Over the weekend, I learned the sad news about Frank McCourt, a wonderful writer and a cherished friend, who died in New York at 78.
Frank was the most impishly intelligent man I knew, a permanent twinkle of the eye, a guy who could drop obscure literary references and an Irish drinking song into the same short sentence. His acclaim came late in life, waiting until he was in his 60’s – his childhood was impoverished Ireland, his young adulthood an immigrant in New York, and most of his career was spent anonymously, as a schoolteacher in the Big Apple. But things laid out that way for a purpose; Frank’s life became the canvas from which he would write three wonderful books, “Angela’s Ashes” about the childhood years, “’Tis” about his early wondrous time in America, and “Teacher Man” about what he learned while he was imparting knowledge to others.
Any of those books stand on their own as terrific reads. Together, they make an unforgettable trilogy of a 20th century immigrant experience, through the eyes of a boy who endured, and through the lessons of a man who gave back.
Because he became famous as a senior citizen, there was a sense of appreciation with Frank that is missing from many of us. He was a storyteller of the highest order. He was a prankster. He was wickedly intelligent and sublimely clever and yet he had a charming humility that made it seem as if he were stumbling into cocktail parties or band rehearsals as if by accident – before taking over the room with his witty tales and thick Irish brogue.
We first got to know each other when our books came out less than a year apart. Both were memoirs and both succeeded beyond our dreams. We shared the joys and pressures of that, and more than once asked each other “So what do we do now?” Frank became part of the Rock Botttom Remainders band, and while he played a decent couple of tunes on the harmonica, it was his love of music and even greater love of belonging to a band – he loved the whole idea of rehearsing, tuning up, waiting off-stage – that made him such a precious member. We play rock and roll, or at least we try, yet Frank would stop the show with “Danny Boy’ or “Don’t Fence Me In” (ironically two songs that are emblematic of Ireland and America) and the crowd would stop and clap or sway along because he was damn cute up there with his white hair and sparking eyes and age-spotted hands gripping that harmonica.
With his death there are tributes flowing and many of them are serious and literary, befitting a writer who won the Pulitzer Prize. But Frank was about laughing and causing laughter and finding laughter in the corners of life, and so I include here as a small tribute a video of an impromptu conversation we had in the hallway of TV show when they were interviewing us about the band. It is Frank at his impish best and it makes me smile, and smiling is the best cradle in which to rock your memories of this man. I hope you enjoy it because everything about Frank was enjoyable and we will miss that most of all.