Having gone to the USA for my first fourth and fifth choices, I choose to come back to the British Isles for my sixth: more specifically, to make my first musical journey into Bonnie Scotland.
And I have alighted in my favourite Scottish city: Dundee, the city once famed for its 3 Js: jute, jam and journalism. Today, only the third industry survives in earnest. DC Thomson are the publishers of several regional newspapers, but are known throughout the UK for their comics like The Beano and The Dandy which are world famous ...what with the British diaspora being spread so far and wide all over the globe.
And for me, when I hear the name Dundee, I always think: “ah, the home city of the late Michael Marra”. A great enigmatic and mercurial talent who died far too young aged 60, in 2012.
Not for nothing was he known as The Bard of Dundee, and the abovementioned is, I submit, his greatest song.
Here below are the lyrics: please read them closely before clicking the YouTube link which is also below.
WHEN THESE SHOES WERE NEW* (Michael Marra) When these shoes were new it was "How do you do" It was whisky and telling our tales And when my shirt was clean, I was there to be seen I had clean eyes and my smile never failed Chorus And all of my brothers that I met on the way, They were drinking by night, they were drinking by day I’ll restore to my eyes what was clear and was bright Oh honey take me out drinking tonight, Oh take me out drinking tonight Bluebells on matches and stains on the table The sweet smell of the luscious Woodbine. "Ah Mister McEwan you will be my ruin" Oh I see it, but I don't really mind Chorus And all of my brothers that I met on the way, They were drinking by night, they were drinking by day I’ll restore to my eyes what was clear and was bright Oh honey take me out drinking tonight, Oh take me out drinking tonight Oh I'm still smiling through, though there's stains on my shoes The right is heavy and the left it is light And if it's left up to you then I know what you'd do Oh honey take me out drinking tonight, Oh take me out drinking tonight Oh honey take me out drinking tonight *this was always Michael’s title for the song, but he was forced by his record company to accept them renaming it as TAKE ME OUT DRINKING TONIGHT
Now please play the only YouTube video of Michael singing the song live. He has positioned himself partly behind the giant PA speaker: in a way I think it most apposite...for I do not imagine him as a guy to hog the limelight at the expense of his fellow band members.
Before we look at those lyrics in detail, let me talk about Dundee, and then relate a personal anecdote (or three...!!)
Dundee is the most singular of all the Scottish cities. It's the town which gave birth to one of the all-time great song titles, Watt Nichol's Peeing in the Pea Fields of Dundee. Its Southern approach at night is without an equal: all lit up across the Bridge, it is the nearest thing Britain has to a Lisbon.
And then there's that "Bridge": where else can you be so reminded of your own mortality as you cross one? You see the remnants of the ill-fated rail bridge running parallel with you! And with that disaster, comes Dundee's disastrous poet: William McGonagall, a poet so "bad" he came up the other side as "good" (if you see what I mean).
I could go on about Dundee. How their two Scottish League football grounds are bizarrely and promiscuously close together; how the PLO flag used to fly above the city when I worked there; how the civic centre so resembles Cold War Moscow that the BBC used it as such for location shooting for a famous TV Movie.
I adore this very rum city. Not least, because it was the hometown of that great eccentric Michael Marra. (And when you think about it, there is no other city in Britain he could more appropriately have come from.)
In 1981, I spent several months selling wine in the Dundee area...and this coincided with me getting my hands on Michael Marra’s first album, The Midas Touch, released the previous year. And one song on that vinyl LP just blew me away...viz...the song that is under my microscope here.
I used to play it on a loop. For several years. And about eight years later, a gorgeous Faye Dunaway lookalike named Maureen came to live with bachelor me. She was a real head turner.
And a party animal who had lived several years on Corfu, and had had an impossibly handsome boyfriend, who judging by the photos of them in their scanty swimwear on the beach, was as well-endowed downstairs, as she was upstairs...!! He fair made me feel ashamed of what meagre physical “blessings” God had given me. (Of course I did not tell her this: indeed, I went out of my way to remind her that Michelangelo had painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, with a tiny stub of a brush...!!) I did though ask her how it was – judging by the photos of her previous boyfriends who all looked like Greek gods – that I now figured in her life. What in heaven’s name was it she found attractive in me...?
She told me it was my mind. I fell about laughing.
She was a great girl, but a marriage could never happen, because we both marched to a different drum. You see, she was a party animal.
I would spend all day driving around selling booze, and when I got home, the last thing I wanted to do was go out. Not so dear Maureen. She had been in the house all day, and now needed her social life. And her way of reminding me was novel in the extreme.
By this time I had got my hands on the 1985 recording of the song by Hadden, Rothfield & Carr, and she loved their version. And I have to say that I love it too...it is the most commercial version I have heard. With the right promoter this could have been a crossover hit single: open.spotify.com/track/3xDS0isoEXwjS3LThPm7p4.
I would be taking a shower to wash off the grime of the day, and up the stairs would waft the unforgettable strains of the chorus ...with Maureen singing along, with brio...!!
You might say it was none-too-subtle code for her telling me something...!! Ah happy days...she was a sweet person, who is now back in Corfu.
Okay, anecdotes over. Let’s look at those lyrics...
The opening verse tells you that once upon a time he was your typical young man, full of clear sighted ambition, who enjoyed socialising in pubs. But the chorus immediately tells us something different...
And all of my brothers that I met on the way, They were drinking by night and they were drinking by day I’ll restore to my eyes what was clear and was bright Oh honey take me out drinking tonight, Oh take me out drinking tonight
Here he is telling us that when he is not in the pub, one’s vision regarding the future seems less clear. Thus he suggests to his “honey”, that all will be fine if they can get back with their drinking buddies.
Then let us look at the next verse...
Bluebells on matches and stains on the table
You might wonder what are “bluebells on matches”? Indeed, most Brits who are non-Scots would wonder. Let me explain.
I grew up in Wales, where we happily bought England’s biggest selling safety match, viz...England’s Glory.
It was far and away the brand leader. But not so with the Scots. Could it be that many Scots felt they were too proud a nation to buy something called England’s Glory? Who can say?...but whatever the reason, they were marketed in Scotland as Scottish Bluebell Matches.
And then we come to the next line ...
The sweet smell of the luscious Woodbine.
Now...were it a lower case W, one might think of the famous words of Oberon in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act 2 Scene 1)
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows, Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine, With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine: There sleeps Titania sometime of the night, Lulled in these flowers with dances and delight.
But the clue comes in the capital W...
When I was a boy, far and away the biggest selling cigarette in Britain was the Woodbine. It was just about the cheapest brand, and it was synonymous the Working Man...you might say it was the eau de cologne of the working man in Dundee areas like Lochee where Michael grew up.
Now of course, cigarettes rarely have a luscious smell. Au contraire. (Though I must say that when as a youth I fell in love with La Nouvelle Vague cinema, I simultaneously fell in love with the smell of Gauloises, Gitanes and Disque Bleu ...and helped wreck my lungs by consuming vast numbers of them...giving up smoking when I was 33.) In truth however, the normal smell of stale cigarettes is fairly unpleasant, and it clings to your clothes. (So much so, that when I returned home every night from calling on pubs and clubs in my job, my dear wife would ask me to hang my coat up by the front door...the coat so reeked of stale tobacco.)
You might say that Michael was being ironic with his reference to The sweet smell of the luscious Woodbine. And 50% of him probably was...but there was a big part of him that knew that to a cigarette “junkie” who was “craving for a fag”, the smell of fresh cigarette smoke was pure heaven.
This (see pictured) was the pack in its heyday...note it still bore the Wild Woodbine description...with the implication it was as wholesome as wild flowers...!! The (small W) woodbine of course is a variety of honeysuckle, used by herbalists to treat medical disorders. And cigarettes themselves were once regarded as promoting good health...incredible though that sounds today.
During the First World War a British Army chaplain became famous for handing out a couple of Woodbine cigarettes and a Bible to soldiers about to leave this world. He was known as Woodbine Willie.
And then we come to this wonderful “McEwan/ruin” rhyme
"Ah Mister McEwan you will be my ruin"
Oh I see it, but I don't really mind
Now this will not need explaining to anyone familiar with Scottish pubs. This brand of beer is everywhere...here is a photo of one of its striking cans...
And not content with just a witty line, Michael Marra makes a deeply philosophical point, viz...that however much your head tells you that regular boozing will wreck your body, your heart says yeah but getting wrecked is such a joy.
And now the opening two lines of the last verse...
Oh I'm still smiling through, though there's stains on my shoes
The right is heavy and the left it is light
Now this is Michael Marra brilliance of the highest order. I have lost count of the number of artistes who cock up that genius line..."The right is heavy and the left it is light" ...because they simply do not understand it.
Yes they are seduced by the obvious pleasure gained from the McEwan/ruin rhyme...but they let that much greater line go straight over their heads...!!
Let me explain...
Non Scots in the UK are often puzzled by the fact that a Scot will ask to be served a pint ‘o heavy or a pint ‘o light. What the customer means is that heavy is a (pale in colour) medium gravity beer, whereas light is a (much darker in colour) low gravity one...known in England and Wales as a mild ale.
Take...this very nice professional artiste (Spotify link below)...and even though she is Scots and presumably knows the beer parlance LIGHT/HEAVY...yet like so many others, never realised that the right shoe has stains from a medium-to-strong beer on it, whereas the left shoe has mild ale stains on it...!! (You might say these stains were like medals that adorn veterans’ chests on Armistice Day: stains that even a mildly bibulous soul should wear with honour.)
But what do I hear here? The staggeringly philistine substitution of "The right is heavy and the beer is all gone"...for the fabulous "The right is heavy and the left it is light"
Don't believe me?
Just listen here: open.spotify.com/track/4gBarBGvJK9kvQOkJNeIX7?si=GPPPfBkLTHaGKH3JsH9ing.
In her defence when I contacted her, she was most apologetic and added that she had learned the song from someone else’s singing, and that “someone” had given her the lyrics containing this duff line, and she had not thought to question it.
I accept her explanation. She is a classy person, and a good singer. And she thanked me for taking the trouble to get in touch...and promised to sing the proper line in future live performances.
Well done to her for her good grace. She is most aptly named.
And I will sign off this piece at that recollection of sweet harmony between two people...brought on by this most life-enhancing song.
Dai Woosnam, email@example.com
Photo Credits: (1) Dai Woosnam, (2) Michael Marra, (3) Iona Fyfe, (4) Annie Grace, (5) Martin Hadden, Jane Rothfield & Allan Carr, (6ff) Cigarettes & Beer (unknown/website).