In 1991, I was 20 and living in East Palo Alto, California. East Palo Alto is, for lack of a better word, a “ghetto” neighborhood made all the more maddening by the fact that it is separated from a part of town we called “mansion row”, by railroad tracks. Of which we were on the wrong side. You get the idea. It was, at that time, the city with the highest murder rate in the country and there was some sort of bust outside my apartment building the day I moved in. This is where I was living one morning when, half awake, I heard Kirsty MacColl on the radio say:
“From the sharks in the penthouse to the rats in the basement; it’s not that far; to the bag lady frozen asleep on the church steps; it’s not that far; would you like to see some more? I can show you if you’d like to.”
It was MacColl’s song “Walking Down Madison”, cowritten with Johnny Marr, and the leadoff track of her album Electric Landlady. The song, produced by MacColl’s then-husband Steve Lillywhite, layers Marr’s guitars and keyboards over a shuffling drum beat that approaches hip hop. Kirsty is the sophisticated, worldly-wise to the point of being blase observer here in the opening verse, which is almost staccato. The melody picks up in the next section, and by the time it reaches the section quoted above, it’s flying high.
This was the first time I was really aware of Kirsty’s records, though I had the Red Hot + Blue: A Tribute to Cole Porter album, on which charity CD she sang a grand medley of “Miss Otis Regrets” and “Just One of Those Things” with the Pogues. I bought the Electric Landlady album later that day, and it proved to be the beginning of an almost 10-year, serious fandom.
It became a habit of mine in recent years to grouse as MacColl was dropped by record label after record label (her last album, Tropical Brainstorm was never even released in the US). Most of us have favorite singers we wish were more popular, and she was one of mine. But now, what was the sort of complaining we music fans (and critics) secretly love to do because it shows how much more refined our tastes are than the “common people”, has become a final, obvious, angering, tragic irony: I now live in a world in which Destiny’s Child is at the top of the charts, and Kirsty MacColl will never make another album.
Let’s nail my bias to the wall: Kirsty MacColl was a goddess. The greatest female singer of the past 20-plus years and one who should rightfully be recognized alongside Frank Sinatra and Marvin Gaye. You may not agree. At this point, I don’t care, because the news broke today, as I write this (Tuesday, 19 December 2000) that MacColl was killed in a speedboat accident in Mexico. She was swimming with her children when some bastard pointed his boat into an area reserved for swimmers, according to the Associated Press story, and hit her (the children, thank heaven for small miracles, were not injured).
Now Kirsty is dead. It’s not right, it’s not fair, and it does not bode well for the new millennium one which was already starting badly, what with the fact we’re going to have to hear “Hail to the Thief” for the next four years. Her voice, her mind is gone, and she’ll never sing to any of us ever again. Oh, God, Kirsty could sing. The trouble with writing about this is that those of you who know don’t need to be told and those of you who haven’t heard her can’t possibly imagine what That Voice was like from reading about it. But I hope the following gives you some idea of why her passing is a tragic event for those of us who love singers and songwriters. Kirsty was both, and as good an example of either as we will ever find.
Kirsty MacColl was the daughter of folk singer Ewan MacColl, but although her own music could sometimes fall into the category of folk-rock she ran through more genres than Imelda Marcos did shoes and wore them better, as well. The likes of Talking Heads, Happy Mondays, and the Smiths sought her out as a backing singer for the same reason fashion designers seek out top models: They make the clothes look good, and Kirsty made the songs sound good. But as beautiful as her voice was in the service of other people’s writing, it was Kirsty’s own songwriting that really let her shine.
Her first single, “They Don’t Know”, was released in 1979, when she was 19 years old. Listening to it now I hear the rawness of the recording, the songwriting and her voice, but none of these are as raw as you’d have a right to expect Tracey Ullman covered this song to popular success, the Bangles could have done it. MacColl didn’t need any of them. The story of a girl who knows her man is better than everyone think, though it’s not as melodic as her records would become in the next few years, it’s a perfect slice of adolescent pop. The B-side, “Turn My Motor On” is just a sex/auto metaphor song, but one with one of my favorite lines showing Kirsty’s even then, wicked, wounding and wonderful sense of humor: “Come on over here, I’m gonna swallow your pride.”
A couple years later she had her first hit with “There’s a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis”, a song of which it can truly be said is no funnier than it’s title, but that can be pretty funny. In 1984 she released her cover of “A New England”, written by Billy Bragg. MacColl and he had both released their first EPs on London’s Stiff Records, and Bragg was a steadfast admirer of her singing, once writing “All those expensive gadgets that make us mere mortals sound good in the studio, she can do it all naturally. And usually in the first take.” Especially in the 12” version, this record is an early marvel of the multitrack vocals that were to become a hallmark of her work. It’s B-side, “80 Year Old Millionaire”, has become better known to my fellow Kirsty-groupie friend Jun and I as “The Anna Nicole Smith Story”. These early singles and more were collected on her rare first album Desperate Character, most of which was reissued on the misleadingly titled but still valuable Essential Collection in 1993.
Shortly thereafter, MacColl married Lillywhite and retired from making her own records for a while, though she worked steadily as a backup singer during this period. In 1987 she also recorded, again with the Pogues, the single “Fairytale of New York”, which has become something of a modern Christmas classic, especially in the UK.
In 1989 she returned to making full-length albums with Kite, produced by Lillywhite. Some of the songs were cowritten with Pete Glenister, some by Johnny Marr (both of whom backed her on the record), some were covers like her gently rocking version of “Days”, by Ray Davies, and some were written by MacColl alone. All of them are great, shimmering and understated, moving from the bracing wit of “Innocence” and “Free World” to the almost unbearable tenderness of “You and Me Baby”.
In 1991 came Electric Landlady. An extension of Kite in many ways, it saw her lengthening her list of co-authors (Marr and Glenister again, Jem Finer, Mark. E. Nevin) and expanding her sound to incorporate Celtic music and as many different sounds as the day is long. Strong and haunting, life-affirming and rejuvenating, this is not only my favorite Kirsty album (as you’ll remember it was my first), it is one of the best albums ever made by anyone, anywhere. It also gave me the title for this tribute. On the last song, Kirsty sings:
I never minded the rain on my face
I knew the sun lived in some other place
I had to go I just needed the space
But I’m not down for the first time
Maybe I’ll always be the one and only girl for me
Later that year MacColl sang on Billy Bragg’s Don’t Try This at Home album, which includes the fabulous “Sexuality”, still Bragg’s biggest (perhaps only?) US hit, written by Bragg and Marr.
In 1993, on the verge of separating from Lillywhite, Kirsty released Titanic Days. In retrospect it’s easy to label it her “divorce album” (something else she and Gaye have in common), but this isn’t just the story of one woman’s divorce, or at least MacColl’s talent wouldn’t let it get bogged down in that. It dances from the bliss of “Angel” to the despair of “Tomorrow Never Comes” but never fails to reward.
In 1995 IRS, her then-label in the US, released a compilation titled Galore. Drawing on her entire career to date, this is the MacColl to buy if you’ve never bought one before. Everything from “They Don’t Know” to Titanic Days is represented here along with liner note tributes by Bragg, Marr, Shane McGowan of the Pogues and other notables. There are also two extra tracks. The second, a cover of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” in duet with Evan Dando of the Lemonheads, is another example of Kirsty’s records in the story of my life. In 1996, I took a woman to the park, we went to the zoo, and a movie. It was to be, though I don’t suppose either of us knew it at the time, our last day together as lovers. In the song, Kirsty sings:
Just a perfect day
Drink sangria in the park
Then later, when it gets dark, we go home
Just a perfect day
Feed animals in the zoo
Then later a movie too, and then home
Just a perfect day
You made me forget myself
I thought I was someone else
And our day had it’s soundtrack, even though it was recorded well before, and written even earlier.
It would be over five years after Titanic Days before MacColl released her next, and now last, all-original CD, Tropical Brainstorm I refer you to my PopMatters review of that album for details, but suffice it to say MacColl showed her voice had lost none of it’s power and she had lost none of her skill in employing it.
In that review I said I would like to see MacColl record an album of standards. And I don’t know whether I believe in heaven or not, but I do know that it is a great comfort to think that Kirsty could now join Frank and Marvin in a trio of “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”.
If Kirsty’s songs had a theme from beginning to end it was, more than anything, about reportage and storytelling. Sometimes she was reporting how she was feeling and sometimes what she’d seen, and sometimes the stories were true and sometimes they weren’t. But always, there was That Voice that blossomed from roots in her soul and said someone understands, someone knows, someone has been there. Going back to Sinatra for a moment, I once read someone say that the reason for his success was that he could convey to everyone a feeling that he was singing just for them. Kirsty’s voice at it’s most tender was the sound of a lover, a friend or both holding you and singing gently into your ear. At its most raucous it was the sound of the same friend eagerly telling you a joke. Either way, always a friend. When you have a favorite singer, a new album from them is like checking in with a friend you haven’t seen for a few years, having them tell you where they’ve been and what they’ve done and seen. I had expected, and hoped, to keep checking in with MacColl for decades. And the saddest thing for me is that I can’t.
I didn’t know Kirsty MacColl. I can’t imagine what her lovers, friends and family must be going through. All I can say is that I loved her voice, loved her songwriting, and loved what I knew about her from her work and interviews. And the fact that I’m never going to get to hear her sing another new note makes me very sad indeed. You don’t know.
// Notes from the Road
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