Wednesday, 5 August 2009

A Thing of Such Beauty...

A while back, apropos of nothing in particular, I happened to post up a quote from a (rather nasty) review of Mary Margaret O'Hara's Miss America LP. The quote described M M O'H as something along the lines of "Annie Hall with a lobotomy". Don't worry, there were people who liked her even less than that: "Dementia's not something you expect of a singer-songwriter" (Whoever wrote that had evidently never heard Gilbert O'Sullivan singing songs about his dog, but nevermind...) In the normal run of things, you'd be able to laugh along at such barbs and content yourself with the knowledge that, say what you like, the lady was blessed with (as The Geoffster so eloquently put it) "the voice of an angel". A very peculiar angel, perhaps, but an angel nonetheless. But sadly, M2 O'H was not only of an angelic but also an acutely sensitive disposition. Stung by such wise-arse cracks, she pretty much turned her back on the record business, thus making the already singular Miss America pretty much her sole recorded legacy. At least, that's the theory...

Until yesterday when I had the good fortune to pick up a CD copy from Oxfam for £2.99, I hadn't heard Miss America for about twenty years. If she hadn't even sung a note, I think there'd be a place for M M O'H in the annals of pop history. The effortlessly iconic sleeve design - is it just me, or does the crown of the Statue of Liberty appear somehow to emerge from those laconic zen brushstrokes - is all her own work too:

At first you'd be mistaken the belief that here's a pretty conventional female singer-songwriter as opener 'To Cry About' drifts along AOR-ly enough with only the odd vocal hiccup and Michael Brook's otherwordly 'infinite' guitar to suggest otherwise. But as 'Year in Song' strides in, it soon becomes apparent that Ms. O'H is coming at this from quite a different angle. The song features some of the most astonishing singing I think I've ever heard, in a performance that seems to turn into a private wrangle the singer is conducting with herself over whether it's worth carrying on with on with the song. The only thing I've heard that compares with it is John Lydon's babbling at the end of 'Holidays in the Sun'. "The aim is joy" she opines at the outset, emptily mouthing what sounds like it might have been advice given to her by a record company executive. But it doesn't sound as if M M O'H is really all that convinced. Pretty soon, in her delirium, she's getting it all arse-about-tit; "iss the aim eh joy?" And then, in a remarkable transformation, just as she's about to make good with the threat to put her audience under sedation, all of a sudden, she's resisting anaesthesia herself: "I'm not ready to go under..." she screeches and before she can add anything about the Berlin Wall, she's been gagged and chloroformed as she's frogmarched off in the direction of the nearest padded cell. The hairs on the back of your neck stand upright in alarm.

'Year in song' appears in the background of this odd clip from a Canadian indie movie (note the rather exquisite pins - M2 O'H's obviously, not the young lad's...):

'Dear darling' is the song I remembered best from all those years ago. It's a lovely, lap steel-guided swoon; "...a thing of such beauty, it must be called love..." Just dreamy. 'A new day' starts out all Laura Nyro, happy clappy in 'save the country' mode but then, just as you're wondering if it's not all abit too winsome, brings you up short with this; "is it better to disappear than to just stand so close to a hole?" It's a line that seems to sum up M2 O'H's all-or-nothing talent pretty well. It also makes me wonder if the received wisdom about her withdrawal from the music business is absolutely true. After all, there's an artistic bravery on display in her work that's often quite terrifying to behold. Her willingness to hold herself up to potential ridicule through the intensity of her performance makes me wonder if a few clumsy barbs such as those above would be enough to derail an artist so uniquely attuned to her own moods and feelings and so evidently driven to go her own way. I think she knew there was only room (perhaps only enough strength in her) for one major work - rather as there could only be one Sex Pistols LP. This album alone took four years to record. Original producer, XTC's Andy Partridge, lasted a day - one would love to have been a fly on the wall at that session... It would have been a pretty intense working experience, cranking yourself up to explode before the microphone like that, as she does on just about every track. No, let the critics have it that their jibes scared the poor thing off, but I personally wouldn't be surprised if this is all we were ever going to get. A thing of such beauty - you don't just churn those out, do you?

So, get Miss America and treat yourself to what's left of a solitary voice, a unique and brave highwire performer.

Here she is lip-synching awkwardly to 'When You Know Why You're Happy' on 'Night Music' I think the guy introducing her is Bill Frissell(?):

The rather too jolly video for 'Body's in Trouble':

And recent footage...which is actually rather scary.

Something I Dreamed Last Night:



  1. She could have morphed into this.

    Sometimes even astonishing singing needs a good hook. I kept telling Scott Walker but he never listened.

  2. Ah, but Scott could sing a bus ticket and make it sound beautiful, Rog...

    I'm sorry, but despite having really tried, I've never been moved (well, not in a good way) by the Peej. It's a deep failing in me, I know that, and don't think I haven't tried to get help with it. But no, where everybody else hears a maverick genius, I just hear Lulu. Without the tunes. I'm sorry. I'm just made that way...

    (She's got a cracking pair of pins too, mind...)