I was eighteen years old, and drinking my first (legal) pint of Guinness in a Scottish pub in Fergus Ontario, with both my parents beside me, when I heard The Waterboys “Fisherman’s Blues” for the first time. The barman was playing the whole album, start to finish. We were well versed in Irish music already: my dad was born in Ireland, and he inherited a large collection of Irish trad albums from his father, so Irish trad music was a big part of the soundtrack of my childhood. (That and 60’s classic rock, especially the Beatles, but that’s another story.) And as we heard the first tracks of Fisherman’s Blues, my parents and I stopped talking about whatever we were talking about, and just start listening. We heard the fiddle used as a rock instrument for the first time in “We Will Not Be Lovers” and “World Party”. We debated the double or triple meanings in certain lyrics. We invented stories about who Hank was, and who else might deserve a bang on the ear. Dad asked the barman to play “When Ye Go Away” twice. And then dad and I just stared at each other in shocked silence – a true state of aesthetic arrest, as Joyce coined the phrase – when we heard “The Stolen Child”. Dad was an english major when he was a student at university, and Yeats was his favourite poet. So he ensured that my siblings and I knew and loved his poetry too. So when we heard the Yeats poem set to music, we could do nothing else but listen. And then we asked the barman to bring us the cd.
The very next day, I went to the record store and bought a copy of all the Waterboys albums they had on sale that day.
I had been playing guitar for about a year at that point, but mostly as a kind of diversion. But when I heard Fisherman’s Blues, it was like I knew what kind of music I wanted to play. So I taught myself to play every song on the album. Badly, alas — and if asked to play those songs today, I’d have to re-learn most of them. But the point is: the music of Fisherman’s Blues, and it’s successor album Room to Roam, is the music that made me want to be a guitarist.
That was also the year that I move out of the family home and got my first apartment. And I had time now to just sit and listen to an album – not as something playing in the background while doing something else, but as something I was deliberately doing, for it’s own sake. Partly because I wanted to play those songs myself, and partly because I was taking the time, I gave close attention to the lyrics. And those lyrics really spoke to me. Most Waterboys songs are not like other rock songs because the subject matter of the lyrics often address serious topics that other pop songs don’t touch. Songs such as “The Whole of the Moon”, “She Is So Beautiful” and “A Man is in Love” are love songs, but they have none of the interchangeable, bog-standard “I wanna love you to the end of time” flappery that dominates pop music lyrics. They tell stories, and they find elegant and powerful words to tell those stories. As an example, look at these lines from “The Girl in the Swing”:
Well, you just asked me: do I know what love is?
I said, sure I know, sure I know what love is!
It’s the thief of my sleep, a boy and his dog,
a red rubber ball, these old foolish things,
A rain that falls a long, long way from home.
And it lives in the girl in the swing.
And this lyric is sung when the chord changes up from the home chord of A-minor to its relative major, and then follows an ascending arc that leads to a dramatic climax right on the achingly lonely but wonderfully beautiful lyric right at the end. It’s epic music.
But this is to compare Waterboys music to other pop songs, and there are a lot of Waterboys songs that just can’t be compared that easily: they are so radically different, in lyrical content and in sound. The subject matter of the lyrics is much more varied, and often much more honest about human relations and experiences. There’s epic storytelling (“Red Army Blues”, “Bury My Heart”), there’s fun and spontaneity (“Spring comes to Spiddal”) there’s anger and darkness (“Suffer”, “Be My Enemy”, “Malediction”) there’s gospel influences (“On My Way to Heaven”, “A Rock in a Weary Land”), there’s moments of exquisite beauty (“The Wind in the Wires”, “Too Close to Heaven”). And there’s a lot of sonic experimentation: Scott produces sounds on stage and in the studio that I’ve never heard anywhere else. The closing bit of electronic wind in “The Charlatan’s Lament” is one example that comes to my mind. I have no idea how he made that sound, and that is part of what makes it awesome. “The Return of Jimi Hendrix” is like getting hit with a flood of sound. And “Seek the Light” is so acoustically weird that I don’t know what it is, but I love it anyway.
Most fans agree the music of the Waterboys goes through three phases, on their almost 30 year career. There’s “The Big Music” of the early albums, the “Raggle taggle Celtic folk rock circus” of the middle albums, and the “sonic rock” of the later and current albums, although the most recent album combines the sound of all three phases. Since the Raggle Taggle days, the band lineup consists of Mike Scott, Steve Wickham, and whoever they are jamming with at the time – something like 70 people in all.
And through it all, there’s a lot of spiritual seeking. In my mind, this is is perhaps the most prominent theme in Mike Scott’s songwriting. And this is also the theme in the music which drew me in the most. I listened closely to the lyrics and the sound of “The Big Music”, and I wanted to hear that sound too. I went into the forest near my home looking for it, and I believe I found it in the sound of the wind in the trees and the rapids below, and the calling of birds, and the turning of the earth from each day to the next. Ever since, when I want to write a song or a new book, I go to a sacred place, and I try to listen for the music of the world, and then I write down what I hear.
Sometimes the spiritual influence in a song is clearly from a particular cultural tradition: Native American (“Only the Earth Endures”), Neo-pagan (“The Pan Within”, “The Return of Pan”, “A Pagan Place”), and esoteric Christian (“December”, “Peace of Iona”, “The Christ In You”). Sometimes his spiritual feelings are suggested by his choice of literary influences, especially WB Yeats and CS Lewis. But much of it is also Mike Scott’s own idiosyncratic path, with songs like “Glastonbury Song”, “Higher in Time”, “Bring Em All In”, and “Let It Happen”. And some of his personal spiritual songs seem perhaps autobiographical: “Crown”, “Long Way to the Light”, “I’m Still a Freak”. Listen to the lyrics of “Bigger Picture”, which expresses a kind of pantheism:
My soul the sky, my heart a sun
My mind a world – my only one
My thoughts the people, the world around
My dreams the kings – or the clowns
I’m starting to see a bigger picture
I’m beginning to colour it in.
And here is a sample from “What Do You Want To Do?”, which is a plain spoken statement of self awareness, and also a plaintive call to God or some higher power or loved one, for help:
I can see the lights of home,
But I can’t get there on my own.
I can see the landing strip,
But I need you to steer my ship.
What do you want me to do?
Mike Scott doesn’t publicly subscribe to any particular religion. It seems to me that he probably sees himself as a musician and a human being first, and everything else second. And I respect this: in a similar way, I see myself as a philosopher and human being first, and everything else second. Still, if a philosopher became a rock musician, the music of The Waterboys is the music he’d make.
That first year I moved out to live on my own was also the first year I attended WiccanFest. I played “The Return of Pan” at the WiccanFest Bardic Competition and I won second place. And ever since, when I attend events in the pagan community, I am almost always asked to play that song, or other Waterboys songs that have spiritual themes in their lyrics. In early 2000, I picked up a copy of “Bring Em All In”, Scott’s solo album and perhaps his most artistically introspective, soul-bearing album. I think it is one of his best. I saw Mike Scott perform in a solo concert just after the release of that album. The venue was a church in downtown Toronto: a perfect place for such spiritual and personal music. I sat only three rows in from the front. A lot of audience members called out requests and even had side conversations with Scott on the stage. It was a very intimate concert. I cheekily called out “Can I jam with you?” It seemed fun at the time, but in retrospect, I think I was too presumptuous. His wise answer was “Not today.”
Not long after that concert, a woman I loved very much died. So I learned to play every track on “Bring Em All In” as a means of grieving and healing. Mike Scott’s music helped me get on with my life again.
In the summer of the year 2001, I moved to Galway to study philosophy at the university, and to find the places where the band made the sound of their raggle- taggle Celtic folk-rock years. The town of Spiddal, where the band recorded Fisherman’s Blues and Room to Roam, was not far away, and I visited there occasionally, as well as the nearby Aran Island. That same year the band released Too Close to Heaven, a compilation album of material that didn’t make it to the final track list for the first two Raggle Taggle albums. Looking back now, I think those were five of the best years in my adult life. (But also five of the most stressful years too.) I was working on my dissertation, researching at the cutting edge of my discipline, talking to experts in my field from all over the world, traveling to stone circles and passage mounds across the country, tripping over to England and to Germany to explore castles and cathedrals and forested hilltops and magical places. The music of the Waterboys, especially the album Too Close to Heaven, was the “soundtrack” of those years. In fact it was during those years that I met Mike Scott and Steve Wickham in person. I went to a concert at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin, and after the show I snuck into the pub in the back of the theatre so I could meet the band. Scott was tired but very gentlemanly, and although I spoke with him for only five minutes or so, it was long enough to sense a great depth of honesty and sincerely in his character.
It’s many years later now. The Waterboys last album was “An Appointment with Mr. Yeats”, in which every song is based on a poem by Yeats. It is undoubtedly the most astonishing music I have heard all year. I love the ballsy-ness of taking poems that are normally treated as sublime and literary, and turning them into rock songs (“The Hosting of the Sidhe”, “September 1913”), pop songs (“Sweet Dancer”), blues songs (“The Lake Isle of Innisfree”), whimsical dark theatre (“News for the Delphic Oracle”), even rock and roll wall-of-sound sonic floods (“Mad as the Mist and Snow”, “A Full Moon in March”). It’s like Scott is saying that these poems don’t have to remain locked in glass cases in museums or in ivory tower universities. They belong to everybody, and so they can be rock songs too.
This is the music that taught me to appreciate Mike Scott as a fellow human being here on this earth, enduring and riding the tides of life just like everyone else. But this music also taught me to see myself as a man who, in the words of the seannachie, stumbles between the immensities of birth and death. This music taught me how to love this life of Sundays, even if I’m taking a tumble, or the thrill is gone, or there’s a war in my head, or I’ve had enough of the ways of men. His music taught me to go farther up and further in, and to see the ladder ascending in front of me. It showed me the beauty in silent fellowship, and in that lonesome old wind upon the wind and waves. It showed me that whatever needs to happen, it’s okay to let it happen and let it be. It’s a long way to the light, but I am able to go anywhere. And I know She is is in the building, so I don’t have to bang the drum: I just have to go in search of a rose.
Naturally there are a lot of other bands and other composers who I love. But the music of the Waterboys has a very special place in my heart. There’s still two or thee Waterboys albums that I don’t have. I’m going to buy them soon.
Dear Mike and Steve: if you are reading this: thank you.
And, I’ll be visiting Ireland again next year. I’d love to have a beer with you.
(Everybody: here’s the band web site, for info about album sales and concerts.)