An audience member once came up to Larry Kirwan, lead singer and songwriter of Black 47, and said, “Are you going to take every good Irish song and *** with it?” It was far from a fair assessment of what Black 47, a band with its own blend of Irish, punk, politics, reggae, rock and rap, is about, but it is a good example of the sharp emotional reaction that Kirwan’s music — and his plays and novels — evokes from audiences.
A solo Kirwan will bring his stories and songs to the Record Collector in Bordentown on Friday, April 9, as part of his “Rock & Read” tour. Sharing the stage will be Paul Muldoon, the Pulitzer-Prize winning poet, Princeton University professor, and part-time rocker. Kirwan will read from his books, including “Rockin’ the Bronx,” a novel published earlier this year, and weave some relevant songs around them.
Muldoon isn’t sure just what he’ll do at the Record Collector performance, but, he assures me, “There’ll be a plan, don’t worry.”
“I might read a few song lyrics; I might read a few new poems. I tend to play these things by ear. Usually, when I stand up, I have no idea what the first poem is that I am going to read. It means that I have to be present. But basically, Larry is the star of the show, so I’ll really be falling in with him. I’m a big fan of his writing, so I’m very pleased to be with him there. I’m a great believer in making it up as we go along. I sort of like the impromptu element of an event like this.”
In addition to being a long-time fan of Kirwan’s, Muldoon’s allegiance to rock and roll is well known. He had a chance to collaborate with the late great Warren Zevon on a song, “My Ride’s Here,” which was recorded by Bruce Springsteen on the Zevon tribute album, “Enjoy Every Sandwich.” He also plays often with his own rock group, Rackett, for which he is the lyricist and is allowed to noodle on rhythm guitar.
If there is one thing that Kirwan and Muldoon share, it is the determination that the lyric has a place in the forefront of rock. Muldoon says, “I’m interested in song writing, and how lyrics function in all the traditions: folk, ballads, blues, and so far as it’s appropriate, the rock and roll tradition. Frankly, the lyric is not always to the fore in rock. Warren Zevon was interested in constructing songs, and that’s what it is, the construction business. A lot of the time, the music is the dominant component [in rock] and perhaps should be. But it’s nice when the two are sort of balancing each other. The likes of Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen — that’s the vein that I’m most interested in. And Larry Kirwan, absolutely. He’s very witty, and he’s saying something.”
Although Kirwan was born in 1948 in Ireland, his musical route was different from that of most Irish-born musicians. Most Irish players of his and the next generation were introduced first to traditional songs and then succumbed to the lure of the rock and roll they began to hear on television and radio. Many of them ended up back in the traditional mode; others — think U2 — rocked out.
Kirwan’s influences were a little different. A lot of that had to do with the county in which he grew up. “Wexford is geographically kind of isolated in the southeast corner of Ireland,” he says. “It didn’t look inward to the rest of the country at all; it looked outward, because it was a port. That’s where all the invasions came, to Wexford — being the closest point to England and to Europe. There was a great tradition of sailing; a ship left from the harbor every night for London. Everyone in Wexford has really close relatives in the greater London area. So it tended to be cosmopolitan. But it considered itself separate from the rest of the country. It has its own customs, even, in the south of the county, its own language, called Yola, a mixture of Irish, Old English, French, and Flemish.”
Kirwan refers to the Wexford of his boyhood as “still very much a Victorian society.” The only outside influences came from the sailors returning home. “And the movies,” he recalls. “Wexford people were just tremendous moviegoers. There were 10,000 people in the town and three full-time movie theaters. Lots of people went every night. The Westerns stars were icons. Audie Murphy — people don’t even know him in America, but he was a superstar in Wexford.”
In the late 1950s, English teenagers in ports like Liverpool were exposed to rock and roll through the records sailors brought home from America. It wasn’t like that in Wexford. “My father was a sailor; Argentina was his route. He brought in tango and calypso music; he didn’t bring in rhythm and blues like the Beatles heard. My mother was into opera but my father was into (jazz singer) Sarah Vaughn and calypso and loved to dance the tango.”
So it wasn’t the Irish seisuns — pub gatherings of musicians — and the pipes weren’t calling to a young Larry Kirwan. “Traditional music wasn’t big in Wexford at all. There was some but there were all different forms of music. Everyone sang, everyone had to have their party piece. If you couldn’t sing — and there were few people who wouldn’t have a shot at it — you had to do a poem. But you would be socially ostracized if it went around the room and you didn’t do something. And everyone got the same round of applause.”
Curiously enough, Kirwan remembers that one his first party pieces was a traditional song, “The Wild Colonial Boy.” But it had a bit of politics in it, and politics was something he learned early. Of his 2005 autobiography, “Green Suede Shoes: An Irish-American Odyssey,” he says, “The publishers said, ‘Why don’t you take ten or twelve of your songs and write stories around them and we’ll put that out as a book?’ After three or four songs I said, ‘This is an autobiography, but kind of a cool one, because I don’t have to tell everything, just what relates to the songs.’”
In the book Kirwan details his Wexford upbringing in a style of prose that speaks of Dylan Thomas. He was the oldest of five children, and for various reasons he moved in with his maternal grandfather a mile from home when he was 10. This was a man of strong political and historical beliefs, interests which his grandson echoed, and, as he grew, dared to differ with. The theme was prevalent in many of the songs that Kirwan wrote later for Black 47, songs like “James Connolly,” a portrait of the leader of Ireland’s Easter Rebellion in 1916, “Bobby Sands MP,” about one of Northern Ireland’s most famous political prisoners, and “The History of Ireland, Part One,” a Dylanesque rap and romp through 1,000 years of Irish grievances.
“There was a thing in southern Wexford, where my other grandfather lived,” says Kirwan. “They called it the Long Song — it could be a song about a battle that had 20 verses. It was the oral history of the area and people. That’s what I tried to do with Black 47, to take that form and upbeat it, take it into the 20th century.”
Young Larry began to play music when he was a teenager. Almost inevitably, he joined a band to meet girls and ended up in Dublin. After a failed attempt to join the local Marxist group (“Will you go home to your Mammy, you half-arsed culchie eejit!”), he ended up on the cusp of fame as half of the duo of Turner & Kirwan of Wexford — with high energy versions of Simon & Garfunkel numbers as a specialty — and that led, again with the air of inevitability, to the New York City of the 1970s.
“It’s almost hard to imagine now what New York was actually like in the ’70s,” Kirwan writes in “Green Suede Shoes.” “The social order had broken down. As long as you didn’t murder someone, you could do pretty much as you pleased. The streets were teeming with all manner of dissident thought and behavior.”
Kirwan & Turner of Wexford became the house band at a pub called the Bells of Hell downtown on 13th Street. Run by fellow Irish expatriate Malachy McCourt (whose brother, Frank, would become famous later with the bestseller “Angela’s Ashes”), it became a hangout for myriad New York types, including but not limited to Irish-American writers like Joe Flaherty, Denis Smith, and Pete Hamill, as well as rock critics like Lester Bangs and Nick Tosches.
It was a heady time, but drink and drugs took a toll on the lower East Side, as it did all over. Kirwan & Turner of Wexford formed a new wave group called the Major Thinkers, and Kirwan became fascinated with the bands playing in midtown at clubs like CBGBs: Television, the Talking Heads, the Ramones, and Blondie.
Major Thinkers almost became the next big thing (at one point, they had the same managers as Cyndi Lauper), but they broke up in 1985, and Kirwan’s creativity found a forum in theater. His plays were collected in “Mad Angels” in 1995. One of the plays, “Liverpool Fantasy,” created a stir when it was produced in 1986, and Kirwan expanded it into a novel in 2003. The story imagines what might have happened to John Lennon — and the Sixties, rock music, and English politics — had Lennon stormed out of EMI studios and out of the Beatles in 1962, taking George and Ringo with him. It angered a lot of Lennon fans with its portrayal of John as a down-and-out, albeit defiant, almost-was. “People who see him as a saint definitely felt that way,” says Kirwan. “But it was done affectionately. Basically I was saying that I grew up with guys who had the talents of Lennon, and some of his faults, too, being drinkers or egotists, or being very hard to deal with, and he was all those when he was younger. But he had McCartney to smooth the rough edges and help him get there.”
“There are so many people I’ve met with talent and for whatever reason, they don’t have the drive to get up every day. I knew Cyndi Lauper really well, and she would have died if she hadn’t made it. But I don’t know if John had that.”
Kirwan was about to find out whether if he had that drive. He formed a new band in 1989 with New York City fireman Chris Byrne. Called Black 47 after the Great Famine that decimated Ireland in the 1840s, the band expected to find their audience among the citizens of the Irish immigrant enclave off the Grand Concourse in the Bronx: the nannies, construction workers, cops, and firemen — the very people, in fact, who they were singing about. It sounded like a perfect fit. Kirwan knew the area and the people: “Rockin’ the Bronx” is a passionate, throbbing, scorching, fictional account of the adventures of an ‘80s Irish emigre that has all the life and over-the-top passion of much of Larry Kirwan’s music.
But was the Bronx ready for Black 47? “They didn’t like being written about,” says Kirwan. “For one thing, they may have thought it was making fun of them. They didn’t much like our politics, either. It staggered me in the early days when people didn’t like the band. People would make a point of coming up to you as they were leaving and stick a finger in the air. I remember in December, 1990, we got invited to London to open for the Pogues (the seminal Irish-influenced punk band). Shane (MacGowan, of the Pogues) was such a powerful singer you didn’t want to be copying him. So here we are in London — and we’d only played in the Bronx and Manhattan — with 3,000 or more people in the audience. And we’re thinking, ‘This is *** great,’ and as we’re walking out onstage the whole audience got up and started screaming, ‘Get off.’ They hadn’t even heard us yet; they just wanted Shane. And I was just so hardened from the Bronx I went over and turned everything up to 10 — amp, distortion pedal, feedback, everything — and I almost gave mass deafness to the whole place.”
Black 47 wasn’t about to give in, though. The hell with anyone who didn’t like their music, their left-wing politics (the two were closely intertwined in Kirwan’s lyrics), or their attitude. They started to develop a bit of an audience in the Bronx, as well as in Queens and Brooklyn.
“Then,” Kirwan resumes the narrative, “we got a gig as resident band at Paddy Reilly’s in Manhattan. No one from Queens would go to the Bronx, and no one from Brooklyn would go to Queens, but everyone would come into Manhattan. An editor from Newsday was walking by Reilly’s one day, and saw a line around this crummy little Irish bar. He loved the band, and assigned John Anderson, his music critic, to actually hang out with us for a week as we traveled in the van to the different boroughs. He wrote a three-page article about the band, and that really got things rolling.”
The band was cutting edge, and Kirwan knew it. “I knew there was something happening. We were a people’s band, a band for people who didn’t have a band. We were singing about the New York of that period. It was a field that hadn’t been dealt with, really.”
Twenty years, countless gigs, many television appearances, a few hit songs (“Funky Ceili”), and 13 CDs later, Black 47 is still making music. Major stardom may have eluded them but that doesn’t bother Larry Kirwan. Maybe it was the politics — the band took a hard stand against the war in Iraq early on, and Kirwan doesn’t regret it, even if his political positions may have cost them a few gigs and a few fans.
These days, although he still rocks out, he is a contented family man, with a wife, two kids, and a home in the city he has come to love. He still works hard. Currently he is working on a musical with “Schindler’s List” author Thomas Keneally. “Transport” is the story of a young Irish woman who is sent to Australia on a convict ship in 1842, and it will have a workshop performance Friday through Sunday, April 30 to May 2, at the Irish Arts Center in Manhattan.
And Black 47 is ever on the road, although Kirwan admits, “I wouldn’t become a musician again, not in this era. It doesn’t have the same relevance. When I started, music was in the air. Now, I wouldn’t go into it as a career. In fact, I never did — I fell into it.”
Rock ‘n’ Read, the Record Collector, 358 Farnsworth Avenue, Bordentown. Friday, April 9, 7:30 p.m. Larry Kirwan of Black 47 and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and Princeton University professor Paul Muldoon. $15. 609-324-0880 or www.the-record-collector.com.