In addition to leading the rocking Black 47 for the last fifteen years, author Larry Kirwan has also been a playwright, and now he has written his first novel. It’s a book about the most famous rock band that ever lived written by one of the most fascinating and intelligent songwriters in rock. Therefore a review and conversation about Liverpool Fantasy seems entirely appropriate on this website devoted to music. Below is a review of the book. It is immediately followed by an e-mail question and answer session conducted with the author on June 15, 2003.
No, Larry Kirwan’s just released first novel, Liverpool Fantasy, isn’t James Joyce, and it isn’t intended to be, but as Kirwan wished for in a Black 47 song it appears that the bandleader and songwriter has finally gotten laid on Joyce’s grave, hoping the author's genius would rub off on him. But Kirwan doesn’t need Joyce's genius because his talents as a writer of fiction are apparent in their own right.
Liverpool Fantasy is an adaptation of Kirwan’s stage play of the same name. The book answers an intriguing question: How would The Beatles lives turned out if they never made it, never turned popular music, a decade, and the world upside down? It is something I frankly never thought about until I first heard about Kirwan’s play three years ago. But those thoughts have obviously crossed his fertile mind and I am glad they did.
The book begins at Abbey Road studios in 1962 when John Lennon walks out of a Beatles recording session over a dispute with the record company. George Harrison and Ringo Starr walk out with him, thereby ending The Beatles forever.
Flash ahead twenty-five years. World famous Las Vegas singer Paul Montana, formerly known as Paul McCartney, whose long TV and singing career has hit the skids, pines for the old days with his former mates and he returns to Liverpool for a reunion. Montana finds that John has lived for many years on the dole, George has become a Catholic Priest and Ringo’s real first wife, Maureen Cox, supports him. Many real life characters from The Beatles Liverpool days have supporting and cameo roles. We are introduced to numerous fictitious friends, lovers, acquaintances and business associates the former band members met throughout the last quarter century.
The story seems so real at times that I forgot the book was not a true account of the lives of these four men, but a fictionalized what-might-have-been. Even though Kirwan’s non-fab four have very different lives from the ones they really lived, The Beatles personalities make their alternate existences seem vividly possible, perhaps even probable. Kirwan’s knowledge of his subjects, his familiarity with English culture and society, and his usage of Liverpudlian dialect make the book seem very real.
Of course I’m glad things didn’t turn out Kirwan’s way for either the mop tops or us. I would hate to live in a musical world where we had to listen to Montana croon in casinos in lieu of McCartney screaming "Long Tall Sally," Harrison playing magnificent weeping slide guitar, and Lennon revealing his deepest thoughts in songs like "In My Life." But after reading Liverpool Fantasy you easily can imagine there’s no Beatles. It’s easy if you try.
CR: What year was the play written?
LK: I can't remember the exact date I began the play, but it was first produced down on the Lower East Side of NYC in Summer 1986.
CR: What was the inspiration behind the original play?
LK: Reading that "John Lennon would have been a success in whatever field he entered." At first, I thought that this was true but began to doubt it when I considered the number of Lennon-types that I knew back home. Great musicians, songwriters, etc but with some of Lennon's flaws too - brutal honesty, not great people skills, self-righteous and always sure they are right, etc. I figured that somewhere along the line - without the "smoothing" influence of McCartney - that John would have self-destructed.
CR: What made you decide to turn the play into a novel? Did you enjoy writing the book? Do you find it as rewarding as being a playwright?
LK: Well, I decided to write the book because so many people have enjoyed the play over the years in its various productions. But plays are ephemeral - they're done, and then gone. I wanted to preserve the experience in book form so that people, who might not be able to see a play production, could still share the experience.
The book was hard to write but got easier as I gained more experience. I also had the benefit of two great editors, Paul Witcover and Dan O'Connor, who worked very hard with me and gave a lot of themselves. I enjoyed it and am finding that it's follow-up, Rockin' The Bronx - a novel - is easier because of the experience of writing Liverpool Fantasy.
Well, there is a special experience that playwriting gives one - the collaboration with so many other people. That can be wonderful or exasperating, depending on the production. Novel writing has none of that magic. I always hope to be able to go back into the theatre. It's a very special place for me. Right now, I don't just have the time but...
CR: Other than the obvious differences between a stage play and a novel how do the two differ in personality, plot line, and characters?
LK: Well, I think they're closer than people think. But the essence of playwriting - to me - is cutting as many superfluous lines as possible and letting the actor take over from you. If you can delete a paragraph and get the actor to deliver it with a particular nod of the head or look in the eye, then you've succeeded. Sparseness is a virtue in playwriting.
In the novel, you are the God on the page. Everything comes from the writer and you must judge exactly what is needed. But you are acting as the eyes, ears and conscience of the reader and must provide that background. And yet, I don't find the forms as different as many people do, but I may have a facility for going between disciplines as I can summarize a play into a song too. I've done that with the song Liverpool Fantasy and with another play of mine Poetry of Stone (the song from that will eventually appear on a Black 47 CD.) Perhaps, I'm kidding myself but I seem to be able to move relatively effortlessly between different formats.
CR: I think that The Beatles fictitious alternate lives parallel very closely to how most of us think things would have really turned out for them if they did not become "The Beatles." Did some of the stimulus for writing the play come from thoughts you may have had about yourself and how your life would be different if Black 47 hadn't become successful?
LK: No, but what would have happened to me if there had been no Beatles - that was a big issue. Without the Beatles, there wouldn't have been the 60s, as we know it and my life would have been irrevocably changed. I don't just know how. I always wanted to leave my small home town, Wexford, and live an adventurous life, so I would eventually have gone somewhere but the influence of the 60s/70s definitely sent me to NYC and into the life I'm leading now. I might have stayed a folk singer, but more than likely would have become a writer of some sorts. My other big influence was politics - so maybe I would have had some career in that field - but then I've always been interested in revolutionary politics so I might have had a bad ending. I was very much - and still am - into change. It would be interesting for people to write or just think about how their lives would have been different without the Beatles. It makes for great speculation.
CR: The book seems to be doing well with the critics. How is it doing commercially?
LK: It's doing really well commercially and went into its second printing this week. As regards critics, I very rarely read what they say. Of course, I would love them all to love the book to death - I'm very human - but I find that if I get nine good write-ups and one bad one - it's the bad one that stays in my head, so I very rarely look at what critics say, amazingly. You'd think by now, I'd be able to put things into perspective, but I don't seem to be able to. Still, the book seems to be selling. I think it will have strong word-of-mouth. I feel it's a people's book. It would be one that I'd find interesting, because it raises a lot of issues but doesn't preach them at you, just leaves thoughts out there for people to chew on in their own good time. I know that for a fact, because of the experiences that surfaced around the play. I wouldn't be surprised if the book brought some more productions of the play to the fore. I'm about ready for it again.
CR: What do you think of the idea of turning Liverpool Fantasy into a musical with you composing the music and Black 47 playing some or all of the music?
LK: I would think that would be disastrous and wouldn't touch it with a 40-foot pole. I commit the great conceit of writing a song for John Lennon in the play/novel. It works but I'm quitting while ahead.
CR: I believe the subject matter and the popularity of the Beatles may cause Hollywood to become very interested in the book. Would you be interested in turning it into a movie?
LK: Yes, I would be interested in that. I think it's made to be a movie. Back in 1994 I received a firm offer from Fox TV to turn the play into a "movie of the week." I was very much interested, but my manager at the time talked me out of it - said that eventually Liverpool Fantasy would become a feature movie. I was a bit bitter about the lost opportunity for some years, but perhaps he was right. You always were, weren't you, Elliot???
CR: Have any of the Beatles or anyone associated with them ever reacted to either the play or the book, or contacted you personally regarding Liverpool Fantasy?
LK: Back when the play was performed at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 1987/88??? (can't remember which year) we received a telegram of congratulations from Paul. We promptly went to the pub to celebrate and show off the telegram. In our stupors, we left without the telegram. That's the only communication that we've received ever.
CR: Finally, what are your future plans? I understand that Black 47 has a new CD coming out in the fall called New York Town. Can you tell me about it?
LK: It will be delayed until January 1st. I'm still in the process of working on it - and in fact should be listening to rough mixes right now. It's pretty much done and is being mixed as we go along. All the songs deal with New York City - in all its forms and boroughs and troubles - some of the songs are post 9/11 influenced. It's really a big love letter to the City in Black 47's inimitable way - it's not in any sense sloppy and yet some of it may be very poignant. The most interesting thing - apart from the songs and the band's outstanding performance on it (I think the rhythm section work of Hammy and Andrew is the best we've ever had - the interplay between pipes and brass is also outstanding) is that we'll have a number of women vocalist guest stars on the CD. I'll keep you posted. I had the idea for this CD last Sept. 11th while sitting in the Friends Meeting House in Gramercy Park. It seemed like our city was going through great trauma at the time and I wanted to do something to say thank you for giving me a home and teaching me so much about life. Hopefully, New York Town will go a small way to repay my particular debt of gratitude.