Michael McDermott could write a book about rock ’n’ roll life. So he did.

The rock ’n’ roll life can be a very hard life, and Michael McDermott knows that as well as anyone who is still alive and kicking, and writing: “Music is an amazing, time-traveling vehicle that glides atop the ether of our memories and dreams. Sights, sounds, and scenes come rushing back like a strong narcotic to catapult you into the stardust of your life. To untether you to swim in the beauty and madness of life. Music is that vast ocean that can carry you.”

Those are not the lyrics to any of the songs on his many albums. They are from his first book, an often harrowing, often hilarious and altogether hopeful memoir “Scars From Another Life.”

“As I was writing, I was getting physically ill reliving some of the stories in the book,” he told me. “There were such mood swings that my wife said, ‘This book is killing you.’ But it has been worth the effort. There are some things that just can’t be put into a song.”

His wife is the singer-songwriter Heather Lynne Horton, who once worked and sang a bit at the legendary Gold Star Sardine Bar. The two met in 2005 at the Underground Wonder Bar and have been together ever since, often playing together, performing solo and sometimes with a band called the Westies. Married in Italy in 2009, they live with their 12-year-old daughter Rain (who they call Willie) in a house in Orland Park, the same house in which he grew up, with three older siblings and supportive parents named Bill and Irene, who ran an insurance business. (Michael has long used his middle name as his stage name.)

He was grabbed by music when he was in eighth grade and saw the Rolling Stones in concert. “I was just hooked by Keith Richard,” he says. “Maybe not the best role model for a kid but …”

Having once thought of the priesthood, he was deeply into not only music but poetry — Walt Whitman becoming an influence — at Carl Sandburg High School. He wrote songs and began performing (mostly on guitar, piano and vocals) in local coffeehouses and taverns, blending Irish tunes with his own songs. He was greatly influenced and inspired by Mike Jordan, a fixture on the local folk scene.

His parents were supportive, his mother telling the Tribune many years ago, “He’s keeping us young. We see him perform as often as we can,” and his father saying, “I realize that Michael has a wonderful gift for writing and music.”

He attracted immediate attention, which compelled him to drop out after “one day” at Loyola University and in no time at all came a record deal, a great pile of money and the release of his first album (“620 W. Surf,” named for the Lakeview apartment building in which he lived at the time).

He was compared by critics to the Beatles, Joni Mitchell. He was in Rolling Stone.

“I was 19 years old and I was being told I was the best thing ever,” he says. “This success came too quickly. At the time it wasn’t a question of if I would become a big star, but when. I was washed up by the time I was 23.”

The next years were filled with a few ups and plenty of dangerous downs. There was a lot of booze, a lot of drugs, jail, guns, and other troubles. “I was like a clown trying to navigate his life through a very complicated world,” he says.

Through it all, there was music — ”It was a life preserver,” he says — and one way to chart the course of these decades of his life is to listen to the more than a dozen albums that he created in that time.

Another way is to read the nearly 300 pages of his new book, an occasionally harrowing and sad tale but one ultimately hopeful and ever revealing. It has 56 chapters, most of them no more than a few pages long. With chapter titles such as “There Was Blood Everywhere,” “Broken From Birth,” “Whiskey and Water,” “Got Myself a Gun” and “Suicide Watch,” you might be surprised when you hear McDermott say, “I think a lot of it is just hysterical. I can find beauty in pain.”

He is a thoughtful and grounded guy, well read and with a finely tuned sense of humor and honest observations. He’s spent years touring, alone and with Heather and others. He has fans across the globe and was this year presented with Italy’s Tenco Award for Songwriting. Founded in 1974, in honor of the singer-songwriter Luigi Tenco, it had previously been awarded to such performers as Jackson Browne, Elvis Costello, Randy Newman and David Crosby.

Still, his best known fan is the writer Stephen King.

It was his second album, “Gethsemane,” that King was given as a Father’s Day gift by his son Owen in 1993. He featured some McDermott lyrics in his 1994 novel “Insomnia.”

“I was playing basketball at my sister’s house when she came out and said ‘Hey, Stephen King’ is on the phone’,” he says. “Somehow he tracked me down and told me what he thought of my album, said he was coming to town in a few days and asked if I wanted to go to a Cubs’ game with him.”

They went to the game. They became friends.

King has written, “My first listen to ‘Gethsemane’ is one of the greatest events of my life as a rock music fan. … Not since I first heard Bruce Springsteen singing ‘Rosalita’ had I heard someone who excited me so much as a listener.”

King wrote the liner notes to one of McDermott’s albums and he and his son Owen offered McDermott advice and counsel in the writing and publishing of “Scars From Another Life.”

He has now been clean and sober since January 14, 2014, and says, “Every morning I get up and go to work. I’m a lunch pail kind of guy, get up, go to work, that’s what I do. I write but before that I meditate.”

He has come to realize that “people are perfectly imperfect” and is bemused that his daughter is “now not at all interested in my music, or her mom’s. She’s a cheerleader at school and that’s what she loves. But she does play guitar.”

rkogan@chicagotribune.com

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