A thousand setting suns

kirstyIt may not be Music Monday, but I wanted to share a story about a musician who’s created a body of work that I love.

It’s also a story of an artist whose voice was needlessly silenced almost ten years ago.

Today would have been Kirsty MacColl’s 50th birthday.

Who the hell is Kirsty MacColl, you ask?

You’d probably be right to ask. Kirsty was never a household name in America.

She had a famous father, Ewan McColl (folk singer and songwriter and the author of The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face).

You may have heard some of her music in the 80s and 90s. You might also be aware of the work of her ex-husband Steve Lillywhite, a famous producer who’s helmed production for some of the most famous albums by bands like U2 and The Talking Heads, to name just two.

If anyone’s heard of her in this country, it’s probably for one of two reasons.

The comedienne Tracey Ullman took a number of Kirsty’s songs and covered them when she released an album. One of those songs, They Don’t Know, became a Top 5 hit for Ullman. You may recall this song:

Or you may be aware that Kirsty sang vocals on perhaps the most unsentimental Christmas song ever, Fairytale of New York by The Pogues. This is a favorite Christmas “carol” of hipsters everywhere (me included).

I became aware of Kirsty’s music in the 80s; even though she was an excellent songwriter, she became known for her covers of other people’s songs. She had a big hit (at least in the UK) with a cover of a Billy Bragg song, A New England. This video was filmed as the song was climbing the charts – and as Kirsty was very, very pregnant.

She also released amazing versions of The Kinks’ Days and The Smiths’ You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby. Her two best albums are ones I wholeheartedly recommend. 1989’s Kite, produced by ex-husband Lillywhite, sounds fresh even today, but sounds like the best late 80s album you forgot to buy.

Kirsty’s songs melded New Wave sounds and jangly guitar pop with some of the most clever, biting lyrics you’d be likely to find anywhere. (To a man who’s done her wrong, on the song Bad: I’ve been an awful woman all my life / A dreadful daughter and a hopeless wife / And I’ve had my eyes on that carving knife / Oh you’ve been lucky so far!)

Kite contains several Kirsty’s best songs, including Innocence, and Don’t Come The Cowboy With Me, Sonny Jim, and my favorite, Free World.

Kirsty never became a household name partly because that was never her goal. Her smart, incisive lyrics were often too cerebral to hit the mainstream hit parade, and although she was a stunningly beautiful woman, her image didn’t fit the pop tart mold that so often sells records.

In 2000, I rediscovered Kirsty’s earlier work (discovering Kite for the first time) due to a renaissance in Kirsty’s career. She’d long had an interest in world music, and in particular South American and Cuban music. She found a way to incorporate some of those sounds into her songs, and her album Tropical Brainstorm was a phenomenal project. It included the uptempo dance song In These Shoes? Here’s Kirsty singing about a married man who almost fooled her, on England 2, Colombia 0.

cocktails_fullsizeTropical Brainstorm was, as I said, a phenomenal album. It was also her last.

Kirsty took her sons to Cozumel for a holiday in December 2000. While they were scuba diving – in an area clearly set aside for swimmers, snorkelers and scuba divers – a large boat sped through the area, slammed into Kirsty and killed her instantly. (It should be noted that Kirsty was pushing her sons to safety as the boat sped towards her.)

That in and of itself is sad and tragic. But the story doesn’t end there. The boat in question was owned by a Mexican billionaire, Guillermo Gonzalez Nova, who owns several businesses (including a stake in the Mexican arm of Costco).

There’s been some inconsistencies in the story, and it appears that Gonzalez Nova or a member of his family was operating the boat and doing so at a high rate of speed. What the police were told was very different: they were told that an employee of Nova’s was driving the boat at a slow speed (one knot).

The employee was charged a fine of 1034 pesos for the accident. In US dollars, it’s approximately $90. I happen to have an interest in Kirsty because of her music and her artistry, but I have to say, even if she was a stranger, I’d be pretty pissed off that a human life – a daughter, a partner, a mother – was reduced to ninety dollars.

I’m encouraging everyone who’s read this story to check out two sites. One is Free World, the fan site for Kirsty’s work. The other, more important site to check out is Justice for Kirsty. Kirsty’s elderly mother, Jean MacColl, has worked diligently on getting the Mexican authorities to reopen and reexamine her daughter’s case. She’s written a book, Sun on the Water, about those efforts.

Despite the abrupt and sad end to Kirsty’s life, I hope you check out her music. It’s hard to describe, but it’s worth finding. Kirsty’s songs are all over the place – sad, happy, loving, angry – but all of them are full of life.

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