So sang Mary Cigarettes, fittingly described as ‘one of the great unsung heroes of Irish rock and pop’, on his track ‘Rocket Science’. Sadly last week, the 59 year-old Northern Irish singer-songwriter AKA Gregory Gray passed away after a short illness at his Hertfordshire home.

He would have felt uneasy about this compliment, however. Not out of pomposity, but because he disliked ‘best of’ lists, was suspicious of ‘heroes’, and perhaps especially, of having his magnificent body of work reduced to its national provenance, where an ‘accident of birth’ is taken to define you. As he put it on ‘Three Minute Requiem’ the closing track on his last studio album, ‘I left my home, so I could be myself’.

Those familiar with Oscar Wilde’s ‘gutter and the stars’ epithet, will detect the reference to the seminal Irish and gay writer. The allusion is wilful. Mary Cigarettes was in thrall to this homeland, but in an unsentimental and critical way. His version of ‘home’, like Wilde before him, was riven with dissonance: a place that made me, that I can’t escape from, but simultaneously need to escape from; the conundrum, ‘I am of this, but need to be more’.

He was also, significantly, the first Irish popular music artist to ‘come out’ as gay, and the first to carry aspects of a queer sensibility into his songs and performance. Hot Press, Ireland’s NME, acknowledged his place in history in 1996, with a double centre-page feature, aptly titled, ‘The Greatest Irish Rock Story Never Told’. In that article, he talks about coming out, but also of not being quarantined to being ‘a gay artist’. This ‘liminality’ would permeate his work throughout his long career.

Mary Cigarettes was the nom de musique of Gregory Gray. Born Paul Lerwill in Coleraine on May 1959, Gray was the lead singer and songwriter of Perfect Crime, an early 80s post-punk band from Northern Ireland’s North Antrim coast. They released two singles on MCA records before disbanding. While first single, ‘Brave’, didn’t bother the charts, it possessed a sonic signature that was radically different from other Northern Irish groups at the time. It was a portent of things to come. Perfect Crime played as support band to U2 on their War tour, and the only artists from Ireland to join the star-studded line-up that performed at U2’s first ‘homecoming’ concert in Dublin’s Phoenix Park Racecourse to 25000 people after ‘conquering’ the world in the summer of 1983.

Gray went on to release three studio albums on major labels as a solo artist. Think of Swans (CBS, 1986), Strong at Broken Places (Atco/Polygram, 1990) and Euroflake in Silverlake (EMI, 1995). He regarded the second of these as his first album proper, revealing an acute critical ear, especially when it came to judging the value of his own work. While an out-and-out hit eluded him, the last two albums particularly attracted favourable reviews in Rolling Stone, were very popular on College Radio in the US, as well as achieving commercial success in Southern Europe. And, as the cliche goes, he was actually ‘big in Japan’. Despite the absence of a hit in the Anglo-American firmament, he had signed with four of five major record companies and received the related financial advances from them. This, in itself, is an achievement. And in the future it would give him a cushion from crude financial pressures, allowing him to continue as a musician.

The ‘made it’, ‘signed-to-a-record-label’ phase is only the beginning of the story. In the late 1990s, Gregory moved to leafy Hertfordshire to be with his partner Thomas. On finding their ideal home, they created a beautiful music room (he hated the term ‘studio’) and reinvented himself as the deliberately gender-ambiguous Mary Cigarettes. At this point, he began to make the most compelling music in his entire oeuvre, exhibiting his work on online platforms, such as YouTube and SoundCloud, having left ‘the business’ behind him.

I was lucky enough to play some of these tracks while regularly DJing in the music-friendly Notting Hill pub, The Cow. As his work wasn’t conventionally released it meant interested parties couldn’t find the track via mobile music-recognition apps, and instead would have to approach the DJ to obtain its name and author. A long list of celebrated musicians from the area who made such an approach became fans - including luminaries from the world of punk. I also had the pleasure of introducing Jimmy Page to the Mary Cigarettes track and video, ‘Jimmy Page’. It possessed the wonderful line in the chorus, ‘you’re the one I want to spend my money on, Jimmy Page’. What the revered guitarist made of it, I can’t report.

As an ‘unsigned’ artist with no supporting PR machine his work attracted thousands of ‘hits’, ‘likes’ and positive comments. This brought him to the attention of BBC Six Music, and especially Tom Robinson, who would become an avid fan. Mary Cigarettes also became involved in post-rave electronic dance music, collaborating with Cork duo Fish Go Deep to powerful effect, and reaching a new young audience of clubbers.

To invert the title of one of the singles from his second studio album, for Gregory ‘the music didn’t turn into money’. That’s just the way he’d have liked it. Making music wasn’t about fiscal gain or stardom. He was a true artist: he made music because he had to, wanted to.

Oscar Wilde returns here. Just as the name, ‘Mary Cigarettes’, effortlessly mixes the sacred and the profane (a contrast that would be another enduring theme in his work), Gray’s lyrics share Wilde’s razor-sharp precision, wit, and a related ability to unsettle. He occupied an important ‘in-between’ space: not just between pop and art, but between ‘camp irony’ and sincerity, ‘authenticity’ and its opposite; the ‘deep’ and the seemingly ‘throwaway’. In short, much of the power and the pleasure was in not being entirely sure how to interpret the intention of the singer in the song.

This ability to occupy a particular ‘space-between-the-notes’ extended to sound itself. His keyboard textures were as unique as his words. His musical vocabulary encompassed African-American funk and soul (particularly its female exponents), ambient experimentation, dub, reggae, trip-hop and so much more. His voice, or should I say, several voices - especially in the later years - became the most glorious of instruments, particularly his extremely expressive falsetto. His Northern Irish accent would occasionally burst through, which was a kind of musical italicisation or underlining.

Most importantly, he was a great friend of some 35 years: generous, funny, insightful, mercurial and steadfast. He was central to setting me in my career path. Wherever you went with him, he made it magical. If Van Morrison is the most critically celebrated Irish music artist, Gregory Gray, in occupying an adjacent space, merits a place in the history of Northern Irish, Irish and British popular music. He lived a version of the dream: he made music all of his adult life. And what music he made. ‘It’s not enough behaving wisely’, he counselled from a song. Indeed.

Gregory Gray born 20 May 1959, died 25 April 2019, is survived by his loving partner Thomas.

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