Black 47’s Larry Kirwan on Getting Political and Learning from Cyndi Lauper
Many Americans have had strong reactions to the Trump presidency. Larry Kirwan’s reaction may be one of the strongest — and most creative.
Kirwan, the former lead singer, songwriter, and guitarist of Black 47, tells me he was influenced by a “great poem,” W.B. Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” when he wrote the song “Second Coming Blues” as a reaction to Trump getting elected. Kirwan is now a playwright, novelist, the host of Celtic Crush on Sirius XM Radio, and a solo musician.
Black 47 didn’t shy away from politics, and it’s quite obvious that Kirwan still does not pull punches when discussing the state of affairs in Washington.
“In the U.S., politics is now just a continuation of the reality show/TV/social media culture,” says Kirwan, who was born and raised in Ireland and moved to the USA in 1972. “The fact that Trump has over 30 percent support is astounding. In Ireland, it’s quite a bit more sane —probably because there are so many political parties and independent politicians. Each party must find other parties to support it in order to govern, so that helps maintain an overall sanity.”
Black 47, a New York City-based Irish-American band that disbanded after exactly 25 years on Nov. 14, 2014, was known for many politically charged songs that touched on various topics in the U.S. and Ireland. In 2010, Kirwan told IrishCentral, a New York City-based digital media company, that Black 47 was “formed to be a political band.”
The group attracted fans from the left with its socialist-leaning and pro-human-rights songs, and fans from the right with its songs about daily life in the U.S. and New York. Chris Byrne, a founding member of the band, was a New York City police officer, and many police officers and firefighters came to the band’s gigs. The group’s palette was broad — Celtic folk, rock and roll, rap, and reggae — and it combined those sounds with Kirwan’s unique songwriting and lyrics.
The band’s rowdy shows in pubs in the Bronx and Manhattan built a strong fan base, including Ric Ocasek of the Cars, He produced their 1992 album Fire of Freedom, and MTV gave extensive airplay to one of its songs, “Funky Céilí (Bridie’s Song).”
The band was more than off and running after that album. In April 1993, Black 47 was on the Farm Aid VI bill and played its biggest gig with Neil Young, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Ringo Starr, and others at 48,000-seat Cyclone Stadium in Ames, Iowa.
“We had so many memorable shows — we did 2,500 over 25 years,” Kirwan says. “They were all balls-to-the-wall and played at 120 percent to 130 percent intensity. We moved from buckets of blood saloons up in the Bronx to all the big halls around the US, and often from concert to club to pub night after night. We never turned down a gig with an audience and decent money.
“The first night we played ‘James Connolly’ in Paddy Reilly’s (an Irish pub in Manhattan where Kirwan formed the band with Byrne in 1989) was special. We didn’t really know the song, but, after a minute or so, the audience went totally silent, and, when we finished seven or eight minutes later, they stayed silent. We all knew we had just created something special. There were other great nights with (the Clash’s Joe) Strummer or people like that in the audience and grooving. I don’t remember ever doing a bad show. It just wouldn’t have been Black 47.”
Kirwan points to Bob Dylan as his foremost musical hero while growing up.
“He’s still making great music,” Kirwan says. “‘Like A Rolling Stone’ changed my life, as did Van’s (Morrison) Astral Weeks. (Bob) Marley was great, and seeing him in Central Park was mind-blowing. Sean O’Riada, the Irish composer/bandleader, had a huge effect, showing me what you could do with Irish music if you unharnessed it from its expectations. My influences were legion, including the Beatles, of course. Being in CBGB in the very early days was special too — seeing Television, Patti (Smith), Talking Heads, and the Ramones when they were starting out was pretty galvanizing.”
Kirwan points to three concerts in New York as the best ones he ever attended: the Marley show in Central Park, the Clash at the Palladium, and David Bowie in Carnegie Hall. “They’re all the best when they open up a part of you that you knew was there but had no idea how to get at,” he says.
The performances by Marley and Strummer, along with those of Cyndi Lauper, influenced Kirwan musically more than any other performers he saw live.
“Marley influenced me by going into a trance while performing, and I realized that, if I got beyond my inhibitions, I could do that, too,” Kirwan says. “Strummer’s sheer energy and conviction again made me aware that I had a world of that inside me too — all I had to do was go beyond myself. And, oh, one last person whom I learned so much from — Cyndi Lauper, perhaps one of the great singer/performers. I had the honor of playing with her on her way up. She was, and continues to be, amazing. She also taught me that 100 percent is nothing — everyone has that. It’s how do you get to 120 percent to 130 percent or beyond. That’s what counts.”
Today, Kirwan sees himself as mostly a writer of musicals and plays. His play Rebel in the Soul was presented at the Irish Repertory Theatre in Manhattan this year. Five years ago, Kirwan’s play Hard Times: An American Musical was performed in a Manhattan theater, and, “with a little luck,” it “will make Broadway in the next year or so,” Kirwan says. “I just finished writing IRAQ (another musical). That was a great project, and I will workshop it soon.”
To get a feel for Kirwan’s multifaceted brilliance, tune in to Celtic Crush on Sirius XM’s The Loft (Channel 30), on Sundays at 9 a.m. ET, Tuesdays at 9 a.m., or Wednesdays at midnight. You are guaranteed three hours of great music, informative yarns and stories, and a very entertaining host.
Kirwan began hosting the show in 2005, and he tells me how he landed the job.
“I was being interviewed by Meg Griffin on the release of a new Black 47 CD,” he recalls. “One of the bosses happened to hear my Irish accent. They needed a Celtic-type show, and I was hired on the spot. And so it goes.”