I went to the Louvre once. It was 1987. I was 23. I was on a belated honeymoon trip. I ate french fries on the patio while playing Crazy Eights, mistakenly sat on a Louis the XIV chair and set off the alarm, and lined up to see the Mona Lisa only to bail on the lineup and take pictures of people looking at the Mona Lisa instead.
I’m not very good in museums. I become super self-conscious in crowds, and in art galleries I break into a sweat under the pressure of liking what I’m seeing, or the expectation of my having an intelligent opinion because, apparently, it is not enough to like a painting, to be intrigued or moved by it: you have to know why and be able to tell your mates…and anyone else in earshot…if you talk loud enough.
A couple weeks ago, L & I were in Montreal and took in the Chagall exhibit at the Musee Des Beaux Arts. It was near the end of the exhibit’s run and the place was packed. People moved from room to room like sheep and I was a sweaty mess of nerves within a few minutes but I discovered something important: I enjoy seeing paintings when I can get up close…really up close. Like sitting in the Louis the XIV chair kind of close.
I found a painting that didn’t have a crowd gathered around it…a portrait Chagall had done of his father (he did a few, I think). With my nose a few inches away from it, I took my time looking at the canvas without the feeling of 50 pairs of eyes drilling into my back.
I saw ridges– the pressure exerted, all the places the painter decided to stop moving the brush, the exact moments his brain signaled the muscles in his arm, wrist, and fingers to ease up or bear down or change direction. Up close, the thing was a study in intention, force, and trust. Micro movements and decisions made on some sub-existent level. The place where what is invited and what actually appears seem to work it out for the greater good, all caught in oil and pigment a few inches from my nose. Looking at it like this allowed me to relate to the humanity of the painting, and of the painter. I appreciated how he painted those he loved, and that he painted himself, too.
I lasted longer than I thought in the gallery, but will confess we did spend a good portion of time in the Kids Chagall Colour Zone playing with puppets. Well, one puppet. A donkey puppet. I loved that puppet.
I suppose it’s not cool in these modern days to be thrilled by traveling to different parts of the globe. It is kind of standard fare now for many. Or maybe not…officially, its been just over 100 years that commercial aviation has been around but just about 65 years or so that it has been feasible to wake up in Bristol, England and fall asleep in Guelph, Ontario that same very long day…a cab, a train, and a car ride from my brother thrown in there. Or travel within a relatively short time to the other side of the planet! (I’m convinced that nothing is more inhuman for a human body than jet travel.) A figure has been floating around for a while that only 5% of us here on the planet fly on planes, so maybe this zipping around is not as natural as it might seem. Which may be news to those people who travel a lot by air and make noise about “passenger rights” as if our flying through the sky in a metal and plastic tube garners the same attention and vigilance as, say, freedom of thought, clean water, clean air, or food. Or those insufferable people who complain about the food…while they fly…through the sky…above the clouds…like it was a god-given right.
As a younger man, I managed to shoot myself in the feet pretty good when a German record company came calling to have me tour over there with The Stickpeople…club and promo dates in Germany, Switzerland, Austria and other parts of Europe. I asked him what kind of shows we would be doing for TV and he replied, “Gameshows.” Gameshows. All I could think of was performing on something like Definition and I burst out laughing, assuming he was joking. It was no joke, and there would be no European tour (a sensitive bunch, those Germans– who knew?). Regarding the USA, I had determined for myself that I wasn’t interested in being–and I quote myself here–wiped off the chin of America. Translation: I am scared shitless of the place and am ignoring the fact that good people can live in lousy countries and I’m too stupid or scared to figure out how to do it so I will tell myself I’m better off not playing there. With the exception of a thing here or there, my playing days were confined to Canada and the only way anyone from anywhere else could see me was by seeing me here in the north.
So, you will forgive my childish excitement as I write this, having just returned from a short but intense tour to the UK on the heels of a lengthy tour in Australia, fairly jet-lagged and wrecked, feeling satiated and sort of hung over…and hankering for more. I’ve never taken anything for granted in this singer/songwriter thing: not the chances to record (I always think the recording I am currently working on will be my last); or perform (I’m fairly aware that each performance might be, for any number of good reasons, my last); or write a new song (I’m always amazed and downright confounded when I write a new song…every song is the last song I’ll ever write); shit, I’ll even admit that every time I climb on my motorcycle I’m aware that it might be for the last time. Point is, it’s best not to take these things for granted. I’ll confess that I had begun to wonder if I’d ever get to travel on the back of the songs I wrote, a thing that was an expected dividend when I started out and is less likely for young artists these days. Since the fall of 2015, though, I have performed in over 30 cities in five countries on three continents as a part of Nights of Grief and Mystery.
The tour through England– small cities mostly– was the first we would do on land that had not been colonized by the British Empire. I was excited by this because in Canada, the US, Australia, and New Zealand the air can be thick with the guilt of thievery and exhaust fumes of the fevered and mostly impotent and childlike attempts by descendants at redemption. This stuff hangs in the air between us and the audiences, is there in the murmuring in the halls before we start, and is there when we are done…though there are a few moments immediately after, quiet and wordless ones, that feel different.
Turns out that the air in England is thick with guilt, too, laced with a great deal of shame and topped off with quiet confusion as to how to make amends for its’ various offenses…or sins…or transgressions. Unlike its’ predecessors the Byzantine and Holy Roman empires, the British Colonial Empire birthed some ideas (most having to do with the rise of the mercantile class) that seem to threaten the life of the planet itself. I say “seem” because I’d like to think the planet is a tough old bitch that will figure out how to deal. The British Colonial Empire was the largest the planet has seen to date: that is a lot of blood, a lot of ruin. You don’t get to just walk away from that.
So all this stuff is floating around, bombs have exploded and will explode again, people have been maimed and killed and will be again, and we are driven by car mostly by our good man Buckingham (who you sort of see in the first photo) from city to city.
After a show in Totnes (180.3 miles from Reading) I was shoveling some food into my mouth in the evening air outside the theater. It had been a while since we had ended, I had just finished packing up, and there were still a few folk loitering around. A very small, very old woman appeared in front of me, her skin translucent, her small hands wrinkled and soft. She simply looked at me for a moment, placed her hands over her breast, then to my chest and said, “From my heart to your heart.”
Now, there are all kinds of people who come to these shows. As in any audience anywhere, some folk are more lost than others, and that sense of being bereft can make itself known in a quick back and forth. There was none of that here. Quite the opposite, actually. The gesture felt so natural, the phrase innocent and genuine. “I’ll take that,” I said honestly and found myself covering her tiny hand on my chest with my free hand. We stayed like that for a couple heartbeats. She stared up at me and held my gaze for another moment then walked away. Later, I mentioned the old lady to a couple of the concert organizers and they said they knew of her, that she was dying, and she had brought her grand daughter to the night. I realized I had looked out into the audience at one point in a bit of a daze while playing and part of my brain had logged the fuzzy image of an older woman sitting beside a younger woman who was crying, their hands interlaced in the old lady’s lap, the image replaced by that of my own fingers wrapped around my guitar neck as I shifted my attention back to whatever it was we were playing. A Night of Grief and Mystery has a good amount of coming to terms with dying and what the world might look like if we lived in the knowledge of our dying and I guess the old woman and her grand daughter were swimming in that pretty deeply.
These nights with Jenkinson on three continents, these nights are my bid for redemption.
Last Friday I was preparing to take the stage with The Art of Time Ensemble which included Andrew Burashko, Stephen Sitarski, Drew Jurecka, Rachel Mercer, Joe Phillips, Mark Mariash, Doug Perry, Rob Piltch, special guest noise maker Don Rooke, author/poet Michael Ondaatje, and actor Rick Roberts. Other vocalists on the shows were Andy Maize, Tom Wilson, and Suzie Ungerlieder.
Some of these folk I have known for some time now, and a couple I am lucky enough to consider close friends. I don’t get out much, and I’ve never been a social creature. I failed spectacularly at being part of any scene. I was pacing back and forth behind backstage thinking how funny it was that these AoT gigs are the one place I get to spend time with artists I’ve only orbited around…Tom, Andy, for intance…or meet for the first time: Suzie, for instance, this time out. The thing about these gigs is…for some of us more, um, roots/pop inclined singers or musicians… is that we are in strange waters, or fish out of water altogether and it sort of levels a playing field we aren’t even aware exists and we get to see each other make peace with performing things that stretch our own understanding of ourselves. That sounds a lot more lame than it is. Put another way, there is not a lot of ego on these shows and that is as refreshing as refreshing gets.
It was the second time I got to work along side of Michael Ondaatje and I finally got the chance (and nerve) to tell him how Coming Through Slaughter has danced on the fringes of my creative consciousness since the day I turned the last page on it. A couple years ago I got to work with Margaret Atwood and that led to a weird and wonderful night at the opera with her and her family (a shitty version of Don Giovanni, I was told…I wouldn’t have known because I was just happy to there and was kind of geeking out).
Renowned dance company David Earle Dance did an inspiring piece on a show I was on, and it introduced me to the world of modern dance, a world I hadn’t paid much attention to. Out of our mutual admiration from those nights grew dance pieces to two songs of mine that members of the company, Suzette Sherman and Georgia Simms, choreographed and performed.
Most of my performances with the Art of Time have had me singing at least one arrangement done by Jon Goldsmith. Jon produced my first two recordings for True North and we have been friends since. He also arranged strings for me on the live concert recording we did almost 10 years ago called Pleasure & Relief (a couple years before I met Burashko and started singing with the AoT). I admire many of the arrangers whose songs I get to swim in when I sing with the AoT, but none more than Jon and getting to sing a chart of his makes me want to try and make my own songs more…well, more.
I met Don Rooke…inventor, soundologist, and progenitor of Tornto cult faves The Henrys…on an Art of Time gig not so long ago and that led to me singing on The Henrys last recording, 2015’s Quiet Industry, a collection of songs I would urge everyone to check out without reservation.
I’ve learned a great deal watching members of the Art of Time negotiate the rehearsals, speaking in, what is to me, a foreign tongue, having never learned how to read music myself. I have a great respect for Burashko and his carving out a career in the arts. This is no small feat.
And nowhere else could I practice pacing the stage guitar-less, singing words that are not mine, trying to figure out who I am in the thing while I’m doing the thing, and all the while wearing a hat and a wee bit of bling. Thank you , Art of Time Ensemble: I hardly recognize me.
A great band featuring my friend Don Rooke (of The Henrys and Quiet Industry fame) on lap steel etc for the evening. I sing four songs: four American God, American Way, America Lost, American Love songs. It is a lot of America for this singer. I’m a fairly linear guy and not much of a lyric “interpreter”, so when I sing “I expect to touch His hand”, I know the intention and can’t pretend otherwise. Likewise a bit of a thing to sing any line with the words “our forefathers”. I’m having a good time finding my way through these songs, though, and I know the shows will be great. A ton of talent under the roof.
In a few weeks I leave for a whirlwind run of dates with Stephen in the U.K. This will be third continent to which we’ve been able to bring these unassuming nights of sorrow and wonder. For tickets, go to https://orphanwisdom.com/events/
A few thoughts on the recently completed Nights of Grief & Mystery Oceania Tour 2017.
First off, a flurry of thank you’s to the intrepid people who organized the thing on the ground in Australia and New Zealand. It is no small thing welcoming a small band of tired men into your busy lives for a few days, tending to all the details that need tending to, sending us on our way, and rejoining the regular broadcast that was your life before signing on to promote one of these gigs. It is my hope is that some echo of your efforts comes to your ears every now and again…something good. Things are felt for such a short while it seems these days.
The land was beautiful, there were good people met (there were some challenging folk, too), and there was the rare empty seat in all the halls we played…something astounding to me considering the night can detonate a kind of sorrow that makes ovations unlikely but, still, there were always those who hung back to connect, struggling to find the words to acknowledge the night and our part in it.
Here’s the thing: what I wasn’t prepared for (besides the vicious jet lag on my return home) was feeling like the alien from that postulated theory “what would an alien say if it landed here”. So much of what I saw and heard felt foreign under the skin but nothing more so than the phrase “No worries.” Even typing it gives me the shivers. At one point, I thought my head would explode if I heard those two words together on more time. Mysteriously chosen to replace “you’re welcome” in the English language, the phrase found itself concluding almost every single transaction one might have in Australia. To utter “thank you” guaranteed a “no worries”. Really? None? I gave you $10 for a $4 coffee, you give me $6 change like you are supposed to, I say “thank you”, and you tell me I shouldn’t worry about it. About what, exactly? All the trouble you went to in getting me the correct change or my Long Black (an Americano down there)? The impact on the environment of the cup? The carbon footprint of my plane ride to and from the country and the 10 or so in-country flights we took? The shady trade practices that makes a good cup of coffee so easy to find down here? The exploitation of baristas and the worse treatment of 7-11 employees? The quiet despair that is crushing the developed world? The harsh awakening from the dream that whatever we want we can manifest? No worries about dying, either? Not the after part we aren’t around for, but the actual doing of the thing…no worries about that?
My niece tried to tell me the French (in Canada) have the same kind of phrase with “de rien” which is roughly translated to “it’s nothing”. However, there is also “bienvenue” which is widely and respectfully used and means, quite literally, “welcome”.
Australia, there are worries: small, niggly little worries and HUGE FUCKING BADASS WORRIES that should keep you up nights. You would be well advised to carve out some time to carve some worry sticks because sometimes worrying about something can sometimes lead to some kind of action. I’ll admit I’m being pretty vague there, given the fact that worriers are more likely to be seen as ineffective lumps of worthless worry, but worrying could be the first step in changing something. Your political landscape, for instance.
I think that—without you knowing it—the phrase “No Worries” has become your national motto. Deeper than just a phrase uttered at every cash register in the land, it just might have been spoken aloud soooooo many times that it has become a real cornerstone of the colonial Australian culture. I’d definitely worry about that.
It’s hard to describe what the nights we call “Illuminate Me” are like, so this video goes a little way towards that. Essentially, I sing and Tina Newlove paints on a canvas that has a camera trained on it and the feed is projected over me on to a large screen behind me. The night starts under the stark glare of the white projector light and ends drowned in colour.
As to the “why” of it…well, why not? There is no plan when we begin and often a quiet collective “Huh,” at the end as the echoes of a night of song die away and we all look at a huge painting where there was none 90 minutes before. It’s a rare way to watch the collision of two art disciplines and experience the chaos of making something from nothing.
December 1 and 2, The Pearl Company Theatre, Hamilton, ON. Tickets