Many of us have noticed the vast number of rock autobiographies released in the past ten years. Bookstore shelves these days are jam-packed with examples of this burgeoning sub-genre. It seems as if more and more legendary musicians want to tell their own unique stories, in the first-person, about their rise to fame and the accompanying trials and tribulations. Some musicians are motivated by money; others simply have a large enough ego to consider their lives worthy of immortality on the published page.
The basic and somewhat cliched format of the rock biography is as follows: formative years, rising stardom and living the high life, dark night of the soul, and the nice afterglow of making peace with one’s personal life and career. Unless you’re Bob Dylan or Neil Young (whose meandering autobiographical yarns are somewhat apropos to their burnout persona), you can’t really get away with straying too far from this standardization. Mike Scott, leader and mastermind behind the seminal UK band The Waterboys, has fancied up this increasingly mundane formula with Adventures of a Waterboy. It is a skillfully written memoir that uses rich poetic language to articulate both the heady myth-making scene and stark inner reality of a young man thrust into the international spotlight during the music business’ most bloated and cutthroat period.
My copy was published in paperback by the highly respected British music publication Jawbone Press on August 16, 2012. It sits at 336 pages and features a photo of a young Scott on the cover, resplendent in characteristic black leather hat and hoop earring, strumming his guitar as he looks off to the side with a distant, quizzical glare. His handsome and slightly roguish demeanour no doubt helped to propel his musical visions into a bountiful reality during the ‘80s when the Waterboys hit their biggest strides commercially and, some would argue, artistically. Several more pictures are featured in the first few pages of the book, with none thereafter. This is a refreshing change from the formulaic “middle of the book” photo sections traditionally seen in rock bios. The images consist mainly of candid band shots, show posters, a picture of his mom, and a few promo photos. The book’s text is printed on thick, bright white sturdy paper stock (standard Jawbone quality), and each of the 19 chapters begins with an italicized introverted preamble that introduces the theme of the chapter. There is no introduction or foreword, but there are two appendices at the end that assist with material throughout the book. They are an interesting read on their own and definitely enhance the main text. The book rounds out with an index and acknowledgments.
For fans of the Waterboys, this book should definitely prove to be a thrilling and satisfying ride. Scott goes into great detail about the history of the band’s initial run, from its launch in London in the early ‘80s to its demise in Ireland in the early ‘90s. These were heady days for Scott and crew, with the band garnering huge attention and hype as they toured Europe and North America to a burgeoning fan base and an increasingly interested music business. Scott vividly describes the feeling of going from a virtual unknown to someone whose mere presence in a room could change the atmosphere dramatically. He also relates to the reader how it feels to have that power taken away from him as the ‘90s wore on and his star faded in the wake of bands like the Verve and, as Scott describes, the “thuggish but melodic Gallagher brothers.”
Scott manages to weave into his impressive musical tales stiches of his personal life, recounting one particularly intense prolonged romantic tryst and also a failed marriage. He bookends his work with the painful relationship he has with his father, who abandoned his family when Scott was ten years old. This plays itself out emotionally toward the end of the book in a way that relieves the reader somewhat from the tension introduced when the abandonment is first mentioned.
For readers not familiar with the Waterboys or Mike Scott the solo artist, there is nevertheless much pleasure to be gleaned from this autobiography. In fact, Scott’s ace in the hole is that his writing skills are miles beyond both that of his musical contemporaries and their ghost writers. Legends like Keith Richards and Eric Clapton admittedly have enticing historical recollections, but they are often communicated in a dull fashion. Scott, on the other hand, paints every scene with flourishes of descriptive textual colours and shades. He takes the measure of every character he meets, describing in great detail physical features and personality traits. He even personifies a metronome that a producer brought to a session for the Room to Roam album: “There it lay, the little bastard, gleaming satanically in the moonlight ready for the next day’s persecution of the band.” These interludes are a gift to those who love expressive and figurative language, and they are in plentiful abundance throughout the book.
Unlike many in the music business, Scott’s not afraid to express his dislike for people who rub him the wrong way. Scott is intensely aware of his surroundings and is in tune with the vibe of the room constantly. And this plays itself out many times throughout the book as he negotiates his way through studios, concerts, meetings, airports, parties, and relationships. There is little if any glad suffering of fools in Scott’s hemisphere.
One aspect of the book that is slightly troubling is Scott’s seemingly myopic view of the relationships he has with some of his closest musical compatriots. For example, in the early ’90s he fires in eventual succession the classic lineup of the Waterboys due to a feeling that the music in his head was no longer in line with the instrumentation of the members. Even though it makes sense to him and he treats it as a logical move, one can easily conclude that this action of dismissing key musicians in his musical legacy is cunning and self-serving in the largest of ways, seeing that he was running the operation under the guise of a band dynamic. Scott seems to have left behind a legacy of bad feelings with some musicians, most of whom no doubt feel that Scott’s estimation of them was tentative and only meant to serve his selfish musical whims of the period. One could argue that Scott’s artistic pursuits should probably have been explored from the beginning under a solo banner and not a band name. Scott’s collaborative ventures were always kept in check by his lone-wolf songwriter instinct. Fair enough, but it would have been more honest of Scott in his book to be forthright in his shortcomings with regard to others’ feelings – especially saxophonist Anto Thistlethwaite and fiddler Steve Wickham, whose contributions to the Waterboys’ sound should have bought them a lot more respect than Scott at times dished out to them. However, Scott did seem generous and honest in his monetary dealings with his band members during this tempestuous period, and no one seemed left out in the cold this way – at least while they were under the official umbrella of the Waterboys. It is a relief that Scott eventually revived his relationship with Wickham, who (to borrow from Shakespeare) is an ever-fixed star to Scott’s wandering musical bark.
Scott can also come across as musically dichotomous at times. Although a fan of punk and an outspoken enemy of more mainstream rock bands such as his arch-nemesis band the Eagles, Scott nonetheless struggles with an ambition of perfection throughout the book, cringing at minor imperfections and mistakes in the studio and auditioning scores and scores of musicians for the live incarnations of the Waterboys. For all his punk bravado, he sure strived for precision. He does learn during the Fisherman’s Blues sessions to let go of this need to achieve the ideal take in the studio, but the fact that he struggles with it is indicative of a musician after far more than the instinctual approach of the Sex Pistols and the Clash. After all, neither of the aforementioned bands would take three years, hundreds of studio hours, and several expensive producers to make one album.
Saying much more about the book would potentially influence a prospective reader’s experience with it; therefore, it’s best to wrap up with an overall opinion and leave the specifics for the reader to explore. Mike Scott is a marvelous poet and enigmatic vocalist whose work will be included among the best the UK produced in the latter part of the twentieth century. Adventures of a Waterboy has allowed us into the life of this charismatic character, and it has also put Scott on the map as a wordsmith in a whole new genre for him. With the poetic nature of this autobiography, Scott has inadvertently written his longest song. And it’s damn catchy.