When you hit your half century, it's time to take stock. Alison Jones chats to Madness front man Suggs.
When Madness front man Suggs hit 50 last year, it was, he says, a time for reflection.
Albeit the kind of reflection that comes the morning after a bacchanalian party thrown by his wife Anne (formerly Bette Bright, vocalist for 1970s band Deaf School), complete with Vaudeville acts and a finale which involved her jumping out of a giant cake.
“I think when it approaches you are in a little bit of denial and suddenly you realise half a century of your life has gone,” says Suggs.
Sadly it was witnessing the death of loved one which also prompted this soul-searching.
“On the morning of my birthday my favourite cat died. I was lying in the bath and it just dropped off the glass shelf. I don’t know what happened but it died.
“That sort of tipped me over the edge and just sort of got me reflecting about my whole life and the nature of existence.
“When you are bringing up your own kids you are a bit busy with other things to spend time wallowing in your own past. But my kids (Scarlett and Viva) moved out last year so there was a bit of a change in atmosphere at home.”
His moment of introspection has resulted in “a stand up memoir” – a one man show called My Life Story in Words and Music: Suggs, which he brings to Birmingham Town Hall and Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, this Saturday and Sunday respectively.
Although Suggs claims it is a “relatively jolly romp” through his past – recalling how the baggy-trousered boy Graham Macpherson became Suggs, front man for ska-superstars Madness – considering its rather tragic starting point, it was inevitable that there would be a few notes of poignancy.
It comes as Suggs reveals how as part of his probing into his personal history, he finally discovered what had become of his long-lost father.
Photographer William Macpherson had split from Suggs’ mum Edith, who performed as a jazz singer under the name Edwina, when young Graham was just three.
“He left when I was very young so I started to wonder what had happened to him because it had been a bit of a sort of a mystery in our family
“That is part of the narrative really. I follow this story of tracing my father but at the same a time in parallel to telling the story of my showbiz career.”
His father was a heroin addict. Although both he and Edith lived a fairly bohemian lifestyle in ‘60s Soho, following the birth of their son she could no longer put up with his erratic behaviour.
As part of his quest, Suggs finally spoke to his mother about his father.
“In Britain we rarely talk about something seriously with our parents. You just want to let bygones be bygones. But she started telling me stuff that she never had.”
She revealed that his father had come by just once, when Suggs was 12. After that she had never seen him again.
Suggs resigned himself to the thought of spending days in records offices “plodding through dusty tomes and charming people over the phone” to uncover the full story. And then...
“It is one of those ridiculous things. My mate said ‘Have you ever looked yourself up on that Wikipedia thing?’. I said ‘No’ and of course it was all there: When he died, where he died.
“It was very strange. All these years it has been out there and I just never thought to look at Wikipedia.”
To his surprise he found his dad had actually died in Birmingham, having moved there after a time in a mental hospital. He had also remarried but he and his wife died within a year of each other due to drugs.
“Unfortunately he met a pretty grisly end,” reveals Suggs.
“It was no great shock. The only shock was he died a lot later. I had thought he died when I was three or so and he died when I was 14/15.
“The sad thing about that was I was just becoming Suggs and starting to formulate the band. Another couple of years and who knows? Maybe we could have met because he would have known who I was.”
He travelled to Birmingham to see the death certificate though he says he didn’t continue his search to discover where he was buried.
“It didn’t even cross my mind to find out.
“Seeing the death certificate for this man, who until this point had been a figment of my imagination because he didn’t really exist in my life...it was all a bit sad. You hear people talk about closure, it’s a bit of a cliché but I definitely felt something like that. Just to know what happened to him and put him in his grave.”
Trying to work this into a stage show and not leave the audience a blubbering mess was, he says, something of a challenge. He eventually called in professional help.
“Originally my agent was going ‘Why don’t you do something that is funny? Showbiz stories about your pals. Do you have to have the darker stuff as well?’
“That was the hardest part of the process, interweaving the two. But we have got a very good director that transformed the whole thing. He showed me it is possible to leap in time and space and mood, too. You can go from a sad story to a funny story.”
Though he was used to being a lead singer and commanding the stage, it was as part of an ensemble backed up by the band of surrogate brothers that is Madness, most of whom he has known since he was a schoolboy.
In a one-man show he was going to be completely exposed, its success or failure resting solely on his shoulders.
“It is that old thing that just because you can tell a few jokes doesn’t mean you can do a stand-up comedy routine.
“This is the same. Just because you can tell a few anecdotes in the pub doesn’t mean you can talk for an hour and a half.
“I tried it in front of the wife and daughters and they fell asleep. That’s when I knew I needed to get a director.
“What I had at the beginning was a four and half hour monologue and he just managed to chop it all down with theatrical tricks.
“I’ve just done a couple of weeks in a small pub in London. The first night a load of my friends who are actors all sat in the front row which was very disconcerting. But they were very impressed that I had managed to do it.
“The whole thing had been enormously challenging, but challenging things tend to be more rewarding and I have learned a hell of a lot out of the whole process.”
Probably more than he could ever have dreamt of when he was lying in that bath and his cat finally exhausted its nine lives.
* My Life in Words and Music: Suggs is on at Birmingham Town Hall (0121 780 3333) on Saturday and Warwick Arts Centre on Sunday (024 7652 4524). Look up www.ents24.com.