Sunday 21 January 2018

An appointment with Mr Yeats and tea with Mr Scott

WB Yeats' poetry sang to the Waterboys' frontman and made him hear melodies, he tells Barry Egan

TWO days after interviewing Mike Scott, I bump into him practically skipping along Grafton Street with a satchel full of notes, books, and ideas, slung over his shoulder. The Guardian and the Daily Telegraph had just come out that day with homages to his visionary greatness. The 52-year-old Scotsman is evidently the man of the moment . . .

Screenwriter Richard Curtis wrote in the Guardian that after the Beatles, Scott's group the Waterboys were the best band ever. "When one of the people I loved most died young," Curtis remembered, "we found consolation at the funeral in reading out the lyrics of the beautiful Waterboys song Everlasting Arms: 'Let striving cease that I may come to rest/In perfect peace renewed and truly blessed.' If you're ever feeling low on energy and hope, pump up This is the Sea, Don't Bang the Drum, Love Anyway and life seems worth living again -- worth living large."

The Daily Telegraph was almost as effusive, with its chief music critic Neil McCormick describing the Waterboys' new album An Appointment With Yeats -- a labour of love that Scott had been thinking about doing for over 20 years -- "as an extraordinary affair, 14 songs that marry the great Irish poet's bold, vivid lyricism with free-flowing melodies and epic Celtic rock".

Over tea, Mike Scott describes the impulse of wanting to recontextualise the work of William Butler Yeats: "I felt very strongly that it was what the poems wanted. They were kind of winking at me, saying we want out of the cabinet."

Of the record's creation, he says, not inaccurately, that An Appointment With Mr Yeats "isn't a hack job of forcing two unwilling disciplines together". Scott first adapted Yeats' work with The Stolen Child on the Fisherman's Blues album in 1988. "I wanted it to be like Yeats was in the room collaborating with me," he says of the new album.

The Edinburgh-born bard and bandleader of the Waterboys for 30 years talks like he looks: his words are beautifully unkempt, like his jeans and brown velvet jacket, like his lustrous hair which possibly hasn't seen a comb in years. Words fly out of Scott for fun. He has a book of memoirs coming out before the end of the year and I find it hard to imagine how one book could contain him or his thoughts.

In person, there is, I imagine, more than a bit of Yeats in him -- in describing, for instance, the lyrics of The Song of Wandering Aengus, Scott says how it was like "conjuring in my mind's eye a moonlit wood on a hallucinatory night in some old Celtic dream time, and the bard Aengus, silver-bearded, wandering out on his quest. This music is the soundtrack to that vision".

Mike Scott's vision came, in part, from his literature lecturer mother Anne who took him to Ireland to the Yeats summer school in Sligo when he was 11. He heard Seamus Heaney recite some lyrics before visiting Yeats's grave with his mother. He can remember the day like it was yesterday. I ask him what was it like as an 11-year-old child to stand over Yeats' grave. Did he know who Yeats was?

"Just from my mum. That he was some kind of very weighty, very serious embodiment of art and poetry. My mum was an English lecturer. Irish literature is one of her specialties and she was big into Yeats," he says, adding that he "grew up in a house full of books. It was like growing up in a library. When my mum and dad were still together," he continues, (a few years ago Mike sought out his father Allan; he is now reconciled with him) "it was my father's books as well as my mother's. I could read before I went to school."

He opens his satchel and takes out a battered tome of Yeats: he was given it as a wedding present on the occasion of his first marriage many years ago, he says, and it was from this book that he worked from throughout the writing and recording of An Appointment With Mr Yeats.

My appointment with Mr Scott is both insightful and entertaining. He is a fascinating person with whom to spend a few hours around Dublin. September 1913, he says, was written by Yeats as an attack on corrupt Irish politicians and the clergy. Nothing much has changed, he muses, except that "there are maybe fewer priests and nuns on the street of Dublin".

Let the Earth Bear Witness was written about those who died in the struggle for independence in Ireland. When Scott began working on this song in 2009, he was, he recalls, affected by the drama of the Iranian elections. He sings the line "They shall be remembered . . .", from Cathleen Ni Houlihan. The words are as relevant now as they were in Yeats' time, he says. Great poetry, great art, speaks across time, he believes.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree, one of Yeats' most famous, and perhaps saddest, poems, Scott imagined as a Delta Blues song. The line about "hive for the honey bee", Muddy Waters would have loved, he says.

Scott, who lives in Dublin with his Glaswegian wife Janette, is a bit of a wandering Aengus in search of his muse himself. In the mid-Nineties, he appeared to withdraw from the music industry entirely when he lived in the spiritual community of Findhorn Foundation in north-east Scotland off-and-on for a few years. Of that time, he says, it gave him "some of the best times and experiences of my life. I've learned and grown there, met and leapt through my challenges, had my heart opened, met some of my best friends, belonged, laughed, discovered the truth of who and what I am, and been able to take what I've received back out into the world with me".

That world has always been one of almost religious reverence for the beauty of the planet and the cosmos. His music is full of epiphanies about and within nature:

This is the Sea: "you're tryin' to make sense / of something that you just don't see . . . / but that was the river / and this is the sea."

The Whole of the Moon: "I pictured a rainbow / You held it in your hands . . . I spoke about wings / You just flew."

Scott recalls that his earliest memories were of standing in the back garden of a hotel in Norfolk, aged four probably, on holiday with his family, and suddenly noticing where the garden gave way to wild woodland, and thinking "This is my kingdom".

"That sticks out very clearly," he says, 48 years later. "I stepped out of the human world, out of the manicured gardens of the hotel in a little village where my dad used to take us every summer, and into the wild of the woods. I remember having some kind of appreciation that this was a different world. It moved me in a way as a four-year-old I didn't understand. I suppose it was an awakening to nature. I can still feel what that was like."

Is that inner child why Scott has remained un-cynical and continues to be creative after 30 years?

"That's a lot of questions. I think my little guy is intact inside me. I'm around him. He is still here. I can't explain. But I think it would be unusual for him not to be intact."

He blanches when I call him a poet. He says he doesn't think one form is superior to another.

"Very few songs work on the page," he adds, "It's not what they're for. Still Yeats's poems sing to me. He rhymes and he scans, and, when I read them, I hear melodies in my mind. And I'm not going to let a gift like that go by."

It is important to point out that An Appointment With Mr Yeats is anything but a worthy recital of poems set to music: it is primal rock 'n' roll. "It is as good," he enthuses, not incorrectly but only time will time, "as the old Waterboys' albums that people still talk about like This Is The Sea or Fisherman's Blues."

Then almost poetically his gaze shifts to his watch, and my appointment with Mr Scott is over.

Sunday Independent

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