She’s Bad: Mary Coughlan sings up a storm at the recent Tribute to Kirsty MacColl in London
If Holiday, Piaf and Garland wrote the torch-singer’s handbook between them, Irish siren Mary Coughlan has spent the best part of her 54 years doing her utmost to surpass to their collective example and write the final chapter.
But despite her best efforts at self-destruction, she has come through the requisite abused childhood, the drug addiction, alcoholism and suicide attempt, psychiatric treatment and hospitalisation, the car crashes (marital and literal) and dodgy recording contracts to emerge as one of the genre’s most magnificent interpreters: a genuine survivor who, in those darkly wry Kirsty MacColl lyrics that she nails so instinctively, has “been an awful woman all my life”. And who has also, with the great torch-singer’s alchemy, transformed that ‘awfulness’ into the sublime ability to hold her audience entranced as she spins her musical tales, with their self-referential undertones, in a voice like honeyed whiskey poured over gravel.
Coughlan’s autobiography – Bloody Mary, My Story (Hachette, published on 4th November) – could have been just another misery memoir. Instead, it’s a raw, often bawdy and rollicking, clear-eyed look at the several lives she’s packed into half a century.
From the prologue, in which she is sharing the hearse with her mother’s coffin and issues a last, desperate plea for a way to take control of the chaos, to the domesticity and gentle optimism of the closing pages, a remarkable lack of bitterness and self-pity is one of the book’s most compelling qualities.
The journey to sobriety requires the ransacking of some pretty appalling memories, but there are also countless high spots and occasional passages of almost Utopian tranquillity. Who would have thought, for example, that the hell-raising Mary who blazes her way across the music business was also a one-time macrobiotic fanatic drifting through a commune-style existence in the dwindling wake of the hippy movement?
Coughlan never shirks responsibility for her own behaviour, least of all in the heartbreaking – and frustrating, for everybody who has ever fallen under the spell of her voice or worked hard to make it heard – passages that deal with her alcohol intake and its impact on her children. But it’s always clear that to a great extent, this is a shared responsibility. The sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of the shadowy grandfather and uncle who stalk the early pages, her mother’s textbook denial, and the relentless beatings meted out by her father (there is ultimately rapprochement, forgiveness, a coming to terms) were surely the triggers for teenaged Mary’s break for freedom, her flight to London, and a restless spirit that, even as others spotted her considerable singing talent, would find ever more ingenious ways to undermine and waste it.
Given the amount of time she’s spent under the influence of one recreational substance or another, it’s a wonder that Coughlan can still find her way through the lyrics of a song, let alone recall the finer details of such a roller-coaster life with such clarity. Her professional breakthrough came in 1985, with an invitation to appear on The Late Late Show. Her spontaneous acapella rendition of “Strange Fruit” remains one of the programme’s watershed moments, blasting her into the nation’s consciousness as a fascinating interpreter of lyrics who could stake a claim to her own territory where jazz, folk and blues and meet. Even by that stage, she’d lived a hell of a life and, by her own admission, was hardly prepared for the kind of exposure, expectations and above all, business decisions that come with such rapid stardom.
However – always cunning when it came to camouflaging her dependencies (at one point, she kept the vodka hidden behind a life ring on the seafront close to her home; the book is peppered with such darkly humorous anecdotes) – she found a niche in Ireland’s cultural set, even trying her hand at film acting in Neil Jordan’s High Spirits, and soon found a loyal international audience as a singer. Coughlan’s descriptions of how outward appearances were so at variance with her inner turmoil go well beyond the usual triumph-over-tragedy truisms of the average showbiz autobiography.
Equally, Bloody Mary is a fascinating account of the resilience of a great talent, and how difficult it is to sustain a level of success in an industry that is notoriously difficult to navigate. Personal troubles aside, Coughlan has endured most of the clichéd setbacks familiar to any performer who’s survived beyond their first 10 minutes in the spotlight.
And she clearly is a survivor, indomitable in spite of herself, finally at peace with her talent and, as she says, now singing some of the best material she has ever performed: bleak, Brechtian torch songs that resonate with grim wit, longing and, yes indeed, hope. Bloody Mary offers a powerful explanation of how the clash of experience and circumstance strikes something unique in a singer’s voice and enhances the revelatory quality of the lyrics she sings.
The House of Ill Repute, Coughlan’s most recent album, is being re-released to coincide with the publication of her autobiography, complete with new tracks.