Musical Monday #2 – A love letter to Caledonia

 A traditional Scottish breakfast. Kind of. Needs more bacon.

A traditional Scottish breakfast. Kind of. Needs more bacon.

It’s not very often you can say your first heard a song when it was advertising bad beer and it ends up being something that reaches deep into your soul and touches you every time you hear it.

Yet that’s exactly the case with Dougie MacLean’s Caledonia, a song that evokes so much feeling that I went for half a decade without listening to it because it caused me to break down. More on that in a bit.

The first version I ever heard wasn’t sung my Scottish folk legend MacLean, but by Frankie Miller during an advert for Tennents Lager.

Miller’s version is rockier than MacLean’s original version and there’s a growl that suits the advert – but ultimately not the song. It was probably a couple of years later – remember this is pre-internet days where you couldn’t find an answer in just a couple of seconds – when I found out who wrote the song and heard the original version.

[youtube=://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TX9h558Tz1E&w=640&h=480]

And while it’s great it’s still not quite there. MacLean was quite young – just 24 – when he recorded it. He was overseas and yearning for Scotland again. But his voice in 1978 still had a ways to go. It was when the song was sung live that it came… well, no pun intended, alive.

That first happened, if my poor memory doesn’t fail me, on Hogmanay 1991. I had gathered with friends in Fochabers for some not-quite-traditional new years drinks (I was only 17 and a good boy!) and Dougie appeared on one of the shows around midnight. His voice was better than in the original by quite a bit but it’s still not quite the ultimate version. I can’t remember if it was the last thing I heard in 1991 or the first thing in 1992, but that version was what stuck with me for two decades.

The reason the song means so much is because it never fails to make me think about Scotland. It’s true that you probably never appreciate what you have until it’s gone and that’s certainly true of my homeland. I didn’t think about the pristine beaches, the purple heather hills, the postcard perfect scenery until it wasn’t going to be outside my door anymore. In fact I couldn’t be further away on the face of this earth than in New Zealand.

I first cried hearing this song shortly before I moved here. It was at a gathering of friends and I had the song on a CD. It started playing and I just couldn’t keep it in. Knowing I was going to miss these amazing people, that Scotland was no longer going to be my home left me bereft. It was too late to do anything but for those five minutes I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. It hurt. And it hurt for a long time after.

When some of those same friends visited Auckland a few years later we sat around, guitars in hand and I heard the start of the song being plucked. And that was enough to set me off again. Having them there, knowing that it was only temporary? My heart was crushed. And so began my self-imposed exile, until I happened upon, without a shadow of a doubt, the greatest version of the song.

I’m sure there will be some who disagree with me, someone who prefers the integrity of a younger Dougie MacLean, or the wistful, more mature sound of a live performance in the 1990s. But nothing captures the feel of the song like the version sung on the occasion of his lifetime achievement at theRadio 2 Folk Awards in 2013.

The crowd on the stage is a who’s who of folk music, Scottish and further afield. MacLean doesn’t sing all of the words, ego free he hands over the best of his greatest creation to others. Karine Polwart and Kris Drever (I think) are the first to break out from MacLean’s lyrics but it’s, unsurprisingly, Eddi Reader who makes it her own. But what really gives this the power is the fiddles – and then the haunting sound of the whistle shortly before three minute mark.

If I’ve composed myself to that point then as soon as that low Gaelic wind starts I’m in tears. Just writing this now and I’m having to wipe my eyes.

I dare you to watch it. And I double fucking dare you to not feel that stirring in your heart.

If I had to listen to just one version of one song every day for the rest of my life then this is it. Every time I listen to it I fall in love with it just a little bit more. There’s something new, a nuance that wasn’t clear first time. It’s everything a song should be and more. And… well, that’s enough from me actually. Because there’s only one appropriate set of words to close this article and that’s from Dougie and guests – so turn up the volume and bathe in its celtic glory.

[youtube=://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rmxqjzCxNEE&w=854&h=480]

Musical Monday #1 – Kirsty MacColl’s Innocence

I figure that even if you’ve never met me, or read more than half a dozen things I’ve written you’re probably already had enough of my Jimmy Buffett fandom – so I want to start Musical Monday with the second most important musical artist in my life – the wonderful Kirsty MacColl.

As time progresses I’ll be writing much more about Kirsty, her music, her tragic death, my pilgrimage to Soho Square and more – but I wanted to start… well, at the very start. And that’s with the first song I can recall ever hearing of Kirsty’s – Innocence, from her album Kite.

Okay, that’s not quite true. It wouldn’t be until quite a bit later that I found out she had written They Don’t Know which Tracey Ullman took to number two in the charts. And I’m almost certain I had heard New England but didn’t make the connection until much later.

But I do remember making a trip to Elgin library in 1989 when I was 15, which is where I found an album of hers for the first time. Remember this was before the internet so finding new music wasn’t as simple as looking up related artists on Spotify. If you were like me you listened to some chart music and whatever was played on the stereo at home – and Kirsty didn’t feature in either of those.

It was in Fochabers, my tiny home town in the North East of Scotland, where I first fell in love with libraries. The local library was run by Mary and Vicky and every time I went in I felt like I was the most important person there. I got extra books, they always had recommendations for me, they never fined me – and often they kept back a book they knew I’d like. As time progressed I graduated to being able to remove the tapes I wanted to borrow from the music library from the giant, complicated tape monster in the middle of the main room.

But the library was small and, as much as I hated to, I started to cheat on Mary and Vicky by taking a bus into Elgin instead to check out the much more impressive library. And that’s where I found a music collection much bigger than I could have imagined.

I can’t recall how much it was to borrow a tape – I’m guessing 20 or 30p, but I took full advantage. And one of those, picked at semi-random, was Kite. With a few exceptions, my preference is for female vocalists – it started with a crush on Debbie Gibson and continues today with Marketa Irglova, Bjork, Nellie McKay, Joanna Newsom and more. And that’s how I happened to choose Kirsty’s tape – there was a picture of her on the cover and her name sounded familiar and a little bit Scottish-y or Irish-y. That was enough for me. And this was the first song I heard:

[youtube=://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7qZ2KFRaYtA&w=640&h=480]

It’s a great song and gives a fantastic insight into Kirsty MacColl as a writer and a singer. There are high-pitched melodies, a sense of humour and a withering take on some aspect of life – all of which appear many times in her music.

That first chorus is a thing of beauty:

Oh innocence has passed you by
A long long time ago
I was the fly upon your wall
And I saw what you know
Your pornographic priestess left you for another guy
You frighten little children and you’ll always wonder why
Always wonder why

I mean ‘pornographic priestess’? Kirsty’s way with words never fail to conjure an image in my mind and by the time finishes I’ve got a strong idea of just who this person is, this man who seems to have taken one liberty two many with our warbling heroine.

The rest of the album was medicine for my soul. Her acerbic, almost misanthropic at times, glorious lyrics still make me want to cheer, laugh and cry every time I listen to them today. And Kite isn’t even her best album. In fact I’d put it in fourth place behind Electric Landlady, Titanic Days and Tropical Brainstorm.

But that will have to wait for another day. Search for Kite on your streaming music source of choice, or even better pick up a copy of her album from your favourite second hand music store and envelope yourself in the brilliance.

Whether it’s the country homage of Don’t Come The Cowboy With Me Sonny Jim!, the excellent cover of The Kinks’ Days or the haunting but beautiful Mother’s Ruin you’ll find something that resonates, a lyric that nags you to think more about it, a feeling of life that feels more real than any other singer I can name. And weep for a life lost way too early and a songwriter of undoubted genius unable to gift her music to us any more.

Forceful creation

I have one of those weird relationships with time – I crave more of it do all the things I want to do, yet when given the opportunity I’ll almost certainly waste it by doing nothing for hours on end.

 Less of this, more of writing

Less of this, more of writing

Yesterday, for example, I could have written for this website, worked on one of the many novels I’ve started, done some more work on my memoir, talked to old friends, sold some stuff on Trade Me… you get the point, the list is nearly endless. So what did I do, I hear you ask?

Of course I sat and streamed the entire Season 2 of Masters of None on Netflix. Now you’ll have to wait until Wednesday to find out what I thought about that but it got me thinking – if I leave things to my own lazy self then I’ll never achieve anything. It’s time to put this out there in the hope by going public I’ll shame myself into writing more. And losing weight, but that’s another story!

So starting today I’m instituting a daily blog – some days will be just a couple of words, others will be thousands, but I’m committing to putting my virtual pen to this virtual paper and doing what I desperately want to do but haven’t managed yet.

You can break down what I write about into a few general categories:

  • Music
  • Wrestling
  • Politics
  • Reading/Writing
  • Sport
  • TV & Movies
  • General life

Handily there are seven things on that list and seven days in a week. Okay, that might not be entirely by luck – and by including ‘life’ as one then I can pretty much write about anything. But fuck me, give me a break. The intent is there!

While I try and come up with better labels for the content I hereby declare the following days of the week exist as part of You Had To Be There.

  • Musical Monday – for my thoughts on music old and new (but almost certainly always old)
  • Soapbox Tuesday – ramblings from my left-wing, liberal perspective
  • Watching on Wednesday – this will be a little like my old Couch Potato blog on Stuff.co.nz
  • Grappling with Thursday – for all my wrestling reckons
  • Fictional Friday – books, some of my writing or just recommendations to read Chris Brookmyre? Who knows!
  • Saturday Sport – with significantly less breasts than the UK newspaper of a similar title
  • Sunday Life – whatever doesn’t fit anywhere else. Probably.

So there, dear reader, I have committed to you to give you something to ignore, skim over, ridicule or to not your head with every day until such time as I realise this was a terrible idea. So probably the end of this week.