Friday, 30 October 2015

Franziska zu Reventlow

Her dates are exactly those of Bismarck’s Reich, and her life was one long protest against it. Countess Franziska (‘Fanny’) zu Reventlow was born in Husum in northern Germany in 1871 and died in Locarno in 1918. Born into a conservative and aristocratic family – her sister became a nun and two of her brothers were members of the German Parliament – she waged a fierce struggle against her parents throughout her adolescence. The first intellectual scene of this rebellion was her secret visits to the Lübeck Ibsen Club, where she encountered free thinkers who propounded artistic and sexual liberation. On her twenty-first birthday she finally ran away from home and her strange quest for self-fulfilment began in earnest. She danced at Carnival in a Pierrot costume. She paid house calls, whip in hand, as a dominatrix. She took acting lessons and played soubrette parts; more strikingly, she appeared as a rope dancer at south German country fairs. All the time she dreamed of a circus life, envying Frank Wedekind his attachment to the Herzog Circus.

After moving to Munich, then artistic capital of Germany, she tried to become a painter, but in fact supported herself by writing, first translations from the French, then satirical sketches, and finally novels. A brief marriage to a Hamburg assessor ended in divorce – her outrageous behaviour, he said, was ruining his career and good name – and disinheritance by her family. The birth in 1897 of her illegitimate son Rolf (she kept his father’s identity secret, saying she had given herself the child) caused chronic gynaecological problems but did not slow her erotic or literary schedule. Determined to save him from the German schools system, she educated him at home.

For the next fifteen years she was a central figure in Schwabing, then as now Munich’s bohemian quarter, and acted out the ideas which were common currency in its cafes – defiance of bourgeois convention and promotion of sexual freedom. In particular, she embodied the newly fashionable cult of Mutterrecht, the belief that there had been an older and better civilisation based on women’s rights, women’s religion and women-centred families. Her lovers were many: though constantly broke, she always managed to get rich men to pay her way to such places as Constantinople and Corfu. Her circle of acquaintance was huge: in addition to Wedekind (whose 1912 play Franziska is loosely based on her career), it included Rainer Maria Rilke (‘every morning a poem in my letterbox’, she noted with pleasure) and Max Weber (through whose intercession she contrived to have her son exempted from military service).

In 1906, at the home of Otto Gross the maverick psychoanalyst, she met Frieda Weekley, the later Frieda Lawrence, who thought she ‘had the face of a very young Madonna’. Reventlow is thus one of the conduits by which the philosophy of Schwabing penetrates English literature: DH Lawrence portrays her in Mr Noon. When she left Schwabing for the artists’ colony of Ascona in 1910, it was to enter into a farcical marriage for money with a Russian baron – an erstwhile pirate, so he claimed – whose family would only release his inheritance on the condition that he married an aristocrat. No sooner had the newly-weds divided their spoils than they lost it all in a bank collapse. She died as she had so often lived – penniless.

Reventlow was not a political feminist. Distancing herself from the women’s movement in an essay of 1899 (‘Viragines or Hetaerae’), she defined herself as a ‘hetaera’ (roughly speaking, a ‘free woman’). She wanted women to have control of their bodies, which she had fought for in her own life. Financial independence interested her less. But in her writings, as in her life, she experimented with alternative ways of life both within and outside the patriarchal society of the Wilhelmine era.

None of her work is available in English. Perhaps it should be? Candidates for translation include the clearly autobiographical novel Ellen Olestjerne, the anarchic comic fiction The Money Complex (recently filmed by Spanish director Juan Rodrigáñez) and the set of ‘amouresques’ From Paul to Pedro, as well as the wide-ranging Letters and Diaries

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Steve Logan

Deliverance (MOONDRAGON, 2015, CD)

Steve Logan, a Welsh singer-songwriter long resident in England, may have lost the accent but not the power to project. Deliverance is his follow-up to last year’s Signs and Wonders. The debut release was a pared-down, all-acoustic set, enriched by support from Kimberley Rew (ex-Katrina and the Waves). On this new album he broadens the sonic palate, adding a full rhythm section and switching between acoustic and electric guitar with a dab of harmonica, much like his avowed hero Neil Young.

Logan once fronted a tribute band, Free Again, and you hear Paul Rodgers in his vocal style. As a songwriter, his tastes are more Laurel Canyon – clear from the outset on the attractive opening track, ‘Deliverance’. But Logan’s his own man, a man audibly at ease with himself. Moments of tenderness, often directed at his “wife and muse” (‘Just The Way Your Heart Beats’), bump up against hard-rocking numbers (‘Didn’t Even Listen To Myself’). Active as a poet for the page as well as a songsmith, he turns in a distinctive lyric, whatever the medium.

Welcome as they are, one or two songs outstay their welcome, clocking in at over five minutes. But that’s nothing that can’t be fixed.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Nick Drake - footnotes


Jason Creed
ISBN 978-1-84938-658-6
Softcover. 230 pages

When Nick Drake died in 1974 at the age of 26, he left three exquisitely crafted albums and a host of questions. So many questions. How to interpret that death: suicide or an accidental overdose? Just what sort of live performer was he: charismatic or shambolic? What of his love life?

In the late 1990s, Drake-enthusiast Jason Creed published an important fanzine, Pink Moon, which explored these and other questions. Now, gathered between covers here are reprinted contributions, together with new material. In transcribed interviews or personal memoirs we hear from producer Joe Boyd, arranger Robert Kirby, friends Iain Cameron and Robin Frederick, Island press officer David Sandison, not to mention his sister and parents. An excellent piece by the late Scott Appel unpacks his guitar tunings for the specialist reader. There are chapters on live performances, rare recordings, TV documentaries, and reprints of original album reviews. (Pity the NME reviewer in 1969 who compared Drake unfavourably to Peter Sarstedt!) Also included is Jerry Gilbert’s heroic write-up of the only interview the monosyllabic Drake ever gave.

It’s good stuff, handsomely bound and presented. If I have a reservation, it is that there’s potential for an even better book inside here: a comprehensive source-book, a book that would be fully annotated, preferably with an index. As an editor, Creed is rather too hands-off, with the result that errors and conflicts of evidence are allowed to stand. Using the original Pink Moon as a primary source may be a constraint. Speculations dating back to 1997 by a third-year undergraduate about the clinical nature of Drake’s depression might be fine in a fanzine or discussion forum but sit ill alongside the memories of those who actually knew the man.

Reservations aside, this is an indispensable resource for every Drake fan.

First published in R2 (Rock’n’Reel) May/June 2011


Grantchester Meadows

Last year (2014) marked the fortieth anniversary of Nick Drake’s death. It didn’t go unrecognised, of course. Uncut magazine carried a piece by John Robinson and interviews with the ‘usual suspects’. For a while I was in discussion with an editor about writing something myself. Searching for a ‘new angle’, I even did some field work by visiting Carlyle Road in Cambridge. This is a row of Victorian terraces where the undergraduate Drake found lodgings after moving out of college for his second, and as it turned out, final year at the university. According to biographer Trevor Dann, he soon fell out with his stiff-necked landlady and relocated round the corner to 65 Chesterton Road. It’s just a short hop, I realised, from there to The Boathouse pub where modern-day troubadours are to be heard plying their trade every Wednesday evening. People say ‘River Man’ was conceived around here. I searched in vain for the genius loci. Betty, I decided, was more likely to encounter the River Man in Grantchester Meadows, later commemorated in song by Pink Floyd, amid the white cow parsley and the plash of oars wafting up from the Cam. But I hadn’t the faintest idea whether Drake ever strayed this far out of town.

In fact, after thrashing around for a while, I had to admit I had nothing new to say. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”: Wittgenstein was right about that. Actually – if we’re being philosophically precise in use of language – it’s not true to say I had nothing. I had some small footnotes to offer to the Drake industry. And even footnotes to the footnotes. Since they can’t be inflated to bulk out another unnecessary article, I offer them here instead.

That breakthrough gig
In December 1967 our man was on the bill at the Roundhouse in London. The event was ‘Circus Alpha Centauri’, one of a series of benefits in aid of underprivileged children, compered on the night of Saturday 23rd by Jimi Hendrix (dressed as Father Christmas, according to legend).* No one seems quite sure how Drake landed the gig, which proved so decisive for his career, but I have a theory. At the bottom of the original flyer I notice the production assistants listed as “Victoria and Louisa Ormsby-Gore”. Drake, we know, hung out with the Ormsby-Gores, a Chelsea set of socialites and debutantes he had met in his gap year.** Fairport Convention were also on the bill and, at some point in the evening, Fairport’s Ashley Hutchings spotted Drake. “I thought he was terrific”, the bassist told Uncut, “the guitar-playing, the songs. People would later say he had no stage presence but what partly drew me was that aura.” Hutchings engineered an introduction to producer Joe Boyd. Well, you know the rest.

But does anyone really remember his live performances?
As a teenager, Ian Anderson, now editor of fRoots magazine, came across him at Les Cousins, the Soho folk venue: “It would be very easy to not remember seeing Nick Drake,” he told me. “I saw him do floor spots on Cousins all-nighters and most people fell asleep. Whatever you think of his records, he really was a dreadfully dull live performer with absolutely nothing memorable about him at all, other than not being very good. I'm sure I was only awake because I was either MC-ing or waiting to play!”

He was so deep!
Drake-heads get very excited by the so-called ‘Far Leys monologue’. It’s certainly a document of interest as being the only extended record of his speaking voice, a sort of audio letter to we-know-not-whom taped in the summer of 1967 after his sojourn in Aix-en-Provence. Returning drunk from a party in the small hours, he switched on the family tape recorder and rambled. Forty years later, the languid public-school accent defeats some of his unintended listeners.*** For example, in her book about Pink Moon, Drake's final album, US critic Amanda Petrusisch turns a platitude into a Zen insight. She has him say: “I think there’s something extraordinarily nice about seeing the doorknob before one goes to bed…” What he actually says is: “I think there’s something extraordinarily nice about seeing the dawn up before one goes to bed…” Indeed, anyone unaccustomed to self-deprecating irony and the studied evasiveness of the buttoned-up Englishman is liable to hear profundity where there is none; or none on the surface, anyway, where self-revelation is nowadays expected to lie.

There’s a line in the ‘monologue’ that always stuck in my mind because it invites earnest over-interpretation of this sort. It’s where he says, in mock-serious tones: “One forgets so easily the lies, the truth and the pain”. It felt like a quotation, but I couldn't place it. Then I happened to reread ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’:

Say, is there Beauty yet to find?
And Certainty? and Quiet kind?
Deep meadows yet, for to forget
The lies, and truths, and pain? . . . oh! yet
Stands the Church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?

Rupert Brooke’s evocation of Cambridgeshire village life was a staple of school poetry anthologies and would have had particular resonance for someone about to read English Literature at Cambridge. Big abstractions are acceptable to the pragmatic Anglo-Saxon mind if they’re safely enclosed between quotation marks. As Patrick Humphries observes in his biography of Drake, there are similarities between Drake and Brooke, two golden boys born generations apart who died young. Both were looking for a place of refuge from the risks of saying too much: Drake found it in songwriting. In May 1904 the schoolboy Brooke wrote to his cousin:

When I say what I mean, people tell me ‘O Rupert, what delightful nonsense you talk!’ and when I venture on the humorous, I am taken seriously and very promptly and thoroughly squashed for ‘saying such strange things’.

Drake, according to his friend Beverley Martyn, “would occasionally say something witty, but very rarely”. I suspect there is a serio-comic timbre in Drake if we’re attuned to hear it.

*This is the advertised date for Fairport’s appearance at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm. However, other sources list the band as playing at Middle Earth (in Covent Garden) on that night. Conversely, Drake’s biographers agree that headlining on the night Drake appeared were Country Joe & The Fish. The ‘stop press’ on the flyer announces them for Thursday 21st.

**Strictly speaking, not a ‘gap year’ as is conventional nowadays, but a gap nine months. In those days, Oxbridge candidates generally stayed on for an extra term in the Sixth Form to take the entrance exams for Oxford or Cambridge. If successful, they would “go up” the following October. (Drake, having left school in summer 1966, took the Cambridge exam at a crammer in Birmingham.) For the overlap between ‘Alpha Centauri’ and the ‘Chelsea set’, see this interview with Abdalhaqq Bewley.

 ***It’s striking how his English accent rings through, even when covering American material. On ‘Cocaine Blues’, one of the early home demos, he gives the title word a curious pronunciation. It sounds more like ‘cockaigne’, the land of plenty in medieval myth.

Monday, 7 September 2015

Naomi Bedford

“Because I’m quite eclectic musically, I needed some kind of theme to keep me in check.” Naomi Bedford is talking about her new album A History Of Insolence and its subtitle ‘Songs Of Freedom, Dissent And Strife’. It’s the second in a projected trilogy which began in 2011 with Tales From The Weeping Willow: Songs Of Murder, Death And Sorrow. “I’m hoping this one is a bit more uplifting than the last – it does start with ‘freedom’!” As before, she mixes traditional songs with new compositions, English material with Americana. Certainly, the eclecticism shines through in a novel mash-up of ‘Gypsy Davy’, in which Naomi ensures a happy ending for the high-born lady who beds a commoner. “In every version I’ve ever heard, the woman always seems to get her come-uppance. But in the Woody Guthrie version she keeps her baby, she stays with the gypsy. Not only that – the gypsy ends up being a musician, which I thought was kind of cool!”

The Brighton-based singer had a hit a few years back with the band Orbital, which led in turn to a couple more ‘techno’ experiments. But this wasn’t the real Naomi. Her earliest musical loves were the ballads she learned from her mother. “I always loved the drama of those big, long storytelling songs. And I was particularly drawn to the more macabre ones, the juicy murder ones.” Afraid of being pigeon-holed as a ‘dance’ singer, she embarked on a series of albums which clearly mark her path back to the roots music she grew up with. Financing them was tough, though. “I’m just a single mum working as an administrator on really low pay. I’m not a full-time musician,” she explains. On the last one, friends helped out for free. This time, there was a grant from Arts Council England. “It costs so much to do it, and yet making money from music just seems like an absolute impossibility. It’s so difficult to get your foot in the gigging scene. But if you can’t help yourself, if you have to create and write and sing, then you’re going to do it anyway.”

She’s found sympathetic collaborators in Paul Simmonds and Justin Currie, members of two of her favourite bands. “When I was a teenager, I was a major Men They Couldn’t Hang fan. I had posters of Paul on my wall. And posters of Del Amitri – Justin Currie. And now I’ve been working with them on the last two albums. It’s like my dream come true!”

Simmonds’s contribution as songwriter is prominent on the new album. The standout track is ‘Junktown’, a scabrous political commentary. Simmonds hesitantly auditioned this “funny little talking blues song” for Naomi in her kitchen, convinced that no one else would ever want to hear it. Her reaction was emphatic: “No way! That’s going on the album! I absolutely fell in love with it, especially the line ‘Dads go dogging in the pale full moon’. As much as it’s a hard-hitting anger song, it’s also quite funny.”

Valuable celebrity endorsement has come from Shirley Collins: “She’s been really supportive.” Whenever Naomi plays on Shirley’s home turf in Lewes, Shirley is sure to come along, and Naomi had the distinction of being one of five artists personally invited to sing at Shirley’s birthday party last year. 

The final album of the trilogy will be about ‘Love, Passion and Devotion’. Naomi was planning to make that one first, but then “we just thought with the state of the nation at the moment – so much going on in the world – it didn’t seem quite right to be doing the Love album now.” Here’s hoping the right time isn’t far off.

First published in R2 (Rock’n’Reel)

Jackson C Frank

Jim Abbott
ISBN 978-0-9909164-0-6 Softcover. 255pp. 

“His scarred body housed a beautiful soul” – so writes Jim Abbott at the start of this, the first-ever biography of US singer-songwriter Jackson C Frank, and he challenges you to agree with him. Frank’s story is challenging enough in itself. The victim of a school fire in boyhood, he suffered horrific burns and carried the scars, physical and mental, for the rest of his life. In later years he battled paranoid schizophrenia and partial blindness, alternating homelessness and periods in institutional care. But, in between, he had one glorious moment. Using the insurance pay-out from the fire, he travelled to England. There, with a batch of newly composed songs (among them the classic ‘Blues Run The Game’) and Paul Simon as producer, he made a self-titled album that influenced everyone who heard it. Hanging out with Al Stewart, Bert Jansch and John Renbourn, dating Sandy Denny, the man was at the epicentre of the London folk scene of the mid-1960s. 

Later, ever a prophet without honour in his own country, Frank returned to the States. When he hit rock bottom in the 1990s, Abbott befriended him, became his legal guardian, and even encouraged him to record again.  So the book is both biography and memoir. It brings out, often in poignant detail, how creativity and destructiveness are two sides of the same coin. Anecdotes of how he sabotaged his chances of reconciliation with his only surviving child, descriptions of his bloated body in later life, the “translucent skin” stretched over “layers of subcutaneous fat, yellow and rippled” – these make for painful reading.

Abbott pitches a strong case for the later recordings, particularly ‘Marlene’, an elegy for a girlfriend who perished in the school fire. But, for my money, Frank never again matched the perfection of his 1965 debut. A flawed, if not a “beautiful”, soul, he has found his ideal biographer.

First published in R2 (Rock’n’Reel)

Tuesday, 28 July 2015


 Lydia Leonard as Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf as Virginia Woolf

The best thing I’ve read on ‘Bloomsbury’ is the little volume with that title by Quentin Bell, who was both Virginia Woolf’s nephew and her biographer. He represents this privileged faction – the Woolfs, the Bells, the Stracheys, the Keyneses – as engaged in a short-lived social and intellectual experiment. In their effort to “live a life of rational and pacific freedom, to sacrifice the heroic virtues in order to avoid the heroic vices, Bloomsbury was attempting something which, to the next generation, seemed unthinkable.” During the First World War, “it was still possible for an intelligent man or woman to be neutral”. With the advent of Fascism, he argues, Bloomsbury was confronted with a quarrel in which “neutrality was impossible”. The surviving Bloomsberries had no answers.

Whether Life in Squares, the BBC’s racy new dramatisation of the Bloomsbury set, will put such subtleties on screen or confine itself to the sexual shenanigans among these free spirits remains to be seen. By chance, the first episode, which aired last night, reminded me of one of my own early attempts to break into the literary world. This would be about 1983. Christopher Howse, a college contemporary, even then sporting a Shavian beard, half-hunter watch in his waistcoat, had landed a job at the Catholic Herald – Books Editor, I think, or Literary Editor – and offered me reviewing work on the paper. I was not and am not of the Pope’s party, but my agnosticism seemed to be no barrier. As far as I remember, only two books ever came my way. One was Andrina, a volume of short stories by the Orcadian writer George Mackay Brown. The other was a volume of Virginia Woolf’s Letters, newly available in paperback. The first review was published, but only after the newspaper’s editor stumbled across it when he was clearing out Christopher’s desk following the latter’s career-enhancing departure to the Daily Telegraph. The second languished in his bottom drawer unused. I’ve just rescued it from my bottom drawer. It doesn’t seem bad… 

The Flight of the Mind: The Letters of Virginia Woolf. Volume I: 1888-1912 (Chatto & Windus)

“Do you think all the lower classes are naturally idiotic?” writes the 26-year-old Virginia Stephen to Saxon Sydney-Turner, betraying the prejudices of her age and class. The appearance in paperback of the Virginia Woolf Letters is a major publishing event, but I suspect that this first volume of Nigel Nicolson’s edition will provide more nourishment for the biographer than the littérateur. Indeed, it takes us only as far as the publication of her first novel, The Voyage Out. Virginia was a tireless correspondent, above all to her sister Vanessa, and the 638 letters printed here, while they show the informal shaping of that familiar prose style, so hectic yet thoughtful, make better evidence for the breathless vitality of a young woman coming of age – not yet a novelist. “Nessa and I have been arguing the ethics of suicide all the morning, as we are alone, and what is an immoral act,” she writes prophetically in April 1905. But these young ladies were not often alone. Their lives were fashionably filled with dinner parties and romancing; by letter 600 Virginia is equivocating over Leonard’s marriage proposal, asking only “that you should leave me free, and that I should be honest.” The complete Letters, with their authoritative editor’s introductions and excellent footnoting of personalities and events, are more than the sum of their parts, but this first part makes an adequate hors d’oeuvre.   

Friday, 20 February 2015

Kirsty MacColl remembered

When Kirsty MacColl was killed in a speedboat accident off the Mexican coast in December 2000 it was a tragedy not just for the family and friends she left behind but for the wider world as well. At a stroke, we’d lost one of the most original voices in British music of the last thirty years, one who has still not received her due recognition.

She was born in Croydon, South London, in 1959. Croydon is the kind of place you want to get out of – I should know, I went to school there – and Kirsty had the talent to transcend her origins. Interested in everything but subject to severe asthma as a child, she found refuge in music. As the third child of revered but doctrinaire folk singer Ewan MacColl, music was in her blood. However, the relationship with her father was not easy: he left her mother, dance teacher Jean Newlove, when Kirsty was very small to set up home with fellow folkie Peggy Seeger and she only saw him at weekends. MacColl père was famously hostile to pop music, which he dismissed as commercially driven and politically apathetic. For the young Kirsty, pop was an act of rebellion against what she called the “beard-and-sandals brigade”; it was the music of her own generation. But, more than that, for someone blessed with wide musical knowledge, who as a teenager had been captivated by Bach, it was an act of choice. As she told journalist Karen O’Brien, “there are things about pop music that are good… it’s not preaching, it’s uplifting”. Uplift is what she found as a youngster in Neil Young, in 60s girl-groups like The Shangri-Las, in the observational songwriting of Ray Davies and in the multilayered harmonies of Brian Wilson.

Her early career in music was stop-go. Signed to Stiff Records, she released a single, ‘They Don’t Know’, a precocious teen ballad of misunderstood love that only impacted when re-recorded by Tracey Ullman a few years later. She moved to Polydor, where another single, ‘There’s A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis’, set the template for the humorous rockabilly that she’s still best remembered for. A cover of Billy Bragg’s ‘A New England’ brought Top Ten success, and her 1987 duet with Shane MacGowan on the Pogues’ ‘Fairytale Of New York’ has been on Christmas playlists ever since. Yet, despite these highs, record companies would not invest in her for the long term. They didn’t know where to place her or how to package her. She was too damned original.  Later she signed to Virgin, only to be dumped once again when they were bought out by EMI. Between contracts she worked extensively as a backing vocalist for, amongst others, Talking Heads and The Smiths, but it was live touring with The Pogues in the late 80s which finally conquered her stage fright and seems to have given her the confidence to raise her game. By now she had perfected a sound. Multitracking her own vocals, Beach Boys-style, she found she could create a whole girl-group in the studio, a chorus of Kirstys who hadn’t been cloned by some Svengali but were emanations of herself; luscious harmonies, poured over the “jangly guitars” that she also loved, would combine with catchy vocal lines to produce infectious pop, raised above the norm by the sharp, intelligent lyrics that she toiled over so hard and delivered in a deadpan, recognisably English voice. 

Although her early work, with its blend of pub rock, synths and R’n’B, was hugely enjoyable, it didn’t fully prepare us for that leap forward she took in the late 80s. Frequently a victim of ‘writer’s block’, she had found a way out through joint authorship. Although she insisted on a 50-50 split on royalties, the typical Kirsty collaboration, it seems, was for her co-writer to suggest a chord progression or send her a backing track, over which she then wrote melody and lyrics. On a series of albums beginning with Kite (1989) she widened and deepened her craft and distanced herself from digital sampling in favour of real instruments: “I never want to do anything else with a Fairlight ever again,” she announced. “It drives me mad, you can’t talk to it – it’s got no brain.” As before, the music was life-affirming and melodic, the lyrics witty and down-to-earth, but the stylistic range was broader, the targets more diverse. Thatcherism came in for a drubbing in ‘Free World’. Celebrity culture was in her sights in ‘Fifteen Minutes’. On the successor album, Electric Landlady (1991), the plight of New York’s homeless inspired a collaboration with Johnny Marr, ‘Walking Down Madison’, which also proved a breakthrough single for her in the States. Yet, alongside the uptempo rap of ‘Madison’, the same album contained ‘We’ll Never Pass This Way Again’, as tender and nostalgic a love song as anyone has written in a generation.

Titanic Days (1994), made at a time when her ten-year marriage to producer Steve Lillywhite was on the rocks, is always referred to as her “divorce record”. Certainly it introduces a level of verbal menace (notably on ‘Can’t Stop Killing You’) without precedent in her work. Yet, ever again, the mood is varied – with the gentle lyricism of ‘Soho Square’ (a song that has inspired her fans to dedicate a bench in London’s Soho Square to her memory) rubbing up against the knockabout farce of ‘Big Boy On A Saturday Night’. 

As a girl in Croydon she’d already come to the conclusion that “anybody who spoke Spanish was having a better time than I was.” In the late 90s, increasingly fascinated by Latin America, the people and the music, she made numerous trips to Cuba and Brazil, resulting in what proved to be her final album, Tropical Brainstorm (2000). Seen by many as her finest achievement, it was, in her words, an “Anglo-Latin hybrid pop record”. Her life was back on track and she celebrated with a joyous album combining all her best qualities: feistiness (‘Us Amazonians’), off-the-wall humour (‘In These Shoes?’), resilience in the face of man trouble (‘England 2 Colombia 0’) and a wistfulness that seemed to be the flip side of her exuberance (‘Wrong Again’).

I value her songs for many things, not least for their surging, anthemic choruses. You’d have to be cloth-eared not to want to join in when she lets rip in numbers like ‘Innocence’ or ‘My Affair’. It’s the ultimate in drive-time music. As James Knight, the musician with whom she found contentment in her final months, recalled, “to Kirsty driving was really just singing with a steering wheel in front of you”. Always suggested by experience or rooted in observation – she was a champion people-watcher – the songs unfold like short stories, or films. In the best of them she imagines other lives or other personae for herself – characters like ‘Celestine’, the saucy alter ego who steals up on her in a delicious bossa nova: ‘She’s just a wild and wicked slut / And she lives inside my head and stops me sleeping’.

Friends remember her as liking the company of men more than women, a “man’s woman”, not a “girly girl”. Certainly the songwriters she was known to admire, and the writers she worked with, were all men. Speaking to Tracey MacLeod in 1994, she confessed: “I’m not a big fan of the more introspective – or impressionistic, I should say – female singer-songwriter, with grand piano and lots of trailing veils.” But in other interviews, when probed on what had first motivated her to write, she revealed her need to take possession of the female voice. Listening to the radio as she grew up, she’d hear women singing songs which were obviously written by a man who was putting his words into the woman’s mouth – ‘Oooh baby, I can’t live without you!’ was the gist. “So where are all these pathetic women who can’t live without their man?” Kirsty demanded to know. “I don’t know any!” Her songs constantly prick the balloon of male pomposity, whether in the form of the guy in the chip shop whose claim to be Elvis is an early lesson in mendacious bragging, or the ‘serial liar’ of ‘England 2 Colombia 0’ who conceals his marital status from the newly divorced Kirsty: ‘OK I didn’t mention my kids, I thought I’d wait a bit,’ she sings, ‘But I am free and single and he’s a lying git.’

Most pop and rock artists do their best work in their twenties – that is, if they actually make it past 29 without fatality. Kirsty was an exception to this, as to so many, rules: she really hit her stride in her thirties. She was in it for the long haul, content to wait until the public caught up with her. As she reflected in 1993, “there aren’t that many 34-year-old pop singers who aren’t glamour-pusses! I feel to a certain extent I’m on this personal crusade.” Which makes it all the more frustrating that her career was cut off in its prime. Her loss a decade ago reminds us that there’s a lamentable void on the distaff side. What do we have now? The postmodern Barbie doll that is Katy Perry and a female drag queen calling herself Lady Gaga. As Kirsty told Nigel Williamson prophetically in 2000, “there’s a lot of serious crap around and there’s a lot of people who want to be celebrities and take themselves far too seriously.” She once described Chrissie Hynde as “the first and last rock icon for women”. She was being too modest.

First published in R2 (Rock’n’Reel) November/December 2010