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July 19, 2009

FRANK McCOURT

He's gone. Hard to believe. He was a brilliant man -- a wondrous combination of literary skill, honesty, humor and the occasional burst of pure heavenly bullshit. In other words, an Irishman.

Frank was also (and this is surely the least of his accomplishments) a beloved member of the Rock Bottom Remainders. He performed with the band often, and it's hard to say whether he was funnier onstage or off. A couple of memorable moments among the many:

-- We're performing at a literary festival. Frank has agreed to do a song. He told us earlier he wants to do "Love Me Do" by the Beatles. So we have rehearsed "Love Me Do" by the Beatles. And now we bring Frank onstage. The crowd is going nuts. I announce that Frank is going to sing "Love Me Do" by the Beatles. The band starts playing "Love Me Do" by the Beatles. Frank frowns, then leans over and whispers to me, "I don't think that's the one." I say, "Well which one is it?" He says, "It's the one that goes..." and he starts humming "I Should Have Known Better." So we stop playing "Love Me Do," and Frank blows into his harmonica, playing the opening notes to "I Should Have Known Better." And the crowd starts singing along, just their voices and Frank's harmonica, and it is wonderful.

-- We're in Cleveland, performing at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We've been traveling around the Midwest on a bus that usually transports (and smells like) a soccer team. Frank's on the bus. We've all been laughing when we should have been sleeping. On stage, Frank is supposed to sing "Danny Boy." He starts out fine, but then he forgets the words. We give him much grief: An Irishman! Forgetting the words to "Danny Boy!" But he doesn't care at all. He is amused, as he seems to be by everything. Later that night, we all gather in his hotel room to drink numerous beers. He and Roger McGuinn (who was also, incredibly, on the bus) start singing Irish folk songs. The songs get more and more obscure, but Frank and Roger both know every word to every one. At some point, there's a pounding on the door; it's a hotel employee, sent to ask us to keep it down. He of course does not know he is asking this of Frank McCourt and Roger McGuinn. They agree to try to keep it down.

The last time I saw Frank was in November, at the Miami Book Fair. He and I did a talk, and I made sure I went first, because I knew that once Frank started talking, nobody would want to hear me, including me. He was incredibly funny. He made me feel like a pension actuary. That night he joined the band, and he sang "Don't Fence Me In," and he got the audience to sing along, and it was the best moment of the night.

I can't type any more. I can't believe he's gone.

 

Comments

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Quite a lovely tribute. Thanks.

I'm so sad that he's gone, but so glad he was here at all.

God. How truly sad. Thanks, Dave. I said it before - that talk was one of the funniest I've ever seen. He will be missed. Godspeed, Mr. McCourt.

I can't believe he's gone either. I also can'r believe Dave used "bullshit" in his piece. It was incredibly apt.

Wow, Dave, how very sad. Thanks for the fittingly beautiful but all-too-short tribute.

Here are a few photos from the Book Fair event in Nov.

Frank McCourt 1

Frank McCourt 2

Frank McCourt 3

Frank McCourt 4

As usual I'm getting all my important news via this blog.

Being of Irish descent I felt duty-bound to read "Tis", and McCourt all but destroyed me in the first 100 pages. Still haven't been able to finish it. If you every hear someone say "I just don't understand the Irish," just give them a copy. He absolutely nailed his countrymen for better and for worse in all our glorious self-destructiveness.

Thanks for the tribute, Dave, and thank God Seamus Heaney is still around.

(p.s. No true Irishman knows the actual words to "Danny Boy." They may not reliably exist. Everyone winds up improvising at least part of it. It's sort of the "Louie Louie" of Ireland.)

Nice tribute,Dave. I also am of Irish decent.

So sad that he is gone. There are so few men like him in the world and it's a great loss when one of them goes.

Everybody raise a pint...

*sob*

Well said Dave.
Good Bye Frank McCourt.

My Mother is Irish and padraig is right. I've never known the lyrics to Danny Boy beyond the first 2 or 3 lines. I've read Angelas Ashes but I'm definitely going to get a copy of 'Tis. All of the wonderful ones are gone far too soon. But, I don't feel as if they are ever completely gone because of all the parts of themselves that they leave behind. Good literature, good music, and good memories. Rest in peace Mr. McCourt. Your tribute to him is wonderful Dave.

I'm not Irish, but once begun, I couldn't put down "Angela's Ashes" or "'Tis". This has been a sad week indeed. Dave, I am sorry you lost your friend.

Wow Dave, I didn't remember he was in the group but would love to hear more stories... when you're ready. So sorry.... um, well, Irish wakes are pretty amazing. We can imagine one for him.

I loved Frank's work, a truly gifted writer and teacher. He shall be missed.

I was just surfing before planning to turn in. I'm pouring a Guinness and will toast the man properly.

I'm sorry for your loss Dave. I only knew him through his excellent writing. He must have been a joy to have as a friend.

My sympathy, Dave, on your very personal loss.

A very poignant commentary.

Dave did a short piece on his father's death that I'll never forget; years later I repeated the scene with my own father.

he was so funny. i got 'teacher man' for christmas and started it somewhat reluctantly, but after hearing him speak about these kids ... hell, hearing him SPEAK, you can read that book just as if he's reading it to you, and it's impossible to put it down. what a writer. what a guy. sweet as can be.

His voice felt like home, reading his books was like walking through a garden.

fyi - "Danny Boy" was written by an englishman. So while we Irish are known for singing it, we don't honor the words so much. It's an Irish thing.

Is túisce deoch ná scéal.
(A drink precedes a story.)

Very sad. :-(

Dave, my condolences on the loss of your friend. In tribute, not mockery, may I add:

Oh Danny boy,
The pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen,
And down the mountain side
The summer's gone, and all the flowers are dying
'Tis you, 'tis you must go and I must bide.
But come ye back when summer's in the meadow
Or when the valley's hushed and white with snow
'Tis I'll be here in sunshine or in shadow
Oh Danny boy, oh Danny boy, I love you so.

Dave, thanks to you I started my Monday morning with a tear in my eye. It's good to remember the good times.

*tear*

((((((((Dave))))))))

I was sorry when I read this news that we'd lost such a great talent. I'm sorry for your personal loss as well.

Dave, thanks for a beautiful and moving tribute. We've lost too many friends over the years and so have you. He will be sorely missed.

As a teacher for over 30 years in the New York City schools, my wife shared that history with Mr. McCourt. If you want to know what real teachers deal with every day (cindy and others), please read Teacher Man.

And believe me, even if you've already read Angela's Ashes, go to your local library or bookstore and get the audio book edition as read by the author.

As Siouxie would say, Brilliant!

RIP

condolences dave. i saw the miami book fair on booktv-cspan, and it was lovely. your tribute is sweet. he will be missed, and you will miss a great friend. i hope you enjoy the wake and funeral. sing up a storm!

Here is a piece by Eric Konigsberg from the New York Times.

Mr. McCourt was not "merely" an Irishman, he was an especially gifted and inspiring Irishman. He was a teacher to many, not only those who were lucky enough to attend his classes. If Ireland had a king, he should have and would have been it.

Rest in peace, sir.

A few years back at a RBR pre-show meet n' greet, my wife & I had the pleasure of sharing a table with Mr. McCourt & Dave. The affection & admiration between the two of them (albeit often expressed via horrific insults) was obvious, as was their dedication to the cause of childrens' literacy.

After a great evening, we were stopped at a red light & a gentleman using the crosswalk looked at us & waved. It was Mr. McCourt,world famous author, musician & very, very nice man making his way from the Rock Hall back to his hotel on a lovely spring night.

Sincere Sympathy to his family & friends.

Note to all: I hadn't noticed before, but Dave included a link at the last line of his tribute above. Be sure and check it out.

Dave, great photo spread. It WAS very obvious that you and Mr. McCourt had great friendship and the witty remarks slung at each other during that talk, was a joy to watch. I am truly sorry for your personal loss. Please give his family our deepest condolences.

*just noticed myself, Meanie*

The photos are wonderful. Thank you for sharing them.

there's a photo of Frank here:

http://davebarry.com/eventsRemaindersvideo.htm

and you can see him onstage during "wild thing" - not sure what else....

Oh, and I don't wish to be blamed for any of this, but as Hubby Dr. Poo pointed out - every time we go on vacation, someone famous dies. We think we killed Steve Irwin a few years ago.

*makes note - don't tell Punkin when vacation trip comes up*

*note two - remembers he's not famous, cancels note one*

Thanks, Dave. A lovely remembrance of a talented gentleman who was obviously a good friend.

We just arrived at our hotel in Frankfurt, Germany. Got on line, as I have to do since I'm the bookie...a Google Alert popped up with Frank and Roger's name..then I knew it wasn't good news. He left us! I remember a wonderful radio interview with Roger and Frank singing "Finnegan's Wake." Roger was so honored to be singing with Frank. It was an honor to have met him! Life passes quickly and we're so honored by some very special people that cross the pathways of our lives. Frank was indeed one of those special ones!

There are so few really gifted storytellers, and Mr. McCourt was truly one of them. Our lives are all richer for having heard him, whether in person or in print. I'm so sorry for your loss, Dave, and for the rest of the Remainders. He seems to have been a truly lovely man and a great friend.

I'm very sorry for the loss of your friend, Dave. I really enjoyed his books - he is a great talent and will be missed.

I can't express how sad I felt when I heard this news. Thank you, Dave for all the beautiful words.
I grew up in the States, but my family is Irish.
I completely connected with him and his situation from the moment I read my first words in Angela's Ashes.
I too, am a teacher and will forever have a hollow feeling in my heart when I eat a bologna sandwich.
I DO know all the words to Danny Boy and have hummed it all morning.
Goodbye, Frank.

A memorable Frank McCourt column, on his conversion to baseball in 1986. Because of Houston Astro pitcher Mike Scott. His eyes, in particular.

http://www.nytimes.com/2000/10/22/opinion/because-of-the-pitcher-s-eyes.html?scp=1&sq=%22Frank%20McCourt%22%20%22Mike%20Scott%22&st=cse

So glad I got to meet Frank at the RBR concert in Detroit a few years back. Beautiful, touching tribute, Dave. So sorry for the loss of your friend- a wonderful storyteller.
*hugs*

He was an amazing writer, and you are so lucky to have known him! "Angela's Ashes" is a beautiful and heartbreaking book - it completely changed my attitude toward life in general and motherhood especially... I think I cried for the entire last 1/2 of that book, at least.... he was such a blessing.

A true Irishman: You couldn't help but love him, he had astute and cunning wit, he spoke like the sweet breeze of spring, and he wrote lyrically, like the most lovely of songs. He lived in detail and shared it all with us. I mourn his passing, offer my condolences to all, and celebrate his life and inspiration. The wind is now at his back...

Rest in Peache, I really liked Angelas Ashes, touched my heart and soul, recommended it to my mum, beautiful spirit, beautiful human,

Greetings from Holland, Pedro Ponsteen

I never fully appreciated food until I was deep in Angela's Ashes. I was a single college student at the time and Frank made my lonely bread and water dinners some of the most delicious meals I've ever had.

in case anyone is interested, here's Frank (well, Dave first, but then Frank) in the book fair event Dave mentioned:
http://cspanjunkie.org/?p=1103

Heard him speak. Read all of his books. My wife had him as an English teacher (First time I ever suffered from Teacher Envy)when she attended Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. Hunter S. Thompson, Kurt Vonnegut, George Plimpton, Hugh Selby Jr... All I can say Mr. Barry; if you run into Nick Tosches tell him(and yourself of course)to take better care of yourselves, get regular check-ups, or barring that, write faster.

Frank McCourt wrote an article recently for online Daily Beast and after the piece he has his bio (followed by his real bio) and it's typical funny, witty and Irish:

"Frank McCourt is the authentic heir to the British throne. He was abducted from Buckingham Palace when King and Queen were having an orgy and neglecting little Prince Frank. He was taken to a place in Ireland called Limerick where he suffered undue hardships as opposed to due hardships. However, he's over all that now and here comes his real biography..."

"To believe in this living is just a hard way to go."

- John Prine.

I did laugh and cry at the same time while reading Angela's Ashes and then I went to the library to get the book on CD to have his voice read his words. Wonderful, wonderful man who, through his books, shared with all who read them, life's long road of joys and sorrows and beautiful spirit. I am very sad there will not be any more books from such a gifted storyteller.

This is the first "tribute" to Frank McCourt that reasonates with my memories of the man I knew as my high school English teacher. Going to a school like Stuyvesant meant that the main focus for most of us was science & math, but Frank McCourt was sought out by everyone because he was real - no patronizing adult bullshit with him! I managed to sign myself into his class and fessed up to this 25 years later when I saw him in Denver- not only did he remember me and call me by name- he told me he had known what I did -and he said it with a twinkle in his eye.While at Stuyvesant, my friends and I put on a concert in support of farm workers,to protest the war, and whatever other causes we could pack in- and talked Frank into being our sponsor. After the "concert" we all accompanied him to Malachy's bar on 3rd avenue and joined in with the crowd of revelers of every age, background and persuasion. I was lucky to have known him and never felt more proud of my Irish heritage than when I listened to his stories.
Frank -May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again,
may God hold you in the palm of His hand.

Dave, thanks for your Frank McCourt stories. A few years ago, I sent Frank his book in the mail with a stamped, self-addressed envelope and a letter telling him about the impact his writing had on me. He not only signed the book and returned it, but added a two-page handwritten letter and I will cherish it forever. What a class act. An author who recognizes the importance of one fan among so many is truly amazing. (P.S. I took off work one day some years back to stand in line for your signature on a book for my good friend, who has followed your work since day one. Thanks for all you do for us hard-workin' fans.)

A few years ago when I was on the faculty of the University of Scranton, Frank and his brother Malachy guest taught writing courses. One night, in a local Irish pub that's a faculty hangout, they were sitting with Jason Miller at a table not too far from me. Jason must have asked Frank something because all of a sudden he blurted out, "Jayzus, Jason, I don't come to a bar to remember shit...I come to forget shit!" Priceless.

And the movie version of Angela's Ashes is one of my all time favorites.

Classic story, Layzee!! I enjoyed the movie a LOT.

All of these stories are wonderful memories. What a thrill to have had him as a teacher.

I was saddened to hear that Frank McCourt is no longer with us. His books brought back childhood memories, and stirred an historical remembrance of my mother's Ireland. HIs spirt is with me through the words he has written for us all. His writing was of such narrative quality that I felt as I'd known him all along. What a wonder gift he has given us. I want his family to know how touched we all have been Mr. Frank McCourt and how sorry we are for their unexpected loss.

Frank McCourt broke my heart.

At the risk of sounding like a battered spouse, I admit that it was my fault, really. It was my fault because I did what sports fans allow themselves to do when they meet a celebrity in person: They are star struck. They build a character for a person they have only ever seen on television or from a hundred feet away in the stands and are disappointed when, inevitably, that first meeting is fleeting, empty, the passion for the encounter coming only from one side, unrequited.

I am guilty. I am at fault for expecting more than I had a right to. But then again, we are all fools for love.

And I do admit, when I read "Angela's Ashes," McCourt's Pulitzer Prize winning account of growing up poor and Irish and Catholic in Limerick, the book spoke to me in a way few others ever had. It was written with a charm, wit, lyricism and honesty that I had never experienced as a reader. It's one of the few books I have read and reread.

As I wrote my own memoir, I kept a copy of "Angela's Ashes" close, not for guidance, but as a touchstone, as a reminder of the power of words over the human heart. And when it came time to send out request for authors to "blurb" for the back cover of my book, I instantly thought of McCourt, who, like me, had written about the immigrant experience. It's a bizarre business to ask someone to read your book, to like it and to ask if him, if he is so moved, to write a word of praise about it. Much more so when you have never met. And it is perhaps the most humbling part of the process.

And so, with the fervor of a groupie (read: stalker) I found out his address and telephone number months before I had finished the final version of "Take Me With You." I imagined what the conversation might be like when I would finally gather the courage to call him, but my imagined interaction never got past our initial introduction.

So one afternoon, with my heart pounding and the blood throbbing in my temples, I picked up the phone and called his home in Connecticut. My hands shook like they never have, even after interviewing hundreds of famous athletes, some of whom I grew up watching. And for the first time, I understood what it felt like to be a fan.

When he answered the phone — "Hello?" — in his Limerick baroque, I stuttered and lapsed into the introduction I use with my newspaper sources when I call someone out of the blue.

"Hi, Mr. McCourt, my names is Carlos Frías, and I'm a writer for the Palm Beach Post ... er, but that's not why I'm calling..."

I stammered.

"See, I've written a book. Um, it's about my trip to Cuba. I went to Cuba. As a reporter. Um. Anyway..."

I heard him sigh. My heart sank. I couldn't speak.

"I know why you're calling and I'm sorry to say I haven't got the time," he said, filling the noise of my trying to find the words. " I get request like this all the time from my former students, and I just can't read everything..."

His voice, the beating in my throat, the numbness and limpness of my arms, they all melded into one warping, dizzying memory, and I can't remember what I said except to apologize for having bothered him, and I heard him hang up first.

Minutes later, hours later, months later, years later, I still fantasize about what I should have said to him. That I wasn't a student. That we had the same publisher. That my book had already been accepted and was months from being published. That "Angela's Ashes" made be believe I had my own story to tell. That I wasn't looking for his help, but his blessing.

For years, I told that story with a tinge of bitterness, although a wonderful group of writer friends of mine got a kick out of hearing I'd had the nerve to call him out of the clear blue sky, and, their admiring glances made me think differently about that call.

When I heard he had passed away last week, unexpectedly after contracting meningitis, our encounter took on a different meaning for me. In some way, in some small, infinitesimally meaningful way, my path had crossed with Frank McCourt's, a teacher to a lucky few, an inspiration to a blessed many. And if nothing else, I emerged from our encounter more courageous, more determined, more self-confident in my ability as a writer.

He gave me something, after all, that day. He forced me to see him not as a first and last name — Frank McCourt or Derek Jeter or Michael Jordan, as we tend to encapsulate the famous. He let me see him as a man. As a person, who, it turned out, had too little time to read my book, and too little time left on this earth.

And knowing that person is gone, well, I guess it breaks my heart all over again.

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