Listen to this track by former blues-rock titans turned folk and pop-oriented concern featuring an evolving line up, Fleetwood Mac. It’s “Dust”, a song written by the band’s 21-year old guitarist and vocalist Danny Kirwan, and featured on the band’s 1972 album Bare Trees. The song features lines from a poem of the same name by Rupert Brooke, an Edwardian poet who died in 1915.
Kirwan joined Fleetwood Mac when fellow guitarists and original members Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer were still both in the band. The Then Play On album would feature Kirwan’s dual lead vocals and his emerging talent on the guitar, which was a tall order when considering Green’s enormous stature as a player in particular. By the time the elder guitarist departed the group in 1970, Kirwan was well-established to take his place, or at least become the focus in Green’s absence.
This song is evident of Kirwan’s influence, which was the slow drift away from the blues, and into a more wistful, pastoral, and more radio-friendly direction during a time when folky singer songwriters were making headway when it came to selling records. This song in particular would reveal something else about Kirwan though, and would unfortunately foreshadow his fate at the same time.
Kirwan was considered by his bandmates to be instrumentally gifted, and yet also serious-minded purportedly to a fault. Having said that, perhaps his idea to combine the words of an English poet like Rupert Brooke who died young at the rock ‘n’ roll age of twenty-seven might not have come to fruition had Kirwan not been so earnest and intense. Maybe the instability of the band itself had a part to play in Kirwan’s intensity. Iconic frontman and guitarist Peter Green had left. Jeremy Spencer quit to join a cult, with American Bob Welch only recently in his place, with whom Kirwan allegedly clashed in the personality department. As a key songwriter during this period, there was a lot of pressure on Kirwan to take up the slack.
Still, the beauty and melancholic serenity in this song seems to belie any of that turbulence, although the song deals with subject matter that very much reinforces that sense of seriousness. It’s a beautifully desolate and wintry song about the transient and evanescent nature of our lives, combining the the artistic efforts of two men born over six decades apart, yet with both being in their twenties when they made their contributions to it. That being the case, the intense seriousness of the piece is pretty easily understood. One’s twenties is a time in a person’s life that the idea of the future and the passage of time in general begins to take hold after the immortal teenage years are over, even if that future not entirely understood. Add the artistic temperament to that already heady brew, and you’ve got something that packs quite an existential punch.
Kirwan certainly had that temperament.
Danny Kirwan was summarily fired in later in the year subsequent to the release of Bare Trees when his personal habits with drink and drugs, and his general mental health, became a problem. During his time with the band, he’d gone from rising talent, to central focus, to pariah, all in the span of a few years. This song about the temporary nature of life as we come to know it takes on new meaning in the light of all that.
Kirwan was a vital artistic component in helping Fleetwood Mac transition from a proto-metal blues rock unit it had been from 1967 t0 1970 into a more stylistically fluid concern that paved the way for their more radio-friendly and very lucrative period when Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham joined in 1975. Despite his key role in the evolution of the band, Danny Kirwan is still an often forgotten figure in the history of Fleetwood Mac, often caught in the misty valley between those two artistic peaks in that history.
After his third and final solo album in 1979 in a career apart from Fleetwood Mac that never really took off, Kirwan simply drifted out of sight. By the 2010s he was reported to be among London’s homeless population. His work with Fleetwood Mac during an often unsung, but very important artistic period for the group is worthy and overdue for a critical revisit.
For more on Danny Kirwan, have a read of this article all about him during this important 1970-72 transition period for Fleetwood Mac.