Songs That Changed My Life - Part Two of a New Series
I will go to my grave never understanding why Kirsty MacColl never became a multi-platinum superstar. Everyone I've ever played her records to has instantly fallen in love with her voice, a smoky mixture of romance, defeat and irony, with a dollop of sugary sweet syrup on top. Her songs were incredibly catchy, the type you hear the first thirty seconds or so and you can already sing along. And her lyrics...ah, the lyrics. World-weary, tired, yet optimistic, witty and uniformly brilliant. Take, for example, "autumngirlsoup", where Kirsty equates sex with, well, cooking:
Get me on the boil and reduce me
To a simmering wreck with a slow kiss
To the back of my neck
Carve up my heart on a very low flame
Separate my feelings then pour them down the drain
Close my eyes and sweeten me with lies
Pierce my skin with a few well chosen words
Now you can stuff me with whatever you've got handy
And on a cold grey day a cold grey man will do...
When people ask me, "Where have I heard her before?", all I have to say is, "Remember the part of the Pogues' 'Fairytale of New York' when the woman sings, 'You scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy faggot, Merry Christmas yer ass, I pray God it's our last?' Well, that's our Kirsty." She also wrote and sang background on "They Don't Know," a Top Ten hit for Tracey Ullman back in 1984. Yep. That Tracey. That's also Kirsty in the Talking Heads' "Nothing But Flowers" and Wonder Stuff's "Welcome to the Cheap Seats" videos. She got around a bit.
I had the extreme fortune, along with one of my very best friends, Forest, of seeing Kirsty perform live in Cleveland back in 1994. Our group of friends treasured her, ever since we first heard her singing background on the Smiths' "Ask," and later, Morrissey's "Interesting Drug" singles. Like I said, all it took was one listen and people were hooked. We learned Kirsty was actually touring the States for possibly the first time and we were ready.
So was Mother Nature.
The night of Kirsty's show, Cleveland was pounded by a particularly vicious lake effect snowstorm. Inch upon inch of snow fell upon the roads, starting around 5pm and it did not let up for the remainder of the evening. What was supposed to be a crew of 10 to 12 people carpooling together for the 40 minute drive to Cleveland from Elyria, Ohio, for the show was quickly reduced to me and Forest, the hardcores. Nothing was keeping us from Kirsty.
We arrived, 90 minutes later, at the Cleveland Agora Theatre, just in time for the opening act, some folkie guy named David Gray (wonder whatever happened to him?). As we walked into the theatre, we were stopped by a club worker who told us the show had been moved into the much smaller adjacent Agora Ballroom.
The Agora Ballroom was a tiny stage and held about 200 people. It was were local acts honed their craft. Not the fancy, elaborate stage worthy of our Kirsty. Forest and I exchanged worried glances, feeling something ominous in the air. Looking around, the Ballroom was very nearly empty. We grabbed a table near the front of the stage. That's right...a table. There were so few people there, they left the tables and chairs on the floor, feeling the crowd wouldn't be large enough to justify clearing the floor. When Kirsty hit the stage, Forest and I did a headcount.
Including us and the bar workers, there were 32 people.
32 people got to witness what had to rank amongst the most committed, heartfelt performances they'd ever seen. Completely unfazed by the sparse turnout, Kirsty and her band played an energetic, spot-on 90 minute set, covering just about every aspect of her career, from early Stiff singles, to her latest album at the time, "Titanic Days". At one point, Kirsty left the stage, mic in hand, to come to the floor, walk from table to table and sing to us, taking the piss out of cheesy bar torch singers. You had to be there. We were in rapture.
At one point, between songs, I couldn't help myself. I yelled out, "WE LOVE YOU, KIRSTY!" With expert comic timing that Bob Newhart could respect, Kirsty didn't react, waited a beat, then deadpanned in an Irish brogue:
"Yeh, that's whut they all say."
After the show, Kirsty and her band didn't run backstage. Rather, she asked that the house light come up, then she and the band simply walked off the stage and over to the bar where they gladly met, talked with and hugged every single person in attendance. She signed all my CD covers, writing a different message or joke on each. I have a picture of Kirsty, Forest and myself that I'll have to scan and post sometime. She was warm, friendly and most definitely, one of a kind.
Sadly, Kirsty was killed on December 18, 2000, while vacationing in Cozumel, Mexico. She was diving with her sons in an area reserved for swimmers when she was struck by a speedboat. I, like many others, felt like I lost a friend.
"Free World" was the first solo Kirsty song I ever heard. It remains a big favorite, a kinetic, hyper reading that matches the frantic, desperate lyrics perfectly. Listen and instantly fall in love. Guaranteed.
Download Kirsty MacColl - "Free World".