Will O'Malley stop the music?

BALTIMORE ...OR LESS

His band is clearly in his blood, but his new job as mayor may mean marching to a different drummer

November 28, 1999|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,Sun Staff

Closing time arrives in Mick O'Shea's Irish Pub and Restaurant, and the bouncers, arms extended, herd the patrons toward the exits.

The band's just finished its last set. The star of the show, and the city's next mayor, Martin O'Malley, plops down on a stool, grateful for the early morning peace that arrives with 2 a.m., helping to silence the amplifier buzz still ringing in his ears.

He has poured out his soul this Saturday night in a four-hour show, leading his five-member band, O'Malley's March, through its Celtic rock repertoire before a standing-room-only crowd of fans still delighting -- almost in disbelief -- that this will be Baltimore's next mayor.

And with O'Malley's inauguration as the city's 47th mayor -- and its youngest ever at age 36 -- less than two weeks away, nights like these at O'Shea's have taken on an added dimension. For O'Malley's family, friends, fans and political allies, the debate is spreading across the city:

Should the mayor still rock and roll?

The City Hall crowd wants him to put down the guitar. Not very mayoral, they say. His wife, a dynamic state prosecutor herself, concurs; one less night playing with the guys means one more evening at home with the three children.

Everyone seems to have an opinion, from the downtown merchant who grouses that "it's time to put down the toys and become mayor" to the U.S. Irish ambassador, Sean O'Huiginn, who in a congratulatory letter sent to O'Malley from Washington last week closed by urging:

"I hope also that your political challenges will not lead to any undue neglect of your music!"

One man's therapy

He certainly had not neglected it this evening. On stage, O'Shea's spotlights glinting off the sandy brown acoustic guitar gripped in his fists, O'Malley seemed to be in heaven.

Where others might curl up with a book by the fire, jog six miles a day or poke around in the backyard garden, rocking with his band into the wee hours is clearly a stress release for the former city councilman. With jackhammer force, he pounds out Irish rebel songs, including tunes such as a "Song For Justice," an ode he penned to lives claimed in that nation's centuries of strife: Kevin Barry, James Connolly, Bobby Sands. Then he changes direction, with a whispered tribute to the St. Mary's light, the blue glow atop a South Baltimore church that guides sailors into the harbor. "May St. Mary's light ... guide you tonight ... as the stars watch over the sea."

The band is clearly in O'Malley's blood. Even as he meets with transition teams and interviews prospective department heads, he makes time to play. His Saturday gig at O'Shea's is followed by a Monday night set in Lexington Market, at a huge party thanking campaign supporters for their election help. And just three weeks before, he'd performed an opening ballad for pop songwriting legend Carole King during a Washington reunion of campaign aides for 1988 presidential candidate and former U.S. Sen. Gary Hart.

And even as he awaits his swearing-in, a new O'Malley's March CD -- the band's second and a year in the making -- is awaiting only the cover artwork to meet a hoped-for pre-Christmas release. It seems only a matter of time before David Letterman calls to ask "the singing mayor" to appear on national television.

Yet with each sign that the band is running full throttle, evidence abounds that rocking and governing will be an increasingly difficult mix. In some recent gigs in which O'Malley had to beg off to meet new city duties, the rest of the guys appeared without him, billed simply as "The March."

A worried inspector

Even in the after-show calm at Mick O'Shea's, O'Malley gets a clear reminder that his new dilemma is inescapable.

Shortly after 2, a city liquor inspector comes through the bar door and begins admonishing the staff for the beers still sitting on the bar after closing. Bartenders and lingering patrons throw up their hands in a "chill out" plea as they correct the matter, but the inspector stands firm.

At his stool down the bar, O'Malley tries to turn his back. With two weeks left before he's officially the city's boss, he hoping not to be drawn into the scene. Yet the sudden look of recognition on the inspector's face lets him know his days as a common man are over.

"Oh my God," the inspector says, recognizing O'Malley. "Am I in trouble."

The inspector apologizes, gripping O'Malley's hand, fawning with a "so good to meet you, Mr. Mayor," earnestness. O'Malley smiles gently, trying to ease the man's worry, fully alerted that his life is now a 24-hour gig.

"You're not in trouble," the new mayor assures him. "You're just doing your job."

His band is clearly in his blood, but his new job as mayor may mean marching to a different drummer.

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