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Artist Fri Jun 24 2011

The Ballad of Michael McDermott

Michael-Niva.jpg
(Photo by Niva Bringas, courtesy of michael-mcdermott.com).


I first met Michael McDermott, a local singer-songwriter with a dedicated fan base across the country, at a photo shoot in a Chicago graveyard six years ago. For a college magazine class assignment, I wanted to follow around two bands and/or musicians — one more established, but still trying to break through, the other just beginning its journey.

After a few weeks of searching, I received separate e-mails from McDermott and the Mannequin Men, a spirited Chicago punk band still making great music, saying that I could follow them around if I wanted.

I spent the next two months at gigs and occasionally in bars with McDermott, talking about music and listening to his stories.

I found McDermott charming, talkative and very open. I wrote my piece and decided to separate Mannequin Men's and McDermott's story, because they were unique in their own way. I held on to each story, waiting for the right moment to pitch it to a publication. It just never felt complete.

Until now.

McDermott will be performing his first album, 1991's 620 W. Surf, and its follow-up Gethsemane, in their entirety at Lincoln Hall on Saturday. This year marks the 20th anniversary of 620 W. Surf, which referred to McDermott's Lakeview address at the time. The album brought McDermott some fame 20 years ago, but the lifestyle that followed the newly-found fame also introduced him to the darker sides of life. Mark Caro also profiled him recently in a great piece for the Tribune.

Michael.jpg

Singer-songwriter Michael McDermott remembers the beginning of his career with heavy production lights awkwardly shining down in a café that only holds 40 people. He's 20 years old and about to perform at the now defunct Sin-é, a tiny but lauded club in New York's Lower East Side. Only a few tiny speakers sit against the wall, and busy MTV crews nearly trample the audience, wanting to record a "The Week in Rock" segment featuring McDermott. McDermott had just signed a major record deal with Warner Bros. Records, and the company moved him from Chicago to New York.

The inside of Sin- é is very intimate, much so that many music fanatics live to see an artist in such a personal setting. Tonight, famed Irish singer Luka Bloom sits among the crowd. With long, curly dark brown hair and watery eyes of the same color, McDermott stands up with his friend Paul Fitzpatrick ("Fitz"). The two had played together at Chicago clubs, so Michael brought him along. McDermott sings and strums his guitar with Fitz for two 50-minute sets. He later flips on the television to catch the MTV clip.

In the clip, anchor Kurt Loder says with his deep, Peter Jenning's-esque voice, "When you're 20 years old from Chicago, you have a major record deal with Warner Brothers Records and you look like Jordan Knight from New Kids on the Block, things could be a lot worse for a kid from the South Side..."

Fourteen years later, McDermott remembers this story right before a fall concert at Chicago's Abbey Pub benefiting the Jeffrey Pride Foundation for Pediatric Cancer Research. New York seems like a faded photograph, but McDermott remembers the time as his prime. He's the last act to go on stage tonight, and he plans to play only about five or six songs.

"You always dream about that moment, and then when it comes out...I think they were saying I was cute, but it didn't...It was really bad," he says of the MTV segment.

Compared to his idyllic youth and boyish looks 16 years ago, McDermott has shorter hair now. It no longer brushes his shoulders but his dark brown curls graze his forehead. Comparisons to Jordan Knight now would just seem awkward. With a dark stubble around his chin, his thick eyelashes and deep brown whiskey eyes illuminate his face. He wears two crosses around his neck.

"I was like, 'No one's ever going to take me seriously!' I sound like Bruce [Springsteen] and I look like Jordan Knight. So anyway...It's never [expletive] easy," he explains with a slight crack in his voice, slowly moving his hand toward his mouth to savor the taste of another cigarette.

Even though McDermott still has some boyish features, his ease around people when preparing for a show reminds you that he knows what he's doing. McDermott knows what it's like to be a rock star. He knows what it's like to open for Van Morrison in front of 20,000 people. People come up to him and tell him that his songs changed their life. Author Stephen King is a huge fan.

But McDermott also knows what it's like to be, as one of his songs says, forgotten. He knows what it's like to be dropped from a major label. He knows what it's like to wake up one day, and think, "What do I do now?" He knows what it's like to spend two nights in one of Chicago's roughest prisons for possession of cocaine. But tonight, in blue jeans and a black long-sleeve shirt with a webbed white design and the word "affliction" written on it, McDermott leans back in his chair, smoking a cigarette and telling stories to anyone who will listen.

McDermott remembers the middle of his career with a phone call. Music industry exec (and now screenwriter) Brian Koppelman, who had also recently signed Tracy Chapman, first brought McDermott to Warner Brothers. McDermott followed Koppelman to EMI and released two more albums that sold moderately well. But one day, McDermott called Koppelman and told him that the phone to EMI was disconnected. McDermott later learned he no longer had a record deal.

"So one day, I was like, 'Well now what do I do?" And so after that, I decided to make my own record, put it out," McDermott remembers. He followed with three albums -- released on an independent label or his own label, Pauper Sky Records. His new album, Noise From Words, is currently available online from One Little Indian Records. [Since writing this article, McDermott also released Hey La Hey, available on his website]. Through it all, Michael writes amazingly specific story songs that chronicle his life.

Blanketed with memories, the backstage of the Abbey Pub screams rock 'n roll. The clean brick walls are painted blue but band stickers cover the silver vent system. Hand-written scribble clouds a mirror already dirtied by fingerprints and beer stickers. Red sneakers hang from one of the pipes.

A cool breeze sends a slight chill through the room. The white lights shine down and smoke rings curl in the air. The smell of cigarettes and whiskey fills the air.

McDermott's cigarette gives out a distinct line of smoke, clouding his eyes and anyone's view of him for a moment. Sitting down in a chair next to him, I ask him what songs he plans to play. He tells me he wants to play covers "to distance myself as much as I can from myself."

McDermott laughs with ease now. His friend, Joey Lazar, comes in to greet him. Lazar has known McDermott for 20 years after they met at one of McDermott's earliest shows at DePaul University.

"Michael's always been consistently poetic," Lazar says. "The thing with Michael's songs is whatever you want to interpret them as, they're yours."

They're playful together and Lazar, a tall man with short dark hair who's wearing a sleek black blazer and blue jeans, sits with McDermott to pose for a picture.

A few minutes before Michael sets up on stage, he orders a Jack Daniels and Diet Coke. His friend Fitz, the same Fitz who played with him at Sin-é, comes down from playing with his band, Fitz and the Celts. Sweat drips down from his forehead and glazes his short brown hair. Sitting down backstage in a collared dark green shirt, he remembers the first time he saw Michael at the Earl of Old Town, where Fitz played every Sunday. He often noticed Michael sitting there reading a book.

"And finally after three of four of those Sundays, I just walked over there and introduced myself and I was just blown away by this kid and we just became friends. And I had the Irish thing going so I'd get paying gigs and he'd accompany me," he says. "While he was writing 620 W. Surf (Michael's first album) he and I were getting paid playing two-man Irish folk gigs. That was a long time ago, but it was a whole lot of fun."

McDermott.jpg

About a quarter of the way through McDermott's career though, he hit a wall he couldn't climb. In 2002, he was arrested for possession of cocaine. Though talkative and charming, McDermott shies away from discussing this incident because "it's a thing of the past." He spent time in rehab and is now clean, although he still drinks, "which is a slippery slope," he warns.

"There's a certain arrogance that comes along with being a performer," McDermott says. "You think you have something to say. You really don't...When I was in lockup, I remember thinking, 'What's wrong with these people?' At some point I had this moment where I was like, 'These are my people. These [expletive] idiots. I guess these are my people because I'm here with them.'"

When McDermott is on stage at the Abbey Pub, he blazes through a couple of cover songs. His left leg kicks up into the air and the wire connected to him shakes.

He begins an impromptu cover of U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." In an almost spiritual moment, the men and women in the audience raise their arms and put their hands in the air, swaying in unison while mouthing the words along with McDermott.

For the last song of the night, McDermott chooses an original tune, "A Wall I Must Climb," a popular song from his first album. He shares the vocal parts with Fitz, putting his arm around his neck. He finishes the song and rushes off stage.

"There it is, there it is," he says as he steps down the stairs to the backstage.

Sweaty and a little weary, people surround him, asking him where they should hang out tonight. He doesn't utter an audible response but he puts his arms around his friends and they move together toward the door.

Earlier in the night, McDermott mentions that two of his favorite songs are "Say Hey Charlie Boy" and "Forgotten," both from his self-titled 1996 album. With a quiet voice, he says he and his producers had high hopes for that album but it never quite broke through.

"Well you always have regrets, I guess, but not necessarily about what you've done or what your thoughts are like. There was a time where it seemed like all the stars had aligned. You know, Stephen King's a huge fan and I had all these great songs and we were making this record and everyone believed in it, which was great. And really it breaks my heart, the fact that the record didn't break...everyone thought it was going to be huge and when it didn't, they can all walk away from it. I can't. I toss and turn...You know people act differently toward me. When it doesn't happen, the phone calls become less frequent and then you're left there alone with that record, which I'm still proud of, but it's really hard, even today."

A thumping sound from upstairs travels through the room but McDermott continued with his story. His voice often inflects up and down in tone. "You know those were one of the best days of my life," he says with a slight quiver. "You know, going into the studio and seeing the way the songs come into the windows on those guitars and the smell of the place, hearing [the producer] work and me just reading the paper and laying on the couch and being lazy. Those were some of the best days of life. But it's like I couldn't make them proud in some way. And they'll all tell you, 'We're still proud of you Michael.' But they'd be a lot more proud if they had a platinum record."

Later that night, when I am home alone in my apartment, I look up the lyrics to the song "Forgotten," which McDermott told me was one of his favorites. In an emotionally complex song filled with rich description of crimson veils and serpents, the narrator in McDermott's song "Forgotten" struggles with temptation, love and possibly a bigger, indefinable power. But by the end of the song, the narrator recognizes his strength. With conviction, he says, "I will walk, I will conquer this, because this love must never be forgotten."

Photos courtesy of michael-mcdermott.com.

 
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