‘Thank you, Danny Kirwan, you will forever be missed’
Mick Fleetwood via Facebook
As ever, with my eye for a bargain, I recently purchased a 5 CD set of Fleetwood Mac. There is always something fascinating about a band’s wilderness years. They are usual a barren time for a reason, often because times have shifted and the band has fallen out of fashion but it might be something darker, drugs, mental health or general bad vibes. For Fleetwood Mac at the beginning of the 70’s it was all of these things.
The band’s first post Peter Green effort was a terrible mess largely thanks to Jeremy Spencer a man capable of an impressive Elmore James impersonation and very little else. In the early days of Fleetwood Mac Spencer was a vital part of the magic with songs by Elmore James and his rock and roll parodies being an essential part of the stage show. After a couple of records Green realised that Spencer was not exactly the music foil that was going to support his career long term, he needed someone who would at least change his guitar strings occasionally and knew more than 3 chords.
Enter the 18-year-old Danny Kirwan.
Kirwan was young, keen and talented, a much better match for Green who was to go on to some of his best works like ‘Oh Well’ and ‘Albatross’, on the former tune Spencer was reduced to the roll of maraca player and subsequent live shows veered between Green’s increasingly sophisticated songs and more Elmore James numbers.
The burn out of Green has been well documented and the three-guitar line up became a two-guitar line up. The main redeeming features of their next album Kiln House were a couple of songs by Danny Kirwan, it wasn’t enough but it was a start.
With Spencer leaving to join the Children of God (he was replaced for a tour by Peter Green) the weight of Fleetwood Mac legacy began to weigh more heavily on young Danny.
I have always considered out of all the victims of that godforsaken band it is Danny Kirwan who is the most tragic. A few years back with the aid of the internet I set out to find where he was and what had happened to him. I pretty much drew a blank.
By 1972 Kirwan was in deep trouble, he was drinking heavily and becoming more withdrawn and unapproachable. Being in a band and drinking more than John McVIe should have served as a warning in itself but Kirwin was just becoming more isolated and it got to the stage where only Mick Fleetwood was willing to travel with him. It all unravelled one night when Kirwin got into an argument with newest member Bob Welch. In an dispute over tuning Kirwan totally lost it, smashing his head against the wall and then demolishing the dressing room with his beloved Les Paul. With this meltdown Kirwan consigned himself to history. He failed to make the stage and the band struggled on through a set with Welch covering all guitars. Kirwan might have survived for a while had he stormed into the night but instead he watched from the sound desk and afterwards offered an unwanted critique of the performance which was the final straw. Fleetwood went to his hotel and sacked him.
Amazingly Kirwan’s stock was high enough for him to make 3 solo albums on the back of once being in a band that was seen as a challenge to the Beatles but then that was it…for ever.
It seems quite amazing that in this day and age people can disappear but that was virtually the fate of Danny Kirwan, there followed 40 years of drinking, homelessness and mental health problems. There hasn’t been a picture of him for all that time, I think the one at the top of this article is the most recent. At some point a journalist tracked him down in homeless accommodation in London where for the price of a few Special Brews Kirwan was willing to give a short interview. He said that being homeless was OK, he had been effectively homeless for most of his life. He had left any trace of showbizness well behind. Another YouTube clip showed him making a cameo appearance with his new brew crew friends in a London pub, Kirwan had effectively become a street drinker. The last trace of Danny Kirwan I could find was a report when he reached 50 and was in relatively good health and was at least keeping a guitar in his room again.
The wilderness years Fleetwood Mac records are pretty unobtainable either as CD’s or streaming unless, like me you bought them as a set (only £10 folks) *
And as I drove around the Nottinghamshire Countryside listening to Kiln House or Future Games or Bare Trees I was wondering again if Danny Kirwan was still with us. I don’t know what the life expectancy of a street drinker is but I assume it’s a lot nearer 48 than 68, it seemed possible that Kirwan was no longer with us, he had disappeared after all.
But now he is finally no longer with us. I assume that in some way the Mac organisation had links to him and so Mick Fleetwood broke the news. My theory is that Fleetwood’s a far better guy than people give him credit for but his tribute seems out of tune. ‘Much missed’, by whom exactly? Its possible that Kirwan died in his country cottage surrounded by loved ones. Despite his assertion that he had been homeless for much of his life he had once had shares in a beautiful country house in Hampshire where he lived with the other band members as well as his own wife and child, it was a far cry from the streets of London. I really hope he found peace but his death is only really a loss to those who really knew him, the rest of us lost him 40 years ago.
But all of a sudden, tributes are everywhere not least among my fellow bloggers, it seems I wasn’t the only one who cared about Danny Kirwan after all.
His legacy is a slim but curious one. There was no doubt he was a very talented guitarist and a very tuneful guy (too tuneful, hence the fateful fight with Bob Welch) but he was quite a diffident singer and some of his songs are gossamer thin, hence a preference for instrumentals. He did however give birth to a quite unique body of work which is lost amidst the constant ‘songbird’ reworkings of Christine McVie and the professional rocking out of Bob Welch. Take Kirwan’s songs on their own and you have a muscular indie rock sound that’s earlier 90’s than early 70’s.
With a lack of liner notes its hard to make definite recommendations without making the terrible mistake or recommending a Bob Welch track by mistake and making a total laughing stock of myself but I will stick my neck out and recommend ‘Sands of Time’ from Future Games which sounds like Midlake who themselves were influenced by The Mac.
And a final recommendation ‘Dust’ from Bare Trees, Kirwan was never that good with lyrics so the words are by Rupert Brooke but it’s a fine end to his time with Fleetwood Mac.
Remember him this way
*or so I had thought, they are now on Spotify