Monday, 28 May 2007

Mick Mercer's Review of Strange Boat

STRANGE BOAT: Mike Scott & The Waterboys
Ian Abrahams
SAF Publishing ISBN: 978-0-946719-92-1

“Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen,” said Lynda authoritatively, tapping the cover photo of Mike as she passed, and while he may have a cavalier attitude to some things, the flossy similarities end there. There’s always been an element of Good Cop, Hippy Cop about Scott, but really it’s in the title. The strange boat is Scott, his journey hindered by a lack of any map.

Scott is possibly the last British artist allowed any leeway by major labels who give him room once he’s signed, and the one thing the book doesn’t give you (apart from a detailed discography) is any indication of how well his records have actually done. He is also the man who could have been as big as U2 had he pursued that ‘The Whole Of The Moon’ direction but simply shut up shop and relocated to Dublin instead.

There’s a problem with this book, which is annoying me. Because of its pleasing eloquence and setting out, in non-anal detail, Mike’s career to date I’m tempted to start working my way through the albums, and I simply don’t have the time! It’s that kind of book, engrossing you even though you may not be overly familiar with the artist in question, because the life lived is enthralling. The elusive Scott wouldn’t have anything to do with the book, but former colleagues have been happy to contribute, so you can bet he doesn’t disapprove, and while Scott’s approach to musicians is odd - use them, basically – none of them seems to find much odd, or cold, about it, because he obviously makes it clear to them somehow. Mike Scott doesn’t have a band. Mike Scott is often in a band, Mike Scott is the band. It’s all very strange.

I loved his Punk period on Another Pretty Face and The Red & The Black, and I started off enthusiastic about The Waterboys, but as I was saying on Aidan’s journal the other day if you put me in a pub full of people playing ‘traditional’ Celtic material I’d be the one in the corner employing traditional cotton-wool-in-ears therapy. I loathe the fiddledy-dee, twiddley-wee aspect of capering whistles, fiddles and drums. So it’s a bit of a downer for me that the main weight of the book centres around his Irish sojourn and Scottish retreat, with what Abrahams coolly calls ‘his American stopover’, in between. But that’s how the story unfolded.

The one thing which isn’t explained with any success is Mike’s manner in which he conveys a belief in God, as opposed to Spirituality. Normally if someone plays Christian songs, that beatific joy they want to impart leads you wanting to sever their head from their shoulders. (It makes for rubbish music when an artist believes themselves inferior to their Lord.) The fact that the non-denominational Scott constantly refers to matters of God makes me want to have a clearer picture, but maybe there isn’t one? Scott is a closed book, or one in code, and something of a nutter, so interested in roots he should have become a tree surgeon. One era this way, one era another, constantly moving, stumbling, settling. Then off again, stabbing for success, shying away. Moribund.

It’s all in here, in a neutral to approving manner from Abrahams, and the only criticism comes over what accurately becomes a Waterboys record and what is Mike Scott solo, or from quoted reviews which grow less enthusiastic during the 90’s, after Mike’s completed his Irish jaunt, exhausting possibilities, achieved little Stateside, then gone to Findhorn, which calmed or tamed him. From Punk to Rock to Folk, then back to Rock, this is a curious voyage, and a risky one, where the failure of his Still Burning album leaves him having to sell his house.

He also made the mistake of wanting to be signed to crapulous Creation Records, so he isn’t perfect, far from it, but he is frequently inspired and he has a dogmatic approach, playing what he wants to play and if people don’t like it, what’s that to him? I like that about him, considering the cosy imagery of him and folky musos. He never gives any indication through the interviews quoted here that he has any idea what’s he’s genuinely doing, it’s all mood-generated, with ambition somehow erased by impulse, dedication sideswiped by invention or folly. The only thing that matters is that it’s heartfelt, which certainly seems the case.

The reason I highly recommend this book, apart from knowing it’s propelling me towards buying certain CDs, is because of the ease with which detail is etched into the gentle study which quite rightly depicts Scott as a notable and bizarre figure, with a Waterboys audience divided over which style of his/their music to prefer, and how weird is that? Being an artist with a constantly revolving circle of musicians who pop in and out like extras in a never ending trilogy, the road going ever on and on, adds to the charm, gives this book similarities to anything by C S Lewis, who Scott admires.

I bet his wardrobe leads through into a studio.

Amazon Reviews of Strange Boat

This is one of the better pop music biographies that I have read. Insightful, measured, lacking in false sensation, and reflective. Hopefully, it will help create a wider audience for a band, and especially its driving force, Mike Scott, that over the past 20 years or so has been building a body of work that includes some of the best and most durable British song writing. As a live band, the Waterboys are at the top of the ladder for quality and musicianship. Abrahams book tells their story, and especially Scott's, in a measured and interesting way. It is very well researched, as a flow which grabs the reader and pulls together, and uses intelligently, scores of interviews throughout the life of the Waterboys. He did not have the co-operation, nor the opposition, of Mike Scott but in many ways this has benefited Abrahams book as Scott is clever, and articulate enough, to create distractions in a Dylanesque fashion.

The story Abrahams tells is of one of Britain's more thoughtful, creative and enigmatic band leaders, and of those around him. You learn much about Scott and what drives him. However, a strength of the book is the light it shed on Scott's collaborators under the Waterboys banner who have been vital in elaborating his vision. It speaks much for the regard others have of his talent. The picture portrayed by Abrahams reflects Scott's music: a flawed magnatism. He comes across as driven, autocratic at times (what successful bandleader isn't), creative and lyrical (though a bit soggy when sharing his spiritual discoveries and revelations), intelligent, sometimes haunted but, more recently, at peace with himself through his writing and the Findhorn community. Throughout it all Scott seems to have, as Gabriel Garcia Marquez put it, "allowed himself to be swayed by his conviction that human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves."

Abrahams book should be read more widely by music lovers than the strong loyal following that Mike Scott and the Waterboys have, and the regard fellow muscians, such as Jools Holland, have of his talent. Once read, dip into the music and you will not be disappointed. As Abraham's puts it: "... the story of the Waterboys really covers the whole range of emotions."