity displayed by those who comforted the dying and helped the survivors after the Las Vegas shooting, and in the actions of citizens helping one another in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

Like Guthrie’s writings, the practice of people simply helping one another – whether they be lifelong neighbors or complete strangers – stands in contrast to the rancor of partisan politics and the seemingly-constant slew of bad news.

Such actions, like the best of Woody Guthrie’s songs, offer hope.

As the folksinger himself wrote of his life’s work:

I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work.

So next Tuesday I’ll listen or strum a few, remember Woody, and keep the hoping machine running.

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What a two-decade old photo taught me

deathvalley

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Nevada was in the news this week.

And not the good Nevada – the 24 hour, ‘where’s my credit card, actually where’s my trousers?’ Vegas Strip Nevada. Or the eerie lunar landscape Nevada, beloved by hippies. Or even the escape-from-everything-and-start-anew Nevada.

Nope. Instead we had the Nevada of furious politicking, of promises and press conferences, of caucuses and crackpots. Of, worse still, Donald Trump.

But the headlines from the Silver State put me in a nostalgic mood, as did a picture I came across, taken by a friend en route from California to Nevada almost 20 years ago.

It shows a 21-year-old, tired and likely hungover, Irishman posing on a sandy hillside in bleaching sunshine, the desert floor in the distance. My recollection is that this was taken in August 1999, somewhere west of Death Valley on Route 190, shortly before a group of pals and I drove into the basin and on to Las Vegas.

The previous evening had been spent sleeping in the backseat of our rental van parked somewhere on the edge of Yosemite National Park. The following night was a sleepless one, which started with a spectacular thunderstorm on the Vegas city limits and ended at 6am the next morning, sipping refreshments in the dollar slots and wondering where the last 12 hours went.

Then, after a couple of hours’ sleep, we drove out of Vegas and across the United States.

As can probably be gathered from the picture above, my worries at the time barely extended beyond the ensuring 24 hours.

I recall that I had to get to New York City by a certain date to catch a flight back to San Francisco. I had nowhere to stay on the West Coast but I figured that would work itself out. In the end it did, via a payphone call from a Greenwich Village bar to pals in the Sunset who had a spare mattress on their floor.

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After that I had a flight booked out of SF to Dublin. Friends were returning to college or work but I didn’t have a job lined up, or a place to live. It didn’t bother me much. It worked itself out too. The rest, as always, is history. Here I am.

That brief, blazing roadside stop on 190 came to mind this week as I spent too much time testing my blood pressure limit, reading about megalomaniacal politicians, the cracks in the Chinese economy, the weakening of the euro  – all the good psychic dread stuff.

As I did it occurred to me that I need to balance this stuff up. I need to let go more often, to let the future happen.

Above all, I need that guy in the photo to swing by for an hour a week, to set me straight. And I need his hair.

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A lad insane…for a good sandwich

David Bowie. Pic ArthurNYC

David Bowie. Pic ArthurNYC

Many words have been associated with David Bowie in recent days – among them ‘visionary’, ‘icon’ and – naturally enough – ‘starman’.

But not ‘prosciutto di Parma’ – unless you were the owner of Bowie’s local sandwich store, a man likely to feel his passing more than most, given that the star was a regular customer. (Insert gag about ‘the return of the thin white loaf’ here.)

Because Bowie – along with being Ziggy, Aladdin or just David Jones – was a sandwich man. Amidst the reams of coverage of his death this week I read a quote from an Irish caterer, who recounted how the star’s after-show snack-of-choice  in the 1980s was a cheese sandwich.

In latter days, according to Danilo Durante, owner of Bottega Falai in New York’s Soho, it was Parma ham, accompanied by a strawberry sfogliatella pastry (well, he was a rock star after all).

Ziggy had taste. When it comes to sandwiches the Italians – in the face of stiff competition from the Vietnamese (the glorious banh mi) and the Americans (the dripping Reuben) – do it best.

If I needed further evidence of this, apart from that provided by the late Mr Bowie’s dining habits, I encountered it on a visit to Santa Monica a fortnight ago. Braving the hordes of big, small or any-screen wannabes my brother-in-law and I hit Bay Cities Italian Deli – a staple in the area since 1925.

Bay Cities Italian Deli

Bay Cities Italian Deli

The place, and it’s ‘Godmother‘ sandwich, therefore have something of a reputation. A reputation which accounted for a three deep throng at the deli counter and a 20-plus minute wait for service.

The Starman himself would have been happy – there was prosciutto (and just about every other type of cured meat) aplenty. I, however, used my Italian sandwich acid test – order one with burrata.

My all-time favourite sandwich, Fiore Market Cafe’s roast chicken, features this soft cheese. The Bay Cities option was a burrata caprese – essentially a caprese salad in a roll, with the mozzarella subbed out for the softer cheese.

The purists may be sceptical, but it was perfect. The burrata was creamy cold and cut through with just enough sliced onion. The tomatoes and basil were as good as you’d expect in a 90-year old Italian deli. And the whole deal was served up on still-warm house bread. I didn’t want it to end.

All this is a long way from a 60-something David Bowie nipping out for a quick ham roll on his lunch break, of course.

That said, Bowie did play a famous show in the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in 1972 – a venue just a few minutes stroll from Bay Cities Deli.

Did he pop in for a cheese sandwich? He should have.

The burrata caprese

The burrata caprese

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Listening to Dave Van Ronk

DaveVanRonkFolksinger (1)Sometimes a prophet doesn’t cry out in a wilderness,
He works in a great city, battling to be heard.

Sometimes he sits in a small studio and sings –
About old wagons, booze, work, justice and its absence,
Pain and fear and retribution,
And joy too.

About the real stuff that keeps us awake in the night.

Dave Van Ronk brought the message.
Others took it but he carried it out before them – a small, constant light.
He held it in basements, coffeehouses, on Village streets, and he passed it to others.

Such small things – one man’s life, one man’s talent – rarely register.
The song ends. The world moves on.

But those who knew, knew. Some then and some now.
Hang Me, Oh Hang Me. Cocaine Blues. You Been A Good Old Wagon.

He Was A Friend Of Mine.
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Crossing Brooklyn Bridge

  

Walt, I heard you sing – 

How we’re all tied together. 

Multitudes cross still. 

—–

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Listening to New York – a playlist

Woody Guthrie, New York, 1943 Pic: Life

Woody Guthrie, New York, 1943
Pic: Life

New York is the concentrate of art and commerce and sport and religion and entertainment and finance…It carries on its lapel the unexpungeable odor of the long past, so that no matter where you sit in New York you feel the vibrations of great times and tall deeds.

Every time I arrive in New York, stepping up from the bowels of a subway station or out of a yellow taxi, it feels like I’ve stepped into a moving story.

E.B. White felt the same. His testament to the city, Here Is New York, was written more than 60 years ago. The vibrations of great times and tall deeds echo still.

For me the city has always been more about the former. The hum that runs through its art, its sport, commerce and entertainment is a hook that’s drawn me back many times since I first set foot there, emerging from Penn Station 20 years ago into the humid rush hour on a September afternoon.

The vibrations are most clearly manifest in the music of the city: the sound of morning delivery trucks accelerating across junctions, the rattle of subterranean trains heard through ventilation grilles streets above, the rush and push of crowds on cramped sidewalks.

This is echoed in some of the recorded music I’ve listened on visits to the city – New York compositions, songs and performances.

Ahead of an upcoming visit I’ve put together a dozen of these on a playlist. Today, it seems, is an appropriate one to listen to it.

800px-53rd_&_3rdSome of the tracks are, at this stage, part of the fabric of the city itself  – Rhapsody In Blue, George Gershwin’s attempt to capture New York’s “vast melting pot”, its “metropolitan madness”, for one.

Others are more personal. Phil Chevron’s Thousands Are Sailing depicts a city seen through the eyes of the Irish immigrants of the 1980s – the “desert twilight” of Broadway at dusk, the postcards home from “rooms that daylight never sees”.

Some are well-known – Woody Guthrie’s anthem This Land Is Your Land opens by namechecking “the New York island”. Others less so.

Movement, transit, motion onwards and forward is a regular theme, from Duke Ellington’s Take The “A” Train to – two generations later – Guru’s Transit Ride – two takes on the same subway system.

And the street is ever-present: Lou Reed waiting on a corner of Lexington and 125th, Joey Ramone on 53rd and 3rd, a new-in-town Bob Dylan staring up at the Empire State Building.

It’s all New York, a place – as White wrote – “like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines”.

Or one where, as the Beastie Boys put it, there’s no sleep ’til Brooklyn.

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Three cities in three paragraphs

The Phoenix Park, Dublin. Pic: CGP Grey

The Phoenix Park, Dublin.
Pic: CGP Grey

The One City, One Book event run annually in Dublin always strikes me as a tease.

Whenever I read of this year’s nominated book I usually think: what of X, or Y – when will Z get the credit it deserves?

Some years ago a visiting friend asked me what books she should read ahead of a visit to the city. I was stumped. Who would to attempt Ulysses as a primer for a city break? Kavanagh’s Baggotonia represents Dublin but just one part of it.

I’ve found myself similarly stumped when travelling abroad. For years I’ve sought out The Great London Novel – to no avail. Dickens, Greene or Ackroyd each wrote part of what that city is, but as the deeper I read the more I’m left with a sense of the enormity of the task, the impossibility of knowing the place through literature.

Perhaps it’s a side-effect of Twitter, or a symptom of distraction, but lately I’ve turned to extracts, simple paragraphs, as triggers to evoke a memory or mood of certain places.

In the past year I’ve spent time in three world cities – all of which are of course impossible to depict in a single paragraph. But if I had to pick…

Jones Street, NYC

Jones Street, NYC

…my first choice would be Pete Hamill’s Whitman-esque evocation of his home city in Downtown: My Manhattan, an account written by a man – as I always envisage him – standing alone on that island’s west side piers on a late Autumn afternoon, just before sundown.

Go down to the North River and the benches that run along the west side of Battery Park City. Watch the tides or the blocks of ice in winter; they have existed since the time when the island was empty of man. Gaze at the boats. Look across the water at the Statue of Liberty or Ellis Island, the place to which so many of the New York tribe came in order to truly live…Gaze at its ruins and monuments. Walk its sidewalks and run fingers upon the stone and bricks and steel of our right-angled streets. Breathe the air of the river breeze.

My wife is from Los Angeles and I’ve spent time there, but not enough to fully appreciate the astonishing capacity it offers for reinvention, the cost of which is grinding failure, the reward searing success. Joan Didion understood the distance between the two, writing in Slouching Toward Bethlehem.

Venice Beach, California

Venice Beach, California

The future always looks good in the golden land, because no one remembers the past.  Here is where the hot wind blows and the old ways do not seem relevant, where the divorce rate is double the national average and where one person in every thirty-eight lives in a trailer. Here is the last stop for all those who  come from somewhere else, for all those who drifted away from the cold and the past and the old ways.  Here is where they are trying to find a new life style, trying to find it in the only places they know to look:  the movies and the newspapers.

Finally, to Joyce – and Dublin. Not Leopold Bloom’s city wanderings, but rather those of Mr Duffy in the Dubliners‘ story ‘A Painful Case’, who pauses on a hilltop in the Phoenix Park and looks over the city stretching eastward along the Liffey, thinking of his deceased lover.

When he gained the crest of the Magazine Hill he halted and looked along the river towards Dublin, the lights of which burned redly and hospitably in the cold night. He looked down the slope and, at the base, in the shadow of the wall of the Park, he saw some human figures lying… He turned his eyes to the grey gleaming river, winding along towards Dublin. Beyond the river he saw a goods train winding out of Kingsbridge Station, like a worm with a fiery head winding through the darkness, obstinately and laboriously. It passed slowly out of sight; but still he heard in his ears the laborious drone of the engine reiterating the syllables of her name.

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The punk persistence of Patti Smith 

patti-smith-horsesIt’s almost 40 years since Patti Smith released Horses – a recording she will perform live in Dublin next Monday.

As music, as image, as artefact, Horses stands apart – a repository of Smith’s punk reveries and the deconstructed rock music of her band.

The record propelled the poet-singer to stardom, of a sort – as a boho-punk queen who blew aside the machismo that saturated the first generation of rock music. The music on Horses was as direct as the singer’s stare on the front cover of the album.

The record itself is full of literary and musical influences, from Arthur Rimbaud to The Ramones, Wilhelm Reich to Them.

But you can also hear something on Horses that goes back beyond these inspirations, past the iconography, the legend and the acclaim that surrounds the album, to a younger Patti Smith.

By the time Horses was recorded, in 1975, Smith had been pursuing her muse for eight years, since leaving her New Jersey home aged 20 for Manhattan’s Lower East Side, by way of Brooklyn.

She’d waitressed, attempted to work as a book restorer, been a clerk and a salesperson, all jobs which helped her scratch out a living while writing poetry and painting.

justkidsedit1Her memoir Just Kids recounts these early, almost always drizzly New York days; and the nights spent in cold-water flats or, at the outset, sleeping in doorways or rough in Central Park. There are moments of bright light too, afternoons spent with her partner Robert Mapplethorpe at Coney Island, evenings in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel with Harry Smith or William Burroughs.

The commitment to writing, the mental persistence of these early days in the face of poverty and doubt and illness, lies at the heart of Horses.

Tracks like Land (which paid tribute to Rimbaud) or Gloria (a track which begins with an anti-prayer – “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” – before reincarnating Van Morrison’s original) stand out on early listens of the album.

But its core is the simpler, touching Free Money, a song which gives us Patti Smith before she became the Patti Smith. There are no allusions to French symbolist poets or cries to God here.

Addressing her penniless lover Mapplethorpe, Smith instead asks: wouldn’t it be great if we won the lottery?

Every night before I go to sleep
Find a ticket, win a lottery,
Scoop the pearls up from the sea
Cash them in and buy you all the things you need.

She never did, of course. Instead she pulled her way up page by page, pushing and persisting until she sounded a call which resonated with thousands of others like  – and unlike – her.

Drudgery, rejection and poverty turned to poetry and music – that’s what makes Patti Smith punk.


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Sonny: Mythic musician, noisy neighbour

The Williamsburg Bridge. Pic: Tyrael 28

The Williamsburg Bridge.
Pic: Tyrael 28

A saxophone player stands and plays for hours on a bridge – the sky above, the Hudson river below. It’s 1959, it’s New York City and the musician is Sonny Rollins.

For weeks he’s been walking to the Williamsburg Bridge from his apartment on Grand Street in Lower Manhattan. Once he arrives at his chosen spot he stands and practices, often for hours. Sometimes he brings friends, more often he’s alone. Usually he spends hours blowing, choosing to play on the bridge rather than in the city clubs.

Three years later Sonny Rollins returns to the jazz scene, releasing an album inspired by (though sadly not recorded on) the bridge – and named after it.

What did Rollins find during those 15 hour days he spent alone over the Hudson River? Whatever it was, it led him back to the music scene that he had stepped away from, frustrated by his self-perceived limitations. His album The Bridge would be acclaimed by fans and critics.

"Sonny

Popular culture, for its part, found something else – a ready-made mythic image, the lone saxophone player practicing over the city, a mid-century outsider urban seer. Rollins’ legend slipped easily into the musical culture of the time – the artist exiling himself to find his muse.

There are echoes of the same story in Bob Dylan’s retreat to Woodstock, or Robert Johnson’s disappearing for six months and meeting the Devil at a crossroads, returning with a new take on the blues.

But every myth has its roots in the everyday and Rollins’ is no different. He first set foot on the Williamsburg Bridge by accident, while rambling around the neighbourhood where he lived with his wife, Lucille. And he returned there not to seek the muse, but rather to avoid annoying his neighbours.

“The problem was that I had no place to practice. My neighbor on Grand Street was the drummer Frankie Dunlop, and his wife was pregnant. The horn I’m playing, it’s loud. I felt really guilty,” he later recalled.

As for his return from the bridge – after two years of daily practice there –  the reality was less revelation and more, well, perspiration.

“I could have just stayed up there forever. But Lucille was supporting us, and I had to go back to work.”

And so pregnancy and the daily grind led to a quintessential jazz myth. The next time I listen to The Bridge I should think of Sonny Rollins’ neighbour and his hardworking spouse – the real reasons he walked on to the Williamsburg Bridge one day in 1959.

But the myth sounds better. As does the music.

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Seventy hours

Thompson Street, NYC, October 2014.

Thompson Street, NYC, October 2014.

Rain, humid, on West 4th Street,
Before house wine at The White Horse.
‘This restaurant has lost something’.
Second winds, third coffees
And yes sir, that’s my Babbo;
Sunlight on the reservoir
Then bagels in a cafe on the Lower East Side (‘the secret’s in the water’).
Hailing taxis, unsuccessful, on street corners.
Crosswalks, car horns, subway screeching.  Always more coffee.
And ‘if you can make it here’…

Under all the low engine hum of the city, driving forward, on.

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