Do young people still read Doris Lessing? When I was a youth, The Golden Notebook was, after a generation or more as part of the underground canon — those books that are passed hand-to-hand with a friend’s reverent assurances that This will totally blow your mind — beginning to pass into the academic curriculum. And once those books land on the syllabus, they are often never read again. Not really read, anyway. Oh, the undergraduates still struggle through them out of a sense of duty, but they’re not found and absorbed as they once were. Certainly, at the time, The Golden Notebook was still much talked-about both as a vital text of second-wave feminism and as a great novel in its own right; Lessing uses the semi-autobiographical figure of Anna Wulf to express, in a distinctly female voice, nothing less than the discontents of the modern human condition.
When I finally got around to reading The Golden Notebook, I was taken with its craft, its control, its insight. Most of all, Lessing impresses with her ruthlessness. The book is unsparing in how it dissects the ways in which we damage each other while trying to create a finer world — how readily we will betray and sacrifice one another when a sufficiently lofty goal is dangled under our noses. It’s a novel of enormous power, even today; but if The Golden Notebook was not a blinding revelation to me in the way it examines the pitfalls and possibilities of love and art, and the traps of economics and activism, I cannot entirely chalk it up to the forty years of transformed social and sexual landscape separating me as a reader from Doris Lessing as a writer.
No, mostly I think it’s because, by the time I read The Golden Notebook, I had already heard and absorbed Kirsty MacColl’s album Kite.
It would be an exaggeration, I suppose, to say that I am a feminist because of Kirsty MacColl’s music. But the songwriting and performative voices of Kite made it impossible for me to not be a feminist, let’s say. The immediacy of it — the big, inviting voice, front and center, and the directness of the lyrics, pulled me in. I’d heard other women singer-songwriters before, of course; but this was something different. For all that she was writing about the vicissitudes of male/female relationships, Kirsty MacColl never presented herself as a mere extension or reflection of any man.
By the time of Kite’s release, MacColl had already made a couple of records that had established her as a pop classicist (e.g. the enduring girl-group pastiche “They Don’t Know”) and was much in-demand as a studio singer, cutting sides with the Smiths, Talking Heads, and the Wonder Stuff, among others. She was also married at the time to superstar producer Steve Lillywhite, who’d helped usher in the Big Music era of British pop through his work with U2, Big Country, Simple Minds, and Peter Gabriel. They were a post-punk power couple, and between the two of them commanded one hell of a Rolodex. But although many bigger stars would have clamored to work with her, MacColl and Lillywhite never allowed Kite to turn into a cameopalooza. Working largely with a house band of top-flight musicians — bassists Guy Pratt and Pino Palladino, drummer Mel Gaynor, guitarists Johnny Marr and Pete Glenister — they keep the focus squarely on the songs.
And it’s the songwriting that really shines here. The light, almost novelty-song quality of MacColl’s earlier work is backgrounded here. The lyrics are frequently funny (and endlessly quotable), but Kite is shot through with images of betrayal, frustration, and clinical depression, all set to catchy, brilliantly-arranged music.
As with the best work of Elvis Costello — perhaps MacColl’s closest peer as a songwriter — the portraits of relationships in varying stages of disintegration have a bracing sting of honesty. “Sod all your funny little ways,” she sings in “No Victims” — “They don’t make me laugh, these days.” It’s not just the careening guitars and Beach Boys-style stacked vocals that make the effect so exhilarating; there’s a thrill that comes in hearing a truth told, even if it’s a hard truth.
Even when the truths are hard, though, MacColl never makes them bitter. The angriest songs are still steeped in empathy: “It’s a shame, but it’s true / I’m starting to feel things like you do.” This gives even kiss-off songs like “What Do Pretty Girls Do?” and the scabrous “Innocence” a surprising emotional complexity — their subjects, so lacking in self-awareness, are as pitiable as they are monstrous. “I wouldn’t tell you if I didn’t care,” she sings.
The vignette “Mother’s Ruin” shows MacColl’s deft touch with character. A sketch of a divorcÃ©e in the midst of an awkward rebound attempt, it could easily slide into caricature. But MacColl, without sentiment, remains sympathetic, laying out the song’s boozy romantic disillusion in cutting detail (“He stays until there’s nothing left to say”), all wrapped up in wordplay (“mother’s ruin” is an old English slang term for gin). That same tone of regret-without-rancor informs a lovely cover of the Kinks’ “Days,” a Top 5 hit in the UK.
I have listened to this disc at least once a month since I first bought it, twenty years ago. There have been stretches, weeks long, when I have listened to it every day. It’s more than just the pop chops, or the vast emotional range, from the apocalyptic “Free World” to the tease of “Dancing In Limbo” to the somber “You and Me, Baby.” In the end, the thing that keeps bringing me back is quite simple: Kite is a record that has given me strength. I latched onto it in the same way that people latch onto works like The Golden Notebook when they’re struggling with themselves and their own place in the world. Partly it’s for the cold comfort of someone else’s prior miseries in the same areas, but mostly it’s because these works provide a moral center. MacColl, like Lessing, was a writer keenly interested in personal ethics. With all their kitchen sink frankness, their diary-of-a-mad-housewife blues and occasional giddy heights, her songs revolve around a moral still point summed up in the maxim of Delmore Schwartz by way of William Butler Yeats: “In dreams begin responsibilities.”
MacColl spells it out in so many words in “Tread Lightly.” It’s a devastating lyric — part confession, part manifesto — and I cannot resist quoting it at length:
Another time, another day
Another baby on the way
A dream boy for your nightmare nights
Who never shouts and never fights
Happy with your 2.2
What else is there for you to do
But turn and wet the baby’s head
And pray he will be happier than you and me
That’s how it’s meant to be …
And it goes on from there, relentless, defiant, merciless in its honesty. That’s the quality that Kite really shares with Doris Lessing’s work — the voice of someone staring down her own unhappiness, which is also your unhappiness, showing you the ways in which you can hurt yourself and others while trying to slake your own unquenchable need to save the world, serving it up to you with no illusions but with compassion, and inviting you to take courage in spite of it all. Kirsty MacColl did that with her songwriting, and she continued to write and record extensively until her tragic accidental death in late 2000; but she would never again do it quite so well as on Kite — never again delving quite so deep, nor soaring quite so high.