Michael Marra was the bard of Lochee, Dundee’s gravel-voiced chronicler of improbable encounters and real human truths, whose most gloriously surreal imaginings – Frida Kahlo finding peace in the Tay Bridge Bar, King Kong arriving in Glasgow and being directed to Ibrox (“he might fit in”) – were inevitably tempered with immense warmth and compassion.
The mercurial nature of his singer-songwriter’s muse ensured that as well as such unlikely scenarios as General Ulysses S Grant’s 1876 visit to Dundee – “What a mighty long bridge to such a mighty little ole town”, Dr John performing a pub gig in Blairgowrie or Grace Kelly attending a football march at Tannadice Park (all three incidents perfectly true), or Kahlo’s less authenticated appearance, he could also come up with such diverse gems as Pius Porteous, about a moonstruck cat, his jaunty tribute to Dougie Maclean, Niel Gow’s Apprentice, or his heartbreaking distillation of an episode from Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, Happed in Mist, encapsulating the insanity of war.
He left us wonderfully idiosyncratic anthems as well – Hermless, for instance, fast becoming a drolly alternative song for Scotland, while it’s ironic that the song that many regard as the Dear Green Place’s finest anthem, Mother Glasgow, had to be written by a Dundonian.
Michael Marra grew up in Dundee’s Irish enclave of Lochee, and embraced the city he would later describe as “a rich, dark, healthy place for art and artists and a beautifully lit vantage point from which to look at the world”. He developed a deep, long-lasting love of football and as a boy supported Dundee FC – particularly poignant when one considers his song Hamish, written for Dundee United goalkeeper Hamish McAlpine and clearly transcending loyalty to any one team.
On leaving school, Michael experimented with a few trades while serving his real apprenticeship as a singer songwriter around local folk clubs. Gradually, the songwriting took precedence and, with encouragement from his long-time friend and colleague Rab Noakes, he set out to make that his future. He collaborated with several local musicians, including his younger brother Christopher, but preferred to be in complete control of his work and time, which meant that the career of a solo writer and performer beckoned.
His first album, The Midas Touch came out on the Polydor label in 1980. He toured with Barbara Dickson, who sang on the album, and gained experience performing in large venues including the Albert Hall. Ultimately, however, London was not for him and he settled back near Dundee to continue developing his writing, with more Scottish themes in mind.
The result was his second and highly acclaimed album Gaels Blue, which included the aforementioned Happed in Mist. The record brought Michael to the attention of those working within the arts in Scotland and his unique way of looking at subjects gained him commissions in the theatre where he often performed, as well as writing for a wide variety of productions. The first was They Fairly Mak Ye Work, written by Billy Kay and directed by Alan Lyddiard, in which he wrote and performed original songs. The show’s success led to other theatre work, including A Wee Home From Home with the award-winning choreographer Frank McConnell and director Gerry Mulgrew. Michael and Frank performed this collaboration of dance and song the length and breadth of the country. The show included Mother Glasgow, which was covered by the Glasgow band Hue & Cry, whose singer, Pat Kane, has described Marra as “one of Scotland’s greatest ever songwriters and performers. It’s rare to have an artist who can move you to tears, make you think and explode you with laughter – often in the one song”.
The song has gone on to be covered by a range of performers including actor Alan Cumming and, more recently, by Mary Ann Kennedy in a Gaelic translation.
Other notable theatre successes were Michael’s own operetta If the Moon Can Be Believed at Dundee Rep and his short play St Catherine’s Day, which was performed at Glasgow’s Oran Mor as well as the Rep, both to sell out audiences.
Further albums followed over the next decade – On Stolen Stationary, Candy Philosphy, Pax Vobiscum and Posted Sober, bearing such gems as All Will Be Well, Australia Instead of the Stars and The Lonesome Death of Francis Clarke. Michael became a frequent visitor to Tobermory on the Isle of Mull, both performing and writing. In 2003, he was commissioned by the innovative art centre there, An Tobar, to write a series of songs inspired by life on the island. This EP, Silence, was followed in 2007 by Quintet, featuring five songs celebrating five musicians he admired, including his eloquent tribute to saxophonist Peter McGlone, Peter, and Mac Rebennack’s Visit to Blairgowrie, inspired by the Dr John visit.
In 2010 he reprised many of his most popular songs in an eponymously titled live album recorded on tour with Mr McFall’s Chamber. The recording was the first to feature the unique and often hilarious introductions to his songs which delighted audiences. In 2012 he released Houseroom in collaboration with The Hazey Janes, the Dundee indie band which includes his two children, Alice and Matthew. The tour which followed the release of the EP would include his very last live performance – an emotional one at a sold out Dundee Rep, scene of so many highlights in his career.
All the while he was maintaining a parallel and frequently overlapping career in theatre, performing, writing and directing, not least in his hugely popular collaboration with the poet and playwright Liz Lochhead, In Flagrant Delicht, which was staged as far afield as Washington DC and Melbourne.
His unique voice was much in demand, perhaps most memorably declaiming Psalm 118 in the Liberation track on Martyn Bennett’s sublime 2003 album Grit. A decade later, Michael’sfamily would choose that track to open the tribute concert at Celtic Connections, following his passing.
An artist who recorded an upbeat number called Painters Painting Paint, he himself was also an accomplished visual artist who worked in a range of media, exhibiting most recently at in Kirriemuir’s Bank Street Gallery.The exhibition featured digital and mixed-media portraits of people he admired, including Gordon McLean, who inspired his work at An Tobar and John Harvey who wrote the acclaimed community drama Witch’s Blood, for which Michael was musical director and which, 30 years on, is planned to be revived next year with Alice Marra taking her father’s place.
Michael’s unique contribution to the culture of his hometown and of Scotland was acknowledged by honorary doctorates from Dundee and Glasgow Caledonian universities, and by a Bank of Scotland Herald Angel award in 2010, two years before he succumbed to lung cancer. In the years that followed his tragic passing, many notable artists, including Loudon Wainwright III, Patti Smith and Martin and Eliza Carthy, have paid tribute to Michael in performance, along with a whole new generation of musicians just now discovering the treasures of his back-catalogue.
He was regarded with huge affection and respect by all who worked with him, while his marvellously idiosyncratic yet keenly perceptive observations in song captivated listeners throughout Scotland and well beyond, not least writer and broadcaster Lesley Riddoch, who reacted to his passing in October, 2012: “Dundee has lost its bard and Scotland has lost one of the few people who ever really understood it – kindness, squalor, hilarity, warts and all.
“Like Robert Burns, Mike was driven by compassion, humanitarianism and a deep-seated hatred of cruelty, whether that was the callous cruelty of war or the cruelty of men to women.”
At the time this biography was being written, Michael’s family were working on a book about him with author James Robertson, while his daughter Alice had just finished recording an album of her Dad’s songs with the team who produced the Gaels Blue and Posted Sober albums.