Michael Marra: an appreciation

The all too early death of Michael Marra at just 60 has deprived Scotland of one of its most distinctive musical talents. No-one who ever heard that mournful voice, washed in gravel, dried in smoke, could ever forget it.

It spoke of broken hearts and lost loves, but it could be wryly playful or angry and bitter too. Like Tom Waits or even Joe Cocker, it sounded as if he was singing from the bottom of his soul.

Love and heartbreak are the stock-in-trade of song-writers, but Marra also sang of Scotland and its place in the world, of politics or current events, of his native Dundee (not least in The Mill Lavvies, recently revived by Dundee Rep), and, in one the best songs ever written about the city, about Glasgow and how "Mother Glasgow's succour is perpetual, nestling the Billy and the Tim".

The immense outpouring of affection at his passing has come from fellow musicians, from theatre people (for his contribution in that medium was also immense), from Dundonians and from ordinary people everywhere.

Leo Sayer, one of many who recorded his songs, reposted his own recording of Hamish the Goalie, Marra's tribute to Hamish McAlpine, the Dundee United goalkeeper during the Tayside glory years as soon as he heard the news which gives some indication of how his songs transcended the purely local.

To a man, or woman, they speak of his modesty, his humanity, his genius. He never became massively famous; a record deal fell foul of the eruption of punk in the 1970s, which Michael was definitely not. Whenever I saw him in later life, usually sitting quietly in the corner of a bar, he sometimes put me in mind of Samuel Beckett; the same lined face, the same spiky, grizzled hair, the same indulgent affection for poor old humanity, warts and all.

There was some irony in that the announcement of his death came on the same day as the announcement of the programme for one of the world's great celebrations of singer songwriters, Celtic Connections which he had himself graced on numerous occasions. Donald Shaw, the director, opened the launch with a warm tribute.

During his life, he made recordings, wrote and appeared in shows and played everywhere. He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by Dundee University in recognition of his contribution to the cultural profile of his home town and in 2011 he was made an Honorary Doctor of Letters by Glasgow Caledonia University. But really, his monument will be his music.

His rendition of Burns' Green Grow the Rashes O at the closing night of Celtic Connections in 2009 is a classic. And many feel that Hermless, with its modest ambitions, is a far more fitting candidate for national anthem than songs about armies and 14th century battles.

We are proud to bring you an example: the song he sings in our video, Here Come the Weak, is a 1989 recording from an edition of STV's NB programme from 1989 which was devoted to him.

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