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Authors: Mike Scott

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Adventures of a Waterboy

BOOK: Adventures of a Waterboy
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Mike Scott

Adventures Of A Waterboy

A Jawbone Book

First Edition 2012

Published in the UK and the USA by

Jawbone Press

2a Union Court

20–22 Union Road

London Sw4 6JP

England

www.jawbonepress.com

This edition published by permission of The Lilliput Press, Dublin, Ireland

www.lilliputpress.ie

Jacket Photograph: Sean O’Brady

Editor: Tom Seabrook

Volume copyright © 2012 Outline Press Ltd. Text copyright © Mike Scott. All rights reserved. No part of this book covered by the copyrights hereon may be reproduced or copied in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in articles or reviews where the source should be made clear. For more information contact the publishers.

Contents

 

Chapter 1: Music In The Head

Chapter 2: The Realm Of The Teenage Band

Chapter 3: Where’s That Scottish Boy?

Chapter 4: A Friend Called Z

Chapter 5: The Black Book And The Moon

Chapter 6: Don’t Forget To Get On The Bus

Chapter 7: You Guys Are The Whizz!

Chapter 8: The Power Of The Music Gives Everybody Wings

Chapter 9: Go Slowly And You Might See Something

Chapter 10: Mansion Of Music

Chapter 11: Sharon Has A Tune For Every Beat Of Her Heart

Chapter 12: Like A House Of Cards Collapsing

Chapter 13: A Walk In The Lake Shrine

Chapter 14: Lockdown In The Big Apple

Chapter 15: The Philosophy Room

Chapter 16: Some Kind Of Pop Star Living Up At Cluny

Chapter 17: My Wanderings In The Weary Land

Chapter 18: A Man With A Fiddle And A Dog At Number 12a

Chapter 19: Hoop Dancing

Appendix 1: Illustrations

Appendix 2: The Black Book

Appendix 3: Notes

Appendix 4: Visions Of Strawberry Fields

Acknowledgements

Chapter 1: Music In The Head

 

On a late afternoon in autumn 1968 an Edinburgh bus rumbles down cobbled streets. On its upstairs front seat, wearing a blue school uniform and dreaming through the window over the spires and rooftops, is a nine-year-old me. Music is running through my head, as always, 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. And for accompaniment my feet are beating rhythm on the steel floor of the bus. The sound is bright and metallic and it has a depth, too, a reverberating blurred quality that delights my ear.

Then something unusual happens. I take this bus home every day and there’s no stop on this stretch of the route, but we’re slowing to a halt. I hear the muted sound of a door slamming, then heavy feet clambering noisily up the stairs – which, I note, are also metal, with the same pleasing reverberating sound.

Suddenly a huge man in a black blazer is towering over me, his face flushed and the skin of his cheeks quivering with anger. Glaring at me as if I’ve done him some terrible ill, he roars, ‘Stop that bloody banging!’ With a pang of horror I realise this is the bus driver and his head has been directly under the floor I’ve been drumming my feet on for the last fifteen minutes.

I splutter an apology and the driver turns and descends the stairs. I hear his cabin door slamming shut again and a few seconds later the bus starts moving. My heart’s beating fast; being accosted by a furious stranger is shocking enough for a nine-year-old, and I was scared for a few moments there. But even more shocking is the realisation that the driver couldn’t hear the accompanying music in my head, otherwise he’d have known it wasn’t ‘banging’ at all, but a sophisticated rhythm to a magnificent soundtrack!

For it’s a rude awakening to learn that the sound in my imagination is
only
in my imagination, and that its outward manifestations – foot-stomping, whistling or rhythmic beating with fingers on a schoolroom desktop – don’t transmit the inner content. And though I don’t yet know it, figuring out ways to let other people hear this music will become the occupation of my adult life.

I was six or seven when I first noticed the music in my head. It was there in the classroom, on the football pitch, at the dinner table, when I went to sleep and when I woke up. There was never a moment when it wasn’t running in some form or other, whether melodies or rhythms, pop singles from start to finish or instrumental extravaganzas that spun perpetually for a day. And it’s continued ever since. Sometimes I wonder if when I die I’ll hear the whole however-many-years-long inner soundtrack of my life flashing by in one great mad cacophonous moment.

The fateful incident with the bus driver was only one of several that told me if I wanted to express this music in a way that other people could perceive it, I had to somehow process it and give it objective reality. Two solutions presented themselves: making music out loud with an instrument or recording myself on tape. I couldn’t play an instrument so I tried the latter, getting together with my school friend Mike Graham and a reel-to-reel tape recorder. We did a version of The Beatles’ ‘Hey Jude’, singing and clapping the ‘nah nah’ outro together into the microphone. Just like on the bus, the whole soundtrack was running in my head and as I mimicked McCartney’s Beatle-ific ‘Jude-ah, Jude-ah, Jude-ah!’ ad libs. They sounded fantastic. But when we played the tape back and heard a child’s tinny voice making silly exclamations, sounding as if he had a head cold, it was another shock. Tape recorders couldn’t hear the music in my head either!

Another revelation came when I discovered that everyone saw different pictures in their imagination when they heard the psychedelic outro of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. I assumed the images I ‘saw’ when I listened to any piece of music were somehow encoded in the record. Surely everybody knew the outro of ‘Strawberry Fields’ represented a procession of brightly clothed Beatles jigging in and out of traffic during rush hour in an Asian city, pursued by water buffaloes and snake charmers? But when I asked my friends, they imagined nothing at all or saw totally different images.

This was disappointing because it meant that what I perceived wasn’t an absolute reality and humans weren’t all connected in one big communal imagination. Yet it was exciting at the same time, for not only did it mean the images I saw were unique to me, and that everyone’s else’s were unique to
them
, but one day, when I came to make records myself, my own music could spark people’s imaginations in ways I couldn’t dream of.

Making records became my sole ambition during a sweet summer towards the end of the sixties when I started falling in love with pop singles; the same explosion of feelings that happened again a few years later when I became interested in girls. I’d get a crush on a top twenty hit – The Hollies’ ‘Listen To Me’, for example, or The Turtles’ ‘Elenore’ – and wouldn’t be able to breathe till I heard it again. Its melodies would hang tantalisingly beyond the call of my memory in the same way a newly loved girl’s face would later elude my mind’s eye.

Pop records assailed my emotions, filling me with inexplicable longings. When I heard Jane Birkin’s sexy ‘Je T’Aime’ at the age of ten I felt teetering towers of fire in my chest. And black music: Motown, The Elgins singing ‘Heaven Must Have Sent You’, The Four Tops ripping through ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There’: their urgent voices seemed to make shapes in the air, dark-flashing and tangible, full of a flavour I later recognised as a cocktail of pain and desire, which awoke me as an adult ahead of my time.

So did the split-up of my parents. One of the last times I saw my father was on my tenth birthday when he came to the house and gave me an acoustic guitar and a Rolling Stones album. The guitar leaned against my bedroom wall, a sacred mystery, for a year, until one day the same school friend, Mike Graham, useful fellow, showed me some things he’d just learned called chords. I copied him and could soon play a rudimentary twelve-bar blues.

One of my mother’s students, a twenty-year-old Dylan-mad piano player called Leonard, used to come round and make up songs on my guitar to entertain me. I realised I could make up songs too. Soon I had sheaves of papers covered with lyrical attempts influenced by writers like Hermann Hesse, who I found on my mother’s bookshelves. And while my mum was teaching at night school I’d perform concerts in front of the living-room mirror to enthusiastic audiences that applauded wildly in the auditorium of my imagination. Just like the inner music, they did whatever I wanted.

My songwriting world was a private universe inhabited by one and its gods were Dylan, Lennon and George Harrison who lent their riffs to my creations and watched my progress from posters on the wall. Then another of my mother’s students, a man called John Milroy, gave me an old upright piano, which I taught myself to play. Every day I’d get home from school, shut myself in my bedroom and bash away for hours. When I discovered the octave-hopping riff from Pink Floyd’s ‘Careful With That Axe, Eugene’, I took to improvising twenty-minute opuses around it. Then I bought the songbook for The Who’s
Tommy
and would play the entire double album from start to finish, the whole bleeding rock opera, which I hardly even understood.

I couldn’t read music; I just followed the chord symbols and played everything my own way, using one finger for the bass and three fingers for chords and melodies. This created odd, lopsided rhythms, which years later resulted in the style of Waterboys songs like ‘A Girl Called Johnny’ and ‘The Whole Of The Moon’. When several notes on the piano broke, their strings snapped through constant hammering, it never occurred to me to get them replaced. I just learned how to play using the black notes: consequently every song I wrote for several years in the late seventies was in D flat.

At sixteen I entered another world: the realm of the teenage band, a perilous domain from which my personal songwriting universe remained a secret. Subjecting my songs to the criticism of my bandmates, the rhythm-guitar-playing Caldwell brothers and lead guitarist Davy Flynn, seemed a bleak prospect so I kept them under my hat and we played covers instead, a jumble of Bowie and Stones tunes. Even when I started playing originals with subsequent bands a few years later, these didn’t come from my private world but were sketchy co-writes with band members. Though by then I had a huge collection of songs, a few of which were even in danger of sounding not bad, the parallel worlds of my bands and my writing wouldn’t fully merge till the advent of The Waterboys in the eighties.

Around the same time as I began playing in bands I started recording my songs on a little mono cassette machine. The sound was colourless and dry, not much of an advance on my early ascent up the north face of ‘Hey Jude’, but desire drove me forwards and it was only a question of time and opportunity before I found my way to a real recording studio.

In 1976, my mother and I went on holiday to London, as we did most summers, and I decided to record a few songs professionally while I was there. I had no plan to do anything with the results; I just wanted to hear myself with a decent sound and come away with a show-off tape to play my friends. In the small ads at the back of
Melody Maker
I found a place called Portobello Studios and phoned ’em up. ‘How long do you need?’ asked the guy on the end of the line. Well, I thought to myself, I’m going to do a six-minute version of Dylan’s ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ and I’m going to play five instruments on it, that’s half an hour, then two of my own piano-and-vocal songs at five minutes each – I’ll need forty minutes. I innocently thought I would only use as long as it took me to physically play the songs. The man on the phone suggested it might take a little longer, so I booked the enormous timespan of three hours, asked him what tube station was closest, and started getting excited.

The big day came and I got off the train at Ladbroke Grove with my mother and trusty piano-playing Leonard, fortuitously in London on his own holiday. I expected the studio to be immediately obvious (perhaps with a big neon sign saying STUDIO) but there was just a busy West London street on a hot summer morning with nothing that looked like my idea of a recording studio. With a pang of dismay I realised I hadn’t brought the address with me or even a copy of
Melody Maker
with the phone number. I was musically prepared, all right, with my notebook of songs and a hundred ideas primed for action, but as far as practical logistics went I’d blown it big time. We walked up and down the street wondering what to do, looking for someone who might know about recording studios, until I spotted a black guy with a yellow Mott The Hoople t-shirt. I asked if he knew where Portobello Studios was. ‘Mmmm ... that’s a difficult one,’ he drawled as if I’d asked him a question in a quiz, hands on hips, eyes half-closed as he squinted in the sunshine. Then he said, ‘Yeah, man. There’s some kind of studio a few hundred yards up the road there,’ and pointed.

His directions led up a leafy sun-dappled terrace and across Portobello Road, one of London’s most famously bohemian streets, which to my delight was filled with canvas-covered market stalls manned by hard-faced, cockney-voiced geezers shouting out archaic descriptions of their wares while dreadlocked Rastafarians and important-looking hippie chieftains with long hair and flares promenaded like demigods along the sidewalks. Surely the great Portobello Studios must be close now! And sure enough a block farther on we came to the junction of Basing Street, on the corner of which stood a large church-type building with a broad wooden door wide open. We walked in. A girl sat at a reception desk. I asked her if this was the studio, and when she said yes I told her I had a booking.

‘And what’s your name please?’ she asked with a slight edge that suggested she didn’t really think I belonged here.

‘Mike Scott,’ I answered, trying not to let my cool slip. She consulted a sheet of paper on her desk then replied, ‘No, I don’t have your name here. Are you sure you’re at the right place?’

‘This is Portobello Studios, isn’t it?’ I said, at which a smile of understanding broke on her face. ‘Ah,’ she said gently, ‘This is Island Records Studios. The one you want is round the corner on Lancaster Road.’

Island Records! The sleeves of all the albums I’d ever bought on the Island label flashed through my mind: King Crimson, Sparks, Traffic, Bob Marley, and I wondered how many of them had been recorded right here. An image arose in my mind of a huge, high-ceilinged hall bedecked with drums and Hammond organs, somewhere in the building, under my very feet perhaps, where some top band was making their record at this moment, and I wondered who they might be. ‘Here you go,’ said the girl, interrupting my reverie and handing me a sheet of paper with the correct address. I thanked her and the three of us stepped back out on the street.

Lancaster Road was the tree-lined terrace we’d walked up to get here so we retraced our steps, counting house numbers until we found the right one. But it was just a regular house with no studio sign or nameplate. I rang the bell and the door opened to reveal a bespectacled guy with an American accent (the first American I’d ever met) who confirmed this was indeed Portobello Studios, ‘and you’re Mike, right?’ His name was Joe and he led us downstairs to the basement flat. The ‘studio’ comprised a small red-draped playing space – the front room of the flat – plus a mixing desk squeezed into a narrow hallway. With embarrassment I realised the vast difference between Island Studios and the one I’d booked. Instead of turning up at my allotted humble place, I’d walked into one of the most famous recording establishments in London, bold as brass, as if it were all there just waiting for me. And I’d do it again one day, as an Island artist and a Waterboy, in an as-yet undreamed-of future.

BOOK: Adventures of a Waterboy
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