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Folk Rock's Prodigal Son - Michael McDermott 
By Jim Wormington
Photo by Niva Bringas

What do you do if you’re only twenty when the gates to a glittering utopia of self-indulgence open up before you? You probably swagger in, all smiles, fearless and cocky as an undefeated boxer.
 
That’s what singer/songwriter Michael McDermott did in 1991 when his future in the music world was looking like a shiny promise just on the horizon. His debut album, _620 W. Surf_, was getting positive reviews and the single “A Wall I Must Climb” was spinning him a reputation as having the potential to be the next Springsteen or Dylan. 

On his first trip to L.A. he said to a friend, “Show me the gutter.” 

It turned out to be more than a visit--he set up camp there. 

“They have streets named for me down there,” McDermott said in a recent interview.

For many years he was stumbling about in a melancholic haze of alcohol and drug addiction that shipwrecked a lot of relationships. 

The addictions “become your life--the singing and writing become secondary things,” he said. “That’s a very ugly day.”

He hit the gutter jackpot in November, 2004, when he was arrested for cocaine possession and sent to Chicago’s Cook County Jail. 

Sometimes you have to “tear down a temple,” he said, before you can build anything in its place.

The incarceration experience proved to be a wake-up-and-smell-the-jail-cell moment for the artist, a catalyst that helped direct him out of the dark and into the fight for sobriety and sanity...a fight he wages daily. 

Like any driven artist, life’s pain (self-inflicted and otherwise) is a tool he applies to his craft. McDermott chronicles his interior life through songs, bringing a poet’s sensibilities to the struggles we all face. His lyrics are full of spiritual tension and imagery, word-collages of his journeys through sadness and hope, despair and redemption.

His recently released CD, Noise From Words, is tastefully uncomplicated while remaining musically and lyrically satisfying. The opening of “Mess of Things” is no more than a tapping foot and an acoustic guitar, with McDermott’s raspy, wonderfully expressive voice eventually chiming in--as pure as it gets. Here’s a stanza from the song: 

The trouble with trouble
Is that it sometimes sticks 
Plays tricks with your mind
While it gets its kicks
Then slowly there’s a momentum shift 
And the weight becomes too great to lift
Now McDermott is lecturing to young people about reckoning with the allure of trouble and examining some alternatives to trouble-as-a-lifestyle. 

“I’m the blueprint for what-not-to-do with your life,” he said.

Still, his story is a hopeful one right now and his faith remains the foundation of that hope. He doesn’t suggest he is suddenly walking on water or that he is fall-proof. Kids see through that kind of hyperbole, he believes. They think, “Yeah, yeah, yeah--you did your time and now you found Jesus.” McDermott admits he has doubts, jokes that he’s been phoning Jesus, emailing him and text messaging him but “he doesn’t get back to me.”
 
“It’s OK to doubt,” he said, “but faith is what pulls you through.”

Having seen the ugliness at bottom, he wants to spare others the trip. If telling his story can do that, then he’s glad to share it.

McDermott is a Chicago native with many albums under his belt. 2000’s Last Chance Lounge was given critical acclaim by the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Chicago Tribune and others. Two songs from that album made their way into the movie soundtrack of the New Line Cinema film Knockaround Guys, starring John Malkovich and Dennis Hopper.

I would urge you to discover his music--it's a good journey.
 
Keep the faith, Michael--and keep folk-rockin’.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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