On Tuesday of this week, the man from Lochee, the bard of Dundee, the unique and irreplaceable Michael Marra passed away peacefully at the city’s Ninewells Hospital.
Michael’s career as musician, playwright and actor started in the 1970’s, has been well documented and makes fascinating reading. His earliest musical outings were with Hen’s Teeth and Skeets Boliver. The former started alongside Dougie MacLean and Michael’s life long friend Gus Foy (sadly, also passed away this year), and the latter resulted in Michael’s first recorded output – The Shithouse Door (titled ‘The Streethouse Door‘ on the label, presumably in case anyone from Edinburgh bought it). A brief dalliance with London resulted in commercial song writing success, but disenchantment with the industry’s lack of commitment to its artists.
In 1985 Michael returned to Scotland to release Gaels Blue on his own Mink Records, and this is where the fun really started. Early classics, such as Mincing Wi’ Chairli and Happed In Mist epitomise his wry observations and pithy one-liners that gave the true depth of his songs an even greater impact…
“With horse and plough he marched with pride of the purest kind
Then a blink of light and it’s Flanders field and the end of time”
(Happed In Mist)
Michaels’ horizons broadened and he added spells of writing music for theatre at Dundee Rep and for the Edinburgh based Communicado theatre company to his artistic output. It was with Communicado that an appearance in the acclaimed ‘A Wee home From Home‘ also gave him a taste for acting.
But what can I say about Michael Marra that hasn’t already been said in the countless tributes published over the last few days? His achievements are far too extensive for the space available here to do them justice; so let’s just look at some highlights covering his greatest talent – as an entertainer. Through his song writing and his live performances, Michael Marra endeared himself to audiences the world over. He drew endless inspiration for his songs from his home town of Dundee. One particularly memorable opening line for a gig was ‘I’d like to do some songs about Dundee and its surrounding planet‘. But his creative gaze crossed oceans, sometimes in one fell swoop – such as when he painted a vivid picture of diminutive Shetland guitarist Peerie Willie Johnson enjoying Trans-Atlantic inspiration, in Schenectady Calling Peerie Willie Johnson…
“Take these notes into the night, and run them by the Northern lights”
Michaels song writing was packed with drama, humour and humanity; and his own influences came from far and wide. He was a great admirer of the likes of Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon and Randy Newman. His ability to shine a light on the ridiculous was especially reminiscent of Newman, perhaps never more so than in his parody of mindless religious observance, Chain Up The Swings….
“Let them gather up their brows and their old wive’s tales,
The tweed and ashes and the spikes and flails,
Let them bow down in homage to the Prince of Wales,
Me, I’m going to get pished.”
As a musical collaborator, Michael Marra seemed able to blend in just about anywhere; equally at home with playwrights, poets and musicians. He’s described his work with Martyn Bennett on Grit (Liberation) as ‘a joyous, joyous time‘ and was a great admirer of Martyn’s forward looking approach to music. In 2007 I was lucky enough to see Liberation performed live in a setting for full orchestra (BBC Scotland Symphony Orchestra) where Michael’s sonorous delivery of Psalm 118 had the same haunting authority as it did on Martyn’s original recording . For once, however, there was no dialogue with (or monologue for) the audience – Michael’s gaze was fixed firmly on the orchestra’s conductor.
Another brush with the world of classical music came when Michael toured and recorded with the outstanding string ensemble Mr McFall’s chamber. The album compiled during that tour, and released on the Delphian label, includes classics such as Hamish The Goalie, the joyous Neil Gow’s Apprentice, and the incomparable Hermless – all served up with a healthy helping of Marra deadpan.
“Hermless, hermless, There’s never nae bother fae me
I ging to the libry, I tak’ oot a book
And then I go hame for ma tea”
His final collaboration was a fitting way for Michael Marra to leave the stage. In March of this year his gravely vocals graced Hazy Jane’s EP, Houseroom. The EP featured six of Michael’s previously unreleased songs including the quintessentially Marra Underwood Lane.
The Hazy Janes feature Michael’s bairns, Alice and Matthew. There was a brief tour with the band in March of this year.
Despite his prodigious and accomplished song writing, Michael Marra was never averse to singing other people’s songs. Robert Burns featured regularly in his repertoire; Green Grow The Rashes being a choice that never failed to move a live audience.
Rarely has a musician enjoyed the kind of wide-ranging admiration and respect that Michael Marra earned. Whether playing a large concert hall or a local folk club, he would fill any venue with his music, his stories and the laughter of his audience; his passing has left a painful void in the hearts of the nation.
Photo Credits: Martyn with Michael: Martyn Bennett Trust