Danny Kirwan: The Forgotten Man of Fleetwood Mac

In the long, difficult, and unlikely history of Fleetwood Mac, an uncommonly durable band whose many tribulations have proven, beyond any question or doubt, that truth generally is stranger than fiction, the sad and painful fate of Danny Kirwan, the British guitarist and songwriter who helped to create some of their finest music, usually is overlooked. The whereabouts and the condition of Danny Kirwan, who was summarily expelled from the membership of Fleetwood Mac in 1972, are currently unknown to the general public, but his special talent continues to be highly regarded, and deservedly so, by a small number of discerning fans.

Danny Kirwan was born in 1950, in London, England, and he became a member of Fleetwood Mac in 1968, when he was in his late teens. With Danny Kirwan playing his guitar alongside the guitars of Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer, Fleetwood Mac soon became widely known as one of the standout bands in the United Kingdom, offering a trenchant form of electric blues that was both earthy and thoughtful. Then Play On, released by Fleetwood Mac in September, 1969, was the first of their albums to feature Danny Kirwan, and it provided ample evidence of his strong abilities as a musician and a composer, particularly his marked gift for melody and harmony, on tracks such as "Coming Your Way" and "Although the Sun Is Shining."

When Peter Green, who had been the main figure in Fleetwood Mac, became mentally ill as a result of his heavy intake of hallucinogenic drugs and chose to leave the band in May, 1970, both Danny Kirwan and Jeremy Spencer were uncomfortably forced to the forefront as guitarists and singers. The next album that was released by Fleetwood Mac, Kiln House, has a sound that is quite different from their earlier albums, but it did prove that the band could continue to make worthwhile music, even without the rare talents of Peter Green. Among its ten tracks, it features two songs written by Danny Kirwan, "Earl Grey" and "Tell Me All the Things You Do," as well as two other songs, "Station Man" and "Jewel Eyed Judy," written by Danny Kirwan with other members of the band.

In February of 1971, while Fleetwood Mac was on tour in California, Jeremy Spencer departed from the band without warning and joined a Christian colony known as the Children of God, forcing Danny Kirwan even more to the forefront. Bob Welch, an American guitarist and songwriter, was quickly brought into the band, and in September 1971, they released a new album, Future Games. The first track on Future Games, "Woman of 1000 Years," a song written and sung by Danny Kirwan, shows his musical skill at its best, conveying an otherworldly mood with delicate layers of guitars and voices. "Sands of Time," another of Danny Kirwan's songs on Future Games, also has a dreamlike texture. His other song on the album, "Sometimes," is a tuneful expression of regret, sung with sweetness and melancholy.

Bare Trees was released in 1972, and was the last album by Fleetwood Mac to include the songs and musicianship of Danny Kirwan. His five songs on Bare Trees display an undeniable degree of depth and maturity, making up the core of the album. "Child of Mine" and "Bare Trees" are driving rockers, each founded on a solid riff, and are among his best work. "Sunny Side of Heaven" is a wordless composition that floats along on shimmery waves of graceful beauty. "Danny's Chant" is a bold workout for guitar and wah-wah, combined with a free-form vocal. "Dust" is a plaintive setting of a poem by Rupert Brooke. It appeared that Danny Kirwan's ability to write and perform music was gaining in strength, but in his private life, he had begun to fall apart.

It is fair to say that the true reasons for the serious decline and final breakdown of Danny Kirwan are not entirely understandable to an outsider, but by all accounts, he never had been an easygoing musician or a well-balanced person. His withdrawn temperament was ill-suited to the harsh obligations of fame and business, which frequently is the case with talented people. In addition, Danny Kirwan was known to be drinking heavily in the early 1970s, and his excessive consumption of alcohol undoubtedly had a harmful effect on his situation. Whatever the reasons might have been, it is clear that, over a period of several years, he fell into a bad state.

Danny Kirwan's tenure with Fleetwood Mac came to a sudden end in August of 1972, when the band was on tour in America. Minutes before Fleetwood Mac was due to commence a performance, Danny Kirwan got into a backstage quarrel with Bob Welch, becoming extremely angry and refusing to play with the band. (He supposedly smashed his own head against a wall and broke his electric guitar into pieces.) Fleetwood Mac was forced to go onstage without him, and later that night, after a heated discussion among the musicians, Mick Fleetwood was given the difficult task of formally dismissing Danny Kirwan from the band.

Danny Kirwan went on to release several albums on his own between 1975 and 1979 (Second Chapter, Midnight in San Juan, Hello There Big Boy!), but he rarely performed in public after leaving Fleetwood Mac, and his albums mostly came and went without much notice. It seems that by the end of the 1970s, he had ceased to pursue any musical activities. Since then, there have been reports that he was living on the streets in London, completely overcome by alcoholism, as well as later reports that he was living in a shelter for homeless people. What is known for certain is that Danny Kirwan's problems undermined his life and prevented his talent from reaching its full potential.

Fleetwood Mac (with the fortunate addition of two Americans, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, at the beginning of 1975) carried on to become one of the biggest bands in the world during the 1970s and 1980s, but the name of Danny Kirwan, the sensitive guitarist who gave a great deal of himself to their music before he went by the wayside, has mostly been forgotten, and generally is accorded no more than a brief reference in their well-known story. As a singular musician whose many contributions to the band were regularly impressive and absolutely essential, he is eminently deserving of a kinder estimation.