Dundee lost its greatest musical son today. Michael Marra left us at the age of 60 and a city and a nation loses one of its greatest songwriters. I have no doubt that future generations will be listening and studying the music of Michael and he’ll be ranked alongside Burns, Scott and MacDiarmid as a leading Scottish writer. My own discovery of Michael’s music happened in 1997 in a small apartment off Dundee’s Perth Road.
Alison, my future wife and someone who sang on a number of Michael’s albums and singles, played me some of his music. One of those songs was ‘Hermless’, which many call Scotland’s alternative national anthem. Here was a beautifully crafted song not about borders, flags and battles but about humanity, compassion and canniness.
Wi’ ma hand on ma hert and ma hert in ma mooth
Wi’ erms that could reach ower the sea
Ma feet micht be big but the insects are safe
They’ll never get stood on by me
Hermless, hermless, There’s never nae bother fae me
I ging to the libry, I tak’ oot a book
And then I go hame for ma tea
As the years went on I had the good fortune to spend a little time with Michael at late-night sessions in Skye, dressing rooms in Dundee or when he visited our home in Perthshire to talk about a live album he had just recorded. What always struck me about Michael is that I could have imagined him perfectly at home as an intellectual and writer in Hemingway’s 1920’s Paris or a 1960’s Hungary. His soft-spoken voice and slight figure disguised a creative mind and the eye of an artist.
A couple of years ago I introduced my friend Malcolm to Michael’s album ‘Posted Sober’, perhaps one of the most under rated albums of that year. Two songs on that album of gems stood out to me, ‘The Lonesome Death of Francis Clarke’ and ‘Frida Kahlo’s Visit To The Taybridge Bar’. The first was about a distant relative of Michael’s and the recurring story of Scot’s leaving it’s shores for opportunity and adventure. ‘Frida Kahlo’s Visit To Taybridge Bar’ perfectly encapsulates Michael’s gift, the ability to root art in the everyday tales of men and women’s lives. He makes you care for Frida, despise Diego Rivera, laugh at St Peter and want to buy Jimmy Harry a beer or Wallace’s pie.
Today above the piano at our house in Scotland hangs a painting by Michael that we bought at a small exhibition he held in Kirriemuir. It’s of his beloved Frida Kahlo and today I’ll be thinking of that picture and the man that created it and listening to some of the finest songs about love, loss and our fellow man.