So Irish accordion king Joe Cullen officially retired Sunday.
There was a big party for him at the Irish American Heritage Center to mark the occasion.
It was like The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese’s movie about The Band’s final concert together back in 1976. But without Van Morrison. Or a film crew.
Hey, Joe plays accordion. Okay, it’s featured on some pop hits. Sure, it’s a staple of a lot of Tex-Mex and Mexican music. That’s not to mention polkas.
Still, it’s the Rodney Dangerfield of instruments. There’s not a song called Accordion Man. Or While My Accordion Gently Weeps.
There’s no self-important accordion supergroup set to headline any overhyped new high tech venue in Las Vegas. Nor will there ever be.
But hey. So what?
Joe has always been fun to see. He has an easy going way about him, doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously, and he tells a few jokes along the way. Joe also has an encyclopedic knowledge of traditional Irish music, with some pop and folk tunes thrown in for good measure.
He’s been the perfect performer to see on Irish New Year’s Eve. That’s where McNally’s in St. Charles holds a party to coincide with the countdown to the new year in Dublin. It means you can be done with the nonsense by 6:30 p.m. Chicago time, then scoot home to avoid the amateurs.
Back to The Last Waltz. Joe’s fest did, indeed, have people waltzing, or dancing, or whatever you call the moves people make to accordion music.
Best Fest Buddy Tom and I watched from the back of the bar in the room across from the de facto dance hall. It’s where they put the bad kids for Thanksgiving. Something like that. It also made it easier for a friend of mine to find us.
From a distance, the scene in the other room reminded me of pre-rock days must have been like – albeit without cigarette smoke. That room was filled with older people dancing to music mostly from long ago.
Hell, even Achy Breaky Heart is 31 years old now. And yes, for some reason they covered that song. Twice. Tom said he thought it was called Itchy Scratchy Crotch. He needs his ears checked.
Speaking of old. Paul McCartney is 81. Mick Jagger and Barry Manilow are both 80.
While you might hear a Barry tune when you visit someone at a senior living facility, why is it you don’t typically hear Rolling Stones music? You hear Glenn Miller. Or maybe Elvis. He would be 88 if he were alive today. But he’s not.
Pardon my digression.
Joe played some, but he also mingled with guests in the bar area.
Turns out he and his wife, Patti, are probably moving to Portugal. Lisbon’s pretty, though I’ve never been. Daniel says it’s the best place he’s ever been.
Wait. Now I’m misquoting Elton John, who’s 76. Daniel went to Spain, Portugal’s next door neighbor.
I don’t know if any of Joe’s current neighbors made the shindig. He and his wife live in Green Bay. Joe may or may not have met Aaron Rodgers once. But that might have been in Peru. Or at a Taylor Swift concert.
Friends present at the party did include the Clarke family. Joe lived for a time in their basement. I think that was in Joe’s method acting phase. He wanted so badly to be cast as Frodo or one of the other hobbits in The Lord of the Rings movies.
If you ask me, those movies desperately needed an accordion.
Anyway, at the retirement gathering, I personally handed Joe the books we gifted him. The Little Goat on the Roof. It’s Time To Sleep, You Crazy Sheep!
Joe’s from Donegal. Fitting topics. Fitting reading level.
Joe laughed. He’s used to animal husbandry humor.
Joe also is part of two pieces of my own Irish American lore that are worth sharing once more.
Joe, JT and the fire alarm
The Friday after St. Patrick’s Day 2022, Tom and I took his two very young grandsons to eat at McNally’s where Joe was playing.
We lied to the kids and told them Joe used to be Blarney, the Irish accordion-playing dinosaur.
McNally’s was packed. As we waited in the back by the host stand, the soon-to-be-4-year-old, JT, started fiddling with a light switch. Tom warned the boy not to touch things he shouldn’t touch.
We wound up sitting at a table right next to where Joe was playing.
The night also featured a guy etching names on and giving away Guinness pint glasses. So, while waiting for dinner, Tom took Izzy, JT’s older brother, back where the guy set up to get two free glasses, the limit he could get.
He asked me to get two more. JT tagged along.
The line was short, but there was still a wait. I started talking to someone, thinking that the youngster with me was where he could do no harm. As I was having a conversation with another adult, the boy activated the fire alarm.
Fire alarms these days are at eye level for toddlers. This is required by the ADA so that somebody in a wheelchair can reach the alarm.
The alarm pretty much was there saying, in a cartoon voice, “Hey buddy. Wanna see what happens? I will probably turn on the light. It is kind of dark in this hallway for a kid like you!”
The poor kid listened to the switch, which answered with flashing disco lights and incessant chirping. The boy immediately fessed up, crying about his hand and scared by the commotion he caused.
People had started to leave, but word got out fast that a kid had pulled the alarm, the alarm still chirping, And chirping. And chirping.
Once back at the table, Tom told the frightened toddler he might be going to jail. I gave the kid a hug.
To this day, when we go places, JT will point out the fire alarms. Deep down, I think he’s still tempted by them.
Joe’s first gigs in Chicago
My other favorite Joe story is one he told me that’s included in the book I wrote more than a decade ago with my buddy Allison, Chicago’s Historic Irish Pubs. Or CHIPS for short.
Joe told us about Murray’s in Chicago’s Jefferson Park neighborhood. The small bar played a big role in the wave of interest in traditional Irish music that rolled across the United States in the 1990s.
Like a good many taverns in Chicago, there was an Old Style beer sign in the front of the place, which was not any bigger than the basement of a large suburban home.
Irish immigrant Mike Murray opened the tavern in 1953. His widow, Edna, ran the place after her husband passed. She lived above the place.
Tom and I visited once. Edna told us Murray’s was one of the first places in Chicago that offered Guinness on tap.
Murray’s biggest contribution to local Irish American culture came from the Sunday jam sessions held there back in the late 1980s.
“It got so busy, they would let one person in when another left,” Joe said. “There were five
bartenders working, and before the doors would open, they would line up the pint glasses and
begin the pouring. They went through more Guinness here than anywhere at the time.”
Tom and I saw some video Edna Murray still had from those days. We were told somebody would sit on top of a cooler behind the bar to shoot the shows.
The musicians set up across from the bar in the very tight space. They played next to a payphone booth that stood in a corner.
If I remember correctly, in the video there was a guy with a mullet haircut who kept getting or making calls. Hmm. Maybe he was ordering pizzas.
Anyway, Joe said that after college, with the economy back in Ireland not the best in those times, he came to Chicago where some friends had settled.
Murray’s became a hangout for musicians, including Joe, in no small part because of Edna Murray’s kindness.
“Every Thanksgiving Mrs. Murray would cook two turkeys and make sandwiches for those of us from Ireland,” Joe said.
I wonder what they have for Thanksgiving in Portugal. To misquote Bono and/or Bob Geldolf, do they know it’s turkey time at all?
That must be the bag of Tayto cheese and onion crisps talking.
Either way, thanks for the memories, Joe.
Enjoy the inexpensive wine, mild weather, good food, modestly priced housing and affordable healthcare in Portugal.
So goodbye Joe. He gotta go-pole the pirogue go down the bayou. Jambalaya and a crawfish pie and fillet gumbo, even.
Wait. That would make Joe Hank Williams. Or Cajun. But it might feature an accordion.
Anyway, we will miss you.