THE death last week of Dundonian singer-songwriter Michael Marra hit me like a train, and I’ve been trying to figure out why.
It’s not as if I knew him particularly well – I’d met him a few times down the years and interviewed him once in a professional capacity. It’s not like he was a close friend.
And yet, when news of his death at the age of 60 reached me last Wednesday morning the sense of loss I felt was immediate and overwhelming. I’m not ashamed to admit I had a wee greet.
Why? I’ve spent a couple of days trying to work it out, and I think I now have a theory.
The first time I heard Mike Marra play was at a very curious event indeed – an open day at Dens Park, the home of Dundee Football Club, some time in the late 1970s.
Coming from the other side of the city’s sporting divide I was only there to see Skeets Boliver, a legendary Dundee band in which Marra was bass player and lead vocalist. In the 30-odd years since, I’ve been a devoted fan. His voice was extraordinary. You could warm your hands by it. I once described it in print as “a rich growl that sounds as if someone has set his throat on fire then put the flames out with a tumbler of Laphroaig.”
For me, though, the main draw was Marra’s quirky local subject matter: the life of an altar boy; a magic realist imagining of Frida Kahlo visiting the Tay Bridge Bar; the Presbyterian habit of chaining up the swings on a Sunday; Dundee United’s penalty-taking goalkeeper Hamish McAlpine.
These weren’t delivered as traditional folk songs. In fact it’s a mistake to describe Marra as a folk artist. Instead, he told these stories through the musical idiom more closely associated with the great American songsters Tom Waits, Randy Newman and Dr John.
To us in Scotland, these men spun tales of dishwater blondes in all-night diners that were impossibly romantic and compelling. They put a nickel in the jukebox of our imagination and played songs of love and loss and adventure. Rooted in their exotic locale, their songs were nonetheless universal.
By adopting their style of storytelling and musicianship, Marra invited us to look at our own lives and our own country in a similar way. He invited us to consider the possibility that our own stories could be just as romantic, just as universal.
When he played an old folk standard, such as Mary Brooksbank’s They Fairly Mak Ye Work, he invested it with such an elegiac quality you could imagine it sung in the cotton mills of Alabama. To hell with the notion of “parochial”. Our story was as worthy of the telling as anyone else’s.
I think that was the reason for a wee blub on Wednesday morning. We have Michael Marra to thank for helping us see ourselves in relation to the infinite.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Monday 20 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 20 C
Wind Speed: 7 mph
Wind direction: West
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Wind direction: North west