Dear Darling

Fuck Theory on Mary Margaret O’Hara at Issue Project Room

Mary Margaret O’Hara performing at Issue Project Room in New York on December 1, 2018. Photo: Cameron Kelly/Issue Project Room.


If you had the talent of Billie Holiday and the aesthetic sensibility of Captain Beefheart, you probably wouldn’t give a fuck either. Fortunately, everyone at Issue Project Room for her one-off, sold-out return to New York is there to watch her not give a fuck—that’s what she does. She hasn’t performed in the city in ten years. She walks onstage holding a bugle. She interrupts herself at least once during every song, often simply ending in the middle. She yelps, yowls, mutters, and walks away from the microphone. There are four other musicians onstage with her: Peggy Lee (cello), Aidan Closs (guitar), Jim White (drums), and her brother, Marcus O’Hara, who wears a silly hat and spends the show inflating, scratching, and deflating balloons, occasionally letting one spin off into the audience like a stoned bird.

O’Hara’s only full-length studio record, Miss America (1988), regularly ends up on lists with inflated titles like One Hundred Greatest Albums of the Twentieth Century. Most of the people in the room probably know every whisper and gasp on that album and would gladly watch her do a nostalgia tour: Every song on Miss America is a gem. But the promotional copy for the evening warns that tracks from the album will be “embedded” and “deconstructed” in the show, music-PR for “you’re not going to hear the songs you want to hear.” Which in this case is neither entirely true nor remotely a problem. O’Hara is as cult and as iconic as a cult icon gets, and cultish devotion is notoriously masochistic.

After years of drawing techniques from free jazz and radical theater into a rock idiom, O’Hara’s performances have evolved into a mixture of improvisation and absurdist cabaret. There are, as promised, flashes from Miss America—most recognizably “When You Know Why You’re Happy,” the only song of the evening with a backing track—and a take on the album’s languid opener, with its tortured-chanson refrain, “And you . . . you give me something to cry about.” But for the most part the show isn’t about Miss America or even about songs. It’s about one incredible vocalist and a gifted band of improv musicians who know that they’re there to support her.

Mary Margaret and Marcus O’Hara performing at Issue Project Room in New York on December 1, 2018. Photo: Cameron Kelly/Issue Project Room.

It takes a rigorous and devoted band to check their own egos and improvise together so generously, to such wonderful effect. Their résumés speak for themselves. O’Hara, for her part, has worked with countless musicians, from Morrissey to Nick Cave. Michael Stipe described her as a “national treasure,” though of which nation is unclear since Stipe is American and O’Hara is Canadian. If audience were measured in influence, she would be selling out Madison Square Garden. Instead, she’s doing shtick in front of some two hundred people seated comfortably in one of Brooklyn’s most beautiful and intimate performance spaces.

It’s free-form, funny, and idiosyncratic, but there’s nothing absentminded or naive about O’Hara’s Brechtian oscillations. Songs don’t start and stop so much as weave together and unravel. The musicians play together, but not necessarily simultaneously. O’Hara spends roughly the same amount of time talking and blowing the bugle as she does singing. When she starts to sing, it’s often in a tremulous falsetto that erupts into guttural moans and howls. When she really sings, her vibrato and tempo are flawless, unearthly, incomprehensible: She doesn’t just hit the notes, she fills them with life and dances around them in a way that is so effortless and graceful that you want to cry—and you would cry, if she didn’t suddenly stop for no clear reason, or back away from the microphone and let the musicians take over. O’Hara’s talent is of such magnitude that her artistic practice consists largely of finding ways to mess her own shit up.

At one point she sings an astounding, sotto voce version of “Over the Rainbow.” Everyone in the room, including O’Hara, knows one thing perfectly well: If she wanted to, she could. She could sell a whole set of Christmas standards. She could go full-on vocal free-jazz performance, really unleashing her distinctive nonverbal vocabulary. She could rock out, and in fact she does—for one song, a cover, which she tears through with the same intensity and focus you hear on concert recordings of her from the last millennium. Then she goes back to muttering to herself, improvising on her bugle, and not giving a fuck.

Mary Margaret O’Hara played at Issue Project Room in Brooklyn on Saturday, December 1.