The Music of Mike Scott (2005)

Most of us have experienced one or two peak musical experiences from live performances. A memorable moment for this writer occurred during The Waterboys’ 2001 appearance at the Commodore. Lead singer Mike Scott mentioned catching a glimpse of a cloven-hoofed figure in Stanley Park, and then launched into the incendiary The Return of Pan. Ignoring the local fire code, the band burned the venue down.

Mention The Waterboys to most Canadian music fans, and the response is often a shrug, or at most recollection of the band’s anthemic mid-eighties single, The Whole of the Moon. What they don’t know is that the bandleader, singer/songwriter Mike Scott, has never stopped making music. For nearly two decades Scott has squeezed songs of love and spiritual transformation from the neck of his electric and acoustic guitars – without ever hitting a false note, either as a solo artist or with his group.

Taking their name from a line in Lou Reed’s Berlin, The Waterboys first hit the UK music scene at a time it was exploding with forgettable hair bands and novelty acts. Scott himself once described The Waterboys’ anthemic oeuvre as the “big music,” a term seized on by music critics as a blanket term covering the epic work of U2, Simple Minds and Big Country.

Attempts to combine rock and reverence often result in musical Hallmark moments, or Spinal Tap-like gibberish about spirits and standing stones. Not Scott’s efforts. The mythic references in his stunningly melodic pieces are often literary – bits of W.B. Yeats and C.S. Lewis in particular. Yet the Scottish-born singer hews to no denominational or doctrinal line. This is truly world music. You may be able to identity fragments of religious or mystical imagery in his lyrics, but the inclusion is to serve the music, not hammer home a message.

When The Whole of the Moon hit the airwaves in 1984, the band seemed destined for arena rock greatness. In 1988 it switched its musical recipe with Fisherman’s Blues, an Irish stew of penny whistles and violins, mistiming the Celtic music craze of the early nineties. By the time Michael Flately was swanning about with Riverdance, Scott was recording a solo album with a distinctly folkie feel, his quietly transcendental Bring ‘Em All In. Another solo effort followed, and in 2001, he reformed The Waterboys for the thunderous elegy A Rock In the Weary Land. The lineup of the band was and is ever-changing; with Scott as the eye of the storm. According to The Waterboys FAQ from the official website, “Several Irishmen and one Irishwoman have been members at various times and the group was based in Dublin from 1986 to 1991. At other times the group has been based in London or New York. The Waterboys have had English, Welsh, American and other Scottish members too.”

Perversely, there is no Canadian distributor for The Waterboys last album, 2003’s Universal Hall. But Scott is busy with future efforts, he informs me by email, including “a new album, a likely live album and a DVD of The Waterboys on-tour home movies and concert footage.” The singer-songwriter expects them to be on the same label, Puck, as Universal Hall. (That means we will have to content ourselves with import discs, though his past catalog is available here from bigger labels.)

Scott is quoted on website Kindred Spirit on his musical influences. “I was a child in the 1960s and for me the best of rock n’ roll was The Beatles singing All You Need Is Love – they were right too – and Hey Jude with its deep sense of forgiveness and community. Both songs expressed unity and transcendence, and for me that is the highest purpose of rock music.”

While today’s radio-friendly rockers continue to churn out their crop of generically altered tunes, Scott is content to plant seed in greener fields. The Kindred Spirit website notes that although The Waterboys have been internationally influential as a rock and folk band, “the spiritual community has had little awareness of the profound spiritual dimension of much of their music.” There are only a handful of current rock n’ rollers considered to be poets by fans and critics alike (Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, and Nick Cave come to mind), but no rocker touches on the inner world and its mythic dimensions with quite his intent or intensity. Kindred Spirit’s review of Universal Hall flatly states that “never before has rock music been so aligned to the Perennial Philosophy, stood so balanced on the pulse of the new paradigm, or articulated such a purely holistic vision.” And as a bonus, you can tap your foot to it.

For a two-year period in the mid-nineties, Scott lived at an educational, spiritual community near Inverness called Findhorn.
Mike remained as a long-term guest in 1994, working in the kitchens and gardens. He recorded his first solo album, Bring Em All In, in the foundation’s small recording studio.

Some of the songs from the album may seem cryptic on first listen. Many listeners, trained by generations of disposable pop music to ignore the words, do just that – a big mistake when it comes to Scott’s musical meditations. His songs work as straight poetry, as evinced by the 1995 album’s breathtaking track, Wonderful Disguise:

Through the curtain the daylight crept
I looked at my lover as she slept
And as I watched her face I wept
It was a wonderful disguise.

Scott recites the strangers he encounters throughout the day: a driver turning to look at him in traffic; a blind man addressing him outside a museum; a fat woman in a queue; a drunk on the stairs as he returns home; and the president “on the news at 10, looking like he could use a friend.” All of them, he decides, wearing a wonderful disguise.

Stood in front of the mirror all alone
Examined my features, skin and bone
Looked at the face I’ve always known
It was a wonderful disguise.

He explained the inspiration by email. “I was living in the Findhorn community in the mid 1990s and started to see divinity in peoples’ faces, in their eyes. I told a more experienced community friend and she said ‘you are seeing God in all his wonderful disguises’. I knew in my heart then she was right – and now I know it in my whole being.”

“(Findhorn) changed the way I look at life and other people forever,” he noted on the Waterboys’ official website. “I realized everyone really is the same deep underneath, with the same longing to love and be loved. Behind all our appearances, as one writer says, ‘There is only one
of us here.’ ”

In a time when genuine, heartfelt love songs are thin on the ground, Scott’s romantic tunes are often ecstatic, boundless, worshipful, like the grand and simple She Is So Beautiful, written about his soulmate discovered during a mid-nineties stay at Findhorn. (Even a song of romantic refusal, like his earlier We Will Not Be Lovers, has a cosmic edge.) I can find little to compare his love songs with in the archives of contemporary music, but I do see similarities with the poetry of the 13th century Persian poet Jelaluddin Rumi. At its core, Scott’s music beats with a big, magnificent heart, fired by that one thing you cannot fake and that you rarely hear in today’s top 40: honest-to-God joy.

So where does that joy come from? Mike responds that his term “big music” means “seeing the divine in nature or art, or otherwise abroad in the world.” It’s this sense of a bigger picture that informs his resilient sense of optimism. I asked about Dumbing Down the World, a track from the distinctly dark 2001 Waterboys album Rock in the Weary Land. The song addresses the broadcast media’s ignorance-by-design, a cancer metastasizing on both sides of the Atlantic. In spite of this electric howl of outrage, in which Jerry Springer gets particular mention, Mike rejects a suggestion that the global stupidity quotient has gone up since a certain day in New York. “Perhaps the apparent presence of ignorance is strong, but who knows what is really going on? I would be more inclined to think that there is increasing sophistication of awareness, increasing coherency in the world, especially with the opportunities for information exchange we experience in today’s world.”

But given the state of the world today, is Scott optimistic for the human prospect? “I don’t get disturbed about the future. I try to be aware of what goes on in the present, and to see it in an undistorted way. I know there are reasons for all the seemingly good and bad phenomena we see – some reasons are very deep, most, of which I cannot perceive. I bless the world and seek to see it in all its aspects without judgment. I believe all is held in the divine whole, and works together for good, for love, for the evolution of consciousness and of the universe. Why should my perspective have grown darker recently? There are always challenging circumstances abroad in the world. Are today’s affairs more challenging than those of 60 years ago, or 30 years ago? I don’t subscribe to the idea that things are getting worse.”

In his songs, Scott the rejects the cynic’s perception of the world as something you deal with by hardening yourself. This point of view, and his rejection of it, was summed up in the apocalyptically sublime track Let It Happen.

Behold the lights of London,
The Skipper said as his hands shook,
His aura eaten by his jealousy
And all the drugs he took.
“This is the real world, buddy,
Toughen up your ass or it’ll break.”
I said “I’m not your buddy, buddy
And your real world is a fake.”

There is a tough spirituality in Scott’s music, reflected and refracted by The Waterboys’ harder-edged rock and roll. My Dark Side has the singer warning a lover against emotional trespass, and poking at things inside him best left undisturbed. Ultimately, however, the Shadow doesn’t have dominion over the singer’s higher self.

I’ve been hurt,
But I’m alright
For underneath
There is a light.

This leads me to ask, does Mike Scott believe that love is a central principle at work in the universe? “Yes I do. I believe it is the stuff we are made of. That’s why we feel most real, most alive, when we’re touched by love, or when we act out of love.”

Geoff Olson