I didn’t know Mary Margaret O’Hara very well when I asked her to sing on my first record in 1988 but I loved the way Greg Keelor described her to me, it sounded like she was some sort of amazing force and he was right, she was also very kind and selfless. I dropped off a cassette in advance for her to learn the songs. She lived upstairs on the west side of Spadina then near Dundas.
When she showed up for the session at the Music Gallery Members studio (which cost $5 an hour for the 8 track) she came with her boyfriend but she made him leave when we were about to start recording. She arranged it for him to come back in an hour or two. I thought it was amusing that she needed him to leave in order to sing. Then for me to record her she needed to stand around the corner so I couldn’t see her. Okay. Then she needed the lights off. Okay. And then she sang and it was more than I could have hoped for.
Each take she did I would hear aspects I liked and some I didn’t. But each time I played it back I didn’t hear it in the same way. I couldn’t find what I thought were wrong parts plus I heard new things I didn’t notice the first time that gave me pause and made me feel regret about expressing criticism. She tried to accommodate me and went back out to re-record each time with my jumble of directions only to do something else equally brilliant and confounding. I started to grasp it made no sense to try and direct her. I learned a lesson, certain artists are so exceptional you shouldn’t interfere, just trust their talent. It might take many hours of listening later to properly process and it’ll be worth it.
Sometimes people who have heard of her but never have met her ask me what she’s like. She is a legend, that’s what I tell them. She’s a living legend – right here right now. She may also be a saint. Whatever one does in the presence of saints, that’s what you should do if you meet her, offer to wash her feet or get her a piece of cake.
In this song called Travel Agent, from that first session, her voice echoes the inner strife of the singer. It’s about someone losing their mind. Someone who hypothetically bears a striking resemblance to me.
I do wish I could transfer all this from the 1/4 inch 8 track and clean up some stuff, fix some stuff that I didn’t hear when I was 25 but I’m ok if I die tomorrow and this is the way it stands in highly sought after spaces in random delete bins everywhere.
Travel agent give me the news
Which way is the farthest away from these blues
Where can I hear the sun out loud?
Where is the car unallowed?
Travel agent, travel agent, help me quick
There’s a vicious circle and I’m almost stuck in it
I’m such a talented mule because I see the string
Tied to the carrot that’s dangling.
Did you hear about the man who didn’t use a fork?
When he ordered wine with his teeth he pulled the cork
They took him to hospital against his will
Now they fry his brain if he doesn’t take their pills
Travel agent, travel agent, you gotta help me out
I’m watching this movie and you know what it’s about
The hero’s just make believe but the crooks are real
Took me so long to think didn’t take me long at all to feel
Travel agent, travel agent, book me a tour
As long as I’m moving that’s half the cure
Bird in a cage doesn’t sing
What good’s a bird if it doesn’t have it’s wings?
Travel agent, travel agent, I got to know
I feel like I’m naked and my mind’s the snow
I noticed one day that she never says anything mean about anyone. What’s her problem?