2-Tone legend Suggs tells Aidan Smith how his 50th birthday and the bizarre death of his cat sparked an emotional mission to retrace his roots and open his heart about the heroin addict father he never knew
IT’S almost a week since the Olympics ended and Suggs, who with his band Madness was among the stars of the spectacular best-of-British-music closing ceremony, admits he’s suffering withdrawal symptoms.
“Remember all those arguments about missiles on tower-block roofs and warships in the Thames?” he says. “And all the worries that the transport system wouldn’t be able to cope, that four extra passengers on the No 37 bus would result in complete gridlock? At one point it seemed that the Olympics was the last thing knackered old London town needed, but guess what? They happened, they were fantastic and the whole world saw the city at its best. Wonderful, wonderful…”
Suggs, if you didn’t already know, is a great talker and a great Londoner, and he was so proud that his band got to help bring down the curtain on the greatest show on earth by performing Our House on the back of a lorry covered in newspaper which circled the running track that had been anointed with world records, Lightnin’ Bolts and Mobots. “Yeah, that wasn’t bad either,” he adds. “The dressing-room corridor was like Stella Street. We had Pete Townshend on one side of us, a couple of Spice Girls on the other and Liam Gallagher was right across the road. It’s rare that you get the chance to chat to your peers in this business but the best thing that happened was right at the end. I was in a car, rushing to get home for a party, when I spotted Ray Davies. ‘Any chance of a lift?’ he said. How could I refuse the great London chronicler in song?”
Well, there were two of them in that car, chugging through the delirious streets, but Suggs admits he felt quite “down” the morning after the ceremony, and not just because he was suffering from an Olympic-sized hangover. He wants the feelgood vibe of the Games to endure, although accepts this is a big ask.
So maybe it’s just as well he’s heading north to Edinburgh for the Fringe, a proven rejuvenator. My Life Story is a self-explanatory one-man show. It was almost called Mad-Life Crisis which would have been just as accurate, as the piece was inspired by Suggs turning 50, his daughters Scarlett and Viva leaving home, and him asking himself: “Who the flip am I?”
“It was the day of my birthday, there had been a big bash the night before organised by my wife Anne [she had a brief pop career as Bette Bright], so there was some post-party melancholy, just like now. I was lying in the bath with yet another hangover when I heard an almighty crash. Our beloved cat, a British blue called Mamba, had fallen off a glass shelf put up by yours truly, and by the time I’d jumped out of the water she was lying dead among the shards. Bizarre as it may sound, that was the catalyst for this show. Yeah, the catalyst.”
Like a Madness song, Suggs in conversation can move quickly from funny to sad. Here he is describing the taxi ride to his mother’s house later on that poignant day: “The cabbie said to me: ‘You look glum, Suggs.’ I told him I’d just turned 50. ‘You don’t want to worry about that,’ he said, dragging two fingers through his combover quiff and giving me a fine view of his fat bald head. ‘It’s not just that,’ I said. ‘My two girls have left home and there’s this great big hole now.’ ‘Couldn’t wait to get rid of mine,’ came the reply. ‘Okay, well, on top of all that my cat’s just gone and died.’ Then he tells me how his Bubbles passed away only the previous week, how he put him in a binbag to be buried, how every time someone in the street asked what was in the bag he burst into tears. ‘And then, Suggs, I went and told the vet. He asked if I was sure the cat was dead; I said I’d already buried him. Well, said the vet, even if he wasn’t, he is now!’ ”
Then, just minutes later, the 2-Tone legend is telling me how he finally discovered that his father, whom he never knew, had died. The last time I interviewed Suggs, three years ago, he revealed he had rejected an offer from BBC genealogy show Who Do You Think You Are? to research his family tree because he wanted to do the job himself as part of his memoirs. Born Graham McPherson, Suggs was teased about his Scottish name growing up in London. (“They called me a smelly haggis c***”). But he knew little about his dad William who walked out on the family when he was three, other than that his side of the family belonged to Newtonmore. It was in Birmingham recently that he found out the truth.
“I never had great hopes that his story was going to end happily. He was a photographer who loved jazz but he was also a heroin addict and I already knew that he’d injected himself with paraffin, possibly in the eyeball, and that he’d been sectioned. But finding out that he’d managed to get himself out of the lunatic asylum in Tooting Bec, and also that he’d remarried, was really poignant because he died much later than I originally thought, in 1975, which was around the time I changed my name to Suggs and we got Madness going. If he’d just hung on a bit longer he might have spotted my face in the papers, got in touch and I could have helped him.
“You put your head above the parapet and someone drops a bleedin’ piano on it. My little nugget of hope was whisked away. Then I wondered if maybe his second wife was still alive or if they’d had any kids. But the registry office in Birmingham told me she’d died the year after Dad, from drugs too. It was clear they were a couple of junkies who just went down together.”
The revelations prompted Suggs to ask his mother, Edwina, about his father. “It was something I hadn’t done before, to be honest. She said: ‘He was a very nice man, just like you.’ That was so shocking because I had him down as a ne’er-do-well.” Suggs is still investigating his back-story for his autobiography although that’s been put on hold for the Fringe show. He thought he was going to have a clear run for the book this year but Madness keep getting invited to perform at epochal events – not just the Olympics but the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, where Our House on the roof of Buckingham Palace (“…in the middle of one’s street”) probably stole the show.
“This year’s gone off like a box of crackers,” he says. So surely being this busy stops him fretting about empty-nest syndrome? “Actually the girls have only moved up the road and they’re back all the time. The other morning at 8am, just finished clubbing, they didn’t know I was in the kitchen so made a bee-line for our fridge. Viva said to Scarlett, ‘God, I love this house!’ which was almost lovely, except they went and cleaned us out of food.”
• Suggs: My Life Story In Words And Music, Queen’s Hall, Tuesday until Friday. www.suggslive.com