As I await Morrissey’s Autobiography in the mail, yes I was impatient and could not bare to wait for its US release, I am reflecting on what was probably the best rock biography that I have ever read. That title would have to go to Larry Kirwan’s Green Suede Shoes: An Irish-American Odyssey. I imagine that many of you have not heard of Larry Kirwan, but he is the singer of the excellent band Black 47. Black 47 is a Celtic rock band out of New York City.
Why is this my favorite rock biography? First of all Kirwan is a top notch writer. As well as writing lyrics of much depth, he also has written several plays and novels. This is a book that one can learn a lot from. Mr. Kirwan grew up in Ireland, but moved to New York City to pursue a career as an artist. His writing both about recent Irish history and what it was like to live in New York in the 70’s is both highly insightful and razor sharp. He understands history, literature, and music, and his own life story is interesting as well.
In the 70’s he frequented a bar called The Bells of Hell. This bar owned by Malachy McCourt, the author Frank McCourt’s brother, which was frequented by many writers including Lester Bangs. In the early 80’s he was in the NYC new wave scene and was even paid money to pick out clothes for Cyndi Lauper. (He never actually picks her out anything, but hangs out with her and collects record company money all the same. Clearly the record companies had more money then they do now.) He talks about early Black 47 gigs when Joe Strummer, who after leaving The Clash, starts hanging out and singing along to their songs in the front row. He works on Black 47 records with Ric Ocasek and Chris and Tina Weymouth from the Talking Heads. He also paints many other interesting scenes, like stepping over Johnny Thunders, who had passed out from a heroin binge, in his apartment building.
However if this were just a tale of a musician and his musical exploits I don’t believe I would have found this book so interesting. If you are looking for a partial understanding of the Troubles in Ireland, Mr. Kirwan has a lot of knowledge on these and is able to tell a great deal of in depth history in a conversational tone. If you know anything at all about Black 47 you understand that their music is highly political in places, and also seriously fun in others. One of the things that I never understood before reading this book was that there was a highly working class socialist side to at least the early fighters for Irish independence. Not only did the British not like the fact that these people were Irish Catholic, or Irish at all, but they challenged the economic social order.
As mentioned above Mr. Kirwan was also a playwright. There are interesting passages of this book where he describes what it is like to stage a small play in New York City. Clearly he is not a man that sits still for long.
I have met Larry Kirwan on two occasions. My band No Show Ponies opened for him twice in Harrisburg, Pa. He was somewhat quiet and mostly kept to himself, reading books and drinking pints at the bar. When he did interact with us he was incredibly kind and funny. He also told us at one point that my brother and I were the two drunkest people that he has ever seen, which after reading his book I either don’t believe, or we were way drunker than I thought possible!
Black 47 is another one of those great underrated independent American bands. Their music is filled with passion and intelligence. Although the roots of their music, much like Marah and The Gourds they are hard to pin down, as they can jump from Irish folk music, to blistering rock n roll, to even hip-hop on occasion. I would like to include my own Black 47 mix suggestion below. I have not included any songs from possibly their biggest album, Home of the Brave, because it is not available online. I can say with extreme confidence that every song below, however, is worth a listen. As one of those obsessive compulsive types, when it comes to music, that puts a lot of time into my mixes, I assure you even the playing order is well thought through. If I lean heavily towards Elvis Murphy’s Green Suede Shoes it is because I not only think the songwriting is top notch, but the production might be at an all time high for a Black 47 record. Also, I prefer the versions of songs as heard on their original debut, as opposed to the Ric Ocasek produced The Fires of Freedom. They are less polished, but I find that to be more charming in this case.
- Far Side of the Wall – Elvis Murphy’s Green Suede Shoes
- Downtown Baghdad Blues – Elvis Murphy’s Green Suede Shoes
- The Bells of Hell – Elvis Murphy’s Green Suede Shoes
- Uncle Jim – Elvis Murphy’s Green Suede Shoes
- Fanatic Heart – Black 47
- 40 Shades of Blue (For Kevin Wherever You Are) – Black 47
- Long Hot Summer – Bankers and Gangsters
- Bankers and Gangsters – Bankers and Gangsters
- Funky Ceili (Bride’s Song) – Black 47
- James Connolly – Black 47
- Bas in Eireann – Bankers and Gangsters
- Kilroy Was Here – Elvis Murphy’s Green Suede Shoes
- Life’s Like That Isn’t It? – Elvis Murphy’s Green Suede Shoes