Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Irish-American Songwriting Legend Larry Kirwan Talks About His New Novel, Rockin’ the Bronx

For over 20 years Larry Kirwan has led ever-popular, literate, socially aware, soaringly anthemic Irish-American rock band Black 47, whose 2008 cd Iraq was ranked best album of the year right here at Lucid Culture. They tour America and Ireland regularly, including a special Ireland trip where fans of the band come along with the band and hang out during the whole tour, or at least part of it. Meanwhile, Kirwan has also managed to write a column for the Irish Echo, along with many plays, a memoir and two novels. His most recent novel Rockin’ the Bronx, just published this year, takes the reader on a wild, vivid ride through the world of hard-working, hard-drinking, hard-playing Irish immigrants and musicians in New York around 1980. As he did in the book, in this interview Kirwan took us back to a vastly more lively era in New York history:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: It’s not just a question of verisimilitude –  the book has more than just a ring of truth, in fact it feels suspiciously like nonfiction. I know this is the obvious question, the one that everybody wants to know, so I’ll get it out of the way. How much of it is true? The scary scene in the drug den on Avenue C? The perfect description of the scrungy North Bronx apartment where the protagonist lives, with the drug dealer neighbors? The way the Pack of Tinkers – the fictional band who bear more than a little resemblance to Black 47 – start to build a following among the immigrants on Bainbridge Avenue in the Bronx?

Larry Kirwan: Well, let’s say that the situations were all “true” but the story is pretty original. I lived on Ave. B and 3rd Street at the height of the heroin scene in NYC (in fact, I deal with it in a more literal way in Green Suede Shoes, a memoir). So, the scene in Rockin’ the Bronx is small potatoes to what I saw and experienced back in those days on B, C & D. I played in the North Bronx back in the late 70’s and early 80’s so I can smell the actual apartments that I describe in RTB, even as I’m answering this. Black 47’s experiences up there are very different to the scene described for the Tinkers. Perhaps, that’s because even though I was accepted in the Irish areas, I was still a bit of an outsider. However, even back then I knew that I could see Bainbridge/Kingsbridge in a clearer way than those who were actually living there at the time, because I had many other views of NYC to compare it with. So, let’s say I knew the scene, but the characters – for the most part – were not derived from anyone living there at the time.

LCC: Is it an accurate statement to say that this story could only have taken place when it did, since the Bush regime made it vastly more difficult for Irish immigrants to get on the plane?

LK: In a certain way, but it was more the times than the effect that any politician had on them. 9/11 changed that. Up until then, a blind eye was turned towards a lot of immigration. Irish were white, cops were white and often of Irish descent too, so there was little hunting down of Irish immigrants. I was here for 3 years myself illegally. Many Irish, however, left during the Bush era. They didn’t like the direction that the country was going in – on top of that, the Irish economy went into a boom mode so there was much well paid work “back home.” Many also disliked the American school system and felt their children would get a better education back in Ireland. There’s a real lack of the humanities in the basic American educational system and many Irish felt that keenly. The lack of value placed on World Geography was always particularly noted. Every Irish kid can identify most countries in the atlas. Although this does not take brain surgery, the lack of emphasis on it has always disturbed Irish people. Many Americans could make excuses for Bush, but to the Irish he seemed to be a dope – and a dangerous one at that.

LCC: You have a great ear for dialogue, in the black humor of the shellshocked soldiers on the Iraq album and also with the characters in this book, a lot of them real weirdos. Where do you get that dialogue? I know you always have your songbook with you: do you take notes when you hear something that might work in a novelistic context?

LK: I never take notes – a failing, no doubt. James Joyce would notate whole conversations. I have a good memory and sense of rhythm. I exult in the odd meters, rhymes and sayings of people of all races. So, I don’t need to remember conversations verbatim. Neither did Joyce, of course. He had a stunningly real “ear.” It’s just a matter of listening, though, and delighting in conversation. Delighting in characters too. Most people don’t really listen. You can tell by their body language – they’re already thinking of their response the moment they get the gist of what the other person is talking about. It’s such a turn-off. But I’ve also worked hard at playwrighting. To write a play you have to know how to cut the bejaysus out of every line you write. So, you’re constantly editing and by doing so, you’re forever making sure that the new line you come up with is “true.” In essence, you’re auditioning speech for many months or years while you’re polishing a play to the perfection it will never achieve.

LCC: One of the lead characters, the charismatic lead guitarist in the Pack of Tinkers is gay, and by the end of the book, he’s out of the closet for all intents and purposes. Yet the people around him, who are increasingly aware of it, don’t disown him – in fact it doesn’t seem to make any difference, they still love the guy. Remember, this is 1980 – we’re dealing with a Catholic culture here, not exactly the most hospitable place for a gay guy at that time. Or was the immigrant population here a lot cooler and more tolerant than the mainstream?

LK: As the saying would have gone back then, “He may be an asshole, but he’s our asshole.” These were very tightly knit communities. I was always amazed that the Puero Rican community down on the Lower East Side always accepted their transvestites. When drunk, they might have occasionally called them “maricón.” But, in general, they were considered part of the community and often hung with the women and talked fashion, and women talk. Gays were not accepted in the Irish community but within a group of friends, as in RTB, Danny, though not understood, would have been accepted. What else could they do – throw him out? Alcoholics, junkies, drunks, thieves were also accepted. They were blood. But no one outside the “fag’s” circle would have had any time for him. And that comes out in the violent scene at the Olympia Ballroom between Danny and the owner. The Irish scene in the Bronx was, and is, a very narrowly defined culture. When founded, ILGO (Irish Gay and Lesbian Organization) was a wonderful outfit – because for the first time, many Irish gays in the mid to late 80’s found community. My own feeling, and I was a friend and most definitely a supporter, was that ILGO more than likely saved a number of people heading for suicide. Such were the times.

LCC: How about the hottie roommate who works as a nanny until she meets the rich Jewish lawyer? Looking back, is that combination less unlikely than it seems?

LK: There was always a good connection between the Irish and the Jewish – it’s fallen apart in recent years because of some of the political and military choices of the Israeli state. But basically, many undocumented Irish married Americans – for love, money, or legal status. Many Americans also helped out by marrying an illegal so that legal status might be gained. That was common enough. So, marrying a lawyer rather than a plumber would have been a choice a more ambitious woman might have made. Which reminds me, one of Black 47’s first big problems in the Irish community was over a song called Green Card. It was a reggae song (and not a particularly brilliant one) that dealt with a a number of situations between Irish and prospective marriage partners. The verse that set nerves on end was an Irish girl marrying a Jamaican-American for legal status. I couldn’t believe the hostility this pairing invoked, particularly since the song was tongue-in-cheek and set to a reggae beat. There was very little sense of humor when it came to miscegenation in the Bronx.

LCC: As someone who remembers what New York was like in 1980, I can vouch for the fact that this book captures it exactly as it was – although I can’t vouch for Bainbridge Avenue in the Bronx. Much of the book takes place during a hellishly ominous early- global-warming-era summer, surrounded by garbage and decay. Yet the characters in the book take it in stride, just as all New Yorkers did. Inasmuch as gentrification has had some horrible repercussions, are you really nostalgic for all that grit and grime?

LK: Not really. I couldn’t have cared less at the time, though. I had other things on my mind. NYC was just a very unlawful place back then – but that suited me, I was illegal myself and “living the life,” as it were. There was a saying then – “When freedom is outlawed, only outlaws can be free.” Seems a bit trite now but it had currency at the time. Cops didn’t bother you unless you were out to kill someone. Certain parts of the city were more than slightly out of control. I loved it at the time, and was involved in various escapades that make my hair stand on end now, but I wouldn’t want to go back. It’s a more boring city now, but I still keep my eyes open. You’d be crazy not to – the city will always bite when you take your eyes off of it. I can’t believe all the idiots walking around in a daze listening to their iPods. Apart from missing the distinctive, adrenalized pulse of NYC, they’re risking their lives – and for what, some dumb song that they can listen to at home.

LCC: Rockin’ the Bronx is a quintessentially New York book, even though it deals mostly with one particular neighborhood and immigrant population. Yet these people witnessed the same decay, and more importantly, the same opportunities that existed for all New Yorkers before the developers started to turn every neighborhood into a cheap copy of a New Jersey suburb. Is there a single characteristic, or set of characteristics, that defined the Irish-American experience at that time – or is it an experience shared with every other immigrant group?

LK: Booze, I suppose. We drank more than most. But really, all the cultures had their own central focus – themselves. No one cared about the others, except to make fun of them. Much is made of the melting pot, but that happened only in certain types of work; mostly people hung out and exulted in their own and the culture back at home. That’s why there was a marked response to Black 47 when we first formed, for we were in essence saying, “Don’t look back. We don’t need The Pogues or the Waterboys. We’re here in the greatest music city in the world. We’re mixing Irish music through that prism. Looking back is nowhere. We’ve got Miles, Bobby, KRS, Chuck D, Avenue B, Salsa, whatever you want.”

LCC: Despite his punk image, Sean, the book’s somewhat wet-around-the-ears protagonist is apolitical – until the real life IRA member Bobby Sands goes on hunger strike and eventually dies in prison. To what extent was that event a galvanizing moment, politically speaking, in the Irish community? Was it in your own life, or were you writing songs like “James Connolly” already by that time?

LK: Bobby Sands changed Irish-America and continues to change it. Many of the young people who marched outside the British Consulate back in 1980-81 are now in leadership positions in Irish-America. That’s why the AOH (Ancient Order of Hibernians) is more centrist and even a little Left now, as compared with 30 years ago. Same with the Irish-American media. Sands changed me, because he pointed me back to my roots – growing up with a Republican Irish grandfather. I had forsaken much of that when I came over and became part of the CBGB’s/Bells of Hell Village scene. Sands made me come face-to-face with a certain part of my heritage. I didn’t want to bomb the British or be part of any violence – but I wanted the return of Habeas Corpus, and proper representation for the Catholic Nationalist people. He influenced me in a very personal way by his saying, “No one can do everything but everyone has their part to play.” That changed my life and I still adhere by it – it gave a meaning to my life that I’ve never let go of since.

LCC: The Puerto Rican hoodlum who runs off with Sean’s girlfriend actually turns out to be a nice guy – at least in the beginning – who constantly tries to extend an olive branch to Sean, although he’ll have none of it. Was this a deliberate attempt on your part to illustrate the kind of cross-cultural, neighborly interaction between the Irish and the other minorities in the Bronx during that time?

LK: Not at all. But it was something that I personally came in contact with on Avenue B. I was friendly with many people like Jesus. It was just part of life and existence on the LES. I was always surprised at how polarized the Irish and Puerto Rican communities of the Bronx were. Both, to my mind, were similar shared very common bonds such as Catholicism, love of family and a deep loyalty to their own people. I was very aware of that on Avenue B. But in the Bronx, these cultures didn’t even look at each other except in disgust. And yet, there was the occasional Irish girl who “was turned” as the PR people called it by one of their own. Often, though, that had to do with drugs, and hence Mary/Jesus.

LCC: What’s the likelihood of the Pack of Tinkers – or Black 47 – getting an audition today with a big record label like they did in this book?

LK: Well, the character of Steve, the RCA guy who comes to the Bronx is based on Stephen Holden, now a music critic for the NY Times. Back then he came to the Bronx as an A&R man for RCA to see Turner & Kirwan of Wexford [that’s Pierce Turner, the extraordinary Irish singer and songwriter, who goes back years with Kirwan] – to a place with the nickname The Bucket of Blood, just off Fordham Road. So, it did happen back then. And, of course, Black 47 has been signed to two major record deals with EMI and Mercury. I don’t even know if there are major labels any more – and if there are, who would be interested in signing with them anyway?

LCC: I can’t think of anyone who would. Is there a sequel? To the book, I mean?

LK: I doubt it.

LCC: Is there any factual basis for the incident where the old, drunken fiddle player suddenly plays the gig of his life after one of the band feeds him a huge line of cocaine?

LK: I’m sure there is but it’s not based on any particular event. Remember, the amount of drinking back then in today’s terms was staggering. People would often go out on a Friday night and come home on Sunday evening. We drank and smoked for days on end and usually passed out someplace for sleep. If a player – no matter how old – has been doing that and someone placed a line of white powder in front of him, what do you think he did? Most Irish people back then didn’t have much connection with drugs of any sort. But when they eventually came in contact with it, the Irish loved blow, mostly because they could drink even more. But it wasn’t just coke – one summer while I was doing a residency at the Boardy Barn in Hampton Bays, liquid speed was introduced. All it took was one drop in your beer and you were invincible. We used to play on it and wouldn’t be able to sleep for 24-36 hours at a time. Amazingly hundreds in the bar were speeding their butts off, without even knowing it – as friends would slip a drop in their beer when they weren’t looking. Nothing quite like a couple of hundred cops and firemen tossing back booze while the white lightning was ricocheting around their brains.

Everything seems a lot more sensible and conservative now – and maybe that’s a good thing – but oh what times we had. We’ve been trapped in an age of irony for some time now. Back then, no one cared that much about anything – especially the future. The bosses and the establishment won the war, but it’s good to remember a time when it was still all to play for.

Rockin’ the Bronx is out now from Dufour Editions, at bookstores and online vendors.

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June 6, 2010 Posted by | interview, irish music, Literature, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Black 47 – Bankers and Gangsters

Another year, yet another excellent album from Black 47. It’s hard to fathom how they can keep it so fresh after twenty years, but they do it. Their previous album Iraq, a vividly thematic soldiers-eye view of the never-ending war, took the #1 spot on our best-of-2008 albums list. This one finds the Irish-American rockers exploring more diverse terrain, a characteristically eclectic mix of Clash-style anthems, a small handful of electrified Celtic dances, a reminiscence of better days in the New York rock scene, snarling sociopolitical commentary and more lighthearted, comedic fare. Black 47 make it very easy for you to like them and get to know them: the lyrics to the all the songs on the album are here and the “song bios,” each one explaining what they’re about, should you want the complete story, are here. Musically speaking, they go for a big, blazing, somewhat punk-inflected sound, equal parts Boomtown Rats and Pogues with frequent tinges of ska, reggae and of course traditional Irish tunes, bandleader/guitarist Larry Kirwan (who has an excellent new novel out, Rockin’ the Bronx) charismatically railing and wailing out front.

The title track, a big sardonic Clash-style anthem speaks for the generations disenfranchised by the new Great Depression; likewise, the vivid opening cut, Long Hot Summer Coming On ominously foreshadows a city where all hell’s about to break loose. Wedding Reel, a duet, is a somewhat less brutal take on what the Pogues did with A Fairytale of New York. There’s also a fiery tribute to Rosemary Nelson, the murdered Irish human rights crusader; a cynical number about an Irish music groupie; and a couple of absolutely surreal ones, the first about a Lower East Side romance circa a hundred years ago that isn’t actually as unlikely as it might seem (and on which the band proves perfectly capable of playing a good freilach), the other a long anthem based on the true story where former Jimi Hendrix bassist Noel Redding absconded with tapes of Hendrix’ last live recordings, using them as collateral for a mortgage in Ireland. All of this is catchy, a lot it is funny and you can sometimes dance to it, in other words, typical Black 47.

Black 47 typically play Connolly’s on Saturday nights at 10 when they’re not on the road; they’re also doing their annual St. Paddy’s Day show early on the 17th at B.B. King’s at 7, which despite the Times Squaresville location should be a good way to spend the evening away from the amateurs.

March 13, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment