THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK
Claymore wielding 80s pop sensation Jesse Rae on Borders life
Iwas born in Galashiels cottage hospital in 1951 and brought up in Newtown St Boswells until I was about seven. I went to the primary school there where my dad was a teacher until he got the post of headmaster at St Boswells primary school. My mother was an auxiliary at the school for a time and I have one sister Fiona who is five years younger than me.
My dad was very kind, he loved kids and he was a great teacher. But it was unfortunate being a headmaster’s son because I think my father felt he had to make an example of me otherwise I’d get a doing from the other lads for being too soft. My mother, who is 91 now, gave me my dad’s old tawse. My father used to have it over his shoulder under his jacket so I now understand the shock element because it would just appear.
I remember one day when I was in P6 or 7, we were making plasticine heads, covered with papier-mâché, the size of a cricket ball. The phone rang so when my father was out of the room everyone started chucking these heads and somebody hit me on the face. I picked up a head and threw it. The boy ducked just as my father walked in the door and it hit him smack in the face. So it was ‘Rae! Get along to my room now’, and that was me getting six of the belt.
My childhood was blessed because my parents were great parents and supported me in what I did. Fishing was my main thing when I was young, I was daft on the fishing and did a wee bit of poaching which came to an end when the bailey caught me. He nabbed me, when I was collecting a huge kelt I brought in on a four or five pound breaking strength (cast), and took my rods away. My three sons are all into fishing. Cuillin, my oldest, recently won the Bennett Trophy, named after Jimmy Bennett, who used to live in Newtown around the corner from us, and who taught me how to fish. The Tweed is an important part of my life and is one of the most beautiful rivers in Scotland.
My background was in art and I went to Duncan of Jordanstone College in Dundee in
1972 to study etching and lithography. During my last year I joined a band called Camel in London and they needed me right away so I had to leave the course. Then I went to Cleveland in 1973 and two years later moved to Boston where I literally bumped into keyboard player Bernie Worrell in the elevator of the Holiday Inn. Both of our cassettes were flying everywhere and we immediately hit it off. I went to the Sugar Shack club that night where I experienced his band Parliament Funkadelic live for the first time.
It was in New York, in 1979 when MTV came in, that I became more interested in music and pictures as art rather than as a commercial thing. I’ve always designed songs from sounds and music. I initially got this thought of a claymore flying through the air from Bernie playing a sound on his keyboard. It gave me the idea of throwing a claymore from the Brooklyn Bridge to Scotland for the video
Over the Sea. If you look at the sky at night, the bottom half of Orion looks like a claymore flying through the sky over the horizon.
I filmed the whole thing in Scotland then went to America with a camera crew and helicopter, and laid over the footage of Bernie and I on top of Brooklyn Bridge. It’s a bit like being a painter using an undercoat of colour then building up the layers. Combining moving images and music together is the most powerful thing of all and as a songwriter I always write a visual hook from the instrumental.
I’m not very good as a musician, I play bass and acoustic guitar and a little bit of keyboard and use instruments for writing. When I was working with the best people in the world, like the late Bernie, drummer Steve Jordan and the late guitarist Hiram Bullock, I concentrated on singing and producing and left the playing up to these guys.
I’ve always worn the kilt to promote Scot-
‘The Tweed is an important part of my life and is one of the most beautiful rivers in Scotland’
‘It’s important for kids to recognise who Wallace was and to understand his historical significance’
land in Funk but I realised the importance of MTV to young kids. MTV presenter Nina Blackwood gifted me Jane Porter’s novel The Scottish
Chiefs which had a cover painting of someone who looked like me, but the men with him were wearing helmets with a feather. That book had a huge influence on me, more so because it was about William Wallace, who I knew nothing about, since my early education never covered our own history.
Wearing the helmet kept me in full character and allowed me to cross all nationalities of music by retaining my identity. I had thought about removing it for the Over The Sea video but when I was recording the album in Dayton, Ohio with Roger Troutman, his wee nephews appeared at the studio door wearing 7/11 brown paper bags over their heads with a feather on top and holes cut for their eyes and mouths. I realised that I could never remove the helmet and that is how it has remained ever since.
The first statue of William Wallace in Scotland was built by the Earl of Buchan in 1814 on the Bemersyde Estate on my doorstep. I’m a member of the Wallace Trust, that now owns the statue and the land around it; we helped raise the money to repair the 32ft high red sandstone statue, especially the broken claymore. It’s important for kids to recognise who Wallace was and his historical significance.
I came back from America to get married to Audrey, the drummer girl in Over the Sea, she’s a world champion pipe band tenor drummer. I first saw her playing at the Kelso show but she didn’t want anything to do with me because she thought anyone with a kilt and a suntan was Canadian. My youngest son Cairn is in Canada at the moment, doing a golf pro course and Clinton my middle lad is a joiner in St Boswells.
I was always into funk music and if you had to explain it to someone, funk is really the space between the notes. Rhythm and timing are important in everything you do in life whether you’re playing music or rugby or any kind of sport.
In 1991, I worked with former Scottish rugby player and coach Jim Telfer, who was then headmaster at Hawick High School. I made a funk record with him for training, Voice Command, taking his voice and putting it into the music so the players could get used to the rhythm, but it was ahead of its time.
I love rugby, and the local team, St Boswells. To me it’s the number one sport in Scotland. Together with the Border Reivers players, Jim Telfer and Scottish cap Roy Laidlaw, we developed the ‘Reiver’ runnin’ ruck, a new form of rugby involving all 15 players. I’ve seen too many wee strong lads who were eliminated from the Sevens because they weren’t the right shape and speed. What we came up with meant that there weren’t the divisions between backs and forwards, every player could play in every position no matter their size.
I’m writing a couple of film scripts now and
one of them is about the local team winning the World Cup using the ‘Reiver’ runnin’ ruck so it will have its moment on the big screen, but not in reality.
The other film script I’m working on, The Beast O’ Bamburgh, involves Smailholm Tower, which has an important connection to Sir Walter Scott. As a boy recuperating from illness, he spent a lot of time visiting the ruins.
Mertoun Kirk in Bemersyde, is also important to me. This was my battle place where I did all my fighting and came to pray for strength in 1991 when the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) was trying to make me bankrupt and take my home from my wife and children. At that time RBS was buying up a lot of banks in America and basically raiding the piggy banks to buy themselves out of trouble.
I believe in God, but as the great spirit. So I went to war with them. They didn’t realise who they were dealing with because I had the power of music and video. Grizedale Arts asked me to be one of their artists at the 2002 Biennale in Liverpool so I produced a 64 DVD exhibition detailing what had happened to me and the RBS executives came to view my work. Apparently they came out ashen faced and the next thing was they had dropped the whole thing.
I’m the only person in Scotland to beat them and they were the fifth biggest bank in the world then. This is one of the reasons I stood to become a MSP in 2007 as I realised what was coming. I learned so much when I worked on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in 1982 to earn money for my music videos.
Living in Afro-America I saw the timeline between my friends there who are like Borders folk; loud, raucous and noisy at the table, so it felt like home. After Bernie died, the Scottish Government formally acknowledged the place he held in our musical and cultural heritage and I’m releasing WORAE, the funk album we did together, in July. I’m interested in having more black families visit the Borders as I have a feeling it will open up a new door for tourism.
It shows how much Bernie has played an important part in my work and the culture and heritage of Scotland. When I was in America in 1978 I went to the black churches and I was so exhilarated by them. This staged and formal religion we have here is not very exciting, but the strength that you get from the spirit is. It’s what keeps us going.
‘In Afro-America I saw the timeline between my friends there who are like Borders folk: loud, raucous and noisy at the table’
Image: Smailholm Tower ignited the imaginations of both the young Sir Walter Scott and Jesse Rae.
Above left: The young Jesse. Above right: Bridge over the River Tweed, a favourite fishing spot for Jesse. Inset: Bernie Worrell (left) and Jesse on Brooklyn Bridge for the video for Over the Sea.
Above: The William Wallace statue in Bemersyde which Jesse helped raise money to restore.
Image: Jesse with dogs Bella and Jock at his shack.