Suggs – still best known as the legendary frontman of feelgood band Madness – was 50 in January.
He was lying in the bath on his birthday, nursing an epic hangover from the celebrations the night before when there was the most almighty crash.
“There, lying amid shards of broken glass, was our four-year-old cat, a British blue called Mamba,” he said. “I’d put up the glass shelf myself and it must have given way.
“I was 50. My kids had recently left home and now the cat was dead. I was really upset. It triggered a deluge of emotion, an event that somehow tipped me over the edge.
“I began to consider my own mortality and, out of that, the idea for exploring my own past somehow crystallised.”
The result is Suggs – My Life Story in words and pictures, which comes to Buxton Opera House on February 6, 2012. The new stage show hands audiences an access-all-areas backstage pass to the Madness frontman’s mind as he attempts the daredevil stunt of single-handedly unraveling the mysteries of his own life.
“It’s a memoir,” says Suggs. “It’s not stand-up. It’s not An Evening With… 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 good bits and the darker moments.”
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 father, William, who worked for a photographic developers but whose life was increasingly overtaken by drugs.
“Dad left home when I was about three,” he said. “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.”
Mother and son moved to Liverpool, where Edith sang in the clubs, winning the accolade of Melody Maker’s Jazz Newcomer of the Year in the mid-60s. She performed regularly at the Blue Angel to where The Beatles and Cilla Black would repair after sessions at The Cavern.
Moving to London, Suggs’ 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,” he says. “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 giving me a florin, sometimes even a ten bob note. I couldn’t really understand what was going on at an adult level which was probably all for the best. But there was a feeling of community and I was never in any danger.”
At secondary in Swiss Cottage, he acquired his nickname: “The other kids used to call me Gray or Mac and I wanted something a bit more distinctive. 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.”
Married to professional singer Bette Bright, they have two daughters – Scarlett, 29 and Viva, 25 – who sing as a duo under their own names. But Suggs hasn’t hung up his own microphone. His band recently finished recording their tenth album.
“Madness have always been about accentuating the positive,” says Suggs. “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.”
l Tickets for Suggs: My Life Story are available from the box office on 0845 127 2190 or online at www.buxtonoperahouse.org.uk.