Kirsty MacColl: The One & Only
by Karen O’Brien
Kirsty MacColl was and is one of my favorite singers. I was depressed and angered by her accidental death in 2000, and I won’t pretend to a lack of bias on the subject. Yet I feared a biography lacking in healthy skepticism by a plain over-awed fan. That’s not what MacColl would have wanted, I don’t think, and thank goodness it’s not the treatment she has received.
She was never much impressed by musical royalty, her own or anyone else’s. Collaborator Johnny Marr remembers her berating Keith Richards at a Rolling Stones session on which they both worked (and getting away with it). And surely anyone given to leading concert audiences in sing-a-longs of “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady” after an equipment breakdown should not be accused of taking themselves too seriously. How fortunate for us all, then, that Karen O’Brien has produced a volume clearly informed by the writers’ love of MacColl, but with an eye for the telling detail that keeps Kirsty’s humanity.
That humanity was the source of her greatest expression. Kirsty could have rightly considered she was part music royalty; she was the daughter of folk singer Ewan MacColl. But the usual generational difficulties, combined with a very specific sense of betrayal for her father’s actions towards her mother, created a distance between them both personally and musically. Billy Bragg, another songwriter with whom MacColl often worked, remembers her declaring “I fucking hate folk music!” Yet one of the quiet points this book makes is that some connections have deeper roots than we might think or even want. MacColl would write one of her most gently effective songs, “The Hardest Word,” with her brother, in tribute to their father. And her memorial bench in Soho Square is across the way from where Ewan once opened a club.
MacColl felt condescended to in the music business at times. Because of her lineage, and later her 1984 marriage to famous rock producer Steve Lillywhite (with whom she had two beloved children before separating ten years later), some were quick to put her successes down to nepotism. But she was, as she always wanted to be, her own woman. The soul revealed in her music found fans around the world that could not have cared less who her father or husband was.
Yet that revealed soul also contributed to a nearly crippling case of stage fright. It’s one thing to write a painfully autobiographical song about something deeply personal, and even to sing it in a studio in front of two or three trusted friends. It’s quite another to get onto a stage and sing it in front of strangers, no matter how much they Love your work. I consider myself lucky to have seen MacColl twice in concert and can’t say I was aware of this anxiety on her part. Knowing it now only makes me more impressed with the shows I saw.
Does this book have flaws? Sure it does, but I think they’re largely unavoidable.
After attending Kirsty MacColl’s memorial service, this book reports, her longtime friend — as a teenager, he’d tried to pick her up in a Dublin club — Bono said: “I couldn’t say I knew Kirsty until she was taken away and I met her family and friends, and then I really got a picture. I came away from that feeling like I had spent a lot of time with her, more time with her than I did, and I was really glad to be there.”
That is a near-perfect encapsulation of the experience of reading this book, which is why I nicked it. A book like this is always going to be a little bit like having someone keep coming in and telling you about this absolutely fabulous person in the next room. You even overhear her laughing and you never quite get to meet her.
But for fans of Kirsty, this book is going to be the next best thing.
Author’s Note: An appendix to this book contains heartfelt notes by Kirsty MacColl fans from around the world, including this writer. I am immensely proud to have been included, and to do my part in adding to her tribute.
Kirsty MacColl: www.kirstymaccoll.com