A new biography of one of Scotland’s most celebrated singer-songwriters is to lift the lid on his long-running struggle to perform live during a career spanning four decades before his death in 2012.
The long-awaited life story of the “Bard of Dundee”, Michael Marra, by author James Robertson, explores his battles with stage fright, shyness and neurosis.
Born in the Lochee district of Dundee in 1952, Marra came to prominence in the 1970s in the bands Hen’s Teeth and Skeets Boliver before forging a solo career. Marra, who died from lung cancer five years ago, performed and toured with Patti Smith, Van Morrison, Eddi Reader and The Proclaimers.
But the book reveals how his wife Peggy was in charge of his schedule so he did not know about forthcoming concerts until just two days beforehand.
Robertson, a long-time friend, has created a series of “imagined” conversations with Marra for the book, which features tributes from fellow performers like Ricky Ross, Rab Noakes, Karine Polwart and Liz Lochhead.
In the opening chapter of the book, Robertson says: “Michael and I spent a lot of hours sitting on either side of the kitchen table, talking. I wish now I could remember all the things he told me across that table. I can’t, but I do remember a lot.”
“It was stage fright to the power of ten. I really did find it terrifying. I always thought that sooner or later I would blow it”MICHAEL MARRA
In one passage, Robertson quotes his friend saying: “Performance is an act. You’re like an actor, and that’s what an actor has to do: become someone else. I admired anyone who could do that, but it wasn’t a straightforward process for me. On days when I had a gig, this whole neurotic process would begin at 8am and go right through until long after the gig was over.
“It was to do with shyness, but also it was about wanting to perform well for the people who’d paid to hear you. You’re on a tightrope all the time you’re out there in front of them. So it can’t be this neurotic person doing that – that wouldn’t be fair on anyone involved. You have to be the tightrope walker.
“It was stage fright to the power of ten. I really did find it terrifying. I always thought that sooner or later I would blow it, and then I’d never be able to go on stage again. And it didn’t have anything to do with the size of the venue or the number of people.”
Peggy Marra said: “He had a green shirt, which I’ve still got, that he wore. As soon as that shirt went on, that was it. He wouldn’t do a gig without it, although I remember there was once when he had to, he’d forgotten to take it or something, and he had to do the gig in a white shirt. Not happy. He didn’t ever want to do a gig without the beret or the green shirt. Unless it was something where he had to wear a costume or a suit for some other reason, but then that was him in another character.”
The biography, published on 20 October, explores how Marra was unhappy after signing to a big-name record label and moving to London, with the released of his planned second album shelved.
Ricky Ross said: “Looking back from nearly 40 years on, it’s unfortunate that the bad time he had in London left him with such a diffident attitude towards the music industry, especially since in other areas of life he showed such generosity of spirit and gave so many people the benefit of the doubt.
“I think his antipathy to the industry probably meant some of his work remained less properly ‘finished’ than it could have been. It was also frustrating that his recorded music was often difficult for people to find. His songs should have been better known in his lifetime than they were.
“Having said that, I respect his reasons for being wary. He was an artist and that meant he could be spiky and sensitive. He was full of contradictions, as we all are. If he hadn’t been he couldn’t have made the songs he did from the stories he found all around him.”
Interviewed for the book, Lochhead said: “He was a one-off. He turned everything upside down and made you see it differently. His way of looking at things was so exciting and illuminating. Once you had known Michael, you wanted to conduct your own life as much as possible as he conducted his, with that quiet confidence in his own brand of integrity. An awful lot of people who knew Michael became better people because of knowing him.”
Polwart told Robertson: “Michael had a songwriter’s voice like no other. And I’m not talking about the gorgeous gravelly sound he made when he opened his mouth, but about his eye and his ear for people and place and particularity.”