“…And this scratched up guitar/ We can go far”: Gently weeping, Part II

To say my guitar is a shit guitar is no shame. I always knew it. I described it in the blurb for a poster advertising a showcase at the Ontario Conference of Folk Festivals as “his cheap acoustic guitar … that he used to patch through a distortion pedal and play drop-d punk tunes on in Nanaimo.”

Yet people would say, “for all that, it has a nice tone.” Yes, I would reply. Guitars like being played. And I played that thing every day. Wrote all my songs on it. Gigged on it, with a cheap pickup that slotted in the soundhole. One summer, as a university student in Ottawa, I took some of my tips money and bought a nice Senegalese djembe from the Ottawa Folklore Centre. That night, there was a wicked thunderstorm, and I was awoken from my sleep by a loud noise. Checked in the kitchen but nothing was obviously wrong. Shrugged it off. Next morning, shuffled into the living room, and there was my djembe, gaping open-mouthed at me with the skin head half off. I rushed it back to the shop, where they said, “Whoa – that shouldn’t have happened!” But while they were fixing it up, I did some thinking of my own. I told them to put it back on the floor once they’d repaired it and instead had them install a Fishman pickup in my guitar.Michael Munnik strumming his guitar and singing at the Branch, Kemptville

Now it was superb and useful. Big, bassy sound. No tone or volume controls on the pickup, but it was active. It made the guitar sound better than it had any right to. The action was incredibly high. I just got used to it. I liked to tell people it made me a better player because anything else was like butter in comparison, but I think that was not entirely true.

Who cares? It was my constant companion, my entry to a whole gamut of social circumstances. On the bus coming back from drama festivals. On the BC Ferry, amusing a group of elderly Chinese tourists. At Saturday night parties and Sunday morning church services. Campfires. I will not lie – that guitar, my strumming and my singing were ingredients in getting every girlfriend I ever had, including the one who’s now my wife. (“Play the song called ‘Katie Hay’!” said a visiting friend of hers from high school. I subbed her name into a stupid little song I’d written called “Beavertails”, and she laughed so hard she knocked my lamp over and broke it.) Continue reading

Gently weeping for my guitar, Part I

My guitar is dying.

Michael Munnik playing his original guitar at Zaphod BeeblebroxOkay, that’s drastic. It is ageing. Guitars can run and run for a long time, though even so they need love and attention from experienced and knowledgeable people. Wood is a living thing, moving and changing with heat, moisture, and atmospheric pressure, no to mention the occasional bump against a table or crash on stage when the strap suddenly gives way. By dint of their excellence or their expense, some guitars merit every upgrade and remedial intervention they are confronted with.

The implication of that last sentence is that my guitar doesn’t deserve to be made well. That is not what I’m saying. But you have to know a bit about my guitar to get this quandary in the right context.

I bought my guitar when I was 15, in Nanaimo, BC. My best friend and I had resolved to start a grunge band. He was excited to play bass and I, having become quite nutty about Eric Clapton’s unplugged rendition of “Layla”, wanted to play guitar. We started writing lyrics right away, then got to learning how to play these instruments. Ira’s dad had an old Yamaha acoustic about the house, so Ira could start learning right away while he saved up. I borrowed my minister’s spare acoustic (thanks, Glenn!) and got going as well. Starting, for whatever reason, with C. (I know the reason: it was the first chord they show you in Ernie Ball Teaches Guitar.) Painfully changing from C to G7 to play “Down in the Valley”.

I persevered, and after about five weeks, playing every day for an hour or more, I was able to change chords more or less at speed. Yes, I would go ahead with this. Ira, similarly mastering the fundamentals, got an electric bass and amp. My parents, unlike Ira’s, could not give me a financial boost because my older brother had already declared his own desire to play guitar: for him, the tipping point was Nirvana’s unplugged encore, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” Our grandmother in Nova Scotia agreed to ship out Uncle Gary’s old guitar, which wasn’t very good and had a hard time staying in tune. Dan quickly got discouraged or lost interest, but it was still this mighty gorilla houseguest. My parents simply could not buy me a guitar when Dan had the hierarchical claim on a guitar that was in the house. No matter. I delivered newspapers, so I had some income. I continued to save, and by the winter, it was time to buy my own axe. Continue reading

Where there’s music and there’s people and they’re young and alive

Had quite a journey to the Yorkshire Dales last weekend. We were camping – meeting friends, old neighbours from Edinburgh. Something like “halfway”, though we all acknowledge that halfway between Edinburgh and Cardiff puts us somewhere around Leicester, which is not so interesting for camping. So we push a little further than they do. It’s okay; I like the north.

This weekend was a doozy. One can never fully predict the weather, but even so, early May bank holiday is still on the dicey side of “it’ll be fine”. But when you’re making plans over such distances that accommodate the schedules of two families of five, you have to just throw yourself in. Weather reports that speak of zero or one degree overnight temperatures must simply be met with additional wool things getting packed. Friends here told us we were mad, and if it had just been the five of us camping, we may indeed have cut bait.

Grim view of cloudy skies and traffic on the M5

“And if a ten-ton truck…” Katie Munnik’s grim shot from the M5

The temptation was stronger still driving up the M5 and M6, with ominous clouds that occasionally chucked heavy rain on our windshield. Our friends texted us from the road, in Dumfries and Galloway: snow.

Then there was the traffic – expected traffic of a Friday before the bank holiday weekend, with an added helping of bridge works in Birmingham. We were late, and our youngest was puking into the bucket.

The sky looked a bit more favourable by the time we left the M6 near Kendal. We weren’t that late, really: we had decided on a pub dinner that first night, since we’d be arriving after a day of school and driving and who knows what weather. Our friends booked a table at the pub just across the beck from our campsite for 8pm. Without the bridge works, it would have been fine, but at this point in the journey, it was just turning 8, and we had only 20 miles to go to Hawes (Hardraw, really, but it was too small to turn up on the signs).

“20 miles,” I said. “Not long til dinner, gang!” Continue reading

Assemble, you bastards!

All weekend, my Twitter feed has been flush with people so excited about this new Avengers movie. The hashtag trends; it even has its own little icon. People seem gripped by the storyline, as they were tantalised when the trailer came out. People have been dressing up and going to see it late at night.

If you knew me at age 13, you’d think I’d be one of those people. I read comics – loads of them. I remember appropriating the habit age 10 with an issue of Avengers West Coast, thinking how cool it was that there was a guy dressed in purple who used a bow and arrow. My personal discovery, starting with Issue #1 and carrying on… well, I can’t tell you how long I carried on, but the answer is in a cardboard box in the closet of the spare room in my parents’ house – I digress: my personal discovery was The New Warriors, which had delightful invented circumstances bringing new superheroes and spare casts from other titles together as some teenage world-saving enterprise. (It’s coolness was all but certified when writer Fabian Nicieza quoted lines from the urgent coda of Pearl Jam’s “Rearviewmirror” in a kind of dream sequence about teen physical romance and fear/alienation regarding the parents in the house.)

Cosplay dressed as characters from Marvel's The New Warriors

“Dragon Con 2013 – New Warriors” by PatLoika, CC BY 2.0

Yes, if you knew me then, you’d say to yourself, “If the big studios ever get behind this thing – I mean really behind it, not like those Batman films – and they start filming X-Men and the Avengers, it’s gonna make this kid so happy.” Continue reading

What I’m reading this month- April 2019

This has been a big month for us.

It used to be that I always remembered 4 April as the birthday of my best friend’s younger brother. Why? Can’t really say. Before we all got into guitars and other stringed instruments, Ira and I were into comic books, and there was a comic book fair one Saturday in Nanaimo that we got a lift to from Ira’s mom. His brother came, too, and it was his birthday, and I think that, as a younger brother myself, I was sensitive to the mild injustice of him going along to something his older brother was interested in on his birthday.

Two copies of Katie Munnik’s The Heart Beats in Secret on a tableclothThis year, 4 April has a much closer resonance. It’s the day my wife’s novel was officially published. Like, you-can-walk-into-a-bookstore-and-buy-it published. This is a massive achievement, and one I’m incredibly proud of.

I might say “envious”, too, but that’s not really a dynamic. There was a time that I fancied myself becoming a novelist. I think pretty much all kids who like reading think they could do it. And those artistic pursuits, alongside “actor” and “rock star”, are just so easy for kids to spit out when asked what they want to be when they grow up. “Accountant” and “burger joint manager” don’t roll off the tongue so easily. Though it must be said, at the same time that I was saying “novelist”, I was also saying “journalist” (Hemingway having paved the way for me and so many others), and I was able to maintain that one. Along the way, I kept writing poetry, sometimes stories. I kept the candle burning.

And that burning candle, which was also burning in Katie, was not a small bit of what attracted us to each other. We shared poetry by e-mail before we’d officially declared our interest in each other. And we were well up on discussing writing and literature – it rather nerdily characterised much of our dating life. After we’d married, we had a brief venture in a writers’ group with some neighbours and friends, and at the time both of us were working on a novel. I really liked mine, but I didn’t get deeper than the second exercise book in longhand. She finished hers. Kept it in the drawer. I recall reading a good chunk of the first draft: there was a beaver, and someone’s house burned down. That’s kind of what happens in your twenties. Continue reading

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: Some Wins

Crikey, these are getting ragged.

It’s late.

We had a gloriously sunny day on the picket line.

My wife made the most amazing sole meuniere with blood orange – okay, it was plaice, but it was still really good. Just before we sat down to eat, I saw word that my employer will spread out strike deductions over three months and not be a stickler on penalising action short of a strike.

After making and then fighting fires on the comms front, I have been learning the chords to Bohemian Rhapsody on the ukulele so that I can accompany my union members at our mass rally for the final day of striking tomorrow. Friends, if you thought my job was weird when I was on the clock, you should see me when I’m off it.

Yes, friends, this will be me tomorrow. Something to see, for sure.

Short Reflections on the Strike: It’s like Thunder! Lightning!

Lyrics to UCU strike version of Jolene

Lyrics adapted from Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” by Carina Girvan

I do mean “our”. More people have been coming forward with lyrics they’ve adapted. I’ve had calls to learn “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Shout”.  At our rally on Thursday, I heard some folk behind me singing new words to Cher’s “Believe”, and though I had no form to give to the verses, once I figured out what key they were singing in, I could back them up on the chorus. Today, a few of us jumped in on a rewritten “Jolene”, and we all got organised for that British pub classic, “Wonderwall”.
Lyrics to UCU strike version of Wonderwall

Lyrics adapted from Noel Gallagher’s “Wonderwall” by Nicky Priaulx and Steve Davies

It’s great fun, even if “UUK” doesn’t scan so well most of the time (though watch this space: I’ve been tinkering with Jim Croce’s “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown”…) It’s grim to be away from our classes and our research. It sucks not to reply to student e-mails. We’ve had sharp cold, mild snow, and drippy rain. And we’re losing money on the days we’re out. So it’s not a party.
But we can find spots of joy nonetheless. A good fiery speech gets us going. A visit from a politician plugs us in to the wider conversations, by which our dispute will eventually be resolved. But singing together – that is what gladdens our hearts and gives us something to remember at the end of the day.
I’ve always wanted to properly work out a cover of “Knock on Wood”, the disco classic. The music, on the ukulele, is a doddle. But I’ve never quite committed the time. Marching at the Thursday rally, I absently strummed out the chords. A colleague from the journalism school hummed, “I don’t want to lose the pension…” We could see there was something there, but we had to get on to the fiery speeches and politician visits, so we left it.
Over the weekend, I picked it up again. In fact, the lyrics fit over extremely well. Except for the title and landing line in the chorus, of course. The person in the song feels really lucky, whereas we don’t. Maybe lucky to have the pension we have, but it is in the process of being taken away. I tried “Strike for Good”, which I liked in the sense of a positive message (for the good) but couldn’t really use because it sounds like we want to keep on striking forever. Unambiguously not the case. “Strike to Win” is a compromise. Doesn’t rhyme, but then, “wood” doesn’t rhyme with anything else in the original lyric. Still a bit weak, a bit hard to sing forcefully. But it went over well all the same.
 
Strike To Win
I don’t want to lose the pension that I got
Cause if I did, I would surely lose a lot 
Cause our pension is better than any stocks I know 
It’s like thunder, lightning 
The way you treat us is frightening 
Think we better strike to win
 
I ain’t superstitious about ’em – don’t wanna take no chance 
Your defined contributions don’t lead me to romance 
Cause our pension is better than any stocks I know 
It’s like thunder, lightning 
The way you treat us is frightening 
Think we better strike to win
 
It’s no secret about it – we’re experts on this stuff 
So see to it (see to it) that we retire with enough 
If we had a decent pension, it would mean so much 
It’s like thunder, lightning 
The way you treat us is frightening 
Think we better strike to win

 

Short Reflections on the Strike: It’s Because of You

Had my little chance to shine at our main union rally today at 11. I’ve been strumming outside our building on and off. Fingers were freezing last week, but it seemed nonetheless to be appreciated. Nice to bring some Robbie Robertson to the whole group, with some nice ad hoc amplification to boot.

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I will have another chance to shine this evening. I’m playing a short set at a monthly folk circle in Riverside. This is a low-key, humble gathering in the best folk tradition: just people getting together in a church hall with tea lights, homemade cake and cups of tea at the mid-point, and a very informal mix of regulars and invited guests.

I haven’t made a big splash about it on my web page or anything, but it is the first time I will have properly performed in quite a while. Other things can so easily take priority: I have a full-time job of the creative, engaging sort that often leaches time away outside of traditional working hours. I also have three growing kids and a nicely established tradition of reading a chapter or two from a novel with them at bedtime. (Right now, we’re on Arthur Ransome’s Pigeon Post from the Swallows and Amazons books. Second time through for the elder two, and such a good book.) And I have the feeling of arrested development that comes with employment precarity: on a fixed-term contract, how much can I legitimately invest in a community I might have to leave when autumn comes? And shouldn’t my main extra-curricular pursuit be finding that next job?

Anyway, great to be playing again.

Michael Munnik and colleagues playing music on the line in Ottawa, 2005

Photo by Hadeel Al-Shalchi

I’ve got a set list in mind, but I might add on one that I wrote twelve years ago, the last time I walked a picket line. It was early days of our lockout – maybe even the first day, ‘cause I didn’t have an instrument with me. It started with the first line, Spent my last dollar on union dues. Okay, a bit grim, but accurate to the feeling of the casualised unionised worker (hey, wait…) I tossed it about in my head some, then sat under a tree by the Rideau Canal that afternoon to write a first draft of the lyrics. Put some music behind it when I got home.

I had a chance to perform it shortly afterwards, when the Ottawa Folk Festival got started. A friend of mine was organising the late-night open mic at a nearby hotel where the performers were stationed, and she made space for me to debut it and make a little speech about our CBC troubles, thanking everyone for their support. (C’mon – it was a folk festival. We were the public broadcaster. OF COURSE everyone supported us.)

The lyric in the third verse, I am the dynamite and you are the fuse, was a reference to a great programme two of my excellent colleagues, Bill Stunt and Amanda Putz, had produced earlier that summer called Fuse. Given the target of our ire, I was pretty proud of that line, though you could also read it more straightforwardly as a “troubled romance” kind of song, if that’s your bent. The grim tone continues throughout, and I am especially pleased with the raw honesty of the final verse. I think it shows the blend of fatalism and existentialism that marked a lot of my writing then.

It’s Because of You

Spent my last dollar on union dues
Now my feet are restless, and I’m living in my shoes
Just don’t ask me why I sing the blues
It’s because of you

Ain’t no mystery why I’m so confused
The one day you’re happy and the next you’re misused
Just don’t ask me why I sing the blues
It’s because of you

Joys, they come singly, and troubles by twos
I am the dynamite and you are the fuse
Just don’t ask me why I sing the blues
It’s because of you

I know you’re stronger, and I expect that I’ll lose
You can hand it to me, but I’d rather choose
Just don’t ask me why I sing the blues
It’s because of you

The song got an extra lease on life some years later at an event called Chrysalis. This was a grassroots showcase night, organised by regulars at the Wednesday open mic at Rasputin’s on Bronson Avenue… conveniently downstairs from my apartment for three years of my undergraduate degree and a hotspot for original folk until a kitchen fire burned it down in 2008. Performers would sign up to sing two songs written by other Ottawa writers. It was a chance to learn and interpret people who might otherwise not hear a cover version of their own stuff.

Rick Hayes chose this one. I must say, it’s not one I perform too often, and I don’t think it’s my best. I stuck a bunch of complicated chord changes in it mostly to contrast the simplicity of the lyrics, but Rick stripped it right down. He’s from Newfoundland, with his untempered accent cutting through with a rich, strong baritone voice. He sang the hell out of it, and I’m really grateful.