Music and Books InteReview: Talking with Black 47’s Larry Kirwan and author Thomas Keneally

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How It’s New York: Larry Kirwan can often be seen at the Irish American Writers & Artists evemts, when not playing gigs at Connolly’s, Paddy Reilly’s, B.B. King’s and others around town. Author Thomas Keneally came across Larry’s work when Thomas was teaching at N.Y.U.
How It’s Irish: Larry originally hails from Wexford, and the play Transport on which he collaborated with Keneally, is about Irish prisoners transported to Australia.
As of tomorrow, we will be reprinting the blog posts of rocker and author Larry Kirwan. Larry, who formed the band Black 47, named for one of the worst famine years, is one of the pioneers to blend trad and rock and roll.
By way of introduction, I’m reprinting an interview I did with Larry two years ago for Irish Examiner USA. The occasion then was the debut of a musical with book by Thomas Keneally, author of SCHINDLER’S ARK  later turned into the film Schindler’s List.
This interview is two years old, so look for an update aroumd the time Larry’s new play Hard Times debuts in September!

No Sleep For Larry

Black 47’s Larry Kirwan’s Been A Busy Chap

Larry Kirwan is not sleeping. And that’s how he likes it. Asked how he can front the rock group Black 47, release a new CD with the band Bankers &Gangsters, publish a novel, Rockin’ the Bronx , put out his weekly radio show for Sirius, write his colum for The Irish Echo, gear up for a 20-year anniversary concert at Paddy Reilly’s (on May 7) with members of seminal Irish band Horslips (who are making a documentary), AND work on the musical Transport, with book by Schindler’s List author Thomas Keneally, which just finished three sold-out concert presentations at the Irish Arts Center, Kirwan replies simply “I don’t watch television.” He doesn’t even turn it on on the road.

Then he admits “I’m not a big sleeper.” He averages about four hours.

The wiry red-head is calm, not suspiciously manic, after the second presentation of Transport, kicking back at Druids with a Smithwick and discoursing on literature, music and the creative process, greeting fans and well-wishers as they wander by the table, never losing the thread. It’s impressive.

Kirwan says his weekly activities keep him sharp-writing the column (he wrote one before going to rehearsal that day) keeps his literary juices flowing (this is his second novel, and he’s also published a memoir and a collection of plays) and he produces the national radio show himself, so he knows what he has to do for it.
Still, most creative work done on four hours of sleep looks less terrific in the light of the next day.

But the novel is good-not good for a musician, but good, with vivid prose full of idiomatic speech from the narrator Sean Ryan, a young immigrant who follows his lost love to the Bronx in the early ’80s, during the time of Bobby Sands, the beginning of the AIDS crisis and the onset of the Reagan era.

Kirwan came to the Bronx from Wexford in the ’70s, and his own memories of the time and place infuse the work.Keneally praises the book on its cover as “Angela’s Ashes for a new generation.” The book comes out in Ireland and the UK next week.


When the narrator joins a band, the novel includes some of the best descriptions of Irish music, both listening and playing, you’re likely to read. Here’s a description of a brilliant fiddler, though a dissipated man lighting up a session:

For the first round, all four played in unison, but Johnnie soon tired of this drudgery. He began to dance around them, and I swear the air changed. With dainty licks and ornamentals, he tripped across their melody like a ballerina, pirouetting ahead of them, allowing them to catch up, then lingering in their wake, before leapfrogging gaily into the lead again.

And then the band they form later on, including the fiddler, whose “intensity and profusion of grace notes and ornamentals” the band struggles to follow:

On the second go-round, Shiggins added a sixteenth on his high hat, whereupon Bugsy threw caution to the wind and plucked a harmonic on his G-string, allowing it to hang until the end of the line, when he plunged down in a perfect series of triads to hit the floor again on a one. A crack on the snare every eight kicks, and we had entered some kind of crazy Rocksteady Céili heaven. Danny struck a lofty sustain and held it, occasionally modulating up a fifth to sound like a cross between Ladder 33’s siren and David Gilmour ripping off Curtis Mayfiled on speed. So fast was the tempo, it was all I could do to lay down a skanked-out chord, laced with vibrato, at the top of every bar. And all of a sudden we clicked, and every cynical bastard in the Olympia knew it.

Kirwan spent a lot of time on those passages, he said. Most writing about music is not written by musicians, and doesn’t capture “feeling it from the inside.” 

Wexford, Kirwan says, “is a music town, showbands, music, opera… My father was sailor, very much into calypso and tango, I knew reggae before it came out.”
Traditional music also always affected him – and Bothy Band were “a big influence on everyone. Bothy Band were a rock band, they were doing more drugs than all the rest of us.”

He uses his musical chops, specifically his improv background, in writing, too.
Back in the ’80s he would get up on stage with other musicians and play for an hour or so, drawing on the energy of the other musician. That feeling of freedom helps him when he goes to create something from nothing on paper, though he likes to have a plot in mind when writing (particularly important when writing a play).The lushness of the descriptions of the Bronx, the romanticism of the narrator’s yearning, is not such a departure from Black 47 lyrics, says Kirwan.

“After 14 albums, I try to make the lyrics forceful yet imagistic. With a novel you can let it spread, but with a band if people get the idea that it’s going after poetry, it doesn’t become rock anymore. It doesn’t have that edge. I go by the Yeats dictum, that poetry should be cold and passionate as the dawn.”

Elisabeth Ahrens, Terry Donnelly, Georgia Warner, and Robin Kemp

So if the song is soft, he looks for a hard edge, and vice versa.

“‘Fanatic Heart’ is so romantic, yet it’s one of the most popular Black 47 songs… it could borderline on tragic, but I’m glad I did it. We’re trying to get rid of the tears in the beer. I like to set up the situation in a song and then have the instrumental part explain it.”

The book”s title is the same as one of the band’s most famous songs; much of the book is set on Bainbridge Avenue, also memorable from the song.

It’s also an expansion/adaptation of one of Kirwan’s plays, both a play and musical of the same name.
The lyrics in Transport are quite different. They are far more straightforward – characters announce what they want, what they are doing. It’s all part of moving the action forward, Kirwan says.

Keneally’s play is based on his 1998 history The Great Shame. Where the book looks at both political prisoners and petty convicts transported to Australia from Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century, the play focuses on women, specifically four women on the Whisper, a female convict ship “of 440 tons, during its voyage from the Cobh of Cork to Sydney, Australia,” according to the program.

The crimes range from stealing butter to sheltering a rebel brother. Other characters in the play include a priest, a soldier, a somewhat hostile English captain, and a surgeon.
Payment to shipping companies was based on delivery of living prisoners, so surgeons had quite a lot of power, Keneally explained by phone from Australia.Convicts to Australia, shipped against their will, had a better chance of arriving at their destination healthy than those in Irish coffin ships.

Keneally, whose own family hails originally from North Cork, was inspired by the story of his wife’s great grandmother, who was sent to Australia as a convict. Although many presumed convict women would all become prostitutes in Australia, that was not the case.

“I’m interested in how they negotiated a bit of power, from powerlessness,” Keneally explained. Their transformation and journey from rural Ireland to Australia “would have been enough to kill a timid soul like myself.” 

From writing Schindler’s Ark and also from having once studied for the priesthood, “I have got an obsession with prisoners and what the soul does in imprisonment.”

Keneally also had a personal connection to the fate of female Irish convicts.
His wife’s great grandmother, who sailed on the Mary Shields, married and had five Australian kids, dying in childbirth from the fifth.

When his cousin by marriage Nina Keneally, a theatrical producer, suggested he work on a musical (Keneally had already written a few produced plays), Keneally immediately thought of Larry Kirwan as a collaborator. 

The hard edge of Kirwan’s music, which Keneally knew from Black 47 gigs he attended while teaching at NYU, would be right for the project.

 “I like Irish folk music, but I like rock music that fights against it and turns it on its head. He wouldn’t sing ‘Danny Boy’ unless it was about being strung out on heroin in the bowery.” 

Cast and producers at Irish Arts Center

But Transport is “anything but” a rock musical, Kirwan explains. The sixteen songs now in the play (more were written and the show is still a work in progress; during the week of rehearsal director Tony Walton helped cut the play down from over 90 pages to about 40) have the musical complexity of some of Black 47’s songs but are much closer to the sound of folk music or showtunes.

“I wanted to allow Tom’s story to come through the prism of his music, that might have something to do with these particular characters in this particular time.” 

What the music does share with Black 47 is that “it is character driven, dramatic.”
For Kirwan, one of the most striking things about the project is the way Keneally writes women. Also, it’s a story of redemption.

“These women are at the bottom of existence, sent to the moon basically, sent to Botany Bay. Yet we are plugging for them.” 

The two men have been working on the play on and off for ten years, with much of the collaboration over snailmail and cassette tapes.

 “Over a two week period not on the road with Black 47 I wrote a song every day; often I’d just whistle into the tape recorder, sometimes in the bath. Those became known as the bathroom tapes.”

All of those songs remain in the musical – he knew they were good. That’s no different than a carpenter knowing when he’s made a good table, Kirwan says, if he doesn’t know by now when he’s written a good song, I shouldn’t be in the business. It’s a good table.

Twenty years on, nobody would say that it isn’t. “We formed for six weeks, we had six weeks of gigs to do,” Kirwan laughs. “Twenty years is a f***ing sentence. If you’d told me that, I might not have done it.”

Kirwan is now arranging a Horslips tune for Black 47 to play at the show commemorating the band’s early days at Paddy Reilly’s. He also manages the band, arranging travel, deciding on the gigs. And he’s working on two theatre pieces. This summer, he will lead a literary tour to Ireland, which includes readings from his novel.

Who needs sleep?

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