I remember exactly how I got to Mary Margaret O’Hara: through Neko Case. A few years ago, I was reading interviews with Case after the release of her album Middle Cyclone. In a 1999 interview with chickfactor magazine, Case responded to the question “What’s the last song that made you want to cry?” as follows:
A song by this woman Mary Margaret O’Hara who is one of the greatest singers of all time: “Dark Dear Heart.” I’m shocked that you guys know who she is, nobody ever knows who she is. It was on this Henrys record. It’s fucking heartbreaking. She just has that lilty crying thing in her voice.
Three years later, O’Hara lent background vocals to “Ghost Wiring,” one of the last songs on Case’s Blacklisted. With careful listening, one can make out O’Hara’s voice—identical to and beside Case’s—at two junctures toward the song’s end. The first juncture: “Always wait for you.” The second: “We’re always watching you.”
Halfway through Morrissey’s “November Spawned a Monster,” there’s a shrieking that ascends into gnashing whoops and dolphin-like staccato. That’s O’Hara. In 1988, shortly after the release of Miss America, her first and only full-length album, O’Hara sang for Morrissey. He said of her, “I haven’t in a decade heard someone singing because of a deep-set personal neurosis, absolute need and desperation. You’d think she might fall apart at any second and become a pile of rags and bones on stage” (Bret 134).
Who has balls enough to purport to know the reasons for another’s singing? Morrissey, apparently.
And, to me, O’Hara’s far from frail.
O’Hara says she wrote the first song on Miss America in a bathtub in 1980, eight years before the album entered the world. The song, “To Cry About,” revolves around loss and disaster. Calling the song haunted isn’t enough; that’s too easy. When I first heard it—the first time I understood that the voice I was hearing belonged to one Mary Margaret O’Hara, before I’d gone back to find her on “Ghost Wiring” or “November Spawned a Monster”—I stopped. I heard something terrifying and beautiful, something exceedingly rare. Below are the words of the song’s first minute.
you take a walk
i’ll be your side
you take my life
i’ll give you mine
and you...you give me something
to cry about
you’re in my heart
i’m in your hand
you drop me off
i miss you and...you,
you give me something
to cry about
This voice, able to negotiate a range of octaves and encompass the acts of remembrance, anticipation, recognition, and repetition that occur in O’Hara’s songs, was making a picture. More than that, it was making a space for the singer’s words to not only allow the pain of impossibility that exists in separation, but also acknowledge great love. And I didn’t feel sung at; there’s no showmanship in O’Hara’s delivery. Her lilt is sometimes matter-of-fact, sometimes near breaking, other times strong and angry. It’s human and animal and real. I trust it.
When O’Hara first played “To Cry About” for her boyfriend, he said it was about him. O’Hara disagreed. In a year, he would die in a drowning accident. O’Hara later said, “And then the lyrics were obviously about him, as if I’d seen it happening” (Rogers).
I can’t listen to Miss America without thinking of Emily Dickinson’s poems. There are passages in O’Hara’s lyrics—“you bust loose from heaven / and now your life starts,” “all in good time / your world goes to smash too,” “there’s no you in my hereafter”—that sound like something Dickinson might’ve written. And O’Hara’s songs require the listener to make leaps in much the same way that Dickinson’s poems require the reader to trust risk and jump.
There’s the shapeshifting, perfectly timed word upon which a passage hinges; there’s absence; there’s living with, even getting on with, the unknown; there’s that You. I’m thinking here of “You left me Boundaries of Pain” in Dickinson’s 713 and the “I cannot live with You” of 640, one of Dickinson’s greatest poems. It begins:
I cannot live with You –
That would be Life –
And Life is over there –
Behind the Shelf
Then there’s this excerpt from the beginning of O’Hara’s “Keeping You in Mind”:
just thinking you
not having you
but keeping you in mind
In “A Statement for Poetry,” Louis Zukofsky writes, “Poetry has always been considered more literary than music, though so-called pure music may be literary in a communicative sense” (Zukofsky 27). The etymology of ‘literary’ is from the Latin literarius/litterarius, meaning “belonging to letters or learning.” (I love that both ‘liter’ and ‘litter’—a unit of capacity, scattered trash, offspring—are present in the Latin.) True, a poem and a song are two different things, but both have the ability to reach us and instruct us in similar ways.
It’s difficult for me to separate music from poetry. One usually leads me to the other, no matter where or how I begin. I hear a song and a string of words comes to mind; I read a poem and I’m reminded of a song. I return to poems and songs not just because they’re pleasurable, but because I can’t stop thinking about them. I return to O’Hara’s songs and Dickinson’s poems because I’ll never fully understand them. That’s part of their draw. Whenever I try to articulate to others what O’Hara and Dickinson mean to me, I feel as though I’ve failed. I struggle to talk about what I love.
The most recent live O’Hara interview I can find is from December 2009. It’s for the Canadian radio program Q with Jian Ghomeshi. And yes, it’s on YouTube. O’Hara thinks and speaks in circles while working toward answers. She’s playful. When asked about improvisation as it relates to music and communication, O’Hara talks of being 11 years old and finding Ulysses in her family’s house, then hiding away to read the book. She says, “I thought, ‘Finally, somebody’s talking normal.’ ...When I was a kid, I remember working really hard to make sense. I still do that.”
I’ve never been able to get through Ulysses. I always end up skipping around, moving in and out of passages. What I know of it I know in pieces I’ve written in my notebook. One of those pieces is this: “Love laughs at locksmiths” (Joyce 364). The line occurs as Gerty MacDowell, busy parsing her desires, is being watched from afar by Leopold Bloom in Episode 13 of the book.
In O’Hara’s “When You Know Why You’re Happy,” she sings,
there is but one love
but one love won’t do
all in good time
your world goes to smash too
you move much better than you know
not just some jerky to and fro
you move much better than you know
when you know...
when you know why you’re happy
Both the Joyce line and O’Hara passage address breaking—out of, away from, because of—the known world. That breaking implies some kind of beginning.
In Gerty’s case, there’s an opening toward love and lust, a realization, but at a distance. It’s a fantasy.
O’Hara’s song addresses love, but an imperfect one grounded in a seemingly joyful struggle toward who knows what.
From 1988 – 1990, Lorne Michaels, the producer of Saturday Night Live, ran a late-night television show called Sunday Night. The musicians Jools Holland and David Sanborn hosted. In 1989, O’Hara sang “When You Know...” on the program.
In the video, O’Hara’s introduced by Sanborn. He says, “And now here’s a performer who describes herself as an ancient baby whose cranium never fused together.”
He pauses, turns to her, and asks, “Is that right?”
She looks at him, smiles, and nods yes.
Bret, David. Morrissey: Scandal and Passion. London: Robson Books. 2005.
Case, Neko. Blacklisted. Bloodshot, 2002. CD.
Dickinson, Emily. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas Johnson. New York: Back Bay Books. 1976.
Dougher, Sarah, and Gail O’Hara. “Neko Case.” chickfactor. chickfactor magazine, vol. 12, 2009.
Foley, Sean. “Mary Margaret O’Hara on Q TV.” Q with Jian Ghomeshi. YouTube, LLC. 16 Dec. 2009.
Joyce, James. Ulysses. New York: Vintage International. 1990.
Morrissey. Bona Drag. HMV, 1990. CD.
O’Hara, Mary Margaret. Miss America. Virgin Records, 1988. CD.
Rogers, Jude. “Christmas wishes from Canada’s psychic singer-songwriter.” The Guardian 4 Dec. 2008. Web.
Zukofsky, Louis. Prepositions+: The Collected Critical Essays. Ed. Mark Scroggins. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press. 2001.
---.“Mary Margaret O’Hara – When You Know Why You’re Happy (live).” YouTube, LLC. 4 Aug 2006.