Sunday, June 13, 2010

"Long Hot Summer Comin' On" / Black 47

What's on your list of "Summer's Here!" songs? Mine would have to include the Lovin' Spoonful's "Summer in the City," the B-52s' "Rock Lobster," Martha and the Vandellas' "Dancing in the Street," and Mungo Jerry's "In the Summertime." And yes, okay, twist my arm: Bruce Springsteen's "Rosalita." But the more I listen to this new Black 47 album, Bankers and Gangsters, I realize I must add one more to that list: the sizzling opening track, "Long Hot Summer Comin' On."

Not familiar with Black 47? Oh, my, we must rectify that. Along with the Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly, they form a triumvirate of American-based Celtic rock bands -- punchy Irish-themed bar bands that throw jigs and pipes into a rock 'n' roll mix. (Just try to book any of these bands around St. Patrick's Day.) Of the three, Black 47 -- the name refers to the worst year of the Great Irish Famine -- has the most eclectic sound, thanks to a smokin' horn section that can leap from jazz to reggae to Philly soul. They're also the most political, thanks to the songwriting of front man Larry Kirwan -- playwright, novelist, columnist, and Sirius DJ. (His radio show is how I first got hooked on this band.) Kirwan's not much of a singer, mind you, but what he lacks in vocal ability, he makes up for with mad boyish enthusiasm.

The soulful horns that lead off this track pour in like a ray of sunshine; drumbeats snap like firecrackers. The metallic jangle of guitars is undeniably urban -- more subway tracks and fire escapes than highway cruising and swimming pools. But within that general city vibe, this particular song harks back to the summer of 1980, an era that Kirwan's been thinking about a lot about lately, as the time frame for his new novel Rockin' the Bronx.

One thing about cities: People can't help being out on the streets, especially in the heat of summer, and this song sketches those colliding lives. The first verse is a sidewalk panorama, the "girls in their summer dresses" passing by a young cop on the beat; verse two takes the ferry to Staten Island, to a fireman worn out by a rash of arsons. (Irish cops and firefighters are a healthy portion of Black 47's following.) Verse three mills around the Lower East Side, capital of the punk phenomenon, then in its heyday. Over it all hangs a sense of desperation, of youth vanishing, of chances evaporating; Kirwan's half-strangled vocals add a bittersweet urgency to this flickering moment of history.

I remember the summer of 1980 -- I had just moved to New York, though I hardly traveled in the same downtown hipster circles as Kirwan did. Still, I recognize all the references -- to arsonist Gasoline Gomez, "Captain" Hilly Kristal of the Bowery rock club CBGBs, Tom Verlaine's then-new band Television, and rock critic Lester Bangs, one of the first to champion punk rock. I went to CBGBs a time or two, though I was terrified to enter its famously scuzzy bathrooms.

Still, this isn't just an exercise in nostalgia. "The go-go days are over," Kirwan wails, and while that was true of 1980, it's just as true today. For all we know, this too could be a hot, restless, scummy summer. Might as well throw on a cool shirt and hit the streets.


wwolfe said...

This reminds me of another "long hot summer song - "Wild in the Streets" by Garland Jeffreys. A definite "shoulda been a hit."

It just occurred ot me - *I* was in NYC the summer of 1980, too! I spent the entire summer inside the Regency Theater at 68th and Broadway, wathcing their "History of Warner Brothers" movie series. It was the only place with A/C that I could afford to get into. I'm sure no one esle has ever watched "Fashions of 1936" nine times in three days, but it was better than sweating to death in Brooklyn. Clearly, Black 47 understand.

Holly A Hughes said...

Ah . . the late lamented Regency Theater. I miss all those repertory movie houses. They disappeared when everybody got VCRs -- a shame. A movie like "Fashions of 1936" deserves to be seen in the dark with strangers.

Kevin Cornell said...

Thought I was about to read about that Style Council (Weller/Talbot) track, "Long Hot Summer". Cheesey as hell, but it gets me every time!