Michael Marra, an appreciation by Lesley Riddoch

Michael Marra performing at Concert for Haiti in 2010.

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…

And remember.

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.

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18 replies

  1. Thank you so much, I think this was the most beautiful obituary I read about the great man so far. We moved from Germany to the North East of Scotland 12 years ago and in some way Michael Marra personified everything we learn to love about our new “Heimat”: beauty, kindness, humour, modesty, melancholy… we sam him live many times, and I am very grateful that we managed to be at the Dundee Rep in Mach, when he gave a wonderful concert together with the Hazey Janes…his last ever as it seems. Not since John Lennon has the death of a musician tpuched me as much as this, may he rest in peace!

  2. The last time I saw Mike play was in Caithness with the MacFalls Chamber Orchestra at Lyth. When we left the peedie place we looked up at the sky and there were millions of stars twinkling down from the massive sky. Michael Marra was like that – intimate and vast. Now, with tears and stars in my eyes, I recall the American poet John Berryman to describe what I canna “Hard on the land wears the strong sea and empty grows every bed”.

  3. Lovely piece Lesley. Play on Mike , wherever you are.You’ve left a space which can’t , and won’t, be filled.

  4. What an unsung singing mannie! Loved every word of your article and love every word of his. For me, I wish that God keep Michael close, he was a treasure.

  5. Lovely article; warm, insightful and funny – like the man and his songs. Tears in my eyes when I read it.

  6. Lovely tribute Lesley.

  7. Worthy tribute to a well sung character, Lesley. It is a sad truth that often in Scotland you are only really appreciated when you have gone.
    For Michael the songs will always be there

  8. I lived in Peddie Street in Dundee, MM immortalised it as Pity Street, and he wrote about my polio crippled artist grandfather. I will remember him.

    • It was originally titled Peddie Street DougDoug, but the recording co. in London made him change it.One of the reasons he told them to stuff their contract, and came home……….. their loss, our gain.

  9. Thanks Lesley.

    • I just want him to still be buying pints for my crippled grandfather in a pub that is no longer there for drawings that will still end up somewhere. Anything signed ‘Jacob’ or ‘J. McCarthy’.

  10. It would be nice to think that someone will put together a tribute showcase of Michael’s work in the same way as was done for the late lamented Gerry Rafferty.

  11. As a Dundonian, i’ll miss his him. A true gentle man.
    I’m listening to Constable le Clock as i type this.

  12. Great and appropriate tribute to a truly great Scot and wonderful human being. We saw Michael many times over the past twenty years and he never gave less than a wonderful performance. Truly humble, modest, and always with that pawky Dundonian humour..such a loss to us all.

  13. best obit so far….Michael Marra acted locally but thought globally, a great artist. As an Englishman living in France I am choked that 6 days have now gone by without him being there.

  14. Wonderful tribute to a wonderful man! When I imagine Dundee now I imagine it through his voice and his pawky humour – I’ve been doing a lot of imagining these last few days. I’m listening to Reynard in Paradise at the moment.

  15. Michael came to Neilston (where I now live) 2 winters ago – indeed, his original date was snowed off – and graced the Crofthead club-house with his wry charm. Two songs, including the excellent “if I were an Englishman” are recorded for posterity on YouTube.
    Michael appeared a wise old head even 20 years ago, when I first came across his warm but tongue-in-cheek song-pictures of Scotland. He was wise to avoid the big-time music scene: perhaps like that other Dundonian, the footballer Maurice Malpas, he valued his friends’ and community’s approval more than the allure of fame.
    Scotland has lost three great folk troubadours – Bert Jansch, Jackie Leven, and now Michael – in the last couple of years. The best tribute to him would be if indeed “Hairmless” became our national anthem: as (forever tongue-in-cheek) he suggested.

    including the

  16. Michael Marra was a lovely gentle man who will be sorely missed.

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