I don’t remember my first Black 47 show, but I remember why I went. It was a particularly quiet night during my graveyard shift as a doorman on the Upper East Side of Manhattan – I was a student at nearby Hunter College – and I loved listening to the legendary Vin Scelsa, who still hosts a show called “Idiot’s Delight” (now on wfuv.org). The show featured wonderful and obscure music you wouldn’t hear anywhere else, and it turned me on to countless acts, none the least of which was Black 47.
The opening to “40 Shades of Blue” features the most forlorn bagpipe notes I’ve ever heard – and, if you’ve heard bagpipes, you know what forlorn sounds like. The singer, well he was delightfully imperfect, singing woefully and off-tune of an Irish immigrant addicted to booze, down on his luck on the famous Bowery in New York City:
and the letters/that you sent back home/were full of all the things you’ve done/ah, but they don’t say you’re down there on Bleeker Street/with your hand out on the bum.
I was hooked immediately. The emotion, the familiar symbols, the song had everything. Lucky for me, I learned from Mr. Scelsa that night, Black 47 played twice weekly at a little club just north of the East Village on 2nd Avenue. What started as an odd song on the radio became a regular ritual among me, my friends and countless other strangers who’d pile into Paddy Reilly’s regularly on weeknights.
We’d wait in all kinds of harsh New York weather to get in, grab a pint of Guinness, get a good spot near the stage, cram our coats between our legs, and bounce shoulder-to-shoulder to the rollicking jigs and reels of this wonderful, insane little band from the Bronx. At the time, they were on the verge of having at least one video on Mtv, and went on to be produced by Ric Ocasek of The Cars fame, and on any given night, you’d beautiful music like traditional Irish sounds together with hip hop, Ska, reggae and rock and roll – all crammed together like an uptown 6 train during the afternoon rush. When the air conditioning was out in your subway car. Part Hothouse Flowers, part Bob Marley, part James Joyce, part Bob Dylan … we joyously hung on every sweaty, rollicking note.
Black 47 shows themselves ended at a reasonable time (for NYC on a school night), but the experience typically ended the next morning with my friends and me talking about the show over breakfast, usually in the East Village: hungover, smelling of beer and cigarette smoke, counting the burnholes in those new leather jackets we bought at the Queens Center Mall. We’d talk of how miserable, yet somehow transcendent, an experience it was. And how we had the time of our lives, and couldn’t wait to go back for the very next show.
Fast forward 20-odd years. Frontman Larry Kirwan has his own XM radio show: Celtic Crush, as well as a few novels and plays under his belt. The band, including woodwind player Geoff Blyth, founding member of Dexy’s Midnight Runners, are healthy and happy, and gracefully wearing their age, banging out songs of Irish Republicanism, soldiers fighting wars overseas, and of long lost loves back in Ireland. But soon, this will all be in the history books.
Black 47 are currently on their Last Call tour – why Last Call? They decided to disband on the 25th anniversary of their very first gig back in the Bronx in 1989. While there will be plays and novels from Larry (Rockin’ the Bronx is particularly wonderful), I’m certain – I can’t help but think this is the last time I’ll likely get to see the band play live.
Luckily enough, the Irish Heritage Center of Cincinnati, located in an old schoolhouse in Columbia Tusculum, will host the area’s final Black 47 show on Thursday, October 9th the center features a pub room (complete with Guinness and Smithwick’s on tap), an auditorium, and many exhibits and Irish artifacts. You can pick up tickets at the center at 3905 Eastern Avenue, by calling 513-533-0100, or at cincyticket.com.
The Irish Heritage Center is a registered 501(c)(3) and was founded to promote the Irish Culture through the study of customs, dance, education, film, genealogy, history, language, lectures, literature, music, mythology, poetry, social interaction, song, sport, theater and the visual arts. More information can be found at www.irishcenterofcincinnati.com
By Fred Neurohr