I first heard Kirsty MacColl on the late, great WHFS back in Washington. This was back when it was still a family-owned station and they played lots of great stuff you weren’t likely to hear elsewhere.

The two MacColl songs they played then were the singles “He’s on the Beach” and “A New England.” I loved them both. They had chiming guitars and strong pop hooks, with soaring vocals and snappy arrangements. Eventually I tracked down copies of the two singles at a used record store in Silver Spring, but I wanted more. I found a collection of her early stuff at Tower Records, but it wasn’t quite what I was looking for. It didn’t have the same poptastic arrangements as the two singles. And then Kite came out.

Kite (1989) remains one of my desert island discs. It’s as close to perfect as an album gets. Each song is a gem. Most of them are Kirsty’s own tunes, which create a portrait of a slightly acerbic exterior that hides a vulnerable, wounded heart within. On a few of the songs the vulnerability doesn’t even both to hide–it’s right there in the open. Kirsty could spit in your eye with the best of them on songs like “Innocence,” “No Victims,” and “15 Minutes,” but on a song like “Mother’s Ruin” she could break your heart. The production, by her then-husband Steve Lillywhite, is pop nirvana. Guitarist Johnny Marr (ex-Smiths) provides plenty of the chiming guitar I like, and Lillywhite multi-tracks the vocals until they became a Kirsty choir. That’s especially true on “Days,” her cover of the Kinks song. It starts somewhat quietly but builds in spectacular fashion as the song swells into a chorus of heavenly Kirstys. Fans of stripped-down production should look elsewhere but for me Kite is a rich and wonderful treat for the ears.

MacColl followed up Kite with more excellent albums–Electric Landlady (1991), Titanic Days (1993) , and the Latin-tinged Tropical Brainstorm (2000)–but in my opinion none of them were as good as Kite, although Electric Landlady came close. Kirsty also sang backup vocals for a variety of artists, including Talking Heads, the Smiths, the Wonder Stuff, and the Rolling Stones. She sang on one of my favorite Christmas songs of all time, the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York.” I still get chills when she comes in on that song, dueting with Shane McGowan and exchanging barb for barb. “I could have been someone,” McGowan proclaims. “So could anyone,” she retorts, her voice shining and cutting like a bright razor blade.

The reason I’m writing this today is because it’s the ninth anniversary of Kirsty MacColl’s death. She died on December 18, 2009, while on vacation with her children in Mexico. They had been scuba diving in an area off-limits to motorboats when a boat nonetheless came through. Kirsty managed to push one of her children out of the way before the boat struck and killed her. 

I was at work on the day I heard the news. I remember feeling a shock as though I had been hit in the gut. It was so sudden, so tragic, so unnecessary.

The boat belonged to a wealthy Mexican businesman. He said an employee of his had been driving. The employee served some jail time; the fat cat did not. After the accident Kirsty’s mother launched a campaign to reopen an enquiry, but I just learned today that she ended the fight two weeks ago once the Mexican government declared the case officially closed. You can find more about the case and her fight at www.justiceforkirsty.org.

I had one chance to see Kirsty MacColl play live. She appeared at a club in the Washington area–I think it was the Birchmere–and my wife and I had tickets. But on the day of the show my very young daughter came down with a strep throat, so we stayed home. A friend of a co-worker came all the way to our house in the suburbs to buy our tickets, taking the Metro and then trudging the rest of the way through a grim winter’s day. He later called me to say thanks and tell me it had been a great show. I regret missing it but I’m sure that Kirsty, who died trying to save her children, would have understood.

While walking today I played the four of her songs I had loaded on the iPod. I listened to “Walking Down Madison” from Electric Landlady, and then three songs I had recently purchased from iTunes, “A New England,” He’s on the Beach,” and “Please Go to Sleep.” The last song, the B side from “He’s on the Beach,” is really just extended version of the long, mostly instrumental passage that ends the extended version of the A-side. The addition of a sad and haunting violin passage behind Kirsty’s multi-tracked non-verbal vocals makes it a melancholy piece of music. It was the perfect thing to listen to on this sad anniversary.

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