The end of 2023 saw the passing of Pogues founder Shane MacGowan, which came as a surprise to absolutely no one but set off a riotous blend of tears, jubilation, and, as befitting Shane, irreverence (hockey pucks, tea bags, and Finnegan’s Wake on the altar of St. Mary of the Rosary?). Since it was Christmastime, Kirsty MacColl, unfamiliar to most Americans, was also everywhere. She sang with Shane on his enduring classic, possibly the greatest but the most unlikely Christmas song ever, Fairy Tale of New York.
Elvis Costello was the one who suggested the band do a Christmas tune. The title is from a JP Donleavy book, and the dialogue of snipe and snark is evocative of Charles Bukowski. The song had taken its writers, MacGowan and Jem Finer, two years to compose, and when they finished, they didn’t have a female singer for the major part, the woman’s contentious duet with Shane.
Steve Lillywhite, U2’s producer and soon-to-be Pogues producer, had a suggestion: his wife, Kirsty MacColl. That weekend, in their home studio, he put down the tracks of her responses to Shane and brought it to the band the following Monday. They were gobsmacked when they heard her voice, delivery, and spirit; MacGowan immediately redid his part to match Kirsty.
In the video, you see her, a feisty redhead with all attitude and personality, and you hear her voice, a shimmering alto with soul to spare. Fairytale is the story of an Irish couple who emigrate to New York, fall in love with the city, and then fall on hard times as whisky and drugs take their toll. MacGowan credits Kirsty for
the power of their duet, “She knew exactly the right measure of viciousness and femininity and romance.” Great acting, great singing, and telling a sad story. It’s not exactly the stuff of Bing Crosby, but no matter; the song is now in the pantheon of Christmas anthems.
For many years, she was known as “the girl in Fairytale...” but Kirsty was a star singer and songwriter before she hooked up with the Pogues. She was a fantastic individual talent: Tracy Ullman had a hit with her song, “They Don’t Know,” and Kirsty had a hit with “There’s a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis”. However, her career was impacted by stage fright, leaving her unable to tour or promote her music. Fairytale changed all that – from 1987 to 1988 she toured with the Pogues, stage fright miraculously gone, and she continued touring until 2000.
She and Lillywhite divorced in 1994, and their two sons, Jamie and Louis, spent most of their time with Kirsty and her mother. In 2000, Kirsty, having spent 18 months both on the road and in Cuba studying her music, was exhausted. She had learned to scuba dive and wanted to introduce her sons, Jamie (15) and Louis (13), to the sport. They went to Cozumel, Mexico, with her partner, musician James Knight.
On their first day, the divemaster took them to an area designated for swimmers and divers – speed boats were forbidden, an edict always defied by the “Don” of Cozumel, multimillionaire Guillermo González Nova and his brother Carlos, even more prosperous and more powerful. The brothers and family were in their boat, the Percalito, speeding in the same area where Kirsty and her family were diving. The Percalito began heading in Kirsty’s direction while she and her family were still underwater. As soon as they emerged from the water, Kirsty and her son Jamie saw the whizzing and slicing propellers heading directly toward them. Thinking fast, she threw her son out of the way, but she was not fast enough to spare herself from a horrific but mercifully quick death.
As the press descended, conflicting reports of the tragedy emerged, as did dissembling from the González Nova family. Even though Kirsty’s mutilated body belied the González Nova brothers’ statement that they were traveling at one knot per hour, some witnesses claimed they saw the boat’s captain, Guillermo González Nova, at the helm. Somehow, suspicion fell on a deckhand, Juan Jose Cem Yam, who soon claimed he was at the controls. Was he the fall guy, taking the rap for someone– the boat’s captain, perhaps – to escape criminal charges? Cem Yam was sentenced to three years in prison for culpable homicide but walked free after paying a small fine.
MacColl’s family hired lawyers and investigators to launch the “Justice For Kirsty” campaign and push for a judicial review due to the lack of cooperation from the Mexican government. “Justice for Kirsty” received donations from the world-famous and extended to her many fans. The organization was suspended when González Nova died, and all the funds were given to her favorite charities, her mother saying, “Kirsty would have approved.”
Kirsty was only 41 when she died. It was Christmastime, 2000.♦