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Suggs talks about his unconventional childhood, fatherhood and Madness, ahead of his gig at Watford Colosseum
12:00am Saturday 19th April 2014 in Theatre News
Best known as the legendary frontman of feelgood band Madness, Suggs 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, to be performed at Watford Colosseum on May 3, is a stage show.
“It’s a memoir,“ says Suggs. “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, 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-60s. 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.
Then three years later, Suggs was back in London, living with Edith, and about to go to secondary school in Swiss Cottage.
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’ regular appearances in the Top 10.
“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.
He looks at how his career had a second lease of life.
“You wouldn’t have anticipated the Queen was going to invite us on her roof to play in 2012 or that we were going to play at the Olympic closing ceremony. Like any human being we were insecure but we realise now we’re pretty good.
“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 is at Watford Colosseum, Rickmansworth Road, Watford on Saturday, May 3 at 7.30pm. Details: 0845 075 3993, watfordcolosseum.co.uk
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