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Kirsty MacColl: Pure Pop, Pure hero

As we mourn the passing of R&B crossover genius Michael Jackson let’s remember a genius English pop Princess Kirsty MacColl who found a better way to leave us.

Remember Stiff Records? Let me remind you at one point this tiny independent (“If it ain’t Stiff it ain’t worth a fuck” was their motto) , they had Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, Nick Lowe, the Damned, the Motors, and Wreckless Eric signed up. And the sweet voiced born to be a back up singer Kirsty MacColl who after stiffing at first recorded one hit after another for former husband legendary producer Steve Lillywhite. She died in a boating accident in 2000.
Kirsty was a pop gem disguised as an every girl. A child of punk who new waved herself into the modern times with an almost ridiculously funny way with a lyric. “There’s a guy who works down the chip shop swears he’s Elvis, well he’s a liar and I’m not sure about you,” “you broke my heart in seventeen places, Shepherds Bush was only one,” “Once upon a time at home I sat beside the telephone, waiting for someone to pull me through, when at last it didn’t ring, I knew it wasn’t you.”

Robert Christgau claimed Kirsty was a folkie (her dad was a famous one) at heart and her cover of Billy Bragg’s “A New England” (the latter quote above was a verse you added to that song) would seem to imply it but really I think she was more of a popstress -not just folk but country, Latin, rock and roll, new wave: she moulded them into her own cheeky monkey, pop sweetheart a la Tracey Ullman image (Tracey covered Kirsty on Tracey’s stupendous “You Broke My Heart In 17 Places” album). “Chip Shop” (here’s the youtube, listen to it right now: is a clever, clever lyric tied to an 18th place to get your heart broken.

There are five albums between 1981 and her death in 2000 and they are all worth hearing but a greatest hits if it includes the second greatest (after Lennon’s) Christmas song of all time “Fairy Tale Of New York.” might be a better staring point. Whether working with Johnny Marr or Lillywhite or Shane MacGowan, Kirsty sounded like herself: nothing overwhelms her sweet, so English soprano.

Kirsty’s last album was the very fine Caribbean flavoured “Tropical Brainstorm” with its sexy rhythms and horns and her come on vocals. “In these Shoes” was a hit for her. Indeed, every album she released was good for a hit or two in England. And though she didn’t quite crossover in the states Tracey had a hit here with her “They Don’t Know”.

And then she died.

In 2000 at the age of 41.

Pop stars die all the time, Michael Jackson just died from a molotov cocktail of painkillers, Elvis Presley went the same way. Kirsty’s sons were scuba diving when a motorboat entered the restricted area. One son got out of the way but the boat was going for her other son, Kirsty pushed her boy away but she died instantly when the boat hit her.

Nobody wants to die at the age of forty-one but if you are going to die at the age of forty-one that is precisely how you go about it. And the manner of her death raises questions as to the nature of heroism. When my father was sixty years old he swam out to sea and brought my brother on his back from where he had been carried by the undertow to a certain death. My father could have left him to die, the strain on my father’s heart from the long swim led to his eventual death. Would I do it? Would you?

Let’s say we can assimilate Kirsty’s and my father’s sacrifice: the urge to propagate the species is similar to the urge to protect our offspring, wired into us. But still I find it a difficult idea: should we? can we? .As my father swam out he had the chance to think about it, as Kirsty pushed her son away her instincts would have overtaken her. It was split second sense memory.

In writing about Regina Spektor’s “Ink Stain” last working I wondered what type of animal we are. Kirsty MacColl’s death raises the question again: why this duality? The move to sacrifice and equally the move to annihilate. in Howard Bloom’s “The Lucifer Principle” Bloom takes the sacrificial mode and widens it to a social more: organisms in a society sacrifice themselves to a greater good: we are wired to protect the society at all costs. Which may be a partial as opposed to a complete truth. If everybody sacrificed themselves it would not be this species (indeed if all mother’s had the maternal instinct it would not be this species).

It is a certain something in a person and I am not sure it is reflected in the music. Though one can imagine the seeds of MJ’s ambiguous relationship to the world in his songs, you can’t see Kirsty’s heroic instincts in hers. That may well be the difference between genius and a great, great talent. Jackson, like Lennon, imbued his music with himself sometimes to the detriment of the music itself. Kirsty was a pro, she kept her distant and relied on humor and a repetition of theme to ply her art.

And perhaps if one opposes Kirsty’s lack of pretension compared to Jackson’s world dominating King Of Pop pretension one can glimpse her wonderful and brilliant death in the easiness and sweetness of her success. Look at it this way: in the end Jackson had one responsibility, stay alive for his kids and he couldn’t do it. In the end MacColl had one responsibility, die for her kids, and she did it. A splendid heart break more than reflected in her lovely popiness.

People can’t write songs like Kirsty did any more: Lily Allen is talented enough but she keeps on slipping on her own glam. Katy Perry is a potential Pop Princess but she isn’t there yet… Kirsty tugged you in and hooked you but she had the understatement of the English. This understatement is a type of faith in the correct degree to which life matters and should be lived. To paraphrase the Tao: you do what you need to do and then you step back and leave it alone. To her undying credit, in both her music and her life and her death, that’s exactly what Kirsty MacColl did.

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