Cast Adrift With An Incurable Case
Of Deacon Blues
The Scotsman 18th May 1994
A SHIP called Undignified: scuffed knees and sore despairing lurch elbows,
wet, freezing feet and a last into the bowels of the old blue dinghy as she
heads wobblingly towards Norway. I really meant to sand her down, lovingly
varnish her topsides and properly repair the dodgy cracks in her ageing plywood.
But a day of skin shrivelling Tunisian heat and calm sent me scuttling to the
shoreline, bent on marine adventures. Meanwhile, far to the south, a band called
Deacon Blue are sailing calmly, under their own steam, towards the breakerís
yard, their last voyage set to be hallmarked by two emotional Glasgow concerts
this week. Analyses of their achievements as one of Scotlandís most successful
rock groups have already appeared in the press, accompanied by some of the most
personal and vicious abuse of their personnel and music I have ever seen. But
hey! Thatís rockíníroll .
My problem is the outboard motor. The dinghy, whose name is Geni, was designed for sailing under a light gunter rig, and the presence at her stern of a 15-stone weakling in ill-advised shorts, plus an ancient engine made by the Clinton Corporation, Mississippi, USA, is reducing her freeboard to zero every time I attempt to start the motor. I have owned this engine for seven years, and have never known either its horsepower or the correct petrol/oil mixture to use in it. So as usual, I have swirled half a litre of two-stroke oil into a gallon can of petrol, poured it in, and now tug at the starting rope in hope. My Clinton motor is what is called ďmake or breakĒ: there is no clutch, no neutral, no gears. It starts, you go, usually at full throttle and in a gibbering state of terror, until some semblance of control is gained. Sort of like its namesakeís presidency, in fact. A spluttering, puttering noise, clouds of blue smoke, and Geni heads directly for the ruined remains of a herring station pier. Water slurps into the hull, and I briefly ponder the possibility of the entire stern being ripped out by the outboard.
I recall the worker at the Sullom Voe oil terminal, fresh from the non- seafaring Scottish central belt, who invested heavily in all the trappings of sailordom after his arrival in Shetland. How he slipped and fell off a pier while carrying his outboard motor, into 2Oft of water and sank like a Kennedy Cadillac to the bottom, refusing to let go of his shiny new engine . . . I juggle the choke and throttle, and the peace, the joyous escape of being in a boat, under power, away from the land, descends. Dignity was Deacon Blueís best song, and one of their first. Maybe Iím biased, because I remember hearing it for the first time, played by Ricky Ross on a cheap plastic piano in a back room of his flat. And I thought then that this story of a street cleaner who dreams of buying a dinghy, sailing up the west coast, and calling it Dignity was just a masterpiece, brilliant, touching and politically inspiring.
I had by that time chronicled Rickyís career through Under the Sun, Disaster Movies, In Cahoots, Woza, Doctor Love and Deacon Blue, impressed by songwriting with its unfashionable source material writ large: Randy Newman, Jackson Browne, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Paddy MacAloon. By the time Dignity became a moderate hit, the band had toured unceasingly, become a unit; the record had been reissued and the lyric changed slightly, but it was still great, big-time sentimental pop music, rooted in Glasgow and Dundee like most of the wonderful debut album Raintown. Then came the second LP, those nagging, self-consciously trashy singles, and suddenly Deacon Blue were bigger at least in Britain than Steely Dan, whose song Deacon Blues gave them their name. Under the shadow of the red rocks, where Shetlandís only native trees cling, just about, to life, the crumbling remains of another herring station are clearly visible on the now deserted northern shore of the voe.
I cut the engine and drift in to the soaring clutter of granite, grass and stunted juniper. Once this fjord like inlet was crammed with boats, and during the herring season the population of our south-shore hamlet swelled to an incredible 1,200 people. Now six houses hold 14 souls, a factory processes fish bought at the Lerwick market, and Arctic terns have colonised the beach which once stank of kippering. I restart the engine and turn for home, carefully avoiding the terns, tirricks in local dialect, beautiful seagoing swallows with long forked tails who react to human disturbance with shrieking, dive-bombing attacks.
I lost touch with Ricky and the band after the second LP, and then the general election of 1992 and its attendant stars for independence brouhaha provoked me to write something brutally condemnatory about pop music s politicos. Which I regret not a whit. Deacon Blue went on to make the uneasy Fellow Hoodlums, their worst songs beautifully presented, and then Whatever You Say, Say Nothing, probably their best songs, only presented in a catastrophically ill advised facsimile of U2ís recent consummate pop parody. Now itís Greatest Hits and goodbye. No public dissension or argument, at least not yet; a dignified farewell, fuelled I would guess by a painful lack of success in America and the fact that Ricky was probably always a little too self-conscious, a little too bright, to live with the ridiculous nature of big-time popdom into middle age.
I wish them well. I treasure songs like Riches, Bethlehemís Gate and Dignity itself, despite its over exposure. It has, however, got nothing to do with real boats, with intransigent outboard motors, skinned legs and escaping oars, submerged transoms and weed-wound propellers. Dinghies make good symbols; frankly, large semi-rigid inflatables make better sea boats:A ship called PVC, and I want one. Tom Morton