Larry Kirwan discusses new novel, Broadway musical, returning to the stage after the pandemic and more

Larry Kirwan interview

GEORGE SEMINARA

LARRY KIRWAN

Larry Kirwan, best known as a member of band Black 47, will perform in public for the first time since the pandemic began, July 18 at 6 p.m. at Salt Gastropub in Stanhope.

The singer-songwriter-guitarist — a native of Wexford, Ireland, who has been based in New York since the ’70s — said he needed to do some serious rehearsing for this show.

“I’ve been writing songs and everything (during the pandemic) but I hadn’t actually played a song straight through for a year and a half,” he said. “So it’s like, ‘Wow, how do you do this shit?’ ‘Can I remember any of the words to this?’ ‘What key is it in?’ You can forget things pretty quickly.

“It came back after a couple of hours of sitting down and sweating through it, thinking, ‘Oh, Jesus, I used to be good at this. How the fuck am I so bad right now?’ ”

The show, at which Kirwan will be backed by Deni Bonet on violin and accordion, is described as a “Songs and Stories” event. But Kirwan says it will be basically music, as well as one reading from his novel “Rockaway Blue” (Cornell University Press, 264 pp., $27.95), which was published in March and tells an absorbing, sharply detailed story about a Queens, N.Y., family dealing with loss and unanswered questions in the wake of 9/11.

“A lot of people have bought the book and they’re going to bring it to get it signed, and we’ll have some on sale there, too,” says Kirwan. “But (the show is) basically a celebration of getting back to normal. Whatever normal is anymore (laughs). You know, to get up onstage and let everybody let their hair down and do a lot of old Black 47 songs, and some new ones. And do some Stephen Foster. And have a party, basically.”

KEVIN BERNE

In front from left, Sidney DuPont, A.J. Shively and Jacobi Hall in “Paradise Square” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Berkeley, Calif., in 2019.

The Stephen Foster songs relate to another one of the multi-talented Kirwan’s projects: A musical, “Paradise Square,” which is scheduled to open at Broadway’s Barrymore Theatre in February. Kirwan conceived the musical, wrote music for it, and co-wrote the book. (see trailer for the 2019 production at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Berkeley, Calif., below)

The musical is set in the Five Points section of Manhattan (where many Irish immigrants and African Americans lived) in 1863, the year of the racially charged “draft riots.”

“We did it twice off-Broadway at the Cell Theatre, back in 2012 and 2013,” said Kirwan. “Then it got picked up by a producer called Garth Drabinsky and we developed it up in Toronto, and now it’s a big musical theater thing. Whereas it was a smaller … it was a musical but a smaller version of it back then. Bill T. Jones is the choreographer and Moisés Kaufman is the director and there’s a cast of … Jesus, I don’t know, at this point (laughs). It’s at least 35.”

It includes some songs written by Foster, who was living in Five Points at the time, and shows how the Irish step dancing favored by immigrants merged with dance styles preferred by the African American community to create what we now know as tap-dancing.

“We’re not recreating how they did the dancing historically, but allowing Bill T. to use his genius to show how young Irishmen and young African-Americans created a new culture down there,” Kirwan said.

STEVE MALINSKY

LARRY KIRWAN

In addition to being a musician, a playwright and a novelist, Kirwan is a DJ, hosting “Celtic Crush,” a long-running show devoted to Celtic and Celtic-American music, on SiriusXM satellite radio’s channel 710 (The Loft).

Even back in the days of Black 47, he was always doing several things at once. “I was a playwright before Black 47,” he said. “But the problem with Black 47 was … I continued to be a playwright, but we played so much … you know, we did 2,500 gigs in 25 years. So I could never take advantage of, say, workshops, or anything like that. Although everything I did either had a workshop or a production of some sort. But one of the reasons to finish up with Black 47 — it wasn’t the prime reason — was to give myself an opportunity to go full at it (writing plays).

“But then there’s a huge amount of downtime in rock ‘n’ roll with the traveling and everything. When laptops came in, it really changed things — for me, anyway — because I could go back into the laptop and there’s a play that you could work on, if you had an hour down or a couple of hours or you’re in the back of a van when traveling, or on a plane. And, frankly, too, it was another way to save your life, because when you’re on the road, there’s just so much partying going on and drinking. To know that you’ve got to get back to the room and do a bit of writing by the end of the night or to get up, relatively hangover-free, in the morning … it definitely helps a lot, just the discipline of it.

“Also, if things are not going well in the music world, you can think, ‘Well, it’s fucked up with that particular thing, but there’s still this play I’m working on.’ Likewise, with the play, if things aren’t going well with that, you think, ‘Well, you know, I’m a songwriter, too. I can do that.’ ”

The cover of Kirwan’s new novel, “Rockaway Blue.”

It may seem strange that Kirwan is publishing a novel about 9/11 so many years later. But he says it took him a while to get it right.

“I tried to do the whole 9/11 thing through theater,” he said. “In fact, I did an earlier version of ‘Rockaway Blue’ called ‘The Heart Has a Mind of Its Own,’ and did it as a play, but it kind of didn’t work as a play. You needed that author’s voice, to describe what’s going on. A play has to be … what you see is what you get on the stage. People liked it and everything, but it didn’t do it for me and I thought it was kind of a failure.”

It also took a lot of time to get the main character — stoic retired cop Jimmy Murphy, whose son, a charismatic police lieutenant, died in the Twin Towers — right. “He had to be a kind of everyman hero,” Kirwan said. “As did the other characters, too, but particularly him. I wasn’t able to nail him for quite a long time.”

Nicknamed “The House Band of New York City,” Black 47 performed at its home base, the midtown pub and restaurant Connolly’s, on the Saturday after 9/11, and continued to perform there regularly as the city recovered.

“We lost a lot of friends (on 9/11),” Kirwan said. “We had a lot of NYPD and FDNY fans and followers. And the young financials down in that area. Also young Irish Americans in particular.”

With “Rockaway Blue,” he said, “I wanted to really capture what it was like for regular New Yorkers. What 9/11 was like for them.”

Larry Kirwan, front and center, with Black 47 in 2014.

One of his new songs, he said, was inspired by the book and is also called “Rockaway Blue,” but doesn’t tell the story in the same way.

“I kind of lapsed into … I wouldn’t say a Bob Dylan style, but a Bob Dylan-influenced way of looking at the story of ‘Rockaway Blue’: The way Dylan used to write in a very impressionistic style. It’s not in a linear fashion, but images from (the book).

“It’s amazing how you go back to Dylan without thinking about it. He’s such an enormous influence on all of us. Even if you don’t like him (laughs), which a lot of people don’t. I’ve always loved him. But I never sounded like him. But I noticed, ‘Wow, I just slipped so easily into Dylan’s impressionistic style. It’s been pent-up inside of me.’ ”

In yet more Kirwan-related news, an album featuring covers of Black 47 songs, titled After Hours, is coming out in three parts on Valley Entertainment. The first part has been released and features tracks by Pat McGuire, Screaming Orphans, The Gobshites, Rory K, Gary Óg and Martin Furey. (Listen to Furey’s inventive cover of “Rockin’ the Bronx” below.)

“I had nothing to do with any of the arrangements or anything,” Kirwan said. “I didn’t want anything to do with them. I wanted to encourage people to reinterpret them themselves, not to just go through the motions of doing it.”

He mentioned his own version of David Bowie’s “Heroes”: “Heroes/Belfast” (see video below), which starts out as a fairly straightforward cover but adds a totally original part in the middle.

“Heroes/Belfast” was inspired by a conversation Kirwan had with Bowie, years ago.

“It was a place called Tier 3 that was down in Tribeca,” said Kirwan. “He came in one night to see someone and, as it turned out, the band he came in to see had canceled. So it was just a few of us in the bar. It was myself and another Irish guy and it was sort of a wild crowd. So he said, ‘Do you mind if I sit with you guys?’ We said, ‘No, sure, sit down.’ He ordered a drink. We kept buying drinks for each other.

The cover of the “After Hours” album.

“It was a remarkable conversation ’cause I was talking to him about ‘Heroes,’ which is one of my favorite Bowie songs, and he described how he came up with it, about it being about Berlin and everything. And then when he was leaving, he came over and said, ‘You know what, I was just thinking that I could have written that song about Belfast as easily as I wrote it about Berlin, because they’re two cities with walls between them.’ And then he walked out.”

Kirwan said he forgot about the conversation for a long time. But after Bowie died in 2016, he said, “I happened to be listening to the radio at the time. The news came on and that image, of him walking up to me at the last minute and saying that about Belfast and Berlin … I just wrote down some words really quickly.”

Soon after, he had some time left over at the end of a recording session and “just said to the guys, ‘You guys know “Heroes”?’ Everybody kind of knew it, and I had come up with a slightly different beat to it and then I said, ‘I’m going to do something in the middle. Just follow me.’ And we did it pretty much all in one take.

“So I was hoping that the people doing After Hours would come up with their own interpretations of songs or anything that inspired them and make the songs their own rather than doing them as a tribute. A ‘tribute album’ is probably not the best thing to call it, but I can’t think of any other word. It’s kind of a re-imagination, is the way I look at it.”

For more on Kirwan, visit black47.com.

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