"I’m going up the country, Baby, don’t you wanta go, Going to take you some place, Where you’ve never been before, I’m going, I’m going, Where the water tastes like wine, We can jump in the river, Stay drunk all the time."
Around this time of year, "Going up the Country" by Canned Heat starts gnawing at my brain. Small wonder, seeing I spent so many Memorial Day Weekends in the “mountains.”
I’m not referring to the Himalayas, Pyrenees, or even the McGillycuddy Reeks. I’m talking the Catskills, and in particular a large-size piece of heaven known as the Irish Alps.
I’d never even heard of these particular Alps until Turner & Kirwan of Wexford got fired from a lucrative summer gig in Falmouth, Massachusetts. I’ve still no notion as to why this abrupt termination came to pass, though it may have been for singing an anti-Vietnam War ditty.
In a panic, I called Mike O’Brien, nephew of the Clancy Brothers, who told me that a band had just received the heave-ho at O’Shea’s Irish Center in Leeds, and if we could make it onstage by 8 p.m. the following evening, the gig was ours.
When I inquired the whereabouts of Leeds, Mike replied cryptically, “It’s just off the Thruway between Albany and Kingston.”
Try as we might, we couldn’t locate Leeds on our hardback Atlas of America; besides, there was always the chance that Mike, with his refined Tipperary humor, was having us on.
But with Falmouth a washout, we threw caution to the wind and set off for Albany in our old Dodge Polara, hoping to buy a local map somewhere on the Thruway to Kingston.
We did find Leeds eventually - though we sped through it once without noticing - and we were onstage and pumping out Kinks, Grateful Dead and Irish Rovers moments before 8 p.m. under the critical eye of Mr. Gerry O’Shea.
We were alternating sets with the fabulous Mike O’Brien and Chris King, known widely as Trinity 2, and to say we played like demons while chatting up the crowd like twin demented Johnny Carsons would be an understatement, for we were in true survival mode: failure could mean starvation.
Thus began my love affair with “the mountains” and it has never ended. Growing up on the banks of the Slaney, I’m a seacoast man myself, but once the Irish Alps get in your blood there’s no getting away from them.
We didn’t even visit the nearby metropolis of East Durham that whole summer for we performed six nights a week, played poker until way beyond dawn, slept like lambs, and lay on the rocks beneath a nearby mini-waterfall while nursing our hangovers through the steamy afternoons; not to mention we partook of three square meals a day courtesy of the angelic, if brusque, Mrs. O’Shea, who felt we both needed “to pack on some pounds before yer mammies see yez again.”
Old Gerry ran a tight ship but drink was free to musicians, as long as you didn’t overdo it. What more could you ask for: three months in an upstate Eden to think, write new songs, and press re-start?
There was one drawback. Gerry had been a noted boxer, and loved to throw a ramrod-stiff jab at your shoulder. He would then check upon your bruises the following day.
It was until the Black 47 era that I got to play the capital of the Alps, East Durham, and that came courtesy of the wonderful Handel family at the rip-roaring Blackthorne Resort.
Though we played midnights until whenever on Memorial Weekend Fridays and Saturdays for twenty years - with a headlining gig at the East Durham Irish Festival in-between - the days seemed to stretch forever and I loved to stroll the country roads or sit on Connemara-style stony walls and wonder about the first Irish who settled there.
Do yourselves a favor. Go up to the Catskills for a couple of days full of long nights. It’s like going home, you’ll meet friends you never knew you had, and as Canned Heat put it, “the water tastes like wine.”
I’m not sure they were right about “staying drunk all the time,” but there will be wild moments ahead of you in those glorious mountains. Tell them I sent you. And don’t sleep near the rooster!