The Sunday Herald's Barry Didcock's piece on Michael published on 15 January 2006
Michael Marra may be reluctant to play the fame game but his music has captured a piece of Scotlands heart By Barry Didcock TO writer Liz Lochhead, hes the wee shilpit skinny guy from Dundee who for over a decade has partnered her in the stage show In Flagrant Delicht. To Dundonians, hes the troubador poet who has sculpted from the rhythms and accents of their city a songbook so comprehensive it should be required listening for anyone venturing over the Tay Bridge. To football fans hes the author of Hamish The Goalie, an ode in song to Hamish McAlpine, the legendary Dundee United stopper. And to connoiseurs of Scottish music he shares best kept secret status with people like Bert Jansch and Davy Graham. But when the man himself looks in the mirror and studies the weathered 53-year-old face looking back at him, he sees only Michael Marra, songwriter a man who would never leave his studio if he didnt have to. Today, however, he does. Today Michael Marra has to catch the bus from Newtyre, the village outside Dundee in which he lives with his wife Peggy, and meet me. Hes passed the time by reading a novel, Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer hell pull the dog-eared paperback out of his knapsack later to show me, talking excitedly about it as he does and when he ambles into the caf at Dundee Contemporary Arts he apologises for being late. He neednt; he isnt. But politeness is a reflex with him. Weve met before actually, eight years ago, up the road at Dundee Repertory Theatre where he was working on a production of The Mill Lavvies, Chris Rattrays musical play about the jute bit of Dundees famous troika of trades. Marra had written the songs for it and was also in it. He wants to meet at the Rep again but Im keen to see him in the DCA, a building as emblematic of the new Dundee as the jute, jam and journalism tag is redolent of the old one. In fact, he looks perfectly at home here and hasnt a bad word to say about the place. With his loose-fitting jacket, his haversack of books and his beret pushed back on his head so the leather band shows he could be a visiting artist or a hip punter. Its going to be a busy year for Michael Marra. Hes currently working on a new album and he has a series of tour dates arranged for early spring. But more immediately, he has a raft of Celtic Connections appearances to negotiate. On January 26, he performs The Ballad Of Sam McGee, composer Christine Hansons setting of Robert Services poem The Cremation Of Sam McGee. Marra, with his deep, sonorous voice, narrates the story, an amiable piece of nonsense about a gold-panner from Tennessee who meets his end in the frozen wastes of the Yukon. And this weekend, he and Liz Lochhead team up again for two performances of In Flagrant Delicht at the Tron Theatre. In Flagrant Delicht was a seriously constructed show to begin with. The structure remains the same but things change within it, he explains. Sometimes theres music, sometimes its just dialogue. Its an interesting show. People like it and it means I get to see Liz Lochhead regularly because I hardly see anybody at all. I do my gigs and I go straight home. I dont socialise very much . He is not one for networking. He pulls a face, as if someone has wafted something unpleasant under his nose. I dont like that word, he says. Its horrible. Ugly. He doesnt like what he refers to as showbusiness either, by which he means that notion of always being on. Thats either refreshing or naive, depending on how you look at it, but it explains why Marras reputation is huge among those whose ears are attuned, but a mere wisp of a thing to others. He is not never has been the most visible of performers. Some people like to do it and consequently they network and get more light on them but I would rather keep out of the way, he says. Writing, thats the thing. You can judge everything about me by how thats going. My wife thinks it would be healthier if I saw more people, other artists. Its this disinclination to socialise and network which has pushed him towards theatre, a form which places him at one more remove from the audience and in which he can write to order, for mouths other than his own. There are things I would never say, words I would never use and yet if Im writing for somebody else I will allow myself to write them, he explains . Michael Marra was born in 1952 in Lochee, the area of Dundee dominated by the Cox Brothers jute mill. With nearly 1000 looms, 5000 employees and a 282-foot chimney stack, it was said to be the largest of its kind in the world. Lochee was also home to Dundees Irish community and, like their neighbours, the Marras had their roots across the sea. An elder brother went to art college, but Marra wasnt much of an academic success. I didnt do well at school, he says simply. I was in a lot of trouble. The problem was truancy. From the age of about 14 he hardly turned up to lessons at Lawside RC Academy. I dreaded it. Every day, on the way there, I dreaded it. I didnt trust them. I didnt believe a lot of stuff I was being taught. I now think there were maybe two teachers there who were worth turning up for. In fact I know it. There was an English teacher who gave us a class when our normal teacher was ill. He did Robert Burns. He performed Tam OShanter. And I think every kid who was in that class will remember that to this day. He did love the football, though. A lifelong Dundee fan despite his famous song in honour of Dundee Uniteds Hamish McAlpine, he recalls the glory days at Dens Park, particularly the league win of 1962 and the subsequent European Cup campaign of the 1962-63 season. We beat FC Cologne 8-1 at home. I was 10 at the time and it was the first floodlit game I saw. It was ecstasy. Id never experienced excitement like that. It was like Hollywood. For the semi-final, Dundee drew Italian giants AC Milan. I met Gianni Rivera in the Nethergate, Marra laughs, grinning at the absurdity of it: the boy from Dundee meeting the Beckham of his day. I shook his hand. He was the first European football superstar. He had silver hair in his 20s. I remember them all they looked like film stars while the Dundee team were all peely-wally. That was like a dream. Then a few years later youre watching them drawing with East Fife. Dundee, that is. But if Marras schooldays were marked by a cultural poverty enlivened only by the thrill of the terraces, his home life was sumptuous. Music was such a fixture in the Marra household it should have had a place at the dinner table. Marras father had two musical heroes: Duke Ellington and Ludwig van Beethoven, and the house shook to the sounds of both. The only time Marra saw his father comb his hair was the night in the late 1960s when he went to see Ellington perform in Dundee. Marras mother, meanwhile, sang with the citys Cecilian Choir and played piano, an old Bluthner upright that Marra still uses today. Distill those twin parental influences and you have the essence of Marras own oeuvre: part jazz, part blues; drawn around piano and guitar; rooted in that tradition of Celtic eloquence and hewn out of his mother tongue. Given all that, does he still feel Irish? He indicates some slight assent with an equally slight nod but gathers himself before he speaks. It surprises me sometimes, he says finally. I write some other stuff, prose, and quite a few of the things I have written have read to me as though they were from Ireland. He means they feel Irish in their tone, a mixture of black humour and ****-eyed absurdity. Youll find the same flavour in the plays of Samuel Beckett or the novels of Flann OBrien. Marra, a huge fan of OBrien, was actually in Dublin visiting relatives when the author died, on April Fools Day 1966. That and his familial visits left a strong impression. What I first enjoyed in Ireland, when I went over to see family when I was boy, was hearing people thinking out loud and not being pulled up and called stupid. There was an openness there for the absurd which is completely closed here [in Scotland]. We talk about his children, Matthew and Alice, who were in their teens last time we spoke. Its a brighter subject: the future, rather than the past. Marras children have grown up to be musicians, too. They have a band called The Hazey Janes, an album (out last week), a UK tour which has just started and a sound which their record label describes as power-pop in the vein of cult 1970s band Big Star. He tells me that the music magazine Q gave the album four stars and described the music as having more than a Gram of Parsons. Big Star were from Memphis and never wrote songs about Dundee United goalkeepers; Gram Parsons eulogised widescreen America. So in spirit at least the children have flown from the Dundee the father has spent so many years dissecting. He still loves it here, though. He still loves what he calls Dundees consistency. Its like your mother, isnt it? If some talented gufftraps had to come up with a motto other than the City of Discovery I would call it Beneath The Underdog. Its a reference to the title of jazz musician Charles Minguss freewheeling autobiography but it seems apt. Some things about the new Dundee are not to be praised, however. Marra doesnt like the buildings that are going up along the Tay, obscuring the water. The people of Dundee, he thinks, need to see the water. When horses race in China they always race in the same direction as the nearest river, he tells me. Its to do with harmony. The fact that weve always been able to see the river has been a source of comfort. Marra, I suppose, is like that, always racing in the same direction as the river flowing outwards, while all the time facing the city he loves. I hope its some years before anything other than buildings obscure his vision. I think about that as he leaves me off to catch his bus, this wee shilpit skinny guy from Dundee.