Recalling the late nights and early mornings in the Bronx, as much of them that we can remember at least ...
BB King’s of Times Square closed its doors recently and another concert venue bit the dust.
There was once a string of such clubs from New York City to San Francisco where a band could hang its hat – most, alas, now mere memories.
Just as important, pubs that acted as minor league venues for these clubs dotted the country. Nowhere boasted as many of these musical saloons as The Bronx.
What was it about “the only borough on the mainland” that made it stand out musically from Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, and Staten Island?
Well, for starters, Bronxites expected live music with their booze. This could range from a solitary box player to a full-fledged Irish showband or Latino orchestra, dolled up to the nines and shaking the very rafters with their rhythm and brass sections.
I have to confess that my various landlords in the East Village would have had even less hair for the pulling if a number of disparate Bronx pub owners hadn’t thrown me a gig from time to time.
Chief among them were Phil Delaney from Carrick-on-Suir who operated Durty Nelly’s on Kingsbridge, Tom Brogan and his bon vivant manager Sean Lynch of The Archway, and the mighty John Flynn of The Village Pub.
Ah, I can sense that eyes are misting up in Woodlawn, Pearl River, and all other points of the compass at the memories these revered names are conjuring.
It’s amazing there are any memories at all, for the sheer rate of drinking in each of these establishments seems staggering in retrospect.
Back in the years I’m referencing, the 70s and 80s, many of us were undocumented (don’t tell Mr. Trump), rents were cheap as was booze, the craic was mighty, and there was a flirtatious sparkle in many the eye.
Read more: When New York was Irish, in summers long ago
Allow me to dwell on The Village, as it was fondly known. It nestled on a hill - a part of but also apart from the riotous scene below on Bainbridge Avenue and 204th Street. Some might say it thumbed its nose at other establishments but that might come from the fact that some of its clientele were unwelcome - and even, horror of horrors, banned! But let's not stir ancient grievances. The scars of being 86'ed can take aeons to heal.
I’m afraid I have trouble describing this hallowed establishment myself since I never darkened its door in daylight – I did spend many a dawn-lit morning there but who was observing décor then?
However, as best I can recall, it was small, woody, full to the gills, throbbing with music, and conversation often peppered with first-class slagging.
It was also very dark; on my first visit, while lugging in an amplifier, I tripped over a customer who was taking a nap on the carpeted floor.
Upon offering my bruised apologies his friends informed me there was no problem - Paddy often lay there to regroup out of harm’s way after the long day on the site and the prospect of a night’s dancing ahead in the Archway.
Unlike many Bronx establishments you were not required to play any particular type of music, still John Flynn expected it to be top shelf.
I would go so far as to say that John was mainly responsible for the nurturing of original music in the Irish Bronx, for he often demanded that at some point in the evening musicians stretch beyond their usual repertoire and highlight their chops to the best of their abilities.
With many of our Northern brethren present, there was little love for the British Army, the Royal Family or Glasgow Rangers FC - you could say a radical anarchistic Republicanism reigned.
I’ve always found such circumstances conducive to musical experimentation, for it’s far easier put an original spin on Sean South of Garyowen than Cracklin’ Rosie.
Read more: A Bronx Irish Thanksgiving in days gone by
“Nice girls did not go The Village,” a somewhat matronly lady informed me recently. I was forced to disagree, for ‘twas there I met Morningstar. Mary Courtney, Margie Mulvihill, and Carmel Johnston were not only crack musicians but unfailingly friendly and ladylike, which was saying something given the state of many of us.
The music ranged from Jazz to Trad – with many detours in between - and I can visualize a legion of players not limited to Paddy Higgins, Eileen Ivers, Gabriel Donohue, Chris Byrne, Joanie Madden, Pierce Turner, Robbie Furlong, Morningstar et al, jamming late into the night.
It was a passionate place, and there were disagreements aplenty, many a heart was broken, but many a match also made in this small heaven.
I often think of The Village for it left a decided mark on me. I hope all the friends I made there are thriving. What nights – and early mornings – we had!
Larry Kirwan was the leader of Black 47 for 25 years. He has written 16 plays and musicals, his latest Paradise Square will open in Berkeley Rep in December. He has written three novels, a memoir, and A History of Irish Music. He hosts and produces Celtic Crush on SiriusXM Radio and writes a bi-weekly column for The Irish Echo.