Category: Archive

Kirwan’s rockin’ the world

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Eileen Murphy

For a lot of people, the names Larry Kirwan and Black 47 conjure up overflow crowds at Paddy Reilly’s Pub, celebrities hoisting pints with the hoi polloi, and signature songs like “Funky Ceili” and “Maria’s Wedding.” As America’s answer to the Pogues, they’re an aggressively unsentimental Irish band which filters memories of home through a downtown New York sensibility.

For others, those names conjure up memories of the Bronx – or, rather, a Bronx that doesn’t exist anymore. It was a Bronx of sloppy green shamrocks painted in the middle of 204th Street, of “Legalize the Irish” posters tacked up in the windows of local stores. Of pub crawls that started at the Inishfree on 207th Street and worked their way down to the Village, to the Blackthorne, to Carmels, to Sarsfields, to the Phoenix and finally to the Roaring Twenties. Of young Irish immigrants living four and six to flat on Mosholu Parkway, and vans and trucks double parked near every bar on a weekend night.

Kirwan may seem a strange choice to be the cynosure of Bronx nostalgia, particularly since the Wexford native never actually lived in the boro, nor is his vision of the 1980s Irish scene even remotely sentimental. But the singer, who had immigrated to New York’s East Village back in the mid-’70s, found inspiration – both musical and dramatic – at the last stop on the D train.

In addition to popping up in many of his songs, such as “Funky Ceili” and “Our Lady of the Bronx,” the city’s link to the mainland also provides the backdrop for Kirwan’s play “Rockin’ the Bronx,” which opens tonight at Manhattan’s Chelsea Playhouse – with a cast imported from his home town of Wexford — for a limited run. Coincidentally, the playwright-turned-singer has another show opening in the same week: his 1986 work “Liverpool Fantasy,” which opens at the Irish Arts Center tomorrow night.

Kirwan wrote “Rocking the Bronx” last year, and it was first performed at an Irish arts festival at Lehman College.

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“It’s about four young people living in the Bronx in the early ’80s,” said Kirwan. The Yellow Umbrella Theater Company in Wexford got a copy of the play through the mayor of the town, Dominic Kiernan, who had seen the play on a visit to the U.S.

“The company wanted to mount the play in Ireland, so they brought over Ray Yeats, who had directed it here, and two Hispanic actors. ‘Rocking the Bronx’ was a great success in Wexford,” Kirwan noted with palpable pride. “Now the four Irish actors are over here, and they’re doing five performances at the Chelsea Playhouse. Ray is directing again.”

Kirwan paused for a laugh. “It’s like a twinning of the cities, really.” Another laugh. “Wexford and New York.”

Bronx cheers

Kirwan has always been strongly committed to both his music and theatrical writing.

“I always dabbled a bit,” he said. “I was always in and out between theater and rock and roll, for years. In 1985, I was in a band called The Major Thinkers, and we were recording for CBS. When they dropped us, I got really sick of the music business, and I went full time into the theater.

So if Kirwan never lived in the Bronx, why does it resonate so strongly in his work?

“Well,” he said, laughing, “I never lived up there, but I slept there a lot.” This sent him into guffaws. “Well, maybe you’d better not put that in.

“In the beginning, I was living in the East Village, so I didn’t really know about the Bronx. I literally couldn’t believe it the first time I went up there – everyone on the streets had Irish accents.

“I started playing a lot in the Bronx with Pierce Turner back in the early ’80s,” he recalled. “Those were wild times up there – not like it is now. It was all sex, drugs and rock and roll – it was pretty loose. It was the Bronx in the pre-AIDS days.”

In 1989, Kirwan ran into Chris Byrne on Bainbridge Avenue. Byrne was a New York City cop who played the pipes in a series of modern trad bands. The two decided to join forces, and Black 47 was born. Now all they needed was work.

“Whenever I was broke, I’d call John Flynn and say, ‘John, you gotta get us a gig, man. We’ve gotta pay the rent,'” Kirwan said.

Flynn, who owned the Village Pub, always came through with some work. “He had a close connection to people down in the East Village,” Kirwan said. “So he’d bring us up to play in the Village, and through that we got other work in the area.”

The gigs weren’t easy, but they were good training for the band. “We learned to play in places where nobody gave a damn about us,” he said.

Black 47 may not have been good in those days, but they were persistent. In the song “Rocking the Bronx,” from the band’s debut album, “Fire of Freedom,” the lyrics recall the band’s shaky beginnings:

Well, we got a gig in the Village Pub,

But the regulars there all said that we sucked

And big John Flynn said,’ ‘Oh, no, no

You’ll be causing a riot if I don’t let you go.’

One o’clock, two o’clock, give us a chance,

All we want to do is to rock in the Bronx.

Three o’clock, four o’clock, what do we want?

All we want to do is to rock in the Bronx.

“The play ‘Rocking the Bronx’ came out of the Black 47 songs from that period in the ’80s,” Kirwan said.

“It’s based on one of the songs from ‘Fire of Freedom’ called ‘Dear Old Donegal.’ In it, a girl named Mary comes to New York and starts living with a Puerto Rican drug dealer up on Bainbridge Avenue. Her boyfriend, Sean, who was left behind in Donegal, comes looking for her. Another person living in the apartment is Danny, the gay construction worker I wrote about in the song ‘Home of the Brave.’ And also living there is Kate, who’s the character in the song ‘Living in America.’ And there’s another Puerto Rican guy in the play.”

Life without the Beatles

Another Kirwan play that’s having its New York debut this week is “Liverpool Fantasy,” which opens at the Irish Arts Center on Thursday night. In the play, Kirwan imagines what would have happened had the Beatles broken up instead of going on to international stardom.

“It takes a point in 1962, when the Beatles were making their second record,” Kirwan said. “Their first record was ‘Love Me Do,’ which reached No. 17 on the chart. Their second record was ‘Please Please Me.’ I imagined a time when ‘Please Please Me’ didn’t happen. The world was changed by the Beatles coming out,” he said slowly. “I tried to imagine a world without the Beatles – what would have happened to them.”

In Kirwan’s version of history, Paul McCartney goes on to record the song the record company executives like – the syrupy ballad “Till There Was You.” He becomes a big success with it in America, changes his name to Paul Montana, and goes to Las Vegas where he becomes a crooner along the lines of Engelbert Humperdink.

Thirty years later, Paul returns to Liverpool to reunite the Beatles for a network TV special. He finds that John Lennon is an unemployed docker, George Harrison is a Jesuit priest, and Ringo is the drummer for Gerry and the Pacemakers.

“What would have happened to Britain if there hadn’t been a ‘Swinging 60s’?” mused Kirwan. “I imagine that the National Front have gotten some power, and have gone into a coalition with the Tories. There’s a whole different political landscape. And John’s son Julian is one of the leaders of the National Front in Liverpool.”

Kirwan wrote the play in 1986, and it has been produced throughout Europe. Five years ago, it was scheduled to debut at the Irish Arts Center, but fate intervened.

“The IAC was producing the play ‘Remembrance,’ and it turned out to be a big hit for them,” Kirwan said. “We were supposed to go on after it, but when ‘Remembrance’ got held over, we wound up not doing ‘Fantasy.'”

This makes the simultaneous openings of “Bronx” and “Fantasy” rather ironic.

“I can’t believe it,” he said, laughing. “They’re opening back to back – one on June 10, the other on June 11. It’s pretty exciting.”

Though “Rocking the Bronx” is in town for a limited run, “Liverpool Fantasy” is here, he hopes, for a long run.

“People always seem to like it,” he said. “I think that’s because it raises the question of what each of us would be doing now if there had been no Beatles. What would the world be like?”

Kirwan doesn’t find it difficult to juggle band commitments and his renewed involvement in writing for the theater.

“Its a bit frantic, but there’s a lot of down time in rock and roll,” he said. “We play about 200 gigs a year, but what people don’t realize is that a lot of your time is spent traveling, and there’s a lot of waiting around. I keep a little computer with me, so I write a lot on the road.”

Other projects on the horizon include a mixing a live Black 47 album, using material from two shows recorded live at Wetlands last St. Patrick’s Day, and a new studio album. Kirwan says the new songs reflect things that have happened to the band in the last few years. One song is about a shooting that took place during a Black 47 show a couple of years ago.

Contemplating the Beatles’ legacy begs the question: How will Black 47 be remembered?

“I think that when people look back on the band in 20 or 30 years, they’ll get an understanding of what the Irish scene was like in the late ’80s and ’90s. I wanted to capture that time and that place, and I think we did.”

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