Wednesday 17 October 2018

Great 'Scott': the unsung masterpiece of Irish rock


So what's the greatest ever Irish rock song? There's certainly no shortage of albums purporting to be the definitive compilation of our best homegrown tracks. A Sugar Loaf of plastic has been used up in the endeavour. There seems to be a broad consensus about the songs that deserve to be roped-off and given the red-carpet treatment.

And mostly with good reason: usual suspects like Phil Lynott's Old Town, The Blades's Downmarket, The Undertones' Teenage Kicks, Sinead's Nothing Compares 2 U and U2's perennials all deserve their lofty status.

But there's a level of predictability about the whole venture. It's like being given a tour of a museum by a tired tour guide jaded from recounting the same spiel over and over.

If I was the guide, I'd point the torch down the badly-lit secret passageway that is The Revenants's back catalogue. In particular, there's one song that I keep coming back to. It's Scott Miller Said. Written by lead singer Stephen Ryan, it's the closing track on the band's 1999 swansong, Septober Nowonder.

Dubliner Ryan already achieved a degree of fame in the 1980s with his previous band the Stars Of Heaven, whose albums were re-released only last year on Independent Records. But Ryan's second coming in the 1990s was aptly named. A revenant is a ghostly figure -- usually one that has come back from the dead. And he wrote the song after his father had passed away.

In the first part of the song, Ryan details the sights and sounds of a leisurely stroll through his neighbourhood in a Joycean stream of consciousness. The journey begins with a quote from the song he's listening to on his walkman -- Scott Miller being the singer with Game Theory, a cultish US indie guitar band from the 1990s.

The mood is upbeat -- there's also a reference to Simon and Garfunkel's 59th Street Bridge Song, that joyous celebration of the carefree life. Our narrator observes the circus literally coming to town -- they're offloading their gear from their caravan. Next he passes "the empty trailer by the gold-top gates".

Then on "Past the frozen fields/ And the fat white geese/ What are they saying in the house of the fleurs de lis?" he wonders, observing the orange glow of a stranger's living room.

The musical accompaniment, meanwhile, revolves around Conor Brady's curious hanging guitar chords that linger like a Gothic Thin Lizzy riff played in slow motion, while Don Ryan's Hammond vibes tinkle in the background, like sprinkled stardust.

Then comes Ryan's soulful guitar solo, which touches the clouds. In the second half of the song, machine strings add yet more layers. And the lyrics take a poignant turn. There are summer visits to St Luke's Hospital, and it's clear that the song is actually a meditation on mortality. "We'll have time enough to remember the ones who leave/ Though they hardly care to go," sings Ryan.

The journey ends, as all journeys end, in the cemetery -- specifically "In the garden of Mulrayne/Under the cedar tree".

Those lingering chords hang heavy again at the end, like a black cloud about to burst. We're left with a bittersweet feeling: a loved one has slipped away, but has been honoured in the remembering.

You play the song again and listen to the first verses with a different ear. The first half appears to want to celebrate the present moment. Nature is very much a central character, and the changing seasons are noted. And great music, too, is the soundtrack.

The listener then starts to ponder: are these the same frozen fields he once walked with his father? Did they routinely pass the house with the gold-top gates when he was a child? Were there days at the circus?

Is he actually casting a nostalgic eye on life, on death, as he passes by? One is reminded of the final paragraphs of John McGahern's Memoir, where the author remembers walking the laneways of Leitrim with his mother when he was a young boy.

It's clear that the remembered landscape is far more vivid and enchanting to the author than the modern-day geographical reality. And Ryan's elegy has a similarly charged, evocative quality, despite only running to a few verses.

In an idle moment a number of years ago, I visited Scott Miller's website and posted a note in the fan forum, wondering had the singer ever heard the song which bears his name.

I didn't expect to hear back -- he didn't appear to be too active in music any more. But months later he replied. Yes, he had heard the song; someone in the States had told him about it and he eventually got his hands on the Revenants album. Scott Miller said he felt honoured, and that he really loved the song.

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