Monday 12 November 2018

Me, myself and Irene

MAXI readily admits that until around the age of 30, she lived a "relatively charmed" life. Though it then was suddenly shattered. Like her skull in the car crash that led to Irene McCoubrey - Maxi's real name - needing more than 100 stitches, losing her memory and ability to recall even the simplest of song lyrics; her record contract as part of pop trio Sheeba, her self-co

MAXI readily admits that until around the age of 30, she lived a "relatively charmed" life. Though it then was suddenly shattered. Like her skull in the car crash that led to Irene McCoubrey - Maxi's real name - needing more than 100 stitches, losing her memory and ability to recall even the simplest of song lyrics; her record contract as part of pop trio Sheeba, her self-confidence as a woman. In other words, for about two years Maxi endured her "blackest period, ever".

Not only that. This period was of such importance to Maxi that within minutes of our meeting to do this interview in the Shelbourne Hotel she's describing it as a "pivotal turning point" in her life and clearly feels that's where we should start our chat. So we do.

"It was 1981 and everything was going great for Sheeba," she recalls. "We'd just represented Ireland in the Eurovison Song Contest, had a record contract and were driving towards Castlebar, in the middle of one afternoon, to work on our album, then it started to rain. And a lady was collecting her child from school. She turned [her car] so the child wouldn't have to run across the road and we ran right into her. She later died and her other child died."

Sheeba's car killed two people? How did that affect Maxi, emotionally?

"Very badly," she says. "But it was four days before my mother came in and told me. I just said, 'Oh my God, that's dreadful.' But I lost my short-term memory, so she could tell me something like that then I'd fall asleep and forget it. So this helped me deal with those deaths, in a sense. But we, ourselves, had severe injuries. Frances Campbell, who was in the front, had a collapsed lung, the seat-belt holder went into Marion Fossett's face, and I went up through the roof. I was unconscious for two days and when I came to, I realised the record contract was gone, my career as a singer was over. Because, let's face it, nobody wants to employ an ugly girl singer with stitches on her head. At that stage I wasn't even sure my hair would grow back. And I couldn't remember songs. Though, in time, my memory did return."

Fortunately for us. Because that means we can flashback to Maxi's relatively "charmed" years. She was born in Harold's Cross, Dublin, in 1950, grew up "loving Radio Luxembourg" and dreaming about her ultimate heart-throb at the time: Cliff Richard. "I had altars to him at home!" says Maxi, shamelessly, insisting Cliff still would be her "number one choice for a dream dinner date" despite rumours that he's gay. "I don't care, it's his mind and talent I'd be interested in!" As for Maxi's own musical talent, it was nurtured from the start.

"My mam and dad were both very musical and they choose St Louis Convent in Rathmines because the nuns there were amazing," she says. "In that choir, to my right was Twink and to my left was Dick. Mary Black was there too. If you could do anything at all, musically, you were encouraged. So the school choir became the Young Dublin Singers and, from the age of 10, I was in the cabaret at Jury's, Gaiety pantomimes and adored it. But my mam was a schoolteacher and her worry was could I do that and my homework so, clever woman, she said, 'The first exam you fail, you're off the stage.' So I made sure to keep the mammy happy!"

'Twink', of course, was Adele King and 'Dick' Barbara Dickson. The name changes came about when the Gaiety theatre's owner, Eamonn Andrews, decided to form a trio of backing vocalists for the budding Irish pop industry, telling Maxi, Dick and Twink their voices "worked well together" and noting, "you don't look too bad either!" He was right in both respects. But how did Maxi's mammy respond to the obvious dangers involved in her teenage daughter being sold as a mini-skirted sex symbol, touring abroad and so on?

'ACTUALLY, the three mammies made the dresses and we'd be saying, 'Take it up another inch'!" she responds, smiling. "But they must have been afraid of us moving into that whole world. Yet they knew we had chaperones, whatever. And, luckily, when I was 17, 18, 19 I did those tours and never found myself in any situation that was threatening, sexually. Yet, later, after I went solo, I worked in Greece and was expected to 'encourage the customers to drink champagne'. Meaning, they brought me over as a singer, then expected me to become an 'escort'. But because I'd been on the road since I was, basically, in a cot, I knew that was going to be the domino effect, so I said no. Yet there were many girls there who went for it."

Likewise, there are many "girls" who become pop stars a la Maxi, Dick and Twink and "go for it" sexually, in terms of male groupies, dewy-eyed fans, fellow musicians or whatever. Maxi admits that such men were "available from day one" and that, naturally enough, not all were turned away! Though she claims to have been more inclined towards long-range relationships than casual flings.

"I fell in love quickly," Maxi explains. "I'd look into the crowd of people and see someone I'd want to be with. That's exactly what happened when I was singing with a rock band in Canada around 1972 and saw this gorgeous Italian guy, Tony. But the first time I actually fell in love was with a musician named Michael, from Arklow, who was in a group called Homer's Knods. I adored him and we were together for about four years but he died of throat cancer in 1970. I was devastated. Yet one lesson I learned from all that was that if you're in show business, even though you have a heartache, you've got to go out there and bubble, be up, for an audience. So you put your emotions on hold. Nobody knew I was in pain. I still do that. Cry in private. And I'll always remember Shay Healy said to me at the time, 'You'll sing sad songs better now.' I probably did."

Despite Michael's death, Maxi didn't lose faith in romance, and subsequently fell "madly in love" with Tony "who was sophisticated, knew all about food, wine and culture", thus broadening her education far more than the "musos" she'd mostly been involved with. "That was the beginning of my really growing up and getting a bit of polish!" Why did Maxi end that affair? She met someone else. And didn't know how to tell Tony her feelings had changed.

"So I confided in a guy in the band and he said, "In other relationships, if you want to lose someone you just tell them you were playing in Montreal when it was actually Toronto, do the same with this guy." Which I did, though I now see that was bad advice I was given," says Maxi, conceding it was "pretty cruel" of her to send boyfriends to the wrong cities just to get rid of them. Particularly Tony, who'd been in love with her for two years.

"It was, and I regretted that for years," she continues. "That's why I was so glad, 26 years later, when I got to talk to him again, on the phone and apologised for what I'd done. And he said, 'It's OK, I forgive you.' Those were the words I'd waited to hear."

Maxi apologised because like all women, or men, who have discarded their lovers, she finally got her comeuppance. During that 26-year period Maxi had a series of love affairs, "each lasting about seven years", and one of which "was good for five then went terribly bad." Tellingly, she doesn't really want to talk about that relationship, explaining, "If I do, it will just bring up the kind of negative energy, and hurt, I want to keep at bay. But I will say that it was the only time in my life the end of a love affair nearly broke my spirit. And I've now decided I won't let any man do that to me."

OK, so let's get back to the end of that more recent love affair, which led to Maxi making contact with Tony again.

"Actually, he asked, 'Why did you have this need to call after so long?' and I explained it was because what I'd done to him had finally happened to me," she says. "He said, 'Don't tell me that this is the first time you've been dropped after all these years of being around the block? I said it was.

"I'd wanted a relationship to continue, but he found someone else. One day he said, 'I'm moving on,' and I thought he meant going for promotion, but he meant leaving me."

This guy was "much younger" than Maxi. Eighteen years, in fact. He was 28 and she 46 when they broke up. Presumably, along the way, she got slagged for having a toy-boy.

"Even by him! He'd say things like 'Who's Sonny Knowles?'" Maxi recalls, smiling. But this time the smile is bittersweet. "And there was great heartache for me when it ended. So, literally, one day he said, 'I'm moving.' That really

'The revolving door has nothing to do with my bed!' she says, laughing. 'It's just about someone being my chum for the evening'

broke my heart. And that's why I called Tony, crying on the phone."

All of which leads to one question. Why isn't Maxi now with her long-lost Italian lover? Because he's happily married.

"Yet he did say, 'We will meet again, some day, that I know,'" she muses. "But it's not something I'm living for, in any way. In fact, I've been single for seven years and it's a great adventure. The only problem, at the start, was finding someone to accompany me to gigs and so on. That's when my 'revolving door' came into action! Someone once said to me, 'You know when you're putting on your make-up and getting your shoes to go out, it's like you turn a revolving door, pick a guy and say, "I'll bring him tonight!"' And I do think, 'This one likes jazz, that one likes theatre, he's arm candy,' so I take them out. But it's not that I've given up on love. It's just that, at the moment, I'm going with the flow and happy with the life I lead."

That said, one wouldn't want to suggest that Maxi's "revolving door" is the same thing as a revolving bed - unless that happens to be true. "The revolving door has nothing to do with my bed!" she responds, laughing. "It's just about someone being my chum for the evening, saying, 'Walk me to the car, that's all I ask, and go back into the gig if you want because I've got to be up at four in the morning to do my radio show.' So, no, it's not a revolving bed!"

Even so, Maxi admits that "having companions, in a sexual sense" also isn't something she's "given up on". As for long-term lovers - despite claims to the contrary, in this very newspaper - Maxi did not recently break up with, nor was she ever "really involved with" Frenchman Patrick Van Barr. "He's just a friend," she says.

But let's end by flashing back to that car crash. Hopefully, at that point, Maxi had someone who was more than a friend. Namely, a lover who stood by her through it all.

"I did, thank God," she responds. "I was with a Dublin musician at the time. But because of my loss of memory I'd wake up and say, 'He never even came to see me,' and the girls - the three of us were in the same hospital room - would tell me, 'He's been here for 24 hours and you just don't remember.' He was totally supportive. And I was not a pretty sight, let me tell you. With my head shaved and all those stitches. And I really did feel my career was over. And life, in ways. That's why it was the blackest period of my life."

But out of darkness comes light. At least if you're a dreamer like Maxi. And even though she and her musician broke up about a year after the accident, because they "drifted apart", Maxi got a new lease on life by remembering something a DJ once said to her.

"When I used to listen to Radio Luxembourg, one of my favourite broadcasters was Pete Murray," she says. "Then, in 1973 I was doing promo for my Eurovision single, Do I Dream in Luxembourg, and Pete Murray actually interviewed me! But he also asked me to read requests, and after I did he said, 'If anything ever anything happens to you and you can't sing any more, please think of radio as a career, because your voice is gorgeous on air.' Those words came back to me 10 years later when I was lying in Castlebar hospital. So, as soon as I could, I made a demo tape, sent copies to 15 producers in RTE, and Pat Dunne, God bless him, responded, thus launching my radio career. And I love it. So when it comes to my career and private life I couldn't be happier than I am right now. It sure is a long way from how I felt about myself after that accident when, as I say, I thought I had no future at all."

Maxi's show 'Risin' Time' is broadcast every weekday at 5.30am on RTE Radio One

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