Larry Kirwan is best known as leader/song-writer of rebel-rockers Black 47, often seen in a packed New York pub, his fist upraised, shouting, "So here's to YOU, Revolution! May your flame keep burning still!". The songs praise Marxist union-builder James Connolly, armed feminist Constance Markievicz and American socialist/singer/actor/hero Paul Robeson; or sneering, defiant put-downs of pious prudes, Irish racists, homophobic job foremen, hypocritical politicians and smug journalists. Searing Stratocaster, keening pipes and thundering drums underscore the cheerfully tub-thumping bravado of this most political, yet most thoughtful, of all Irish diaspora bands.
Paradoxically, for all their heavy subject matter, Black 47 have always been known as a good-times party band. Kirwan himself has baldly asserted, "I love to drink!", and sneered straight back at snobs who would put down working folks' right to raucous, dancing group celebration.
But as you get older, even in the world of rock n roll, or that of unfinished revolution, it becomes apparent that life is not all happy riots and righteous parties. There's a weight to it all, brought on by the accumulation of years, of tears, of losses and loves, griefs and memories.
That's the tough reality that Larry Kirwan chews on in Kilroy Was Here, his first solo album. It's quite different from all of Black 47's albums. Stripped away is the bombast, the loud flourishes and calls to arms. ("History of Ireland, Part One" deftly satirizes the Irish rebel mythos.) Kirwan's profoundly political view of life is definitely there, but it is much more subtly expressed, far more integrated into the fabric of the lives, (his own included), which he sketches on this intricate musical "novel."
In Kilroy's centerpiece song, "Life's Like That, Isn't It?", an Irish boy cherishes his father's love, yet stoically accepts that, life being what it must be, he will see his Dad only fleetingly over the years. Kirwan's own father was a merchant seamen, forced by economic realities to leave his family for long voyages to South America and beyond. Kirwan's autobiographical young hero joins his strong mother in her lonely pain, yet uses the guitar his visiting father gave him to carve a niche for himself in the wide wide world. Grown into a young rocker, he too finds a way to flee sadness and see the wonders beyond the small town he was born into. But he never forgets the song he wants to sing for his Dad, and at the end of the day, he sings that song very very well, indeed. A beautiful, unsentimental yet heart-wrenching song, which evolves dramatically over decades before it ends.
Many other songs on Kilroy test the strength of child-parent bonds in vignettes like that of "Fatima", a girl wrenched between love of her father's dignified, refined Islamic traditions and the wild crudity of her laughing Irish beau. Kirwan sharply observed the struggle of generations, even literary ones his narrator in "Molly" is insane with love for James Joyce's lusty fictional daughter/lover Molly Bloom, and literally loses himself in the pages of Joyce's "Ulysses."
The contemplative tone of this album, with its musical setting in strings, soft horns and acoustic guitar, far removed from Black 47's rock storm and blast, fits the stories well. Yet this is by no means mood music. It is a thinking soul's meditation on the world and its troubles--history as seen from the viewpoint of a rebel grown up well. Through his many complex and intriguing narratives on Kilroy Was Here, Kirwan seems to be saying: It's all a story, really. But a damn good one. Worth the telling of it, at the end of the day. - Bill Nevins
Read Bill Nevins' interview with Larry Kirwan in RootsWorld
Audio: "The History of Ireland Part 1"
Comment on this music or the web site.
Write a Letter to the Editor