I FIRST heard Michael Marra on a spellbinding Glasgow night in 1987, when he, his beret and his piano commanded all hearts and minds in what was then known as the Third Eye Centre.
Many modern Scots say it was Alasdair Gray’s Lanark that first made them feel imaginatively at home in their own country. For me, it was Michael’s songs that night. I’d never heard before (nor have I since) such a perfect Scottish mix of musical elegance and gritty lyrical joy – as if Robert Burns had been time-warped into 80s Dundee, and started expressing his soul in Tom Waits-ian ballads.
Few things are as beautiful and moving as his song about the failed inventor Sandy Kidd, called Australia Instead of the Stars (“We’ll get by selling cars/We know what we are”). Nor as funny as his alternative national anthem, Hermless, which the Tartan Army should have adopted years ago.
But there was one song that captivated the room then, and my brother and I (as Hue And Cry) for the last 25 years. Michael usually began it by playing a few bars of the Catholic hymn Soul of My Saviour – and then proceeded to unfold, in a few minutes, what has become the unofficial anthem of our biggest city: Mother Glasgow. A lifelong (and unflinching) socialist republican, Michael’s song casts a critical but sympathetic eye over this divided, proletarian landscape: “Trying hard to feed their little starlings/Unconsciously they clip their little wings”. Father Glasgow “won’t make his own way up to heaven/by waltzing all his charges into hell”; Mother Glasgow’s “succour is perpetual/nestling the Billy and the Tim”.
Michael’s work is rich and diverse, and included most pop genres, musicals and operas: he worked with conceptual artists and dancers. I knew him as an intense, warm man, razor-sharp in politics and humour.
If there’s any justice, the Commonwealth Games in 2014 will begin with a mass collective rendition of Mother Glasgow. The wee maestro in the beret deserves no less. Requiescat in Pace, Michael. Or as he would probably prefer, Pax Vobiscum.