Note: It’s certainly not my intention to turn this blog into an endless succession of memento mori, but sometimes that’s just the way the ol’ dice roll. The following article, which included my eyewitness account of Kirsty MacColl’s memorial service, was originally published in the Boston Phoenix weekly newspaper on January 26, 2001. The service itself took place on Saturday, January 20, 2001 (in a bizarre coincidence, the same day George W. Bush was sworn in as U.S. president — oh, the irony, and how many mouthfuls of ashes I must have swallowed that weekend). I traveled from Slovenia to London for the occasion, and met many of Kirsty’s most loyal fans before and after the service. The day itself remains indelible for me; since my report isn’t available anywhere else on the Web, I offer it up here in Kirsty’s memory on the seventh anniversary of her death, which was and remains regrettable beyond words.
LONDON — Kirsty MacColl was no friend of cheap sentiment, and anyone the least bit familiar with the late singer/songwriter knows she wouldn’t have wanted an overblown, maudlin memorial service. What took place at St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square last Saturday was profoundly emotional but true to MacColl’s feisty, clear-eyed spirit; you’d like to think she was looking on and saying, “Yep, not too badly done.”
MacColl’s family, mates, colleagues, and fans filled the pews. Whatever religious beliefs they might have had (and as the Reverend Nicholas Holtam noted, Kirsty wasn’t a believer herself), many were still in shock over her passing, at the age of 41, on December 18. In the month since, casual listeners in England and throughout the world had been jolted to attention and had realized what they’d lost. Her picture landed on the front pages of the London papers; editorials lamented the loss of a musician’s musician, one of England’s best living songwriters and a sadly underappreciated talent in her prime.
We were all trying to make sense of something that made none. Struck by a speedboat off Cozumel, Mexico, while off on a half-hour diving lesson with her two teenage sons. Probably happier than she’d ever been. Bliss with a new lover, six years after her divorce. Having shaken the stage fright and depression that had plagued her for years. Playing her best live sets ever. Vacationing in the kind of Spanish-speaking tropical paradise she sang of on her final album, 2000’s Tropical Brainstorm (V2), an upbeat mix of Latin rhythms and her razor-sharp wit that reflected several years’ infatuation with Cuba and Brazil. At one with the sea she loved as an emblem of freedom. Especially when you consider that the victim was a professional ironist, this was irony laid on with a trowel. MacColl would have rejected it as too insipid.
Ron Wood sent flowers. Bono from U2, one of her innumerable friends, sent himself. Billy Bragg, graying now, upright as a fundamentalist, and looking uncomfortable, took the podium with his acoustic guitar and strummed a slow, mourful version of “A New England,” which he’d written but which MacColl had sung with a new warmth. This wasn’t a media-manufactured celeb grief orgy — it was a genuine occasion filled with low-key but real anguish. Some fans had come from as far afield as New York and Philadelphia. These hardcore MacCollites, male and female, straight and gay, remarked on her down-to-earth approachability, how she herself had invariably responded to their letters. They all said they felt they’d lost a friend.
MacColl was a whip-smart, flame-haired South London girl, the daughter of noted Scottish folk musician Ewan MacColl [note: he was actually born in Salford, Lancashire to Scottish parents]; she grew up with her mother after her parents divorced early on. Although she flirted with punk and had the attitude for it, upon signing as a teenager with hip Stiff Records she busied herself with updating ’60s girl-group pop, multitracking her vocals à la Brian Wilson (a trademark throughout her career). She grew up to write and sing pure pop tunes with subversive, twisty lyrics, the personal prevailing but seasoned with politics (leftist, populist, but never preach) and the delectably bizarre. In her varied career, she wrote a hit for Tracey Ullman (“They Don’t Know”), sang a duet with Shane MacGowan on the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York,” and had a charming novelty hit of her own, “There’s a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis.” She was a rarity in the music business: a fully realized, emotionally whole adult grounded in real life. Her versatility — as attested by any spin of her greatest-hits compilation, Galore (IRS) — hurt her career more than it helped, since she was impossible for marketers to pigeonhole and regularly bounced from one label to another; even in the UK, some of her albums are hard to find. (The music industry, she once said, “gets slightly less to do with music every year.”)
MacColl had written her share of somber, London-gray numbers, but at the service we heard her recording off “Us Amazonians,” a witty, lusty anthem from Tropical Brainstorm, along with funny and sometimes profane reminiscences from mates, and the most moving one. “I didn’t only lose my daughter, I lost my best friend,” her mother, Jean, told us, voice breaking, then exclaimed, “Kirsty is still with us, she is still touching the hearts of all the people she loved.”
MacColl’s 10-piece band concluded the service with her 1989 anthem “Don’t Come the Cowboy with Me Sonny Jim,” with Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Holly Johnson handling the vocals. As it slowly ground along, clunky and awkward, one thought roared through my head: this is the saddest thing in the world. It was an archetypal image, a leaderless band, in real time, and in those moments it couldn’t have been clearer just what we were all going to miss.
Still ever sadly missed, Ms. MacColl.