A lot of Waterboys under the bridge
Mike Scott’s uncompromising nature earned him a reputation, but the musician’s new memoir articulates how his instincts have guided his band through 30 years and many line-ups
THE WAY MIKE SCOTT tells it, he is an ordinary man in constant pursuit of making realities out of dreams. “Music is running through my head, as always,” he writes in his very fine new memoir, Adventures of a Waterboy, “a mighty stramash of pop melodies learned from the radio, only grander and louder and longer because in my head the music does whatever I want it to.”
The year is 1968, the city is Edinburgh, and the nine-year-old Michael is taking the bus home from school. He is sitting upstairs in the front seat, and for 15 minutes he has been foot-tapping a rhythm to go with the music in his head. Suddenly the double-decker stops.
A burly man thunders upstairs, stomps over and roars, “Stop that bloody banging.” This is the driver, whose cabin is below Michael’s seat and who has suffered through the metallic clack-clacks. The spooked youngster apologises, and spends the remainder of his journey in silence.
“My heart’s beating fast,” Scott writes. “Being accosted by a furious stranger is shocking enough for a nine-year-old. But even more shocking [was] the realisation that the driver couldn’t hear the accompanying music in my head, otherwise he’d have known that it wasn’t ‘banging’ at all, but a sophisticated rhythm to a magnificent soundtrack!”
Forty-four years later, Scott is still hearing music in his head, but he’s better at fashioning it into something that any bus driver would recognise as a decent tune. Activity for the main Waterboy remains at a high level; for the past three years, “on and off”, he has divided his time between writing and overseeing his memoir, settling back into living in Dublin – he returned to live in the city at the end of 2008 – formulating yet another version of The Waterboys as a functioning live band and releasing their 10th studio album, An Appointment with Mr Yeats, which features songs based on the poetry of WB Yeats. The memoir was a new experience for him, he says.
“I didn’t know, when I started writing, whether it was going to turn into a book, but after a few chapters I began to get the range of it. I started with a piece in the book where I met Patti Smith for the first time, and when that turned into what I thought was a passable chapter, I thought a book would be probable.”
His original idea was to write a book called Ten Moments. “Each chapter would start out with a present-tense moment, and the chapter itself would be an expansion of that. I wasn’t intending it to be chronological but, rather, dipping in and out. However, as I continued, by about the fourth or fifth chapter, it began to have a linear style to it; it was getting its own life, its own will.” And so Scott went, as usual, with his instincts.
Now, as then, instinct serves him in a number of ways, sometimes benevolent, sometimes counterproductive, but always with a purpose.
Pipe-cleaner thin, wearing a sharply tailored suit and with a head of hair that still refuses to be contained, Scott might no longer be the hugely successful rock star he was in the mid-1980s, but he nonetheless carries an air of rock’n’roll insouciance. Mannerly – indeed, gentle – and attentive, he says writing the memoir was more interesting than cathartic.
“I got more of an overview of what a strange, twisting, turning path I’ve taken,” he says. “I discovered more about why I did things; why I made this decision; why didn’t I do this or that? For example, why did I insist on doing a tour in a circus tent in 1990?”
A smile turns quickly into a rueful laugh. “It was interesting to see how intensely I could follow my own will, even when it took me into tight places.”
Scott realises that his often-noted stubbornness has undercut his commercial success more than once. “However, I was doing what I thought was right, and if I had been easier about that then more stuff would have happened. I don’t regret that, though. Whatever decision I made was the right one for me at the time, based on what I thought was the best thing to do.”
So is the “difficult Mike” tag valid? “Absolutely, absolutely. I have a very clear idea of myself as an artist and the kind of stuff that my band or I should do. I’m open to suggestions about other people’s input, but if the input isn’t right for me then I won’t do it.” He pauses, his eyes twinkling. “Indeed, I almost never have. If the music tells me to do something, then I stick to it,” he says.
“It’s as simple as that, really. When I was younger, there was a fear of deviating from that; if I deviated from what I perceived the music was telling me to do, I would lose my connection with the music, the inspiration. That was the cost, so I’d always do what it said.”
Is the music always right, though? “Yes, I think it is. But I’m not always right in perceiving it. I’m fairly efficient in knowing what my instinct is telling me to do, but if there are other things crowding in on me, such as business – of which there was a lot when I was younger – or personal stuff, then it’s harder for me to hear the instincts clearly. I’ll think I’ve got to do this or that, but actually I just need to be quiet and chill out, and realise that something else needs to happen. I’m much better at all that now.”
ANOTHER BRICKBAT– or plaudit, depending on whether you’re in the audience or a musician – that could be thrown at Scott is the continual evolvement of The Waterboys. With more than 60 musicians having come and gone in the past 30 years – “More than The Fall,” he says, deadpan – what was once perceived as a kind of one-for-all-and-all-for-one democracy seems more of a revolving-door unit run on strictly autocratic principles.
“If you were to read the very first Waterboys press release,” Scott says, “you’d have seen that I wanted an ever-changing cast of band members: that was always the intention. I saw The Waterboys as my band, my project, a vehicle for my songs, my music, and that there would be this retinue of players. And that’s how it worked out. I like the music to change, and I like meeting new musicians and bringing their sound in.
“I’m loyal, as well; there are people who have played with me for a long time. A lot of people needed to be there for a season. Some people left of their own accord.”
Well, yes, but the memoir gives a palpable sense of certain band members being miffed when, sometimes suddenly, their turn came to leave. Such steely hiring and firing continues. Scott says he has no regrets. “It was just the way it was.” Does he envy bands that stick with the same members through the years? “Nah,” he says. “I admire it, but I don’t envy it. I’m always aware that artists play the game, and I’d really rather do my own thing and be true to myself than not be true to myself and, perhaps, sell more records. Of course, no one knows what might have happened, and it could be that if I’d compromised on certain things I wouldn’t have done as well, because people might not have believed in me.”
And so here he is: a man who, as he writes in his memoir, is now “the sum of his parts at last, [someone with] a future, not just a past. It took me a long time to get there, and sometimes the journey was difficult.”
Scott is obliquely referring to, among other events he writes about, the departure of his father when he was two – they reunited in the late 1990s – and the breakdown of his marriage to Irene Keogh, a Dublin woman, in a chilly house in an even colder Killiney in the winter of 1994.
“That’s just life, really, isn’t it? Ups and downs.” He shrugs his narrow shoulders. “The way I see it is, I’m 53 years old and my band can tour the world. We sell a moderate, respectable amount of records. I walk out on to stages and I know exactly who I am. I can sing songs from any period of my life and inhabit them fully.
“I am fully myself as an artist, and that was number one for me. I wanted to live in music, to live in songs, and I do. That was always more important than being the biggest.”
Sleeve notes: Mike Scott on . . .
“Orthodox rock history doesn’t acknowledge any Waterboys influence on either U2 or their album, The Joshua Tree. Even broaching the subject of a Waterboys influence on U2 is to risk appearing churlish because convention considers it unseemly for one artist to claim influence over another, and not without reason.
“But the evidence of my ears tells me Bono and The Edge were paying rapt attention when we supported them on tour and when they listened to A Pagan Place and This is the Sea.”
“A one-man artillery battalion. He played rock and blues on his fiddle, all bendy notes and gravity-defying harmonies, and these were the product of his fingers, not added effects.
“Best of all, Steve was the perfect onstage foil for me, dancing across the stage with rubber legs in baggy trousers, star quality bursting from him like a thousand sparks of lightning.”
“She knew hundreds and hundreds of tunes, endless streams of them flowing from her box and fiddle between songs, creating a contagious musical aura. ‘Sharon has a tune for every beat of her heart,’ one of her friends told me, and it was true. Sharon played tunes like other people breathed.”
Adventures of a Waterboy by Mike Scott is published by the Lilliput Press. The Waterboys play the Westport Festival, Co Mayo, on June 23rd and the Iveagh Gardens, Dublin, on July 20th