I know other singers can slide easily into the skins of songs they didn’t write, but I cant. It is such a self-conscious thing for me because I’m always sure that I never get it quite right. This is probably because I don’t see myself as a singer: When I fill out a car loan application, I put “Songwriter” or “Musician”, or “Artist” if I feel like brightening their day in the credit department. Not “Singer”. The only time I sing songs I didn’t write is when I sing with the Art of Time Ensemble and by the time I walk out on stage, I’ve wrestled my way inside the songs as much as I can, mostly desperate to not oversing the thing, but create some kind of respectful distance. A song aint just notes and words…not songs I agree to sing, anyway. There is some kind of intention woven into the songs I agree to sing and that is the thing I’m trying to locate…more the bones of the song rather than the skin. Most often the songs are some kind of iconic. Yesterday, a friend pointed me to a video that was recorded earlier this year of a performance of Chancellor by Gord Downie and there I saw another clip of After Mardi Gras by Steve Earle.
I came to these songs a stranger, as I come to most songs that aren’t mine. I’d forgotten I’d sang Chancellor and whinced my way through the video. I’d never heard the song before being asked to sing it (and I was asked as if it was assumed I knew of it) and it was a tender time in the arc of the story that had emerged about Gord Downie and so I climbed into the song with even more uncertainty than usual. Making my way around the atypical phrasing and imagery of Chancellor was more difficult than contending with the desire for redemption and the self immolation of the heart in Steve Earle’s Mardi Gras. It was Gord’s vampire versus Steve’s inner demons… I dunno… As I wrote that just now, it occurred to me perhaps the songs had more in common than I thought.
In any case, the thing I did note in these video performances was the tenderness in the arrangements (courtesy of Kevin Fox and Jonathan Goldsmith), the focus of the players on the stage, and the respect I remember feeling everybody bringing to the enterprise. I am sharing the stage with Andrew Burashko, Drew Jurecka, Mark Mariash, Don Rooke, Rob Piltch, Rachel Mercer, Douglas Perry, Joseph Phillips, Stephen Sitarski, Kevin Turcotte, Bryan Holt, and John Johnson.
And we all, on the stage and in the house, were surely sharing the minutes with the spirit of the songwriters: Steve Earle and Gord Downie.
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.