Flag Waving and Other American Pastimes

– 4th of July 1888_by Neil Boyle

We clearly hadn’t thought it out…

We were headed to a 4th of July parade with an enthusiastic youngster riding high on holiday excitement. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and we were all looking forward to the revelry of red, white, and blue. As said youngster took note of the countless American flags flapping in doorways, waving from passing cars, or clutched in the hands of other like-minded kids, his eyes lit up. It was the 4th of July and he had to have a flag.

Why we hadn’t anticipated that probability, or at least thought of it earlier, say, before every store within a 50-mile radius was all out, was inexplicable. I hate to say we’re bad parents, but come ON! Still, foresight be damned, it was Independence Day and that bubbling little patriot was getting’ a flag!

We must have hit every party, grocery, and CVS store in Claremont, CA, the town hosting the events of the day, and there was not a single star or strip to be found. And just as we were about to endure a full-blown “I don’t have a flaaaag!” meltdown, the friends we joined at the parade miraculously snagged an unclaimed (albeit small and plastic) flag, and fireworks of the not pretty, popping kind were preempted.

My point is: people love their flags. They love ’em. They love to hang them in doorways, march with them down streets; wave them as symbols of pride, alliance, and attachment. America has, in fact, been cranking out some version of the American flag since 1775 and, in looking over some of the earlier contenders, it’s good we didn’t settle too quickly on a design: this one here with the stripes and snake on which we were not to tread lacked, I think, artistic gravitas. But surely our current flag is a worthy choice, a stately symbol redolent of so much history and national passion.

Which brings to mind certain cultural events of late, brouhahas centered around the topic of flags. Interesting that, shortly before our most patriotic and all-American holiday, we’d be widely, and wildly, debating other flags that hold great meaning—good and bad—for our eclectic and often polarized citizenry.

I don’t think anyone could deny that the Confederate flag incites tremendous emotion, both from those who believe it’s a symbol of racism and national disdain, and others who insist, “it’s heritage and not hate,” as Rickey Medlocke of Lynyrd Skynyrd remarked recently. And while that sentiment may be true for some southerners, it’s getting harder to accept the assessment, particularly since the “flag of Dixie” has been held high by some of the most heinous characters in history, as recently as the tragedy in Charleston, S.C.

In fact, even Patterson Hood, founder of another proud southern band, The Drive-By Truckers, asserted this about the flag known as the “Stainless Banner”:

“I’m from Alabama,” says Patterson Hood, “I lived in the South my entire life. I have ancestors who fought in that ill-begotten war, but it’s way, way past time to move on … That [Civil] War was what, 150 years ago? It’s time to move on. It should have been a moot point years ago. The flag represents an act of war against the United States.

“The flag was put there to antagonize and intimidate,” he says, about its initial erection over the Capital. “During the Civil Rights era, Southern states started flying those flags and putting the logo on their state flags to remind black people what they thought their place was. It was just that simple…

“People say ‘The South will rise again,’ Hood says. “The South will never rise again as long as we keep our heads up our asses. I feel very strongly about it. I’m from Alabama. I lived in the South my entire life. I have ancestors who fought in that ill-begotten war, but it’s way, way past time to move on.”

Which makes sense to me. When some in this country talk about “taking back America,” demanding a “national language,” or bemoaning the “denigration” of the country by illegal immigration, how illogical is it, then, to defend a flag representative of so much pain and national antipathy? Particularly at a time when Americans of all stripes are (or should be) looking to bridge chasms, not create them.

There’s another flag that’s been waving around lately as well, one held high by those in our country fighting for equal rights for all: the Rainbow flag. Surely you’ve seen it. It’s the colorful symbol of gender and orientation diversity. No one near any kind of media these past weeks could have missed the wildly polar response to the Supreme Court’s ruling on constitutionally protected marriage equality. It was telling to watch the viral sharing of images showing the Confederate flag coming down as the Rainbow flag rose high. Wherever one stands on these issues, it can’t be denied that, yet again, it’s a flag that holds the symbology of so much passion and belief.

Which gets us back to the 4th of July: kids and flags; mom, dad, and apple pie; stalwart patriotism, and all things American. Each of these iconic concepts stirs warmth and nostalgia; optimism and hope, particularly as we look to strike a balance as individuals, stalwart in our beliefs, who also allow others to experience their own lives with dignity and respect. When I think of true American ideals, that’s where my mind goes.

Flag Waver_by Lorraine Devon Wilke
Flag Waver_by Lorraine Devon Wilke

Our 4th of July will be spent with family in the bucolic surrounds of Ferndale (whose downtown looks very much like the iconic Neil Boyle illustration at top!). Our daughter, who hasn’t been able to get up here in recent years, is visiting with her two children. They’re excited to partake of of the many Humboldtian wonders, particularly highpoints we’ve identified in and around Ferndale (i.e., feeding grass to kindly horses and getting rides on a local fire engine). We’ll gather at our beloved home, raise a glass to family and community, raise eyes to the wonder of sparklers and fireworks, and hold hope that we can continue to raise awareness in the evolving country we all celebrate on this holiday.

I think the American flag has the spirit, the history, and the heart to be a proud standard for everyone moving toward that noble goal.

“Freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order. If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion.” — Supreme Court Justice Robert J. Jackson, 1943

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Original version published July 2, 2015 @ the Ferndale Enterprise

The illustration at the top, “4th of July, 1888” by Neil Boyle, is one of the many iconic and incredibly beautiful pieces of Boyle’s illustrating the book, Notes From Abe Brown’s Diary by Tom E. Knowlton. I was delighted to be gifted five limited prints from that collection by Boyle’s daughter, Kay Jackson, who has become a friend since we connected over an article of mine called Neil Boyle, Molly Malone’s and Pretty in Pink. I am honored to have both her friendship and her father’s prints, all of which now beautifully hang in our Ferndale home.

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

Neil Boyle, Molly Malone’s, and Pretty In Pink

DEVON band photo 2Knee-deep in the pursuit of rock and roll dreams, I faced the ’80s like so many other pavement-pounding, hair-sprayed, idealistic artists of the era: driven, sartorially questionable, and usually broke. Too many years on the road with various cover bands—covering not only the Top-40 of the day but most of the west, mid-west and southwest by car and van—left me weary of musical circles headed nowhere. It was clear the time had come to get serious about my destiny. I was to be a rock n’ roll star. I needed to get on with it. That meant an original band and a job to support it.

I landed back in my Art Deco one-bedroom on the infamous Argyle Avenue, a wide boulevard that, in the 1980s, had the dubious distinction of being the only gang-infested ‘hood in the otherwise tony hills of Hollywood. When I wasn’t dodging bullets or avoiding eye contact with various gang members hell-bent on terrorizing us denizens living snugly (smugly?) at the foot of the Hollywood sign, I was writing my first songs, rehearsing with the first band that was literally being formed around my voice, my words, and my name, while looking for that perfect job that would afford me rent and rehearsal space, and still be time-flexible. That could only mean one thing: waitressing.

My guitarist’s girlfriend at the time, a gorgeous punk goddess from Scotland who worked at the Troubadour and wore torn fishnets and black eyeliner better than anyone I knew (and would later mentor me in the fine art of “truly living rock & roll” – meaning I was in leather, belts (many), rhinestones, and Spritz Forte from morning to the weary moment I lay my head down at night), presented a solution. Besides the very hip Troubadour gig she wrangled for all it was worth, she also had a part-time shift at a local pub, one she wanted to phase herself out of…was I interested? Not really, no, but… OK, fine.

Molly Malone’s, down on 6th and Fairfax, in one of the many hearts of Los Angeles; very casual, lunchtime menu, just cocktails at night. Small enough room, easy enough uniform, loose enough management style (i.e., lots of staff and management drinking shenanigans) and on most nights, plenty enough cash to pocket. As good as it gets. Nowadays Molly Malone’s is a bona fidedly hip music venue with an expansive stage area, an impressive dinner menu and a respectively spiffed-up decor; back then it was a smoky, scruffy, one-room pub where hardcore drinkers came to suck down Jameson shots and Black n’ Tans, and get into fist-fights that ended with sweaty man-hugs and often — to my mercenary delight — loose wads of cash knocked under sticky tables. It was a wild place filled with Irish immigrants, wannabe Irish (particularly on St. Patrick’s Day), off-duty (and occasionally on-duty) LAPD, and a contingent of rock n’ roll hipsters (a harbinger of the evolution to come).

Sidebar: one night, as I leaned over a table with beers and shots, one of those hipsters glanced up, looked me over, and with a cocked head and squinted eye finally asked, “Has anyone ever told you you look like Lorraine Devon?” No. No one ever had. I guess the tux shirt and serving tray were too great a disguise. Turns out he’d seen my band at The Lingerie or Sasch or Madame Wong’s or somewhere. Fans. “Thanks,” I gushed, delighted to be recognized. “I’m glad you liked the band.  Actually, if you’re interested, we’ll be playing again at—what? Oh, yeah, sure, of course…one Harp, two Guiness, four Irish coffees, got it!”

Yep. It’s only rock n’ roll.

Anyway, back to my story…Somewhat anomalous to all this rowdy, irreverent carrying-on was the almost daily presence of the esteemed “in-house” artist, Neil Boyle. Tall, white-haired and bearded, Neil, with his dignified mien, quiet, observant manner, and ubiquitous glass of mineral water, somehow both fit the venue and stood outside it. Always seated next to Molly’s owner, the late Angela Hanlon, either at the bar or a table near the stage, sipping his non-alcoholic beverage (surely an oxymoron in an Irish bar… and I can say that; I’m a quarter Irish!), while tapping his foot to The Mulligans or patiently listening to some random, nonsensical chatter from a usually tipsy table-mate, Neil exuded grace. He was the classiest guy in the joint. Always. And it was understood that he was to be accommodated.

Angela would often request, even on the busiest nights (with me the only waitress), that I get up on stage and sing “The Rose,” because Neil liked it. Despite the clear loss of income for both me and the cash register whilst I warbled that melancholy favorite in lieu of slinging drinks, she wouldn’t stop requesting until it became a demand, and, before she snapped in a fit of pique, I’d get up on that thumbnail stage with whoever was playing that night and sing “Some say love, it is a river….” like the quarter-Irish heartbreaker I was. It may as well have been “Danny Boy”…Angela would cry and Neil would listen quietly and smile as if he was genuinely moved by the serenade, which, odds are, he was. ‘The Rose” is a good song.

BarInterior by Neil Boyle

But beyond a kind, music-loving demeanor, Neil’s most profound contribution to Molly Malone’s was his art.  His beautiful, evocative, incredibly special art. Over 70 of his oil paintings hang in that little bar to this day. How unexpected to find that kind of exceptional work in a dark, hole-in-the-wall bar but Molly Malone’s was – and is – literally wallpapered with it. For an artist whose pieces command phenomenal fees, who was always in demand for murals and commissioned work, and whose many pieces hang in galleries and museums around the country, the prestige of showcasing such valuable art was undeniable to Molly’s. Some patrons came in simply to view Neil’s paintings. It was a draw. Literally.

The largest painting was of Angela Hanlon. It hung in clear view over the entrance and depicted her in all her youthful, lovely splendor. Other paintings were of bar scenes, street scenes, but most were of the people and faces that came and went through the swinging doors of that pub; the regulars, the Molly Malone’s coterie. And everyone who walked through those doors wanted to be one of the faces Neil painted, everyone. Few were. And you had to be asked. There was no appealing to him, no requests, no hinting; no prancing around commenting on “how nice it would be to be up on these walls.” No one got up there unless Neil wanted to paint them, wanted to put them up there, and to be asked, to be chosen, was an honor like no other.

Almost three years in, near the end of my tenure there, and on the morning of a soon-to-be riotously busy St. Paddy’s Day, Neil quietly approached me and said, “I want to paint your picture.” Stunned, I blushed pink and stammered something about “how honored I am to be asked,” or some other such blathering nonsense, but the truth was, I was… honored to be asked. I sat down at one of the booths, put my elbow up on the green and white checkered tablecloth, my white tux shirt and string tie neatly arranged, my big ’80s hair properly fluffed, and Neil took my picture. I can’t remember how long it was before the subsequent painting appeared on the wall at Molly’s, but at some point it was there. Dead center on the main wall. Lit with a pin spot. And immediately a conversation piece…

Because while Neil painted most of the Molly Malone faces in palettes of brown and caramel, and black and yellow—me, he painted in pink. Pretty in pink. And it was truly was one of the most beautiful paintings on that wall. Not because of my face (necessarily!), but because Neil imbued it with a color and glow that made it stand out from the earth tones surrounding it, and that alone made it unique. Someone suggested it communicated his affection for me. Maybe so. Maybe because I sang him “The Rose.” Maybe because he liked my blonde hair. Maybe because I kept him in mineral water. Maybe it was just because he felt the wall needed some pink. Whatever the reason, it is a beautiful painting and, as far as I know, it still hangs prominently on the main wall of Molly Malone’s.

LorraineDevon by Neil Boyle 1984

Neil died in February of 2006. Not too long after that, my brother, Tom Amandes, was acting in a TV pilot being shot, coincidentally, at Molly’s. At one point Tom called to tell me they’d blocked one of his scenes and, without realizing it, had placed him directly under the Neil Boyle painting of a woman in pink… yep, that one. He sent me the snapshot taken by the prop person. I can’t find that photo today but I do have a beautiful print of my painting. My friend, Tina Romanus (who Neil also painted at some point later…though not in pink), had asked Neil make one for me and he did. It’s hanging on my own wall.

Still pretty in pink.

 

Included paintings and for more information on Neil Boyle: www.neilboyle.com 
Visit Molly’s at  www.mollymalonesla.com.
Molly Malone’s photo credit www.yelp.com
Photo of Neil Boyle by Scott Burdick, www.scottburdick.com
DEVON photo courtesy of Lorraine Devon Wilke


 

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Lorraine’s third novel, The Alchemy of Noise, is  currently available at Amazon and elsewhere.

Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.