SWINGING MODERN SOUNDS #26: The Cessation of Miracles

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The city of brotherly love is always reinventing itself, coming up with varieties of eccentricity meant to distract from its diet of horrors, for example, a good baseball team. That its baseball team seems a bit arrogant to me, full of hubris, only makes it more Philadelphian. There is also the Liberty Bell there, in Philly, that pilgrimage site for middle schoolers, and there’s Old Philly, a beautiful part of town, a history-drenched neighborhood, and there are some good museums, some unimpeachably great museums. But there’s no way to ignore the way the city of brotherly love sprawls out from its enclaves on the Main Line into the poverty stricken parts; of all Northeastern cities, so many of them so beleaguered, few seem as desperate to me as Philly does, and this despite its status as first capital of the nation. Maybe that’s exactly as it should be, for the first capital of the nation, that it should traffic in contradictions, in heartlessness. My sister didn’t die in Philadelphia, but I think of her time in Philly, a good seven or eight years, as preliminary to her death, as the prefatory material thereto, even if she also taught me about the Mummer’s Parade, which has to be one of the Northeast’s great spectacles of weirdness. Still: no matter how I think about it, Philadelphia is a place of death, of self-slaughter, and I therefore associate a lot of the music I know of from Philly, some great bands like Vick Logic and the Strapping Fieldhands and Bardo Pond as all being about the inherent death of Philly which scatters itself around the place like weed growth in a vacant lot (of which they have an abundance there).

But one band that I associate with Philadelphia has nothing to do with it. They just have to do with death. After a fashion. Well, they have to do with Philadelphia in the following way: I learned about them from a friend in Philadelphia. I’ll say my friend is called Isabella, though that isn’t her name. A pseudonym is reasonable under the circumstances. Isabella was this sort of unattainable love object for me in college, even though she had bouts of anorexia and a brother with some kind of autism spectrum disorder. She made paintings only of cats, cats upon cats upon cats, and all I wanted to do, in my idea life, was lie around in her studio and watch her get paint all of her jeans. Instead (it’s often this way), she took a lover who was a creepy little guy who, wouldn’t let her wear purple because it was the color of the anus, and this guy had many other rich and varied ways that he liked to control Isabella, who was allowed to see me for five minutes here and there under heavily monitored circumstances; and so there never really was any consummation of crush, or by the time there was consummation, we had both moved on, and this is the way the heart is so often remanded into the custody of failure; anyway, Isabella moved to Philly after school, following some later and equally doomed emotional entanglement that had nothing to do with me, and she started making stained glass windows, which were labor intensive in the extreme, and all of these were Gothic and were of women and men in various grim poses, having mechanical and degrading orgies or vomiting or being attacked by various bees and birds, and so on. And after her first doomed entanglement in the city of brotherly love, she took yet another lover, a demon seed, a guy named Jim, and in my recollection, he was a brutally unhappy guy, angry, violent, maybe a drinker to excess and user of crystal meth (and this is part of why I have always thought of Philly as the crystal meth capital of the Northeast, whether or not it’s true, because it’s a place of desperation, and the desperation is amplified by the drug, which now expresses desperation and causes desperation at once), and so Jim was ingesting some crystal meth, and probably he was schizophrenic, or something like it, maybe a sufferer with borderline personality disorder, I don’t know, I failed to consult a psychiatrist about him, but whatever Isabella did, it was wrong, and Jim was not good to her, as the guy who was her lover in college was not good to her, and I think maybe Jim beat her some, and they took a lot of drugs together, and I would get these terrifying and helpless calls from her, and I would tell her please to leave Jim, and she would say that she would, but then she wouldn’t, and more horrible horrible subplots would come to pass, and she cut off all her hair, and lost a lot of weight, and when I visited her, saw one of her gallery shows, afterward it was about whether we could score, and I loved this and hated it in equal measure, loved, to my shame, the intensity of it; anyway, finally Isabella somehow got rid of Jim, and Jim was homeless for a while, and she was trying to get over him and repair some semblance of her normal life, but she still talked about him, still couldn’t let go of the part of her front brain where he had set himself up and was doing some primitive interior decoration, while in the real world Jim was wandering around raving, on his way to becoming one of those shades you pass in dark alleys; I think he was actually living in a tunnel or in a train station, floridly hallucinating, if not actually, certainly metaphorically, and that was when he took his life. Because Philadelphia is the place of death. When, about the same time, they tried to gussy the city up for that film starring Tom Hanks, I felt like I knew the truth of the place and wasn’t going to be taken in. Doesn’t he die at the end of that film?

Next Isabella was going out with this guitar player guy, Pete, whose band, and I know I’m getting this wrong, was called Carnival of Shame. I think actually it was probably called Carnival of Souls, maybe, but let’s say it was called Carnival of Shame, because that’s a better name, and Carnival of Shame was this Iggy Pop-ish racket that was never really going anywhere, though it was plenty adorable, but when you ape minimalism there are real limitations to your expressive power if you are not able to play well, or not being able to play is not enough, as a friend of mine says. They were good guys, and earnest, and one of them was a front man and had that kind of outsized self-love that is (arguably) essential for front men, and while probably none of these guys ever died or made Philadelphia more of a place of death than it already was, they were tilting at the darkness I associate with Philadelphia, and that was what was good about them, and at some point Pete told Isabella about this band, he’d just heard, and Isabella told me. And the name of the band was Miracle Legion.

Wasn’t a band, on the surface, that had that much to do with death, except by inference, except insofar as rock and roll is either about sexual compulsion or death, and sexual compulsion, you know, is just one way of talking about death. Miracle Legion was nothing like what you would expect a band to sound like who were all about the advent of mortality. They sounded like R.E.M. is what everyone said, back then, and I had just gone through a whole period of revering R.E.M., of nearly religious feeling about R.E.M., which may sound a little silly now, because R.E.M. are utterly respectable now, they are great songwriters and good people, and they still have something uncanny about them occasionally, but they are no longer a band that you revere. But you revered them on the first album and a little bit on Fables of the Reconstruction, and a lot on Document, and then maybe you gave up a little bit once they became wildly famous. Miracle Legion was nothing like this. Nobody really knew about them much, even during their period of notoriety in discerning circles. Less so now. They were from New Haven, CT, and they were two guys, Mark Mulcahy and Mr. Ray Neal, and then various rhythm section players. The reason for the comparison to R.E.M. had to do with Ray Neal’s guitar playing, which was all plucky and arpeggiated, not unlike Pete Buck’s method of same. And Mark Mulcahy had a really plaintive tenor, which had something drawling about it though he was no southerner. In the same way that Syd Straw makes a lot out of her vowels, in a nearly southern way, Mark Mulcahy, in the Miracle Legion days, sounded like he had grown up in Tennessee. But whereas R.E.M. was kind of serious and dark and largely about Michael Stipe’s observational skills, Mulcahy’s songs were serious with transcendentalism and romanticism. He really believed, and believes still, in some transformative power of song and he put himself into everything and left a lot on the stage, in terms of a singing style. He could really sing. He could really, really sing. Not in a Broadway, oversinging kind of way, but he could take a rock song and tease out its possibilities until it seemed to be a thing of infinite layers. There were and are always moments in Miracle Legion’s oeuvre that completely transport a listener—today, e.g., I was listening to Drenched, of which more below, and I got stuck on “Sea Hag,” for a while, and “Sea Hag” builds a lot, but then it shifts registers entirely in the end section, it breaks wide open, like a trunk full of unsaid things, with the words “Just to see if you could never lie . . . Just to see if you could never lie!” and the shift, up a third, I think, in the melody. I defy you not to be moved by the abandonment of the thing.

The first album I got, the one that Isabella told me about, was called Surprise! Surprise! Surprise! There was one before that, en EP, called The Backyard, but Surprise! Surprise! Surprise! was on Rough Trade, a label with cachet, and it was much more ambitious than the EP. Rough Trade signaled ambition. My feeling about the late eighties, as I have said before, was that they represented a uniquely desperate microclimate, the microclimate of after Reagan, and there was the possibility that something better could come along, after Reagan, but in fact, nothing better came along, what came along was even worse, and there was a way that what was promising just a few years before (Midwestern hardcore), suddenly seemed less promising, and it was possible to feel like there wasn’t much hope as far as music was concerned, or it is possible in retrospect to feel like we were all waiting around for Slanted and Enchanted to be released, or Nevermind, and it was in this mannerist period, this period of half-measures, that Surprise! Surprise! Surprise! came out, and it was as good as its name, even if the sound wasn’t overarranged, or worked over, or what have you, the songs were great, and the singing was great, really extraordinary, and Surprise! Surprise! Surprise! wasn’t about giving up, at all, it was about trying to feel something elemental and important, and trying to convert the base metal of George H. W. Bush into something else, some gold, I suppose. Anyway, the next album I acquired by Miracle Legion was this live album they made, or a mixture of studio tracks and some live tracks with played with Pere Ubu (still among my very favorite bands), and you can hear how excited Mark Mulcahy is on the live recording, to be playing alongside some legends, and in general, for me, this recording solidified what was great about Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!, and promised even more.

Then: the rhythm section left, or retired from the band, and Mark and Ray Neal went off to Minnesota, to Prince’s studio, I believe, and made Me and Mr. Ray, which in large measure consists of just the two of them. When I’m talking about what was good about the eighties, what I’m talking about is that truly skeletal recordings could be made with nothing like what you associate with a traditional rock band, and still be better than things happening more commercially at the same time, and Me and Mr. Ray, a really beautiful record that ranges across art rock, folk and country influence, and singer-songwriter material, all of it delivered in Mulcahy’s plaintive style, as though his life was on the line most of the time, or like his romance was doomed, which does, in fact, seem to be part of the album, the doomed romance mood, on “And then?,” which starts with the line “Like a bluebird, into the lion’s den.” No song on the album falls into a single genre with any consistency, the songs rush in and out of certainty and improbability and impulsiveness, “And I tried to save the whole wide world, but I swear that I’ve been here before.” The R.E.M. comparison, by this benchmark in the band’s history, no longer has any merit at all, because it’s precisely their eccentricity, Mulcahy’s voice, and the way the music is so restless, that makes them their own subgenre, their own little wave of change, you can hear them whispering and counting off between numbers, and the arrangements have nothing fancy to them (like “Cold Shoulder Balcony,” about the unreliable lover who haunts the whole album, consists of double-tracked vocal, percussion and recorder, nothing else), but the songs are so original, and the performances so vital, that the album sounds like nothing that was happening at the time. The removal of instrumental layering, like the removal of other possibilities, like the elimination of dignity and grace on the international socio-political stage, for us who lived through those years as adults, made other things happen, and in this way a medium is remade, and though the specter of loss is everywhere, still you have that flickering sensation, redemption, and no song on the album expresses this better than the last song, whose title I have recently mangled live on the radio, so let me get it exactly right this time: “Gigantic Transatlantic Phone Call,” and since it appears just after “Cold Shoulder Balcony,” which has the line “she’s the one from germany,” and the line, “indulgence is the key word,” it’s not hard to think that there is a doomed international romance that Mulcahy is limning here, for the appreciation of his fan base, but here it get’s a full unpacking, “I get a phone call tomorrow,/ I never knew could bring such sorrow,/Go away you say/Go away, go away.” The first verse! And then: “I get a phone call tomorrow/the first time you called in a month or two/but good news takes time/There’s a little bad news on the line.” Third verse: “I get a phone call tomorrow/I’m staying here, I’m not coming home/Time changes fly/Times changed, so did I.” Fourth verse: “I get a phone call tomorrow/I’m happy now, I love you/Can I stay? I say/Can I stay? Can I stay?” The accompaniment is just some strumming in the open style that I associate with Mulcahy’s playing, with Ray Neal plucking a little, and there’s some organ, and that’s it. And so why does it cause such copious weeping? The lyric, I would guess, was basically written flat out, no worry about whether it rhymed, scanned properly, or was more than allusive. I bet it was the truth, and therefore is the truth, and therefore there was no worry about whether it was perfectly adequate, because, in any event, it was going to be the melody and the performance that was going to carry the song. Let’s say he wrote it in one sitting! Let’s say they recorded it in a day or two! It’s better than almost anything in the entire decade, the entire fucking degraded decade that was the nineteen-eighties, because it’s about how people actually lived, and how they felt, and it’s about, in truth, American engagement with the world abroad, the Old Europe, and the way was difficult, and is difficult, to be part of that transatlantic thing, that migration out of our parochial obsessions here in the United States; it’s a masterpiece of a song, really, a song of such perfection that it’s hard not to marvel at it, still, even at this distance.

After Miracle Legion made this album, Me and Mr. Ray, they got properly noticed, and because they were properly noticed, they were given some money, and they secured a reliable new rhythm section, and they went out and made a legitimately polished album with a well-known producer (John Porter, who had also produced the Smiths), an album more or less like they ought to have done long before, had their careers been at all shapely, and the album was called Drenched, and immediately upon making it and upon going on tour, they got into some kind of legal scuffle with their label, and that was sort of the beginning of the end. I think long after, four years after, they finally regained control of their name and made one last album, Portrait of a Damaged Family, which title might have applied to the band themselves after all they’d been through, but before all of that they made Drenched, which is loaded to the innermost grooves with really amazing songs, all arranged with great skill and joy. The thrill here is what a perennially thwarted band must have felt upon at last having the kind of budget that might enable them to make a fully articulated recorded document. For me, “Sea Hag” is best, but “Snacks and Candy,” about racist mobs in Bensonhurst, and “So Good,” and “Little Blue Light” are all great, and then there’s the single “Out to Play,” which has the old guitar-through-the-Leslie-cabinet sound, I think, and it works the one-four chord progression as though it had not been used endlessly, and the lyric is straight romance, one hundred percent, and I can tell you that I bought this album while falling in love with someone in a totally unrequited way, back when it first came out, and the song “Out to Play” had some kind of powerful ability to articulate that mood, especially the big last verse that starts with “Tumbleweed, you are my thrill! But will you ever stand still?” A pop song, to be sure, with a pop song vocabulary, and a very traditional lyrical subject, but somehow more than that, too, and you’d think that the label would have been very happy, and that the song would have been a big hit, but it wasn’t, probably because of the legal squabbles, and, in fact, the band almost went immediately into turnaround, for four years. Mulcahy did form a new group, an idea of a band, Polaris, whose sole function, in those leaner years, was the to be the house band for The Adventures of Pete and Pete, a kid’s show on Nickelodeon. And then, after Pete and Pete got cancelled, and after the Miracle Legion reunion album, he embarked on a solo career, most of it self-released.

In thinking about all of this, the significance of this band to me, that this band came to me from the place of death, basically made available to me by a person with whom I had once been in love, that the band somehow stood for something genuine and subtle and moving that had to do with being in love, indeed, I decided that I should look into what Mulcahy has been doing since the breakup of Miracle Legion, because I somehow parted company with his work, though I didn’t mean to (this stuff just happens sometimes), and so I bought his solo album In Pursuit of Your Happiness (2006). Now, I expected that the music would be different. Because time has passed. I expected the music would have migrated elsewhere from the youthful exuberance and transcendentalism of the Miracle Legion albums, and it’s true that I had read up a little, and I knew that Mulcahy’s life has not been without significant hardship, and so maybe I would not have been surprised had you told me that all was not roses on In Pursuit of Your Happiness. But it’s more than that. In Pursuit of Your Happiness is an incredibly sad album. An album that hovers around loss and disappointment throughout its entirety, as much as anything I have heard in a while, almost in the way that In Utero was of such ghastly clinical depression that, at first, I found it almost unlistenable. In Pursuit of Your Happiness was, is, that sad.

There was “Hey Self-Defeater,” a Mulcahy song from an earlier solo album, Fathering (1997), which I learned of because Syd Straw has been covering it for a while, and it is shockingly sad, but which also has the virtue of being an example of self-knowledge, and what can be better than self-knowledge? What liberates us from sadness like self-knowledge? When absolute despondency is the subject of song, it is always made less bruising by self-knowledge. This is one of the lessons when watching the people you love drag themselves through their appointments, unable to get where they want to get. Self-knowledge counts! “Never mind overjoyed, start with happy . . .,” the first line of “Self-Defeater.” Nick Hornby has already written about this song, so I’m not going to belabor it. But I bring it up only to say that: Fathering is blue, yes, and In Pursuit of Your Happiness is, perhaps, even more so.

Or maybe I’m saying: mid-career is my subject, here, and perhaps it is always my theme now, the vicissitudes of mid-life, the way in which we all love the young singer, the one with all the energy, and then when he is trudging along in middle age we abandon him like it’s the fact that he has gray hair and an extra few pounds has affected his songwriting. The world has no mercy, only its inhabitants are capable of mercy, fleetingly, irresolutely, they often keep it themselves, and all these great artists are trying to do is to help themselves to a bit of grace and dignity, and a bit of an honest living, through these gifts they possess, and if they are abraded by the twenty prior years of living on people’s living room floors, should it be any other way? The cause and effect relationship is direct: your want your rock and roll to burn bright but that is what gives you despondent and beleaguered middle age songwriters. It is your duty, if you have class at all, to listen to this later work, and to attempt to find in the subtlety of the middle career, the accepting of death that is at the heart of the truly enlightened person, and if Mulcahy watched the worst thing happen, his wife’s sudden and incredibly tragic death in 2008, and managed to get through it, we should be according him some real respect. Mulcahy is a true artist, a singer without compare, and a survivor, and he deserves much more than he has got in his career. Or: middle career is when all the miracles cease, when the age of miracles is long gone, and there is only work, and the attempt to fit in the work around pressing responsibilities, like chopping your own fucking wood for the fucking wood stove, or trying to keep the auditors at the IRS at bay, or raising the twins yourself, after your wife is gone. The miracles are done! What now?

And so we have this album In Pursuit of YOUR Happiness. Not mine, yours, an emphasis on looking outward. Recorded and released two years before Mulcahy’s loss of 2008. I’m not going to pass through In Pursuit of Your Happiness track by track, except to say that the author of this album has lately worked in musical theater, has collaborated on some operatic material with Ben Katchor, so keyboards play a more central role on this later work than in the Miracle Legion days, and, yes, Mulcahy’s voice is now a note or two closer to a baritone than it once was, and, yes, it’s true, one misses, a little bit, Mr. Ray Neal, whose pealing McGuinn-style guitar complimented Mulchay’s singing in an electrifying way. Still, the album is great nonetheless, and grows on you in ways you don’t immediately suspect it will, with bits of candor and pathos spilling out where unsuspected, on songs like the amazing “Nothing But a Silver Medal Will Do,” which mines some of the self-knowledge of “Self-Defeater,” and on “I Have Patience,” which has the Velvets guitar part, but some lyrics of startling grimness: “The things I want I want to destroy,” etc. And yet what I really want to talk about is the album’s closer (well, it’s the closer if you leave aside the hidden track, which is just Mulcahy singing to his own acoustic guitar, a tossed-off second farewell that is so spectacular, and so ominous, that you wish fervently that he made an album that was that intimate, that unadorned, perhaps when the girls have to bed, at night, and he alone is awake in the house), “He Vanished,” a song about suicide, in which his wife, Melissa, turns up, as “Peaches,” in the lyric, she being the person who alerts Mark, the narrator, to the loss of his friend, a former musical collaborator, “It’s over, it’s over, stormy, stormy, stormy bad news,” Mulcahy speaks, as he does throughout the verses, over a kind of a soul vamp, you could imagine Otis Redding of Smokey Robinson trying to sell the song in the same way, underselling it, letting the eulogy do the eulogizing, and it really does. He sings only in the chorus, where the line “He Vanished,” repeated without undue amendment, will strike anyone who has suffered through a sudden loss, and that is everyone, is it not, will not fail to strike close to inmost organs of sympathy. And in the last verse, when gets to “It’s always gonna hurt a little down the road,/We’ll all cry and say why,/ I guess you know best,/ or at least you think you do,/ not this time . . . ” and there’s all the wisdom, dashed off like it cost nothing, when instead it cost a great deal, but understated, spoken, when Mulcahy has such an amazing voice, a voice whose expressive power, now that it is not quite as perfect a choirboy tenor as before, is only enhanced, and the wisdom here is of the kind that popular music rarely gets to: proposition (“maybe you know best”), reversal (“or at least you think you do”), and antithesis (“not this time”), these coexist right before the couplet “You’re a real treasure/it’s been a pleasure,” the entirety devoted to a fellow player, or so it seems, and this several years before Mulcahy went through the loss of his wife, got an extra large helping of unwanted human wisdom, and that leads me to another song, a stand-alone single, called “Don’t Talk Crazy,” that came out in 2006, I believe, an anti-war song, all keyboards and voice, no rhythm section, with this soul aspect to it (again), in that the chorus is, on the studio version, sung in falsetto, and the verses detailing the plight of the soldier alone in the hospital bed, worrying over the loved ones at home, and the choruses sung in turn by the lover, something archetypal about the cast here, archetypal lovers, like Dido and Aeneis or Orpheus and Eurydice, and I would resist them a little, were it not for the absolute reduction and nakedness of the treatment, and Mulcahy’s innocent voice, because that’s what it sounds like, and when we arrive at “I’m a part of what I was,/I wanted to carry my daughter up to bed at night,” shattering, a shattering song, really, the kind that people recoil from because it’s too demanding, because it says some things that people don’t want from their entertainment, and if that’s not enough, and it’s plenty, really, there’s a video of the thing, recorded just up the street from where I’m writing these lines, at the Brooklyn Public Library, and in the video Mulcahy, who used to be one of those shockingly beautiful young men who sang in a band, is now a slightly older guy, a slightly rumpled guy in a smart suit, the kind of suit that he was emphatically measured for, and there’s a band that is no kind of rock and roll band, really, more a chamber orchestra, and they start the song, in this slightly orange interior, and Mulcahy is frozen, perhaps nervous, or perhaps just understanding what is needed, and he doesn’t move really, doesn’t add an extra gesture, just stands at the microphone singing the words, with a music stand in front of him, and it was only the second time through watching that I realized he was singing “Don’t Talk Crazy” on this occasion after his wife’s death, and that that allegorical layer was in the performance somewhere, whether he wanted it to be or not, for the informed viewer, anyhow, and the performance is so beautiful, so stunning, and so deeply vulnerable, so subtly griefstricken, that it’s one of those moments that make music a form that one reaches for when there are no other handholds, and, again, I think that these are the moments that frighten off a lot of listeners, who just want some song to get high too, or to dance too, or to listen to on the subway, or to play under the first course of their dinner party, and those are all fine motives, really, because we are all human, and we can’t feel like this all the time, this permeable, but this video, and this song, and this recent work of Mulcahy, who is just trying to make records, and trying to have a career while raising the twin girls, this is the kind of work that makes the popular song an art, and it’s never an art anymore. It really isn’t. We look back on that stuff from the past, like Blood On the Tracks, or Neil Young’s On the Beach, or Song of Leonard Cohen, or Joni Mitchell’s Blue, or Astral Weeks, or Meredith Monk’s Dolmen Music, or Pere Ubu on Dub Housing, and we think we think where are those albums now? Where are the people who are making stuff like that? Stuff that reminds you that you are, in fact, not alone, as you stride though this place of death and loss? The stuff is happening all around you all the time, it’s there, it’s just that the people who sell things have no use for it, but it’s here’s nonetheless. Here’s some art.


Rick Moody is the author of five novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and most recently a volume of essays entitled ON CELESTIAL MUSIC. The Wingdale Community Singers, in which he plays and sings, have released three albums, of which the most recent is NIGHT, SLEEP, DEATH (on Blue Chopsticks/Drag City). His new novel will be released in 2015. More from this author →