This is how I came to know about the man who wrote that couplet, which is–like the rest of his work–quite unlike anything that exists in the current rock landscape:
My older son heard Michael’s first album, 620 West Surf, playing in a dorm room at college. Joe thought it was one of the best albums he’d heard that year and bought his own copy. His younger brother, Owen, bought a copy on the basis of Joe’s recommendation and was similarly knocked out. When Michael’s second album, Gethsemane, came out, Owen was not just knocked out but flattened. He bought another copy and gave it to me for Father’s Day in 1993.
My first listen to Gethsemane is one of the great events of my life as a rock music fan. It wasn’t so much the record itself, good as it was, as the man on the record. Not since I first heard Bruce Springsteen singing “Rosalita” had I heard someone who excited me so much as a listener, who turned my dials so high, who just made me feel so fucking happy to have ears. I used lyrics from one of Michael’s songs in my novel Insomnia, and we got to know each other that way. I have listened to some of the songs on this new album go from rough demos to finished tracks, and the result–I’m only speaking for myself, you know–is one of the three or four most remarkable albums I’ve ever heard. That’s not a critical judgement, mind you, but one that comes direct from my heart–and my nerve-endings. Like the man said, “I ain’t no monkey and I know what I like.”
Michael came along at a good time for me; a vital time. Until Owen handed me Gethsemane on Father’s Day two years ago, I had an idea that I had finally gotten too old to rock and roll, had lost my taste and feel for it, and I can’t tell you how sad that made me. Rock has been a part of my life since I first heard Jerry Lee Lewis yelling “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” from my mother’s Philco. She changed the station to Perry Como; I changed it back; she changed it to Dino Martino; I changed it back again; she gave up in disgust and there it stayed, tuned to the big beat of the pounding pianos and screaming guitars, for the next forty years or so. Rock–the disco, the punk, the anthems–has expanded my life, made it joyful, and maybe saved it once or twice. It saved my sanity for sure, because rock is the most wonderful music on earth. “It just makes people feel good,” Fats Domino once said, and how right he was.
To see all that slip away was a little like dying. I never thought the music had died, God, no; I could see my kids digging everyone from Pearl Jam to Ministry and knew it was my problem, not theirs, and certainly not the music’s. Then Michael shows up, the way someone always seems to show up when you’re feeling dark and not much like dancing anymore. The older kid found him, gave him to the younger kid, and the younger kid gave him to me like a cool drink when I was thirsty. I listened, and there was all of the old magic in new hands.
Michael McDermott is the great album that Gethsemane almost was, it seems to me. I’ve listened to it over and over, and there’s no letdown. You know how it usually is: the hooks get dull and you move on to the next one. On rare albums–Born to Run, Wavelength, the first Marshall Crenshaw record–they get sharper and sharper until finally there’s blood on the tracks. And for me, that’s what rock and roll music has always been about: upping the emotional ante until it hurts and heals in equal measure, until the blood shows and you feel like your face is about to blow off.
To those hooks Michael McDermott had added lyrical depth and texture that is startling in this minimalist age. He has a poet’s eye and the half-laughing, half-sorrowful sensibility of Catholic guilt and remembrance. There are a lot of saints and devils hiding around the corners here, and a lot of beauty with sharp thorns of regret hidden inside: Virginia, Charlie Boy’s girlfriend, for instance, who waits on the lovers’ favorite hill, not with longing but “with the coldest eyes you’ve ever seen.”
Michael McDermott’s music, like Springsteen’s and Van Morrison’s, helped me to find a part of myself that wasn’t lost, as I had feared, but only misplaced. That’s why we love the ones who are really good at it, I think: because they give us back ourselves, all dusted and shined up, and they do it with a smile. This record makes me feel bigger than myself–the way I did at nine, listening to Jerry Lee.
I’m always startled by the inability of words to express how good really good rock and roll music can be, but I always know it when I hear it…and besides, words are all I have. So let me say it simple: Michael McDermott is a great artist, and this is a great album. Listen and see if you don’t agree.