Madness frontman Suggs talks to Richard Barber ahead of his upcoming solo tour.
Suggs – still best known as the legendary frontman of feelgood band Madness – was 50 in January. He was lying in the bath on his birthday, nursing an epic hangover from the celebrations the night before, when there was the most almighty crash.
“I jumped out of the water,” he says, “and there, lying amid shards of broken glass, was our four-year-old cat, a British blue called Mamba. I’d put up the glass shelf myself and it must have given way. I knew he was dead from the strange angle of his body. I couldn’t believe it. I loved that cat.
“I was 50. My kids had recently left home and now the cat was dead. I was really upset. It triggered a deluge of emotion, an event that somehow tipped me over the edge. I began to consider my own mortality and, out of that, the idea for exploring my own past somehow crystallised.’
The result, soon to be seen at a venue not far from you, is a new stage show. “It’s a memoir,” says Suggs. “It’s not stand-up. It’s not An Evening With… I toyed with calling it Mad-Life Crisis. In the end, though, having gone all round the houses, I’ve called it My Life Story which won’t win any prizes for originality but does at least tell you what you can expect, the good bits and the darker moments.”
It turns out there have been plenty of both. Born Graham McPherson in Hastings, he’s the only child of a jazz singer called Edith and a father, William – but everyone called him Mac – who worked for a photographic developers but whose life was increasingly overtaken by drugs.
“Dad left home when I was about three. I have no recollection of him and he never featured in my life. My mum later told me she’d come home and found him with needles sticking out of his hands. Heroin was his drug of choice and it’s a one-way street that takes you further and further away from real life. In the end, it did for the marriage.”
Mother and son then moved to Liverpool where Edith sang in the clubs, winning the accolade of Melody Maker’s Jazz Newcomer of the Year in the mid-sixties. She performed regularly at the Blue Angel to where the Beatles and Cilla Black would repair after sessions at the Cavern.
Moving south to London, Suggs’ life was unstructured, to say the least. Soho was his mother’s stomping ground where she both sang and worked in bars for extra money. They lived in a succession of rented rooms, the young lad trailing around after her when she went drinking in famous watering holes like the Colony.
“I’ll never forget it,” says Suggs. “You’d walk up this rickety green staircase and enter a room full of artists and actors and various hangers-on, all drinking and smoking. But, amid all the booze, it was a creative hotbed. Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, George Melly, Jeffrey Bernard – they were all regulars.
“Was it an unsuitable place for a young child? Absolutely. I clearly remember staring up through the thick fug of tobacco smoke, the occasional hand ruffling my hair or giving me a florin, sometimes even a ten bob note. I couldn’t really understand what was going on at an adult level which was probably all for the best. But there was a feeling of community and I was never in any danger.”
Even so, in time Edith decided that her son would do better living out of London in Pembrokeshire with her sister, Diana, and her three children. “It was nice to have other kids around but I missed Mum. She was doing what she thought was the right thing. She was finding it difficult to find the two of us somewhere stable to live so she thought I’d be better off in Haverfordwest.”
Three years later, Suggs was back in London, living with Edith, and about to go to secondary in Swiss Cottage. It’s where he acquired his nickname. “The other kids used to call me Gray or Mac and I wanted something a bit more distinctive. I was looking through a book of my mum’s about jazz musicians.
“I took a pin and, eyes closed, stuck it into the middle of a page. It went through the name Peter which didn’t seem especially memorable and then I noticed his second name was Suggs, which somehow resonated with me. He was the drummer in an obscure jazz band in Kentucky. Graffiti was becoming popular and people had these amazing names – or tags, as they were called. Now I had mine.”
Had he known it, this was the moment when his estranged father was on the point of bowing it. “I didn’t find this out until many years later when I was researching the new show. It’s a tragic story. My father started injecting himself with paraffin and was then sectioned under the Mental Health Act.
“When he was eventually released, he moved to Birmingham where he married again. He died aged 40 from a whole variety of drug-related conditions, his wife following him, probably from a drug overdose, a year later. So just as I was getting together with the band that became Madness, my father’s time was up. I’ve always found that rather poignant.”
These revelations prompted him recently to ask his mother about his father. “She told me he was a very nice man. ‘Just like you,’ she said. That was the most shocking thing she could have said in many ways. I’d had him down in my mind as some sort of wayward old wastrel who’d just pushed off. The fact that he was really nice upset me. But then heroin is an unforgiving mistress.”
Given his colourful upbringing, it is perhaps not too surprising that Suggs married young. By 21, he had a wife, a baby daughter and a mews house in Camden bought with the money he’d made from Madness’s regular appearances in the top ten. “To some extent, I think it’s true to say that I deliberately created Fortress Suggs to give my life a bit of structure. Having said that, I’d fallen in love with Anne. I wanted to be married to her.”
A professional singer who works under the name Bette Bright, the two are still together three decades later. They have two daughters – Scarlett, 29 and Viva, 25 – who now sing as a duo under their own names. “My mother, my wife, my daughters – I’m surrounded by women who sing,” says Suggs.
Nor has he hung up his own microphone. The band have just finished recording their tenth album, which will be premiered at Madness’s House of Fun Weekender at Butlins, Minehead from Friday November 25 to Sunday November 27.
“Madness have always been about accentuating the positive,” says Suggs. “It’s no accident our songs are still played, still enjoyed 30 years down the line. They’re upbeat, timeless, a clear-eyed celebration of life as it’s lived. And we’re still together, still making music. For me, the band has always been a bit like a surrogate family. We’re all a bit dysfunctional, all a bit stronger for being together.”
The only problem now for Suggs is shoehorning his less-than-conventional first half-century into his new show. “When we were rehearsing,” he says, “my keyboard player would stop every so often and say: ‘Was that bit really true?’ And it was, all of it. Amazing, really.”
Suggs – My Life Story opens in Islington on 2nd December and will be at Birmingham Town Hall on 4th February 2012 plus Warwick Arts Centre the following night. Further details from www.thsh.co.uk or 0121 780-3333 and www.warwickartscentre.co.uk or 02476-524524.