The Lost Weekend: St Patrick’s Day 1991, New York City
St. Patrick’s Day is often regarded with a deal of scorn by the New Irish in this city, for the obvious reasons. It’s an occasion when the Irish American “Leprechauns and shillelaghs” brigade become rampant, and full grown people stagger around with shamrocks falling out of kelly green hats that say “Kiss Me, I’m Irish”. That St. Patrick’s Day fell on a Saturday this year was a bonus – no work the next day – but the fact that The Pogues would be playing the Palladium on Friday and highjacking ‘Saturday Night Live’ the following night made it even better. We wanted The Pogues for St. Paddy’s for years (they kill all known Leprechauns dead) and this year we got them.
Between the Academy Awards and The Boys From The County Hell, the celebrations started early on in the week, and continued throughout, kicking off with a riotous star-studded hooley at the Irish Consulate honoring Celluloid Men of the Week, Sheridan and Pearson of “My Left Foot”. The Musical Men Of The Week made their first appearance en masse at a launch held for the author T.J. English to celebrate the publication of his new book, “The Westies”.
Here The Pogues jam with New York band, “Morning Star” and mingle with Gerard Conlon and Paul Hill of the Guildford Four (Conlon having recently testified in U.S. Congress on the plight of the Birmingham Six), Nicky Kelly and various elements from the Irish American Hierarchy.
Later Terry Woods turned up at the second launch of the evening, in the Rodeo Bar on Third Avenue where Pat Kilbride celebrated the release of his new album “More Rock and Roses” on Flying Fish Records. Originally from Kildare, Kilbride swopped continents about two years ago after much success in Europe, and has since been a regular on the music scene here. He has recently assembled “The Kips Bay Ceili Band, which features some of the most talented musicians on the East Coast, like Eileen Ivers on electric fiddle, Joanie Madden on flute, John Whelan (uileann pipes) and Jerry O’Sullivan (accordian). Their rowdy polished blend of trad rock and folk was delivered in a spectacular performance that continued into the early hours.
On Friday, too, which suddenly became “St. Patrick’s Eve, you could step out with The New Irish of an “upwardly mobile” persuasion in the Roseland Ballroom, at what has become known as the Yuppie Ball. (Officially: “The Annual Saint Patrick’s Day Charity Ball”.) The carefully exclusive affair is run by a young, first generation “all-graduate” Ball Committee who aspire to the kind of heights described by organiser Daniel O’Leary in The Irish Times recently: “most of us are on an upward spiral in our careers. This is where we can take our place among the best”. Right, Daniel.
The one thing about The Pogues, however, is that you don’t have to wear a tuxedo. At the packed gig, T-shirts saying “Italia 1990” are popular, as is the chic, skinny white torso favoured by young Irishmen. Kicking off early, the first band, “Black47”, a new combo headed by Wexford musician Larry Kirwan provided a suitably post modern Irish intro. The band, comprised of Kirwan, Chris Byrne on uileann pipes, with an extended line up of African percussion, trombone and tin whistle among other sounds, has an eclectic blend of trad and rock with Latin and even Hip hop flavors. Their original material recently provided music for the off Broadway theatre hit, “Away Alone”, and their final song, “Paddy’s Got a Brand New Reel”, from the play’s soundtrack, brought the audience up to the right pitch of high doh to welcome The Pogues onstage with a deafening roar that was surpassed only seconds later as the Great McGowan balanced a ball on his forehead, tossed it up over the stage and then caught it, before belting into the first track.
And they’re off. The punters as well as The Pogues. My dastardly plan – since I refuse to be anywhere but right in front of the stage at a Pogue’s gig (otherwise it’s cheating) – is to grab hold of some huge young man whose knightly valour will generally save me from being crushed to bits and then, to use a slightly outmoded phrase, pogo for my life. The band are in flying form, their musicianship grows more excellent each year, and their style is expanding. Nothing too polished, mind (nothing featuring the distinctive McGowan vocal could sound too polished), retaining all the rage of Celtic soul gone wild, and yet belting out jazz (“Gridlock”) and pure pop (“Yeah, Yeah, Yeah,” etc) as easily as old favorites like “Streams of Whiskey” and “Irish Rover”. “Streets of Sorrow” is dedicated to The Guildford Four and Nicky Kelly (looking on from backstage) and in the middle, a genius stroke with the lighting has spots-turned searchlights crawling all over the crowd full blast like prison yard security lamps. “It’s about time the Birmingham Six were released” spits Shane.
God knows how many passionate Irish accents are singing along to the Phil Chevron’s pertinent “Thousands Are Sailing”, hands in the air, celebrating the land that made them refugees, reluctantly or not. Destined to become a classic. As usual “Dirty Auld Town” is sung as loudly by the audience as by the band, and even has a couple of girls beside me in tears. Back then to “Cotton Fields” and “Fiesta!” madness, and Connor O’Mahoney (sans Happens!) nearly gets lost to the world as he discovers that the dancefloor is a steep three foot drop below the rest of the ground level, and that once you’re down in the crush of dancers, it’s almost impossible to get out.
After the end of the fouth encore (no, I don’t remember what it was, but it was brilliant), The Pogues are gone, the floor of the Palladium is littered with green scraps, spilled beer and one forlorn, crumpled white shirt. People are being kicked out by the management to clear the place for the club’s late night attraction: Lambada dancing (much to Spider Stacey’s amusement). The official post gig bash took place in Ron Wood’s nightclub, but the unfortunate choice of a heavy metal live band led many to head elsewhere, including The Pogues. This happened again the following night when Sean Penn, Debra Winger, Rob Lowe and Michael Douglas among others turn up to to lig at Wood’s, only to find a mysterious and contrary absence of most Pogues!
The following morning, the official St. Patrick’s Day began with orgy-style “breakfasts” in most of the Irish bars on Third Avenue. The hair of the dog was never so sweet. And this was your day if you ever harboured the pervy desire to get an eyeful of either Miss Ireland, Maureen O’Hara or New York’s dreaded Cardinal O’Connor (who, last week, in a startlingly original revelation, pronounced that “Rock’n’Roll is the Devil’s music”).
After the usual parade madness, you could get drunk with many more drunks on almost any block on any street in any section of Manhattan, where all drinking establishments have mysteriously acquired barmen called “Paddy” for the day. Then again, you might consider getting drunk. Or you could just forget consideration and get drunk anyway.
In the East Village’s Cave Canem, Wexford musician Pearse Turner gave an as-ever brilliant performance around 7:30 pm. Despite a venue which was a little too small to hold the kind of crowd Turner draws at any gig these days, he put over a great set, which included a spectacular cymbal clashing solo during “Mayhem” and involved Pearse climbing all over the pristine white linen covered tables of the cafe, much to the delight of the punters.
Another interesting alternative to the more traditional boozing sessions was to head over to the new Irish cafe on Avenue A, Sin é. Run by Shane Doyle, the cafe opened up a few months ago and quickly gathered an interesting clientele of Irish and East Villagers. The place used to be one of the area’s many art galleries, but now the walls are pastel blankness “so that people will just be able to talk to each other, not be distracted by ever changing exhibits” explains Shane. Music, however, is ever present, varying from Davy Spillane to Sinead O’Connor or The Dixons. In a sort of “coffee house” folk capacity, live music from local performers can be heard on several evenings. This scribe even hijacks a mic to deliver the “Clumsy Cabaret” an East Village Blue Jayzus of sorts most Saturday nights in the company of Elizabeth Logun, Deanna Kirk and Paul Hond. Sin-é is an easy-going estalishment that over the St. Patrick’s weekend attracts several Pogues, East Village “anti folk” originator Kirk Kelly and a folk outfit from Maine called “The East Coast Rovers”.
Heading on towards midnight, the triumphant height of the festivities was arguably the sight of The Pogues going out nationwide across America on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live”. They belted out “White City” and “Free Born Man”, shaking the live studio audience right out of their seats. From the first time they arrived in New York, hailed as Brendan Behan’s bastard sons, whiskey bottle and Player’s non filter in hand, to that day’s half-page article in The New York Times, what they’ve gained in respect here has meant no loss of passion. They successfully conveyed a riveting, rollicking sense of Poguetry at its best, capable playing with just the right hint of debauchery that characterized the holiday. A great wind down to a celebratory week, without a plastic shamrock in sight.
New York, March 1991
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