Music and religion. Add in football and you’ve probably got the top three divisive topics in Scotland, even with the Yes/No vote on Independence approaching. In 1994 journalist and broadcaster Tom Morton wrote ‘Red Guitars In Heaven’ a novel which deals with the conflicting nature that a love of pop/rock music and a life devoted to the church presents. Surely even the most devout of believers must admit that the devil has all the best tunes.
The opening paragraphs, which include a fetishistic account of a love for a red 1962 Fender Stratocaster guitar, are not promising, and there are times when Morton’s prose strays into cliché, but if you can over look this you have a brilliantly entertaining, often riotous, book written by a man who doesn’t just know his music, but is obsessed by it.
Of course it isn’t rock ‘n’ roll which is the cause of all temptation, it is just one of the most effective vessels. The fall of man, as this week has once more spectacularly revealed is, all about sex. That is where the real temptation lies, and the reason so many people sing about it. From the moment the never named narrator hears The Rolling Stones playing ‘Brown Sugar’ he puts the two together and is doomed, in the eyes of his Lord at least. Once again The Glimmer Twins get the blame.
As the narrator constantly tries to marry his two obsessions life goes on and he goes to university, gets married, cheats on his wife and his saviour, runs away and eventually embraces a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle which doesn’t end on stage, but with writing about those who are. What job is more depraved than that of a rock star? The answer is a music journalist as anyone who has read the memoirs of the legendary Nick Kent will know. Is it a coincidence that as the narrator loses his religion he gets closer to, and finally finds a home, in the city of dreadful night that is Glasgow? Probably not.
Once Morton gets into his stride he introduces us to a variety of memorable characters such as the hapless Fergus Mandelson, the excellently named Venturo Venissimo, and the various members of up and coming band ‘Truth Drug’. He also tackles head on many of the stereotypes of West of Scotland life such as love of whisky, sheep jokes, sexual naivety, a fantastic character assassination of the humble midge, and extreme, evangelical, Old Testament, religion. All of this is done with a black humour, and often filthy phrasing, that may come as a surprise to regular listeners to his radio show. It is this humour (the mystery of the severed ‘willie’ springs immediately to mind) that will stay with you once you turn the last page.
There is a lot of good music referenced in ‘Red Guitars In Heaven’ so I’m going to post two examples here. First of is this great live version of Tom Waits and ‘Jersey Girl’ followed by ‘Evangeline’ from Grangemouth’s finest, The Cocteau Twins:
Our narrator’s attempt to make it as a ‘religious Gerry Rafferty’ comes to little and the references to Iggy Pop, Prince and Bowie only highlight that most of us like our music sinful. So can the apparent opposites of music and religion be reconciled? ‘Red Guitars In Heaven’ suggest not unless compromises are made on one side or the other. Morton makes the same point that South Park’s Eric Cartman would put into action year’s later with his band Faith+1, that to make Christian rock you simply have to change the subject of the song from a boy or girl to Jesus or God (try it, it invariably works, especially with songs with the words ‘darling’ or ‘baby’).
Tom Morton is one of those people who has been there throughout many of our lives, playing and recommending new music. ‘Red Guitars In Heaven’ has a lot to commend it, but I can also understand why, to date, it has been his only foray into fiction as it feels as though he threw everything into it. I know that many of Dear Scotland’s regular visitors love Scotland and love their music and for that alone I think you should hunt down a copy. And any book which quotes Alexander Trocchi, references the Cocteau Twins, Merleau-Ponty and Kenny Dalglish, and mentions Café Gandolfi, where I was working at the time it was written, is all right by me.
Further thoughts on Scottish books, film, music, comedy, theatre and the like can be found at scotswhayhae which now has a Facebook home
Next Month’s Novel: In my local pub there is a quote framed on the wall from George Friel’s novel ‘The Boy Who Wanted Peace’ which sings the praises of early afternoon drinking and worshipping at the altar of the gantry. I often wonder how many fellow barflys have been inspired to search out the writer’s work.
‘Mr Alfred MA’ is Friel’s best novel and that’s the one we’ll be looking at next. Although not widely known it can be argued that without Friel’s vision of Glasgow the novels of Alasdair Gray, William McIlvanney and James Kelman would not have been the same.
- George Friel Mr Alfred, MA (Apr)
- Archie Hind Dear Green Place (May)
- Laura Marney No Wonder I Take A Drink (Jun)
- Karin Altenberg Island of Wings (Jul)
- Des Dillon, Me and Ma Gal (Aug)