Mary Margaret O'Hara told a story a couple of years back in an interview for the CBC. When she was 11, she found a copy of Ulysses in her house and ended up hiding away with it until she read it from cover to cover. "Dear God!" she thought to herself. "Someone's finally talkin' normal!" Hearing her say that made me laugh. It also made complete sense. Mary Margaret O'Hara is the Stephen Dedalus of vocalists.
It certainly shows when she sings ‘When You Know Why You're Happy’ ... well what do you do then? "You move much better than you know. Not just some jerking to and fro" and as the song goes on she isolates phrases - "much better than you know” and "much better" and "not just some jerk " and "some jerk" - with a child’s innocence; she herself jerks verbally, deconstructing her own words in her own song; breaking down the chemical composition to something just as childlike but primal, self-assuring and frightening. As a songwriter, she changes the definition of what a song means the way Joyce changed prose.
To me, this is most evident in the second track of her only album recorded to date, Miss America, released in 1988. The song is called ‘Body's in Trouble’. There aren't many lyrics and what lyrics there are form a notion. The most repeated phrase concept is "when a body's in trouble, who do you talk to?" What does that mean? There are clues throughout:
You just want to push somebody
The body won't let you
You just want to move somebody
Who do you talk to?
The body also won't let you feel somebody, kiss somebody.... who do you talk to? And really, as a writer, typing out the words, I feel powerless to describe the cadence and the eerie effect of what O'Hara does. The song is a series of wistfully sung thoughts about the inability of a body to act on impulse, to express emotion. To behave the way the mind wants it to. I have always felt that way. Our mind and our body are too separate. Our body's state of being is always in trouble. And there really is nobody to talk to about the failings you feel inside yourself whether you're experience physical or emotional paralysis. When I hear Mary Margaret express the notion, it feels like I've always understood it ... from the crippling shyness of school to the inability to say the right words to the people I've loved to the way my stomach and my nerves take over the ability to reason at times. I believe in the power of the mind to destroy the body. I can swear that I've witnessed it happening. And yet, I feel I can never express it as well as this woman who sings as if she's calling out in her sleep. "Who? Who? Who do you talk to? Whodayatalkto.... whooo.... hooo..." It's a little like Tourette's. But that's not fair. It isn't artless and it isn't random.
Another bit from that CBC interview: some executive at Virgin told her that the album she submitted wasn't releasable because "Captain Beefheart is weird, but it's good, but you are just weird and insane." I think a lot of smaller romantic minds would love for O'Hara to be insane ... her work the ravings of a madwoman magically transmitted to the rest of us as heavenly truth so we can avoid madness ourselves. These are the same people who think of Van Gogh as a savior/lunatic. It's not that easy. And it underestimates the work and the people who create it. There are numerous occasions in Miss America’s 45 minutes where O'Hara is the essence of the traditional songwriter. In ‘Dear Darling’ she is a crooner, thoughtfully putting poetry to the page but not betraying her less Joycean sentiments with her voice. Steadily, gorgeously, she sings:
You bust loose from heaven and now your life starts
So soon you will see, you've broken two hearts
And when you recover the love I still hold
You'll worry, dear darling, why you had to go
Why would you run? I beg stars above
A thing of such beauty must be called love.
How sad and wonderful that she considers the beginning of the story ending with a death of romance with, well, birth? We bust loose from heaven and end up on a path to heartbreak. It's an amazing stanza and not the work of someone who can just utter random phrases. The whole album isn't the work of someone who is just "weird and insane." It's the calculated work of someone who just puts thoughts together differently. And who knows when to use her best tools.
At times, the album seems like an instrumental album by someone whose voice is her ax.
The second song Year in Song’ describes spending time crafting music by juxtaposing the concept "joy is the aim" with "put you under like light sedition" with "pretty soon too much" with "I'm not ready to go under." The words matter but are overlapped. Not physically looped, but O'Hara knows how to mix them, change them, scream them in fear, and turn them into guttural utterances. The band is okay ... drums, a faux-blues guitar riff. But the main instrument is O'Hara herself. The players follow O'Hara's lead even as she melds syllables together in fits and starts of joy and angst. It's a jam session more than it is a song, but it's a solid statement as well.
There was no other Mary Margaret O'Hara album after Miss America. The album itself was supposedly recorded in pieces, between 1983 and 1988, at times with 80s icons such as Joe Boyd and Andy Partridge at the helm. (Apparently there were some very big problems between O'Hara and the man from XTC.) Virgin allegedly shelved the tapes at times before grudgingly releasing the album to surprisingly great reviews. Ultimately Mojo would list it among the 100 greatest albums of the 20th century. Plans for a follow-up fell apart, however, and despite releasing a Christmas EP independently, some songs for the film Apartment Hunting, and a few tribute things and backing work (Morrisey's ‘November Spawned a Monster’), she's been content to turn away the traditional bindings of the music business. She has even shied away from the DIY world away from the corporate entertainment world. Rather than find a smaller label or release music on her own, she seems content to leave Miss America as her statement.
"Mary Margaret O'Hara's only album was always timeless, even if listeners are still catching up.”It is an amazing statement, but strange because it is of its time. It's the late 80s and the studio musicians seem to shackle themselves to the politeness of light rock and roll of the time. A steady drumbeat, a steel guitar. They aren't bad, but they seem to be looking for Mark Knopfler. One wonders what O'Hara could do now, backed by people who have studied and loved her one LP. Mary Margaret seems timeless and the songs do to, but you feel the pinch at times of someone trying to shove a square peg in a round hole. And yet, sometimes the approach is lovely. Help Me Lift You Up is as beautiful a song as I've ever heard, countrified lullaby arrangement and all. What makes it extraordinary is how it marries both elements of O'Hara's talent. The song is a well-phrased lament:
So sorry if I can't stop pretending
So sorry that I cannot let you go
Like this, not like this is ending
I think you know, I think you know
Help me lift you up.
And by well-phrased I mean that O'Hara knows how to touch each word and give it an appropriate weight. And yet, what lingers is just a series of notes sung angelically; simply an "ahhhhh" that shifts and goes on forever and expresses the raw emotion of what was expressed earlier.
Near the end of the album is the piece that brings together the best musicianship of the work. A steady guitar twang and a steady bass line meet drums. It almost never wavers as O'Hara almost recites a litany that declares "this will not just be all right" and of course takes on a completely nonrandom random shape. "It won't come back, will not stay away!" It recalls David Byrne or Laurie Anderson but is so prehistoric and real that it touches into every obsessive bone in the listener's body ... the same impulses that keep you awake at night.
Joy is often the aim of music. There's plenty of joy in this work but there's also the sober understanding that things just don't always get better. Even as O'Hara closes the show with the haunting ‘You Will Be Loved Again’, you don't quite believe it. This is why sometimes the only way to express your relationship to the world is to make noises some people don't find very pretty. Except for the part where, in fact, they're beautiful. It took me a while - years - to find the rhythm of these songs. Now they sound to me exactly like someone talking normal.
Reviewed by Anthony Kaboom