Take refuge in America behind the neon clovers

Neon shamrocks, ubiquitous in American Irish bars. The clover was a lot of what a new emigrant to the United States would like to forget about the old lawn, and the fact that it was now neon was a lot of what you’d like to ignore about your new home. . But it didn’t work like that, the Neon Shamrock would find you anywhere.

The basic economics of touring the United States in the late 80s or early 90s as an indie band wasn’t pretty. US-based bands like Scream, of which Dave Grohl was a member briefly before Nirvana, found a way to tour and sell records, but it was a torturous business.

On the plus side, you need to be in a band, travel Route 66 and PCH, and play at the coolest clubs. In contrast, these clubs, though often brandishing world famous names like CBGB, paid very minimal fees, usually around $350. Ten of them over a 12 day period were a “tour”. It sounded good, but it was still only $3,500.

That $3,500 was all you had to feed six people and pay for gas. It wasn’t enough. You could supplement that with CD and T-shirt sales, but it was still difficult. Long journeys, bad food and no hotels. If a major label didn’t step in with a checkbook at some point, you could lose the drummer to scurvy.

It was always a lot of fun and there was a kind of “independent support community” that offered sleeping space and even free meals. For Irish bands, coming back to Ireland with a tour t-shirt mentioning concerts in Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and Washington was very impressive. The people back home knew you were now literally “going places”.

But the economics of being an Irish band were even worse. You had flight costs and fewer contacts in the independent support community. There were stories of Irish bands touring the United States and living in the bars of Mars. The hunger was real. But, being Irish, there was a possible escape.

Almost every major city in America had an Irish bar. You might spot them from a mile away due to the presence in their windows of the aforementioned Neon Shamrocks. These bars loved Irish bands. Just being Irish almost guaranteed a full house. Fees have improved significantly. Two of them at the end of your “cool” indie tour and you could afford some vitamin C for the drummer.

But it was not an easy gig. The audience could include people who had emigrated at any time over the past 50 years. Sometimes you were lucky, emigrants from the 1980s who knew your music but others wanted Big Tom or rebel songs. And if things ever go wrong and you admit that you don’t actually know any rebel songs, a piece could turn deadly.

At a gig in Queens one night it looked like the whole audience had just gotten off an Aer Lingus 747. The gig was lovely and at the end I heard a fan say excitedly to his friend : “It was mega! It was like Newmarket on a Saturday night. Two nights later, in the Bronx, it was a little less fun. As a guy rushed against the stage, he pulled on my leg and asked me to watch out for his coat. He put it next to the monitor, opening it briefly to show me that I was also paying attention to his weapon. I kept it as safe as possible.

Our last show “Neon Shamrock” for some reason had a looming end to it. It was a difficult audience. Request after request came on stage for songs we didn’t know. All I could do was repeat that we were an original band.

The owner didn’t care. He was adamant that we were booked for two and a half hours and played every minute or we didn’t get paid. The first hour was devoted to songs that had been “hits” in Ireland. The dance floor remained empty.

But as the set progressed and the musical choices became more obscure — B-sides and covers — it just seemed to take off. At exactly two hours and thirty minutes, a whistle sounded. He was our stage manager, a football whistle in his mouth and a tray of tequila shots in his hands. “That’s it!” he said, “it’s over.” And it was good for the Neon Shamrock tours anyway. I’m not going to lie, I still wake up at night screaming.

About Raymond Lang

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