The Ol’ Banjo Sounds Good
“That’s all I take with me,” Morgan O’Kane says with a slight drawl, nodding at the worn suitcase by the door. The battered box sits on one end, like a chunk of faded driftwood awaiting high tide.
After recovering the Samsonite from the trash, O’Kane reinforces one of its broad sides with a scrap of a rubber gym mat. The case carries only spare strings and a stack of CDs he’ll sell at his next show. “I don’t really change my clothes very often,” O’Kane admits. It is his world. It is his portable seat and his instrument, one he values almost as much as the banjo on his knee. He’s kicked his way through at least ten of these over the years—WHUMP WHUMP WHUMP—with a foot-pedal that strikes the rubber and sends a boom through the box and against the screech of subway platforms. An improvised bass drum, insured against damage. “It loses its sound when you crack the wood,” he tells me three days before hitting the road for a gig in Massachusetts.
Patrick Morgan O’Kane fell into music after falling from a roof. While painting a house in Virginia, he slipped and landed on his feet, breaking both, and was sentenced to a year in a wheelchair. With nothing on his hands but time, O’Kane picked up a banjo and taught himself to play it. Today, not quite a decade later, his repaired feet pull double duty, stomping a tambourine and a pedal during every performance. Having outlived most of his friends while exploring the American terrain by train, he relives those days through song. O’Kane howls and picks his banjo with lightning speed, hitting traditional Appalachian bluegrass over the head with a hard and heavy brand of hillbilly punk.
That’s why O’Kane sounds a bit hoarse as we sit talking on mismatched furniture inside the Airstream trailer he’s rented since December. A Chihuahua named Stanley guards the bed. The home faces three others like it. The trailers frame a covered gas grill on a cracked concrete lot, concealed by a sprawling metal wall on the Williamsburg-Greenpoint line in Brooklyn. Home is not visible from the sidewalk. Last year O’Kane squatted for nine months in an abandoned church in Bushwick until the fire department kicked him out. He says he made some of his best music there. And Cassius, his four-year-old son with girlfriend Domino Kirke, loved every visit.
“I. Like. New. Monies!” the boy declares, digging into his dad’s tip jar and spreading out an assortment of coins from an assortment of countries. Like his father, Cassius keeps moving. He has dark, shoulder-length hair, and appears to be a rich young man. I tell him so.
“Yes,” his dad grins. “In Mongolia.”
Other jars that line the scattered shelves hold something of greater value to O’Kane: the ashes of his closest friends from the road. “I never did heroin but most of my friends did and they’re all dead now,” he says, without a breath or a blink. Back in high school in Virginia, selling drugs got him expelled. Tagging buildings got him arrested. His parents got divorced. It was time to leave Charlottesville, his home since birth. “I just didn’t want to be in that small town anymore,” O’Kane says. “I wanted to see what else was out there.”
“It wasn’t just one thing or another. It was a bunch of things,” his father Tim told me from his art studio in Virginia. “He seems to have a level of adventurous spirit that I never had. That’s one thing we did share, our inability to learn very well by sitting still in a classroom. He just had to get the hell out of here.”
At sixteen, O’Kane replaced the thrills of skiing and rock climbing with stolen alcohol and the open road. “My adrenaline fix became freight trains,” he says. He joined other runaways, hopping the rail to take him far from life back home. One day brought Kentucky, another West Virginia. The years and states bumped by in a blur of landscape. He eventually found Brooklyn and moved to Bed-Stuy, roaming from place to place, living off what he could.
* * *
“This ol’ banjo sounds good,” O’Kane hollers into the microphone between songs. “Usually sounds like a can of nuts and bolts rolling down the stairs!”
It’s his third performance of the day, but he’s riding a second wind after soaring through “Sail Away,” a rollicking number from his first album, Nine Lives. By 1:17 a.m. he’s spent and the show’s over, ending what began with a morning of busking in Washington Square Park and an afternoon performing for hundreds of people with his girlfriend in Rockaway, Queens. Kirke harmonized and played the washboard while Cassius danced among the crowd in the street.
On most days, one might catch this one-man band perched on one end of his suitcase, belting it out beneath Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, or between the artists and the chess hustlers at Union Square, or inside the coveted tunnel by Bethesda Fountain in Central Park.
Tonight, however, two bearded men flank O’Kane on a sparse stage at the rear of St. Mazie, an unmarked bar along a dark and deserted block of Brooklyn’s Grand Street. Zeke Healy stands tall, attacking a giant steel guitar, and at O’Kane’s right sits Liam Crill, a bear of a man with a mastery of the spoons and a taste for Budweiser, which he swigs between songs.
O’Kane wears a black vest and pants stitched from patches of denim. At 35, he’s the oldest of this trio, but looks much younger, with his brown hair pulled back to reveal high cheekbones, a square jaw and a killer set of teeth. Tattoos blanket his arms and chest. A raven peers from beneath the neckline of his collared shirt. He picks and stomps and yells and the audience is right there with him, clapping and dancing and laughing.
Among their set list: “When the Leaves Come Out,” Ralph Chaplin’s poem about the guards who killed miners on strike in West Virginia a century ago. O’Kane opposes the destruction of mountaintops to extract coal, and often sings about it. But his protest songs are outnumbered by the breakneck-paced tunes of tales from the road, the trains he’s hopped, and the friends he’s survived along the way.
“He’s one of the most talented motherfuckers I know,” Crill tells me after the show, shaking his head. “Anybody who can pick that up later in life and do it the way he does it? Jesus.”
“All the shit I’d been through until that point, I was a mess. I was an angry fucking punk rock kid,” O’Kane recalled over a cigarette with Crill. “I needed it. It was like medicine.”
It came from other musicians, like fellow one-man band Phillip Roebuck of Virginia, whose suitcase kick-pedal performances inspired his own. In 2006, O’Kane joined jug band Casa de Chihuahua, and the New York lineup took its act to California and back before splitting. The evolution of O’Kane’s ability lives on YouTube, but there’s an instinct and a force at his shows that those shaky, handheld videos from the streets fail to capture.
“Living on the street as a kid, watching people walk by him, wondering who people were and what their stories were, having that curiosity about human nature—it comes from being homeless and traveling as a youth,” Kirke told me. “He doesn’t judge. He really accepts people for who they are and I feel like that comes across in his music. When he leaves there’s something that’s bigger than him, I think, kind of taking care of everything.”
* * *
Lightning crashed all around the sailboat as the thirty-six footer flooded with each swelling wave. O’Kane braced himself aboard the Fiddler’s Green with his old bandmate Ferd Moyse, whose girlfriend pumped water from the boat using the suction from a plastic Super Soaker water gun. The old hound dog Moyse had found and brought aboard was not taking to the excitement. It was their second night at sea last spring; a planned voyage from New Orleans to Key West and eventually New York now appeared impossible.
The storm didn’t pass until six the next morning. The wind carried the foursome to the closest port they could find, Port St. Joe in Florida’s panhandle. There they tinkered with the boat and earned some new fans, passing the time by giving their waterlogged instruments a thorough workout.
The next week they sat offshore, at the mercy of nature, playing music in the middle of the Gulf that no one else could hear. The dates they booked throughout Florida came and went. They waited, catching tuna, eating white rice, drinking red wine. But they weren’t about to turn on the motor, captain’s orders. “That was probably why we missed a lot of our scheduled gigs,” Moyse told me from New Orleans. “I’m a very militant sailor. But what I did not expect at all was, like, days of no wind.”
They never made it around Florida. But O’Kane and Moyse had been through worse together. To this day, their faces raise flags in Canada, and not of the patriotic kind. The country deported O’Kane when he was 19 following “a scuffle with police,” as he calls it. Moyse’s driving record there also prevented his reentry. They were banned. Two years ago, though, Canada made an exception. The government granted the men clearance for two days, allowing them to perform at a festival in Calgary. After the show, when it came time to leave they begged a couple to drive them to the Montana border. They had a gig to make in Bozeman, a college town in the southwestern part of the state. Once they made it to the line, they thumbed rides the rest of the way, encountering more abandoned oil rigs than they could count. Later that year, when O’Kane and Moyse took the Fiddler’s Green across the Gulf for the first time, they saw much of the same thing: endless miles of scattered rigs, rusted and empty, outcasts of the offshore Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill.
“We didn’t talk for eight hours, sailing through that,” O’Kane says. “Man has leached everything it can from the earth.”
When you take that step
on the train
that it's all the same
—“Railroad Blues,” from O’Kane’s 2011 album, Pendulum
Today, with his train-hopping days behind him, O’Kane limits his travels outside New York to a weekend at a time. “Mainly for him,” he says, touching his son. “I like to be around him more.”
Not long before Cassius was born, O’Kane broke fourteen years of silence with his own father. “When I started hanging out with Domino a lot, she invested a lot of her time figuring out why I was so pissed off all the time,” he says. The return was worth her investment. While the two of them waited in line at the airport in Mexico City, Kirke convinced her boyfriend to switch their tickets at the last second. They took the next flight to Virginia. “It was good timing,” O’Kane says.
“When he was born,” O’Kane motions to Cassius, “much to his mother’s dismay I was like, ‘I’m only gonna play music.’ If he’s gonna grow up, I want him to see someone that did what they loved for their life, you know?”
After five years of trying to kick drinking, O’Kane quit several months ago. The change disrupted, yet strengthened, his music. “I stopped writing for a while, because I had to work on myself,” he says. “And all these new songs came out of nowhere.” His third album, due in January, bears the working title The One They Call The Wind. A tour will follow, but O’Kane will never stray far from home. “My ultimate fantasy is to have Domino and Cassius travel with me,” he says. “Go everywhere. We’re working towards that now.
“The storms in the Gulf, hitchhiking through Montana, being lost or broke or hungry, all that shit—that’s all something I could handle. But being on tour for two months last summer, and being away from him, I couldn’t handle it,” O’Kane pauses, reaching out and palming his son’s head. “And that was the only thing I faced in all my travels that I could not deal with.”
At that moment, Cassius looks up as he returns the last coin to the jar. He asks his dad to buy him a rubber lizard.
“C’mon, Cass,” O’Kane rises from his chair and takes his son’s hand. “We’re gonna walk.”
* * *
Like this story? Come watch Morgan O'Kane play live, and enjoy readings and discussions with other Narratively subjects and authors at "Wander With Narratively," on May 29. Tickets and details here.
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Patrick Flanary, a regular contributor at Rolling Stone and Billboard, has also covered music and politics for Entertainment Weekly, ProPublica and The Huffington Post. He lives in New York City and tweets at @Slow_News_Day.
Tara Israel is Narratively’s photo editor, born and raised among the local fishermen and seasonal Manhattanites of East Hampton and currently residing in New York City. You can read about some of her recent projects and see photos of the questionable company she keeps at thetisraelirepublic.tumblr.com.