Right down the line: Remembering Gerry Rafferty

Gerry Rafferty, and below, duetting with Rab Noakes
Gerry Rafferty, and below, duetting with Rab Noakes
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A year on from singer and songwriter Gerry Rafferty’s untimely death, those who were closest to him remember his legacy, his love and the demons that haunted him

T HE first time Martha Rafferty heard it she was a little girl and it came through the wall at her. “To start with, his singing kept me awake, but pretty soon I couldn’t sleep without it,” she says. “I suppose putting your music room next to your daughter’s bedroom wouldn’t have been the advice of the parenting manuals, but then he didn’t really do manuals.”

The first time Rab Noakes heard it he was in Billy Connolly’s dad’s house, in White Street, Partick, and they were both young men, planning a concert and the rest of their lives. “The gig was to be at Glasgow City Halls in February 1969, and the impresario was Arthur Argo, a fascinating fellow on the Scottish folk scene who’d been out to Greenwich Village with Jean Redpath and come back with Bob Dylan’s autograph. Billy had asked me along, and Danny Kyle had told me, ‘You’ve got to hear this guy from Paisley.’

“I remember in the house he sang Rick Rack, one of his own songs, which goes, ‘See the train coming down the track/When I grow up I want to be an engine driver.’ I don’t remember much about the show, to be honest, but it was in the dressing-room afterwards that we bonded. People were saying goodbye but the guitars were still out. We sang the Beatles’ In My Life together, and in that moment a lifetime’s friendship was signed and sealed. It was more than kindred spirits, it was deeper than that. He was the person I was looking for.”

Barbara Dickson can’t be sure of exactly when she first heard it because she forgets such details now, “but the sound of his voice – vulnerable, haunting, so moving – is emblazoned on my brain for ever”. She’d been travelling back to Edinburgh from a gig in Irvine and had stopped off at Glasgow’s Scotia Bar. “The pub was a staging-post for musicians heading up to Aberdeen or Inverness or going back down to Manchester, so there was always a good chance of hearing somebody interesting play a guitar in the corner – usually with a raging hangover, mind you. That lunchtime the sun was streaming through the windows. I could hear this voice but couldn’t see the singer. I just thought, ‘Wow.’ I fell in love with Gerry instantly, unconditionally, for ever. When he died, I cried for days and days.”

This Wednesday will be the first anniversary of the passing of Gerry Rafferty, troubadour and legend, at the age of 63 after a long battle with alcoholism. On 22 January, one year on from the funeral at St Mirin’s Cathedral, Paisley, Jack Bruce, Ron Sexsmith, Maria Mauldaur and others who appreciated his genius will pick favourite songs from a 40-year career, spanning his time with Billy Connolly in the Humblebums, the Stealers Wheel years and his great solo successes, for the first of two tribute concerts being staged as part of Celtic Connections. Dickson, who knew him as Gerry, Noakes, who always called him Gerald, and Martha, for whom he was Dad, will also perform, although none is quite sure how they’re going to get through the shows.

Says Dickson, 64, “Martha and her cousins sang Whatever’s Written in Your Heart at the funeral, and I can hardly talk about how sad that made me feel. At the concerts I’ll just have to see Martha’s wee face, which is the spit of her father’s, and I’ll be away.”

Martha is glad to be busy, co-curating with Noakes, also 64, otherwise this might have been overwhelming. “I’m sure I’ll collapse afterwards,” she says. But while Rafferty was a spiritual man, his daughter does not want the tribute to be sacred. “Rab and I have been wondering about Baker Street,” she says of his father’s biggest hit, and one which must surely be daunting the performers pondering their choices. “Maybe that’ll have to be an ensemble number with everyone involved.” And the saxophone solo, once the subject of feverish rumour over the identity of the player – who’s going to replicate that? “Well, we’re thinking of having it done on kazoo. I think Dad would love that.”

Flashback to 2000 – a London Underground train is taking your correspondent to meet Rafferty when it passes through the Baker Street station and I instinctively hum the sax break to myself. How many of us do this every day, I ask a few minutes later, in an effort to ingratiate myself with a reputedly difficult interviewee. He smiles, and is soon laughing at my admission to having further muddied a great Rafferty myth in print (instead of Bob Holness, I’d speculated that the saxophonist had been an even more unlikely quiz host, Jim Bowen). Maybe he’s not so difficult after all, I’m thinking. And then he does something no rock star in my company has done before or since. He tells me exactly what a classic is worth: “It still earns me £80,000 a year.”

In a café near where she lives in Edinburgh’s Merchiston, it’s Martha’s turn to chuckle. “You were very lucky to get that interview because he didn’t do many. But £80,000? He was pulling your leg. He liked to make stuff up. He found the degree of untruth surrounding him amusing and liked to feed it.”

Martha, who’s 40, mother to eight-year-old daughter Celia and gave up her teaching job to look after her father in the last few years of his life, does indeed look like Rafferty. She seems to start off sharing his suspicion of the press as well, but warms to the task. “I must do what Dad never really did in his life and promote his work.” She’s helping Rafferty’s great friend, the writer and painter John Byrne, complete a musical, Underwood Lane, which tells the story of his life and is also collating his archive. “I have three albums-worth of songs no one else has heard, which I want to see released. Hearing any of Dad’s music this year has been poignant, but these tracks have been especially emotional because of them being written that much closer to his death.”

Martha was born halfway through Rafferty’s two-year stint in the Humblebums with Connolly. She remembers the Big Yin visiting the family home later, part of the regular through-traffic of musicianly types at Edward Street, Glasgow. “Dad taught me how to play guitar, and at gatherings of all the Raffs everybody sang. These were big parties with lots of drinking.”

After that tantalising glimpse at the Scotia, Dickson was desperate to hear Rafferty sing again, and was present at a Humblebums gig in the unprepossessing surroundings of Liberton Tennis Club, in Edinburgh. She laughs, “Billy was fantastically communicative, warm and funny, and Gerry wasn’t. He’d be sat on a chair and Billy would say, ‘And now Gerry will give us a wee song.’ Maybe it would be Her Father Didn’t Like Me Anyway or Patrick the Painter. But we were all besotted – with the songs and with him.”

Noakes, when he was in Stealers Wheel, remembers the inaugural meeting of that band at Rafferty’s home in Tunbridge Wells – “Martha was in a baby-bouncer in the kitchen door” – when the main man also worked in semi-secret on a solo album. “He’d nip behind a sofa to finish a lyric. I really admired Gerald’s tremendous drive because it was always more than I had.” That record would include Mary Skeffington – Rafferty’s mother’s maiden name – a tribute to the woman who used to walk the streets of Paisley with young Gerry to save the boy from a beating from his alcoholic father after pub closing-time.

Although the working relationship with Connolly was over, Noakes say, “There was a lot of Gerald in Billy, and vice versa – for instance, Gerald’s eye for the absurd.” He cites the night that inspired Stuck in the Middle with You, Stealers Wheel’s biggest hit. “We were being wined and dined in the Aretusa, in King’s Road. It was Gerald, Joe Egan and myself flanked by the boss of A&M Records, quite an aloof fellow, and these producers who were there for the time-honoured free meal – hence the line ‘Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right’. Gerald just thought it was ridiculous that these people were talking about the band but not to it, but then he did find a lot of the music industry ridiculous.”

Equally ridiculous, thought Rafferty, were the legal wranglings that temporarily gagged him. Noakes, by this point solo, was involved in a dispute of his own and the pair would often meet up after batterings from lawyers at the Globe pub, in London’s Marylebone Road, to lick wounds and whisky glasses – and from that emerged Baker Street.

“He’s a bit of a life force,” adds Noakes. “Forgive me, but I still speak of Gerald in the present tense. He was a great companion on some wonderful escapades, and things always happened when he was around. We were just glad we’d escaped real jobs. We were forging this thing, there was no safety net and we weren’t coming back.”

Ultimately Rafferty didn’t. Martha remembers bumping into Connolly, having not seen him in a while. “I got quite a jolt that day because there was Billy, the same age as Dad, looking so exuberant, and Dad wasn’t in quite the same rude health. Yes, he was an alcoholic. Billy had been one too for many years. Same with Rab. God, so many of them were. But they managed to stop and Dad couldn’t.”

Rafferty had a ten million-selling career but could have sold more if he hadn’t possessed such a thrawn attitude to fame in general and touring the US in particular (despite the soft-rock of the City to City album wafting out of diners and laundromats coast to coast, he never played there). The impression given by obituaries is of someone complex, cussed, contrary and, occasionally, worse, so I’m wondering if Martha recognised her father in the words written after his death. Was he “shy” but also “self-destructive”? “He didn’t want the limelight for himself, only his music. It’s this era that places the artist next to his creation. In the 15th century all art was anonymous, and maybe Dad would have been happier then. And all creative people, I think, have a self-destructive side. He could have entered Elton John’s sphere of fame but chose not to. He did that for me as much as anyone and I’m grateful for that.”

When Rafferty’s drinking caused his wife Carla to leave him, he took off round the world with Martha. “He was a bit of a headless chicken at that time. I was 20 and I don’t know if I would have had plans of my own but, in any case, Dad was the all-consuming subject. We went to the Caribbean and the south of France and I suppose I took over Mum’s role of looking after him because he wasn’t very practical and couldn’t cook for himself.

“I think I would have to agree with the description of him being paranoid, but in the healthy way of being very discriminating and refusing to suffer fools. He was definitely a perfectionist, and not just about music. He never left the house in a pair of shoes that weren’t highly polished. He used to work in a shoe shop, Simpson’s in Paisley, and was always fastidious about that. And there was a period when he only wore Adidas Stan Smith white trainers, but never the same pair twice. Once they were creased, he’d throw them away. He didn’t pretend to be without frailties and flaws but he was a funny, sweet man who loved children and could crawl right inside the world of a four-year-old and he was terribly, terribly liked.”

Dickson would dispute little, if any, of this, and her own observations add more layers to Rafferty – who’s wearing quite a few coats already. They first sang together at 47 Forest Road, Edinburgh, the unofficial ‘green room’ of folkies pub Sandy Bell’s. “It was Beatles and Byrds songs at that time, and I can still see us, cross-legged on the floor with our carry-outs.” Later, she supplied backing vocals for the City to City hits. “Gerry could be a taskmaster but he knew the worth of his music. When he wrote songs he heard things in his head no less than Mozart did. He was always very intense, very sensitive and afraid of letting go.

“He didn’t like the business side of music because it made him feel out of control, but while Kate Bush managed to get away without promoting her work Gerry got criticised for being a curmudgeon. He had a massive ego and zero self-esteem. A lot of musicians are like that, myself included. But the terrible tragedy of Gerry was that we all wanted him to give us more of his work that was stuck in his ego. We didn’t want his view of himself to destroy his music, but ultimately it did.”

Martha adds, “Dad would have been an alcoholic if he had been an electrician or a cobbler.” Dickson says, “It was inevitable Gerry’s life would be shorter than ours.”

And this is Noakes: “Next March will be 20 years since I last had a drink. The drunkard looks forward into sobriety and it’s the dullest, greyest place imaginable. Being careful not to preach, I tried to tell Gerald this ain’t necessarily so. He attempted on many occasions to stop but always slipped back.”

Martha treasures her father’s favourite guitar, customised by John Byrne. Dickson keeps a photo of Rafferty close by “because I haven’t quite let him go”.

Noakes cherishes his final meeting with his old friend, in hospital near the end. “He lay on the bed like a beached whale. I played him a few songs, including In My Life, but they didn’t seem to register. Then I remembered how privileged I’d been to attend a Raffs family party where Gerald and his brothers, Joe and Jim, sang the most beautiful harmonies on I’m a Lonesome Polecat. I had a go and when I got to the chorus he kind of sat up a bit. It wasn’t much but it was everything.”

For the rest of us, there are the songs. Noakes again: “Gerald’s great talent was to take a very specific event in his life and write it up in a way which resonated with literally millions of people. He didn’t obfuscate, he was very bold and direct, and that was especially true of his love songs.”

Continue to resonate, indeed, with current chart act La Roux revealing in a recent BBC Scotland tribute co-produced by Noakes that she wants Right Down the Line played at her funeral. She said, “The sentiment is: forever, I will always, always, always love you. Imagine if someone wrote that for you – imagine.”

Martha is still receiving fans’ messages from all over the world, a “profound outpouring” for her father’s work and what it meant to so many. “These are songs about real things we all struggle with, like love and death. They were born out of Dad’s own problems and they’re still sustaining others through theirs. I wish in his life he’d known just how much his music meant. Maybe he does now.”

Bring it All Back Home – Gerry Rafferty Remembered is at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall as part of Celtic Connections on 22 and 23 January (www.celticconnections.com)