Mary Margaret O’Hara at Pop Montreal, Oct. 3, 2010

by Carl Wilson

Sometimes people speak of the “physical genius” of an athlete such as Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky or Roger Federer – the way what they do, in the bugged-out eyes of self-consciously-more-mortal players and spectators, can seem beyond not just rational understanding but even instinctive possibility.

Malcolm Gladwell tried to define it as some kind of combination of practice and a certain breed of imagination, and David Foster Wallace more exquisitely wrote about “kinetic beauty” – “It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.” And there certainly exists a parallel kind of performative genius in artists, which in cases such as Bruce Springsteen or Tina Turner bears a near relationship to that athletic quality, and in others such as Elvis or Prince a closer kinship to the preacher’s or shaman’s power. (And all of them, to contradict the great DFW for a moment, have plenty to do with sex and cultural norms – in fact, they’re a leading cause of both.)

But the most intense experiences of performative genius I’ve had, perhaps because of whatever kinetic handicaps I carry with me, tend to be of a slightly different stripe. I’d like to think that they would be equally universal if as many people could see them. On the other hand, most of the artists who bear this gift seem to become stuck in the “cult” category of the entertainment business, so maybe it’s not so. You might call it psycho-kinetic beauty, or Tourettic beauty: It’s a rendering of the mind-body problem without reconciliation but also without compromise. As if the mind and body were reversing their positions in the usual conflict, such that the body is thinking and the mind is dancing, or the body is writing a sonnet and the mind is having an orgasm.

Either way, it doesn’t exactly look like a person becoming more-than-normal, superhuman; it looks like a person becoming other-than-normal, extrahuman. With apologies to Wallace again, if any mode of human activity almost escapes sex and cultural norms, this would be my pick. Although that’s also what’s sexy about it.

David Thomas of the band Pere Ubu ranting and screeching; Ornette Coleman, his saxophone twittering not in musical notes but in the tongues of beasts; the Dutch band The Ex turning themselves into a collective star cluster or the bumps of a spine twisting in epileptic convulsion; Shane McGowan of the Pogues, his body wrecked, propped up against the mic stand like a sail hung on a mast or a patient on an IV stand, yet singing with the power of Prospero summoning a monsoon. Wherever it arises, when you’re in the room with it, you are very likely to feel that you are seeing the best performance that ever happened in the world.

As Wallace says of Federer, this quality doesn’t quite survive transmission or recording by other media; finding out why not, whether by science or phenomenology, would make a good dissertation (title it “The Federer Paradox”).

The answer may have something to do with the career path of Mary Margaret O’Hara, who was introduced almost rudely not long ago by CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi as someone who is perhaps less famous for what she’s achieved (primarily, the 1988 album Miss America, which regularly appears on lists of the best pop records ever made) than for what she hasn’t (mainly, getting famous, or making any more albums since then).

It obviously has to do as well with the music industry’s discomfort with her sort of unclassifiable gift, with Canada on a bunch of levels (as experienced from within, as perceived from outside) and with her own eccentricities: Until this week, partly due to missed chances but mainly because chances are scarce, I’d never seen her give a full-length concert. Only cameo appearances at other people’s shows, where she’d sometimes be stunning and other times stunned — seeming as if she was totally unprepared, hesitant to join in, derailed by the whole situation. On occasion she barely sings at all.

It might be, as my friend Michael likes to think, that she sizes up the situation rapidly and thinks, “There’s no music going on here, nothing for me to do.” It might be modesty and spectacular shyness. Or maybe she is just prone to confusion.

Even then, Michael might be kind of right: At her show in Montreal last weekend, the kind of unexpected treat-out-of-pop-legend-history that’s one of the Pop Montreal festival’s specialties, you could see that she’s less tuned out than overly tuned in. She would notice someone dropping their phone halfway back the hall. She would catch a word in the middle of her own sentence – whether singing or speaking – and start free-associating hilariously on it.

She would seem to notice a half-hoarse intonation in a note she’d sung and jump on it, twisting it into an actual horse braying and snorting, then seamlessly return to the groove or the melody she’d been teasing around the stage a moment before. Remember that her sister Catherine O’Hara is part of (one or two of) the past few decades’ most important clutch of improvisational comedians. This is that, as music.

And as comedy too. The hardest part of writing this is to explain how funny Mary Margaret is. Telling us we were a great audience, she mumbled, “You’re all so nice, you should be treated like baby seals.” (Petted? Clubbed? Eaten?) When there was a call-and-response bit on a chorus, and the audience, uncoached, failed to come in the very first time, she immediately sneered, “Losers.” You maybe just chuckled now. We gasped, we literally fell off of our plush little cabaret chairs. It was the mass and velocity of the gesture and verbiage that was coming at us, like tennis balls being fired by some out-of-control pitching machine, that was overwhelming.

It all happened by micro-instants. It was like Koyaanisqatsi or some other stop-motion photographic film, compared to the linear, zoom-in emotional arc of most performances. It was everywhere if it was anywhere. As Michael said, as soon as you can guess where she’s going, then she goes somewhere else. She was throwing away ideas and emotions as quickly as she generated them, and while it could read as careless it was actually rigorous: Why keep them? They’re already done!

But then she would freeze the strobe and simply sing the heaven out of some ballad, like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” or her own “Dear Darling,” in a way that made you reflexively think “Billie Holiday,” not because O’Hara’s voice sounds similarly but because you thought this must have been what it would like to be in some 1940s club hearing Holiday interpret every syllable and note with such extreme musicality, humanity and particularity. At times, with her tendency to reticence, O’Hara would call up a guest, and then ask them later to come up again, and they’d call out from the crowd, “Mary, I think people want to hear you sing.” We were always so grateful.

Aside from Miss America tracks and the few covers I knew, I couldn’t tell which songs were her own (and her collaborators’, guitarist Rusty McCarthy chief among them for more than three decades), because she’s in the league of the standards composers as a maker of melodies and lyrics. That element’s often downplayed when Miss America gets praised, just because her voice is so conspicuously out-of-ballpark. Let’s do hope, in defiance of all sense and reason, that these new ones make it to another record.

It was all like an inside-out version of how you feel reading a great novelist, the kind – Dostoevsky, Robert Musil – who implicitly tell you that laughter and weeping are one and the same because, as Andre Breton said, “Beauty will be convulsive if it is at all.” It makes nonsense of their separations into genres or even into “beats” in a drama – scenes are “light” and then “get dark.” The body knows in its spasms that light and dark are part of one thing, the flicker of reality.

There were calls toward the end, at the encore, for one of her best-known songs, “Body’s in Trouble.” She shrugged them off for her own reasons, but it is her manifesto, with its caressing but also battering rhythms and textures: not the reconciliation to having a body but the realization that the body’s will, its wisdom, its stubborn it-ness, means that “having” a body is not at all the right description – it has you, and that’s its problem.

Oh you just want to take somebody
Your body won’t let you
You just want to, want to hear somebody
And a body won’t let you
You just want to ride somebody
Oh a body won’t let you
Who do you talk who, who do you talk to?
Who do you talk to? Who?
When a body’s in trouble, a body’s in trouble
When a body’s in trouble, in trouble, in trouble
When a body’s in a trouble
Oh, when a body’s in trouble
Who who who do you talk to?
Oh who oh who oh

Some moments of Mary Margaret O’Hara – but remember Federer’s Paradox about reproducing kinetic beauty, much less the psycho-kinetic kind.

An early appearance with her first band, Songship – must be circa 1980? The host describes her, awkwardly but tellingly, as a “combination of a sex symbol and Howdy Doody.”

Classic performance of “When You Know Why You’re Happy” on Night Music, early 1980s.

The Body’s In Trouble video

A newer song

In 2007 at the Edmonton Folk Festival

At her annual Martian Awareness Ball (for St. Patrick’s Day) in Toronto

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2 Comments

Filed under carl wilson, comedy, music, other

2 responses to “Mary Margaret O’Hara at Pop Montreal, Oct. 3, 2010

  1. Thanks for this, Carl. I was talking to a friend last week about MMO’H, and have been rediscovering Miss America.

    To your list of “cult” artists becoming other-than-normal onstage, I might add the young, pre-gym body Bob Mould stumbling around and sweating beneath a massive Flying V.

    (As strange as it may sound now, I’d even add the teenage Angus Young to that list, before the schoolboy garb and the duckwalking, etc. became too fixed and schticky. Back when he was the self-conscious parody of the sexy guitar hero. Though he still sort of is.)

  2. Pingback: The Human is an Awkward Animal | Broken Atlas