Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Mike Scott's Adventures Of A Waterboy: (Or, How To Misread A Book In One Easy Lesson)

Some years ago – towards the end of the period covered by this autobiography – I interviewed Mike Scott. The Waterboys’ frontman had a reputation for being difficult, though “taciturn” might have been a better way of putting it. To break the ice, I took a copy of Jungleland, the fanzine he published while living in Edinburgh in the late 1970s. It was a passionate document, all punk fury and sputum, tempered by a poetic sensibility. Yet he observed this relic with dispassion. His past, it seemed, was a foreign country.
Happily – and this may be a question of happiness – Scott now seems reconciled to the value of looking back, albeit in a way which desaturates the torment. Possibly he was encouraged by the memoirs of Bob Dylan and Patti Smith, artists who shaped his aesthetic vision, though Scott’s story is more rooted in detail than the sketchy poetics of Dylan’s Chronicles or Smith’s Just Kids.
Jungleland, Scott's fanzine.
Scott has always been self-aware. As a soundtrack to reading this book, I’ve been listening to a tape of a solo concert Scott did at the Hackney Empire in 1995. The tape itself is a fascinating biographical document, intimate and eerie – made eerier by virtue of being recorded direct from the desk, so there’s no applause. All you hear is Scott, emboldened but vulnerable, as he emerges from career hibernation. The details of his journey are evident in the songs, most specifically Long Way To The Light, which follows the singer to New York, where he aims to get back to what he does best: “Plug in an electric guitar, lead a rock’n’roll band.”
At the time, there was some talk among Waterboys’ fans about his relocation from the West Coast of Ireland. Scott, it was said, had journeyed West, full of visions of Jimi Hendrix, abandoning the music that had made his name – a fusion of Celtic folk and rock’n’roll swagger. (This, to be fair, is mere hearsay – but it wouldn’t be the first time Scott’s freewheeling spirit had caused him to up sticks in search of fresh inspiration.) But it didn't work out. Instead, he learned how to meditate, and to live “one step at a time”. So, instead of recharging his cosmic batteries in Electric Ladyland, he came back to Scotland, to the Findhorn community.
On the Hackney tape, he calls Findhorn a “mystery school”, which sounds better than a religious retreat, and is probably closer to Scott’s sensibility. His God doesn’t have a beard and a set of Commandments, and he might just as easily be called Pan.
This, by any measure, is heady stuff, and Scott’s openness about his quest for spiritual succour is commendable. (Rock’n’roll, which appears to celebrate freedom of thought and behaviour, is actually a conservative church).
He does seem to have learned about humility along the way. The book details Scott’s first gig in the Findhorn community, where he was vain enough to imagine that the residents might be grateful to hear a performance by a professional musician. Instead, he was received politely, before being upstaged by “a motley parade of men in drag, G-strings and feather strewn crash helmets”. (Which sounds a lot like Top of the Pops).
As with all autobiographies, the narrative is shaped by the author’s current priorities. I could have read more about his truncated university career in Edinburgh, and his time with Another Pretty Face, a great live band who fused the energies of The Clash and Springsteen and briefly won the favour of Julie Burchill with the Sapphic anthem All The Boys Love Carrie.
But APF are briskly despatched (just as they were by Virgin Records). There is, though, a succinct description of his Edinburgh contemporaries, The Rezillos, “a shrieking gang of rubber-faced pop-art terrorists with great choruses and sheet metal guitars”. He also mentions the thrill of seeing Johnny Thunders up close at the Hope and Anchor in London, and the disappointment of witnessing Thunders being unable to perform due to his addictions. And, speaking of the destructive side effects of the rock’n’roll lifestyle, there’s a delightful image of the journalist Nick Kent, at home in London. “I’d often see him standing in his garden, watching the world pass him by like a horse looking over a hedge”.
There is also a sweet, incredible story from that period, in which Scott, as editor of Jungleland, manages to blag his way into the entourage of Patti Smith when she plays a 1978 show at the Rainbow in North London. Smith even pays for his hotel room, expecting in return nothing more than the possibility that Scott will enjoy the show and take the word back to Edinburgh. Scott gets more than he bargains for, witnessing the sound check, and insinuating his way into Smith’s chauffeur driven car for the after-show party, where he gorges on free sandwiches. But this is a parable, and what Scott witnesses is chastening. In the car, he observes that Smith’s voice had taken on “a subtle, yet pointed, warning tone.” It was, he says, “dominating, aggressive and scary. I was witnessing what happens when a star performer, the centre of attention, high on the residual energy of the show, lets that energy overflow into their offstage life.” No longer talking about Patti Smith, he notes the danger of an unchecked ego: “encouraged by the fawning and lying of sycophants, this process turns sane, talented loving people into vile monsters. ”
That's how he sees it now. But consider this paean to Patti, from that 1980 edition of Jungleland. “The girl w/ the big eyes is a heroine of mine, who connects not just w/ my eyes + ears, but somewhere deep inside. this communication is not from the beat of the music, the thrash of guitars or the words of the song. It's somewhere else - an inexplicable thread which twists + pumps, like the music, almost parallel if you like, but never touching. the girl with the big eyes says a lot to me that can't be found in lyric sheets + the further in I get, the harder it is to get out.
What else? Well, Scott is a fan first, so there’s a nice story about waving at Bob Dylan through the windows of his tour bus at Earl’s Court in 1977, and then following him to his hotel in Kensington, only to be expelled by promoter Harvey Goldsmith. Later, Scott will jam with Dylan at Dave Stewart’s studio in Crouch End, North London. He also punctures a Waterboys’ myth – that he missed an appearance on Top of the Pops because he was strumming with Dylan. He didn’t. But it is the kind of thing he might have done.
Musically, things are sketchier, possibly because Scott doesn’t want to fray the inexplicable thread by offering an autopsy of his inspirations. One of his first musical epiphanies came when he first heard the psychedelic outro to The Beatles’ Strawberry Fields Forever. “Surely everybody knew the outro … represented a procession of brightly clothed Beatles jigging in and out of traffic during rush hour in an Asian city, pursued by water buffaloes and snake charmers?” But the young Scott is surprised to discover that not everyone shared this perception. An appendix in the book includes other interpretations of Strawberry Fields, as if to prove that we all march to different drums.
But there are valuable glimpses into the creative process, including an explanation of how he wrote his anthem, The Whole of the Moon. (The piano sounds that way because Scott taught himself to play on a piano with broken strings). He also details his gradual immersion in Celtic folk, and the growing realisation that some of its rhythms were in his blood: “In the bloom of their youth on the Isle of Mull my great-grandparents themselves might well have shaken a leg to The Fiddler’s Frolic.” In Ireland, too, he learns to laugh at himself, and let himself go creatively: “Polishing off Bang on the Ear with tragi-comic lines such as ‘It started off in Fife, it ended up in tears’ was something of a breakthrough for me, and it felt good.”
The book ends with Rock In A Weary Land, in 2000. Since then, of course, Scott has re-energised and retooled the Waterboys more than once, and departed Findhorn to return to Ireland. 
What’s he like? Well, on this evidence, Scott is a restless soul, a wanderer seeking stimulation as much as peace of mind. He frames his life’s journey as a mystical quest, oscillating between something spiritual and something poetic, with the author being happiest when these two forces are entwined.
I think, I guess, that Scott’s journey was more painful, and more destructive than the one he describes in Adventures of a Waterboy. Only he will know for sure. But consider the story of his reunion with his estranged father, Allan. They had lost touch after Scott’s parents broke up, though Allan did drop round on Scott’s 10th birthday with a gift of an acoustic guitar and a Rolling Stones album. Thirty years later, Scott tracks him down to an address near Birmingham, and knocks on the door, unannounced. They get on, but Scott’s dad is not as he imagined he would be. “All those years I’d believed I was cast in the image of my father, I’d actually been casting him in the image of me. The free spirit shifting from scene to scene was myself...”
POSTSCRIPT: Mike has been in touch to point out that I have misinterpreted his reaction to seeing Jungleland - he was, and is, proud of it. The rest of the review, he suggests, is amateur psychology, based on that misconception.