Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Why Mike Scott is Richard Curtis's idol

Why water boys is Richard Curtis's idol.
It's pouring with rain, the waterboys says that I'm standing in a field at the Latitude festival that can probably take 6,000 people, but there are only about 1,000 of us. And one of the greatest pop stars of all time is sitting down at a slightly dinky piano to play one of the greatest pop songs ever written. And it occurs to me, as the raindrops conveniently hide the tears that always fall when I hear The Whole of the Moon, that Mike Scott may not know how great he is any longer, that he may think he's a member of just another band who play gigs from time to time. Which is so completely not true.

Of course, I know no one agrees with no one about nothing in pop. It's a Marmite subject. But I'll lay down my cards at the start: I've listened to a lot of pop and, as the years go by, I'm starting to feel, to my own surprise, that the Waterboys are the next best group after the Beatles. For instance, my two favourite love songs ever are If I Fell and I Love Her, both off A Hard Day's Night. The only comparable two love songs on one record are A Man Is in Love and How Long Will I Love You?, on the Room to Roam album by the Waterboys.

I know there's no consensus on this. Mention the Waterboys to most people and they have a hazy 1980s memory of a song about the moon. What that ignores is that the band – or Mike Scott, who sort of is the band – have gone on making extraordinary music since then. And they are just about to release another great album: An Appointment With Mr Yeats, which sets the Irish poet's words to music – a curious project, of which more later.

To come clean, I don't know that many facts about the band. I know Mike was born in Edinburgh, and sometimes gets criticised for pretending he's Irish. He made two albums of hardcore bluegrass music without lyrics last year. I heard once that he missed his main chance: when he'd written his masterpiece (The Whole of the Moon won the Ivor Novello prize for best song in 1991), apparently he refused to go on Top of the Pops and play it. His attitude was: "Let people find it themselves." The problem is that many didn't.

But the facts and stories aren't what really matter, nor even the man. I don't think I'll ever meet Mike Scott. It's probably best I don't. Like all my real heroes – John Lennon, Marlon Brando, Bob Dylan – I suspect he'd despise me, with my big white hair, my large selection of grey jumpers, my four eyes. But I would like to let him hear me say thank you one time. I have loved his music for so long.

When one of the people I loved most died young, we found consolation at the funeral in reading out the lyrics of the beautiful Waterboys song Everlasting Arms:

Lord hold me in your everlasting arms

Enfold me in your everlasting arms

Let striving cease that I may come to rest

In perfect peace renewed and truly blessed

Lord lift me in your everlasting love

Home swiftly in your everlasting love

I'll go to where a temple stands upon a hill

In silence there I'll wait upon your will

In its simple, gentle perfection, that song is a million miles from the "big music", the epic tunes the Waterboys are normally connected with. Which are, incidentally, great. Mike seems to be "an ecstatic": his dreams, aspirations and passions reach the sort of heights I can only muster roughly once a year. If you're ever feeling low on energy and hope, pump up This Is the Sea, Don't Bang the Drum, Love Anyway, or Beverly Penn and life seems worth living again – worth living large.

And then there's The Whole of the Moon. I hope everyone has someone they feel this song is about. For me, it's Bob Geldof, magnificent Bob with all his wildness and passion and instinctive knowledge of what is right and wrong, and the grandeur of his ambitions. He probably hates the Waterboys. That would be typical of the raging, stubborn bastard.

I love the fact it's not a love song. It's about something no other song I know is about: magnificence, someone who's mightier and better than you, who lets you glimpse the biggest picture:

I was grounded, while you flew the skies

I was dumbfounded by truth, you cut through lies

I spoke about wings, you just flew

I wondered, I guessed and I tried, you just knew.

I saw the crescent, you saw the whole of the moon.

Then, away from all the big guns, there's the delicate stuff: simple songs, simply sung, most consistently on the Room to Roam album, and from time to time yet another classic emerges. There are also two or three great songs about God: I'm a committed atheist, but I wish hymns had been as good as this when I was young. And a couple of mysterious songs, such as Strange Boat, that feel like they're about the meaning of life:

We're sailing in a strange boat

Heading for a strange shore

Carrying the strangest cargo

That was ever hauled aboard

Which leads me to the new work: a 14-song album with lyrics by WB Yeats. I approached it with some nervousness, I admit. But I promise you, it's fantastic. Faced by the challenge of Yeats's knotty words, Mike has revived all his best, early tunefulness. He's not gone weird; the words are weird enough. He's gone fully mainstream instead.
Particularly good are the perky Sweet Dancer (sounding like low-tech Bruce Springsteen), the majestic White Birds and the epic September 1913. The irony is that, after nearly 30 years of considering them, I like Mike's words more than Yeats's, and would almost prefer an album of Yeats writing tunes to Mike's lyrics. But since this is how it must be, Billy Yeats being well and truly dead and an infamously bad musician, this is a wonderful album.
When I put on Mike's music, I realise I'm really only living with an intermittent view of the crescent, and he is one of the few people who gives me a glimpse of the whole of the moon. To quote him once more, in his company I feel "my heart beat from the inside out – so lucky just to be alive".