Down With Jazz

[Hi, readers:

This one is super-long for a blog entry. That’s because it’s a short story draft–you know, those things you skip past in the _New Yorker_ or stopped reading after your Leaving Cert–so don’t feel you have to plough through it. YouTube is always right next door on the internet.

But if you’re interested, the story is inspired by an RTE radio documentary of the same name from 1987, and I’ve imagined it taking place in my grandparents’ hometown in Roscommon. I didn’t know them very well, so those bits are entirely made up. The awesome letter to the Catholic Herald is real, though, and so are the slogans. And one description of country life is swiped from a commenter here.

Oh, and I haven’t written a full-length story since my own Leaving Cert, so this took for-goddamn-ever. Making stuff up takes me even longer than reporting it. I’m posting a draft so’s I can see it with some distance and then patch it up.

As the phone company would say, “We know you have choices for your blog-reading needs, and we appreciate your business.” Thanks for stopping by.


…you danced with her the best slow dancer
Who stood on tiptoe who almost wasn’t there
In your arms like music she knew just how to answer
The question mark of your spine your hand in hers
The other touching that place between her shoulders
Trembling your countless feet lightfooted sure
To move as they wished wherever you might stagger
Without her she turned in time she knew where you were
In time she turned her body into yours
–David Wagoner


The bicycles go by in twos and threes
There’s a dance in Billy Brennan’s barn tonight
And there’s the half-talk code of mysteries
And the wink-and-elbow language of delight.
–Patrick Kavanagh

Main St, Mohill

After Mass, Charlie Hanley offered Margaret Kelly a bar to the Saturday dance in Elphin. The fellas had bicycles, and the girls did not, and it was better that way. It meant a High Nelly was a ticket to ask.

The light girls were popular. They’d back up to the bicycle bar like little high jumpers, pretending to be more delicate than they were, and with a laugh and a wobble you’d be away. Margaret was middle-sized–two wobbles, maybe three–but when he reached for the handlebars on either side of her good frock, with her hair tickling his chin, he was glad of every mile of the seven from her home place to Elphin. She was cushiony enough not to complain about the iron slap from each rut in the road. Instead she gripped the bar and pointed her knees primly ahead, like a Strokestown House mistress riding sidesaddle.

They passed Billy Carmody and his donkey, bringing home the churn from evening milking. They saluted Jonjo Sharkey and his old bitch Gypsy, who even though her eyes were milky still snapped at Margaret’s dangling feet. These days the sheep obeyed Gypsy only out of habit, or pity. Jonjo would have to get the shotgun to her soon.

All day Charlie had turned turf. The sods already smelled warm and nearly meaty, as they would when stacked beside the range in winter. At the dinner hour they unwrapped their mother’s bread and drank strong tea from milk bottles. There was just him and the brother to cut their plot of bog. Margaret had a rake of brothers, but they were still young lads, and when she walked out to bring their dinners to the bog she often stayed on to work harder than they did. Though Charlie had known her since she was in High Babies and he was in Second Class at the schoolhouse, it was only in the last few years had he liked to watch her work from across the bog. She looked stronger than she was; rheumatic fever in Sixth Class had given her a bad heart.

In the evening Charlie and the brother walked back, stopping as they always did for a smoke on two flat mossy rocks in the bottom field. They shared a Sweet Afton and listened to the land. Half of life was winding down and half waking up; a change of shift, you might say. It was sweet now to stretch out on a warm rock and do nothing but draw in smoke. He thought about Margaret Kelly’s hair. As the night went on they might be dancing a rumba. Close-to-close dancing like that, it was bolder than the proximity of a bicycle ride, because there was no reason or excuse but the pure pleasure of it. The thought made him feel so alive it was barely bearable. _O yes, we have no bananas…_

Noel was too young for the dance, and his mind was on Under-16s hurling. Why, he wanted to know, did Father Treacy have Lennon playing centre field again tomorrow? Anyone with eyes in their head could see Lennon should be centre-forward and Noel should be midfield. Lennon was more skilful and a better scorer, and Noel was fitter, bigger, and more controlling of centre field. How else were they to beat Tulsk? Charlie agreed it was a senseless thing. Noel would puzzle it further, but Charlie was inclined to get to the dance. He stubbed the butt and rose towards home, hungry for his tea. The milk bottle rolled in his jacket pocket. Noel followed, slapping a sliotar from hand to hand, still complaining.
Continue reading “Down With Jazz”

Elevator Music

“If you ever get close to a human
And human behaviour
Be ready to get confused
There’s definitely, definitely, definitely no logic
To human behaviour
But yet so, yet so irresistible
And there’s no map
They’re terribly moody
And human behaviour
Then all of a sudden turn happy
But, oh, to get involved in the exchange
Of human emotions is ever so, ever so satisfying ”

I used to work in the Bertelsman Building in Times Square. It was the headquarters of the BMG record company, and P. Diddy–he was still Puffy then–had offices on the floor below us. Once he got meeting locations mixed up and ended up on our floor. Our gentle receptionist, Paulette, wouldn’t let him in.

This was shortly after he’d been hauled up for punching out a record executive, and his ‘roids were still raging. He leaned over the desk and yelled at her to find the meeting room NOW. The office manager scurried out to see what was going on. They argued briefly. Puffy threatened. Steve told him to leave immediately or he’d call security. I’d like to have seen the confrontation: our slight little hippie with center-parted hair, a handlebar mustache, and tie-dyed shirt ordering Puffy and his people to get out. It’s a mark of how nerdy we were in that software company that no one recognized him, even while his remix of Sting’s creepy stalker song was number one. Afterwards his people sent please-don’t-sue flowers.

A few days ago I stepped into the elevator at work next to a tiny woman bundled up in what looked like a black duvet, speaking to a friend in…Swedish? Not Swedish. I picked out bits from the lilting: “hurdy gurdy gurdy…Public Enemy…” The clear, girlish voice was familiar, but it took me four floors of sideways glances to work out that it was Bjork.

That morning I’d started a book that had been on my wishlist ever since my friend Max told me it was his favorite novel: Halldor Laxness’s Independent People. Max has great taste in everything but women, and sure enough, this is a gem. It’s an Icelandic novel about sheep. If you deserve to read it, that won’t put you off. Iceland’s storytelling tradition is as strong as Ireland’s, and this book is reminds me Liam O’Flaherty’s Aran Islands stories. It even starts with Columcille, an 8th century Irish missionary. Battling the elements is good for art.

The introduction to my edition says that “Self-Standing Folk” would be a better translation of the title, and in Bjørk I see Laxness’s people. It takes self-standing folk to wear that swan dress to the Oscars. (It’s in the Met’s Costume Institute now.) It takes self-standing folk to have her quirky perspective on human beings. Her Debut album was the soundtrack to my college years. Tiny and scrubbed, she still looks like a college girl years after the rest of us have had guilty thoughts about Botox.

Maybe if I’d had _Independent People_ in my pocket instead of on my desk, I would’ve told her how much her joy meant to me. But Bjørk’s been known to punch out stalkers, too, and I didn’t want to interrupt her chat. We got off the elevator and walked down Broadway side by side. I silently wished her extra warmth, along with her duvet and her stripy tights, against from the New York winter.

Accordion Guy

Serge Gainsbourg

At the Bastille Day tribute to Serge Gainsbourg, the Loser’s Lounge crew played grainy French TV shows from the early Sixties. Serge was precocious as a dirty old man. In one song after another, he leered at angel-faced Twiggies, and they gazed back full of wide-eyed love. What did they see in him? With pouchy eyes, ears like rashers of bacon, a huge shnozz, and lank hair, he was so ugly that it became another kind of beauty. I’d do him.

The truth is they look well-matched, the baby blondes and Uncle Serge. “Sois belle et tais-toi” (“Shut up and look beautiful”) he sang; harsh but fair advice to most twenty-year-old girls. It’s plain he just wants to bed them, but in return they might learn a thing or two. As for the crush-struck girls, they look hypnotized and flattered, but they will throw him over soon.

In front of the flickering videos the Losers delivered phonetic tributes to Serge. I love all his songs; my date, Peter (who has a touch of Jean-Paul Belmondo about the eyes), knew none except “Je t’Aime”. That one takes me right back to seventeen, when the girls in my class sang it on the bus all the way back from the Kerry Gaeltacht.

On the Bastille Day playlist, most of the songs were lecherous love-letters to the USA. “Bonnie and Clyde.” “New York USA.” “Harley David Son of a Bitch.” “Ford Mustang.” One singer stripped down to a pair of tiny red Speedos by the third verse of “Comic Strip.” In the American mind, Speedos have replaced berets and striped shirts as the national costume of France. His little basketball belly might have been Serge’s own.

The oddest tribute came from a twelve-piece accordion girl band wearing hipster jeans. They all looked new to the instrument: they frowned as they gripped their dozen squeezeboxes and rocked comically. Chord changes were tense for all of us, but it was worth sitting through for the sight alone.

I’d forgotten about them until this morning. It’s a glorious day, one of the perfect ones that will always remind me of September 11th. I took the long route to work, walking from Prospect Heights over the Brooklyn Bridge, and stopped at the little park on Clinton Street to scribble for a while. The park is too paved and manicured to be beautiful, but I love it because the neighbors use it. Old men from Atlantic Avenue spend hours playing dominoes while small girls on pink bikes ride circles around them. Hennaed Italian biddies swap gossip and aches and pains. A brat throws a tantrum, and his mother whines:
“Noah, remember we discussed co-operation? I want you to know that right now this is a choice you’re making, to act and feel this way.”
If that’s what Noah has to put up with, I decided, it seemed like a pretty good choice to roar and stamp.

A man slowed down and nodded, and when I smiled back he got brave enough to sit on my bench. Wherever I go I draw small girls and oddballs (“Because you talk to them!” explains my sister) and so I wasn’t surprised when he asked if I’d mind if he played some music.
“What sort of music?” I said.
“I’m learning the accordion.”
Those aren’t the best words to start a life-long friendship.
“People don’t seem to mind,” he said anxiously. “Sometimes they say it makes it feel like Paris.”

He fixed his music stand, set up his backing CDs, unpacked his shiny red accordion, and launched into “Moon River” and “It Might As Well Be Spring.”

It was lovely. Cobble Hill did feel, improbably, like the Jardins du Luxembourg for an hour or so. The toddlers started dancing and the bench people clapped. Another accordionist introduced himself, and they made arrangements to play together next week.

Ranger Tim, who has sharp instincts for the next big thing, bought a junk-shop accordion a few years ago, though he failed to teach himself to play. His New York apartment was decorated with a record sleeve of a green-eyed vixen hugging a squeezebox. I’d put it down to his polka and knackwurst heritage, but now it looks like he was set to make a hit with the ladeez. First trucker hats, then knitting, now accordion music: is there nothing New Yorkers won’t rehabilitate?

De Britto

I’ve been loving you a long time
Down all the years, down all the days
And I’ve cried for all your troubles
Smiled at your funny little ways
We watched our friends grow up together
And we saw them as they fell
Some of them fell into Heaven
Some of them fell into Hell

–Shane MacGowan, “Rainy Night in SoHo

I use postcards, flyers, letters, and photos as bookmarks, and tend to leave them in place when I’m finished. It’s a message-in-a-bottle to my future self, tying, say, a ticket stub from a film I loved to the book I read waiting in the queue. Stuck on page 173 of Toni Morrison’s Jazz is the US Embassy receipt for my first J1 visa application back in college. The combined artefacts make for found memories as powerful as songs or smells.

On Bloomsday I took down Ellman’s biography of Joyce to look for more pictures of my new love, Nora. “Dearbhaile Hanley Christmas 1992 Limerick” said the flyleaf, and out fluttered a small photo from long before that: my secondary school class at the end of our first year. Thirty twelve-year-olds, arranged in three rows under the school crest and motto, _Crescentes in Illo per Omnia_. I’m still not sure what that means.

Our classes were named for dead Jesuits, with each intake year given a letter. Briant, Bellarmine, Borgia, Berchmans, Bobola. Our class was De Britto. We never thought much about the man behind the name. Did he die of malaria in some equatorial swamp, doubting God in a sweat-drenched soutane? (This was before Google, which shows Blessed John De Brito–with one ‘t’–to be an interesting fellow, a Portuguese nobleman who became a Jesuit Swami in Madras, and was beheaded for his trouble.) I always liked the name, and more so when an unfortunate religion teacher snapped and rechristened us. He was a country farmer who came late to teaching, and our toxic behavior disillusioned him fast.
    “De Britto!” he yelled. “It’s De BRATTO ye are. De BRATTO! A shower of brats and no more!”

We don’t look like brats in the photo. The front row kids have hands neatly placed on their knees, and the back row stands on plastic chairs, arms hanging down like Riverdancers. Our faces have the unformed blurriness of going-on-thirteen. Every single one of the girls has cut the long hair we started the year with. None of the kids is fat, not even the one we thought was at the time. Our shoulders are narrow in navy, crested jumpers. The girls wear kneesocks and navy skirts, the boys wear grey pants. (We all wore tackies, as Limerick called trainers/sneakers. For some reason we weren’t allowed to wear proper shoes. They’ve reversed that rule now, just as arbitrarily.)

I feel like God, holding this photo from the era of Live Aid and moving statues. I look at the formless little faces of my classmates and know their futures. I see which of them will marry each other and what their children will look like. I know who will get religion, become an actor, come out, or move to San Francisco. At the end of the front row sits the sweet and quiet girl in whose bedroom four of us compared notes after our first class party that same month. (The girls a head taller than the boys, and Phyllis Nelson lowing at us to “Moooooove Closer” while Fr. McGuckian read a book…) Her squishy white boot tackies are as familiar as my own scuffed Dunnes’ Stores efforts, and in the wisdom bought with twenty years, I see her future. “Don’t worry about kissing Frosty,” I want to whisper, “You’re going to grow up to be a sound engineer, and you’ll meet Peter Gabriel.”

In 1984, we hadn’t yet seen the great Sledgehammer video on Vincent “Fab Vinnie” Hanley’s MT USA. But reader, she married him.