Journos hit chord as ‘Irish Newsboys’

Kevin Fagan

Kevin Fagan

They might not all be Irish, newsies, even boys at all—but when the Irish Newsboys band hits its stride at local watering holes, patrons can count on a rip-roaring Saturday night of rowdy folk music peppered with a bit of San Francisco-style rock.

“Most of these songs are about one of three themes: drinking, fighting or loving,” Kevin Fagan said in a recent interview. “Sometimes a song is about all three.” Fagan is a San Francisco Chronicle reporter who plays a mean guitar behind crusty lyrics.

Fagan described the band as “a bunch of newspaper types from The
Chronicle, The (former) Oakland Tribune, Bloomberg News—and a few of
our famous pals.”

For years, the band held forth at Lefty O’Doul’s, a legendary watering hole on Geary Boulevard with roots in Ireland and baseball. With the unfortunate recent demise of Lefty’s, the boys play every month or so around the city—wherever they can find a bar with a stage and patient management—while they wait for the new Lefty’s to open up sometime later in 2017.

“We’ve been featured as a fixture at Lefty’s, and a few books have tossed us into their pages,” Fagan said. “An autobiography by sci-fi legend Richard Lupoff noted he was a fan of ours. The Chron’s own J.K. Dineen, in his new book, ‘High Spirits: The Legacy Bars of San Francisco,’ mentioned us in his roundup of great S.F. bars. It’s been a pretty fun ride.”

Besides appearing at Lefty’s and other saloons, the Newsboys play special events. They have performed several times onstage in front of San Francisco City Hall for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, at food bank drives, and for patients at Napa State Hospital. At Lefty’s, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny has been known to join the audience.

The Newsboys “begin with a chance encounter on a yacht on the bay during Fleet Week,” Jay Johnson, a retired Chronicle editor, wrote on SFGate in 2014. “Dr. Eugene Schoenfeld (alias ‘Dr. Hip’) throws a party on his floating home, where I am introduced to the legendary rock musician Barry Melton (“The Fish” of Country Joe and the Fish), who, it turns out, is a fan of Irish folk music and has just returned from Ireland. ‘Do tell,’ says I, so he sings me one of the old ones, so I sing him one back. ‘We have to rehearse,’ says he without irony.

“Then,” Johnson continued, “Santa Claus dies—a longtime Macy’s department store Santa who is fired (Kevin breaks the story in the Chronicle) but becomes the mascot of the holiday toy drive at Lefty’s. Then he dies, and Kevin breaks the story again.

“It is decided that Lefty’s will hold an Irish wake for him, and Barry, Kevin and I are dragooned into performing at the event. We make it up as we go along, and the crowd goes wild.

“Somehow, Lefty’s decides we should return with a real act (‘We have to rehearse,’ Barry mutters.) Thus is born the Irish Newsboys.”

“We did this for quite a few years at Lefty’s—and they never threw us out,” Fagan said.

Johnson reports that the cast of the Irish Newsboys—in various venues, identities and times—consists of:

Kevin “The Scribbler” Fagan, the aforementioned Chronicle reporter and semi-pro musician and songwriter who roamed Australia as a street performer in days gone by and had a solo hit there. (In the newspaper, he champions the cause of the homeless and the down-and-out; his stories will make you cry.) Kevin assaults the guitar and belts out some of the band’s more raucous tunes.

Barry “The Fish” Melton, ’60s rock legend who played Woodstock with Country Joe and the Fish—and continues to rock hard today all over California and the world with his Barry Melton Band. He is acknowledged as one of hottest rock guitarists around. For some reason, he likes to hang out with the Newsboys.

Jay “The Hat” Johnson, veteran of 18 years at The Chronicle and before that 18 years at the old afternoon Examiner. He’s one of the lead singers and co-conspirators. “I’m not really a musician,” he says. “I just sing as loud as I can.” Oh, and he wears a hat.

Steve “Hey Rube” Rubenstein, veteran Chronicle reporter and humorist. (He specializes in the lighter side of the human condition; his stories will make you laugh.) He sings and enlivens our sound with mouth harp and banjo.

Peter “Four Strings” Albin, veteran of Big Brother and the Holding Company and the Barry Melton Band, who plays his magical bass guitar with us and with Barry and a dizzying array of other rock stars. (It was he who hired Janis Joplin back in the day.)

Catherine “The Colleen” McSharry, playwright who composed the music, lyrics, and story for “Lefty and Liela Get It Right,” a hilarious musical comedy recently previewed at Pianofight in downtown San Francisco. She is a linnet-voiced soloist and partner in harmonies.

Robert “Pipes” Loomis, Oakland Tribune veteran. As his nickname suggests, he plays a hot flute, pennywhistle and mouth harp. He also performs with the local folk band Unconcord.

Ellen “The Facetious Flautist” Huet, late of The Chronicle and now with Bloomberg News. A classically trained musician, she and her flute add a lilting depth to songs.

Josh “The Wizard” Zucker, The Chronicle’s computer mastermind, who plays just about every kind of bass known to man. He’s also a member of The Jones Gang, an American folk band, and sits in with big-name groups that come to town—Willie Nelson and Boz Skaggs, for instance.

And finally, the redoubtable Lee Houskeeper, press agent to the stars (otherwise known as the band’s “blood-sucking agent”), who made the band do this story.

Be warned: This is traditional Irish folk music, not for the faint of heart. And they say that Lefty’s, like the Irish, will rise again some day. Until then, the Irish Newsboys will pop up here and there—catch ’em where you can.