Michael Marra RIP
Michael Marra, who has died after a long illness, was a singer, songwriter, musician, actor and artist with a unique talent. Although often capturing incidents and characters particular to his hometown, Dundee, Marra’s songs and his way of presenting them allowed them to cross borders and oceans, there to touch souls and funny bones equally with his powers of observation and penchant for championing the underdog.
One of five children, Marra was born into a musical family in Lochee, the largely Irish community in the west of the city. His father was a jazz fan who liked Beethoven and the Irish tenors as well as Duke Ellington. His mother, a schoolteacher, played piano, as did his older brother Eddie, and Michael followed suit, taking lessons before deciding that looking at written music was less conducive to progress than watching his own fingers.
As a child he made his first public appearance at a works party but it was after he’d heard the Beatles and especially Bob Dylan, been expelled from Lawside Academy and begun to play the guitar that he set out to be the singer-songwriter who would become a national treasure.
Having plucked up the courage to play a floor spot at the Woodlands Folk Club in Broughty Ferry, Marra went along one Sunday and met the emcee, Gus Foy, who was to become a friend for life, a duo partner, band mate and one of the many Dundee characters who populate Marra’s songs. In Hamish the Goalie, Dundee fan Marra’s tribute to Dundee United’s Hamish McAlpine, Gus was the one who pointed out Grace Kelly by the sign for Taylor Brothers’ coal during the European tie with Monaco at Tannadice.
First, however, Marra and Foy worked up a repertoire, appeared weekly together at the Woodlands, played around the Angus and Fife folk pubs and clubs. They then formed Hen’s Teeth with singer Arlene Gowans, Dougie Maclean, on fiddle, and Marra’s younger brother, Chris, on guitar. Hen’s Teeth, minus Gowans and Maclean, then mutated into Skeets Bolivar, adding singer-guitarist Stuart Ivins, drummer Brian McDermott, and saxophonist Peter McGlone, who became the subject of another Marra song.
Skeets quickly gained a loyal local following that was beginning to expand when their arrival on the recording scene, with their first single, Streethouse Door (a polite translation of its real name), coincided with the punk rock explosion. A further single, Moonlight in Jeopardy, was released but by then Marra’s songwriting was beginning to pique the interest of the London music business and he signed a solo deal with Polydor, resulting in The Midas Touch album, which pitched Marra alongside the then very successful Gerry Rafferty in style, air-brushed cover photo and all.
Marra’s songs were being picked up – Leo Sayer, Kiki Dee and Barbara Dickson covered them – but he was moving towards a very personal style that drew on the books he was reading, including Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair and John Prebble’s The High Girders which inspired, respectively, the anti-war song Happed in Mist and General Grant’s Visit to Dundee, two Marra classics from his second album, Gaels Blue.
Around the same time Marra became involved in both theatre work and the career of the mysterious Saint Andrew, aka art college lecturer Andy Pelc, who with his band The Woollen Mill wreaked comic havoc in venues across Tayside and further afield. Marra went on to appear in Perth Theatre’s production of The Demon Barber and with Wildcat, among other heavyweight theatre companies as well as creating The Lightweight Entertainment and other variety shows with Saint Andrew. He also wrote the music for Dundee Rep’s play about the local jute industry, They Fairly Mak Ye Work, created a successful, frequently both moving and hilarious two person show with poet Liz Lochhead, composed an operetta, If The Moon Can Be Believed, and more recently composed songs for The Mill Lavies, which premiered at Dundee Rep in September.
It was his songwriting and his presentation of these vignettes, charting the break-up of marriages and record collections, his experience as an altar boy or a personal favourite of mine, life as local hero, singer-guitarist with soul band Mafia, Dougie Martin’s dog, Julius, that particularly set Marra apart. He wasn’t always comfortable as a performer. Backstage at the Christmas concerts he gave in Dundee’s Bonar Hall for several years, everybody would be quite calm except for the fretting star of the show. To relax before gigs, he took to drawing and painting – his own portrait of Clayton Moore (the Lone Ranger) as Richard lll – graced his On Stolen Stationery album cover, and when money was tight, at least one musician’s session fees were settled by an insistent Marra with his own framed artwork.
Gradually, however, the man who was hugely encouraging to young, up and coming musicians – he was an early champion of the Associates’ Billy Mackenzie and Gary Clark, later of Danny Wilson – began to actually enjoy entertaining audiences himself. And he was superb at it, too, having people in stitches as he introduced the deplorable, drunken scrapper Muggie Sha’ and generating unlikely singalong choruses in the broadest Dundonian with English and American audiences who might have been expected to need subtitles.
At the core of Marra’s work there lay genuine humanity and humility as well as beautifully wrought poetry. With his piano playing, a rolling style reminiscent of Dr John’s, and a warm foggy growl of a voice, he could charm listeners and effortlessly get them to side with the inoffensive, non-trouble-making hero of Hermless – his alternative Scottish national anthem – and take them to the Taybridge Bar, where one of his artist heroes, Frida Kahlo, didn’t actually repair for a drink, or to Blairgowrie, where Dr John really did play a gig at a venue called the Gig. He was seldom more affecting, though, than when delivering his magnificently resonant reading of Psalm 118 on the track Liberation from the late Martyn Bennett’s final masterpiece, Grit.
Marra’s talents won him accolades including honorary doctorates from Dundee University and Glasgow Caledonian University and he was a typically humble, but utterly deserving, recipient of a Bank of Scotland Herald Angel in 2010. His death, unexpected and hard to bear for family, friends and fans, is all the sorer for coming so close to the deaths of fellow Dundee musical heroes and close friends of Marra’s, Gus Foy and Dougie Martin. He is survived by his wife, Peggy, and his children Alice and Matthew, both of Dundee group the Hazey Janes, with whom Marra recorded the Houseroom mini album earlier this year, and he leaves a massive chasm on the Scottish and wider musical scene.
Michael Marra, born February 17, 1952; died October 23, 2012.
From The Herald, October 25, 2012.