Friday, February 19, 2010

Charlie O'Hegarty

One of the great things about New York City is that it draws in talented people from all around the world, like Charlie O'Hegarty. Charlie's singing and storytelling cheered audiences at the Eagle Tavern back in the 1980s, where his sets might feature songs about long-ago sea battles, whimsical rhymes, and stories about his days in the Royal Marines. Charlie died recently in London, but one of his stories still has me laughing.

I'll leave it to my friend Dan Milner, to provide the informed assessment of Charlie's music. Dan ran the Eagle Tavern shows where I often saw Charlie, and I heard them together many nights.

Charlie was a great entertainer. When he had the mike, you stopped thinking about everything else and, at times, you felt as though you were alone in a conversation with him. But, because he was far funnier and had experiences way beyond your own, you only egged him on if you spoke at all. He was not a flashy guitar player but he had a great right arm, super solid rhythm.

The songs were clever, but not college-clever. They were well-crafted and precisely achieved the desired effect. "M-16" was about a guy who was mugged in the East Village (no doubt, Charlie himself) who got an M-16 "the Army made me a man with" and went back to sort out the gang who got his wallet. It was, of course, the fantasy of everyone who was ever mugged has had.

"It's a Beautiful Day" is a leveller, a common denominator. "We're all happy when the sun shines and it's a beautiful day." But it was vehicle for a gaggle of groovy little image rhymes too:

"There's faith healers and safe stealers, bar tenders and car benders
pawn brokers and pot smokers, red haters and head waiters
beer drinkers and clear thinkers, cello blowers and 'hello belowers'
rock 'n' rollers and save-your-soulers
and men who stuff hard boiled eggs into their mouths just to get their names in the Guinness book of records."

"Classic Yankee Clipper" was actually about a woman he met when he was working as a bartender:

"It was a dream to sail on her, to feel the breeze upon ye, to feel her responding to the wheel,
To feel the salt spray on ye as ye plowed through the water, the same way again, I know I'll never feel."

I still chuckle at the memory of taking a girl to the Eagle on a date. She turned to me as Charlie performed "Classic Yankee Clipper" and said: "That song is about a woman."

I still find myself singing Charlie's song "The Royal Oak," a great ballad of English tars battling the Turks on the high seas.

But most of all, I like to retell one of Charlie's stories from his days in the Royal Marines.

He was in basic training on a hot summer day, and a sadist of drill sergeant was marching Charlie and the rest of the troops up and down, bawling things like, "I'll make you beg for mercy. I'll make you curse the day your mothers gave birth to you. Leftrighleftrightleftright!"

Finally, the sergeant gave them a break.

From the back of the formation, in an impossibly proper upper-class English accent, came the words, "How beautiful is rest."

The sergeant jumped up and screamed, "Who said that?"

"I believe it was Shakespeare, sergeant."


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