Meet your heroes, Part II

Okay, so understanding how rubbish I am at a) remembering to get selfies with important people that I happen to meet and b) keeping this blog reasonably updated, let me tell you about the celebrity I met and got a picture taken with this summer.

Yes, I know it is October. This happened in August, and I did have the presence of mind to use the damn phone and get the picture. In my defence, the wifi at Calgary Airport was terrible, and then I was back in Nanaimo with my parents, my brother, my good friends from high school. None of which I’d seen, save for my folks, in eight years. So I was maximising time. (And then I was back home with my family, whom I hadn’t seen in a week and a half. And then, and then…)

Who cares? You want to know the story. That is Bruce Cockburn next to me in the picture. Though I love Colin Linden, I have to confess that Bruce is a much bigger hero of mine, and I think Colin feels the same way, so we’re good. (Linden, for the uninitiated, has been a long-time mando and slide-guitar sideman for Bruce, besides producing many of his more recent records and even sliding the dials for him on tour from time to time.)

I was hovering in the little concrete bunker that Calgary’s state of the art airport reserves for regional hops with WestJet. Mine was to Nanaimo, and the next one over was to Regina. I leaned against a post, watched an adorable puppy make friends with two little kids as well as basically everybody in the vicinity. Then this guy shuffled past with a walking stick and the case for a small stringed instrument over his shoulder. From his profile, I was pretty sure I recognised him, but I thought, with absolutely no authority whatsoever, “Bruce Cockburn doesn’t walk with a cane.” This is a stupid thought: the man’s vital, sure, but he’s still ageing. And I’ve never really seen him walk anywhere besides back and forth on the stage to change guitars. So how would I know?

Continue reading

Meet your heroes

On the streets of Cardiff, a week and a half ago, I actualised a long-held dream.

I was cycling in the sunshine, just past the Hilton hotel on my way through the city centre for some jumbo oats when I spotted a familiar figure – short, barrel-shaped, smartly dressed in black with round sunglasses, curly hair, and a black fedora.

Colin Linden playing guitar at Toronto PartiGras

“Colin Linden” by Kasra Ganjavi, found on flickr.com; CC BY-NC 2.0

“Colin Linden?” I said.

“Yes, yes it is,” he replied with a grin.

“Holy shit!” Continue reading

Short Reflections on the Strike: Building Solidarity

Protesters in BC at a social services rally

Photo by Tony Sprackett of Community Social Services Rally in Victoria, BC, 28 March 2009; found on flickr.com; CC BY-NC 2.0

I spent my teen years in British Columbia, Canada in the 1990s: the decade following the ‘greed is good’ 1980s, when we were all supposed to care about the environment and stuff. Well, I did. But the BC of that period seemed pretty politically apathetic. I had a hard time interesting my friends in causes beyond legalisation. Nuclear submarines from the US cruising up and down the Strait of Georgia? Ah, well. What are you gonna do? Clayoquot Sound was a brief highlight, but things seemed to fizzle and I felt out of step. I was glad to get back on the mainland, past the dispositional barrier of the Rocky Mountains, when I took off for university in Ottawa.

My mother reads this blog, so I need to be careful of what I say, but I don’t think I’m giving anything dramatic away when I say she is from a small-c conservative, East Coast Tory family. That is the foundation on which her politics were built. She raised her young family in the Calgary, Alberta of the 1980s, so there’s that, too. Then we moved to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island so my dad could open up a picture frame shop. She had a spell of employment, then unemployment – moving provinces is hard – until she landed a job with the BC Ferries.

To work for the Ferries, she had to become a member of the BC Ferries Union. I know that might read oddly for post-Thatcher British folk, but it’s how Canada’s labour scene is organised. I think it has real strengths, which I’ll write about another time, if I’m still picketing and therefore producing more of these reflections.

So that’s fine: she, like many Canadians, is ideologically pretty mild, so she would take a union job and earn union wages without feeling any necessarily committed passion of union solidarity.

Then they voted Gordon Campbell in as premier. He represented the Liberal Party – the same party of this Justin Trudeau that everyone admires so much – but in BC’s unique political landscape, that meant the right wing alternative to the ostensibly social democratic NDP. His tenure was fraught, shall we say, and I watched it from afar. I watched as it switched on my politically sleepy friends. I watched as it built solidarity in my mother.

We were talking on the phone one afternoon when she mentioned that, earlier that day, she’d gone down to the Ferries office to pick up her paycheque. On her way back home, she saw a nurse’s rally protesting cuts, so she parked the car, got out, and joined them.

“You?” I laughed. “You joined a nurse’s rally on your day off, out of solidarity?”

She had a good chuckle, too. Then she started telling me about how terrible the things he was doing were.

Make mine a double-double

Waiting for Tim Hortons to open

We took the kids to Tim Hortons this weekend. Put them in touch with their Canadian heritage again. It’s a new experience – the shop only opened Tuesday, and it’s just the second stand-alone Tim Hortons shop in the UK (first was in Glasgow a few months ago). I had heard rumours of Tim Hortons material available in Southampton several years ago. And about three years ago, I was in Belfast doing some fieldwork and happened upon Tim Hortons coffee canisters and sell0-wrapped baked goods in a corner of the Spar. It seemed hidden, abortive, and not necessarily very good.

The opening of the Cardiff Timmies, by contrast, was full of hoopla. It was advertised at its storefront for a couple of months beforehand (picture above is us back in September, sad not to already be eating donuts). When we told the kids, they were surprisingly sophisticated in their response. Having just been to Canada in August, my middle child reflected that if the things that are special over there are available over here, they don’t become as special, somehow. Globalisation summarised by my nine-year-old.Coffee date à deux

They got over any reticence by this weekend and were just happy to go have a donut. The boys put on their Toronto Blue Jays ball caps (I know), and my daughter swapped her Canada 150 lapel pin from her backpack to her jumper so she could prove her national bona fides. They were a litle miffed that we got the jump on them, having made time in the mid-afternoon for a coffee-donut date à deux.

The irony in all of this is, of course, that Tim Hortons is not my favourite coffee. Nothing like. (And if Macleans’s highly unscientific poll is to be believed, that holds true for many Canadians.) When Cardiffians ask me if it’s as good as their Canadian contacts make it out to be, I have to let them down gently. They answer that, by the standards of British coffee, even bog-standard is a cut above. Fair point. Continue reading

What drove and drives you drove and drives me too

Gord Downie in Cleveland, Ohio 2015

The Tragically Hip – House of Blues – Cleveland, OH – Jan 16, 2015, by The Tragically Hip; found on flickr.com; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

At the risk of turning this blog into nothing more than a moan at dead musicians (farewell, Tom Petty), I need to write about Gord Downie. I wrote last year when he shared his diagnosis with us all. I stayed up til 2am local time to watch the webcast of the final concert in Kingston. (Canadians abroad – it’s what we do.) And I grieved when word came down last week that he had died. I was just heading out my office door to catch a series of trains to Cambridge, and I was pleased that the usually sluggish wifi on the train perked up, allowing me to dip in and out of Twitter and all the obits and personal memories.

The best resource that’s come out of it (external to Gord himself, of course; we’ll grab his new solo album and learn once more what an artist can teach us about how to die) appeared on YouTube a few days ago. Fifteen videos from Canadian musicians, recorded at George Stroumboulopoulos’s place for CBC – initially for New Year’s Day as part of a four-hour indulgence of our not-so-latent passion for The Tragically Hip.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

I think it’s great, and overdue. It strikes me that, for such a massive band, few definitive covers have surfaced. Short of Sarah Polley’s brilliant and understated “Courage” (recorded, let’s note, by someone who’s primarily associated with film), there’s been pretty much nothing. (Nothing, I should say, in a recorded and shareable way; bar bands from Tofino to Tuktoyaktuk and Sarnia to St. John’s have pulled out “New Orleans Is Sinking” and “Grace, Too” at the flip of a coaster, but that’s a different thing.) Justin Rutledge had to carry the can almost singlehandedly, though by inviting Jenn Grant to guest vocal “Fiddler’s Green”, I guess we diversified a little more. Covers seem to draw either from  classics of the past or wry renditions of Top 40 pablum. Covers of The Hip were neither iconic nor ironic, it would seem.

Then we learned that Downie’s days were numbered. And out came the hastily produced covers, the phone-videoed versions from the front row of the first gig various artists played after they heard the news.

Continue reading

That’s When the Hornet Stung Me

Summer’s here, and I’m on annual leave. Kids are out of school, and when my wife isn’t bashing away at the keyboard upstairs, we’re finding lots of time for other good things. Picking blackberries, riding bicycles, eating/making hummous that makes your bread look like a slice of watermelon. Reading Tragically Hip think pieces (including my own).

Hummous that makes your bread look like a slice of watermelon

Hummous that makes your bread look like a slice of watermelon.

It’s also a good time to reflect on summers past, and share a few stories. The one I’m sharing here was inspired by my wife’s blog from a few weeks ago about a wasp trapped in her office; she melds it with a memory of a wasp from her childhood, full of danger and suspense and blessed maternal rescue. I’m biased, of course (reader, I married her), but I think the writing is exceptional.

One afternoon, I sat on the swing, kicking my sandaled feet, and a wasp settled between the straps. I froze. I couldn’t swat it away because I had to hold on to the chains of the swing. I tried to kick, very gently, to dislodge it. The wasp crawled over the strap and down along my foot. Then it crawled onto the bottom of my foot, its tiny feet and buzzing wings moving between my sandal and my skin.

Sometimes, speech is impossible, but I must have said something because my little brother ran for Mum. I gripped the swing’s chains tightly. The wasp explored. No wind moved the leaves above my head. Everything stopped. Except for those tiny, tickly feet.

-Katie Munnik, “Wasp”

I have felt those tiny, tickly feet. Continue reading

The Darkest One

Gord Downie at K-ROCK, Kingston

Photo by David Bastedo (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

“Where the wild are strong,
And the strong are the darkest ones,
You’re the darkest one.”

It says something that a friend of mine – a journalist back in Ottawa with a vigorous Twitter account – could write this, and I would know exactly what he was referring to.

Residing in Britain, I had been living with the news of Gord Downie’s brain tumour for five hours before he and other friends found out. In a year that started so hard and has kept being hard, this one is particularly hard. Like Bowie for all the freaks and weirdos in Britain and then beyond who needed someone to attach to, Gord Downie and his mates who make up the Tragically Hip were epochal, giving an indigenous confidence to young, pop-oriented Canadians just as the alignment of music video television, more accessible recording and distribution, and government regulation made it possible and even acceptable to dig Canadian music.

But that would say little on its own about the courageous, enigmatic, smart lyrics and Gord’s absurd performances. The band was more than special – it was unique. Looking now at their performance from 1995, when Dan Ackroyd introduced them on Saturday Night Live, it amazes me that their management thought this could work. Think of all those Americans watching the screen – who is this guy? What the hell is he talking about? I mean, grunge made opaque lyrics cool (hip?) but there was an intent behind these words that just did not compute:

“I’m total pro.
That’s what I’m here for.”

At dinner last night, we told the kids about when they were smaller – our nearly-ten-year-old not yet four – and we were in Nanaimo, visiting my folks. My dad got a gig down at the Port Theatre filming a dance company that had arranged a show Beside Each Other to Downie’s music and poetry, and he had tickets to spare, so my wife took our daughter to the show. We reminded her of how physically she responded to the dance. The words, I expect, flew by her.

After the kids were in bed, I put on some Hip, of course. It’s difficult, because most of our CDs are back in Canada, including almost all my Hip. We made some tough decisions before that first flight and took only the double-disc Yer Favourites, a best-of collection that is, at least, curated in its order rather than arranged chronologically. (Why do I even have a greatest-hits collection? Necessity: our last road trip across Canada as a family, I realised just before Mattawa that we hadn’t brought any Hip with us – an essential feature, for reasons I’ll explain in another post. So we bought it at the WalMart as a corrective.) I put on disc 2 – the better one, I think, as disc 1 seems to go a bit more for the obvious hits, in a more requisite order. Starts with the obligatory “new” track, then “Grace, Too” (which should be first), then “Music@Work” (which in my opinion shouldn’t be on there at all but which they insist on putting near the top of sets because of its thematic appropriateness).

Disc 2 instead starts with the dark horse, “Fully Completely”.

“You’re gonna miss me,
Wait and you’ll see.
Fully… and completely.”

Quite. And then this, holding the same place in the second chorus:

“Either it’ll move me
Or it’ll move right through me.
Fully… and completely.”

This is followed by throw-away bar-rocker “Twist My Arm”, which nonetheless has Gord’s shrill, paranoid delivery of the complementary line:

“It won’t hurt if you don’t move.”

We can only hope.

Then, of course, “Courage”, which already takes the brave step of name-checking mid-century novelist Hugh Maclennan in the title (go on, mass public: I dare you to stop paying attention.)

“There’s no simple explanation
For anything important
That any of us do.
And, yeah, the human tragedy
Consists in the necessity
Of living with the consequences
Under pressure, under pressure.”

Every song in the corpus contains a consolation for the desperate fans all reaching back to the old albums, hoping to find one there. It’s a great gift, as is their vow to take Gord on the road one more time and connect with the fans who have connected with them. “We are all richer for having seen them tonight,” he said of the Rheostatics, but of course we say it of them. I hope he makes it. I wish I could be there.