- 18 Dec 20
To mark the 20th anniversary of Kirsty MacColl's death, we're revisiting Philip Chevron's reflections on her life and legacy, originally published in Hot Press in 2001.
South Of France, 1988: The jacket, with its silver and black chevrons, had pleaded with me from the window for two days, like some whimpering puppy in a pet shop. Finally, the jacket and the contents of Monsieur s wallet changed hands.
On parade in the dressing room later, Kirsty took time out from the ritual, therapeutic construction of her hairdo to cast a doubtful eye over the garment. Her face brightened as she isolated the cause of her unease: with a single tug, the eminent designer s name, ostentatiously attached to the left sleeve, was among the debris in an adjacent ashtray. Now, she announced, you got yourself a jacket! I still have.
In The Pogues, we were fortunate that Kirsty accompanied us on tour as often as her priorities (her boys, Jamie and Louis) allowed. Unmistakably, the tour bus was a classier joint with her on board, as she genuinely brought out the best in everyone. Hotel bars at four in the morning were good too: a solicitous Kirsty holding forth to whichever Pogue she had not yet managed to drink under the table about the dangers of The Lifestyle.
She shared our insatiable musical curiosity and our appetite for hair-brained schemes. A folk-punk opera, say, or an all-Pogue recording of West Side Story. We did get as far as doing a brace of Cole Porter songs together for her husband, Steve Lillywhite's Red, Hot And Blue project. She performed Miss Otis Regrets like an Antipodean death-ballad and made it sound like that had been Porter's intention all along. And then there was her strangely irreplaceable performance of 'Fairytale'.
"I could have been someone". The rueful sound of Shane MacGowan cursing the emigrant's luck. This was it, the moment when, every night without fail, the tear ducts would do battle with the heartstrings. Two thousand, ten thousand voices raised in reproach, united with our flame-haired cheerleader, our big sister, the Maureen O Hara of our brighter dreams: "Well so could anyone!!"
I would try to catch her eye in the midst of the moment and would sometimes be rewarded with a conspiratorial wink: it was an open secret that chronic stage fright had long since separated Kirsty from her public. Now, kidding herself that she was somehow camouflaged by this octet of ramshackle guys she became, well, Kirsty Galore. She made short work of the nightly challenge of waltzing with Mac during the duet and then added her warmth to 'Dirty Old Town', a song which, since it was written by her father and not Brian Wilson, she'd had to learn just like the rest of us.
The apple doesn't fall very far from the tree, or so they say. But perhaps it was her need to undermine that very assumption that drove Kirsty to forge quite such an original and unique place for herself as a songwriter. Ewan MacColl, though he wrote many a fine song, did not have the sort of suburban-London worldview that could produce 'You Broke My Heart In Seventeen Places (Shepherd's Bush Was Only One)', 'Don't Come The Cowboy With Me, Sonny Jim' or 'There's A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He's Elvis'. How great a songwriter was she? Just ask MacGowan, Morrissey or Billy 'New England' Bragg for a start: those guys thought she was the best. Lesser writers thought she was not bad for a girl.
Like Billy, Shane, Joe Strummer and myself, Kirsty began her recording career in the Seventies at Chiswick Records in Camden Town. She was singer Mandy Doubt with the Drug Addix, Croydon contemporaries of The Damned and Johnny Moped who were also, indeed, on the label. But her lustre did not really become apparent until 'They Don't Know', her first solo single for Stiff Records. The exact moment I fell in love with Kirsty MacColl was just 113 seconds into first hearing that record on the radio
A moment so perfect in pop music that when, four years later, Tracey Ullman covered the song (reaching No.2 on the charts), she did not trouble herself to compete with it; she simply had Kirsty do it again.
Fast forward to Kirsty's final single, the wonderful 'In These Shoes', and she's still a tough act to follow, as Bette Midler's oddly mirthless cover of the song confirms. Galore, a 1995 collection of the best of 16 years of Kirsty's pop masterpieces, finally gave her something like the album sales she deserved. But some of her other albums, in particular Electric Landlady and Kite, are indispensable.
If you'd dropped in on her at home in the past few years, you'd have found the kitchen table stacked with countless Cuban music CDs along with advanced Spanish and Portuguese grammars. A passion that began with the single My Affair in 1991 was about to blossom into the astoundingly accomplished Tropical Brainstorm album. It was not quite her swansong, though.
For some time, Kirsty had been enthusiastic about a stage show myself and Declan Lynch have been writing, called Jack Rooney: In Person. Last month, with characteristic generosity, she agreed to perform one of the principal roles in our recording of the score. She bestowed on the character all the wit, warmth, resilience and tenderness Declan and I had dared hope for.
One looks for small consolations at times like these. Mine is that the last time I saw her, she was happy with life, happy in matters of the heart (the charming James Knight), happy with her work (including her imminent BBC Radio 2 series on Cuban music) and happy to be spending Christmas in Mexico with James and her two sons.
Thanks, Kirsty, Thank You For The Days.
Philip Chevron, Nottingham, January 13, 2001