It was the Fall of 1999 or 2000. My wife and I were visiting the picturesque little town of Stowe, Vermont. We wandered into one of the many quaint gift shops and as we browsed knick-knacks, music played. It was music that immediately struck a chord with me. It’s that feeling when you hear their music that you know you’re going to love everything they do. That’s what I felt when I first heard Black 47. I asked the cashier what the music was and she pointed me to a small stack of Black 47 Live in New York City cds. Every song sounds like a party in a crowded bar.
Although the band called it quits on their own terms last year, frontman Larry Kirwan has remained extremely busy. Considering that he writes books and plays, writes for The Irish Echo, hosts a weekly Celtic music show on SiriusXm radio, and performs solo gigs (his new single Floating dropped last week), I was happily surprised when Larry replied to my email.
TPF: Growing up in Ireland, who were your musical influences?
Larry: They were legion. Though it was a small town, Wexford had its own Opera Festival. Many people emigrated to London and brought back whatever was happening in music. Rockabilly artists like Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent were popular with the local Teddyboys and you could hear their reverb-drenched songs pumping from the town’s only jukebox. As well as that there was a strong tradition of Folk Music that I loved. And to top it all, my father was a merchant marine who loved Calypso and Tango music. I imbibed it all. But everything came together when I first heard Bob Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone. Astral Weeks by Van Morrison was also deeply influential – probably still is.
TPF: From your books and music, your love of New York City is apparent. Was there ever a time you considered returning to Ireland for good?
Larry: No, I never did. I knew from the first minute I arrived on my own with just $100 in my pocket that I wouldn’t be going home. I was illegal for 3 years and couldn’t go back and by then, after living in the depths of the East Village, it was way too late.
TPF: When you and Chris Byrne started Black 47 in 1989 did you imagine that the band would become as popular as it did?
Larry: Our first thoughts were staying alive or at least not getting the shit beat out of us. The Bronx bars we played in were rough – we were playing loud and provocatively – so we weren’t very popular, to say the least. We weren’t very good either. But four sets a night, is great practice. And there was a shortage of bands, so we could do four nights a week no trouble. We were committed to playing original music in places that just wanted cover songs. Then we got good at what we were doing and began attracting a following and it all became a lot simpler. After a year, though, I knew we had something different – and that’s always the most important thing. Besides that, we were both naturally very political – and that seems to give you a bit of a cachet. So, we had a lot going for us – and then we were enriched by the other members joining. But I don’t think we ever thought about popularity that much. We were a band doing what it wanted to do – that might seem old fashioned now, but to us it was pretty much everything.
TPF: Your music is a blend of multiple styles. How would you describe it to someone who had never heard you before?
Larry: We played exactly 25 years and I have to admit that, despite my facility for words, I could never summarize it. Maybe you can give it a go? The best I could ever come up with – and it’s not very good is – New York Music.
TPF: LOL, I’m not sure I could do better than that. It’s very fitting. You’ve also written several books and plays. What was your first love, writing or music? Or did one lead to the other?
Larry: I was an early reader and read voraciously through much of my life. I always thought I’d be a writer of some sort but I put it off for a long time. Meanwhile, I was in love with music so I got into songwriting and performing. I wrote a novel in my early 20’s that wasn’t very good, although I remember certain scenes fondly. But playwriting got me really into writing. I had a small talent for dialogue that made it easy to get a start. Then I had a very minor hit with my second play, Liverpool Fantasy, and that gave me confidence. Of course I learned the hard way that a sense of drama is much more important than a facility for words, and I’m up here in Toronto at a workshop of a musical of mine still coming to terms with that.
I got back into novel writing eventually and enjoy the slog of it, although I’m concentrating more on musicals and plays at the moment. I do have a novel in the can, as it were – A Raving Autumn – that will probably be published in 2016.
You probably have a better idea of what I’ve done with songwriting. Being a member of Black 47 was such a great outlet for me. We always needed new songs and the 25 years went by in a blur. We rarely performed more than 6 songs from an album of 12 so I’m getting re-acquainted with some Black 47 songs right now as a solo performer. It’s interesting stripping them back into their original form and finding the soul of them.
It’s a little odd. When I get an idea now I can transform it into a song, a play, or a novel pretty effortlessly, whereas when I began dabbling in all three disciplines, I always knew which of them the idea would slot into. A blessing or a curse? I guess I’ll find out as I go along.
TPF: I’ll look forward to A Raving Autumn and I’ll be sure to feature it here. You’re still performing solo gigs and it’s been almost a year since the band stopped performing together. Are there any plans for any more occasional Black 47 shows?
Larry: I don’t see there being any more Black 47 shows. It was a moment in time – 25 years of a moment. I miss the guys a lot – we were brothers – not just the members of the band but the crew members too. But then, I suppose, Black 47 was always more than a band. We were political, and did things our way, never looked for approval. We were probably closer to our fans than any band and yet we always played just for ourselves. You like it – great; you don’t like it, then there are a lot of other good bands to listen to. I prefer to keep it that way. Onwards and upwards and look back with pride.
TPF: Larry, as a long time fan of Black 47 I’d like to say thank you to you, the rest of the band and crew for the 25 years of great music. I look forward to hearing more of your solo work and reading your novel. Also, thank you for taking time from your busy schedule for me and my readers. For readers and fans who want to keep up with Larry, you can find him on Facebook, at his blog and on SiriusXM radio hosting the Celtic Crush show on Sunday mornings. His solo music and Black 47 albums are available in stores and all the online outlets. You can find his books on Amazon, other online retailers and in bookstores.
Have a great Monday! ~Phil