Caught by the River

Mary Margaret O’Hara’s “Miss America”

29th October 2007

“Every time I told a friend I’d called it Miss America, they laughed”, said Mary Margaret O’Hara in another lifetime, in another place, to another me. She’d made this album, in Toronto and Wales. It was 1988. She spent about four years working it out (when she wasn‘t painting); about two weeks recording it. It wasn’t like anything else. It was Al Green and Patsy Cline and W B Yeats and yet none of these. It was soul and blues and country but it wasn‘t. It was a war against cliché. It made feelings felt.

The kind reviews said “A constellation is born” and “as deep a shade of delirium as I‘ve heard since Astral Weeks“. The unkind ones said, “Dementia’s not something you expect of a singer-songwriter”. I didn’t just make that up: they really said that. The day after meeting Mary I went to see Niagara Falls and although it was pretty good – I imagine it probably still is – it didn’t have half the impact Miss America had on me. Mary said, “I have a long history of being told I have no rhythm, and of people saying they’ve heard chickens sing better.”

Remember, this was 1988, before it all went dead.

She was one of seven children. Her sister Catherine is a successful comic actress; you’ve seen her in movies and stuff.

Miss America gave you something to cry about. It wondered why it is that as soon as you know you’re happy, you can’t be happy. Its body was in trouble, but it lifted you up by insisting you would be loved again on a new day.

“Electric”, she told me, explaining how her mind worked. “Busybody”, she added. Then she said, “Buzz”. She was better than articulate; she was really funny.

There were unforgettable, nerve-jangling live shows, which threatened to implode while her voice tried to correct things it hadn‘t got wrong. You couldn’t look away. She was the underdog, the outsider. There was almost a sort of career – the thing spawning monsters with Morrissey, the Christmas E.P., the Apartment Hunting soundtrack eleven years later. Effectively, though, she was gone like blue smoke on a lake. I expect she’s happy away from any kind of glare. But the legend feeds on this one hairline fracture of a record, this wild-eyed absent-minded priestess, this Crazy Jane‘s emerald, this jazz poem, this tactile prayer for something beyond love.


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