March 01, 2004


Larry Kirwan photo.jpg

Black 47's Larry Kirwan inspired by the city

Most musicians aren't very productive, let alone awake, at 6 a.m. on any given day. Then there's Larry Kirwan, singer-songwriter-guitarist for the band Black 47.

Kirwan, who also is a playwright and a novelist, likes to "get up really early and go for it" when it comes to writing.

A recurring backdrop in Kirwan's written work has been New York, the Ireland native's home since the 1970s. The city also is where he formed his eclectic rock band -- at an Irish bar in Manhattan -- circa 1989. Since then, Black 47 has toured regularly and recorded socially and politically charged albums for both independent and major labels, working with former Cars leader Ric Ocasek (1993's Fire of Freedom) and ex-Talking Heads guitarist Jerry Harrison (1994's Home of the Brave) as producers.

Other familiar music figures, among them David Johansen and Roseanne Cash, make guest vocal and instrumental appearances on New York Town, Black 47's latest studio album, released in February on Gadfly Records. Like he's done on previous band efforts, Kirwan mixes real-life memories and fictional scenarios, and the stories aren't always the happy sort.

Kirwan was in good spirits the morning of Feb. 17, 2004, as he spoke about Black 47's new album and his upcoming projects, among other subjects. Which songs on New York Town were most difficult for you to write -- the ones about your struggles as a newcomer to the city, or the ones connected in some way to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001?
Larry Kirwan: None of them were really that difficult . . . I mean, as an artist or as a writer, you put it all through the prism of yourself. So, while some may have been sad to write in a way, they weren't difficult. That's what I do -- I'm a writer. Sometimes you express sad points of view, sometimes tough points of view, sometimes humorous points of view. None of them are intrinsically difficult. It's just part of the human experience. I don't see them as being, in any sense, difficult.

Let's say a tourist asks you to recommend three must-see places in New York that define the city as it is today. What would you suggest?
Kirwan: (Laughs) Wow. I would say to any tourist, 'Get out and walk.' Put your back to Central Park and walk down Broadway, right down to the ferry. Hop on the Staten Island Ferry; hop over there. Walk across the Brooklyn Bridge; go up to the Bronx -- hop on a subway. Don't be afraid of subways -- get on a subway just anywhere you feel like it. I could [suggest] all of the tourist places to go to, but what I'm saying is, donít feel constricted by those. Do what New Yorkers do -- get on the subway, take the Staten Island Ferry, walk across the Brooklyn Bridge.

Traveling across the Hudson River for a moment -- whatís the story behind the claim on the Black 47 Web site that your band "closed down the town of Hoboken"?
Kirwan: I can't remember the exact day; I think it was in '94 . . . we were on the road promoting whatever CD we had [out] at the time. We got an invitation to come to Hoboken to play at an outdoor festival. Without us knowing it or anything, one of the big radio stations started promoting the gig, and the band was really hot at the time. So, instead of the normal 5,000 people that would show up at something like that, [about] 30,000 showed up, and the town really wasn't prepared for it. The chief of police took real exception to it and tried to get us to stop the show. We refused to do it. So, it led to a lot of unpleasantness. In the end, the [Hoboken] police department, under [the chief's] orders, basically escorted many of the 30,000 people onto the trains, closed down the bars and said, 'That's it. No more open live music, and definitely no more Black 47.' To this day, he doesnít allow us back into town . . . we were invited back last summer or the summer before [by Hoboken festival organizers], and the word came down: If you have Black 47, there will be no festival. Old memories die hard, you know. What can you do? We got a good song ["Green Suede Shoes"] out of [the experience]. (laughs)

Over the years, Black 47 has played more than 2,000 concerts, by your count. Has anyone in the band ever experienced a "wardrobe malfunction" like the one Janet Jackson had during this year's Super Bowl halftime show?
Kirwan: (Laughs) I think the worst we ever had was guys going on with their [pants zippers] open by accident. I always check [myself] in the middle of the set, I know that. It's going to happen to me sooner or later.

Getting back to New York Town -- were there any guest artists who you wanted to appear on the new album, but for whatever reason, they couldn't participate?
Kirwan: I really wanted Cyndi Lauper on it because I used to play with her years ago, but she never got back to me (laughs).

She's probably busy with her new album.
Kirwan: Oh, she is. Weíre still friendly, but she didnít get back to me -- that's the long and the short of it. Cyndi, itís your loss, babe (laughs). I won't be singing on yours in the near future (more laughs).

Any other desired guests?
Kirwan: No. It was kind of rushed at the end. What we did was finish the album first, and I had done the tracks anyway, so if someone didnít show, there was a lead vocal there anyway. So, toward the end, we just put out some calls, and pretty much everyone showed up. We kept the Cyndi one open for a while, and then she didn't show.

Which one was for her?
Kirwan: She was going to do 'Blood Wedding,' and then Christine [Ohlman] came in and did it -- she was great.

There's a line in the song "Staten Island Baby" about rock musicians being adequate in the sack, but not too good in the kitchen. That being said, when it comes to eating while you're not on tour, do you cook much, or do you rely on restaurants and delis for sustenance?
Kirwan: (Laughs) I was wondering when that one was going to come up. I can make a good tuna fish sandwich. Actually, I don't [cook much], but I manage to get by somehow . . . you eat out so much on the road that it's really nice to eat at home when youíre not playing. I find that home-cooked food is really good.

As long as it's cooked by somebody else, right?
Kirwan: Exactly -- I'm very open (laughs).

Are you working on any new plays or novels?
Kirwan: Yeah -- I've pretty much just finished a new play called The Heart Has a Mind of Its Own. It's somewhat in the same theme of the [new Black 47 album]. It wasn't a play I wanted to write, but I woke up one morning and the whole plot was pretty much there. It's to do with a family after 9/11 that has lost someone. You never meet that person, but it's about the person and the effect that person had on different people's lives, for better or for worse, before and after 9/11. I'm also working on a novel called Rockin' the Bronx -- it's somewhat autobiographical.

What's the likelihood of you making another solo album?
Kirwan: Probably not for a while. We were fairly ready to do a [band] album when I got the idea to do [New York Town], so there are a lot of Black 47 songs out there that haven't been recorded and are ready to go, pretty much for a new album.

Any timetable for when you think that might be finished and released?
Kirwan: I kind of set a goal -- before, I never did. I always figured [a new album] would happen when it happens, but I think two years from now it should be ready. See, we always play the songs beforehand to make sure that they're working. Also, with Black 47, there tends to be a lot of songs, so each one kind of has to fight its way to get onboard. There's no filler on our albums, so that [weeding-out] process takes a bit of time. We don't rehearse, either, so it's like learning by osmosis. We'll do a song during a sound check, do it that night and then learn it onstage. Over three or four months, it'll come together -- one hopes.

As a man who wears many professional hats, do you ever see yourself working for a record label as an A&R rep, like Ric Ocasek, your onetime producer?
Kirwan: Ric is doing that? Someone mentioned that to me. Who's he working for?

It's one of the big labels -- Elektra.
Kirwan: Really? Ric's doing that? I was thinking of Ric the other day and the effect he had on me, actually. He's a great person. I'm surprised that he's doing that. Ric is really an artistic person, and I don't see an A&R person being that.

No, I don't think anyone would pick me, anyway (laughs). I just don't see that happening. You have to go out a lot to clubs -- I can't be bothered.

-- Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior

Official Black 47 site:

Black 47 on tour (schedule subject to change):

March 5 : The Call Nightclub -- Providence, R.I.

March 6: Toad's Place -- New Haven, Conn.

March 13: House of Blues -- Chicago

March 16: Westbury Music Fair -- Westbury, N.Y.

March 17: B.B. King Blues Club & Grill -- New York

March 20: Holyoke War Memorial Auditorium -- Holyoke, Mass.

March 21: The State Theatre -- Falls Church, Va.

Posted by medleyville at March 1, 2004 02:59 PM