I remember the first time I heard ‘Fisherman’s Blues,’ the first and title track off the Waterboys epic, brilliant 1988 album. I was listening to 99.3 The Fox (The Fox Rocks!) in Vancouver. I was in my room, my parents were out. And this song came on. Years later, in my hardcore punk days, my roommate Perry used to try to diss me by saying I liked melody and anthemic music, even in my hardcore. I never knew why he thought this was an insult, given we listened to the same music, exchanging cassettes and CDs all the time. Hell, our rooms were next to each other in the nasty basement of The Motordome (as we called our home, which we also shared with Skip, J, and the cat named Ni! (as in the Knights Who Say, and the cat, I swear to God, only came if you called him as if you were Graham Chapman). Whatevs. Guilty as charged.
And so ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ started with that simple acoustic guitar intro (G, F, Am, C, run twice through before Steve Wickam’s fiddle joins the party and then the bass and drums kick in along with Mike Scott’s guitar. And then there was Mike Scott’s voice! I knew of the Waterboys, they had had a couple of alternative hits on Muchmusic a few years earlier with ‘The Whole of the Moon’ and ‘This is the Sea,’ but Scott’s voice didn’t reach the glorious heights of ragged glory it did on this track. I was hooked. I loved this song. I became obsessed with this song, I taped it off the Fox (as an aside, this was not CFOX’s usual fare of music, it tended to lean towards the harder end of rock). I listened to it over and over. Finally, I cut out of school early one day to hit Sam the Record Man at Coquitlam Centre and get the cassette. Except: they didn’t have it and the dude at the counter had never even heard of the Waterboys. I got the same from the guys at A&M Records, but they were always losers in there. Finally, I figured out the Columbia House scam!
Columbia House was brilliant for the suburban punk I was. This was the late 80s, you couldn’t just get whatever the fuck you wanted off the internet. The internet didn’t exist yet (well, it did, but only in military circles). And Columbia House offered you something like 8 albums for a penny (which don’t even exist in Canada anymore; they were abolished in 2012), with the catch being you had to buy X number of albums over the next two years or something at regular price. Columbia House in the late 80s had all this alternative and punk music the suburban punk couldn’t get, and so I stocked up. In the end, the joke was on them, I got not just those original 8 albums, but their prices, including shipping and handling, were still better than going to the mall, and the selection was 1000 times better than the mall. And until I discovered how easy it was to get into Vancouver a few years later, and I had access to all those glorious record stores on Seymour St., this was it.
And so, I finally had my hands on Fisherman’s Blues. It was the first time I’d heard the whole album. I knew about Celtic music in general, I AM from an Irish Canadian family, after all. I had already discovered The Pogues (in 1986), and I knew about punk. But The Waterboys in this iteration were something else entirely. They weren’t punk and they weren’t punk. The were Celtic, but they were more, they were also rock’n’roll, and to me, at least, there was something punk in Scott’s songs. The Waterboys had once been a sort of collaboration between Scott and Karl Wallinger, though he left after This Is the Sea, to form World Party (an excellent band in their own right), he did contribute one track to Fisherman’s Blues, ‘World Party.’
But it even before we got there, we got these brilliant, shambolic, pounding tracks, with Wickam’s fiddle sounding more like a saw than a violin over the tracks. This was the punk of this album, everything was loud and Wickham played his fiddle like he was a punk guitarist. ‘We Will Not Be Lovers’ might be one of the best songs ever. As Scott sings about a woman he absolutely cannot be lovers with, noting that ‘planets collide, collide, collide, at the smack of your lips,’ but declaring that ‘we will not be lovers,’ the drums crash and smash, the bass bounces and collides with the guitars, both acoustic and electric, and then Wickham and Scott get into a duel, one’s fiddle versus one’s voice. You can hear the sweat these guys broke out recording this album. And this was only track 2!
The Waterboys on his album cover Van Morrison’s ‘Sweet Thing.’ I have to confess: I cannot stand Van Morrison, his music sucks. It sucked in the 60s and it has sucked even more in the years since. But, he could write a song, occasionally. And ‘Sweet Thing’ is one of his best, though, not when he does it. Just like the Blue Aeroplanes took Paul Simon’s ‘Boy in the Bubble’ and gave it some life a few years later, The Waterboys took Morrison’s tame and lame song and gave it soul, heart, and a passion he never could. As Scott narrates his way through the song, strolling his merry way and jumping the hedges, drinking some cold, clean water for to quench his thirst, watching those ferry boats get high, you can feel the dew on the hedges, you can actually see those ferries on the ocean (though in Vancouver, this was not an outlandish site). I love this track, so much so that when I first met my wife many, many years later, in 2006, this was on one of the first mixes I made for her back in the day when you still made mixes for people. I still sing it to her.
That ended Side One of Fisherman’s Blues. ‘And A Bang on the Ear’ was an ode to all the women Scott had loved before. This song caught my ear because of Krista, the rover, who hailed from Canada. She and Scott crossed swords in San Francisco, though they both lived to tell the tale. I always loved the way this song started, it almost backed into itself, starting with Scott’s acoustic guitar, playing his simple riff, before the bass walks in and then the drums and Wickham’s fiddle.
Then Scott went looking for his old friend Hank (Williams). I was lucky, in that my uncles liked country music, so I was introduced to Hank at a young age. Despite his annoying nasal voice, I loved his music. Maybe this was where my love for punk came from, because you can’t get much more punk than Hank Williams (as an aside, in 1995, The The released an album of Hank Williams covers that is both disturbing and brilliant). And then we get a sweet Irish ditty, a traditional song, ‘When Will We Be Married,’ as our hero has to contend with Long Jimmy Lee, but Molly better let him be. She also has eyes for Thin Johnny Fee
And a fine man is he
You have your eyes on Johnny
But you better let him be
Because when you go,
You’ll be going with me
And that bleeds into ‘When Ye Go Away’, perhaps one of the most bittersweet good-bye songs ever. I always imagined Scott was saying good-bye to the woman from ‘We Will Not Be Lovers,’ who is leaving town. The lyrics
You ain’t calling me to join ya
And I’m spoken for anyway
But I will cry
When ye go away
They hit me, still do over 30 years later. There is something both profound and heartbreaking in this track.
Fisherman’s Blues then goes out with two more trad tracks, ‘Dunford’s Fancy,’ a fiddle written by Wickham and ‘The Stolen Child,’ which is both haunting and beautiful. Scott wrote music for a W.B. Yeats poem, and the Irish traditional singer Tomás Mac Eoin provided this stentorian, gorgeous spoken vocal.
The CD version ended with an Irishified cover of Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land Is Your Land.’ I didn’t care for this track when I finally got Fisherman’s Blues on CD and usually pressed stop after ‘Stolen Child.’ Now that we’re all digital, I just stop the album after ‘Stolen Child.’
By the end of this album, I have been through all of the emotions, I have had all the feels. The love Scott felt for the woman who inspired the title track; the woman he was trying to avoid in ‘We Will Not Be Lovers.’ The strange boat in strange times he rowed in track 3; the big party we all went to in Track 4. He was back in love, deeply and madly, for ‘Sweet Thing.’ And then he told us about all the women he’d loved before on ‘And A Bang on Ear.’ And then he went looking for Hank and wondered when Molly would marry him. And then she left, and in that bar, he drank his whiskey and rambled and raved and did everything but make her stay. And then Wickham gave us his reel and Mac Eoin recited a poem. It was a glorious, emotional, powerful album. It was epic and it was punk and it was Celtic and it was rock’n’roll. And it was about the greatest album of 1988.