It was a cold lonely feeling, to get dropped off on a rainy Monday in January at the tall wall of Rosslare Harbour by my Sister Bernie, and her Husband Dave. It was good of them to take us there, but we had already said goodbye to everyone and now we just wanted to pursue our dreams and forget the lament of leaving. We would like to have just slipped away while they were parking the car, but of course we wouldn’t. And so we waved goodbye from the lofty gangplank, my heart in my boots, and seeing in my Sister’s brave smile -the childhood that made me what I was – our deep closeness and passion as a family – yet another tare in the umbilical chord, a step further away from the womb. Once we got inside the brightly lit Boat, the sadness began to ebb and soon enough we were making jokes and yapping to strangers- eating our sandwiches. We are animals after all, and after we are pulled away from our loved ones, we soon look around for the nearest comfort.
It’s only a short distance from Rosslare in the South East of Ireland to Fishguard Wales, thirty miles or so! But it took us three hours to do it. Shuffling between the Boat to the train on that cold damp Welsh night, the official wooden buildings looked more like sheds. It brought to mind Death Camp Movies from the Second World War. The night train smelled of tiredness and second hand Guinness. Compartments were lit with low wattage light bulbs, giving it all a soft amberness. There was a hissing noise coming from under the seat, I reached down close to see if it was producing any heat. Unfortunately the heat was just being turned on as we entered; too bad, because that meant adding “cold” to all the above descriptions. This one element, made the difference between quaintness and depravation.
It was a harrowing six – hour train journey from Fishguard to London. I tried to sleep, but the padded seating was hard and covered with coarse material. All I could do was listen to the chugging of the train, a repetitive glitch, like a needle stuck on vinyl. A pleasant murmuring of men talking in Irish accents sprinkled with London-ese hummed like a haunting wind over the percussion of the tracks, there was an air of resignation in their manner, the fun was over, their fate was sealed, back to work, back to being alone with the lonely. Cigarettes were generously shared, and it was a comfort for me to hear them comforting each other. Most of them were married men heading back to England, after Christmas, where they worked to support their Families. They, in part, were the reason that I was going to America not the U.K.- All my life I had seen the sadness of their departure at the Railway Station in Wexford. Just as I would find myself drifting off, a smokers cough would jolt me back. There was a noticeable absence of female voices, where were the sopranos? Where was that brightness? The murmuring droned on, it sounded like a long Catholic Confessional, a requiem I would one day write.
We stopped over in London for a few days with two platonic Wexford women that we knew, we fancied em alright, but knew we shouldn’t, or maybe that they wouldn’t. Jackie Hayden from Polydor Records in Dublin had arranged a meeting for us with an English A & R man from the same label. He sat us down in his small office and listened to our demo tape over a cup of tea. One particular song struck his fancy “A star shone over Belfast” which sounded a bit like the Bee Gees from their baroque period. He seemed to think we had some real potential. We were delighted, and came to the ludicrous conclusion that if he liked it, they would surely love it in America. Packing up our tapes, we thanked him and bade him adieu.
The next day we were on our way to Heathrow where we hopped on a plane bound for New York. There was great excitement on the way across. We had taken sleeping pills at our Doctors recommendation, however we were too excited to sleep, so they seemed to have a reverse effect, making us very lively. Larry had been to America before, so I made him re-tell stories about that experience all over again. I wrung every nuance out of his descriptions and we conjectured liberally on the brand new world laid before us, two young lads in their early twenties
As we were circling over JFK in the January snow, the pilot addressed us in his in his American twang.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to New York, we expect to land within the next fifteen minutes or so. At minus five degrees Fahrenheit it certainly is cold down there, so I hope you get home to your warm beds all safe and sound, as soon as possible, thank you for flying with us. And hope to see you again”
Larry turned to me surreptitiously.
“Do you know where we’re going to stay?”
“Ha?…… I thought you knew where we were going to stay!”
“No, I don’t know where we’re staying” he shrugged
“But I don’t know where, do I?” Panic was creeping in now.
And so began a relationship based on supposition that was to last for many years.
Our cheap, but precious guitars came off the carousel miraculously in one piece. It never even crossed our minds that they should be in travel cases. Our cases were made from some kind of thick cardboard with a faux black leather finish, held together by white nylon saddle stitching. The instruments were typical of what young fellas played in Ireland at that time. Close in visual resemblance to a Gibson, but beyond that there was nothing similar. The strings were so far out from the fret board it was almost impossible to play bar chords, so most of us didn’t. The sound was crude and hollow. Very few musicians in Ireland could afford professional instruments. By ratio of the average wage, the prices were ludicrous. A fender Stratocaster cost around six hundred pounds and a married man’s weekly wage was averaging twenty-one pounds at the time. I had bought a Hohner Organ when I was seventeen on hire purchase from the local Furniture store. It cost six hundred pounds and I was still paying for it a year after it died. Organs were even more expensive than guitars, I should have been buying the sexy Vox Continental with its reverse couloured keys, I had seen my favourite English and American Bands playing them on T.V. But that was more like eleven hundred pounds, and I didn’t even know a shop that had it in stock. Even though I was a professional musician, I couldn’t afford a professional instrument and it wasn’t rare to see imitation Fenders and Vox’s being used by talented musicians.
Once we got our guitars and half empty suitcases, we took them through customs. Big serious looking men, with crew cuts and holstered guns. I was shaking with fear, never having seen a real gun before. They weren’t too friendly either and gave us a long hard look, before stamping the passports. We had business visas, which allowed us to work, but not to earn money. Jackie Hayden from Polydor Ireland had written us a letter saying we were going to America to scout for him or something ambiguous like that. We had to show them our four hundred saved dollars, declaring them as our living expenses.
There was so much to take in at the arrival hall, I found myself unconsciously stopping, to look around, Larry had to come back for me and jolt me to awareness, reminding me that this was New York and it was not good to be seen looking awestruck.
We found a bank of public telephones, and I pulled a crumpled piece of paper from my under stuffed wallet. Dave Heenan had been the lead singer in y last Band “The Arrows” and had given me his number in case I should ever come to New York. Perhaps Larry and I had been hatching our plans at the time, I don’t know, but I kept his number safely and Larry knew that I had it. I presume it was supposed by him, tacitly, that we would stay with Dave on our first night. Thankfully Dave was full of “wows” and “are you kidding me?…. no problem!”
“Of course you can stay with us tonight! Renee it’s Pierce from the Arrows, he’s at the airport with his friend Larry” I could hear Renee giving a hospitable wow in the background, Dave returned to firmly confide his directions.
“Go straight out to the Taxi rank and tell him to take you to Washington Square in Manhattan, tell him to take the Tunnel and that you’ll give him no more than twenee dollars! Act like you know what you’re talking about, or those scumbags will rip you off, don’t forget , through the Tunnel and no more than twenee dollars”
It was like Calcutta outside, chaotic traffic, Policemen whistling angrily at cars as frantically loaded suitcases and scrambled to leave. We went over to the long line of yellow cabs. I explained in my thick Wexford accent to the first driver at the head of the Queue.
“We’re goin to Washin-tin Square in Min-hattin, I’ll give you twenty dollars, and ye haff te go tru de Tunnel dough”
“ Are you kiddin me buddy?” he snapped. I found myself in retreat, I wasn’t counting on an argument with a New York Taxi driver the minute I got off the Plane. He was a short stocky bloke wearing an old greasy army jacket which seemed to be stuffed with several layers bursting underneath. His small head sat on top with a peak cap pulled over his wild black curly hair. He talked from the corner of his mouth and the words seemed to fall out rather than travel direct.
“Hey Dommy, kim-ay” He beckoned with a cupped hand.
“Tell Dese guys how it woyks, they want to gimme twenee dollas for the ride to Manhattan”
“It’s whateva is on the Meedah Buddy” Tommy wearily replied.
“Well we can’t gi ye enny more dan twenty dollars” I mumbled.
They looked at each other in astonishment. You could tell that this was a familiar battle for them, yet we seemed to be presenting a new slant on the idea. I later found out that some Airport Taxis had been caught driving Japanese customers all over the place and charging them two hundred dollars off the meter. So now they all got tarred with the same brush. However, in retrospect, I think these guys were actually on the level, or forced to be, by Dave’s preventative instructions.
He beckons another driver who is now showing an interest.
“Yo Sandy c’mere! Listen to dese Guy’sss,….gwan kid, tell him what ye sayin!”
Sandy appeared to be about six foot four, and appraising us suspiciously, was clearly not in the mood for us little hippy foreigners.
“well I wuss just explainin to him, dat we want to go tru the Tunnel and dat we’ll pay twenty dollars” I said, reluctantly following the command.
Sandy spat out.
“Waddaye tawkin about? It makes NO DIFFERENCE BUDDY!!!!! Dru the Dunnel or over the bridge, I’m tellin ye, da money is on da meeddaa!!!
We were now causing a bit of a scene, people were waiting behind us on the queue, several Taxi drivers had come forward to voice their annoyance. Larry and I decided we might need to confer, we pulled off to one side.
“Jasus, I don’t know? They all seem very annoyed don’t they. Maybe we better give in”
Larry had been thinking the same thing.
“Ok Den” I relented to our cabbie, now looking at us like we were a case study, quizzically cocking his head from side, incredulously inviting agreement from the rest of the motley crew.
“Can we put our stuff in da boot den?”
“Would it be ok if we trow or stuff in da boot?”
“I don’t know what yer talkin bout Buddy”
I put my hand on the back of the cab and said.
“Can we put our stuff in here?”
“Oh, oh, in the Trunk? Sure”
He reached inside the cab and popped it open. We slid in on the well – worn leather seat.
“Em…what’s this I was goin ta say? Don’t forget to go tru the Tunnel dough…please”
Glasgow next Friday at the Celtic Connections Festival, The Tron Theatre 8pm – I’m really looking forward to it, hope you are too. Love Pierce xx