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Suggs is a regular visitor to Kent, where he has family in Whitstable, but this time his trip combines business with pleasure, as he told Richard Barber.
Suggs, still best known as the legendary frontman of Madness, was lying in the bath on his 50th birthday, nursing an epic hangover from the celebrations the night before, when there was the most almighty crash.
“I’d put up the shelf myself and it must have given way,” said Suggs. Lying amid the debris was his four-year-old cat, a British blue called Mamba, sadly deceased.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I loved that cat. I was 50. My kids had recently left home and now the cat was dead. It triggered a deluge of emotion, an event that somehow tipped me over the edge. I began to consider my own mortality and the idea for exploring my own past somehow crystallised.”
The result, to be seen at Tunbridge Wells Assembly Hall Theatre, is his ‘My Life Story’ 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, 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 ups and downs.”
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 photographic developer called William whose life was overtaken by drugs.
“Dad left home when I was about three. I have no recollection of him and he never featured in my life. 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.”
Suggs’ young 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.
'Amid all the booze, it was a creative hotbed. Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, George Melly, Jeffrey Bernard – they were all regulars'
“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 even giving me a ten bob note. I couldn’t really understand what was going on at an adult level, which was probably for the best. But there was a feeling of community and I was never in any danger.”
It was at secondary in Swiss Cottage where he acquired his nickname. “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. Graffiti was becoming popular and people had these amazing names – or tags, as they were called. Now I had mine.”
The formation of the ska band in 1976 and its early and ongoing success with hits like One Step Beyond and My Girl paved the way for Suggs to create a secure home for his own family and to find fulfilment in his work.
“Madness have always been about accentuating the positive,” says Suggs. “It’s no accident our songs are 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. He added: “When we were rehearsing, 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 tour is at the Tunbridge Wells Assembly Hall Theatre on Wednesday, April 16. Tickets from £26. Call 01892 530613. It returns to Margate Winter Gardens on Saturday, April 26. Tickets from £23. Call 01843 292795.
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