Black 47's Larry Kirwan
contemplates immigrant politics, his new solo CD, and Irish music in America.
by Bill Nevins
One night in 1989, Irish playwright and musician Larry Kirwan walked into Paddy Reilly's, a Lower Manhattan dive, and founded Black 47 over many rounds of Guinness shared with beat cop and uileann piper Chris Byrne. The band mixes traditional Irish music with rock, rap, and reggae, and balances its notoriously radical politics with boozy wit. Often called "the house band of New York City"—their gigs at Connolly's Pub on 47th Street are always packed—Black 47 has played the States, Ireland, and South America. Their fans follow them from city to city, like politically astute Deadheads. Black 47's latest CD is Trouble In The Land (Shanachie, 2000). Kirwan, the band's frontman and songwriter, has recently released a solo album, Kilroy Was Here (Gadfly).
How does Kilroy Was Here differ from Black 47 projects?
A couple of years back, I was working on a play about my family and my crazy political upbringing, The Poetry of Stone. My grandfather was a stonecutter, a self-educated man, and an ardent Irish Republican. He raised me. The play just poured out (not the usual case), and was probably the best thing I had written. It was very intense and stirred up a lot of memories of family and growing up in Wexford [on the southeast coast of Ireland] in a different era. The song "Tramps Heartbreak," from Trouble In The Land, came from the same process.
Around the same time, I heard Time Out Of Mind by Bob Dylan and, like many's the worker in song, that album forced me to take stock of my own work. Basically, I felt Dylan had left us all behind again. There was a depth to that album that floored me. And, to tell you the truth, I felt that I had been merely skimming the surface in my own songwriting. So I took a step back, got out the pick and shovel, and went mining. A number of songs from Kilroy Was Here came from that excavation. Three of them are up with the best I've done: "Molly," "Kilroy Was Here," and most especially "Life's Like That, Isn't It?"
Musically, I wanted the mood to be quieter than Black 47 but as intense. So I featured trumpet and violin as the lead instruments. Those instruments have a slightly Spanish feel, but that was, oddly enough, the feel of some of the music I heard growing up in Wexford. Remember that my hometown was then at the end of its era as a seaport, but the international influence of the port was still very prevalent.
Many of the songs were written on Sunday evenings, which used to be a very heavy and reflective time in Irish life. I usually go to a bar with my children, have a few pints, and then on the walks home the songs seemed to seep out. Later that night, in the quietness, they would take shape.
Stewart Lerman, who produced Trouble In The Land, set me up with a number of musicians. From the start, we wanted to keep it loose, almost a jazzy feel. So, we had two three-hour rehearsals, then cut the whole thing. All the vocals and acoustic guitar were done live, usually in first takes. I had intended to re-record them but found that, while technically the redone vocals might be better, they couldn't match the intensity of the music. I'm very proud of the album and think it takes songwriting-storytellling in a new direction.
Last year, Black 47 co-founder Chris "Seanchai" Byrne left amicably to concentrate on his own projects. How is the band evolving after Chris?
It's getting into a more musical phase. Our newest member is uileann piper Joseph Mulvanerty. Joseph comes from a jazz as well as a traditional Irish background. He is also 23 and, perhaps, reflects more of the times than the rest of us old geezers-we all tend to be lost in our own worlds. Joseph has brought in the rare air of contemporary life. He is also very quick at improvising. It was a good change for everyone concerned. We can try new things, and Chris can proceed with his own career. We're all very excited about the way things are going. The band is looser now, and the changes should be reflected in the next album.
Black 47 has always sung about immigrants in America, as well as about the troubled history of the Irish back in Ireland. What about the relationship of the Irish in America to the indigenous Americans? Are you bothered by all those Irish songs in John Wayne movies that glorify Indian killing?
I've always said that each race has its own assholes. And I, for one, would never rule the Irish out of that particular equation. In fact, many of Black 47's fights have been with the Irish. I don't feel that I have to stand up for Irishness, especially when it is bigoted. I don't, for instance, care, as do many, if the Irish are stereotyped as drunks. In many cases, we deserve it. I know how much alcohol I consume and how much my race does, too. We also get credit for being great writers and speakers, and we accept that, though many of us never crack a book and can barely string a few sentences together. So, I accept the good with the bad.
I know that the Irish were responsible for great cruelty to both Native Americans in the West (as were most other immigrant races) and to African Americans. Our people went on a rampage during the anti-draft riots in New York [during the Civil War].
It also interests me that the Irish were not abolitionists, for economic reasons.… Our people were responsible for lynching African Americans during those awful times. There is no excusing something like that, even if the cause is understandable—that is, two groups on the bottom of society fighting for jobs. It happened. It was awful, it was dramatic, and I wrote about it. History is messy, just like life. And if you're going to write about it in song, you usually have to adopt a point of view. You can't just recite a whole lot of facts; we songwriters leave that job to historians. People speak a lot about melting pots, but the reality is that most races do not mix that well. When they meet, they generally tend to collide. I think that I, for one, have dealt fairly with some of the failings of our race, such as xenophobia, sexism, and homophobia.
Your song "Five Points" shows the mindset of the Irish anti-draft mobs, and your version of "Danny Boy" sympathetically describes a gay Irish construction worker who runs into bigotry on the job. As a political and social progressive, is it hard to hear the Irish in America slammed as reactionary bigots?
Well, remember that for all the racists and bigots there were people like Paul O'Dwyer [the late New York city councilman and lawyer who defended underdogs], various Kennedys, [novelist] Malachy McCourt, and many others who have been on the side of the angels. We have a strong liberal side, too. Unfortunately, because we were put down at first ourselves, we tended to retreat back into the security of the tribe. Now that the Irish in America have reached a plateau of success, the worst forms of racism are becoming mere memories. Long may that be the case!
Black 47 has caught a lot of criticism over the years for your politics and for diverging from expectations of how an "Irish band" is supposed to sound.
Well, yes, and quite rightly so! We've always been on the cutting edge of opinion. That's not a place to be if you are afraid of criticism or controversy. We set ourselves up to be the voice of disaffected nationalism and Irish republicanism in the U.S., championing the rights of the nationalist minority in the north of Ireland. That was not a pretty place to be back in 1989 and the early 1990s. Sinn Fein [the Irish Republican political party that endorses the IRA] and [Sinn Fein President] Gerry Adams were social pariahs then. Now, every musician, politician, and hanger-on praises Mr. Adams and wants to get their picture taken with the man! And that's okay.
Sinn Fein has, by far, the best political minds in their midst. Their political acumen was sharpened by years of imprisonment, and they took advantage of their hardships. For those who have been around it, Irish Republicanism is a flame and an ideal that's very consuming and has great moral strength and integrity. When it was mixed with left-wing humanistic ideology, it was very irresistible.
I know its strength and appeal. I was raised by a hardcore Republican grandfather. But [Republicanism] was anything but generally popular when Black 47 started out. So, because we told it as we saw it and, in my case, sought to give back Republican and socialist heroes to the young people, we were castigated by certain sections of opinion. We were controversial and certain people tried to marginalize us. But that was no big deal to us because, as Yeats put it, "Was there another Troy for us to burn?" We were political and if you didn't like it, then you were better off listening to something more accommodating to your blander tastes.
As regards expectations of what an Irish band should sound like, I never even considered that to be an issue. We were original musicians trying to make original music. From the very first night we started playing, we were involved in controversy. But we were also balancing the need to challenge ourselves and enjoy the music with the cyclone of gigs, traveling, partying, and generally keeping up with life. It's still that way. In my own case, there are expectations but they come totally from myself. Like, How do I stretch the band and myself musically? And lyrically, I was trying from the start to emulate the greats—Dylan, Yeats, Joyce, [Henry] Miller, [Lawrence] Durrell. I knew there was no hope, but at least if you aimed at the stars you might just crash into the moon (and not the one that rhymes with June).
Black 47, like the Pogues' Shane MacGowan, has also been slammed for "perpetuating the drunken Irish image."
Irish people like to drink. There is usually an underlying reason for a stereotype. But, in reality, what band brings more subjects, both political and social, into their songs? What other band's songs are used in so many political and history courses throughout the USA? If we like to let it all hang out onstage with the help of a few drinks, what's the big deal? It's a lot better that kids go to a Black 47 show, drink in supervised conditions, and pick up something about history and politics than sit in their basements and chugalug. It takes a lot of concentration and fitness to get through a two-hour Black 47 set. I know how to pace myself. The kids watching will unconsciously get that too. I can't afford to get drunk-I have to be up at 6:30 the next morning to get my kids off to school. But I can get loose and I adore doing so.
You seem to throw yourself totally into your shows, physically and emotionally.
Oh, those shows lift you up. I feel rejuvenated after them, I can't sleep, my fingers are tingling. They are a thrill and a privilege to do. You have no idea how wonderful it is to be in a great rock band that's roaring along at full throttle onstage. It's like having the best fuck of your life every night onstage!
Talk about your early years in the U.S. and your work in both music and theater. You put out a folk duo album in the 1970s?
I came over here with Pierce Turner, who was also from Wexford. We had a duo called Turner and Kirwan of Wexford, a most difficult name to say. We played together until 1985, and around 1979 morphed into the Major Thinkers, who had some small success with a song called "Avenue B Is The Place To Be," on Epic Portrait Records. Turner and Kirwan released a critically acclaimed and radio-played album around 1978 called Absolutely And Completely. It's now a very costly collectors item. We were very quirky and original. We also smoked a lot of dope and were caught up in a whole hedonistic scene that centered around a bar in [Greenwich] Village called the Bells of Hell. We came very close to breaking through on a couple of occasions, but it didn't quite happen. We remain great friends.
After Pierce and I split, I went full time into the theater. I wrote, directed, produced, and did whatever to four or five plays until 1989. Those plays were collected in a book called Mad Angels [published in 1994]. I still work in the theater, and I have written another five plays and musicals since then. I still love the theater but, to put it bluntly, I haven't the time, or probably the inclination, to kiss the right arses, and that is a necessity in the theater. On occasion, also, I have had to turn down opportunities because of my responsibilities with Black 47. Still, I persevere and make sure that everything I do gets at least some kind of production. I'm currently collaborating with Tom Keneally, author of Schindler's List, on a musical about women convicts being deported from Ireland to Australia. And Liverpool Fantasy, my best-known play [about what might have happened if John Lennon had quit the Beatles before they made it big], will be produced in Liverpool in April. I also have hopes of The Poetry Of Stone, my last play, getting a New York City production this spring.
Will you continue with the band or stop to focus on writing?
I like doing both in tandem. I could probably get on better in the theater world if I concentrated on it. But I have to make a living, too, and music is a great way to do it. I do wish I could give a bit more time to writing. It's a joy to me.
Your song "American Wake" is about a homesick Irish exile. You've lived in the States now for about 20 years. Many Irish immigrants have returned to Ireland now that its economy is stronger. What keeps you in America?
I'm still head over heels in love with New York City! I love the very stones in the streets, and the sense of history there continues to overwhelm me. I go back to Ireland every year. This year I went back to bury my mother. My father is quite ill. I expect when he's gone that a major link will be severed. I try not to feel that way, but parts of Ireland are slipping away from me. I'm going to Wexford to do my first solo show soon. It's rather like putting the cat amongst the pigeons. Jumping in off the deep end. Perhaps it's an act of desperation because I don't feel the same pull to Wexford anymore. I don't envisage going back to live. But then, stranger things have happened.
In your songs, and onstage, you often step inside the persona of a character, historical or fictional.
I came to that way of writing unintentionally. It happened because of the immersion with character that comes with playwriting. I hadn't even realized what I was doing until the band's songs began to be reviewed. I do have to have a feeling for the characters and be able to identify with their causes. With [1916 Irish socialist hero] James Connolly, I hated the old standard song "The Ballad of James Connolly." As a socialist myself, I resented that he had been railroaded by tears-in-the-beer nationalism. I thought that Connolly would have resented that, too. I always have to find a way to enter [the person's] spirit, as it were. With Connolly, it was quite simple. What must he have felt-knowing that he was going to be executed-about leaving his family fatherless and penniless? Once I found that chink in the armor, the rest was just a matter of diligent and knowledgeable songwriting.
So, I suppose it's a technique. But I ponder long and hard before taking on a character. I'm working on a couple right now and, to tell you the truth, I'm finding it particularly hard and painful. Which could mean that I'll fail or maybe that I just have to keep persevering.
Do you write some songs directly from your own experience?
Very much. Still, I'm not really a confessional writer. I use the raw data of experience and then add something totally outside the mix to spice things up.
Are the other band members involved in creating the songs?
Not at all in the lyrics. Our usual procedure is that I write the words and music and a couple of the main instrumental lines. Then Fred, the trombone player, comes in and transcribes some of these lines and rearranges them. Then I go in with Hammy, the drummer, and Geoff, the sax player, and Joseph, our piper, and suggest parts to them. Everyone works to get the song together so we can play it, in some form, at the next gig. Then, over some months, the song mutates into what it eventually becomes. But it doesn't stop there. We post new song lyrics on our web site and ask for our fans' criticism and suggestions. We often drop songs for long periods and when we revive them, we will have new ways of reinterpreting them-often not consciously done.
Several of your songs take an interesting look at the history of rock & roll, and you cover Bob Dylan and Bob Marley in your shows. Care to comment on the highs and lows of rock history?
As a playwright and a songwriter, [rock] presents a rich field, and I draw from it constantly. In a way, it reminds me of the old cowboy movies that were a staple of my youth. Picture the guitar player as a gunslinger coming into town—Richard Widmark, Jimmy Stewart, Monty Clift, and Alan Ladd in Shane, especially. There is something about seeing the rocker up onstage that captures that essence for me.
Why did rock die? Overanalysis of a feral, instinctive urge, probably. Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly, Bob Marley, even Bob Dylan were meant to be, not be taken to pieces. And even if it's barely [getting by] now, so what? I have my memories. I saw Marley mesmerize Central Park, and I don't exaggerate. He was a shaman that hot, sweaty night, and he changed my life. I learned from him the necessity of going into trance and trusting that your audience will be there when you come out of it. I would never have been able to perform "James Connolly," "Vinegar Hill," or any of the long, reflective pieces if I hadn't seen the Master ensnare us in his web that night.
Then there were all those shows in Ireland when I saw Rory Gallagher become one with his guitar. The notes just seemed to spiral out of his essence, not out of the guitar itself. Van singing "Astral Weeks" alone on the stage of Carnegie Hall…I would never have been able to write Kilroy Was Here if not for that 10 minutes. The Clash ripping us all apart in the Palladium on 14th Street; Jagger whipping the floor with his belt in the Garden during "Midnight Rambler." And how can I forget Springsteen singing "Spanish Johnny" in Lincoln Center or the slow version of "Thunder Road" before he butchered it on Born To Run? Those are memories that made me realize anything was possible, and for those I'm supremely grateful.
I wouldn't dream of going into rock music now if I was a kid. In the late '60s there was a zeitgeist with the culture, and indeed anything was possible—it didn't just seem possible. Maybe we blew it, who knows? But for a couple of years there, I, for one, saw beyond the curtain. Whether it was actually drawn back or my mind was playing tricks, I don't know. And to tell you the truth, I don't care. I saw my Holy Grail. I've never been able to touch it. But it's kept me going through good times and bad. And that's why rock & roll will always be fertile territory for me and why I'll always return to it.
**Black 47 takes its name from 1847, the worst of the awful years when millions of Irish starved to death or fled Ireland in desperation. The Irish potato famine, as this grim period is known in the United States, eliminated the primary food staple for millions of Irish peasants. But as books like Paddy's Lament, by Thomas Gallagher, or the film When Ireland Starved prove, there was plenty of grain and meat available in Ireland, which the British colonial regime encouraged Irish landlords to export. Queen Victoria and her henchmen followed a harsh policy of "free trade," callously stating that more help to the Irish would only foster dependency and idleness. Replete with Gaelic keening and the hurling of curses upon the British government, Kirwan sums up the famine story in "Black 47," from the band's first album, Fire Of Freedom.