The Waterboys emerged in the mid-’80s as part of a wave of earnest young men playing in vaguely spiritual rock ’n’ roll bands in the British Isles.
They were energized by punk and the world of musical possibilities that followed it, but The Waterboys were never exactly what they seemed to be. The band was really just singer and songwriter Mike Scott, though certain members have stayed with him longer than others.
And as the new album, “Modern Blues,” makes clear, his cultural influences predate punk and the ’70s. “I’m still a freak; I never went straight,” Scott sings in one song.
The Waterboys will play Tipitina’s on Friday night.
British punk declared war on rock ’n’ roll’s sacred cows, which meant that it was hostile to the heroes it inherited from the Sixties, including The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Scott could ride the new world and new possibilities vibe that it created, but the music from that time was too meaningful to him to turn his back on it.
“I grew up listening to songs that meant something by writers like Dylan and The Beatles, and all the great soul music of the 1960s,” he said in an email interview.
His cultural roots go deeper than that, though. Scott began writing songs for “Modern Blues” after reading while on tour in 2007 the original scroll version of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” — the legendary, unedited, spontaneous version of the classic 1957 novel.
“When I came off the tour, the musical energy was still running and the power of ‘On The Road’ was still swirling around my mind. I began writing songs and ‘Long Strange Golden Road’ came out of that.”
The 10-minute song begins with Scott reflecting on the experience of reading “On the Road,” but it becomes his own road trip reflections dotted by vignettes rooted in the working class world, all carrying the same portentous feeling that Kerouac evoked that a beautiful world is in danger of being eclipsed by less personal, unfriendly one.
Scott has read “On the Road” four or five times now, and his relationship to it has changed over the years.
“When I was 21 it affected me deeply. Changed my life, you could say, just like it changed so many others,” he said. “And I have had the experience of reading it in later years and finding it somehow to be a young man’s book — perhaps because so little of its passion is for the things that appeal to us when we’re older and grow spiritually. But my last read in 2007 was as exciting as the first. Either I’m regressing, or the book has hidden qualities that only become apparent to the older, more mature mind.”
Scott has always reflected his emotional, spiritual or physical condition like good rock stars do, so it is possible to hear his age in his music. His admiration for Patti Smith is obvious in his delivery of 1981’s “A Girl Called Johnny,” and you can hear a young man drunk with the joy of his own translation of Dylan into Irish folk-pop when he sings “Fisherman’s Blues” in 1988. He celebrates his own, personal, pagan-influenced spirituality when he sings “I just found God” with wide-eyed wonder in 1993’s “Glastonbury Song,” and there’s an autumnal tone to the “Modern Blues” lyrics, even the ones Scott sings many of them with a rock ’n’ roll sneer. The situation may be domestic and adult in “Rosalind” — she married the wrong guy, he thinks — but the song’s ‘60s soul throb and the leer in his voice says that he’ll show her who she should be with if she’d only give him one night.
Throughout The Waterboys’ history, Scott’s lyrics have had the sort of clarity of thought and purpose that is out of step with indie rock’s affection for word soup — lyrics that allow listeners to make their own meanings and connections by picking and choosing personally resonant lines and phrases out of the words presented. Scott’s background in poetry and particularly William Butler Yeats — whose poems he adapted into songs for “An Appointment with Mr. Yeats” in 2011 — makes that sort of writing antithetical to how he thinks about poetry. But the issue is simpler than that.
“I like to have an effect on the listener, and I like to be understood,” he said.
Although Kerouac and “On the Road” helped start the writing for “Modern Blues,” Scott’s appreciation for Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and the poets in their Beat-era circle is judicious.
“I find them interesting, and I respect and value their moment, when consciousness changed and they trailblazed a new way of considering oneself as a human on planet Earth, as if in preparation for what was coming in the ’60s,” Scott says. “But I’m not a huge Beats fan, and I think ‘On the Road’ is the only book Kerouac wrote that has that great galvanizing power.”