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Snapsongs: “Fifteen Minutes” by Kirsty MacColl

Thursday 31 January 2013 - Filed under Snapsongs

The first impression that comes to me is heat. Heat and the sound of a Diesel engine. This was the soundtrack of a late summer, a summer in the cusp of the 90s, an era I spent quite a bit of time driving around in a ’81 Diesel VW Rabbit. That particular model of automobile was solid, drove like a German car, and got me places, but had approximately 63 horsepower available to it, so air conditioning was pretty much out of the question. So I drove around with as many windows open as possible, listening to the clear but treble-rich sound of a $50 car stereo my father had jury-rigged into the dashboard. My uncle had donated a pair of decent-brand speakers to the cause, which I ingeniously wired with strategically-placed home speaker wire, so there was some bass coming from the back, but not much. Quite a bit of Zeppelin, Rush, Primus, AC/DC, Metallica and the Police went through that system. And, as I emerged from high school, other things as well.

Kirsty MacColl was a hit out of left field. She was a female singer/songwriter, of which genre I was not terribly impressed with. Of all those earnest late 80s voices like Tracy Chapman, Natalie Merchant and the Indigo Girls, the only one I had any time for was Suzanne Vega. MacColl was also connected to the Smiths and to Moressey, which I  lumped in with the Cure, Information Society, Erasure, and Depeche Mode as being whiny, twee, digital and automated. (Of course, any student of late 80s music would know how confused and unfair that grouping was, but I was 19.) Completely contradicting this particular pigeonholing, she also ventured into country and folk byways, which was perhaps even more anathema to my tastes at the time. Not that any of this was immediately apparent upon seeing the CD cover, but I definitely wasn’t feeling open and accepting to any of those musical styles.

I don’t remember the exact details, but I probably first heard the album Kite over at a friend’s cramped studio apartment near the University of Texas. This particular friend was always trying to broaden my horizons, and was probably the reason I knew that such bands as Erasure and the Cure existed. He put the CD in his 6-disc changer (he loved his CD changer, although it was one of those tight-tolerance magazine-style changers that would gouge a millimeter-deep canyon in any luckless disc that didn’t line up perfectly) and turned up his stereo (he also loved his stereo, I forget the exact brand, but he was even happier with his KLH speakers, which were actually pretty good). The first song was somewhat countrified, somewhat odd, somewhat dissonant. My first instinct was to immediately shut it out, but… the words were hilarious. This woman was pretty snarky. There wasn’t any humorless feminism or political correctness or subtle holier-than-thou smugness. There was a tongue-in-cheek lament for a degenerate boyfriend, a fast-paced examination of the present world state of affairs, the story of a working girl with kids in waltz time, a Kinks cover, a bad breakup song, and a fatalistic takedown of the fame machine. All in fifteen minutes!

And “Fifteen Minutes” was the song that did it for me. It starts off like a girl with a guitar and something to say: strumming guitar and woman’s voice. But her sardonic tone keeps it from being insipid. She’s basically in a pissy mood, which is not your typical trope for such a setup: T&A sells, man, and sometime it just gets me down. Perhaps using Warhol’s Axiom is cliche, but she doesn’t belabor it, and I would sumbit that the use of the word “bozo” elsewhere mitigates that. Ethereal vocal overdubs doppler around the mix, Spanish castenets emerge in the reverb, and a good solid bassline anchors everything. But the coda takes it to a whole new dimension. With a swirling clarinet whine, suddenly this singer/songwriter complaining about the fickleness of fame is swamped by an entire clownshow erupting around her. Her guitar keeps playing, but raucous brass, razzing trumpets and a thumping oom-pah beat drown out any more commentary she might have and continue through the fade-out. Glorious. It was nothing that I expected, but that no longer mattered. I purchased my own copy of the album in short order.

So, the scene stays in my head: negotiating the cloverleaves of the 35th Street exit on the Loop 1/MoPac expressway, the August heat beating down and softening my car’s already wrinkly headliner fabric. Stopping for the light at the bridge, drumming on the steering wheel in loose time with the beat. Maybe I didn’t know what the hell was going on in college or in my life, but there’s nothing a little snark can’t fix.

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2013-01-31  »  Edward Semblance