For Mary Coughlan there will always be two falls. The first happened in Mesopotamia about 5000 years ago, we are told. The second happened in a sea-front house in Bray, near Dublin, around 1994. In the first, Eve was expelled from Eden for her sins and women have borne the brunt of it ever since. In the second, a heavily pregnant and very drunk Mary Coughlan fell onto her kitchen floor in a stupor, a piece of bread and butter plastered to her unconscious face. That was how her husband and three children found her when they returned from shopping. The next night Mary was taken to hospital where she miscarried. And she has borne the brunt of it ever since.
And the most remarkable thing of all is her quarrel with Ireland. She evidently detests the stage Irishry which persists to this day in Riverdance, U2 and The Corrs. But in her curt consonants, luxuriant plosives and Dub dipthongs she is nakedly Irish, Galway born, the daughter of a Donegal soldier and a Connemara woman. Yeats wrote, “Out of our quarrel with others, we make rhetoric. Out of our quarrel with ourselves, we make poetry.” Out of her quarrels Mary Coughlan has made some of the best music in these islands for twenty-five years. And it’s time she was applauded for that.
In 1994 she went into rehab in Dublin and with her family’s support defeated her alcoholism and hasn’t taken a drink since. It’s understandable why Mary should feel so powerful an identification with Holiday. But that’s not what makes her the giant she is, someone who fills the sky alongside Holiday, Piaf, Lee, Fitzgerald, London, Vaughan, Washington. Music history is littered with performers and artists dead or defeated by drink or drugs. That is not what makes a singer great. Nor even the conquering of addiction, though that’s no mean feat, God knows.
Mary is our greatest female singer because over twenty-five years and ten albums she’s made the most grown-up, uncompromising, wholly personal and utterly universal music on either side of the Atlantic about what goes on between men and women. She has taken the classic standards of jazz balladry and the recent gems of rock and Irish song-writing, shaken them and offered them up anew, like jewels dripping from the deep, strewn on black velvet. She sings in the voice of the wrong and wronged woman and she makes us think what it is men make of women and what women have to do to make do. She has just one other forebear in the pretty pallid parade of British female pop artists, just one other woman whose bruised, haunted voice could find and enjoy the inconsolable longing and loss in a three minute pop song: Dusty Springfield. Or Mary Isabel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien, to give her her real name. Born to an Irish Catholic family. Small world.
Filetype: MP3 - Size: 4.46MB - Duration: 19:19 m (32 kbps 44100 Hz)
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