Mike Rimmer spent some hours with American singer/songwriter MICHAEL McDERMOTT during his recent British tour
My first introduction to McDermott was hearing the plaintive, emotional ballad "Still Ain't Over You Yet" on his 2007 album 'Noise From Words'. I was hooked from the beginning and began digging around on ebay and Amazon to buy up his back catalogue. Sometimes it's difficult, suddenly discovering that an artist has nearly two decades' worth of recorded work. I felt like a late comer at a good party observing the carnage in the room, the leftovers on the food table and an array of open or empty bottles. What had I missed?
Quite a lot it seemed! And I wanted to investigate! It's April Fools' Day and I am headed to the Paragon Hotel in Birmingham to meet the man whose music has intrigued me but at reception, I immediately feel as though an April Fools' joke is being played on me. There is no Michael McDermott staying at the hotel. I express my confusion to the receptionist when another hotel worker steps in asking whether he's a musician. An American guest Michael Murphy has been spotted carrying a guitar case and is identified as a likely suspect. Calls are made and I make my way to the hotel bar to await his arrival.
Raised a Catholic in the Irish community in Chicago, Michael Murphy morphed into the more rock'n'roll McDermott and signed his first record deal with Warner Brothers in 1991. He was touted as the next big thing. He was a zealous, passionate singer/songwriter mixing rock and soul and folk and gaining comparisons to Dylan and Springsteen. His debut single "A Wall I Must Climb" was a minor hit and he was playlisted on MTV. So far so good!
McDermott walks into the bar and without having to ask, I know it's him! He doesn't look like the album sleeve of 'Noise From Words' but he does look every inch a rock star! We greet, he orders a beer and we sit and chat about the early days. So what happened? "It didn't happen!" he laughs at the memory of it. "It was all a very exciting time. It was the best of times; I just wish somebody had told me, you know. There are a lot of things I miss about that, not even the money or the accolades but I miss kind of who that guy was too, you know? My last name is Murphy and my therapist has suggested to me that Michael McDermott killed Michael Murphy - well not killed him but buried him - buried him under a wall or inside the wall. I'm still trying to rediscover myself, that journey's never ended it's just got more complicated as life has gone on."
Listening to those early recordings, the fervent youthful McDermott was ambitious and you can hear it in his music. He is going to change the world. "Yes I was," he admits, "and I meant it." I have an idea that had he been successful at that point he would have ended up being Bono. "Or I would be dead - or both!" he responds, "They say God's delays aren't God's denials. I hit some stumbling blocks along the way but it never had anything to do with the work. As a kid growing up, in my prayers, I'd say 'make me a poet, make me a singer, make me a poet, make me a singer,' that was my mantra. I would say it and say it and say it until I believed it. I'm okay with it. I signed up for this job and it's not easy but I'm not going anywhere."
There could have been an alternative route for McDermott because after high school he had briefly considered becoming a priest! He remembers, "I didn't know what to do so I would go to church every day and all that and then finally, really out of nowhere Warner Bros came along. I got this big record deal and made a lot of money and I thought that was a sign. But I could have been reading the wrong sign, I don't know. I thought, 'Oh, that's what God wants me to do.' You got it man! I was living my life then this huge thing swept over me and led me in a different direction entirely. I guess the moment after my last breath I'll figure out whether it was the right decision or not!"
McDermott's second album 'Gethsemane' was packed with Christian imagery that brought him a little attention from the Christian press. But the album itself fell between two stools. It sounded too Christian for the mainstream and too worldly for the Christian music scene. It was a dichotomy that was reflected in McDermott's personal life as well. "It was just about in that time when I was deconstructing myself, I sensed a steering off course and it was a wasteland. It was certainly a dark and mysterious world I knew I was walking into. I knew I was a long way from where I needed to get. The Christian imagery is part of my vernacular, my thoughts, raised in a fairly religious household and then my own studying. It's seeped in and it's just the way I see things when I close my eyes or open my mouth."
The sex, drugs and rock'n'roll lifestyle was beginning to take hold of
McDermott yet his music continued to have the power to inspire live
audiences. He would frequently be greeted by fans who would tell him
that his songs brought them closer to God. His response? "When people
have been moved spiritually by my stuff and I would say well if you
see God tell him I said hello. I don't know what that is or what that
was about or what I was trying to do or why. Growing up I had abusive
things happen to me and I think that was a sense of shame that I will
never get over and so even though I felt on some level I was doing
something beautiful I had to fill it up with some kind of ugliness.
That's kind of what I did with myself."
He'll admit that those two extremes have been a big part of his life. "Sometimes there is some ugliness that's just hard to wash off. It's the stains of shame you know." But does he think that some of the beauty is more beautiful because of the ugliness? "I think so, yeah. I certainly would believe my perimeters are widely bipolarised. I was on anti-depressants for a while and then I didn't like the way I wrote because everything was so muted. So again I signed up for this and may be that's where God wants me to work; in the dark, dark gutters and excavate, you know? I don't necessarily think I'm making a parable for Christ's sake but it's hard to know where you are going when you can't see that far in front of you and that's my problem."
The Birmingham Barfly isn't the world's most glamorous venue. An underground club, it's cold, smells of toilets, is almost empty and having driven Michael to the place, I'm early and have to suffer the excruciating local singer/songwriter who is first on stage. For 20 minutes the guy, whose name I have mercifully forgotten, strums his guitar and sings songs of unrelenting depression that seem to glory in debauchery, substance abuse and alcohol. Between songs he mumbles incoherently into the microphone, makes no sense before inflicting another of his "songs" upon us. Just when I think I can stand it no longer, he mercifully leaves the stage. It has to be said that, unlike the warm up act, Michael McDermott does miserable pretty well. His body of work is littered with miserable songs and yet they are punctuated with drops of hope along the way. Brokenness appears to be his speciality. "Yes it is," he agrees. "If you need any healing on that level I am the guy to go to! I've covered all these self-abuses and the brokenness really and surrender is a constant theme in me. People think of surrender as a sign of weakness but surrender is a sign of strength to me. Those are things that I still wrestle with."
2003 was a turning point for McDermott, as he shares, "Things were definitely picking up steam then in terms of my downward trajectory." Basically, he was strung out on drugs and eventually it caught up with him. He explains, "I was arrested and put in a jail and that was a dark night of the soul for me, boy! Having my freedom taken away was something I never really considered." On the night in question, McDermott was attending a show by the Wallflowers' singer Jakob Dylan who is a friend. He recalls, "I was caught in possession of drugs by the venue security and then as they were waiting for the patrol car to come up I was, and it's embarrassing and horrifying to look back at now, but I was so in a panic state. I was thinking, is this really what it's come to? When the police car came up and got me, the woman officer was a big fan of mine so she was trying to get me out of it and calling the station to see if they could just let me go. They couldn't and I went to the station and I was cuffed to a wall and then I was signing autographs with my right hand while my left hand was shackled to a wall - which was just a funny image. I asked everyone I gave an autograph to if they could get me out of this mess but each said they couldn't do it. You know the term 'foxhole prayers'? That's certainly it but I didn't waste a single prayer because I thought I deserved this and I'm not even going to waste God's time with that. So I dug my wall to China and came out the other end. It's a day-to-day struggle but I'm fighting it."
He was in the famous Cook County Jail for only a short time and he can laugh about it now: "The funny side note is my dad had actually spent time in that same jail so we had some funny stories to share. There's a song on the record called 'My Father's Son' about that. As much as you feel disconnected to your family or your dad, it's funny that there is something to be said that we are all from where we are from. It maybe sounds obvious but that for me was a revelation."
On release from jail McDermott did drug rehab. "That was another weird thing," he ponders, "because I was with the lowest of the low, man! I would look around and I remember this very vividly. I thought like they would tell their stories and I would go, 'Oh my God, I'm not that bad' and then I thought, 'Maybe you are.' I thought, 'These guys aren't my people, maybe they are. Maybe this is exactly where I am supposed to be.'"
I ask Michael whether he went through some sort of trial step programme engaging the help of his Higher Power? "No I didn't," he responds simply. "They recommended it but I didn't. I was in plenty of therapy. There's something about certain surrendering to the fact that there is something stronger than you and that's always been a tough one with me." You would think that the experience would make him draw closer to God but it didn't. "I liken my relationship with God to a game of hide and go seek. I go, 'Oh where did you go? You were just here. Where did you go? Where did you run to? Hello, anybody there?' It's constant like that. It's almost like the footprints in the sand thing. I think maybe I let myself off the hook but I always think God kind of likes me when I do some of the things I do. He smiles and shakes his head and goes, 'Michael McDermott!' He's not happy, I'm his court jester maybe!"
So would Michael describe himself as a Christian? "Yes absolutely!" he says emphatically before qualifying, "but then people say 'Do you live your life as a Christian?' It's describing your relationship with a higher power or God. It's like indefinable so I have trouble and I stumble on my words and it's like explaining love or something. It's impossible for me but I feel very close to Jesus, God maybe not so much; but Jesus was a man that I feel very connected with and I sense it. I have said before if people question whether he is the Son of God; if he's not the Son of God then you can leave me in the dirt because he's the one I'm after."
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