HEART STILL ATTACHED Mark Mulcahy & Miracle Legion (Pt. 1)

 

Rediscovering one of
the most beloved bands of the college rock era – and its frontman.

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

With the recent release of Ciao My Shining Star: The Songs of Mark Mulcahy (Shout! Factory),
the opportunity to unearth and revisit the beauty of erstwhile Miracle Legion
frontman Mark Mulcahy’s back catalog should prove irresistible to
discriminating music fans. It’s one of those rare tribute records that, for the
most part, gets things right (these things are never perfect of course), by
highlighting an oftentimes under-the-radar artist’s oeuvre via an engaging cast of characters – in this instance, folks
like Thom Yorke, Michael Stipe, the National, Unbelievable Truth, Pere Ubu,
Mercury Rev, the Autumn Defense and others – while delivering the genuine,
truth-in-titling, songwriting goods. Raise your hand if you remember all those
early Imaginary Records tributes; the Mulcahy trib meets that high standard,
one rarely met anymore in a market glutted by endless and pointless Dylan,
Beatles, Hendrix, Stones, Led Zep, Ramones, Marley and other lowest common
denominator superstar tribs.

 

And whether or not you’re drawn to the project via fond
memories of Mulcahy’s ‘80s/’90s tenure with college rock faves Miracle Legion,
or an appreciation for his post-ML solo career (which includes his work, under
the name Polaris, scoring music for the Adventures
of Pete & Pete
kid’s TV show), or simply as a fan of one or more of the
musicians contributing to Ciao, I’d
wager a couple of paychecks that you’ll find plenty of keepers nestled among
the tracklisting. The Yorke tune, a riveting electro-tinged take on ML’s “All
For the Best,” has gotten a fair amount of attention already, not the least of
which was for the provocative David Lynch-styled video created for it by director
Melinda Tupling. But don’t let that be your sole objet du download as you peruse the iTunes store – buy the whole album
(and, in fact, note that there’s a deluxe digital edition that adds a whopping
20 additional tracks to the original CD’s 21).

 

There’s a good reason for the consumer suggestion, by the
way: the album is a benefit for Mulcahy’s twin daughters, as his wife died
suddenly last fall, leaving Mulcahy to raise them on his own. In one sense,
then, a cloud, inevitably, hangs over the tribute, and reading his remembrances
of Melissa in the liner notes will still break your heart and make hug your
nearest loved one all the harder. But the music serves to let the sunlight peek
through, one song at a time, in the process peeling back the layers of the
songwriter’s persona.

 

I was fortunate enough to meet Mulcahy over 20 years ago, not
long after the release of the first Miracle Legion album. Each time thereafter,
when the band came to town, I’d hang out with Mark and guitarist Ray Neal, and
I always found each of them to be just the right blend of muso eccentric and
down to earth rocker. Many years later, in the fall of 2003, I wound up
revisiting my Miracle Legion memories in a retrospective I wrote for Magnet (issue #61) about college rock bands,
and the entire, exhaustive interview with Mulcahy additionally appeared on the
magazine’s website as the musician’s observations and anecdotes were rich in
detail, not only about his band and his career but also about the pre-alternative
rock milieu that spawned ML. In the years since the original interview,
Mulcahy’s issued a number of recordings, notably 2005’s In Pursuit of Your Happiness, which wound up on my year-end best-of
list for ’05. Readers can view a complete discography at the artist’s Mezzotint
label website.

 

So by way of flashback, and to do my bit to add whatever
momentum I can to Ciao My Shining Star,
I present my Mark Mulcahy story (no longer archived at Magnet) once again. Ciao.

 

***

 

Rewind to 2003… The
story of Miracle Legion is both typical of and at times strikingly different
from that of other college rock bands who operated as peers during the mid/late
‘80s and early ‘90s. For one thing, when they signed a significant label deal
in 1992, most of their contemporaries had already fallen by the wayside and
Morgan Creek Records (a wannabe “major label” indie funded by the Morgan Creek
Productions film and media company) was intent on marketing the band in such a
way as to capitalize on the burgeoning “alternative rock” explosion.

 

Well, everyone knows what came next; instead of bands like
Miracle Legion becoming the next wave, it would be your Candleboxes and your
Matchbox 20s. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves now, aren’t we?

 

Going all the way back, let’s dispense from the outset one
lingering myth about Miracle Legion: that the New Haven, Conn.,
quartet, extant from 1983-96, was just another jangly R.E.M. clone.

 

Admittedly, a cursory scan of the group’s early trajectory
might bear the assertion out. Both 1984’s The Backyard EP and 1987’s Surprise
Surprise Surprise
LP did at times tilt in a folk-rock, Murmurish
direction; critics and coeds alike tended to ruminate at length upon the band’s
soft-focus, enigmatic lyrics; and vocalist Mark Mulcahy’s eccentric stage
personal definitely compared to that of Michael Stipe.

 

But this is no children of the kudzu tale. Let the record
show, based on the recorded evidence, that Miracle Legion’s sound was wide
ranging indeed: chiming/jangly pop, sure, but also Velvets-style punk/drone
raveups, dark, British-flecked psychedelia, even left-field forays into dub,
funk and alt-country. (And a Miracle Legion concert was the only place you’d
get back-to-back covers of Mission Of Burma’s “Academy Fight Song” and Pink
Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” too.) And as you’ll read below, Mulcahy points
out that, “We may have ended up being like R.E.M.’s ‘little brother,’ but we
really more influenced by the Gun Club, Mission Of Burma, Husker Du, even The
Clean.”

 

Miracle Legion’s initial stirrings were as a two-piece –
drummer-turned-singer Mulcahy plus guitarist/keyboardist Ray Neal – on the
thriving New Haven
scene which boasted numerous clubs as well as a readymade college audience
thanks to the presence of several major universities. The two had already
shared quality time in various short-lived combos, additionally working
together as local club promoters and picking up a firsthand education in Indie
Touring 101 that would prove invaluable to their fledgling combo.

 

After rounding up a rhythm section and recording the
six-song The Backyard, issued on the local Incas label, Mulcahy and Neal
were pleasantly surprised to learn Miracle Legion was an immediate critical and
college radio fave. Several pressings of the EP sold out; a sharp-witted
manager landed Miracle Legion a licensing deal with Britain’s Making Waves
label, which brought them over for a UK tour; they signed (in the States) with
the well-connected Venture Booking company; and MTV unexpectedly placed the
video for “The Backyard” into regular rotation.

 

According to Christopher Arnott, a long-time Miracle Legion
fan and a staffer at the New Haven Advocate weekly, “In terms of influence,
they weren’t the most commercial band but they were clearly part of a bigger
regional-national thing, more so than anyone else in town. It was the kind of
success story that everybody could relate to. Mark had also been booking the
best club in town, The Grotto, and he’d been active in bringing a lot of good
bands to New Haven.
Also, when a band like, for example, R.E.M. would be in town at the coliseum,
he’d book Miracle Legion and someone like Peter Buck would drop in after the
show. So Mark was friends with a lot of bands, either from having toured with
them or from bringing them to town.”

 

As the band commenced recording Surprise Surprise
Surprise
a number of labels, including several majors, began showing
interest. Ultimately, Miracle Legion signed with Rough Trade, whose owner,
Geoff Travis, had attended a show in New
York at CBGBs to see them

 

“I went along to CBGBs specifically to see Miracle Legion
and loved them,” says Travis now. “I always feel like a fan when I see
something special, and I’m always on the lookout for soul and originality. The
Backyard
EP had found its way into the Rough Trade record shop [in London], and I just loved
the tone of Mark’s voice, its pleading and moving quality without a hint of
being contrived. That plus Ray’s ‘illogical’ guitar swirls that wrapped the
whole thing up in an unusual way – a blustery, lovely wind blowing along the
highway, looking back from whence it came. I’m always on the lookout for soul
and originality, and never really know where anything will end up. I just try
to concentrate on helping a band do something decent, in terms of the work.
Even though they were so far away from us [in England] and it was hard to spend
much time with them, we had some good times and we had fun on the road for awhile,
I remember.”

 

After Surprise hit the stores in the fall of ’87, a
national tour, both as club headliners and as openers for Aztec Camera and Pere
Ubu, was undertaken by Miracle Legion. Audiences were awed as much by the music
– equal parts yearning pop and hellbent rock – as by the striking Mulcahy-Neal
visual contrast, the former a long-haired, tartan jumpsuit-clad shaman with a
piercing stare, the latter a brush-cropped fretboard virtuoso pinwheeling about
like a dervish. As the Advocate‘s Arnott recalls of the band’s
compelling performances (which included as elaborate a stage lighting setup as
an indie budget would allow), “Mark always did work those theatrical elements
out. Not necessarily very carefully, but a lot of shows I went to he thought of
different things to do for each one. Like, at one show he brought on a poet
that they had wandering around in the crowd. There was this performance artist
in town and Mark had him passing out poems in the audience at one show. So
stuff like that would happen. Or they’d have an interesting stage set-up –
always some element of the unexpected at their shows.”

 

Next came a spring ’88 tour opening for the Sugarcubes,
Mulcahy and Neal doing it as a two-piece following the abrupt departure of
their bassist and drummer. Enjoying the artistic challenge of working once
again as a duo, the two decided to record their next album that way. Me
& Mr. Ray
, recorded at Prince’s Paisley Park Studios and released by
Rough Trade in ’89, broke significantly from earlier patterns, adopting an
acoustic-flavored and less-enigmatic/more light-hearted tone. To this day
Mulcahy claims it’s his favorite Miracle Legion album.

 

Ready to resume touring as a full band, Mulcahy and Neal enlisted
a new rhythm section, Scott “Spot” Boutier on drums and Dave McCaffrey on bass,
both from Rhode Island
band What Now. The ’91 collapse of Rough Trade’s American operations
practically put the band back at square one, however, and tied up all the
recordings in bankruptcy court as physical assets. This also led, a year or so
later, to the painfully ludicrous scenario of Mulcahy and Neal  arriving at the Rough Trade auction to find
their new label, Morgan Creek, bidding against them for ownership of their
master tapes.

 

As suggested above, Morgan Creek
was essentially a vanity project of the then-flush film company Morgan Creek
Productions. Despite the label throwing oodles of money at the wall to see if
any of its bands (including Mary’s Danish and Eleven) would stick, though, it
failed miserably. Arnott observes that while “Miracle Legion was their big
deal, their top priority, it was a real horror story in the end. There may have
been a lot of sour grapes at the time about how Morgan Creek
had done nothing to promote the record, but I don’t think that was true. You
could see really good ads in big publications, like in Rolling Stone you’d see a nice color ad. So somebody was working on
a big campaign. There was a video and it got on 120 Minutes. Somebody was working on it so it wasn’t like somebody
dropped the ball. It was just bad timing, really; things were changing by then.
With Nirvana making Sub Pop into a player and then everyone wanting to have an
indie label with street credibility, that’s what Morgan Creek was – someone
trying to invent, with a lot of money, something ‘indie’ that acted like a
major label in all the worst, horrible, band-destroying ways.”

 

Drenched, produced by John Porter of Smiths/Roxy
Music fame, was released in ’92 but failed to register at radio or retail, and
with their hitless record label itself gradually finding itself being downsized
by its parent company, Miracle Legion saw the writing on the wall and asked to
be released from their contract. A year-and-half of legal limbo ensued, the
band continuing to tour on its own and even starting to record its next album,
the prophetically-titled Portrait Of A Damaged Family, eventually to be
released on the Mezzotint Label, which Mulcahy established himself.

 

Mulcahy doesn’t dwell on negative recollections regarding
the Morgan Creek affair, pointing out that the
label clearly elevated the band’s profile at the time. He does, however,
express lingering regrets regarding Drenched, suggesting that demos cut
with Paul Q. Kolderie at Fort Apache studios in Boston were far stronger than the
Porter-produced material. And he still smarts from the knowledge that the Rough
Trade masters are to this day squirreled away in some Hollywood
vault, with someone at Morgan Creek Productions holding the key. All of the
pre-Drenched records are long out of print, although Drenched itself can be easily found at eBay on the cheap.

 

Mulcahy also scoffs at common wisdom which holds that Seattle and Grunge blew
his and other pop bands of the era out of the water, suggesting that’s as much
a myth as the R.E.M. clone theory. By that point the members of the band,
having taken a severe morale hit, had shifting priorities and new interests.
Neal, for his part, had gotten married and simply wasn’t that keen on touring
anymore. (After working on a low-key basis with New Haven’s
Jellyshirts and New York’s Lucas Shine, he
moved his family to Scotland;
attempts to reach him for this article failed.) Boutier and McCaffery, during
downtime, had taken second job as Frank Black’s rhythm section; to this day
they remain devout, dedicated Catholics.

 

And Mulcahy, who’d moved from New Haven to Springfield,
Mass., in the early ‘90s, having found rewarding work scoring the music for the
critically-acclaimed 1993-95 Nickelodeon series The Adventures Of Pete And
Pete
(Mulcahy, Boutier and McCaffery portrayed the band “Polaris” in the
opening credits), was ready to embark upon a solo career. His Mezzotint imprint
issued the Fathering CD in ’97 – the album became a surprise hit in England
– as well as 2001’s Smilesunset. Now in 2003 he’s currently working on a
third solo record as well as a surreal rock musical, The Slugbearers Of
Kayrol Island
, a collaboration with artist Ben Katchor.

 

Talking to Mulcahy for the better portion of two hours, it’s
clear he’s proud of his legacy even while he’s eager to continue moving forward
with his solo career. You’ll get all that and more from the interview that
follows, but it’s worth relating here a brief anecdote from Mulcahy that helps
put a nice positive spin on matters.

 

“I did Miracle Legion for such a long time and it was the
only thing I really knew, but then I got sort of got a second chance,” Mulcahy
summarized, adding,  “Dave and Scott have
a really good job now, and I think Ray, having started a family, is happy doing
that, too.” At that he paused, then recalled the last time he saw his old friend
and songwriting partner (while on a solo tour of the UK), a hint of nostalgia creeping
into his voice.

 

“It was early last year in Edinburgh – Ray lives there now. We sorta
practiced a little bit in the dressing room. I did my set first, then I said,
‘Okay, I’m gonna do some songs with my old buddy.’ I was actually gonna play
guitar too, but then I said to myself, ‘Man, I’m just gonna soak this dude up
for this five or six songs!’ Because I’d watched him on some level [in the
past] but had never really watched him, you know? And it was just so
entertaining to watch Ray fall right back into it after all this time!
Honest to God.”

 

Tomorrow: Part 2, an
in-depth Q&A with Mark Mulcahy.

 

[Contact Mark Mulcahy
via the Mezzotint label at www.mezzotint.com.
The site also has for sale Rough Trade-era Miracle Legion albums on vinyl and
cassette, along with Mulcahy’s solo recordings. Don’t forget to sample the limited
edition honey.
]

 

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