Michael McDermott’s story is the classic tale of survival, perseverance, love and redemption. The first half begins with youthful innocence, a dream-come-true recording contract, a classic debut album heralded by the media, and a downward spiral with seemingly no bottom. The second half begins with love and the woman that would become his wife, Heather Horton, their baby girl, and a collection of achingly honest songs born of new inspiration that are amongst the very best of his ten album career.
The chapters in between innocence lost and love-fueled redemption are about McDermott’s survival as he tears down the walls between himself and his audience to cultivate an intimate and faithful connection that has kept him going through the years. On stage, he pours every ounce of himself into the songs and delivers a sermon of a show that in his own words “is as much for the outcast as it is the congregation.” It is more often than not a cathartic audience experience as McDermott leads them through the explorations of the dark corners of life’s journey, while uncovering the middle class truths of their own lives.
McDermott got off to a fast start when he released his first album 620 W. Surf. The music media heralded him with comparisons to rock n’ roll’s godlike, “The new Springsteen…Truly singular lyrics…Like Dylan…One of his generation’s greatest talents,” they wrote. Pretty heady stuff for a 20-year old kid of Irish descent who’d barely traveled further from his Southside Chicago neighborhood than Wrigley Field.
The music business pays attention when your introduction to the world is accompanied by the names Azoff and Koppelman. As a young A&R man, Brian Koppelman heard the buzz that was coming out of the Chicago coffeehouse scene where McDermott was making the rounds. He swooped in and signed him to Giant Records, the label that Warner Music had just bankrolled for already legendary impresario Irving Azoff.
MTV, Rolling Stone, the New York Times, chart topping radio airplay, besieging label promotion. It was all there. A new artist could not dream for anything more. Even author Stephen King, well known for his affinity to quote rock lyrics in his mega-selling novels, wrote, “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 (expletive) happy to have ears.”
And then, as fast as it started, came the skidding halt. “By the time I was 24, I was over,” the singer-songwriter says. “Really, I was kind of over.” Maybe it was the hype, or the timing was wrong. Who knows? The music biz is full of stories of songwriting singers with next-coming honors that end with broken dreams. Sometimes it just doesn’t work. McDermott acknowledges that he had something, perhaps a lot, to do with it. He was young, naïve, free spirited and believed the hype. With no idea how to reconcile his future path with his sudden dream-come-true life, and no one he trusted enough to guide him, he responded by going off the rails, living the rock n’ roll fantasy of drugs, alcohol, fast lane parties, strippers, mobsters, jail…you name it, he did it. He went out of control and scared the hell out of the people close to him.
Michael slipped so far down that Brian Koppelman, who went on to become a Hollywood screenwriter, admits that his first film, the 1998 poker cult-classic Rounders, carried a lot of his experiences with McDermott within its narrative. Matt Damon’s gambling protagonist actually shared the songwriter’s stage name (they call him “Mike” in the movie), while Edward Norton’s character, an out-of-luck ex-con with big debts to pay, carried the surname Murphy, McDermott’s actual birthright. Though they gave their hero his name, Koppelman and screenwriting partner David Levien both admitted that McDermott aligned more with the Murphy character, a notorious screw-up who just can’t seem to catch a break.
Between his own self-destruction and the recording industry shakeup that marked the mid-1990s, McDermott found himself without a contract and awash in debt and self-doubt. “Throughout the years, I had continued to feel like I was on a mission, of sorts, singing spiritual songs,” he once said, “but never really feeling good about the other elements of my life.”
Understandably, he’s found positive inspiration in his wife and daughter and having at last become more comfortable in his own skin, scarred but smarter, McDermott is making more life-affirming choices. It’s reflected in his last two self released albums, Hit Me Back and Hey La Hey, which include some of the strongest and most profound songs that he has written.
In 2013, McDermott and Horton introduced a new band, The Westies, another slice of McDermott’s pie. More folk than rock, The Westies are a rootsy Americana band complete with steel guitar, mandolin, fiddle, and stand-up bass. It’s classic McDermott, but this time through the eyes and soul of his faux-famous alter ego, Johnny Darkstar.
There’s another quote by Stephen King that suits Michael himself as well as the intended reference to his talents: “Michael’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…Michael McDermott is one of the best songwriters in the world and possibly the greatest undiscovered rock ‘n’ roll talent of the last 20 years.”
Although fame has eluded Michael, he has the rest of the act nailed, and twenty years in to his career he isn’t lost or misplaced, he has found himself, has no fear, he’s still good at it, and is all dusted and shined up and ready for the twenty years to come.
Photos © 2004 by: Beth Shandles
Genre: Rock / Folk / Americana