- 29 Jan 16
One of the most charismatic musicians of his generation, Mic Christopher had already made a huge impact as lead singer and lyricist with The Mary Janes when he decided to embark on a solo career. Everything seemed to be on the up, and he was touring Europe with The Waterboys, when fate intervened in the cruellest imaginable way. Mic Christopher, it emerged, was in a coma…
I was 31 the first time I saw Mic Christopher. I know that because I was studying abroad and it was my first birthday in Ireland. My new friends Glen and Hedi sweetly offered to have me over for a chicken dinner so I wouldn’t be alone.
Before dinner, I was snooping in the dining room when I came across a photograph hanging over the piano. In the picture, Glen is leaning back and beaming at a handsome young man in a wool cap.
They’re sitting on a train. The man in the wool cap looks clever; he looks funny. Glen is wearing one of those smiles you save for the oldest jokes and the prettiest girls. And you get the feeling that, whatever the man in the cap is saying, Glen has heard it a hundred times before. Standing there over the piano, I felt instantly homesick for the friends I’d left back in New York – and strangely homesick for this train that I’d never been on.
“Who’s that?,” I finally asked after dinner, pointing to the picture.
Glen smiled. “That’s me mate, Mic,” he said, and then he didn’t say anything else.
And so began my strange love affair with Mic Christopher. I know now that Mic was Glen’s best friend. I know that he had a flat on Harcourt Street and that he called everyone George when he’d had a few beers. I know he had a dog, Dylan, who would sometimes take the bus on his own. I know he went to Bosnia after the civil war and that his favourite incense was Patchouli. And I know he was also 31 in the photo over Glen’s piano, because it was taken during the last year of his life…
My Dad Was In The Army With Elvis
My first interview was with Maureen Christopher. I was an hour early to the pub and busy chewing through my second straw when a lovely woman with blonde hair walked up. I had never met her before and proceeded to thank her, one too many times I’m sure, for speaking with me. After my blabbering subsided, we began to chat about her brother over cold coffee and a Diet Coke.
Mic Christopher was born in 1969 in the Bronx, New York to Irish parents, Harry and Vaun Christopher. His family moved back to Ireland, when Mic was three and Maureen five. They settled in the relatively new suburb of Clondalkin, on the South West of the city.
“It was mainly my mother,” Maureen recalls. “She had the intention of going over to New York for a year and she stayed for ten. They’re American citizens and all of that – my dad served two years in the army. But I think my mother always had it in the back of her mind that she wanted to come home.”
Back in Dublin, the Christophers were a self-proclaimed “Elvis” household. Harry had been stationed in Germany at the same time as Elvis Presley; and though the two never met, it didn’t stop Mic and Maureen from telling everyone who would listen that their dad was “in the army with Elvis.”
“That’s as much as he ever said,” Maureen recalls, “but, as kids, we sort of developed that story. We used to tell our friends that one slept on the top bunk and the other was on the bottom and they’d sing to all the soldiers.”
Maureen began playing keyboards when she was young, though she never took it seriously enough to play in front of anyone. Mic started dabbling with a tin whistle when he was in school and graduated to the banjo – and then the guitar.
Around 15, Mic started taking the bus into Dublin to busk. “Yeah, at that time it would have probably taken an hour,” Maureen recalls. “He used to go in on a Saturday or a Sunday. And once he left school, he was in there all the time. He couldn’t believe that somebody would be crazy enough to work a 9 to 5 job, and have somebody telling you what to do! That just wasn’t an option. I mean, how can you be a songwriter if you have to work 9 to 5? You can’t write songs at certain hours of the day. To Mic, doing anything else, other than what he did, was just madness.”
Mark Dignam is a songwriter from Finglas, not too far from where Glen Hansard grew up in Ballymun. As kids, the two learned how to play guitar and hung out at each other’s houses. It didn’t take long for Mark and Glen to find their way into Dublin’s busking world.
“It was around ’85 and we got off the bus at O’Connell Street,” Mark recalls. “We pretty much stepped out and started playing, but we didn’t make any money – because it was O’Connell Street and it was a shit place to go. Someone finally came up and said ‘You’re wasting your time here boys. Grafton Street is where to be’. So we walked over, entered the circus tent and we were home.”
In effect, Mark and Glen had wandered into a new school – of music and of life – on Dublin’s southside. Both were eager students, something that neither of them had ever been before.
“That’s where we taught ourselves how to perform,” Mark continues. “No mikes. No amps. We had to learn how to project across the street with 200 people in front of us, and another 100 or so walking behind them. We had to learn how to push our voices and our personalities. That reaching out to the person at the back of the room – I think we got that from Grafton Street.”
It was around this time, in 1986, that a longhaired boy from Clondalkin started showing up.
“I remember kind of spotting him on the street,” Glen Hansard recalls. “One of the things that busking really does for you is it sharpens up your senses for people. And he just had this coolness about him. He had these skinny jeans and desert boots and a long sheepskin coat. He said, ‘What days do you play?’ And then he started coming in on the weekends.”
A real community of like-minded people was forming.
“We never, not once, refused anybody,” Glen adds. “The gang was very organic and very open. And everybody who came along was welcome. I guess, in a way, we were just gathering and gatherers. We were gathering songs and gathering people. Mic was a wonderful addition.”
Rónán Ó Snodaigh, the lead singer with Kíla was a close friend of Mic’s. “Everyone busked and I suppose that was what was unique about it,” he says. “Busking is a way of making money – but sometimes people are just doing it for fun. I suppose the difference at the time was that we used to let everybody at it. So you’d end up with 20 people busking. Which is economically pointless, but a lot of fun.”
But it was more than fun too. There was a comradeship among the emerging buskers that was unique. “We went to each other’s gigs and we would roadie for each other,” Mark Dignam says. “We’d change strings for each other and rise up for each other. And it took me a while to realise that that didn’t happen in every scene. There was no sense of competition between us and the outside world.”
After hundreds of weekends working, and thousands of broken strings, the pupils of Grafton Street prepared to graduate. Individually and collectively they were beginning to mature.
“We all started realising our own direction,” Mark says simply. “It was really like a settling of ingredients. The busking kind of lost its allure, because we got into the songwriting process itself. But if we weren’t busking, we were hanging out, playing music, talking about music. It was really like a think-tank.”
I asked Mark Dignam if there was ever any exhaustion, any version of musical overload?
“Well, we were young. It’s like that joke: Two young fish are swimming in the ocean when an older fish swims by and says ‘Hey boys, how’s the water?’ Then they swim on and one young fish turns to the other and says ‘What’s water?’”
The Flat on Harcourt Street
Glen Hansard and Mic Christopher very quickly became best friends. With their mighty voices and crazy hair, the two were among the great charmers of Dublin city.
“So I joined this band called ‘Hank Halfhead and the Rambling Turkeys’ and Mic came along as our roadie, so that me and him could hang out,” Glen recounts. “We travelled the whole country together in a band that was making good money, so we rented this flat right above the Harcourt Hotel. That flat became kind of legendary, because it was right bang in the middle of town. Everyone would show up there and then we’d all walk down to Grafton Street and do our thing.
“In a way, that was the golden point of it all. I remember we bought copies of The Dark Knight Returns, the famous comic, and we wallpapered the whole apartment in that comic. The walls were just full of these stories and we were really proud of that. Basically that was a really coming of age point for both of us, and I shared it with Mic.”
Their life paths diverged along the way.
“We had contact with the Hare Krishnas on Grafton Street,” Glen remembers. “I think Mic got into the Krishna thing more in a social sense, but he started going there more and more. And then he eventually moved to London, to squat in a place called Manor House. He moved over temporarily, but ended up staying for a couple of years.
“That was a tough period for us as friends. He worked in the kitchen of the Krishna restaurant and that was when he grew his dreads. We weren’t best mates at that time. I had started The Frames and had done The Commitments and he was on his own path.”
Enter The Mary Janes
Simon Good is from Dublin’s southside and was once a “long-haired heavy metal fan who loved playing the guitar.” He was also once the lead guitarist for 90’s Dublin rock outfit, The Mary Janes.
“After I finished school,” Simon recalls, “I went to work in a garage as a ‘fuel injection engineer’ pumping petrol. I got the job through another long-haired metal fan, Paul ‘Binzer’ Brennan, who became the drummer with The Frames. He told me about a college course in North Dublin called Rock School, which I thought would be a great way to put off deciding what to do with my life. While there, we used to hang outside, talking shite with the other students, one of whom had the same love of Monty Python and weird sense of humour as me. That turned out to be Karl Odlum. Our lives at times seem to turn on a sixpence.
“The idea to form a band came about quite quickly,” he adds. “I mean what else would we do? Karl suggested a friend of his and Dave’s, who they used to busk with, called Mic. Karl said he had great voice and was very popular with the ladies – basically a perfect front man for our band.
“Mic had been living in a squat in London. But had recently returned to Dublin and was living in a not-so-glamorous flat at the end of Wexford Street. I liked him pretty much immediately. He had a very strong presence for such a skinny guy. We tagged Steve Hogan to be our drummer, but he left to do the showband circuit – so we became a three-piece sans drummer.”
Maureen Christopher remembers her brother’s first job as a rock star: “This was more like the real thing. They were playing gigs! They were anti-establishment, anti-everything. They were like ‘Why should we have a drummer? Just because people say you should have a drummer? Why would we write songs that are three minutes long, just so the radio will play them? Our songs aren’t that short!’”
Colin Ahearn was relatively new to the role of sound designer. He had just come off a stint working for The Frames and Mic happily reeled him in, to become the sound engineer for The Mary Janes.
“Mostly, it was just the three of them,” Colin says. “It was exciting. You were finally with a group of people that you got on with, and that you were comfortable around. You just felt like you were part of it. We’d go everywhere. If there were no gigs, then everyone called down to Mic’s for a cup of tea.”
“We played a lot of shows and I mean a lot,” Simon remembers. “I had a small van and we would drive the length and breath of the country to do the smallest support, ‘for 50 quid and a crate of beer’. That was one of our jokes.”
The band was a place where they were all learning about life.
“There was always great, heated debates and discussions and the like going on,” Colin says. “They’d always be thinking about stuff – what’s going on in the newspapers. They were inquisitive. Young. Liberals. I think Karl was the most reserved out of the three. He was probably the smartest. Simon was always the driver. We always had to be certain places when Simon said. He’d stay sober and do the driving. We’d go around everywhere in his van. Mic was kind of like ‘Just put me where I’m supposed to be’.”
The Mary Janes were relentless. In the early to mid-90’s they would play well over 200 gigs a year. Where most bands would have a gig or two a week , the MJ’s would do four or five. As a support act, the lack of a drummer worked very much in their favour. They wereeasy to load in and out, and were unusually mobile thanks to Simon and his van. They worked and wrote well together most of the time.
“Our songs would come just from us sitting around jamming which we would do for hours on end,” Simon observes. “Mic took care of all the lyrics. He wasn’t a fan of the verse/chorus structure, so his lyrics were very much a stream of consciousness type thing.”
In 1994, The Mary Janes released their first studio album Bored Of Their Laughing. It was a fearless rock record that’s both thoughtful and crashing. Mic’s voice is aggressive, soulful and not the least bit apologetic. According to some, this would have been the heyday of The Mary Janes – a rough and ready trio with talent to back up their dissent. The quality of the album and the constant touring were enough to land the group both a loyal following and a publishing deal.
I Saw This Thing On Bosnia
In 1995 The Mary Janes were signed by Warner/Chappell. And a new drummer arrived on the scene to turn the band into a four-piece.
An Australian musician, Mark Stanley had been based in Melbourne. He moved to Ireland when he was 24, looking to get into the local scene. Within a month of landing, he had a job at Music Maker and an audition with The Mary Janes.
“I met Mic in the first audition,” he recalls. “He was the last in. He sat in the corner and didn’t say anything. I felt a great connection with Karl and Simon, but Mic was hard to get to know. But certainly once I knew him, it was a different friendship than anything I’d ever experienced. As a part of that friendship, he was up for doing things that conventionally my other friends wouldn’t do. He’d jump on board – and he’d be on board 100%. Like when I suggested one night that we go to Bosnia. And that was that. We were off.”
Mark had seen a late-night documentary about the Pavarotti Music Center and decided he wanted to take a look. During the civil war in the region, Bosnia had been gutted and the Pavarotti Center offered a respite for kids that were shaken by the violence. Mic always loved kids.
“There were lots of studio rooms and creative spaces that people were able to take children into,” Mark says. “So Mic and I went and participated in those workshops. We worked hands-on with the kids. He had kids coming at him with pairs of scissors, trying to stab his eyes out. He experienced some really frightening things. You’ve got kids, who’d have suffered all sorts of atrocities, and didn’t know how to process that anger and fear.
“And that’s effectively what the place was for: to exorcise the demons of war through art and music. They had wet rooms where they would cover their hands and feet with paint and they would stomp and slap the walls. Mic would go off and do that all day. He loved it.”
Back in Ireland, in 1998 The Mary Janes released their second studio album, Sham, to critical acclaim. However the wear and tear of the musical rat-race was beginning to grate on Mic. For whatever reason, The Mary Janes never seemed to catch fire, the way Mic had hoped they would. After a planned series of shows and media fell through down in Australia, Mic and Mark Stanley had a talk.
“When I arrived back in Dublin I sat Mic down,” Mark recalls, “and I said, ‘The whole load of it’s been shot to shit and nothing’s happening’. I was so flattened to see the look on his face. I said, ‘What do you want to do here?’ And Mic said, ‘I’m just so tired of swimming upstream. I just can’t. I need to go off and write some songs by myself maybe’. And then we brought the other two lads in and decided to knock it on the head.
“We effectively decided: let’s make these last few shows our farewell gigs. So we turned them into our last ‘Hurrah.’ There was something kind of romantic about it. And the really, really sad thing for me was, I always felt like this was a break rather than the end. I always had it in my heart that over the years, in some way, we’d get together again. That we would put ourselves back together once we’d made sense of everything else.”
The First Accident
And so Mic quit music – sort of. He got a job.
Maureen Christopher remembers the details. “He got a job as a courier,” she says. “It started out first on a pushbike and then graduated to a motorbike. And he was coming up the Ranelagh Road one day and this woman cut across the street and sent him flying up into the air. He ended up with a broken neck and a broken ankle. So he was in a plaster that started at the back of his head and came halfway down his chest. He couldn’t move – and he was like that for eight weeks.”
Mic was lucky. The hospital staff made sure that he knew it too. The bad news was that his spine was fractured. But if he had broken the vertebrae a millimetre above or below where he did, he would have been either paralysed or dead.
The recovery period was horribly tough. While in traction, he was almost entirely immobilised. But he battled his way through it. What happened next was a bit of a surprise to everyone. There was sea-change – a second thought and, seemingly, a second chance for his sometimes gloomy soul.
“Mic was the coolest fucker around – simple as that,” Rónán Ó Snodaigh remembers. “He was the King of Cool. But he was a sulky dude. He’d sit with the telly on, full blast and he’d just ignore you and watch it for two hours. He was suffering a little bit. And he was suffering people because everyone wanted a piece of Mic. But after his accident, Mic came out of it – and he became the beautiful person that everyone knew he could be.
“He had a year’s grace of living. In terms of the spiritual, that whole year, he was aware of trees, plants, stones. He was actually very aware of things that are alive.”
Before his accident, Mic had begun work on a new venture and shortly after he escaped the horrible rigours of traction, he put the final touches to his first solo EP – entitled Heyday. In artistic terms, it immediately seemed that this would be a turning point for the 30-year old singer. The title-track on the four-song record would soon become Mic’s greatest hit. And the recent re-awakening of his brighter side also resulted in a reconnection with his old friend from Grafton Street.
Glen Hansard recalls what happened. “Our friendship took a 10-year sabbatical,” he recounts. “I mean, we still met each other but we weren’t close friends, for a long time. Because Mic is one of those guys: you fell in love with him. You couldn’t have a passive friendship with him. You were really in love with him, and at his service, or you didn’t see him. He was one of those guys who took up all of your time. And when we became friends again, he did take up all my time – and it was beautiful.”
In 2001, Mic toured Slovakia with The Frames and later with Glen on his own in Vienna and New York. The two friends had circled back to their roots, and spent a year as the dashing troubadours they had always planned to be.
The Wrong Door
In early October 2001, Mic Christopher got the email of his life, from his hero, The Waterboys frontman, Mike Scott. Mike was looking for a support act for their European tour and had taken a liking to Mic’s EP.
“Mic was so fucking happy, man,” Glen says. “He was ecstatic to get an email from Mike Scott direct. It blew his fucking mind.”
A few weeks later, Glen went to wish his friend a fond farewell. He knew that this could be the defining tour of Mic’s life. “The day he was leaving,” Glen says, “I went over to his flat and gave him a tuner because he didn’t have one. I gave him some strings. I basically gave him what I had that would help him along the way – I just gave him my gear.”
On Friday November 16, 2001, Mic Christopher opened for The Waterboys in Groningen, Holland. By all accounts it was a great gig. Mic had sold more CDs that night than any other on the tour – around 40 – and afterwards he went out for drinks and a game of pool with the crew. After a few beers and for reasons not entirely clear, Mic decided to leave the bar and go elsewhere, on his own.
Maureen describes the scene: “Where it happened, if you can imagine you’re looking at the front of the bar, it’s two big windows and a doorway in between. The doorway even had a sign over it, so you’d assume that was the entrance.”
But it wasn’t. The actual entrance to the bar was around the corner. This doorway led to a staircase with four apartments above it. And the staircases in Holland are very steep. So you’d have to get halfway up before you realised you’re not walking into the bar.”
It’s such a simple decision to climb a set of stairs – a decision most of us make several times a day and a decision Mic, evidently, made that night. It’s hard for everyone not knowing exactly what happened next. It was dark and it was cold and the steps were icy.
“I imagine,” Maureen reveals, “that he realised he had taken the wrong door and turned around… and slipped.”
According to reports, it was around 3 a.m. when Mic fell. An ambulance was called immediately, but Mic was unresponsive. No one knew who he was, or where he had come from and he had no ID on him, nor anything else that would have pointed the police or the hospital authorities in the right direction.
Maureen takes up the story. “They had no gig on the Saturday night, so it wouldn’t be unusual that you wouldn’t see various members of the band etc. That’s the way it is with musicians. But they were leaving Groningen on Sunday morning and Mic didn’t turn up for the bus.”
The Waterboys’ tour manager decided to start phoning hospitals. The AZG Hospital, in Hanzeplein, said that, yes, they had an unidentified young man, who had been there since early Saturday morning. Members of the touring party went over and identified the young man as Mic Christopher – and then the prospect of an impossible chain of desperate phone calls opened up. There was nothing else for it: people would have to be told. Mic was in a coma…
The Doctor Makes The Decision
At 6am on the Monday morning, Maureen Christopher and her parents were on the first flight from Dublin to Amsterdam. All they knew was that Mic had fallen and that he was in a Netherlands hospital, unconscious. But Mic’s brain had started to swell as a result of the impact, and by the time his family arrived, he was hooked up to 16 separate machines and not breathing on his own.
Over the next 10 days, Mic’s friends travelled to Groningen to see him: his girlfriend, Jenni, Glen Hansard, Lisa Hannigan, Donal Scannell, Damien Rice and Graham Hopkins all went to the hospital, as well as many family members, who flew over to support Mic and his family.
“But then he got an infection,” Maureen explains. “And because whatever part of the brain is switched off – it can’t fight infection. They tried to flush him with antibiotics with the hope of catching it, but it wasn’t happening. So in Holland, the doctor makes the decision. It’s not a matter of you deciding how many years you’re going to hold on. Once they were satisfied that they’d explored all angles, they made the decision for us.”
In fact, that fateful decision to turn off the machines was made the night a fundraising concert was happening back in Dublin to cover Mic’s hospital expenses. The next morning Glen, his girlfriend, Milky, and Donal Scannell flew back to Groningen to say goodbye to their compadre. When the time came for them to let Mic go, his family insisted that his friends be in the room. They all stayed.
“I would have had the fear,” Maureen confesses. “You know, can we wait another six months? They said once they switched everything off, if he didn’t start breathing on his own, it could take an hour, it could take a few hours. In fact, it took five minutes. So that made up my mind for me that we had made the right decision. He wasn’t fighting.”
And so, on the 29 November, 2001, Mic Christopher died in northern Holland.
My Songs Are Friends That I Will Never Know
Colm Mac An Iomaire is looking back now, with the benefit of hindsight.
“A young person’s death is obviously so intense and extra poignant,” he observes. “The intensity of the passing of a friend like that is something transformative – and I think in Mic’s case it was magnified a couple of times over by the nature of the music and by him being such a charismatic figure, in this small musical community.”
A year after Mic Christopher’s death, Karl Odlum finished the ex-Mary Janes singer’s debut solo album Skylarkin’, which was released on 29 November 2002 by way of a Vicar Street sell-out tribute show. The record soared.
It reached platinum status and was later voted No. 14 in Hot Press’ People’s Choice Top 100 Albums Of All Time. It scooped the prize for Best Album at the 2003 Meteor Awards, which his family accepted on his behalf. The track ‘Heyday’ would go on to be featured on a Guinness ad starring Michael Fassbender, and became a regular show-closer for both Glen Hansard and The Coronas.
It might seem strange that I arrived in Ireland knowing nothing of the legend of Mic Christopher. But after that brief introduction to his story, on the night of Glen’s chicken dinner, I decided to get to know Mic better, by way of talking to the people who loved him. But as much as I came to know of him, in piecing this story together, there is an extent to which he would remain elusive. In a sense, he wasn’t mine to know; rather, he belonged to the people that he shared his life with.
But luckily for me, and for everyone else who loves great music, Mic was a songwriter. And it will be his songs that endure, through the late night pubs and on the lips of his friends and fellow troubadours – across stages from Dublin to New York. It is those nights and those quiet places that will see Mic and his legacy celebrated.
For it is written in all of our destinies that we will one day become nothing more or less than the stories our friends will tell. But there are a very privileged few, whose destiny it is to live on in the songs that our tribe will, one day, sing.