I’m going to admit for the first time that I had a big crush on Mike Scott when I was a teenager. It probably had as much to do with his rich, soul-searching music, coming as it did at the apex of my Celtic obsession, as with his amazing head of hair and leather-clad charm. At that point, I had little more to sustain my ardour than the Pagan Place album cover I’d purchased secondhand in a 4th Street NYC record shop, which travelled with me to Britain and then to Australia where I’m playing it even now as I type.
To an outsider, the story of The Waterboys appears a rosy one. The Waterboys shot to fame in the early 1980s, and are still making music and filling concert venues today. Their music continues to be innovative and powerful, defying categorization and incorporating literary elements such as the poetry of WB Yeats, Robert Burns, and George MacDonald (their latest album, Appointment with Mr Yeats, is all Yeats poems set to music), The reality is somewhat different. In Adventures of a Waterboy Mike Scott goes into a great deal of detail about the rather intensive ups and downs of his musical career, including years of struggling, both pre-and post-Waterboys.
The book opens in 1968, with nine year old Scott already immersed in the world of music; taking note of the noise of the bus, and banging his feet on every surface to the rhythm in his head. It comes as a shock to him that others can’t hear that rhythm—a soundtrack to his life that Scott has been conscious of since he was six. Adventures of a Waterboy, written entirely in first person present tense, is the story of how Scott learned to share that music in his head and grow it into something larger. Though the book is a personal and very honest account of Scott’s experiences as he moves through the changes in his life, the vision never falters from the ‘big music’: the inner, somewhat spiritual, song that motivates every action Scott takes, even when those actions are detrimental to Scott’s career or relationships, as indeed it often is.
Fans of The Waterboys will enjoy reading about how the initial band came together, and the variations through different records, as the the meaning and context of each song becomes clear. It was, for example, a lot of fun reading about the making of hits “Bang on the Ear” and “Whole of the Moon” or the difficulties that Scott had in writing a final version of my favourite song “Fisherman’s Blues”:
“How was I to choose between the Pete McKinney version of ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ with its lusty, crashing drums and the Noel Bridgeman version with its subtle groove, both of which I loved? Even as I vacillated the music kept evolving with new sounds and players entering our orbit, like Vinnie Kilduff and his Irish pipes. We fearlessly integrated these new elements with often thrilling results, but with the consequence that songs we’d cut a year, even six months previously now sounded like another group.”
Those interested in rock and roll or traditional Celtic music in general will take pleasure out of reading the passages when Scott got himself invited to hang out with the Patti Smith Band, or his dalliances with other musicians like Bono, Bob Dylan, members of De Dannan, The Pogues, Simple Minds, The Pretenders, Robert Plant, and so on. There are plenty of names dropped through the book.
The ups and downs of Scott’s career has been honestly explored in this book, and the first person narrative is cozy and accessible. For Waterboys fans, Adventures of a Waterboy is a bracing, utterly enjoyable read that will illuminate the many turns and twists of Mike Scott’s life and music. But you don’t need to be a Waterboys fan to enjoy this book. Scott is, above all else, a writer, with an intuitive sense of words that matches his musical capability. Reading this book leaves the reader with the sense of being privy, not only to a story about what happened with a particular person through a particular period of time, but an exploration of the meaning of the creative process in its broadest sense. This is a deep, well-written book that, like Mike Scotts music, manages to toe the line beautifully between grass-roots intimacy and a grand, big picture. Above all, there is music, woven into every line, every relationship, every twist.