by Lesley Riddoch
It’s hard to believe two whole beautiful autumn days have now drawn to a close without Michael Marra sitting somewhere in them, taking it all in. I heard the terrible news of his death in a phone message from a friend yesterday, halfway down the Quiraing on Skye. That spectacular, eerie, earth-slip overlooks the whole fabulous north-western seaboard of Scotland. I’ll bet there’s hardly a village hall Michael hasn’t visited. If there is, it’s too late now. The man has passed on. Dundee has lost its bard. And Scotland has lost one of the few people who ever really understood it – kindness, squalor, cruelty, hilarity, warts and all.
I realise exaggeration is common these days. Yet in the long drive down from Skye to Perthshire I had five hours to think about Michael’s talent, and his huge legacy of songs (he was also a great painter and cartoonist) and realised that like Robert Burns, Mike was driven by compassion, humanitarianism and a deep-seated fury at cruelty – whether that was the callous cruelty of war (so brilliantly described in Mincin wi Chairlie or Happed in Mist) or the cruelty of men towards women. If you’ve never heard these songs they personify the vainglorious, painful brutality that surrounds war – even for the “winning side.” The YouTube versions don’t do justice to that cutglass, gravelly voice or his wonderfully stark, concise (and where appropriate utterly hilarious) introductions. Both tracks are on Gaels Blue which you can buy from Michael’s official site. Posted Sober is a wee gem – so are they his albums and his recent collaboration with Mr McFall’s orchestra is delicious.
The lad from Lochee wrote with an eye for detail and an ear for the absurd. Famously describing Dundonians as “Glaswegians who listen”, Michael was an outstanding lyricist, iconoclast and a man determined to right wrongs. He re-shaped and retold the stories of the hurt, forgotten and maligned – including The Lonesome Ballad of Francis Clark which describes his uncle’s abandonment by the family and his burial somewhere in the Yukon. In another brilliant and surreal song Mike compensates for the unhappy life of painter Frida Kahlo at the hands of her brutal husband and fellow artist Diego Rivera (dismissed simply as “the fat man”) by placing her in the restorative company of regulars at the Tay Bridge Bar en route to the Pearly Gates. It’s hard to believe anyone but an abused woman could have written the lines,
There’ll be no more lies and no more tears,
No more listening through the fat man’s ears,
No more tears and no more lies,
No more looking through the fat man’s eyes.’
Marra’s version of Green Grow the Rashes O, starts with the surprising and moving observation – delivered in that unimpeachable voice – that God must be a woman, because the revered Rabbie Burns tells us so. Only a man from “kettle-boiling” Dundee (the city’s female jute workers often had wages when their men had none) could have such instinctive and unapologetic solidarity with women.
Auld Nature swears, the lovely dears
Her noblest work she classes, O:
Her prentice han’ she try’d on man,
An’ then she made the lasses, O.
And yet Michael also wrote one of the most affectionate tributes every written to another man. Hamish was written for the testimonial match of Dundee Utd goalie Hamish McAlpine and amazingly perhaps, Leo Sayer recorded the song after Mike played it to him once in London. Have a listen – it’s better than anything else I remember from Mr S.
The song describes the wonderful night when Monaco came to Tannadice in the European Cup, and the film-star Grace Kelly was spotted in front of the Taylor Brothers Coal sign. The everyday and the fantastic sit cheek by jowl in this song — as in life. Of course many stars recorded Michael’s songs – you may already know some of the roll-call. He opened for such diverse performers as Van Morrison, The Proclaimers, Loudon Wainwright III, Barbara Dickson and Deacon Blue. And yet the recording contract that would have made Michael Marra a household name remained elusive …so he (stubbornly) remained in Dundee. Michael lived where he wanted, wrote about whatever inspired, amused, appalled or moved him and resolutely refused to be packaged. His songs were loving and unflinching. BBC Scotland didn’t know quite what to make of him. So after a while, they didn’t. Happily though he and his creative family found the internet and a host of films and clips are there to scroll through. Maybe it’s too much to hope that BBC Scotland will commission a proper one hour tribute. We can only hope..and nudge…
On the day the people of Eigg bought their island in 1997, Michael appeared just before dark. He’d come back from Barbados, heard history had been made on the wee Hebridean Isle, and persuaded a pal to sail directly from Glasgow to Eigg for the Handover Day party. He didn’t make a big fuss – happy to let islanders take centre-stage while he watched from the sidelines and soaked up the atmosphere. Ten years later in 2007 Mike and his talented and equally eccentric partner in crime St Andrew of the Woollen Mill provided the entertainment at the start of a debate I organized about health and wellbeing during the 2007 election campaign. With typical Marra modesty, Mike “merely” sang harmonies and accompanied on the piano while Andrew wowed the room with the Dundonian classic Eh dinnae ken
And of course there was Scotland’s alternative national anthem, Hermless, where Marra paid a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the meek. Robert Dawson Scott in a lovely tribute on the STV website has linked to another classic Marra song on a similiar theme Here Come the Weak – a powerful condemnation of the abuse of power. All Michael’s work was characterised by humanity and — despite the mess humanity has made of the planet — optimism. This song All will be well was typical of the intense, intimate and daft way he was able to weave words.
The links in this article come from the flurry of twitter posts expressing shock and sadness at Michael’s death – just one measure of the strong attachment felt by anyone who knew or heard him. But generally the man was an unrecognised musical genius in his own land. So vast was Michael’s repertoire that last night Radio Scotland presenter Bryan Burnett said they’d been inundated with a variety of song requests. Of course, this being Scotland just two were played before the show returned to its theme of “great producers.” Ironically a great producer at BBC Scotland would have broken the rules and indulged everyone for a prime-time Marra hour knowing fans would be delighted and the uninitiated would be hooked. Near midnight I was glad to hear Iain Anderson and Rab Noakes partially redress this wearily predictable imbalance. But when will our most loved, talented and important artists EVER get the mainstream recognition we want them to have without special pleading or a fuss? I shouldn’t end on a grumble. Michael never made that mistake. We at least still have his songs. And Frida Kahlo has the company she always deserved.
All my thoughts are with Peggy, Alice and Matthew.