Mike Scott’s adventures of a Waterboy
By Charlie Mcbride
ROCK MEMOIRS are not always noted for their literary excellence but Mike Scott’s Adventures Of A Waterboy, recently published by Lilliput Press, triumphantly bucks that trend.
The book is a delight to read from first to last as it chronicles Scott’s boyhood in Ayrshire, early love of music, his first forays into performing, and the formation and subsequent ups and downs of The Waterboys.
The writing throughout is vivid and richly descriptive and candidly describes personal and professional setbacks and failings. It also frequently displays a delicious streak of humour and arresting turn of phrase as when he describes recording sean-nós singer Tomás Mac Eoin as being “like squeezing the Matterhorn into a jiffy bag”.
An ill-starred teenage performance of a Rolling Stones cover before an unappreciative audience goes down “like a ‘Sieg Heil’ at a Bar Mitzvah”. The book also offers absorbing accounts of how classic Waterboys’ songs like ‘The Whole of the Moon’ and the album Fisherman’s Blues were first conceived and gradually came together.
Adventures in Galway
Galway readers will also savour Scott’s description of his 1980s move to the west of Ireland and lengthy sojourn in An Spidéal from which emerged the Fisherman’s Blues and Room to Roam. Here he is recalling his first foray west of Galway:
“After a few miles we left the city behind. The full majestic expanse of Galway Bay now opened on our left, while to our right lay a strange, rocky land of hills and ancient stone walls. I began to get goosebumps. The wildness of the land and the light on the bay did something fateful to me and I turned and said to Dunford, with a sudden certainty ‘This is the land of my soul!’ And it really was. The western fastness of Connemara, into which we were advancing, would become my favourite place in the world and the spiritual home of The Waterboys.”
His description of Galway itself is no less engrossing:
“The city was large enough to be cosmopolitan, small enough to be homely. A roaring river, the Corrib, divided it in two and a network of sleepy canals, secret lanes and walkways turned its neighbourhoods into islands…I’d make raids on my favourite establishments, Kenny’s bookshop and Powell’s music shop, then hook up with friends and join sessions in the pubs. Brendan O’Regan, my closest pal on the scene, was fond of shouting over the music, ‘The craic is mighty!’ He spelt it ‘craic’ of course, the ubiquitous Irish word for pleasure and high spirits, but whenever he said it I imagined a thin crack opening in the fabric of the universe and a bright light of joy pouring through.”
Writing the adventures
“I first conceived the idea of writing the book around about 1991,” Scott tells me over an afternoon phone call from his Dublin home. “I’d been living in Ireland for five or six years and had wonderful adventures, especially in the west of Ireland, and I knew one day I’d want to write it down. I don’t suppose I imagined then it would take me 20 years but that’s how it went.”
While Scott’s writing, both as a songsmith and memoirist, often displays a lyrical and romantic sensibility, the book also makes it clear that he has a tough, iron-willed, streak as, throughout his career, he doggedly insists on making the music he wants to rather than what his record label might like, and also making hard calls on hiring and firing of the people he’s working with.
“I’ve always been able to make tough decisions,” he states. “Even when I was in my youngest bands if someone wasn’t pulling their weight or something wasn’t working out I would split or I would fire someone.
“I learned early on you have to do that to keep moving – but I have got better at it over the years; when I was younger I didn’t always realise it was another person with their own feelings on the other end of the transaction and sometimes I would be insensitive, but over the years I’ve learned to appreciate that, that doesn’t mean you change the necessary decision but there can be a more considerate way of executing it.”
The An Spidéal-era incarnation of The Waterboys unravelled around the time of Room to Roam. Not long afterward, Scott moved to the spiritual commune of Findhorn in Scotland for an extended stay. When he returned to the music business post-Findhorn his first couple of releases were poorly received, were these difficult years for him to get through I ask him.
“I always believed in myself as a songwriter and a musician so it was never a problem in that regard,” he replies. “When we released Room to Roam it got almost universally bad reviews and yes that was difficult because I was aware that we had lost our kudos and we had a 60-date tour without Steve Wickham and that was really tough to get through but you just keep going – when the going gets tough the tough get going as the saying goes.”
In recent years Scott and The Waterboys have regained their artistic kudos with albums such as last year’s An Appointment with Mr Yeats which contains 13 of Yeats’ poems set to music. Scott has also previously arranged Yeats’ poems on both Fisherman’s Blues and Dream Harder so what is the appeal the poet holds for him?
“I don’t actually read loads of poetry,” he begins. “I write poetry but my lyrics are a lot better than my poetry! The poets I have read in depth you could count on one hand really. Yeats caught my imagination when I was a teenager via the poems I found on my mum’s bookshelves and then when I read him in my 20s I noticed that a lot of his poems sat on the page like song lyrics and rhymed and scanned and lent themselves to musical treatment and that’s when I began thinking of turning them into songs.”
I enquire whether any of the academics who hold forth on Yeats have taken him to task over having the temerity to give the poems rock music settings.
“The reception to the album has been positive,” says Scott. “I was disappointed that no-one came up and said ‘How dare you!’ because I would love to take them on. I’ve paid my dues with Yeats, I’ve been reading him for long enough and know enough about the background and his interests so my credentials are strong and it would be great sport for me if someone were to come along and say ‘What do you think you are doing?!’ Disappointingly it hasn’t happened!”
Back to An Spidéal
Next month sees Scott return to his beloved An Spidéal for two concerts at the Park Lodge Hotel where he will be joined by Steve Wickham and Anto Thistlewaite. Remarkably it is his first time playing a formal gig in the coastal village.
“Amazingly yes it is my first proper gig there and it is also very special because it is a reunion with Anthony Thistlewaite, it’s a three-man show, myself Steve and Anto,” he notes. “I’m looking forward to it very much, I was going through all The Waterboys’ music last night and choosing songs for the concert and it’s going to be great fun and it’s a good cause too.
“A friend of ours in Spiddal called Martina Goggin, her son Eamon died a few years ago and he was an organ donor. Martina has been very active in the organ donor community and we are raising funds to create a commemorative garden for organ donors that will be in the park in Salthill.”
Having successfully produced Adventures Of A Waterboy, will Scott continue to write? “I’m definitely going to keep writing but I’m not sure exactly what yet. I might have a shot at writing a novel, I have some ideas for novels,” he tells me.
Finally, is he working on any music at present? “I have the bones of a new album written, maybe 15 or 16 songs including some I am really happy with,” he discloses. “I’ve no plans to start recording just yet but I’ve been listening to a lot of late-sixties soul music and that might be the sound of the next album.”
Adventures Of A Waterboy is available from good bookstores at €25. Scott plays two shows at An Spidéal’s Park Lodge on Tuesday September 25 at 4pm and 8pm. On Wednesday, September 26th, he will read from Adventures Of A Waterboy at the Station House Hotel, Clifden, and be accompanied on a short musical set by Steve Wickham.