The Music Meme: Day 10

Day 10: A song that makes you cry


As I've aged, I've found that more and more things make me tear up. Part of the human condition, I guess: as you get older, you carry more and more associations in your memory, and with so many possible emotional connections lurking inside, it becomes easier to find a trigger for one of them. Plenty of songs can do it in passing (owing to the previously mentioned strong connections between memory and music), and as I've mentioned before, I have actually assigned some songs to people I've lost. When I hear one of those (Elvis Costello's "American Without Tears," Little Feat's "Willin'," etc.) I'm actively prepared to feel tears welling up.

Unconscious tears, however, are somewhat harder to predict for purposes of writing about them. Luckily(?) for me, I have knowledge of not just a tearjerker of a song, and not just a singer, but a backing band as well.

The story of Kirsty MacColl is one that starts out beautifully. The daughter of folksinger Ewan MacColl, best known for composing "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," she had an angelic voice and connections to a variety of England's musical movers and shakers. She wrote and recorded "They Don't Know" and later sang backup for Tracy Ullman's hit version, successfully covered Billy Bragg's "A New England" (adding two verses that he adopted for his own performances), and sang backup for everyone from the Smiths to Robert Plant to Talking Heads. In 1984 she married Steve Lillywhite, who had already produced U2's first three albums, plus work by XTC, Peter Gabriel, and the Psychedelic Furs, and would go on to work with the Pogues, the Dave Matthews Band, Chris Cornell, and Phish.

The song for which she's probably best known emerged from the Pogues' sessions with Lillywhite in late 1987. "Fairytale of New York," a duet between Kirsty and Shane McGowan, became the band's most successful single ever, one that has gone into the UK's top twenty multiple times, typically at Christmas, and has been one of the most-played Yuletide songs of the 21st Century. 

But her solo career never quite took off. Her 1981 debut hadn't generated a new record contract, and it wasn't until 1989 that she was able to release her next album, Kite. Lillywhite produced it, along with the next album, 1991's Electric Landlady, and both were augmented with an all-star cast of guest artists and guest writers (including David Gilmour, Johnny Marr, Marshall Crenshaw, Elliott Randall, and of course the Pogues). Despite critical acclaim, neither album generated huge sales, and when her label was sold to a new company, her contract wasn't renewed. Worse, Kirsty's marriage was dissolving, though it had produced two sons and inspired a number of songs (especially on 1993's independently-released Titanic Days). 

For the next few years, frustrated by the music business, she did very little recording or writing, but her fondness for Latin music (as demonstrated on Electric Landlady's brilliant "My Affair") eventually inspired her to create her next album, Tropical Brainstorm, an energetic and engaging mix of Caribbean and Cuban sounds framing her usual observant and sometimes-cynical lyrics. 

It would be her final album.

In December of 2000, while vacationing in Cozumel, Kirsty was diving with her sons, 13 and 15. As the group came to the surface, a motorboat belonging to one of Mexico's wealthier industrialists came plowing through the marked-off dive area. Seeing that her elder son was in danger, Kirsty pushed him out of the way; both were struck by the boat, but her son escaped with minor injuries. Kirsty was killed instantly. An employee of the industrialist later claimed to have been at the wheel when the accident occurred, and he was found guilty of culpable homicide, but was able to avoid jail time by paying a fine and restitution of just over $2000. There are rumors that he received a payoff from his employer for taking the fall, but the Mexican government's investigation into the matter has never officially altered the legal case.

So that's the sad ending to the story of Kirsty MacColl, whose voice somehow floats on through the world long after she left it. "The One and Only," the final track of Electric Landlady, is a song of loneliness and sadness leavened with Kirsty's wry humor, and the plaintive instruments of her friends the Pogues only add to the poignancy. It's hard to miss someone you never knew, but this song will bring a tear to the eye of all of us who might have met Kirsty but now never will.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on August 15, 2017 10:53 AM.

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