Kirsty and John (Jan. 2, 2001)

I just heard about the death of Kirsty MacColl, in a stupid boating accident December 18, and thought I’d mention it here. To those of you who’ve never heard of her, she was an English singer/songwriter who was our age, and she wrote songs like “They Don’t Know” (a hit for Tracey Ullman in ’84) and “There’s A Guy Down the Chip Shop Thinks He’s Elvis,” and many, many other compositions, lyrical, witty, acerbic and clear-headedly optimistic, which she sang in a clear, yearning voice.

I have a couple of her terrific CDs and was lucky enough to see her in concert one Sunday night in Boston several years ago; it was in a small club, packed with her eager local supporters, and the show was joyful and fun-filled in the best sense, and I’ll never forget the encore with which she ended the concert. After teasing her “Sunday-night rocker” audience with the expectation of hearing something soft and slow, she belted out the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated” and I went home with a big grin on my face.

A while back Nancy asked for reflections about John Lennon. No doubt I’ll get flamed from here to Hungary for this, but I never worshipped at the altar of Lennon and see no reason to start. (In general, it’s best not to have heroes — musicians, politicians, whoever — because almost invariably they’ll let you down at some point, and if they don’t you’re probably deluding yourself anyway.)

The pre-’67 Lennon was responsible for some great stuff with that band he had (what was its name again…) but it seems to me that after “Revolver” and especially post-1970 he became obsessed with his own “legend” and let his fame take him prisoner, to the detriment of his creative impulses (and yes, I’m familiar with the Plastic Ono Band; it didn’t do anything for me). Lennon had a hard, sardonic shell, but it concealed a soft, gooey center that became more and more evident as time wore away his outer defenses and youthful poses. Unfortunately, however much he may have matured as a human being (something which I can’t, since I didn’t know him, speak to directly), the songwriting suffered. Lennon should never be spoken of as having had a punk rocker’s heart — something which you could argue MacColl did indeed have. Ultimately, Lennon was too sentimental for punk; he also took himself way too seriously (I suppose that was because everyone he met ALSO took him too seriously) and it seemed like he had a hard time laughing at himself; from a distance, he seemed to be as self-absorbed as the worst stereotypes of those early boomers. Punk was in part a reaction against musicians like the later-period Lennon (though other musicians were far worse offenders), not a continuation of a tradition, however terrific he looked in that black leather jacket in Hamburg in ’61.

Most of the unquestioning fans of “John Lennon” who were his near-contemporaries are merely swallowing whole the image of Lennon the media made, making him into a blank screen on which they project their nostalgia and own egotistical, self-congratulatory visions of their “best selves.” If one is to take a clear-eyed view of Lennon, which 20 years after the shooting one should certainly do, one shouldn’t pretend that his last album was filled with anything other than sentimental, mooing glop on the order of “I Will Always Love You” or “My Heart Will Go On.” Or that there was any sign of him doing differently in the future, though we’ll never know for sure. Clearly, the man had shot his creative wad by the age of 35 or so, as he himself seemed to recognize, given his final five years in self-imposed exile cocooned up at the Dakota (which, at the least, did nothing for his songwriting abilities). So, there would be no Beatles reunion (outside of those singles a few years ago that Paul crafted out of some old demo tapes) — which, had it actually happened, would have been nothing more than a bloated, self-congratulatory commercial spectacle and probably the greatest anticlimax of whatever decade it would have been held in, and an embarrassment in the end. I’m sorry Yoko was widowed and his sons had to grow up without a father, but John Lennon, a spokesman for me or my generation? Please.

In contrast, there’s the equally meaningless and stupid death of Kirsty MacColl almost exactly 20 years later. MacColl (who also died suddenly and violently, leaving a spouse and children behind) was the same age Lennon was then, but from all evidence she was an fully realized artist at the height of her creative powers, without an ounce of self-pity, and we’ll be missing out on all those great songs and performances from our contemporary that would have come down over the years.

John Lennon’s dead? Get over it.

No more Kirsty MacColl? In terms of artistic contributions to the world, that’s the real damn shame.

In memoriam

Kirsty MacColl
Oct. 10, 1959- Dec. 18, 2000


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