Friday, September 25, 2009

Alan Bisbort on Mark Mulcahy in New Haven Advocate

Check out Alan Bisbort's article on Mark Mulcahy from this week's New Haven Advocate:

Mark's Backyard
The miraculous music of Mark Mulcahy

Thursday, September 24, 2009


When the writer Nick Hornby picked Mark Mulcahy’s “Hey Self Defeater” to be one of 31 songs featured in his bestselling Songbook (2003), he was announcing to the world what New England has long known: Mulcahy, who grew up in a small Connecticut town, was once a fixture on the New Haven rock scene and is now a Springfield, Mass., resident and solo artist, is one of the great singer-songwriters anywhere. Though he still toils in relative obscurity compared to others featured in Hornby’s book — Ben Folds, Paul Westerberg, Patti Smith — Mulcahy deserves to stand in their company.

Sadly, the event that has raised his profile in the past year is an unimaginable personal tragedy: One year ago, his wife Melissa died suddenly, leaving the heartsick musician to care for their infant twin daughters. (The cause of her death has not been disclosed.) Since then, unbeknownst to Mulcahy, the music community — regionally and globally — put the wheels in motion to lend an old friend support. Musicians from around the region will gather at Toad’s Place on Friday, Nov. 13 for a celebration of, and tribute to, Mulcahy’s music.

The highest-profile tribute is Ciao My Shining Star: The Songs of Mark Mulcahy (Shout! Factory), a CD that features a veritable who’s who of alternative music. The album, for example, opens with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke tackling “All for the Best,” one of the earliest songs of Mulcahy’s old band, Miracle Legion, co-written with Mr. Ray Neal, whom Mulcahy calls “my truest friend.”

“It’s just so hard to imagine what he has gone through,” says Neal. “Melissa was just gone in a second. But he has two incredible little girls who keep him going.”

And, of course, there is his timeless music. Ciao is not just a tribute album but an unusually creative work in its own right. In the liner notes, Mulcahy calls it a “giant love letter” to his wife. “Never in all her most fantastic imaginings,” he writes, “would she believe that a record with her picture on the cover, made in her honor by such an amazing group of lovely people, would be a reality … Thank you from the bottom of our broken heart.”

Other artists who donated their talents include R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, who has called Mulcahy “one of the great voices of our time,” and who performs a reconfigured “Everything’s Coming Undone”; punk stalwarts Rocket from the Tombs offer a Beefheart-like “In Pursuit of Your Happiness”; Frank Black lurches through “Bill Jocko”; Juliana Hatfield does a sprightly “We’re Not in Charleston Anymore”; the Autumn Defense simmers on “Paradise”; and Dinosaur Jr. chips in a guitar-laden version of “The Backyard” (guitarist J. Mascis added some studio licks to Mulcahy’s most recent solo record as well). The album has some surprises, too, like Vic Chesnutt’s haunting “Little Man,” Mercury Rev’s multi-layered “Sailors and Animals,” and Frank Turner’s plaintive “The Quiet One.” Then there’s the aptly named title cut. Though nicely done by the Unbelievable Truth, it is, like all the others on the disc, just a reminder of the depth of Mulcahy’s songs. Indeed, as great as many of the cuts are, they will not supplant Mulcahy’s versions on his solo recordings (hint, hint: Miracle Legion’s back catalog screams out for a proper reissue).

The most extraordinary part of Mulcahy’s musical odyssey may be how humbly it began. Back in the day, Mulcahy was known as a drummer. Period. No singing, no guitar, no songwriting. After growing up in then-rural East Hampton, he enrolled in Southern Connecticut State University, which brought him to New Haven. There, he answered an ad for a drummer placed by the seminal punk band the Saucers (the Saucers and even some footage of Miracle Legion are both featured in a new documentary film about the New Haven scene, It Happened … But Nobody Noticed). He and Ray Neal played in the band Stray Divides, then formed Miracle Legion in 1983. Not just a musician, Mulcahy was also a tireless promoter of the music scene, booking acts in New Haven venues like Ron’s Place, the Grotto and Brothers Three.

“We noticed that the guys who write the songs always seem to leave, so we thought we should write our own songs,” recalls Neal. Though Neal insists that “we had no idea what we were doing,” the talent must have been close to the surface, because some remarkable songs emerged in that first batch for Miracle Legion, including “All for the Best,” with which Yorke opens Ciao. “That was one of the originals,” says Neal. “A version of this song was on our first cassette and somehow one of the 200 copies of the thing made it to the U.K. where it was reviewed favorably in Sounds. We were convinced some mystical thing had occurred.”

Their songwriting process was equally unorthodox. “I came up with some guitar parts and Mark, still a drummer, would jam with me until we had the form of a song. He always had a notebook of lyrics with him, and we would mush my guitar parts and his lyrics together,” says Neal, who was well aware of the power of Mulcahy’s words. “I didn’t want to know the full meaning of his lyrics, to keep it fun for me,” says Neal. “But I knew the songs were either autobiographical or observations about somebody he knew.”

The power of the songs may be due to this elusive quality. “Obviously, they’re about things important to Mark, but the words are open-ended enough to allow listeners to be drawn in, to find different things that appeal to them on different days.”

“The Backyard” was a Miracle Legion signature song. “We got exhausted from the number of requests for us to play that song,” says Neal, laughing. A video for it made it into “light rotation” in the earliest days of MTV, which generated an invitation to play on “Late Night with David Letterman.”

Despite their critical success, multiple tours of the U.K. and rabid fan base, Miracle Legion bit the dust in 1993, due largely to massive record label screw ups. Mulcahy then formed Polaris, the house band for the Nickelodeon series “The Adventures of Pete & Pete” (1993-96), attracting a cult following with songs like “Hey Sandy” and “Waiting for October”. After that, he has largely flown solo across the musical landscape, and the quality of his work keeps blossoming. The music is inventive, crossing genres and taking unexpected twists and turns, but is always engaging. The words are alternately witty, mordant and desperately romantic. His song titles give the game away: “I Just Shot Myself in the Foot Again,” “A Cup of Tea and Your Thoughts,” “Love’s The Only Thing That Shuts Me Up” and “Hey Self Defeater.”

The latter song opens Mulcahy’s first solo album, Fathering (1997), and sets the tone for a melancholy stroll down his own back pages. “Hey Self Defeater” is as much a pep talk to himself as it was for anyone else. “I think that you think too much,” he gently croons, then backtracks, so as not to seem so harsh: “OK, that’s my opinion, but everybody agrees.” And then, he warbles his classic song hook: “Hey self defeater, you’re underrated by yourself, so quit looking down … look up.”

Ray Neal stands in awe of Mulcahy’s development as a musician. “He has gotten so good at guitar now, but back then he didn’t even play, he was mostly the front man for Miracle Legion,” says Neal. “For a solo career he had to do it all on his own, and he just did it.”

Besides his three albums on Mezzotint and work for TV, Mulcahy has collaborated with MacArthur grant recipient Ben Katchor, creating musical stage revues based on the latter’s eccentric and noirish cartoons. He composed the music for and performed in Katchor’s 2004 musical The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island. He co-wrote (with Katchor) The Rosenbach Company and A Checkroom Romance, which premiered at the New York Public Library in May.

Still, his earliest songs for Miracle Legion planted the seed for the latest tribute, Ciao My Shining Star. Lauren Gaffney at Shout! Factory credited a college-aged fan named Nathaniel Smalley in West Virginia for having the original idea for the CD. “Nathaniel started to contact lots of people to ask if they would record a track for Mark for an album, and did an amazing job. It is without doubt because of Nathaniel that this record got rolling in such an incredible way. Mark told his manager, David Holt, about the record in November and he offered to help Nathaniel. David coordinated with all of the artists [and] management pulling the tracks in, and contacting labels to get a deal for the record … and Myles Mangino of Hartford’s Planet of Sound recording studios mastered everything on the record and contributed an awful lot of his own time doing an incredibly meticulous job. The reason the record sounds so sweet and consistent and hangs together so well is due to his professionalism.”

This past weekend, Frank Black, the Autumn Defense, the Winterpills and a handful of other bands all played a show of songs from Ciao at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn. The Nov. 13 tribute show’s guests haven’t been announced yet. But you can expect some surprises. Mulcahy has declined interviews regarding this tribute album. By all accounts from friends, he is devoted to his two daughters and working on new projects. Neal says, “Mark is flattered and moved by all of it.”

In the liner notes to Ciao My Shining Star, Mulcahy says, “I will always be grateful and humbled. … That everyone can love so much is moving and wondrous. Melissa would be proud of us all.”


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Miracle Fan said...

Great article. I'm glad I got to learn more about one of my favorite musicians.