I Waited 31 Years to See the Waterboys (And It Was Worth It)
June 1984. It was a Tuesday, but I don't remember which one. I was in the back room of Camelot Music, cracking open that week's shipment. The boxes bulged with new releases from Prince, Elton John, Rod Stewart and John Waite. The Footloose soundtrack had been out for six months, but cases full of records and cassettes bearing Kevin Bacon's dancing booty still arrived in the shipment every week. Every. Single. Week.
Tucked in among the same old crud that Tuesday was a pretty cool looking record. The dude on the sleeve sported a good haircut -- and in 1984 that was half the battle.
"What's that?" my coworker, Robin, asked.
"I don't know."
"Is that Steven Tyler?"
"I don't think so," I said.
"Let's put it on and find out," Robin replied, and he grabbed the album out of my hands and headed for the turntable. This is what we heard:
At the time I was subsisting on a diet of Echo and the Bunnymen's Ocean Rain, Siouxsie and the Banshees' Hyaena and R.E.M.'s Reckoning, administered aurally around the clock. My coworker Robin took regular stylus injections of the Johns (Cafferty, Fogerty, Prine) and the Boss. We couldn't have been any different musically is my point, though his "party around back" mullet brought balance to my face obscuring Peter Murphy bangs.
And yet, there we stood at the front counter of Camelot Music, both digging "Church Not Made With Hands." We didn't even get to the end of A Pagan Place's first side before we were digging through the Phonolog, the big yellow catalog of every record in print, trying to figure out who the hell the Waterboys were and what albums we missed.
"You think they'll tour?" I asked.
"If they did, do you really think they'd come to this podunk little town?" Robin said.
The album's first single -- which our cruddy little mall record store didn't stock -- explained how two such disparate music fans could find common ground:
I have heard the big music
And I'll never be the same
Something so pure
Just called my name
Mike Scott painted with the same grandiose strokes as the Bruce contingent, but the Waterboys' music had more of a post-punk vibe. And yet it didn't: There were no cheesy synthesizers, no robotic vocals, no distant cool. A Pagan Place was organic. "These guys are like Irish Springsteen," Robin said.
"No, they're like Irish R.E.M.," I countered. We were both right, and we were both wrong. They were like the Waterboys. Also, they weren't so much from Ireland as all of the British Isles.
For the next few weeks I hovered over the Tuesday shipment like an expectant mother, waiting for my special order copy of the band's self-titled 1983 debut. I didn't even wait to pay for it when it finally arrived, just slit the shrink wrap and dropped this classic cut onto the store's turntable. Maybe this is your first time hearing "A Girl Called Johnny." If so, I envy you. I'd love to experience that moment again.
They were just getting started. The next two albums, 1985's This is the Sea and 1988's Fisherman's Blues, were even better than their predecessors. The latter is when the band really hit their "Irish folk" stride, embracing not only Celtic instrumentation and musical conventions, but even setting Irish poet W.B. Yeats to music in "Stolen Child."
By 1990 I'd moved away, both from the Waterboys and my buddy, Robin. The sounds that we now call alternative and grunge kept me busy while Mike Scott's revolving door of musicians (over 75 in all) kept the Waterboys alive. While I wasn't paying attention, their music veered wherever leader Scott's interest took it, from big music to more Irish folk to the almost Radiohead coolness of 2000's A Rock in the Weary Land.
And then in January 2015 the Waterboys dropped Modern Blues, their 11th album. Rolling Stone wrote:
This is a rocking album for Mike Scott, and while there are a whole new batch of names being dropped—Jack Kerouac, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, etc.—there is no sense of repetition here, there is that same freshness and vivid aspect to Scott’s music that populated his very best work in the ’80s. It’s good stuff, it’s rock stuff and pop stuff, and it’s capable of being enjoyed by the well read and the illiterate among us equally. Which of course means it’s a big win.
It really is a great album, and damned if over 30 years after their American debut the Waterboys made their network television debut on Letterman, like so many other alt-indie bands:
Last week I finally saw the Waterboys live. Sacramento's Ace of Spades was full of former Robins and Jameses that night (May 17, 2015), our mullets and Peter Murphy 'dos long gone, but each of us delighted to hear Mike Scott in strong voice and Steve Wickham in fine fiddle.
The set list was heavy on songs from Modern Blues ("Destinies Entwined," "November Tale," "Still A Freak," "I Can See Elvis," "Rosalind," "The Girl Who Slept For Scotland"). The new material sounded great, but when Scott's keyboard rung the opening notes of "A Girl Called Johnny" I was gone -- 17 again, in the back room of Camelot Music pulling my copy of The Waterboys out of the Tuesday shipment.
Thirty-one years is a long time to wait to see a band, but it was totally worth it.