Tuesday, April 14, 2020

The Never-Ending Tour: East Coast 2018

October 12: Sackville, N.B., Thunder and Lightning

Outside Thunder and Lightning
I fly from Toronto to Moncton, rent a car at the airport, and head to Sackville.

I’d only ever been to Sackville once before. It was March 1997, and Black Cabbage was on our one and only eastern tour. After a gig in Quebec City, we decided to drive a straight shot overnight to Sackville. Whiteout conditions ensued, at which point we discovered the accelerator in our van was stuck—which is bad at the best of times, never mind on an icy road where you can barely see five metres in front of the windshield. Our guitarist and sound tech figured out a way to reach into the engine from between the two front seats, and were able to jiggle the accelerator into place when need be. Still: harrowing. We pulled into Sackville just a couple of hours before the gig; it had taken about 18 hours to do what should be a 7.5-hour drive. The entire town was shut down—except the bar where we were playing. That night, we played the best gig of our lives, high on adrenalin, thankful to be alive. We made many friends that night, some of whom I still talk to regularly.

One of them, Chris Eaton, opened the show that fateful night. He went on to have a lot of success with his band Rock Plaza Central, and has published several acclaimed novels. I asked him to host the evening—and to put me up on his couch. He gracefully obliged.

I fly to Moncton, rent a car, pick up boxes of books from a warehouse, and drive to Sackville. Pull up outside the Bridge Street Café for lunch. The guy behind the counter greets me knowingly. Friendly town, I think. As we get to talking, it turns out he’s Julie Doiron’s ex, used to live in Toronto, and we have many, many mutual friends. Canada: small country.

The venue has booked four local songwriters to perform some Hip and/or Downie songs to flesh out the evening: Klarka Weinwurm, Steve Haley, Jon Mckiel—and Julie Doiron.

The most Eric's Trippy photo I could take of Julie
Julie, of course, was in Gord’s Country of Miracles, as well as Eric’s Trip, and is a prolific solo artist. We have many mutual friends, and she’s always been incredibly lovely and generous: she played the book launch for Have Not Been the Same in 2001, sat on a panel with Shadowy Men’s Don Pyle and Rebecca West’s Alison Outhit that helped launch that book’s reissue in 2011, and was very generous with her time during an interview for Never-Ending Present.

Still, I knew that asking her to play Gord songs, only a year after his death, was a tall request, emotionally. I’d reached out in the summer and didn’t hear back; not surprising, as she’s an incredibly busy, globetrotting musician with a family at home. Chris Eaton offered to ask her to come out. So did the venue. I thought, Jesus, Sackville is a small town, I hope she’ll be able to go grocery shopping without running into someone asking her if she wants to do this incredibly emotional thing. But she said yes. I’m eternally grateful.

Because both she and Constantine Steve Lambke are in the crowd, I read an excerpt from the chapter about the Hip’s relationship to opening acts. The ensuing on-stage conversation with Chris runs almost an hour, if not more. At one natural conclusion, Chris says, “Well, we should probably stop there.” There are groans and calls of “keep going!” So we do. Some great audience questions follow. One guy claims that, in the DVD release of the Hip’s final show, Downie’s address to the prime minister was edited out. I keep meaning to fact-check that.

Jon McKiel, Chris Eaton, Steve Haley,
Klarka Weinwurm, Julie Doiron
The performances are all stunning. Julie does two Country of Miracles songs: “The Drowning Machine” and “Figment.” As always with Downie’s songs, new lines leap out at me when heard in a new context. Klarka Weinwurm tells a story about being a teenager the week when Coke Machine Glow came out in 2001, and she found a copy at Value Village for $1.99, still in the shrink wrap, and what a profound effect the music had on her. She plays “Vancouver Divorce” and “Thompson Girl.” Steve Haley plays a moving “Seven Matches” and a slightly countrified take on “Fireworks.” Jon Mckiel does a CMG double-shot, with “Chancellor” and “Trick Rider,” the latter featuring Julie singing her signature harmony part. Chilling.

Owen Corrigan
After the show I met Owen Corrigan and his wife; our mutual friend Mark Mattson told him to come to my reading. Back in 1985, Owen worked with Mark Mattson on a Wolfe Island newspaper called the General. Mark asked him to design some tickets for a loft party in Kingston featuring his friends' band, the Tragically Hip. Owen misheard and designed and printed 250 tickets that read 'the Magical Ship.' Mark had to cross out each one and write in the actual name.

Thirty years later, Owen and his family lived briefly at the former Irving mansion that is now the National Water Centre, where I was about to spend a few nights while I was in Saint John. He tells me that yes, that place is a bit like the Overlook Hotel. He isn’t wrong.

October 13: Halifax, the Carleton 

Meeting of the legends in Springhill, N.S.
Chris Eaton’s wife, Laura Reinsborough, helps me figure out the USB connection in the rental car, which was completely mystifying. This lifesaving event meant that I could spend part of my tour listening to my very first audiobook: Tanya Tagaq’s Split Teeth. En route to Halifax, I pull off the highway into Springhill, N.S., hoping to find the Anne Murray visitor centre open. It’s not, so I take a pic of my book in front of the sign. Canadian legends converge.

I pull into town and head to the house of my host, Hanita Koblents, an old university friend who is now a city planner. We don’t have much time to catch up before I’m due at the venue.

The Carleton is run by Mike Campbell, best known as the host of MuchEast in the ’90s. When setting up the gig, he suggested I do it with the Fabulously Rich, a Hip tribute band from P.E.I. fronted by Dennis Ellsworth. Oddly enough, I’d just heard Ellsworth for the first time; his 2018 album Things Change, produced by Joel Plaskett, was in non-stop rotation in my car during the spring tour. Now I find out my favourite new singer/songwriter fronts a Hip tribute? Sign me up. Great move, as it turns out, and the show is sold out.

I meet an old high school friend for dinner: Pat Mora, whose brother Paul can be credited/blamed for introducing me to the accordion. We had a polka band together in high school; not a common teenage pursuit. We played covers of Depeche Mode, U2, George Michael; I learned valuable lessons about the malleability of pop music and the pointlessness of snobbery. Pat and Paul were also two of my most valuable high school concert companions: the Hip, Midnight Oil, 54.40, Grapes of Wrath, R.E.M., Pogues, Violent Femmes, Crash Vegas, etc. After dinner, we stroll through the Maud Lewis exhibit at the art gallery. I happen to be in town for Halifax’s equivalent of Nuit Blanche; the whole town is hopping.

Ryan McNutt
The host is Ryan McNutt, a fellow Polaris Prize juror who I once met by chance at a Merge Records’ festival in North Carolina four years ago. He wrote an essay about my book for the Literary Review of Canada, not an outlet I would expect to cover a rock’n’roll book, and I was grateful he did.

Once again, I read an excerpt about opening bands, partially because it worked well in Sackville, and it would give me an excuse to talk about Joel Plaskett in Halifax. Of course, Ryan and I are the opening band tonight, going on before the Fabulously Rich. The front half of the bar are attentive and responsive listeners, but the back is a bit talky; it’s obvious some people here for the band have no idea there was a reading beforehand. My excerpt talks about opening bands being “Hipped” off the stage, something that Ryan asks me about in our talk. After we take a couple of questions at the end, we ask if there are any more. A chant can be heard from the back: “Hip! Hip! Hip!” Laughing, we say goodnight and get off stage. Yes, I got “Hipped” off the stage. Just like some of my heroes. It was oddly validating.

Business is brisk as I sell books at the back of the room during the band’s set.

I meet a fortysomething divorcée who tells me she went on a date recently with a man who said, “You might not like me for saying this, but I like the Tragically Hip.” She told him, “Only intelligent men like the Tragically Hip.”

The man known only as Grant
I meet a guy named Grant, who proffered me his theory that Johnny Fay’s drumming style is to the Trans-Canada Highway what the motorik beat of German bands like Kraftwerk and Neu was to the Autobahn. Grant is a taper and a super nerd. I feel like he’s testing my knowledge of the band before he decides to buy a book; this happens quite a bit on this tour.

I meet a couple (Nicole and Jeff, maybe?) in their early thirties who first got into the Hip in 2002-04. It’s my least favourite period of the band, and so we have a pleasantly heated discussion about it (so Canadian). They tell me they watched the final concert in Halifax’s public square; apparently they’re visible in the supercut to “Ahead by a Century” that Maclean’s put together of people watching all across the country. Standing beside in the video them is a woman they claimed had started crying fake tears as soon as she saw any news camera pointed toward her, which outraged these two diehard fans.

Nicole and Jeff, maybe?
I meet a very drunk local CBC Radio host who tells me he dreams of writing a book some day.

I meet an old hippie Boomer, a regular at the club who just happened to pop in, who’s not really a Hip fan but is very interested in my writing process and proceeds to regale me with stories about his time as a young songwriter hanging about with David Crosby and the guy who put on Woodstock.

At the very end of the night, Mike Campbell invites me back to his place for some drinks with the band. I’m very tempted, but I also know I have to high-tail it out of town by no later than 10am the next day. I make the right decision.

October 14: Halifax / Fredericton, Grimross Brewery / Saint John

Hanita Koblents
After a late night and a rough sleep, I rise early to spend quality time with Hanita and her lovely family. This involves a lot of catching up, and watching her kids rap along with their favourite Classified video—I must still be in Halifax. I’d wanted to be up and out the door by 9 a.m., but of course that was impossible—and would have been downright rude. Instead, I hightail it out of there at 10.30 and start speeding toward Fredericton: a 4.5-hour drive that should put me there exactly in time for my 3 p.m. event, with no time to spare. Lunch is baby carrots and beef jerky. Rheostatics’ Double Live is the soundtrack, along with Tanya Tagaq’s audiobook of Split Tooth. Entering the land of the Irvings and the McCains and Moosehead beer, the province that established this country’s reputation as hewers of wood and drawers of water.

Grimross Brewery is located on the outskirts of Fredericton. Close to the university, I’m told, but essentially in a strip mall on the other side of a highway that no pedestrian would want to cross. I arrive just in the nick of time, with barely a moment to sneak into the bathroom before the event begins.

My host is Bob Mersereau, a former CBC Radio journalist who’s best known for polling Canadian music critics ten years ago to create two books, The Top 100 Canadian Albums and The Top 100 Canadian Songs. The musical guest is Colin Fowlie, a local recommended by the booker, Eddie Young, who also assembles killer lineups for the Harvest Jazz and Blues Festival every September. Fowlie is fighting off a mean cold, but is a real trooper, singing, among other things, "The Stranger."

Colin Fowlie
The crowd is—well, sparse. I’d been warned that Fredericton was dead on Sundays, and I guess a brewery on the outskirts is even more so.

I take Bob out to dinner, at what is likely the only Persian restaurant in Fredericton. He regales me with lots of great stories about the legends he’s encountered over the years. He's currently working on a project about the mysterious Maritime songwriter Gene MacLellan—who was a mystery to his own family, it turns out. 

I drive to Saint John. I’m staying—by invitation of Mark Mattson and the Waterkeepers—at an abandoned Irving mansion on the outskirts of town. I’ve been given directions to try and find a gravel driveway just off a country road with no streetlights. This proves to be very difficult. About an hour after I intended, I finally find it. There’s a bottle of red wine in the cupboard. For one of the only times on this tour, I indulge in a glass. Or two.

Weeks later, I get an email from Darin Quinn, a neurologist who fronts a Hip cover band in Fredericton. They played the brewery the night before, a benefit for the Gord Downie Foundation for Brain Cancer Research at Sunnybrook. It reads, in part:

“I have played and sang in a number of small bands over the years doing mostly covers with a few originals. What I found so different with these Hip shows is that it didn’t feel like I was performing for the audience, but that I was performing WITH the audience—that we were all together, sharing these tunes as close friends with a few beers after a big exam.  Like the feeling of leading a singsong around the campfire when everyone is into a song, or when you choose the song perfect song to play on your stereo and everyone perks up and starts singing along.  Really interesting and amazing experience.

“I wanted to share a great Hip story that I heard years ago while at a friend’s wedding in, of all places, Bobcaygeon (I’m from the east coast but lived in Barrie for years before moving back). In Violet Light had just been released and a friend of ours told us that he worked with a guy who grew up in Kingston and went to school with the Hip.  The guy had not stayed in touch, and so was so surprised and elated to hear his name in the song “Silver Jet” off the new album. Understandably, he came to work the next day all excited and told everyone he knew to check it out.  His name was Greg Reebeck.

“I remember letting out a big laugh as soon as he said his name. I knew the lyrics well.  The line, of course, is, “The radio dopplering, for all you Gregory Peck fans,” which poor Greg heard as “… for all you Greg Reebeck fans.” I chuckle every time I hear this song and there is a part of me that hopes that Greg never did figure out his error. If he ever did get a hold of the band thank them, as I understand he was trying to do at the time, my guess is that Gord would have gone along with it, especially after reading how much of a good guy he truly was, in your book.”

October 15: Saint John, Picaroon’s General Store

I immediately regret that late-night wine when I rise for a 7.35 a.m. interview with CBC Saint John. The rest of my day is fairly open, other than a Charlottetown CBC interview and a Skype with Alan Cross for his podcast, for an episode that will air on the anniversary of Downie’s death. Cross’s co-host asks me about what Downie had told me about the final tour; I have to politely point out that Downie didn’t talk to me, or anyone in the media other than Peter Mansbridge, in the last two years of his life. The guy has clearly not read my book. They edited that part out of the aired interview.

When in Rome...
I spend the afternoon exploring Saint John. I love it. It’s 300 years old, with a bit of an Old Montreal vibe in one part of the downtown core. It’s gritty and working-class. It’s incredibly easy to get out of the city and into nature. The people are super friendly. For lunch, I have my first-ever fresh lobster. I don't doubt there are a lot of problems in this economically depressed area. But if I was an artist looking for a place to incubate after being priced out of Ontario and Montreal, I'd look to Saint John. 

The view from the Irving mansion
As I pull up to Picaroon’s, the weather is incredibly shitty, rainy and windy. It’s a Monday night. Who’s going to come? I don’t feel any better when I find there’s no PA system and no posters anywhere, despite the fact I sent some in advance. I feel incredibly awkward just standing around, waiting for the appointed time. I finally begin to orate. About a dozen people are interested. The others leave gradually. A couple of guys there are super excited to chat afterwards, including a local pediatrician, and make the evening worthwhile. A regular at the bar, a charming older guy who tells me he’s a survivor of sexual abuse and who now counsels others, finds himself oddly fascinated with my speech, and proceeds to give me speaking tips. 

I retire to the Irving mansion. (I love saying that.)

October 16: Saint John, Saint John Free Library / Moncton, Chapters / Charlottetown

Three cities in one day: here we go.

Saint John Harbour
Courtney Pyrke of the Saint John Free Library contacted me just before the tour began to see if I wanted to do a lunchtime event while I was in town. Seeing how my gig here was on a Monday night, I was more than happy to double dip while I’m here. Good idea, too: though there’s only about 20 people here, that’s twice as many as were listening to me the night before. By this point, I’m doing my reading on autopilot—which is good. Just as playing gigs every night makes you a better musician, I finally feel like I’m getting in the zone as a spoken-word performer. I know the beats in my text; I know when to anticipate laughter; I know when to make dramatic pauses. Unexpected bonus, on top of the honorarium libraries give to speakers: they buy three copies of Have Not Been the Same for the New Brunswick library system. Which is great, coz those things are heavy, and I’m starting to get worried about how much I’m going to have to haul back to Ontario with only two gigs left.

On to Moncton. I’m sure there’s lots to do here, but I don’t know anyone (still) in town and so I drive around aimlessly for a while. My gig is in a Chapter’s located in big-box land; not my ideal choice, because I’m a snob, but this is where the folks at the Northrop Frye literary festival have booked me. My skepticism is entirely misguided. The staff are lovely and excited, and, unlike at the Kingston Chapters, there’s an attractive display to make it obvious Something Is Happening.

Scenic Moncton
I’ve asked Chris Eaton to once again do the Q&A; he hooked me up with the Frye Festival (note: NOT the Fyre Festival). He does another great job, and there are some good audience questions. Not a huge crowd, maybe 15—which I’m beginning to perceive as a huge crowd. One guy played in a recently retired Hip cover band, one interviewed me for the Times-Transcript, and one nurse told me that she'd only ever read two books in her adult life—a Pat Conroy novel and the memoir by hockey player Manon Rheaume—but that she was definitely going to read mine. Can’t imagine any higher praise than that.

The exceedingly generous Chris Eaton
After the gig I hop in the car and drive two hours to Charlottetown, a town so small that they don’t feel the need to put up road signs on major arteries, which is incredibly frustrating when arriving late at night. That’s quickly forgotten when I arrive at the house of my old friend Cynthia Dennis, and we stay up for hours catching up.

Cynthia Dennis
I met Cynthia when we both worked at a crazy-making straight job, at a point when I was ready to give up on writing in general. The job involved a lot of self-important rich people and a colossal drain on public money that put me off the post-secondary industrial complex. There were some great people there, some of whom are still friends, and then there was the demanding boss, who drank all afternoon and then drove to her farm near Kingston. Cynthia was one of the people there who could see how batshit crazy it all was. Sometimes you find the good people in the strangest places.

During our talk, the chorus of my favourite Dennis Ellsworth song kept coming back to me: "Life is cruel but it's beautiful."

October 17: Charlottetown, Charlottetown Beer Garden

Legends meet at Back Alley Records in Charlottetown
It’s the one-year anniversary of Gord Downie’s death, which is not something I ever wanted to exploit. But I felt good about this gig with the Fabulously Rich. The band was born when Ellsworth’s old high school band decided to get back together, only to realize that they weren’t really interested in playing their old material and no one probably wanted to hear it anyway. It was the year of Downie’s diagnosis, so they decided to put on a benefit night with proceeds to the Sunnybrook brain cancer unit. That led to more gigs throughout the Maritimes; they donate half of all profits to various related charities, raising thousands of dollars.

I'd never been to the Island before, despite my teenage Anne of Green Gables obsession. Let’s just say it doesn’t take long to see the parts of Charlottetown worth seeing on an overcast fall day. Weirdest C-town moment: walking into a live music attic for dinner with Cynthia, and the bartender points at me and says, “Hey, you're that guy!” “Uh, sure.” “The guy who wrote that book!” How the hell did he recognize me? From my morning interview on local CBC Radio? Fame is weird on the Island. 

The show in the cradle of Confederation is quite full. Not only is it the anniversary of Downie’s death, but it’s Legalization Day in Canada. The mood is… festive. Which means very few in the room are remotely interested in hearing some come-from-away get on stage and start talking before the rock show. For the first time, I have to speak over an audible din, saved only by a microphone. (Thankfully, this is also the worst it ever will ever be on this tour, getting it out of the way.) I gain new respect for solo musicians, but at least music has the conceit of being background ambience. A speaker doesn’t have that luxury. At least I have stage lights on me so I can’t see the chatterers; the people gathered at the front are definitely listening and curious, so I can see I’m not obviously wasting my time.

Dennis Ellsworth
Then the Fabulously Rich take the stage, and once again they’re fantastic. Ellsworth doesn’t sound like Downie and doesn’t try to act like Downie; he just sings the shit out of this material, and does it exceptionally well. The band is whip-tight. The set is deep. Any remaining snobbery I had about cover bands is completely extinguished. I wish I’d talked about these guys in the book. Gentleman Ellsworth also takes time to admonish the crowd’s rudeness to me earlier. No matter. At least I didn’t get Hipped.

As I work the merch table, it’s clear that a lot of people were listening and are happy I’m there. I meet a guy who used to go out with Rob Baker’s older sister, Vicki, and they’d babysit young Bobby together. I meet a guy from northwestern Ontario who knows the Wenjack family. I meet a guy who went to McGill in 2001, where he and his roommates listened to Coke Machine Glow constantly “until it became part of the furniture.” Canada: small country.

October 18: Charlottetown / Moncton / Toronto 

I meet Ellsworth for coffee before I leave town. He tells me the story of how the title poem from Downie’s Coke Machine Glow book helped him get through a writer’s block a few years ago, and how his producer Josh Finlayson helped convince Downie to let Ellsworth set the poem to music. He also saves me much physical pain on my flight later that day by agreeing to take a box of books to sell on consignment at Back Alley Records, where he works.

Sir John A., meet Mr. Downie
Before I leave town, I stop by a large John A. Macdonald mural. Can’t help but think about the protagonist of the book—the man people considered to be Captain Canada, who grew up in Macdonald’s hometown surrounded by his likeness, whose final chapter was devoted to acknowledging the legacy of residential schools—and what kind of conversations the two might have today.

I sleep in my own bed. A rare treat this month. Just for one night.

October 19: Chatham, Ten-Seven Café and Lounge

Chatham's Retro Suites Hotel
This was an invitation; it would never occur to me to go to Chatham. Brent deNure operates a jewellery store with an event space in the back, where he regularly brings in guest speakers as diverse as the actor who played Black Caesar to the fire chief in Lac Megantic. He’s a huge Hip fan: he saw them 30 times. He also clearly has an odd thing for Canadiana, as evidenced by the actual Avro Arrow engine he has stored in his garage—not something you see every day.

DeNure is a fantastic host: he put me up in the beautiful art hotel Retro Suites, which is worth the trip to Chatham alone, took me out for a French dinner, got local lawyer Steve Pickard to conduct the interview, hired a band to play after my talk, and bought a box of books. I’m always amazed at people who go to such lengths to put on cultural events in smaller centres, and my heart goes out to him.

Art Deco Chatham
Too bad only about five people showed up for the gig. I’m sure DeNure lost his shirt. But it’s clear he’s doing this for the love of it. God bless him.

October 20: Windsor, BookFest

This was also an invitation, and so unlike almost every other gig on this tour, I didn’t feel the need to personally try and drum up any media for it. That was a mistake. I’ve been booked as the sole attraction at the soft-seat Capitol Theatre, being interviewed by Dan Macdonald, a DJ at the local rock station, where the Hip can still be heard several times a day. Should be some people there, right? Maybe 30, max. About the same number as Toronto’s Word on the Street and a bit fewer than the Kingston Writers Festival. I’m not really complaining. But why was I booked in such a large, lovely space if it wasn’t going to be promoted? Awkward.

The funniest moment comes when Macdonald is praising my book with a list of adjectives: “thorough, funny, moving, tedious…” “Wait, what? Did you just say my book is tedious?” A slip of the tongue, he swears.

The legendary Jan Wong
The festival provides not only hotel accommodation, fancy dinner and an after-party, but the chance to meet one of my heroes, Jan Wong, former Globe and Mail writer, whose Tiananmen Square coverage gripped me in high school. Earlier in the day, I caught her panel with Randy Boyagoda. I happen to sit across from her at dinner and she’s full of smart, curious questions about my project—because of course she is. I also learn that she’s a flautist in a marching band in Fredericton, where she now teaches. She recommends a community orchestra in Toronto that she joined a few years ago, after a particularly dark time, to reconnect with her love of music. I buy her workplace depression memoir, Out of the Blue, and tear into the first few chapters before bed. It’s excellent. 

Next: Western Canada

Also in this series: Spring; Summer; Encores

FINAL NOTE: All photos here are by me or someone standing next to me. I have some great video that I hope to have ready by the book's third anniversary. Apologies for any/all copy editing mistakes, especially when I stray in and out of never-ending present tense.

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