I’ve had to go through a bit of mourning today, as I found out one of my favorite artists has died. When the Budster mentioned a few days ago that Kirsty MacColl had passed away too young, I assumed he was kidding. I had all her albums, followed her career for 20 years, was probably one of her more devoted Stateside fans – surely I would have known.
Turns out that she died five years ago, and through some bizarre set of obstructing circumstances, the information took that long to leak in my direction. Last night I spent hours online combing the facts: in December 2000, she took her two kids to Cozumel, Mexico to get over a friend’s death. While swimming in a protected zone, a speedboat barreled toward her family – she threw her son out of harm’s way, was hit and died instantly. It’s terribly sad, but it seems completely in character that such an amazing woman died saving her son.
You may only know her music from Tracey Ullman’s “They Don’t Know,” a song Kirsty wrote that became her only U.S. hit. She also sang “Golden Lights” on the Smiths’ “Louder than Bombs” album and did a duet with Bill Bragg on “Sexuality.” Her voice was so beautiful, and like pancakes and syrup, it only got better as they stacked tracks on top of each other. I’d call her stuff “twisted orchestral pop” with classic, gorgeous, surefooted pop craft thrown in, but it didn’t stop her from becoming more and more influenced by Latin grooves (which melded perfectly with her British accent – she was from Croydon).
Lyrically, however, she was untouchable. Nobody came close to her witty, anguished turns of phrase – perhaps only Morrissey, when he wasn’t trying to be clever. She just about breaks your heart in every song.
This was a woman who didn’t give a shit what was popular at any given moment, didn’t mind as her weight fluctuated 40 pounds in either direction, and deigned to marry Steve Lillywhite (who produced, among other masterpieces, U2’s “War,” the La’s album, XTC’s “Black Sea,” Talking Heads’ “Naked” and even The Pogues “If I Should Fall From Grace With God”), and then wrote a brilliant album about their divorce (Titanic Days).
If you really want to hear Kirsty at her finest, please find a copy of her album Kite somewhere. It gives forth more on the fifteenth listen than the first, and contains chords, thoughts and bits of poetry that have stuck with me for a decade.
One song in particular is so angry, so pretty, so jangly-fast like a runaway caboose (NME called it “a litter of carefree Labrador puppies who can’t get to where they wanna go fast enough”), that I need to include a few lines here. It is the perfect description of someone I know who will remain nameless. It’s called “Free World,” and should be on your iPod.
I thought of you when they closed down the school
And the hospital too
Did they think that you were better? They were wrong.
You had so many friends
They all left you in the end
Because they couldn’t take the patter.
If I wore your shades could I share your point of view?
Could I make you feel better?
Paint a picture, write a letter?
Well, I know what you’re saying, but I see the things you do
And it’s much too dangerous to get closer to you.
And it’s going to get colder
You might not get much older
You’re much too scared of living
And to die is a reliable exit
So you push it and you test it
With Thunderbird and Rivin
I’ll see you baby when the clans rise again
Women and men, united in the struggle
With a pocketful of plastic
Like a dollar on elastic
In this free world-
I wouldn’t tell you if I didn’t care.