A Slow Decline to Lasting Silence


second_chapterDanny Kirwan: Second Chapter (Warner, UK)

When Danny Kirwan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998, he was absent from the proceedings in New York. In terms of his contribution to popular music, this is a near-perfect act of symbolism. He was living a mundane routine of homelessness, a regular at a hostel for alcoholics in Soho (London), his semi-permanent address since his life had taken a downwards turn at the end of the Seventies.

Peter Green wasn't the sole casualty of Fleetwood Mac's marathon history, merely the most notable. Beyond drinking, Kirwan had also abused his subtle sensitive nature with the freely available chemicals of the time. Although Green has managed a return to the limelight after years of mental health problems, Kirwan is unlikely to be capable of even the most assisted of late curtain calls. He hasn't entered a recording studio for more than three decades, and his silence has long since dwarfed his years of utterance. He wrote many exquisite songs whilst in Fleetwood Mac, and his debut solo release from 1975, Second Chapter, is a superbly crafted piece of songwriting -- akin to McCartney at his best with pastoral moments.

Kirwan, never a natural performer, had been unceremoniously but understandably fired from Fleetwood Mac during a tour of the States. After a row with Bob Welch over guitar tunings, he'd flown into a terrible rage. By then a heavy drinker (he drank to calm his stage nerves), Kirwan began bashing his head against a wall, and he smashed his guitar, a vintage Les Paul Black Beauty. Refusing to join the band on stage, he heckled them throughout the gig. It was the end of his tenure with the band.

He and Jeremy Spencer had steered the band into more radio-friendly and commercial waters, but were to reap none of the attendant success resulting from their efforts. Spencer decamped to the Children of God cult, whilst Kirwan returned to London and a protracted period of uncertainty. His songs on albums including Kiln House, Bare Trees, and the astonishingly beautiful Future Games display his uncanny ear for haunting melodies and catchy pop. All these albums were million sellers in the U.S., although the change in styles meant they sold poorly in Britain.

Daniel David Kirwan was born in Brixton London on 13th May 1950. He was "discovered" by Peter Green, whose efforts to secure Kirwan's band Boiler House a deal with Blue Horizon came to nothing due to the reluctance of the other members to turn professional. He was eventually invited to join Fleetwood Mac. He was only eighteen. Mike Vernon recalls, "Danny had a guitar style that wasn't like anyone else I'd heard in England. It reminded me of Lowell Fulson. There was a certain vibrato to the finger work that was quite unusual. And he had a really nice melodious voice." It was later revealed that Kirwan was so serious about his work that he'd sometimes cry whilst playing. Green's affectionate nickname for him was "Ragtime Cowboy Joe."

Second Chapter was Kirwan's return to form after his sad exit from Fleetwood Mac. It boded well and features a wide variety of styles. That the opening cut, "Ram Jam City," failed to chart is bedeviling. An irritatingly infectious slice of country rock, it ought to have sold. DJM thought as much by issuing it twice, but to no avail.

"Odds and Ends" is a delight. a piece of Beatles-esque whimsy, more McCartney than Lennon, about a girl who runs an eclectic shop:

Selling books and old things
picture frames and gold rings
anything at all you can find.

The only problem is that she is never there. Affectionate and charming, it displays a deft lightness of touch. On "Hot Summer's Day," Kirwan hits his specialist forte. Melodic, pastoral pop is rarely delivered from finer hands. Enchanting and ethereal, it comes across like Al Stewart in collaboration with Nick Drake. Kirwan even manages to deliver the reggae-tinged "Mary Jane" without irking the proceedings, whilst "Ship a Dee Doo" revisits the divinely retro feel he and Spencer so effortlessly explored on Kiln House. Within "Love Can Always Bring You Happiness" there resides an element of "Albatross" with a jaunty pop lilt.

The title track, a poetic reflection on former loves, possesses a slightly jazzy edge, beautifully underscored by sumptuous strings. It failed to make much impact as a single, but as a song it still has a superlative quality, a delicious slice of classy, summery pop. "Lovely Days" remains one of the album's true gems with Kirwan at his elemental, ethereal best. Exquisitely arranged, picked strings glide around an elegant guitar motif. It wouldn't be out of place on a Nick Drake session.

"Falling in Love with You" returns to his astutely crafted pop; memorable and countrified, it skips along at a confident pace, whilst "Silver Streams" returns Kirwan to his melodic, haunting strengths. An upliftingly pure shower in sunshine song, it has a baroquely psychedelic air and is a minor masterpiece. "Best Girl in the World" is delightful, a song that would have more than sufficed in the Buckingham-Nicks era, as would "Cascades."

Kirwan continued to steer shy of live work, and therefore proved difficult to sell, despite the interest in him due to his success with Fleetwood Mac. He was aided and abetted by members of Chicken Shack, but remained a fragile entity.

Kirwan followed Second Chapter with the rather patchy Saturday Night in San Juan, but his final effort, Hello There Big Boy!, brings little of merit, despite the involvement of Dana Gillespie and fellow ex-Mac Bob Weston. On the sleeve Kirwan looks disturbed, a reluctant participant in his own project. Weston remembers him as "barricaded in a self-made womb of studio battle boards much of the time." Echoes of Nick Drake's Pink Moon oddness which he recorded with his back to those involved. A few years later Kirwan was a homeless alcoholic on the streets of his native London.

His story is far from unique in the annals of rock, but it is affecting and tragic that such a talented and sensitive musician should have fallen on such silence and decline. A diligent compilation would be a fitting tribute to all that he achieved in his much-truncated career. He contributed enough material to Fleetwood Mac to cover one disc, whilst his solo efforts would cover another three. There are sufficient demos of quality in the vaults, as evidenced by the Mooncrest release Ram Jam City a few years back, to complete a fourth. It probably won't happen, but it should, and despite Kirwan's faults and failings, his former band mates could, if they bothered, ensure that it did.

Just how much Danny Kirwan will see from this lovingly rendered reissue of Second Chapter is anyone's guess. He doesn't seem much interested in his past, although he is supposed to possess a guitar at his hostel room. Sightings suggest various broken characters. A mumbling, shaking wreck; a resigned hobo; an incoherent drunk. He was once much more than any of these sad versions. The last rehash package of Fleetwood Mac's Greatest Hits misspelled his name, a minor but revealing oversight.

At least he left a beguiling selection of songs as proof, and in the end proof is all any of us leave, if indeed we leave anything at all. - Robert Cochrane

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Mr. Cochrane is a poet and writer living in Manchester, England. His work has appeared in Mojo, Attitude, and Dazed & Confused. He has published three collections of poems, and Gone Tomorrow, his biography of the rock singer Jobriath, will appear via SAF in 2008.