“Michael didn’t want his name in lights; he wanted them in brackets as a songwriter.”
Yesterday saw the funeral of Michael Marra take place in Dundee.
Ten years ago, I stepped into Virgin megastore on Princes Street to look for a Christmas present for my Mum. I walked up to one of the listening posts, and looking at the cd covers, I was struck by a black and white photo of a slightly bedraggled looking man in a tweed jacket. “Posted Sober” – Michael Marra. I had never heard of Marra, but was intrigued by some of the song titles – “Frida Kahlo’s Visit to the Taybridge Bar” and “Bob Dylan’s Visit to Embra”. Once I reached the second song, “Letter from Perth” and heard the line – “I would rock in your sweet and tender arms, if I wasn’t doing time” I realised it was a love song from Perth prison. I decided to buy the CD for myself (I can’t remember if I bought my Mum a copy too).
A couple of years later, I finished recording my first ‘album’ – I decided to send Michael Marra a copy, to let him know that I thought he was an incredible songwriter, and that “Posted Sober” had affected the way I wanted to write songs. Just before my first gig at the Wee Red Bar, I received a written letter in reply to my email – Michael wished my luck, congratulated me, and gave me some advice; “If you’re anything like me, you’re probably a bit neurotic – leave your real self off stage before you play”.
That was the first of a number of letters he wrote me, usually after I had sent him a copy of my own new music – always engaging, supportive, funny and humble, he often sent me a CD and more recently a DVD of his most recent work (including work with “Saint Andrew). I probably saw Michael play around 10 times between 2002 and 2012, and after each gig I wanted to go and speak to him, introduce myself and thank him in person, but I always chickened out – part of me also liked the idea of only communicating by letter.
Anyway, this summer, just a week before I was due to do Forest Pitch (before it was postponed) I received a voicemail message. It was Michael Marra asking me to phone him. I did so, and what followed was one of the most encouraging conversations I’ve ever had. He wanted to tell me that he liked my idea for Forest Pitch, but wouldn’t be able to come as he was very unwell. Then he told me, in response to my idea, he was going to plant a football pitch of bluebells in his back garden. When I told him that there was a possibility the match would be postponed due to bad weather, he told me “it doesn’t matter, it’s the idea that matters – you almost don’t have to do it”.
I was glad to be given the opportunity to tell Michael how much I admired his work, and we hoped to meet up at some point after Forest Pitch – obviously that never happened. But while I attended the very busy service yesterday, I was struck by the genuine emotion felt by everyone (fans, friends, family) who praised Michael’s warmth, humanity and generosity. I realised how generous he had been to me; and how grateful I was to have been able to have even the smallest kind of communication with him.
I was asked by Creative Scotland a couple of months ago (about a week before the phonecall) to do a little q&a interview for their website – one of the questions was “Who is your “one to watch” for the future or someone overlooked from the past that you feel should be better known?” and I answered Michael Marra. I really do think he is one of the best songwriters Scotland has ever produced, and he is far from being the household name he should be.
Michael wrote songs with humanity, sympathy, humour and an attention for detail that is sadly lacking nowadays. His songs pleaded for fairness and justice, most of all a desire for understanding and honesty. He had a great ability to be able to use his locality, his friendships, his loves to provide the listener with a chance to think a little deeper about things. He could join the macro and the micro with great skill in a single line, let alone a song. One of his trademarks was to present a major character from the wider world in settings familiar to Scots (particularly Dundonians) for example; “King Kong’s Visit to Glasgow” (why don’t you take him to Ibrox, there we think he might blend in) “General Grant’s Visit To Dundee” (what a mighty long bridge for such a mighty little old town), “Frida Kahlo’s Visit to the Taybridge Bar” (Buenos dias boys this looks like the place, make my re-entry to the human race), “Bob Dylan’s Visit to Embra (from a Buick 6 on Cockburn Street come Boots of Spanish Leather) and “Mac Rebennack’s Visit to Blairgowrie” (a poster on the laundrette wall, stating clearly in a bold typeface says “Dr John is playing Blairgowrie Tonight” and I know every little thing in Blairgowrie’s gonna be alright…)
So many of his songs are filled with beautiful, imaginative, loving lines like these. His dedication to his surroundings is admirable and inspiring. As Jonathan Meades says “there is no such thing as a boring place”. This dedication undoubtedly helped Marra achieve a close and loyal relationship with his fans. Every gig I went to was a like a family get together, where no one is fed up with each other yet. His songs were often introduced with witty and revealing stories, and though these rarely changed from gig to gig, they became as important as the songs during the performance. In a recent live album recorded with Mr. McFall’s Chamber, these intro’s are retained and given their own track numbers.
Musically, Marra is described as a ‘folk’ musician – which for me is too narrow (as wide a field as it is) a description. His song writing has much to recall Randy Newman, Tom Waits, Dr John – as does his piano playing, along with Professor Longhair, Fat’s Domino….his phrasing, both on the piano and with his vocals is so subtle yet effective – and I haven’t even mentioned the deep and warm yet smoky, crumbly voice. He also incorporated reggae, jazz, operatic music, ballads and more. In his music with “Saint Andrew” Marra provided very Dundonian lyrics and midi keyboard production as well as lo-fi cut and paste collage videos. On top of this he wrote music for and acted in the Theatre (“The Mill Lavvies” & “A Wee Home From Home”). He was an artist keen to soak up inspiration of all sorts, and to write songs about whatever he liked. His song’s about football helped me to realise that there was no reason I couldn’t attempt to make art and songs about whatever I wanted too.
In the last week, I have felt so sad and yet delighted that a man such as Michael was able to live his life in a creative and rewarding way. At the funeral, his brother said “Listen to Michael’s music. Play it to your friends.” – and so, I ask you to do exactly that. There will be no more music from Michael Marra, so make the most of what he did produce. In line with Michael’s independent manner, his music is not the easiest to get a hold of, so please visit his own website where you can buy a couple of CD’s and download most of his albums.
He was a very special talent, a man who revealed beauty in unexpected places, but was also capable of providing a non-sentimental, barbed analysis of Scotland and it’s history. His music is exactly the kind of thing Scotland needs, and something we should share with the rest of the world.
Thankyou Michael Marra, love Craig.
“Don’t wipe your nose with the back of your hand – use your sleeve like a civilised man”.
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