With ambivalent Irish-American panache, a politically oriented rock musician recounts his life in County Wexford and New York City.
Kirwan (the novel Liverpool Fantasy, 2003) is a songwriter-singer in the band Black 47. While growing up in Catholic and predictable Wexford during the 1950s, he enjoyed the security of the familiar and was a devoted member of his family, whom he writes about here—his parents, and especially his grandfather—in phrases alternately rollicking and sentimental. Describing his youth, he relies on vivid, memorable language and frequently irreverent images, as he does throughout (“Wexford, in those days, would have left Calcutta breathless in its devotion and adherence to an ironclad caste system. The only comfort was that everyone had someone else to look down on”). Despite his contentedness, restlessness overtook Kirwan, and he moved as a young adult to New York City to seek new experience, including work as a professional musician. Like memoirists before him, he describes the brotherhood among and the conflicts between native-born Irish on the one hand and Irish-Americans on the other, who never lived in the homeland. Frank and Malachy McCourt are among such figures, and Kirwan works them and hundreds of other memorable folks—known to him personally or by reputation only—into his text. Some get their own chapters, with the late rock-music critic Lester Bangs receiving especially full treatment. Bangs didn’t understand the performing part of music—“I might as well have been talking to Billy Carter about the influence of serialism on Philip Glass”—but the critic knew on a gut level what he liked and who would succeed, including Black 47. The band caught on in clubs throughout the Bronx, and Kirwan moves past stereotype in describing the richness of that oft-maligned borough. His obligatory account of living in Manhattan during 9/11 slows the lively narrative but can’t kill it.
Reader-friendly memoir by an author equally at home on the page and on the stage.