Larry Kirwan

Black 47's Founder Talks "Liverpool Fantasy"

Art, at its best, effects those who experience it on every emotional level. Anger and joy, love and lust, longing and loss, are all the tools of an artist; these are the instruments of creation more so the ink and paper, oil and canvas, voice and melody.

Artists, regardless of the medium, don't just create for aesthetic purposes. They aren't interested in simply rushing off a still life to hang in the living room, or penning a hit song to sway along to at the next prom night. They have something to say, and often struggle to express themselves even in the medium in which they are most proficient. Those who can master several forms, while blessed in talent and skill, must bear the burden of being so creative, and the constant need to push forward.

In 1989, author and playwright Larry Kirwan, four years removed from chucking rock and roll forever, shared drinks and admiration for The Clash with fellow musician Chris Byrne at Paddy Reilly's in New York City. The two formed Black 47, a band steeped in the rich tradition of Irish music, with the soul of artists such as the Clash and Bob Marley.

This isn't to say that things went well. The band was far from a traditional Irish band, making their welcome at traditional pubs more confrontational than friendly. Finding a place in the New York music scene at the end of the pre-alternative era wasn't exactly a given. But, Paddy Reilly's eventually gave them a home, and the band began to gain members; Fred Parcells on trombone and tin whistle, Geoffrey Blythe on tenor and soprano saxophones, Thomas Hamlin on drums and percussion, Andrew Goodsight on bass and vocals and, later, Joseph Mulvanerty on uilleann pipes and flute, when Byrne left the band to pursue other projects.

A debut album was released in 1989, followed-up by a self-titled release in 1991 and an EP on EMI/SBK Records in 1992. They began gigging 200 nights a year, and became dubbed "the house band for New York City." Their shows became notable for celebrity appearances in the audience, notably Joe Strummer. Another of those stars, Ric Ocasek, stepped up to produce the band's 1993 album, "Fire of Freedom" (EMI/SBK Records), giving Black 47 their own star turn, a video on MTV, and coverage in magazines from "Playgirl" to "Time".

While the band never quite set MTV on fire, and the celebrity star may have faded, Black 47 hadn't yet recorded any of their best and most important material. Drawing on his own personal history, as well as the long political and economic history of Ireland - the band's name itself references 1847, a pivotal year in Irish history and the darkest period of the potato famine in that country - Kirwan's songs present the historical and the intensely personal with similar passion. They are modern protest songs, folky and tinged with traditional movements, yet wild, uninhibited and even reckless. You'll hear "Danny Boy" one moment, a reference to James Joyce the next, and then enough alcohol, sex, violence and pain to make you wonder how they made it this far.

Six excellent albums have followed, notably "Green Suede Shoes" (Mercury Records) in 1996, and "Trouble in the Land" (Shanachie Records) in 2000 and a couple of live albums tracked at the late, lamented Wetlands in New York, "Live in New York City" (Gadfly Records), release in 1999, and their most recent record, "On Fire" (Gadfly), which came out in October 2001.

But Kirwan's muse isn't limited to just music. Passionate about the theater, and a prolific playwright, a collection of his plays, "Mad Angels" (Forty Seven Books; January 1994), represents some of his ten published works, which have been performed in the United States, as well as Ireland and the United Kingdom. One of those, "Liverpool Fantasy", has just been published as a novel, representing Kirwan's first foray into a new genre.

"Liverpool Fantasy" (Thunder's Mouth Press), released in April, is the story of the Beatles, not as we know them, but a fictional re-telling of their story had the band not lasted beyond 1962. The lads have reunited in 1987, in a very different world, but with their personalities still very much evident. Kirwan's tale attempts to not only play with how the lives of these individuals would have evolved over the last part of the twentieth century, but how the world itself would have been very different. Kirwan's work pays tribute to the Fab Four by crediting them with bringing a sense of idealism to the world through their music.

As Kirwan embarks on a promotional tour for the book, Chorus and Verse spoke with him about the novel, and the early news about the new record from Black 47, which will hopefully be released by the end of the year. He's a busy man these days, working to get a new Irish music and cultural festival called American Fleadh off the ground, along with his many other endeavors.

How are things going with the reading tour and the initial reaction to "Liverpool Fantasy"? Despite being a work of fiction, part of its success is going to rely on readers finding it believable. Have those who have read the book given you any feedback that surprised you, or elicited a different reaction than you expected?

The reception to the book seems very positive, but it's very early days yet. However, "Liverpool Fantasy" does seem to be striking a chord right across the board from book people to music people. I haven't had anyone say yet that they don't find it believable. Usually, at some point, someone will react negatively to the political side of the matter - either questioning whether politics should even be in the book at all for aesthetic reasons, or finding the alternate history a tad too incredible. But, as far as I know, that hasn't happened so far.

"Liverpool Fantasy" began its life as a play, first produced in 1986 on the Lower East Side, and making its way to Ireland and England. Can you give a little background about when you started to write the play, and how long it took from when it was completed until its first performances?

It started back around 1983. I had grown increasingly more interested in the theatre than in music at that time. I was in a band called Major Thinkers. We had a deal with Epic/Portrait. But, I was questioning my own involvement in music. When the band got dropped in early 1985, we broke up. I went into theatre full-time then and "Liverpool Fantasy" was first produced in 1986. It was a wonderful production - very big and wild and was quite a success at the time. Unfortunately, and this has been the case in a number of productions that I've been involved in, even though the play got extended and was selling out, the money was not there to move it to another theatre. And so it closed.

It opened soon after, in my home town of Wexford, Ireland, and I went back for that. It was a very different and more realistic production. It was startling to me that a play could be done in such different ways. Very uplifting and educational, too. A couple of years later, the circle was squared when the New York cast brought the play to the Dublin Theatre Festival. And now, oddly enough, a member of the Wexford cast will be producing and starring in the play in Liverpool this coming September. This project always seems to have a life of its own.

What prompted you to take the play and turn it into a novel? Have any changes been made to the story or the dialogue in the transition from stage to printed word? What were the challenges in transforming the original work into a book and after having done both do you feel that one forum or another is more rewarding to work in?

Well, theatre is ephemeral. It's there, you do it and then it's gone. I love the theatre but have found that part of the process frustrating, in a way. That was my main reason for writing it as a book. People loved to read the play - it is part of a collection of plays that is published in another book of mine called "Mad Angels". But, I don't care to read plays myself and feel that the audience would have a better time reading a real novel.

It was quite hard to adapt the play into a meaningful novel and I learned a lot in the process. But, the big change that occurred was that after starting the transformation, I realized that I wanted to show people what it's like to be a rock & roll musician. We musicians are written about a lot, but always from the outside - by writers who may have an affinity for the music world but have not been onstage. Oddly enough, this may be one of the first detailed inside jobs. I think, after reading "Liverpool Fantasy", people will know what it's like to "really" be a working musician.

I wanted to show what it's like being on stage and shooting out all that electricity. And, I wanted to show what it's like not being on stage - for a musician. The joy and the heartbreak. To the best of my ability, I tried to capture that world in this book. The surface story may be about the Beatles, but peel back the layers of the onion and you'll find a whole other subtext.

Have you ever gotten any reaction to "Liverpool Fantasy" from a member of the Beatles, or anyone closely associated with them?

Back when the play was done for the Dublin Theatre Festival, the producers received a telegram of congratulations from Paul McCartney. That's the closest.

I was at a party with Julian soon after the play was first produced and thought of bringing it up, but he seemed like he was having a good time and I didn't broach the matter. Sean Lennon used to be a fan of Black 47, but he was too young then and I didn't mention it to him, either. The closest person who has commented on the book, in a long introduction, is Jack Douglas - John's producer. He loves it and was very complimentary.

I'm not really into the whole celebrity thing - it takes up a lot of time - so I don't anticipate meeting any of the others. I just hope they'll like it and see it for what it is - an honest book, in its own way, that seeks to explain what this band was really about.

You made a comment recently that you're already "on to another book." What can you share about your next literary project? Are there any aspects of writing creatively that you find are different from composing music or dialogue?

I'm writing a book - but stalled now because of the promotional aspects of "Liverpool Fantasy" and the band's hectic schedule - about immigrants in the Bronx in the early 80s, right before AIDS was diagnosed. It's tough and hopefully funny and, to a degree, autobiographical. It covers some of the same territory of the early Black 47 songs. It was a very vibrant time. It's gone now and I want to get it down.

Yes, there are aspects that are different, but I tend to think of them as being complementary. For instance, the story I'm writing now came out of the songs and thus I'm able to expand and develop on the core of the songs. It's very liberating and enjoyable but quite hard work. Still, I think I learned an immense amount in writing "Liverpool Fantasy" and it's helping me now. I hope to learn a lot more.

The book is also noteworthy for some great illustrations of the Beatles, including the piece used as the book's cover art. Who is the artist who did that work, and how was it selected for this project?

Greg Tucker painted the cover. A piece of the book had been featured in "Tower Pulse" magazine about a year ago and Greg did an illustration then which the publishers liked a lot. I would have preferred something more abstract, but they felt that this was a cover that would sell books. And so far it seems to be working. Greg is very talented.

Your passion for the theater is well-known, and you've written ten plays and musicals; but you've also said that "there doesn't seem to be an honest penny to be made in it." Do you see yourself becoming involved with theater again, or writing further pieces for the stage? Since you live in the greatest theater town in the world, it would seem that you'd have amble opportunity to produce or become otherwise involved with projects there.

About two years ago, The Chelsea Theatre took all of my plays and had a massive reading. It began at 8 a.m. and went on until 3 a.m. the next day. It was pretty amazing. They gave each play to a different director and then just ran them with a superb and wildly diverse cast of actors.

Notwithstanding this honor, I had grown tired of the theatre and my own involvement in it. I just didn't seem to have the time to push my career on any further. Since 1982, I had always been writing a new play. I just felt I had to stop, take a break, and see what happened. I seemed to be progressing, but always on the same line. So, I walked away from it.

I had just written my best play, "The Poetry of Stone"", "but seemed to have no chance of getting a good production. It came close a few times but no biscuit. Now, after the two year hiatus, I'm ready to get back involved in theatre again. Because I missed it - the whole process, readings, rehearsals, productions, first nights, that feeling of being "in the arena." So, who knows what will happen. I wouldn't be surprised if "Liverpool Fantasy" resurrected itself. And, "Poetry of Stone" is still there. We'll see.

Let's switch to the next Black 47 project, an upcoming CD called "New York Town". You recently announced that 12 basic tracks were completed and you're now in the mixing process. Where does the production of the album stand now, and when you to think fans will be able to get their hands on it?

It's about 85% done and then needs to be mixed. I'm working on it with Stewart Lerman. Both of us are going through really busy stages. I went off and worked on the basic tracks for about a week and have handed it back to him. He's getting all the instruments eq'ed, etc., and then we'll do the finishing touches and get some other vocalists in to sing on it - that was one of the premises, to use a number of different women vocalists. But it all takes time. It will probably be the end of the year before it sees the light of day.

Where was the album recorded, and who are the producers and engineers who have been helping you put the record together? What label will the CD be released on, and how will it be distributed?

The basic tracks of the album were done in one long tremendous day out in Water Studios in Hoboken. Stewart Lerman and I are producing it. The name of the engineer escapes me now, but I'll get that for you.

As for label, who knows? I just see what's going on in the music world at the time, give a couple of copies of the mixes to the band's lawyer, Richard Grabel, and see what happens. But the album is always completed first. Then we see where it will land. It's a strange way of doing it, but at least it always gets done - to my satisfaction, if no one else's.

You announced that there were guests artists involved with your recording session for the album that took place in early April. Can you announce who will be performing on the record, and what tracks they participated in?

Well, Suzzy Roche will be on "New York Town" and "Staten Island Baby". I'm hoping that Cindy Lauper will be on "Blood Wedding". Hoping that Roz Moorehead will be on "Black Rose". Mary Courtney will be on an updated version of "Livin' in America - 10 Years On", it will follow what's happened to the two people who met in the bar in the Bronx ten years ago. I would love to have Roseanne Cash on "Where the Rain and Rivers Flow." But who knows. I haven't asked them all yet. Thanks for reminding me.

You've referred to "New York Town" as a "collection of songs about New York City - not just Manhattan, but the city as we know it, in all its ragged wildness and glory." How would you describe New York to someone who's never been there? What would you like to people to know about the city who have only seen it on television and in movies?

Well, television and movies don't capture the beating heart of New York City - to my mind. They're just too stilted, clichéd and prone to go for the lowest common denominator.

Songs and plays capture the city better and more honestly. New York City has gone through some tremendous changes in the time that I've lived here. So, I'm trying to give a vision of it as seen through my eyes over the last 25 years. It's quite subjective, but so is a Henry Miller or Hubert Selby book and they can capture the 20s and 60s so well. It probably won't be what you would see on TV. I wouldn't really know how to get NYC down in a few lines, but the city does have a "ragged wildness and glory" and, hopefully, Black 47 will capture that on this album. It will show real life, but from a heightened perspective. It will show how ordinary people are always heroes in their own movies. The drama, despair and ultimate redemption that living in NYC is all about.

Have all of the songs on "New York Town" been written since September 11th? How has that event changed your perception of the city, or your feelings towards it? Do any of the songs you've recorded for the album touch on 9/11?

Yes, three of the songs deal directly with the tragedy: "New York Town", "Mychal" and "Orphans of the Storm". I'm not the type who reads a newspaper heading and then writes a song about it. I need time for the event to filter through me and then come out distilled in a song. Those three songs are very different views of what happened. "New York Town" is political; "Mychal" is about my old friend and fan of the band, Fr. Mychal Judge; and "Orphans of the Storm", one of my favorite songs ever written, is a sideways view of the tragedy through the eyes of a non-hero.

I did Orphans last night at a benefit in Symphony Space in NYC. The comedian/actor/screenwriter, Colin Quinn, came up to me afterwards and spoke of how it moved him and was incredibly sad. And, yet, to me, it's a driving, quite angry song about an immigrant finally getting his life together on 9/11.

Other songs are about particular places and events that have taken place there. "Staten Island Baby", "I Won't Take You Home Again", "Kathleen (Rockaway)", "Brooklyn Goodbye", etc. It will be a pointed view of New York City. Hopefully, it will have a rounded feel, too, if such things are compatible.

Black 47 has been called the "House Band for New York City". What is the state of live music in New York? Is the scene a healthy one, where bands are finding audiences and places to play, or does the local scene reflect the sour state of the mainstream music industry in general?

I would say that the scene is basically unhealthy. Most working musicians are out of work. However, there's a sense that if you start a band, play a few shows, you could become the next Strokes. So, there's a chance for celebrity status; in the old theatre parlance, you could make a killing but not a living.

But, I would say that the music scene, making money from your playing, is at its lowest point in my experience. I suppose that's to be expected. Television, video games and the whole home entertainment phenomenon is finally triumphing, and the urge to go out and hear and make live music is not what it was. I hope I don't sound like a Cassandra, but it's pretty bleak out there. I wouldn't want to be starting Black 47 now. If I was 18, I wouldn't even consider a career in popular music. When I began, rock music was on the cusp of social change. Now the aspiration is to get on "American Idol" - whatever that is.

You've been performing the music appearing on "New York Town" at Connolly's and some of your other gigs. Can you share the expected track listing for the album? Are there any songs slated to appear on the CD that have already become crowd favorites and that you expect will become standards for the Black 47 live set?

The track list but not the finished order will be:

1. New York Town
2. Orphans of the Storm
3. Fatima
4. San Patricio Brigade
5. Livin' in America - 10 Years On
6. Mychal
7. Staten Island Baby
8. I Won't Take You Home Again, Kathleen
9. Where the Rain and Rivers Flow (Fiona's Song)
10. Black Rose
11. Brooklyn Goodbye
12. Blood Wedding

"Mychal" is already one of our most requested songs. "Brooklyn Goodbye" is quite big. "San Patricio Brigade" and "Staten Island Baby" are two dance favorites. Orphans is big and "New York Town" controversial.

As usual, with Black 47 songs, each one has its partisans. There is never filler on B47 CDs.

Touch briefly on another project you've just announced, American Fleadh, a national tour of Irish bands accompanied by Irish Dance and a literary tent for book and poetry readings. What made you undertake such a complex and difficult project and what is the potential for this tour in the long-term? How will local acts be selected in each city, and where can fans go for more information?

Yes, American Fleadh is a big undertaking. It seemed, at first, that it had a charmed life and then it hit problems - particularly suitable venues. Partly, this was our own fault. I wanted to do the shows in August - to give us more time - but a couple of offers came in straight away for late June and that settled the matter. Now, we're rushing to catch up and get out the word. The idea was to get four bands with separate audiences but some connections and tour them - no headliner - just great live bands who tour in their own right all the time. It's now Flogging Molly, Saw Doctors, Black 47, Hothouse Flowers, Eileen Ivers and Immigrant Soul and The Prodigals. Some of the venues were only firmed recently, so it's very much catch up publicity-wise. It's madness really, but here we go!

There will be an Americanfleadh.com site up soon. In the meantime, I'll get something up at www.black47.com or check the various band sites for details. Perhaps, you can list the dates and venues with this article, they're all on black47.com.

To my way of thinking, the whole music business has become celebrity-driven, and this is an attempt to get great live working bands together in a shared community to push back this tide of mediocrity and media-driven drivel and give people a chance to see great bands interacting and working together again.

I'm also trying to get Irish dancers and writers involved. It's a big job, particularly as I'm on the road now promoting the book and playing with Black 47. It's a bit confusing, as I have this vision of it being inter-arts but the promoters, of course, see it as a music festival - that being their field. So, basically, I'm trying to get a touch of the dancing and literary parts in this year, and then plan it better for next year. I hope, for musician's sake and for audience pleasure, it works. We'll see pretty soon. I would appreciate everyone's support. These events will be a blast. It's up to you to come out and support us, so that we can have a real run at it next year.

Let's close out with a little history lesson. There are certain important figures that you refer to often in your songs and writings, and have obviously been influential for you. I'd like to name a few, and get a quick summary of who they were and why they've had an impact:

James Connolly;

I can't overestimate Connolly's influence on me. My family background was Republican on one side. Connolly allowed me to reconcile my own hopes with those of my grandfather. To me, the idea of an international brotherhood/sisterhood was as important or even more so than a narrowly-based Irish Republicanism. Connolly epitomized that point of view. The song means so much now to so many people, it has gone way beyond me. But, every time I sing it, the magic and the hope of the man return and suffuse pub, club or whatever arena it's performed in.

Bobby Sands;

I was deeply moved and influenced by his sacrifice. He became the embodiment of the saying "it's not those who can inflict the most pain who ultimately win but those who can endure it." I was resolved not to let his memory die or sink into sepia tones. The song moves people all the time and makes his message still resonate.

Charles Stewart Parnell;

My family, back in the 1890s in Carlow, Ireland, was split in the great split over his divorce case. By researching and writing the play, I was able to regain my own sense of family and its various demons. Parnell was the last chance for a peaceful United Ireland. By our small mindedness in betraying him, we sentenced our country to over a hundred years of sectarianism and violence. His downfall shows that if you don't face up to problems in your own lifetime, you will just pass them on to your own children and their children. Grab the bull by the horns!

Countess Constance de Markievicz.

A great woman. Full of drama and commitment. She deserted her class and her beauty for a life of controversy, relative poverty and fulfillment. She is a champion now to so many young women. A towering figure. Someone who can effortlessly blow away the culture of JayLo, Britney and Avril. A beacon for any woman who is searching for herself. For many men, too. I learned so much from her life. I was performing in Minneapolis a couple of nights back and her picture was on the wall in front of me; it was as if she was beaming down on me.

Your resume now includes band leader, musician, playwright, novelist, poet and lyricist. What's left for you to accomplish that you haven't had an opportunity yet to do?

Oh, so much. I do a number of things very well. I'd give myself a B and, occasionally, a B-plus for what I've done so far. Now it's time to polish whatever small talents I have and push on for As. But, even if I don't get that far, as long as what I do inspires others to go out and be better, that's fine.

As we say in Republican circles, "Tiochfaidh Ar La" - which means Our Day Will Come. But, it only comes with effort and taking the high road - even when the low road is a lot easier and more profitable. In the end, we're all just dust and all that will remain of us is the little light we bestow. That's worth working for. Thank you.

[ Website: www.black47.com ]

Matt Mrowicki
Matt Mrowicki founded Chorus and Verse in 2001. He is a rock star designer and technologist, Internet professional, content creator, and entrepreneur specializing in web development, IT consulting, branding, social media and online marketing. www.imprtech.com
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