First time in Scotland for the lot of us on stage.
Why would I be shocked about our reception in Edinburgh? The foot stomping calls for an encore; the random couples dancing and clinging to each other throughout the night; the calls for “Carry Me” (where the hell did that come from?) and being sung home by those full voiced people at the very end of the night…? Why was I shocked?
Last night’s gig was sold out thanks to the tireless efforts of a few visionary folk here. I’m shitty at geography, so didn’t know much about this place.
Here’s what I DO know now:
I’m staying in a house once owned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle;
The theatre we played in was built in 1874; Henry the 8th stood on a tower around the corner from where I’m writing and watched his beloved ship, the Mary Rose, unexplainably sink before his eyes en route to battle the French; The theatre we played in was where Charles Dickens’ mother went into labour with him; In a part of England that was flattened by bombing in WW2, the theatre we played in was left standing because it was owned at the time by a Nazi sympathizer who helped guide German war planes toward the harbour using lights on the theatre roof; The queen of England is here today. The president of the United States is here today. Peter Sellers was born above the Chinese food place down on the corner; The neighbourhood I’m staying in was in lockdown last night, a curfew enforced, and our drummer had to leave the post-gig meal withoutapple crumble and creme fraiche so as not to be arrested after midnight;
Or, I don’t know Where I’m Going, But I’m Going There Anyway.
In a few days we take to the stage for what will be the two final concerts of the Nights of Grief & Mystery North American Tour 2018. According to our timekeeper, we travelled for 39 days, were in/out of airports 23 times, changed timezones 11 times, and travelled about 22,500 km. We played to over 6,400 people in 25 or so cities. Most of The Nights (I don’t really like to call them shows) ran around 2-and-a-half hours, and the band played for almost all of that. Those are the numbers, for those who like that sort of thing.
What follows here is an attempt to encapsulate what I know to be the soft centre of the experience for me, made up as it was of landings of all kinds. We had plenty…the kind you do in airplanes, the kind you do when the van rolls to a stop at the venue or accommodations, and the kind that is knowledge of a particular sort that makes itself known to you in no uncertain terms, elbowing its way into your life (as opposed to knowledge that ‘settles’ or ‘dawns’ on you).
From a moving vehicle, some of the geography held surprises; like how NYC seems appear from nowhere in the middle of a great forest; how odd it is to see cactus and still think of Looney Tunes; how you can still be surprised by winter in Winnipeg in October; how you can fool yourself into willingly moving through the pollution of L.A; how silence can fill the vehicle when passing Tent City after Tent City along highways on both East and West coasts.
We moved a lot on this tour, on the ground and in the air. Airplane to airplane mostly. The ability to not acknowledge the toll all that movement takes gave way to it being mandatory to acknowledge it… the staggering movement of the machinery, visible and invisible, dedicated to hurtling humans through the air or down the road, and being a part of that, complicit, going from town to town, the invisible mechanisms under those airports and the moving of baggage.
That is when it came to me, a sick feeling, seeing the luggage snaking behind some guy towing it across the tarmac towards the behemoth plane and you know underneath the airport is an absurd system of belts and scanners and people prodding, checking, bumping, nudging your shit and everyone else’s shit. Sometimes it felt like everyone from everywhere decided to fly that day, no one wanted to stay home. I saw all that and I said out loud, We should do a tour where we move through space and time like it shows on our poster: we should do it behind a mule and cart.
It’s a serious consideration, and we began to assemble the list of people we could draft to build the caravan, drive the mule, etc. It’s a real list, but it will have to wait.
In the air, a particular sorrow would take a seat in me whenever we approached a landing. I would look down after breaking through the clouds and there I would be met with a bird’s eye view of the sum total of our greatness, shingles and concrete laid out in a thoughtless grid, uninspired and, even from up there, carrying the feint smell of endings. And here we were, flying in to play for people who paid a decent ticket price to hear us speak and sing about endings of all kinds.
This hit me hard flying into LA, which I’d never been to before. A lot of American place names carry with them a certain mythic quality if only because they appear as characters in so many novels, movies and other culture ephemera. Meeting them face to face is often like all the stories you hear of the folly of meeting your heroes: they are rarely what you had dreamed them to be and Los Angeles and its neighbouring regions are the hotbeds of the creation and sustaining of that American myth.
Note: When I was a kid, I thought The City of Los Angeles translated into The City of Lost Angels. Even as a kid, I had a handle on the more subtle sense of the word ‘lost’ to mean ‘bereft’. If ever there was a town full of angelic beings who had no clue as to their lineage, no sense of their destiny, suffering from a collective amnesia as to their purpose, and so, making their way through the days/nights as best they could, settling on a pale version of ‘meaningful’, it would be Los Angeles. So maybe I wasn’t all that far off in my definition as a kid.
From the air, the ground was a carpet of rooftops as far as could be seen under a layer of smog with a few spires of buildings rising out of the downtown core (where we were to play) that reminded me of Wizard of Oz for some reason. This is where all the glitter comes from? I thought. This is where all the light is bent around reality and fashioned into something else?
All I could see was the underside of a bad idea. On the ground, even the palm trees looked like they were trying to escape. I know we are going to get to the stage. We will go through all the challenges on the ground, and these are banal challenges… will there be enough audio firepower? Enough of a sound check? Do we have drums? What if my rig doesn’t work? What if the van is too small? What if we miss our connection?But you know, even in the air, that you will figure it all out, and you are going to get on that dark road heading out of town. You know this as sure as you know anything, even when you are impossibly streaking across the sky, even up in the unreal blue of the beginning of deep space…you know you will be on the humble ground, on a dark road, heading out of town. Those words again…on a dark road, heading out of town…
When you fly in over a place like Los Angeles and you know that you are going to be talking about endings of all kinds, and you are flying over an ending, those are heartbreaking moments for me. Those few seconds right there, trying to bring these two things together gently. We are night after night in one building or another, four people and a sound system, reminding people of the end and what is there waiting to be earned. It sounds ridiculous. And I’m shaking my head in sorrow, and I can’t focus on all the good people who will be helping us in and out of town, putting us up, driving us around, can’t focus on whatever the beauty the land does offer still, can’t focus on what most would call “the upside” of the venture…all I can feel is sorrow. This is the best we could do with our time here? This is the expression of the best part of us??
You’ll tell me I’m being negative, that its a matter of perspective, that most cities look like hell from the air, and that, anyhow, I’m a cynical asshole. I won’t argue with any of that. I’ve spent most of my artistic life peering into the negative spaces and my cynicism is well earned and it doesn’t keep me from recognizing beauty. I’m just not the guy you’re going to find cheerleading the modern definitions of creativity, righteousness, love, justice, and freedom in our cultural and political systems. After all, you are reading words from a guy who is in a band that almost printed the tour tee-shirt No Love Songs To The Anthropocene Era! (words courtesy of Jenkinson, of course).
Landings…the other great landing of this tour came from confronting the quality of the words of my songs as they had to night after night share the oxygen with Stephen Jenkinson’s conjureings. Even though we have presented different iterations of this material together for a few years now, this last tour seemed to illuminate how much farther up the mountain I have to go, or, conversely, how much deeper into the cracks and crevices I need to peer. Humbling and enervating at 54 years old to know I’m not operating at the top of my game. Along with that, though, like a salve comes this other kind of landing: that I am, indeed, doing what I’ve been put on this earth to do. At the end of this tour, which was the result of the hard work of many, many people and a foolhardy and Quixotic endeavour none the less, it occurred to me that I finally understood what ‘having faith’ meant– the kind that we try to have in ourselves, in our unlikely dreams for ourselves, in those wordless versions of ourselves that we can’t defend or describe, even if our marriages or relationships or households scream and demand, WHAT IS THE PLAN???!!!?? and you open your mouth but nothing comes out, because…
Because this: the arrow doesn’t know the target or the bow, but it flies anyway. Its flying is independent of the target and the bow, and loose in the air it knows neither and could speak of neither, but it flies on anyway. And that has been me in life, and that was what came to me at the end of this tour. I can’t claim to know my beginning and I’ve no certainty about the ending (except for knowing it will come), but right now I know I’m flying/falling at the behest of Something(s) or Someone(s) having set me in a bow, pulled until the tension was unbearable, and loosed me into the recurring unrepentant nights and the unrelenting dawns that mark time on this planet, towards a mystery known only to the archer.
And that is OK with me.
And that is faith, it seems to me. I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m going there anyway.
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/
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
I first met Tina Newlove at this time of the year in 2012 in a factory loft art space (sadly no longer there) in Kitchener, ON. We performed as part of a series that curated a visual artist and a musician for an evening. Not content with just singing in the midst of art hanging on the wall, I thought maybe live painting would be an avenue to look into and Tina had had plenty of experience with painting on stage. Then I thought it would be a lot cooler if somehow the painting and I could interact more, and that’s when I proposed training a video camera on to Tina’s canvas and projecting the feed over me onto a screen behind me. The singer and the song become sort of subservient (nice alliteration) to the “hand of god” and the brush as the audience watches the birth of a painting, the mess of it all, the seeming disorganization and the sometimes horrifying white-ing out of a part of the image that one might have grown attached to…
It. Was. Amazing. The painting sold (you would be advised to bring along a chequebook), the audience was exhausted, and we had done something a little off the beaten path.
We are very excited to try this again in the lovely factory confines of The Pearl Company in Hamilton, Ontario. Please join us.
I didn’t know today was the 40th anniversary of the Edmund Fitzgerald going down.
A few years ago, on a magical night, I was lucky to be in the company of some of the finest musicians a man could find himself in and one of the songs we did that night was Lightfoot’s iconic retelling of the sorrow of the misfortune of the men aboard. Here is a link to that performance.
The arrangement, by Aaron Davis, is worth plugging your computer/handset into a stereo worthy of the endeavour.
**A couple weeks ago I was asked to write a little note about my time on the road with Stephen Jenkinson. We were in Austin, it was hot, and I was having trouble describing the half dozen nights we had done. Here’s what I came up with. Is it unbecoming that I quote my own lyrics? We continued on through Oregon and Washington State and finish up Halloween night in Duncan, BC. It has been an honour.
Beneath the Truth Lie the bones Of a Truth More complete And I’ll bet everything I own It’s a Truth that’s bittersweet.
Tonight I will walk on to a stage with a remarkable man in a theater built in Austin, TX, in 1871. It will be the sixth time I’ve done so on this tour, and the first time I’ve ever strapped on a guitar in Austin. After the whistles and clapping die down, he will start talking, and I will wait.
I will make a few tentative sounds,
my fingers trying to find the spaces between his words. My listening will turn into the kind that forgets the moment that has come before and is unaware of the one coming next. And I have a suspicion that this is the way it is for many in the audience, too.
At some point he will make room for me to sing and I will try to remember to sing softly so as not to break the spell cast on the room. It has taken me a while to understand that long, liquid, and legato notes are the order of the evening. Time will dance on through the night, or, in this case, will move properly and headlong toward the past.
The end will come, long book signing lines will dwindle, and we will ask each other in a stolen moment, “Well…how’d we do, Boss?”
You’d have to ask Stephen himself what these night “are” to him. To me, they are art and subversive acts of the highest order. Sometimes it is the building itself that is subverted: a recital hall, a stately ballroom, a modern concert hall, a conference room in a State Capital building, a bookstore, this opera house come Masonic temple…but mostly it is the thing that passes for Culture on this continent that is subverted, and most of what stands for Counter Culture, too.
It is not the kind of art designed to distract or entertain, nor is it the kind that takes some kind of severe gymnastics of the mind and heart to trust. It is the kind found on cave walls that simply and skillfully tell the story of the day with all of its’ sorrows, horrors, and challenges along with its’ tenderness, victories, and graces. Over the course of the evenings, the pendulum swings a wide arc…sometimes unbearably so…and standing firmly at the center is Stephen Jenkinson, more with the people than separate from them, whether they want him there or not. And given our proclivity to throw heroes up the pop charts and teachers onto crosses, the resistance to simply seeing him as a man of hard won truths and a gift for singing them is sometimes shocking.
From up where I’m standing on stage…slightly up stage left in a muted pool of light…there is only one way to measure the evening:
Was every moment, Every vein opened, Every chest cracked Every word spoken, Every note struck, Every clunker hit, Every word sung, Every story told True?
To a point, the answer is…and has to be…and IS,
So here’s to the highs And here’s to the lows The human heart endures And so it goes… The bittersweet highs and lows.
It started, actually, as a bit of a lark: when you’re travelling alone, how can you make it seem like you’re not? That, indeed, your travelling companion is snapping off intimate shots? In NYC, you can’t point the camera anywhere without the backdrop being amazing (unlike the cities I frequent in Canada). However, selfies are a drag. So, while in NYC, I placed my phone on the ground, set the timer, ran away, and strolled nonchalantly toward it, trying several times. I posted the result, called it “Vain and Alone in NYC?”, describing how the shot was taken. Then I just kept trying to see how far I could push the un-selfie selfie. Each post on Facebook was accompanied by a little anecdote of shooting the thing…you had to at least be able to not be embarrassed being obviously vain. Someone suggested I hash tag the stuff. So, #vainandalone
A small arty clip from a vid for a song we like to call Glow Fonder but is actually called The Almighty Inbox from the new Henrys recording. Its a beautiful song–I think of it as a prayer, but I didn’t write it so you’d have to ask Don Rooke. Quiet Industry from The Henrys will be available June 11, 2015
At the end of 2014, I spent some time in a small room recording vocals for 11 songs written by Don Rooke, the man behind The Henrys.
The recording features Don on guitars, baritone uke etc, Andrew Downing on bass, Davide DiRenzo on drums, John Sheard on pump and electric organs, Hugh Marsh on violin, Jonathan Goldsmith on muted piano (plus a string arrangement) and harmony vocals from Tara Dunphy.
It’s an odd thing these days, the making and releasing music: it kind of feels like yelling from behind a waterfall. The task this time was made sweeter by the fact that the songs are inventive, emotive, and accessible; the players are all from the “A” team; and the attention to detail on Quiet Industry is a rare thing these days (the record took more than a year to make and most of that time it was one lonely man spending unending hours in a little room in Toronto on the edge of a forest, toiling and tinkering…thus the title of the recording).
The Henrys are an institution in Toronto and have been critically lauded around the world since their debut in 1994. I’m totally impressed with myself that I got to sneak in and hang with the cool kids for a while.
I’ll keep you posted on how you can check it out, concert dates and what not. Please let your music loving friends know about this record.
Waiting, from the concert DVD “Pleasure & Relief”. A rare song, written quickly on a Korg piano in the second floor apartment of Lynn Simmons, recorded first with The Stickpeople and then again years later with a beautiful string arrangement by Jon Goldsmith, accompanied by Gary Craig and George Koller, with Jon on piano, and The Beggars String Ensemble in front of a live audience.
I don’t dance. Which is to say I don’t dance well, so I tend not to dance. If life or love is on the line I will rise to the occasion but its an entirely self-conscious affair. Which is why I’ve decided that 2015 is the Year of The Dance— kind of a solemn vow to lubricate whatever psychological joints need loosening, and tend to the physical ones, too.
Truth is, I’ve been thinking about this for a while. In the summer of last year, Suzette Sherman ( Senior Artist, Founding Company Member, Associate Artistic Director at Dancetheatre David Earl) choreographed and performed a dance piece to “To Be Open”. I’d never seen a song of mine interpreted in movement. It was humbling, moving, and inspiring. In the early fall of last year, on a whim before heading to the city, I set up a camera here at the shop and danced around like a fool, to no music, just whatever was in my imagination. I was curious to see what I’d look like. I thought of it the same way as I view recording my voice to see what I sound like singing a particular song. To ease the shock, I filmed it in slow motion…much like smothering a voice in reverb and echo to make the performance more palatable. The pics up at the top are from that video. In slow mo, it looked…probably better than it did in real time. Everything looks better in slow mo, though.
Then this New Year’s Eve I danced with my daughter after playing a set with The Dogs. I’d tried to move while playing, but the most I could put together was a pogo of sorts. Now my daughter, she could move, as several patrons noted. As for me, a voice in my head tried to assert calm when I realized people might see me dance— “Honestly, Fuckhead: no one cares.” I’d have preferred a more benign approach, the gentle assurance of a quiet farmer saying, “That’ll do, Pig. That’ll do.”
So here’s to the Year of The Dance. It’s a beginning.
I’ve never had a plan, really, when it came to music. The only plan—and this, by definition, is not a plan, per se—was “I’ll just keep going.” This meant write more, record more, try more, dig more…see? Not a plan. I realized I lacked foresight while making Moon Come Up, my first real recording. I had vision, but no foresight. After the first day recording, I stayed alone in the control room while the rest of the band was in the residential part of the studio. I was listening to a song called Neighbourhood, looking around the control room at all the gear, all the lights a flashin’, listening to the song off the two-inch machine, and that’s when it hit me: beyond this point in time, exactly, I had no clue how to proceed.
I was 26 years old and had been quietly working toward the day I could make a real record, with real musicians, in a real studio, for a real record company, with a real producer. I had lived the best life I could, learned the best lessons I could, wrote the best songs I could, played with the best musicians I could, tried the best I could…and here I was doing the thing with no idea about all the other stuff that would come along with putting out a record: what I would dress like; what I would talk like; what I would say, what I wouldn’t say; what my “persona” would be; how I would act…
I thought about this while watching an old music video a friend had reminded me of, cringing my way through it, mocking what I was wearing (except the cool do-it-yourself-superhero outfit), how I was lip-synching, how I moved, how I mugged…how utterly uncool I looked.
Lynn Simmons, for the record, looked amazing, like she was beamed down directly from heaven or a very pious spaceship. I’ve never really gotten a grip on feeling comfortable in front of a camera or in an interview and I haven’t quite learned how to just not give a shit. Maybe that’s what the punk band is for.
Its only now, all this time later, that I’m beginning to pay attention to the theater of it all—trying to find that place where humble genuine mingles with off-planet alchemy. I’m looking forward to the next year.
The facts are clear. So “Passenger” didn’t come out until ’77 and that’d have made me 13. It still means it took me 37 years to hear that song. Thirty-seven years! That is just so…wrong. While I am ever grateful to The Monks of Weston Priory and the editors of The Greatest Pop Hits of The 40’s, 50’s And 60’s for my musical education, I have to wonder what might have happened had I not been so afraid of music. Actually, I wonder what might have happened had I not been so afraid. Period.
Seeing as most of my stage time down through the years has been spent with a guitar slung across my shoulder, the experience of being free to move about is cool and a little unnerving. So far, doing the stuff with The Art of Time Ensemble is the only chance I get to eat up some real estate without the distinct possibilty of falling over a monitor wedge or unplugging my guitar. One has an idea in one’s head how cool one might look, only to be confronted with the awkward truth: one has no fucking clue how to feel comfortable with all that freedom, let alone look even remotely cool.
So imagine my surprise when during a song at a recent performance I went down on a knee. The good thing is that I did it. The weird thing is that I was almost mime-ing the lyrics: Bewildered by your beauty there/ I knelt to dry your feet. In the world of dance and movement, I’m just going to assume that mime-ing in a play-by-play fashion the lyrics of a song is just really, really bad form.
I could have stopped myself. I mean, I remember thinking to myself, wow…you’re really gonna do this. But I think the response was something like, dont be a pussy and just have some fun, for fuck sakes, and stop thinking or you’ll forget the next line…
So I could have stopped myself, but I didn’t. And here’s the pic to prove it. It’s a good thing the stage was high because I think I remember having the inclination to remove the shoes of the person in the front row and pretend to attend to his/her feet in a Christ like fashion. Yeah…I have a ways to go before cool.
So, that was fun. From left to right: Thom Allsion, Margaret Atwood, Me, Karla Huhtanen. Shots were taken during the dress rehearsal on Friday, so I’m not wearing my bling…not like Thom is wearing his bling. Learned a lot about bling. Made up some rhymes backstage with Margaret about bling. Bling was a real focal point for the concerts. Bling for the ears, bling for the eyes. Amazing performance from Andrew Burashko, and incredible playing from the band: Barry Shiffman, violin; Rachel Mercer, cello; Andrew Downing, bass; Rob Piltch, guitar; and John Johnson, Sax. All “A” players in a 2-night performance that explored the intersection of music and poetry. And bling.
Rock Couture. Or Blue Steel? Thom lent me some bling from his Big Box of Bling stashed in the dressing room. I never knew how hard it was to get just the right amount of bling to peek just so over the shirt. Holy shit…it drove me to distraction. Still, I’ve got my eye out now for some bling to call my own. I’m always late to the party.
Earlier in the day, when Thom wasn’t in the dressing room we shared, I tried his jacket on and snuck a couple selfies. I dont know what to say about these except that I said on stage I would put them up here. I fessed up before the show Friday night, and that’s when he took pity on me and opened his Bling Box…in a manner of speaking.
The Henrys are a critically lauded band led by Don Rooke. Too many “lauds” to go into here…Google them. They are well lauded.
I was surprised and excited to be asked to sing on a brand new Henrys recording, a slot usually saved for female vocalists like Martina Sorbara, Becca Stevens, and Mary Margaret O’Hara. Eleven tracks, all words and music written by Don Rooke. If the stars align, we’ll get to do it live.
Here’s a piece from one of the tracks, a work in progress: Far Shore (one of my faves).
The main attraction for the evening will be Margaret Atwood, of course, but any Art of Time evening is a full meal, man. These are the songs I’ll be singing. Get your tix here: The Art of Time Ensemble
Enter the promo code POEM25 and get 25% off the ticket price…because you know me.