Trib­utes paid to Bard of Dundee

The Herald - - NEWS - ROB ADAMS

THE mu­sic world joined to­gether to pay trib­ute to ac­claimed Scots singer­song­writer Michael Marra – the “Bard of Dundee” – who has died aged 60.

One of Dundee’s cul­tural icons, Marra was fa­mous for songs such as Hamish the Goalie and Beef hearts and Bones, both of which demon­strated his unique Dun­do­nian take on life.

The fer­vent Dundee fan had been suf­fer­ing from an ill­ness for some time be­fore he died on Tues­day.

Marra, whose niece is Labour MSP Jenny Marra, was raised in the Lochee area of Dundee. He is sur­vived by his wife Peggy and chil­dren Alice and Matthew who, as part of the band Hazey Janes, toured Scot­land with their fa­ther a few months ago. In a state­ment, his fam­ily said: “We are dev­as­tated by our sud­den loss, but are com­forted by the kind words of so many peo­ple who loved Michael, his mu­sic and his spirit.

“His life’s work has told our fam­ily story, and the story of his beloved Dundee. Michael’s songs are his legacy, given to Scot­land.”

Mike Scott, of The Water­boys, led the trib­utes on Twit­ter. Scott said: “Very sorry to hear about the death of the great Michael Marra, bard of Dundee. I’m proud to say I sang one of his songs.”

Fair­ground At­trac­tion star Eddie Reader said: “God bless Michael Marra, song-writ­ing ge­nius and won­der­ful, won­der­ful man. So kind to me, my heart is break­ing.”

The Scot­tish Po­etry Li­brary tweeted: “Very sad to hear Michael Marra has passed away.

“He was a friend and col­lab­o­ra­tor with Liz Lochhead.”

Don­ald Shaw, artis­tic di­rec­tor of the Celtic Con­nec­tions fes­ti­val, said: “He was just one of these re­ally warm, gen­er­ous peo­ple as a hu­man, as well as mu­si­cally.

Singer, song­writer and ac­tor; Born: 1952; Died: Oc­to­ber 23, 2012.

MICHAEL Marra, who has died aged 60 af­ter a long ill­ness, was a singer, song­writer, mu­si­cian, ac­tor and artist with a unique tal­ent. Al­though of­ten cap­tur­ing in­ci­dents and char­ac­ters par­tic­u­lar to his home­town, Dundee, Marra’s songs and his way of pre­sent­ing them al­lowed them to cross bor­ders and oceans, to touch souls and funny bones equally with his pow­ers of ob­ser­va­tion and pen­chant for cham­pi­oning the un­der­dog.

One of five chil­dren, he was born into a mu­si­cal fam­ily in Lochee, the largely Ir­ish community in the west of the city. His fa­ther was a jazz fan who liked Beethoven and the Ir­ish tenors as well as Duke Elling­ton. His mother, a school­teacher, played pi­ano, as did his older brother Eddie, and young Michael fol­lowed suit, tak­ing lessons be­fore de­cid­ing that look­ing at writ­ten mu­sic was less con­ducive to progress than watch­ing his own fin­gers.

As a child he made his first pub­lic ap­pear­ance at a works party but it was af­ter he heard The Bea­tles and es­pe­cially Bob Dy­lan, been ex­pelled from Law­side Academy and be­gun to play the gui­tar, that he set out to be the singer-song­writer who would be­come a na­tional trea­sure.

Hav­ing plucked up the courage to play a floor spot at the Wood­lands Folk Club in Broughty Ferry, Marra went along one Sun­day and met the MC Gus Foy, who was to be­come a friend for life, a duo part­ner, band-mate and one of the many Dundee char­ac­ters who fea­tured in Marra’s songs. In Hamish the Goalie, Dundee fan Marra’s trib­ute to Dundee United’s Hamish McAlpine, Foy was the one who pointed out Grace Kelly by the sign for Tay­lor’s coal dur­ing the Euro­pean tie with Monaco at Tan­nadice.

First, how­ever, Marra and Foy worked up a reper­toire, ap­peared weekly to­gether at the Wood­lands, played around the An­gus and Fife folk pubs and clubs and formed Hen’s Teeth with singer Ar­lene Gowans, Dougie Maclean on fid­dle, and Marra’s younger brother, Chris, on gui­tar. Hen’s Teeth, mi­nus Gowans and Maclean, then mu­tated into Skeets Bo­liver, adding singer­gui­tarist Stu­art Ivins, drum­mer Brian Mc­Der­mott and sax­o­phon­ist Peter McGlone, who be­came the sub­ject of an­other Marra song.

Skeets quickly gained a loyal lo­cal fol­low­ing that was be­gin­ning to ex­pand when their ar­rival on the record­ing scene, with first sin­gle, Street­house Door (a po­lite trans­la­tion of its real name), co­in­cided with the punk ex­plo­sion. A fur­ther sin­gle, Moon­light in Jeop­ardy, was re­leased but by then Marra’s song writ­ing was be­gin­ning to pique the in­ter­est of the Lon­don mu­sic busi­ness. He signed a solo deal with Poly­dor, re­sult­ing in The Mi­das Touch al­bum, which pitched Marra along­side the then very suc­cess­ful Gerry Raf­ferty in style, air­brushed cover photo and all.

Marra’s songs were be­ing picked up – Leo Sayer, Kiki Dee and Bar­bara Dick­son cov­ered them – but he was mov­ing to­wards a very per­sonal style that drew on the books he was read­ing, in­clud­ing Lewis Gras­sic Gib­bon’s A Scots Quair and John Preb­ble’s The High Gird­ers which in­spired, re­spec­tively, the anti-war song Happed in Mist and Gen­eral Grant’s Visit to Dundee, two Marra clas­sics from his sec­ond al­bum, Gaels Blue.

Around the same time Marra be­came in­volved in the­atre work and the ca­reer of the mys­te­ri­ous Saint An­drew, aka art col­lege lec­turer Andy Pelc, who with his band The Woollen Mill wreaked comic havoc in venues across Tay­side and fur­ther afield. Marra went on to ap­pear in Perth The­atre’s pro­duc­tion of The De­mon Bar­ber and with Wild­cat, among other heavy­weight the­atre com­pa­nies, as well as cre­at­ing The Light­weight En­ter­tain­ment and other va­ri­ety shows with Saint An­drew. Healso wrote the mu­sic for Dundee Rep’s play about the lo­cal jute in­dus­try, They Fairly MakYe Work, cre­ated a suc­cess­ful, fre­quently mov­ing and hi­lar­i­ous two-per­son show with poet Liz Lochhead, com­posed an op­eretta, If TheMoon Can Be Be­lieved, and more re­cently com­posed songs for The Mill Lavies, which pre­miered at Dundee Rep in Septem­ber.

It was his song writ­ing and pre­sen­ta­tion of these vi­gnettes, chart­ing the break-up of marriages and record col­lec­tions, his ex­pe­ri­ence as an altar boy or a per­sonal favourite of mine, life as lo­cal hero, singer and gui­tarist with soul band Mafia, that par­tic­u­larly set Marra apart.

Hewasn’t al­ways com­fort­able as a per­former. Back­stage at the Christ­mas con­certs he gave in Dundee’s Bonar Hall for sev­eral years, ev­ery­body would be quite calm ex­cept for the fret­ting star of the show. To re­lax be­fore gigs, he took to draw­ing and paint­ing – his own por­trait of Clay­ton Moore (the Lone Ranger) as Richard III – graced his On Stolen Sta­tionery al­bum cover, and when money was tight, at least one mu­si­cian’s ses­sion fees were set­tled by an in­sis­tent Marra with his own framed art­work.

Grad­u­ally, how­ever, the man who was hugely en­cour­ag­ing to young, up and com­ing mu­si­cians – he was an early cham­pion of the As­so­ci­ates’ Billy Macken­zie and Gary Clark, later of Danny Wil­son – be­gan to ac­tu­ally en­joy en­ter­tain­ing au­di­ences.

And he was su­perb at it, too, hav­ing peo­ple in stitches as he in­tro­duced the de­plorable, drunken scrap­per Mug­gie Sha’ and gen­er­at­ing un­likely sin­ga­long cho­ruses in the broad­est Dun­do­nian with English and Amer­i­can au­di­ences who might have been expected to need sub­ti­tles.

At the core of Marra’s work there lay gen­uine hu­man­ity and hu­mil­ity as well as beau­ti­fully wrought po­etry. With his pi­ano play­ing, a rolling style rem­i­nis­cent of Dr John’s, and a warm foggy growl of a voice, he could charm lis­ten­ers and ef­fort­lessly get them to side with the in­of­fen­sive, non-trou­ble­mak­ing hero of Herm­less – his al­ter­na­tive Scot­tish na­tional an­them – and take them to the Tay­bridge Bar, where one of his artist heroes, Frida Kahlo, didn’t ac­tu­ally re­pair for a drink, or to Blair­gowrie, where Dr John re­ally did play a gig at a venue called the Gig.

He was sel­dom more af­fect­ing than when de­liv­er­ing his mag­nif­i­cently res­o­nant read­ing of Psalm 118 on the track Lib­er­a­tion from the late Mar­tyn Bennett’s fi­nal mas­ter­piece, Grit.

Marra’s tal­ents won him ac­co­lades in­clud­ing hon­orary doc­tor­ates from Dundee Univer­sity and Glas­gow Cale­do­nian Univer­sity and he was a typ­i­cally hum­ble, but ut­terly de­serv­ing, re­cip­i­ent of a Bank of Scot­land Her­ald An­gel in 2010.

His death is all the sorer for com­ing so close to the deaths of fel­low Dundee mu­si­cal heroes and close friends of Marra’s, Gus Foy and Dougie Martin.

He is sur­vived by his wife, Peggy, and his chil­dren Alice­and Matthew, both of Dundee group the Hazey Janes, with whom Marra recorded the House­room mini al­bum ear­lier this year, and he leaves a mas­sive chasm on the Scot­tish and wider mu­si­cal scene.

GE­NIUS: Mu­si­cian Michael Marra has been hailed.

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