MIKE SCOTT may have been unwilling to give too much of himself away at the height of his success with The Waterboys, but his new book reveals it all, writes Alan Pattullo
No-one should be surprised that Mike Scott has remained so in thrall to music given one of his formative experiences as a young fanzine editor in Ayr. Having noted that the Patti Smith Group, his principal musical preoccupation at the time, are playing a couple of gigs at the Rainbow Theatre in London, the teenage Scott resolves to go to the show. There are minor problems; he is in Ayrshire, with little money and no tickets.
Parading his fanboy credentials, he knows that Smith always stays in the same place when passing through London. What’s a boy to do but phone up the Portobello hotel and ask to be put through to her room? In his new book Adventures of a Waterboy, Scott recalls the conversation going like this:
“Where are you calling from?
“Scotland? How far is that?”
“Four hundred miles”
“Wow…You gotta come to the show so you can tell the kids all about it up there.”
So Scott does what any young turk worth their salt would do and takes the overnight train to London, whereupon he presents himself at the Portobello hotel. Smith pays for a room for her young fan and permits him entry to her entourage. While Scott clearly remains grateful to Smith and she herself displays admirable grace when welcoming this Scottish teenager who has turned up at her hotel, he doesn’t stint on the details.
Not all of them show Smith in the best possible light as she abuses the sense of power one can easily imagine pulsing through a performer in the moments after they have entertained an adoring audience. Remarkably, Scott finds himself in the stretch limousine as it ferries Smith and her band – two of whom he would later hire – back to the hotel, but is conscious of the main attraction holding court, “dominating, aggressive and scary”. He writes: “I was witnessing what happens when a star performer, the centre of attention, high on the residual energy of the show, lets that energy overflow into their offstage life and their interactions with others”.
Later, in the hotel lobby, he sits “frozen with embarrassment” as Smith tries to explain to a lover back home why a male voice belonging to a handsome roadie had answered the phone in her bedroom.
You ask whether Scott, someone who had seemed so unwilling to give too much of himself away at the height of his success with The Waterboys, felt at all torn over whether to include such details in a book that contains many fascinating revelations about his own life, including what happened when he turned up on the doorstep of the father he hadn’t seen for nearly 30 years.
“No, if I am going to write a book I figured I am going to write it as it was, even if people don’t like what I write and even if I don’t sometimes like what I write about myself,” he says. “I have a duty to posterity, to the reader and to myself to be authentic. So the Patti Smith chapter was in fact the first chapter I wrote. It flowed very easily. It was very clear what I wanted to say. There was no conflict at all.
“I hope she would take it well,” he adds. “It is a snapshot of her as seen through the eyes of a young Scottish fan, and when she was a lot younger than she is now. It is the way I saw it. I hope she would be cool with it. But who knows?”
If Smith picks up a copy of Adventures of a Waterboy when she plays in Glasgow next month she will be reminded of the precocious editor of Jungleland, named after the Bruce Springsteen song. Scott’s own star ascended by way of songs such as The Whole of the Moon and Fisherman’s Blues, but he has, he says, retained the sense of “what it is like to be a fan”.
Given that his music was once described as “Bruce Springsteen falling in love with Patti Smith in the backseat of a Chevrolet”, you wonder whether it felt significant to have been blessed with the Boss’s presence at a show The Waterboys played earlier this summer in Dublin, the city where Scott is again based. “He said hello to me afterwards,” says Scott. “I knew he was in Dublin, but I didn’t know he was there until after I came on stage.”
You sense Scott, now 53, is a long way from the star-struck teenager who threw himself at the mercy of Smith all those years ago. At one time, The Waterboys were reckoned to be jostling with U2 in the race to become the next stadium-fillers, and Scott and Bono would exchange early versions of each-other’s songs in their flats in Dublin. “He played me the first version of Where the Streets Have No Name, and I didn’t even notice it has the same melody as the Whole of the Moon in it,” says Scott.
Adventures of a Waterboy, published this month, is a stylishly written skip through the back pages of someone who has been described as Scotland’s answer to Bob Dylan. Indeed, such labels were once applied to Scott with impunity as he began to make his own mark in the music sphere, and after he had recovered from the implosion of his first band, Edinburgh’s Another Pretty Face, following initially promising reviews. NME hailed him as a “God-like genius” when he was only in his mid-twenties but Scott was grounded enough to be bemused. “Fancy lumbering a young artist with that,” he says. “Fortunately for me I did not take it seriously at all. But some people would have. They could get really hamstrung by that.”
Mentors have guided him through difficult times and Scott finds he is drawn towards older Scottish men, such as Robbie the Pict, Bruce Findlay and the late Jackie Leven. “I think because my dad left home and there was not a father-figure in my life I have always enjoyed their company,” he says.
Scottish author Ian Rankin is a year younger than Scott but they have struck up a friendship, after contacting one another on Twitter. Rankin will chair the event when Scott returns to the city of his birth on Thursday night to read from his book in a museum of musical instruments at the University of Edinburgh, his alma mater. He spent a year there as an English literature and philosophy student but was more interested in observing Joe Strummer clambering up the steep hill of Cockburn Street on the way to an album-signing session, looking, Scott notes with customary lyrical flair, “like a homicidal hunchback who’d found a sewing manual in a landfill”.
Scott did not feel much akin to a God-like genius when, during the period that he dispensed with The Waterboys banner, he sought to impress record company executives in the garish neon-lit conference suite of a motorway hotel, before a comeback single debuted at No 75 in the charts. “I was nowhere, man,” he writes. It might have been different had he gone with his gut-instinct and made the Fisherman’s Blues LP a double or triple album when the band were at the peak of their powers. “It would have wiped out the competition, I don’t doubt it for a moment,” he says, before revealing that EMI has plans to release a ten CD box-set to mark the album’s 25th anniversary next year.
In the end, the original Fisherman’s Blues came out as a still rather perfectly-formed single album, containing many of Scott’s best-loved songs, such as And a Bang on the Ear. He recently made contact with Lindsay, who is included in the song’s cast-list of girls-who-got-away. “In the lyrics of the song she was the one I was too shy to ask out,” says Scott. “And then her family left Ayr, where I was at the time, and I never saw her again.
“I got in touch with her through Friends Reunited, of all things. I told her I had mentioned her in a song. She wrote back and said: ‘oh I know that song, I am a big Waterboys fan, but I did not know it was about me’. Isn’t that lovely? So we stayed in touch and a few months later I had this gig in Edinburgh, and she came to it. We met for the first time since 1973.”
A yet more significant reunion is played-out in Adventures of a Waterboy, when, a week before his 40th birthday, some detective-work leads to Scott tracking down his father, Allan, who walked out on him and his mother in Edinburgh in the late 1960s. Understandably, Scott wanted the right to have his father in his life. Their first meeting after so long is a tense-enough affair for the reader, never mind the father and son frantically searching for the right words on the doorstep of a suburban terraced house on the outskirts of Birmingham. “We are like mates now,” says Scott. “We have a really nice uncomplicated relationship. And he always comes and sees The Waterboys when we play in the Midlands.”
• Adventures of a Waterboy is published by Jawbone Press, price £14.95. Mike Scott will be in conversation with Ian Rankin at St Cecilia’s Hall in Edinburgh on Thursday, 23 August.
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