Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Brooklyn’s Best Rebel Heads West


I first saw Scott M.X. Turner perform outside the British Consulate in July of 1998. I went there and joined a group of Irish Americans protesting the treatment of Irish nationalists in the North of Ireland under British government rule. This was during the contentious summer “marching season” that involved the pro-British loyalist Orange Order marching through largely Irish nationalist areas, and there had been many loyalist riots that year, mostly centered around the town of Portadown. Scott and his wife Diane—appearing as the United 32s, with Scott on guitar and Diane on the whistle—performed a cover of Paddy McGuigan’s “The Men Behind the Wire.”


Several months later, since Scott and I were involved with some of the same Irish groups, I wound up engaging in an online debate with him over the case of Amadou Diallo, a street vendor shot to death by plainclothes police officers in the Bronx in early 1999. Scott was participating in protests against the police, who he thought shot Diallo as a result of racial profiling and systemic police abuse, and thought that Irish activists should be right there with him, since nationalists in the North of Ireland were subject to a brutal and sectarian police force. I was of the opinion that while the shooting of Diallo was terrible, the police thought Diallo was pulling a gun on them and that the murder charges against the officers were excessive and politically motivated. Our online debate was spirited but always respectful.


I got to know him better mostly through the Irish causes with which we were both involved. We both agreed that Irish groups are way too divided over everything, and that no group that fights for a united Ireland should be shunned by any other.


We would often debate the issues of the day through his Web site’s forum. We actually agreed on a lot of issues, but what fun is agreeing with someone all the time? Some of the most memorable exchanges occurred between me, Scott and Scott’s friend from the Rockaways, Jim McDowell.


What may surprise you to learn about Scott is that even though he is a lifelong punk rocker who wears a mohawk and is an avid political leftist, he is one of the biggest sports fans you will ever meet. I have lots of friends who are very much into sports and know all manner of sports history, statistics, trivia and minutiae, and I’d put Scott’s sports knowledge against any of them.


Scott taught me a lot about the more funny, outlandish and controversial side of sports. He regaled me with tales of Bill Veeck, a famous baseball owner who was known for his colorful publicity stunts, and Bill “The Spaceman” Lee, a Red Sox pitcher known for outlandish costumes, left-wing politics and unique ideas. We debated whether or not the black power salute protest of U.S. athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics was appropriate. Scott pointed out that their white companion on the podium, Australian silver medalist Peter Norman, supported their protest and was pilloried in the Australian media and kept off the 1972 Australian Olympic team in return.


Both being fans of Rocky Sullivan’s, a great Irish bar formerly located on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan, we wound up being regulars on a pub quiz team there every Thursday. Unlike the other regular teams there, we changed our name at every pub quiz.


After Rocky Sullivan’s found itself priced out of Manhattan and relocated to Red Hook, Brooklyn, it was Scott who picked up the pub quiz mantle and became Rocky’s new quizmaster. In a short amount of time, Scott grew the quiz at the new location to equal and then surpass the popularity of the old location. He added his own new twists to the pub quiz traditions and earned a devoted following.


Scott told me about the Spunk Lads, one of the great punk bands that started punk music in the late 1970s in England that was then reforming in Brooklyn. I was fortunate enough to be hired as a roadie for the Lads, and it was the best job I ever had. Scott (a.k.a. Bloody Dick, the Spunk Lads’ guitar player) insisted I get an equal cut of whatever money the Lads made at shows. Often, at the end of a show, Scott would load up his van with the band’s equipment, the rest of the band, me and whatever fans could fit. It was a cramped arrangement that I dubbed “Spunk Taxi.” It became a running joke that I would ask Scott to drop me off at the Dyckman Street A train stop, which is the stop I normally exit the train to get home late at night.


It was so much fun being a roadie for the Spunk Lads that I decided I really wanted to start my own band, and a few years later it finally came together. My band was lucky enough to play some shows with the Spunk Lads.


Scott’s involvement with music goes back to when he was driving in North Carolina and he first heard The Clash’s “London Calling” on the radio. He pulled his car over and finished listening to the song, then drove straight to the nearest record store and bought the record. For years he was primarily a drummer. In the early 1980s, he played drums in a band called The Service. Once night, when the Spunk Lads played CBGB in 2002, Scott showed me a sticker from The Service that was still on the wall in one of the back rooms after more than 20 years. For many years, he fronted a band called The Devil’s Advocates. He and his wife Diane would perform as the United 32s, a reference to the total number of counties in Ireland (and how they should be united into one undivided nation).


When The Clash’s Joe Strummer died in December of 2002, Scott and Diane performed an acoustic version of “Garageland” at a Devil’s Advocates show at Manitoba’s. It was an excellent tribute to the late Clash front man that people who were there still talked about years afterward.


More recently, Scott has been performing and writing music as RebelMart, a one-man band who sings about everything from the slow demise of Brooklyn (“Brooklyn is Dying”) to a moving tribute to his friend Jimmy McDowell, who passed away a few years ago (“Jimmy of the Rockaways”) to France’s stealing of a World Cup spot from Ireland (“Robbery Henry”).


For the last few years, Scott, along with many other Brooklynites, has been fighting against an unlawful, amoral and unconstitutional land grab in downtown Brooklyn by real estate developer Bruce Ratner. Using—or rather, abusing—the government’s power of eminent domain, the development corporation is seizing people’s property in order to put up condominiums and an arena for the NBA’s New Jersey Nets. The basketball arena is simply bait to get political cover for the luxury condominium development. It is as clear abuse of eminent domain as can be imagined, yet the politically connected developers have gotten their way. In their way, among other holdouts, is Freddy’s Bar. Scott’s been busy doing walkathons, holding benefit concerts and doing whatever else he can to support Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn. Being a sports fan, he even started his own group called Fans for Fair Play to protest the scheme and others like it.


At the end of January, Rocky Sullivan’s Pub Quiz enthusiasts got an email message from Scott they’d never expected. “My last Rocky Sullivan's Pub Quiz will be Thursday, February 4,” it said in the message. “I'm heading to Seattle, Washington, home of corporations that make jets, sell books, brew coffee, book travel and record rock bands. Also, the home of Ebbets Field Flannels, a company that researches, designs, manufactures and sells historic sports clothing. I'll be working there doing everything under the vintage sun. It's sorta right down one of my two alleys. The other alley is music. Seattle's a good place for me to get back into writing, producing and playing the songs I've put aside for the last several years.”


I went to Scott’s last show at Freddy’s, a site of many of his finest shows both as a solo artist and as a member of the Spunk Lads. It was much fun, with Scott playing some songs with opening act Neil deMause, including a funny song about baseball legend Doc Ellis. As always, it was great fun, but it was also sad. This was Scott’s last time playing music in a place that was full of great memories. Everyone there was a better person for having known him, and we all knew we could never repay him.


Scott’s last night in Brooklyn was spent doing what he loves best: making music and visiting with friends. Rocky Sullivan’s, where Scott had served as quizmaster and had performed as a musician, hosted a farewell party for him. Scott played as part of a traditional Irish music trio and then played a few of his own songs. He also kept busy saying goodbye to well wishers. It was a night of long goodbyes.


At the end of the night, he was good enough to give me a lift to the A train, one last time. “People need to have more adventure,” he told me. “And I don’t mean the Errol Flynn swashbuckling type. I mean getting out of your own skin, going for things.” Scott has made his life an adventure. While his friends in New York miss him already, we’re comforted in the knowledge that we are all richer for knowing him.