Michael Patrick MacDonald
Michael at 15
"Finding my voice made me want to live"
Interview by Tim Broun, Part 1 of 3
I was originally introduced to Michael Patrick MacDonald on MySpace. I stumbled upon his page looking for something or another, and was amazed to find someone the same age as me with almost the same exact taste in music. The list was long enough, deep, and basically ran the gamut from mid-'70's disco/soul to post punk & dub. Right up my alley. Upon closer inspection, I discovered that not only did the guy have good taste in music, but he had written two books - All Souls and Easter Rising. Both, in their own way, telling Michael's incredible story of growing up in poverty, family & neighborhood suicides, murder, addiction, his escape from these surroundings, and ultimately his return to them - but not in the way you might expect.
Coming up from the ghetto of south Boston, he survived harrowing circumstances to tell his story, the story of his family and the story of a community - dysfunctional as it was. He is truly a survivor and has gone on to become a community activist as well as a writer. We got together in his Brooklyn apartment in late 2007 to discuss all of this, including the soundtrack to it all.
Special thanks to Daisy Hulme for the transcription
MPM's Music list, culled from Easter Rising
Chic "Good Times"
Earth, Wind, and Fire "Boogie Wonderland"
Sister Sledge "We Are Family"
Sex Pistols "Anarchy"
Patti Smith "In Excelsis Deo"
Black Flag "Nervous Breakdown"
Richard Hell and the Voidoids "Blank Generation"
Iggy and the Stooges "Search and Destroy"
Rocket from the Tombs "Sonic Reducer"
Dead Boys "Sonic Reducer"
Mikey Dread "Break Down de Walls"
The Clash "Armagideon Time," "Police and Thieves," "I'm Not Down"
Willie Williams "Armagideon Time"
Junior Murvin "Police and Thieves"
X-Ray Spex "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!"
Mission of Burma "That's How I Escaped My Certain Fate"
The Slits "Heard It Through the Grapevine"
Public Image Limited "Death Disco"
Sixousie and the Banshees "Pull It To Bits"
Gang of Four "Not Great Men," "I Found that Essence Rare"
Pere Ubu "Dub Housing"
Joy Division "She's Lost Control"
Bad Brains "Big Takeover"
King TUbby "Dub from the Roots"
Liquid Liquid "Cavern"
Traditional "Danny Boy"
Traditional "Black and Tan Gun"
William B. Yeats "Easter 1916"
MPM: I started with the records at the record store. That listing (in the book) is really incomplete because I did that on the last day. I was trying to remember what songs I might have referred to in there and some of them I didn't refer to, but some of them were just part of the story even if I didn't refer to them.
It's in the back (of the book), but it's incomplete. I have a much a longer one that I want to do in the paperback that includes not just songs referred to but like (other) songs because it's pretty one on one. You know, Sex Pistols, whatever but I want to do a more extensive playlist that kind of defines the mileau better.
PSF: It's a good list. It's fucking great
MPM: The funny thing is, I don't know about you, but being oriented toward the bass and drum stuff, not "Drum 'N Bass" you know, but the stuff that was funky... it's interesting writing that. I realized that that had a lot to do probably with the fact that before punk I wasn't coming from rock and roll. I was coming (from) funk and disco and soul and that stuff, and most people were coming from rock and roll into punk. Southie was such a... as much as they hated black people, they only listened to black music.
You see that if you watch Saturday Night Fever. It's like that - they were listening to black music out in Bay Ridge.
PSF: I guess a good place to start would be what's your earliest memory growing up? Is it of hearing music and it becoming a regular part of your life? Is it an AM radio station? I'm old enough that I remember top 40.
MPM: Well punk was finding that station that barely came in in Boston. My earliest music memories are watching Soul Train, so it's watching TV. It's not radio. My whole family would watch it, which is odd when you think of white people in Southie.
PSF: Did everyone know the dances?
MPM: Totally! My older siblings all did. We came from a black project. Then, we were in a mixed neighbourhood that was changing over. And then we went to a white project. My older sister had the afro, she knew all the dances. She had a mixed group of friends, but there we were in Southie where we were really isolated.
PSF: That was Old Colony?
MPM: She had mixed friends in Columbia Point project, and in Jamaica Plain, so we were coming from more mixed situations. Coming into Old Colony, it was exclusively white and mostly Irish, but even there, they only listened to black music, which is true I think of a lot of working class and poor places, like even in Brooklyn. You know the stereotypical guido disco guy and all that.
But the first memory I have of ever saying, "This is my favourite song," was, I don't know how old I was, but it just came out so whenever it just came out. I was born in '66, it probably came out in '71 or '72, was "Midnight Train To Georgia." That was the first time I ever said "This is my favourite song." I remember clearly saying that and I was watching them [on Soul Train]. They were all dressed in white - I totally remember what they were wearing. Gladys Knight and the Pips.
PSF: Did you start buying records, did you have money for that type of stuff?
MPM: No. During the disco period in Boston in '77, '78, it was like people just went out to these clubs. There was an underaged disco that I went to.
All the Southie kids would go together, and all the East Boston kids who were Italian... they would go together, and all the Polish kids from the Polish part of Dorchester. You know, it was very segregated by white ethnicities in Boston in the '70's still, and people would only hang out in their ethnic packs. They would meet at these discos, but then they would get in riots afterwards and they were all little kids.
I think it's later when other groups, when the ethnic mix became more complex in Boston, with different Latinos from different parts of South America and Central America, and so forth, that people just became white, and they all kind of banded together as white people. But by then, I was already escaping the whole white thing completely. Escaping any kind of identification with either class or ethnicity through the whole punk scene.
Another early memory I have before that though was Gladys Knight & the Pips, but the first concert I went to was Chaka Khan and Chic. That was at the Harvard Square Theatre which is the place I saw the Clash probably a year later.
PSF: When I found your page on MySpace, I thought it was cool because there's an eclectic thing to your taste that is very British where you like a band like Chic but then you also like the Clash.
MPM: I always identified with that. None of my friends had that background because a lot of them were coming from rock and roll, and even, you know, everybody loves the Stones, right? It's hard to find someone who doesn't love the Stones, but I was the only person who didn't know the Stones except for the disco hits like "Emotional Rescue" and "Shattered." I think that was a b-side. I had that 45. I had very little vinyl as a kid, but so few people I knew were coming from that background. Then you'd read an interview with the British punks and they all were coming from Northern soul, a lot of them, so that was pretty wild. Then also they were not only coming from Northern soul but they were merging a lot with the kids of the black immigrant population, with reggae and ska and all that so
PSF: One thing I learned from listening to the Clash - I would read the interviews, listen to the records. I'd pay attention to the song writing credits, and the stuff they covered. You know, they would do Lee Perry... you listen to Sandinista- there's rockabilly on there, there's gospel, there's soul.
MPM: I know. It's so funny today. My niece, a few years ago she would have said she was a punk, but now she's just kind of... now she's a vague indie kid. She's like 19, but when she was 15, she said she was a punk.
But it meant a certain genre of music. A certain sound. Basically the sound that's based on the Ramones stuff. But I remember every band being different. It wasn't "a sound" at all. The same people who were going to see New Order were going to see Bad Brains. It started to shift a little bit after that, after the New Order thing, and things became more new wave. There was a little more of a break up going on, but you did see people at the same shows. I would be at both of those shows.
PSF: So when and how did you discover punk?
MPM: The first time I discovered it was just - well there were a number of ways that kind of converged. One was just spotting people... I started to wander over the Broadway bridge out of this insular really closed neighborhood where nobody ever left from. And I started crossing over the bridge and I started spotting these people who dressed funny and were proud of it, and were intentional freaks. You know, intentional outsiders.
Something really clicked just in seeing them in the way they looked, and their attitude really. There were so few, as you remember, at the time. Nobody even knew what it was for the most part.
People were just screaming in the streets at them and that really kind of appealed to me - that they were willing to do that. That was one, and then from one time I went to the bin (in the record store) that I saw a bunch of them hovering around, and that's the first time I got a punk record. I stole a record and it was appropriately the Sex Pistols. When I was writing Easter Rising, I was like, "I wish it could be something cooler" but it was the Sex Pistols.
PSF: Well what year was that?
MPM: That was '79
PSF: That's pretty cool
MPM: It's so frat-like now that it's hard to imagine that was.
PSF: I have memories of being made fun of in school because I was into the Talking Heads, so it was probably sometime within their first 4 albums - before they had a hit. It's hard to think about...
MPM: ...the Talking Heads being freaks.
PSF: Yeah! Or the B-52's. I think you mention it in Easter Rising - about band names were used as adjectives to make fun of kids, so you probably heard things like "hey Devo!"
MPM: Yeah, and it was different types of people who would yell different things out the window. I remember white people would yell "Devo" or "B-52's," and once Blondie did that song with Fab Five Freddy ("Rapture"), people started saying, "...and you don't stop, to the punk rock." (Laughter) That was funny! I thought that was a good one actually.
PSF: And that doesn't seem to be as derogatory as "hey Devo!" for some reason.
MPM: It was kind of like a "right on!" because a lot of times you'd get a "right on!" from black people even though in Boston they thought you looked like a freak - there was something appreciative about their comments - they weren't as angry whereas white kids were really angry.
MPM: Yeah, threatened. Blacks were never threatened by it because they were already threatened anyway. They were like "That's just crazy white people doing something weird."
MPM: Lower East Side waifs (Jill is the one stretching her arms out. Adam Yauch is the mopey looking one).
Dave, who owned Ratcage records took this pic. I found it on the 'net.
PSF: So when you started seeing these kids around, and you discover that section in the record store - how did you feel about it - was it an identification thing? Did you feel like you had found some kind of niche? Obviously you had to deal with a lot of shit at home, you had a crazy family life, and a crazy social life around that, so was this sort like of your own private place?
MPM: Well, 13 was a good age for it because it was like all this shit's going on at home - not only had my brother David just committed suicide, but the whole neighborhood was falling apart, and people were overdosing, and the streets are getting crazier. So I'm 13 and saying this is not me. I'm not that. I wasn't thinking this out loud, but "this doesn't define me." I just wasn't relating to any of it, and I also wanted to get away from the grief of my brother's death, so for me it was more about getting away from something.
None of the other things you could come in contact with in the mainstream teenage culture would be satisfactory in the way that punk was because it was so important to be individual at that point, and to not be defined by what's going on around me. So the individualism of it is really what attracted me the most. I got into the idea first, of course, and the look of these people, the attitude of these people, and that's something I have to this day regardless of the era we're in. Regardless of the music that I listen to, or whatever. The music kind of came secondarily, but was always an obsession of mine ever since I was a little kid. But the most important thing was the attitude, and the individualism, and that's what I needed at that point in my life. I needed to not be connected - I needed to disconnect & detach, and it was necessary, life saving and even a life affirming kind of nihilism. You know, I think that (kind of) nihilism has it's place.
That kind of just cutting off from everything was really important to me at that point in time because everything was poisonous. Everything seemed poisonous, and I mention one of the quotes that I always saw around punk: "In order to create you must destroy." I don't know where that originally came from... I'm thinking it might be Nietzsche, I'm not sure, but that's always stuck in my head, and it makes a lot of sense now in retrospect when I think of what I was doing at that point in time. Punk wasn't about attaching to any specific music or style as much as it was about destroying everything else that was supposed to define me.
So it was really important to not be defined by - to not have to be what I was supposed to be. Which was a Southie guy - whatever that meant.
It meant different things to me. It meant the racism and the bigotry. Also the addiction levels, and alcoholism, as well as the ethnicity, and the kind of gang mentality - ethnicity chauvenism.
PSF: The stereotypes?
MPM: Yeah, and the ethnic chauvinism. You know, "Irish #1!," kind of bullshit. Or even to be trapped by what class means. So it was just separating from all that more than anything. I don't think I could have come back home and reattached to the world, or to my family, or to my community in the way that I did if I hadn't first broken away.
PSF: How did your family and your neighbors - that was the center of your world at that time - how did they react to you being a little different?
MPM: It was always like running the gauntlet. That's one thing when we all came together. You know yourself that people all have their stories of kind of like "running the gauntlet" to get to a show or to get wherever they need to go because... I mean back then you could get a bottle thrown at you for wearing black, you know what I mean? It was like, someone wearing all black? What the fuck's that? Only Greek widows and priests wore black, so it was very easy to freak people out.
But yeah - leaving the house was like a big scene and having to find my escape routes. Not that I would get beat up because I had all big brothers and they were boxers involved in the streets, and people were afraid of them, but I was more afraid of them [my brothers] - so if I was going out to the Rathskeller you know in high water pants, and old men's shoes, and stuff, I didn't want to bump into my brothers. But then my brother Frankie got a job at the Rathskeller as a bouncer, so I couldn't avoid him seeing me anymore because I needed him to get me in free in the back door, being underage, being 15, and all that.
That was an interesting thing because we were living in the same room, but very parallel universes, and he was also being exposed to the outside world. He was being exposed to all the things that I was being exposed to, but it didn't appeal to him the way it did appeal to me. He just thought "these people are freaks." He wasn't at all interested in the music, or didn't get it at all.
PSF: He was the boxer, right?
MPM: Yes, even though he was like the enemy as far as at the Rathskeller [because] he was one of the jock bouncers I always had respect for him because he had a kind of... I think everyone who came across him had a respect for him. He just had a really quiet strength about him that was really kind of... that put most people in awe just in his presence. So he had that about him and I never disliked him for being, like, so Southie, as much as I disliked my neighbors for example. But he was like a hero in the neighborhood and I kind of held on to that a little bit even though I was separating from all that Southie stuff.
PSF: Not to change the subject, but that was one thing that struck me about both books - the way you talk about your family. I mean I'm sure you had fights with your siblings and your mom, but I can't recall at all any time where there's any kind of tone of actual contempt or hate or real resentment, you know? It seemed like you guys, despite your circumstances, that that love & respect probably kept you guys together.
MPM: It's odd. I feel like both books, they are both separate worlds because I was living a double life in a way. I was straddling two worlds - the Southie world, and the punk rock world. I didn't call it the punk rock world, you know that whole separate...
PSF: ...outside of Southie?
MPM: Yeah, and I was straddling two worlds, but both books follow a lot of the same time line but they just don't they didn't belong together. I had to write them separately. They both are also... Easter Rising is about my love/hate relationship with everything. I come from my neighborhood, my family, my ethnic history, all that stuff... Ireland, whatever. Everything that I come from - class, my love/hate relationship with it. Whereas All Souls is more weighing in on the love side, Easter Rising tells more of the hate... a little bit of when I start to break away from that place, and start to look down on it as backwards trash, bigoted, all that stuff, with the same kind of blanket labels that my friends would have for a place like Southie. Still, to this day, I always feel like I'm straddling both worlds - a more cosmopolitan world but also an appreciation for more kinds of parochial worlds, and sympathy for parochial worlds especially if they are caused by people's class based fears, you know?
PSF: So, you start discovering music and getting deeper into it - the late '70's, right?
MPM: Misson of Burma is the first local entree into the local scene. That would be a good start.
PSF: What year did they start... do you remember?
MPM: I discovered MoB in '79. I think they might have formed in '78, but they were at a loft party which was just over this bridge. It wasn't even like the Brooklyn Bridge or the Manhattan Bridge. It was like the Gowanus Canal Bridge. It was small, you know what i mean? It seems like this huge bridge in the book because there were two separate worlds, but it would be like crossing the Gowanus Canal, and then finding this whole other world over there. You could only get only get to Southie by a couple of bridges. It was a peninsula, and when you went over the bridge, the neighborhood was buffered from the outside world by an industrial area. Like Gowanus, there were a lot of old abandoned warehouses from the old industrial days. That's where a lot of loft parties were happening so it was that close. You could walk to a loft party, and just a world away completely, so Mission of Burma was the first loft party I walked into when I saw a bunch of freaky people hanging out at a warehouse.
"What's going on here?" I went inside and it was Mission of Burma playing, so that was my entree into the local scene in Boston.
See part 2 of the Michael Patrick McDonald interview
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