Tag Archives: mark mulcahy

I Capture Beauty In A Conversation

27 Jan

Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke once said that Mark Mulcahy’s voice is what inspired him to make music. Read any review of Mark’s work, and you’ll inevitably run into that statement within the first paragraph, sometimes even the first sentence. You may also be told right off the bat that author Nick Hornby has featured Mark’s music in his Songbook collection, or that he’s opened for the likes of Seal, Oasis, Elliott Smith, etc. It’s as if the critics feel they need to sell you on Mulcahy like a friend trying to sell you on a date they know you won’t want to go on. Because they know you don’t know who Mulcahy is, and if they don’t pound it into your head that he’s someone to pay attention to, no one else is going to steer you towards him.

I first became entranced with Mulcahy at the age of nine, by way of his band’s musical contributions to an early-nineties children’s television series called The Adventures of Pete & Pete. I don’t know what it was about the thirty seconds I saw and heard of him every week, rollicking around on the front lawn of the protagonist’s home with his frizzy unkempt hair, glamourless sweatshirt and jeans. But his frayed, emotional voice, the way he hopped onto the top of a bass drum and back off, singing carelessly into the mic, as if he and his buddies were just having a round of practice, somehow set off a spark.

The most daunting task one faces when writing about Mulcahy is figuring out how exactly to describe how truly beautiful an instrument his voice is. It’s entirely chameleon-like, a swirl of passion, longing, immediacy, mournful resolve, playfulness, instability, etc. He can go from a hardened growl to a frightened whisper in a matter of chords, and when he does it in front of you it’s arresting.

I spent entirely too much of my youth hunting him in various record stores around the country. Nearly every one in Northeastern Ohio has probably at one time or another put in an order for his works, and each and every one has come up empty. In the early days I foolishly hit the giant corporate chains, and it wasn’t until the second or third small time store employed by long haired clerks with tight fitting Ziggy Stardust shirts that I learned what “out of print” meant.

My fervent search occurred in the infancy of online purchasing and .mp3 files, so there were a few years of listening desperately to the occasional twenty second clip I managed to come across on some graduate student’s personal website. I was lucky enough to find an obscure 80’s compilation with a track from Miracle Legion, the New Haven outfit Mulcahy fronted for over a decade, a song I listened to so many times that I found myself playing it note-for-note in my head when I needed to kill the last few minutes of a boring study hall. This held me over until a small used record store an hour and a half away managed to snag a copy of a Miracle Legion album, a drive made with a begrudging grandfather ranting about ‘giving my money away to idiots’ (in his eyes, if you have long hair and/or are a musician, you are an ‘idiot’).

A misspent youth resulted in, among other things, my inability to obtain a driver’s license until the age of eighteen. The first chance I ever had to see Mulcahy was at a show in Northampton, MA. The drive would require a good twelve and a half hours, and fell on the weekend of our senior prom, for which I had inexplicably landed a date with a girl with frosted blue eyes who is still bitter and unforgiving about the whole thing to this day.

The trip was made alone — Mulcahy’s conversationally-toned lyrics are steeped in the confessional. He’s not telling you a story, not singing to you about an ex-lover, but rather he’s speaking directly to that lover, to himself, to the wall, but not to you; this is not something you were supposed to hear – a deluge of confused thoughts, naked desires and personal emotions, the innermost deliberation, barren of reserve, none of which has any place in the world of high school popularity. The lesson was learned quickly that Mulcahy was something to be kept to myself and no one else; after a friend’s demand to hear who I was forgoing practically guaranteed sex with Jill Huntington for, I was quickly dismissed as a ‘faggot’ amongst my contemporaries.

Northampton, nuzzled between the foothills of the Berkshires and the banks of the Connecticut River, home to Smith College, is a small village town made up predominantly of Colonial-era buildings housing art shops, record stores, music clubs and trendy restaurants. The downtown streets are red-bricked and narrow, and its drivers seem to have no sense of urgency, bowing calmly to passing pedestrians.

Dusk had settled in, and the town was buzzing with conversations, the cafes and streets filled with shaggy moptops and sportcoats over tight faded t-shirts, cherry hair, thick horn rimmed glasses and floral vintage dresses, a gay couple walking a ferret. I was strolling through town to kill time when I first saw him in the window of a small Mediterranean restaurant on Main Street. There was no double take or moment taken to register recognition. The second my eyes meet the illuminated window, I knew it was him, slurping noodles as he nodded to the pale girl with short, jet black hair across the table from him. The artist in his element.

He looked much more bloated compared to the pictures I’d seen of him. His square jaw had rounded out slightly, and one could see where jowls could eventually start to set in, right under his bushy sideburns that were about a week’s growth away from being described as mutton chops. His shoulder-length brown had hair had lost its edge, hanging limply from a line that had crept up his forehead considerably, unkempt but not in the vibrant way it used to. His nose was bulbous and bent, one you’d imagine on the face of an Irish dockworker.

His milky blue eyes seemed out of place amongst such working-class features. They burned with a sort of oblique longing; one look at them and you knew he was an artist. He wore an ill-fitting navy blue and green suit over a pointy collared shirt, unbuttoned enough to show a long silver chain amidst a tangle of thick chest hair. It’s a face you will never see on the cover of Rolling Stone.

The front room of the Baystate Hotel is nothing more than a garden-variety dive, lacking the flair the rest of the town possessed, a flair I had built myself up for, come to expect. In the daydreams I had while driving through the winding mountains of Massachusetts, the place was ornate, almost regal. The doorman accepted the scrambled proof of age on my license without incident as I tried to hide my disappointment of what was before me. My overzealous anticipation and a lack of anywhere else to explore had made me one of the first patrons of the evening, save a few that appeared to be regulars. The lights were kept depressingly low, the room illuminated by the glow from the outdated trivia machine at the end of the bar. The bartender silently crunched numbers on a calculator near an old brass register, noting my arrival with a quick stare. I pursed my lips and nodded.

He limply groaned that he’d be with me in a second, and before I had the time to become impatient, Mulcahy stalked up and seated himself next to me, taking a folded setlist-in-progress from the pocket of his coat and scribbling notes. My nerves fizzling, I ordered a Corona with a lime, for some reason thinking it was cool. Mark went for a pint of Guiness and I quickly began to second guess my selection.

I wanted to tell him everything, how late at night, alone in my bedroom, he’d always been there for me through all of the introspection, confusion, self-doubt and what I’d perceived to be lost love. I wanted to tell him about how my friend didn’t get him, and I did. I wanted to ask about love and women and indecipherable lyrics and vague liner notes, for an autograph or a photo. We talked instead about the Pistons.

‘They look like the real thing this year.’ He took a pull from his drink, his eyes fixed on the small television screen hanging in the corner. “Good defense.”

‘You got a horse in this game?’

‘Nah. You?’

‘Cavs fan.’

‘Cleveland?’ Whenever people say Cleveland, they either say it with patronizing reverence (‘Cleveland rocks!’) or chuckle with a laugh and a joke about river fires. ‘You from there?’

‘Yeah.’ My voice was quivering. I drove twelve and a half hours to see this man. Somehow, this man has become a kindred soul to me, a very influential part of my days; he’s soothed me, saddened me, lulled me to sleep. I had begun to realize the absurdity of this sitting in front of him, his mythic figure becoming human, but there was really nothing I could do about it. It’s who I am.

‘Long drive?’

‘Twelve and a half hours.’

‘Jesus.’ He laughed in awe to himself. ‘I’ve heard fourteen before…but that’s…that’s good, man.’

We talked about the game, and the deterioration of Cleveland, and the respect of staying with one team your entire career. He asked me if there was anything I’d like him to play, and I rattled off the first song that came to my mind. Once he slipped off to the back, I began a line questioning regarding whether or not I made the right choice, one that still continues to this day.

The back room of the place was spacious and well-lit, with round cafes tables scattered all along vintage maroon and gold carpet. Large chandeliers lit the room, their reflections shining against the mirrored walls, and thick, velvet maroon drapes cover the windows. It took about a half-hour or so after the crowd has swelled to its full potential before it hits me for the first time. Beatles haircuts. Pretension. Corduroy. Sideburns. Liberalism. Angst. Insecurity. Ironically ugly sweaters. Elvis Costello worship. Pale girlfriends with opinions. Fuck. This is who I was. These were my people.

I never wanted to admit it, never wanted to accept it. Because these people, my people, don’t date Jill Huntington. They’re too busy driving insanely long distances to see obscure singer-songwriters wax intelligently and wistfully on love and loss and doubt and sad happiness. And no eighteen year old girls, or at least any that I dated, wanted anything to do with that.

The stage was cramped and about half the size it probably needed to be, just enough room for Mark and his backing band. Before he played the request I’d nervously spit out, he called my name out into the mic and had me stand, announcing to the crowd the lengths I’d taken to get there. There was a mild smattering of applause and a few impressed head nods. Those sitting behind me patted me on the shoulder when I sat down. I’d gone from hiding it to being praised for it.

It wasn’t until late into college that I realized that perhaps my love of Mark wasn’t a dirty secret to be kept to myself.  The source of this realization came, as most tend to, from a girl, one as beautiful and blue-eyed as Jill Huntington, yet equipped with a fierce intellect and an appreciation for music beyond the Top 40. She, for some reason, appeared to accept me, all of me.

I didn’t have save him for solitude, there was no scramble to change the disc when she walked into the room. In fact, she seemed to take a genuine liking to him, text messaging me song lyrics and writing them into little collages she had made for me. It seems trivial, but in many ways it was an important gauge. If she liked Mulcahy, then she liked me. This vote of confidence led me to leave Mark on the stereo when guests dropped by; I began to loan him to friends. It turns out that there are a lot more of us than I thought, those who get Mark.

Mark Mulcahy will never be popular, and it isn’t for a lack of talent. It’s for his failure to adhere. His catalog shows a knowledge of the three minute pop song with the catchy chorus. He knows the rules. But he doesn’t play by them. He exposes himself for who he is, and doesn’t edit for the sake of a consensus. He’s himself, and he doesn’t necessarily fit into the right demographic, but that’s a big part of the attraction.