It seems every Canadian is writing about The Tragically Hip this month, and of course, because this ubiquitous Canadian band has been especially ubiquitous this summer. They are playing their very last shows, and it's sad, and admirable, and even those of us who aren't really fans are, as Canadians, so tied to this event.
In the fall of 1994 I moved to Sudbury to attend Laurentian University, and I lived in residence. It was a strange experience for me. My last year of high school had been spent at an alternative school where the status quo was constantly being questioned, and where I was surrounded by artists and musicians and weirdos. Laurentian, in contrast - and especially, residence - was a very different world. I found people I liked, and even (a very few) people I connected with, but I mostly felt out of place and out of sorts there. The drinking and late nights I could keep up with, but not the loudness that accompanied them. There was a testosterone-fueled, jocky atmosphere I recognized from American movies about American high schools, but I never had that kind of high school experience until I went to university.
I don't believe The Tragically Hip are those kinds of people, but when I think about them, I think about that kind of crowd, and I imagine the band lost amid a sea of keggers, where they are both encouraging and separate. I don't know what band Sloan is referring to with the line, "It's not the band I hate, it's their fans," but it has always made me think of The Tragically Hip.
But my fondest memory of their music is of sitting in the stairwell between the ninth and tenth floors of University College residence and singing along to "Wheat Kings" in a quiet moment of respite from the loudness, the falling-down-drunk of it all. It's the sitting-down-drunk, and the sharing of songs. Even though I am not really a fan, I really love that song, and we all knew all the words and in that moment of sharing I felt okay - even good - about the place I was in.
My other favourite Hip song is Courage. I read Hugh MacLennan's The Watch That Ends the Night in my Canadian Literature class at Laurentian, and it was one of my favourite books for many years. It was the version sung by Sarah Polley, in one of my favourite films, The Sweet Hereafter, though, that really made me love it.
Mostly, I have always thought The Tragically Hip were kind of boring musically. Always, though, I would follow that opinion up, quickly, with, "but I really respect them." It's undeniable that the lyrics are good. It's also undeniable that the spirit of the band is good. Gord Downie and his band have tapped into something that unifies every Canadian, and not just because so many of their songs are about Canada but sure, and of course, partly because of that. Downie is a storyteller, and he is not a blind nationalist, but someone who is curious and manages to light up dark corners and show them to people who might not otherwise listen or know where to look.
I'm going to be at a folk festival in Peterborough the night of the Hip's last show, which is being broadcast across Canada, but I think I will try to steal away for a bit, to find a television set in a nearby bar that is broadcasting it (I don't think this will be difficult).
When I feel like I don't fit in, it's not usually because I don't want to, but because I don't know how. And I love it that The Tragically Hip can tear down those walls. Gord Downie is such a strange and original frontperson for a straight up rock band and that alone lets you know it's not, actually, just a straight up rock band. And what I felt, sitting in that stairwell and singing "Wheat Kings" with those other voices, was connection and inclusion.
Some friendships feel so natural right from the start and with some, I have found myself surprised to discover that I'm just suddenly in the midst of one, after years of getting to know and showing up for one another. One of my most surprising and rewarding friendships is with Jackie, and today, on the eve of my week-end trip to Cleveland, I'm thinking about the first rust belt city road trip I took, with Jackie, a couple of years ago, to Detroit.
Jackie and I met as Cultural Studies students at Mount Saint Vincent University. I returned to university as a mature student, and being ten years older than most of my classmates, Jackie included, I didn't really expect to make friends there. And I definitely didn't expect to make friends with Jackie, even despite the age difference, because she seemed so serious and, well, not a drunk. I was still drinking very much then, and although I didn't show up to class drunk, I was certainly typically hungover, and certainly always aware, by that point, that it was a problem. I was guarded, secretive, ashamed of, and committed to my drinking, and there really wasn't room in my life for people who didn't drink similarly. Until that one time we got wasted together at our professor's barbeque I actually thought that Jackie actively disliked me.
There is something to be said for the power of alcohol as a social lubricant, and I have fond memories of drinking with Jackie. That first night of confessional "I thought you disliked me!" could have been shelved as a fond memory of a person I really quite like, a friendship-that-almost-was. I have so many of those. But instead, it marked the beginning of an actual friendship that has now lasted for nearly a decade.
I think that Jackie, though she likes people, is primarily an introvert, and she can be hard to read. People like that have a tendency to freak me out. Happy and sad are so easy for me, but the stuff in between often gets transformed into "[she] hates me." We started hanging out. She'd come to rock shows with me, and hang out at the Granite brewery with me, and then, when I gave up the booze, our friendship transitioned, more easily than many, into one that didn't revolve around alcohol. Because, really, it never had. We were school friends.
A few years ago, Jackie and I both found ourselves in southern Ontario. In different cities for most of the time, but in ones that were close enough for week-end visits. I don't know that I thought, consciously, that our friendship would just fade away, but I don't think I thought it would sustain itself the way it has, that she would turn out to be one of the closest friends I have.
Jackie lives her life in such a respectable, true-to-herself, and interesting way. When I think about how, when I first met her, I'd determined that my chaotic, alcohol-and-rock-and-roll fueled life was so separate from her peaceful, suburban, (and, yes, boring) life I have to also reflect that neither of us were, then, living the lives that we wanted for ourselves, in such opposite but equal ways.
Those of you who know me - and I'm quite sure that includes all of my readership - know that I had been trying to get to Detroit for years. When I moved from Halifax back to Toronto, proximity to Detroit was one of the things I was most excited about, and I thought I'd be taking a trip there during the first month I was back in town. But it didn't happen for another two and a half years. It was difficult to convince people to drive there with me, and I don't drive, and the Motor City could not really be done without a car.
Canadians are just crazy about the United States. Watching our much
larger, aggressive, flashy, broken neighbour to the south can make us
feel superior and it can also make us feel lacking. There's some very
interesting stuff going on in Canada, but the United States always seems
more interesting. There's some terrible stuff going on in Canada, but
the United States always seems worse. I would never give up the security
of living in a relatively safe country; having access to universal
healthcare and knowing that my neighbours aren't all armed are two
things I value very much. But I also believe there's something so
romantic about living in a very fucked up situation and trying to make
it better on your own or with your community, on a smaller scale. There are so many American cities that are in rough shape because of systemic racism, economic disparity, lack of access to social programs and health care, easy access to firearms, etc., etc., and Detroit is, of course, the most fucked up - and also the most heart-warmingly hopeful - American city of all.
It turns out that Jackie and I share a lot of the same values, and
foremost among those is an interest in community-building. So, of course, Jackie
would be the best person with whom to travel to Detroit. Inspired by my enthusiasm and her own equal sense of adventure, we finally found a week-end that worked for both of us, at the end of
February 2014, in the midst of the coldest winter any of us Ontarioians can
Via roads that appeared not to have been serviced for decades, we found ourselves in small businesses run by and packed with Detroit-enthusiasts, past homes that were caving in on themselves, and to a market filled with produce that was grown locally on repurposed, abandoned land. We listened to The White Stripes, and Motown compilations, and, especially, over and over, Edwin Starr singing about how far he had gone and the increasingly short distance that remained.
A couple of week-ends ago, I spent time with Jackie at her beautiful home in Hamilton, where I met her friends and ate the delicious breakfast she prepared from food grown on the farm she works on and from neighbouring farms. We talked about the sad and happy things in our lives but I was reminded, again, of how our friendship is not just about the things that we tell one another, but about the things that we do. We keep on showing up, glad to see one other, year after year.
Tomorrow I'm going to Cleveland just to see what it's all about, with a couple of people I'm just getting to know, to see what they're all about. I've made an Ohio mixed cd. I'm hopeful and excited. People and cities and music are pretty much my favourite things, in that order.
Katherine and I both share the memory of the first time we laid eyes on one another, with our parents and a number of other grade eight students, in Mr. Kirkwood's English classroom at Martingrove Collegiate. Some months later, in grade nine, and actually students in his English class, we discussed that day, and how we had been drawn to one another. In typical Amelia fashion, my thoughts had been, "She looks so cool. She'll never want to be my friend." In fact, she did want to be my friend, and in fact, she was not particulary "cool," despite what I and several of her young suitors initially believed.
Katherine was and is unusual, smart, wise about people in a way few people are, and unwise about certain social conventions in a way few people are, a dreamer, a writer, a loyal friend, and a truly remarkable human being. But "cool" is not even in Katherine's vocabulary.
Katherine-isms include an unbelievably poor sense of direction, especially when one lives in a city as sensibly laid out as Toronto (Had we grown up in Halifax, I am sure she would still be trying to find her way home), long-winded voicemail messages, and, still astonishing to me is this last one - the bizzaro, opposite world ability to come across as a snob.
There is not a snobby bone in Katherine's body, which is no small feat for someone with such refined taste in literature. She is one of the least judgemental people I have ever met in my life. Yet throughout highschool, I repeatedly heard her referred to as a snob. Friends and I would sometimes refer to her as a "little grown-up," because she was uncommonly articulate and used multi-sylabic words and, having grown up without cable television and with a steady diet of classical music, was completely unaware of the popular culture touchstones that united our peers. I made fun of her a lot, about all of that stuff, and, I presume, because we are still best friends 25 years later, that she took it all in jest or, just as often, completely missed it. She talked smart and she was often lost in her own thoughts, seemingly distant, and these things, I guess, made her appear snobby. But really, I never saw how people saw that; I only knew that they did because they told me.
Katherine was also very cute and small and all of the boys were in love with her. I mean, it was crazy the boys that were in love with her - the jock boys, the nerd boys, the weird boys, even the right-wing conservative boys. Several of my crushes developed crushes on her. Perpetually single in high school, I often felt like a third wheel, and I sometimes resented it, but my resentment felt less like "Why do they like her?" and more like, "They don't even like her." Because, for the most part, Katherine dated nice, unremarkable boys. I do think they saw something special in her but I don't think they had any idea what it was.
Katherine's favourite song for a very long time, when we were in high school, was Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb." While it was I who introdued Katherine to many cultural touchstones, it was Katherine who introduced me to Pink Floyd, by way, I presume, of her older brother Tony (who also introduced her, and then I, to Billy Bragg!)
Because it was her favourite song, she carried it into her earliest relationships, and for two consecutive ones, it became "their" song. Two! Consecutive relationships! "Comfortably Numb"! As inappropriate as that might seem, it isn't hard to see how that song could have resonated with someone who felt so outside of the whole high school experience that her peers - myself and her boyfriends included - were such active participants in: "You are only coming through in waves / Your lips move but I can't hear what you're saying."
It is hard to paint a picture of Katherine because she isn't a type. I have never met anyone who reminded me of Katherine. And that's part of the pleasure of knowing Katherine.
Most of the pleasure of knowing Katherine involves words. It has been getting to read her writing throughout the years - she is one of the best writers I know. And it has been lengthy discussions about people - their behaviours and oddities and particular reactions to particular situations. And when I talk to her about myself and my life, I am always reminded of how she really knows me and how I am in the world, better than almost anyone.
When I have teased Katherine about certain aspects of her behaviour, she has retorted that some of these traits are Amelia traits as well, and I do see a small amount of Katherine lite in some of my behaviour. Something I like and believe about myself is that I am someone who is difficult to pigeon-hole; that I am full of contradictions. And she was and is certainly like that in the very biggest way - so concurrently wise and unwise.
Katherine has been married for several years now to a man, Andrew, who makes sense for her, and who I'm enormously happy to see her with and to get to have in my life as well. He is strange and thoughtful and smart and kind in ways that are not quite like Katherine's ways but that are complimentary. And he really sees her, which is what I have always hoped for for Katherine.
A couple of weeks ago I attended Katherine's son's 16th birthday party with Katherine and Andrew. It had been years since I had seen him and he has become, so seemingly suddenly, a teenager, with friends and enthusiasm and a passion for weird art projects. He looks like her, and I could not help recalling Katherine and I at that age. How difficult and devastating and exciting and new everything is when you're 16, and how lucky Katherine and I were to have had one another.
I always think about moving away from Hunter street when I think: Moving
Day. I didn't live there for very long - just 16 months, I believe -
and I had about ten roommates during my time there so it felt too
transient to ever feel like home. But I think it was significant. I think I lost and learned and changed a lot during that time. I made some very significant choices that might have been the wrong ones.
In the year 2001, after spending a few months travelling across Canada, I moved back to Halifax because that was where my heart lived. My boyfriend Sean joined me there a couple of months later, because it was lucky that we both wanted to leave Toronto for the East Coast. Or we remained together in Toronto because we both knew we were going to leave, together. I don't know. I loved him, but not like I loved Halifax. I had known immediately, intuitively, that Halifax was my soulmate.
I wasn't conscious of what building a life really meant when I moved to Halifax, either the first time, in 1997, or the second time, in 2001. I experienced Halifax as authentic and freeing and creative and wild and beautiful and kind and these were the things that mattered to me when I was in my early- to mid-twenties.
Luke and Claudia had found the apartment. I had lived with them for a year on Moran street, in 1998, and they had been great roommates and friends. Sean and I had decided to live with other people to save some money and because it was initially unclear when he would actually be arriving. It was a large 4 bedroom apartment on the top floor of a house in a beautiful part of the city. They were a couple, as well, and so we had all kinds of extra space. It was nice before Sean arrived, but it was awful after.
I don't remember all the details anymore, but I will accept the responsibility for the deterioration of that living situation. I think I felt like I was trying to be a peacemaker and felt pulled in a couple of different directions. But I knew how stubborn Sean was and I knew in my gut as soon as I got back to Halifax and was reunited with my old friends, that Sean would not be a good fit despite Luke and Claudia being super easy to get along with. Luke and Claudia gave up the apartment a few months later, found a place of their own, and for the next year, Sean and I lived with a succesion of temporary roommates.
Dan was the best because he was hardly ever there. He spent most of his time in a cabin up north or at his girlfriend's house. I think he just wanted to maintain his own address and a place to store his stuff. He had band practice there in the kitchen, and his band was great, and he also made wine there.
Dimitris became fast friends with both Sean and I. He was always on and hilarious and kept up with (or at least put up with) our drinking. But the friendship was brief, one of those crush friendships, where everything's exciting and new and fun for a couple of months but starts to fade just as quickly. When Andrea and Margaret moved in, his friendship affections shifted to Margaret, and I think Sean and I both felt a little jilted. We liked Margaret a lot too, though. She and Andrea were a couple that seemed close to ending; Margaret spent way more time with us than with her girlfriend, and that felt kind of weird.
But the people, the timeline, the details, everything is hazy. It was a big turning point in my drinking career.
Sean was into a concoction he called "green death" that year, made out if some kind of green pop and probably rum but possibly gin. On his days off, he would start drinking as soon as he got up, and I remember knowing that this was going too far. He was my barometer then. If I worried about my own drinking I would rationalize that I didn't start drinking as soon as I woke up.
I remember setting limits for myself then. I was doing homecare work at the time, and I saw one of my clients at 9 am on weekdays, and I knew I couldn't be drunk while I was doing this, so midnight became my week night cut-off time. I was always drunk by midnight. I was always hungover at work.
I used to siphen off some of Dan's wine when no one was home and the fridge was empty.
Before too long I stopped doing homecare work and I got a job working at Propeller, a small local brewery, on the bottling line. An enormous perk was that our fridge was always filled with free beer. Rationalizing that I didn't have to be on my game the same way to work at Propeller, I got rid of the stupid cut-off time rule.
I was miserable at Propeller. It was a really physically exhausting job, and I was always doing it hungover. I started socializing less with people outside of my home becasue I was always so exhausted.
I still said I was a social drinker because I was, you know, socilaizing with my boyfriend every night. And Dimitris. And our friend Kelly was usually there, too. But I knew, then, that I had turned the wrong corner.
Something happened to the dynamics of my relationship with Sean during that time, too. I felt like, before, and especially when I was travelling, I was in control, and I was choosing. But it started to feel like Sean was in control, like he was choosing. I didn't want to leave him but I knew then that I didn't have the power to make him stay. And I certainly didn't have the gumption to turn our little world on its head. I opted for a less dramatic living situation and just the two of us. But very little changed when we moved to Allan street.
On moving day, Sean and I got stuck with the brunt of the cleaning. He let me sleep while he did much (probably most) of the work, and woke me up at dawn on moving day to finish the job while he got a few hours of sleep. He'd just gotten the new Norah Jones album, Come Away With Me, and he set it up for me before he retired. I cleaned the front room with that on repeat, the only soul awake, considering the past 16 months and the future, and I felt alone but a remarkable sense of peace.
We'd stay together for a couple more years, and when I moved out of Allan street it was drawn out and devastating. The break-up is a scene I remember but the moving day is not. The Hunter street move was far more dramatic and certainly a sign of things to come. Although it's Norah Jones that ruled that morning, it's The Weakerthans' "Sun in an Empty Room" that I'm choosing in hindsight.
Sun in an Empty Room - The Weakerthans
Now that the furniture's returning to its goodwill home
With dishes in last week's paper -
Rumors and elections, crosswords, an unending wars -
That blacken our fingers, smear their prints on every door pulled shut
Now that the last month's rent is scheming with the damage deposit,
Take this moment to decide (sun in an empty room)
If we meant it, if we tried (sun in an empty room)
Or felt around for far too much (sun in an empty room)
From things that accidentally touched (sun in an empty room)
Hands that we nearly hold with pennies for the GST
The shoulders we lean our shoulders into on the subway, mutter an apology
The shins that we kick beneath the table, that reflexive cry
The faces we meet one awkward beat too long and terrified
Know the things we need to say (sun in an empty room)
Have been said already anyway (sun in an empty room)
By parallelograms of light (sun in an empty room)
On walls that we repainted white (sun in an empty room)
Sun in an empty room
Sun in an empty room
Sun in an empty room
Sun in an empty room
Sun in an empty room
Sun in an empty room
Sun in an empty room
Sun in an empty room
Take eight minutes and divide (sun in an empty room)
By ninety million lonely miles (sun in an empty room)
And watch a shadow cross the floor (sun in an empty room)
We don't live here anymore (sun in an empty room)
I want to share a story about something that happened to me. It doesn’t sound like it’s something that happened to me because the worst of it happened to and because of people who are not me. But I don’t know what they were thinking or are currently thinking about this event. I don’t know the background or the aftermath and that isn’t my story.
I used to be a regular at a bar in Halifax, as many of you know, as many of you were there. I was (and still am, just no longer actively) an alcoholic. I did some regrettable, embarrassing things during my tenure there, of course, and I watched regrettable, embarrassing things happen around me. But I never felt unsafe. On the contrary, I felt so safe, surrounded by good friends with kind hearts. And the people who ran and tended the bar, I felt, were looking out for us.
There was a couple who hung out there a fair bit and with whom I was friendly. They were drinking buds of mine. Not really friends, but potential friends I thought at one time, and people I really liked. I knew the man better than I knew the woman, because he’d spent more time at the bar and we’d had more conversations. He never seemed sketchy or unsafe, and this is maybe what gets me the most. I always thought I was a good judge of character.
One night, after last call, the three of us decided to continue drinking at a bar down the street called Reflections, which had a cabaret license that allowed it to continue serving alcohol until 3:30 am. Then I went back to their place where we continued drinking for god knows how long. Probably not that long, given the timeline. We were lost in conversation and having an excellent time and we didn’t want the party to end. This was not a particularly strange thing for me to be doing at that time in my life. I was a partier, and a drunk.
I crashed on their couch. Also, not notably unusual behaviour.
At some point, when it was light out, I woke up because I heard banging coming from upstairs, where the couple’s bedroom was. It took me a little while to figure out what was going on. I was disoriented because I was not in my own bed and because I was drunk. Within a few seconds I remembered where I was and how I had gotten there. The banging continued. This, I didn’t understand. I don’t remember hearing any yelling, but I may have. I remember that the impression I had was that someone was being thrown against a wall. It sounded forceful, violent, and scary. I think I must have heard voices but I don’t remember anymore. It was a long time ago. I remember yelling up the stairs, somewhat meekly, “Are you okay?” The sounds stopped for a moment, and then filled the silence again. I got the hell out of there.
I was pretty sure this was going on: He was beating the shit out of her.
Here, I know, I did exactly the right thing. I left the presumably violent situation and I called the police as soon as I could locate a payphone.
I looked at their street address and repeated it over and over in my head so I wouldn’t forget it. I walked up towards Gottingen street, which wasn’t very far away but felt like miles. I was drunk and sleep deprived and I was suddenly in the midst of people rushing to work like it was a regular day. I think I was in shock. I had been fortunate enough to never have experienced that kind of violence first-hand, and it really stunned me. I searched for a payphone. These were few and far between because most people had cell phones by then. I finally found one and I called 911 and I told them the address and that I thought there was a domestic situation.
I got home in a daze and I told my roommate about it and I must have slept, but I don’t know how the rest of that day went.
That night there was a music event at “my” bar, and I was working the door, as I frequently did, in exchange for free beer.
I told people what happened. I told my friends, who knew him too. They believed me and they were shocked too.
Some time over the next few days a friend of the abuser came into the bar and relayed that the abused had been taken to the hospital after the police were called, and the she had been badly beaten. I overheard him telling this to the bartender. I didn’t say anything and I don’t know why. I hated the way he said it though, like he was just relaying some gossip, like it was interesting rather than horrifying. This friend of the abuser still hung out with the abuser, which I knew because I saw them both sitting at the bar together way too soon after the incident. The bartender served them both, like nothing had happened. This went on at the downstairs bar while I was sitting at the door in the upstairs bar, and someone came upstairs to let me know he was there.
I wish I’d been louder about this part of my story because this part really hurt me. I don’t know what they were actually thinking but I know that the men who worked at that bar continued to serve the abuser even though they knew he had beaten the shit out of his girlfriend and scared the shit out of me. I don’t think they disbelieved me but I don’t know how they could do that.
The abuser wasn’t a regular anymore, and I think he mostly tried to avoid me, but I know he still popped in on occasion, and once, when I was sitting at a table by the window, he walked by and banged on the glass right in front of me, intentionally intimidating.
I had a disappointing conversation with the abused in the aftermath. I’d been worried about her, and had wanted to get in touch but hadn’t known how. We spoke outside the bar once. She asked me if I’d been the one to call the police. She said she assumed I had been but wasn’t sure. She told me it had been really good for their relationship, that it had straightened him out, and that they were much healthier now. That he used to abuse her regularly but didn’t anymore. It broke my heart.
Should I be saying his name? I know his name. I know some of you facebook friends of mine know his name, too. Maybe he has changed, has gotten help and is truly a better and remorseful person. If I say his name though it’s like saying her name and her story is not mine to tell. She can tell it if, when, and how she wants to.
I wish I’d been louder about how betrayed I felt by some of the people at that bar. I felt like it wasn’t my right because it wasn’t my bar and maybe that’s true, except it is my right to talk about how I feel. And when I saw him in there with mutual acquaintances, I wish I’d said, “How could you? Don’t you care about what this man has done? Don’t you care that he makes this place unsafe? How can you sit there with him?”
I don’t know what anyone except for me believes about what happened, and may continue to happen, for all I know. I have never heard his side, and I imagine his friends have.
But I think I should talk about it because this is one of the things I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on this week, and I think it’s an example of how our culture makes it easy for people to get away with abusive behaviour. Everybody knew, and everybody was still nice to him. He got away with it. I don’t even know how complicit I was and am in this myself.
I feel a twinge of guilt whenever I relay this story, because it’s not really something that happened to me. But the actual waking up in their house and calling the police and walking home part of the story, this is one of - if not the most - traumatic things that has ever happened to me. I really did feel in a state of shock. And I think about her, and all of the other people I know who have actually been victims of violence, and I feel so goddamned lucky. How fucked up is it that I feel lucky, and exceptional, to have never been a victim of violence?
Following Bruce Springsteen's phenomenal 3 and a half hour performance last week-end, I sat in a backyard in southern Etobicoke, with somebody who has surprisingly become--remained?--one of my closest friends. Richard nursed a beer and I, a cola. We smoked cigarettes in the dark and enjoyed the refreshingly cool summer night while his wife and son slept soundly inside.
I enjoy these evenings, immeasurably. We talk closely about things and people we miss, have known, about the ways we've grown and how we have or haven't managed to achieve what we thought we would when we imagined our lives from a 20-years-ago vantage point, when we sat in another (more central) Etobicoke backyard as another summer neared its end.
We used to be louder. And much, much drunker. Richard refers to the guys occupying the house on the other side of the fence as "the bros.," because they are up until 2 am and speaking in inapropriately loud voices, like he doesn't remember the shed he and Kevin created in Kevin's backyard to be a neighbourhood hang-out, to always be filled with Jack Daniels and Marlboro's and merriment.
One of the things we talked about last week-end was our longing for intensity, how we missed the drama and the abandon we used to get from and share with our friends. About how we are all so much more careful now, about how we share ourselves reservedly, smartly, more occasionally. We both attribute this to maturity; to having experienced the pitfalls of too much openness, the betrayals and bad decisions and the knowledge that people change. But I also mourn drinking a little bit, here. For most of the close conversations in the dark and shoulders I have cried on, there was a lot of alcohol involved.
Seeing Bruce Springsteen was a dream come true, but as I purchased the tickets for his date at the Skydome (the Rogers Centre) it was with no small amount of resignation. I didn't want to see him in Toronto. I wanted to see him in Moncton. And I absolutely would have, if only it had been one year earlier, if only I still lived in Halifax.
The best concert I have ever seen was Paul McCartney, when he played the Halifax Common. Unlike Springsteen, whom I had to come to in my own way, McCartney has forever been a part of my life. I saw him with the person who likely knows me better than anybody in the world, and also with a community of people of all different ages and all different experiences, in a city that I am head-over-heals in love with. A city, too, that rarely gets to experience such an event. McCartney probably swings through Toronto on every tour, but he'd never been to Halifax. All those people, raised on The Beatles, raising their voices to sing along to songs they had known forever, by one of the remaining, living members, of the best band in history. A chance that so many of us never thought we'd get. It was unbelievable, thrilling, unforgettable, and, I suspect, unsurpassable.
But Springsteen, perhaps, would be the next best thing to a Beatle, and every year rumours abounded. With every summer that passed without a formal announcement of an Atlantic Canadian date, Springsteen fans seemed more and more disheartened.
I almost went to see him in Boston, during his tour for We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. And when I say "almost," I mean that I put a lot of thought into the acknowledged fantasy of seeing him in Boston. I was broke, but my friend Jen and I spent so many evenings at the Granite Brewery, trying to come up with a scheme to get us there. A driver, a vehicle, and perhaps a sponsorship. We did not go to Boston. We sat in the bar and enjoyed his music on vinyl night.
In 2001 I had a roommate, Luke, who had a copy of Nebraska, and that was my in. I never thought much about Springsteen before then. Or when I did, it was with a bit of derision for the anthemic "Born in the U.S.A." that muscled its way into memories of my childhood. I hated the saxophones. I have always hated that instrument; still do.
Nebraska, of course, is a different creature, and surely the best point of entry for someone like myself. The sparse instrumentation and fascinating naratives sucked me in, and I figured out what I'd been missing. I started from the beginning. On those early albums his songs about youth and redemption and love still make me feel possibility. I can appreciate Born in the U.S.A. now, though I don't love the album in its entirety. I do, however, love every last second of Born to Run, including the sax. How could that album be what it is without it? It's probably my favourite Springsteen album, and I still hate the sax.
It's been my experience that music, honest and gritty words, crazy passionate inexplicable love, and being on the road to some place new are four of the five best things this world has to offer, and these things are what the Boss is all about.
The other best thing is community, and this is what he fosters.
Richard and I sat three rows from the very back of the Skydome, and we got to see the entire crowd. It was only thanks to a giant screen that we could see Springsteen step out into the audience, accepting requests from fans; he was otherwise a tiny dot moving rapidly back and forth. He sweated and smiled and engaged with his audience throughout it all. No way that man's faking it, and after so many years, and so much fortune, we all know he doesn't have to do it.
So if I'd seen that in Moncton, a short drive from Halifax, with all of those people he'd never played for before, in a wide open field, McCartney would have some serious competition.
My good friend Russell got Candice to play "Thunder Road" as the very last song on the very last vinyl night on the very last night the Granite Brewery was open. I'd been sober for only a few months then, and that night was not so far removed from many others that involved a copious amount of alcohol, camaraderie, sometimes tears, and plenty of talk that sure, might have been bullshit, but was also true, too. "Thunder Road" felt like a theme song there, something that united so many of us.
The best thing about the Granite Brewery was that community just happened, because people liked the look and the feel of the place, and they liked the beer, and they could stop there after work and be welcomed and known. A lot of us had very little in common with one another. The range of ages and experience was remarkable, and when that song came on, we all raised our glasses, and we belted out the words.
So you're scared and you're thinking that maybe we ain't that young anymore, Show a little faith! there's magic in the night.
I can't think of that song without thinking of this place, that now only exists as something imaginary, from before. I know how lucky I am to have been there.
I didn't think I'd see Bruce Springsteen at the Skydome with Richard. For a very long time I never imagined myself becoming a Springsteen fan. And I don't know that I imagined Richard and I would stay in touch after high school, as we have, that he'd stay one of my closest friends. On the surface, we really don't have that much in common. But in fact, we have decades in common. And listening to Springsteen over pints, after last call, in a bar on Barrington street is not all that different from listening to him in a suburban backyard, four years sober, looking up at stars and distracted by the bros. In mourning, in recalling, that lost intensity and closeness, it manages to find its way back to us.
I was first introduced to The Sorrys' music during the course of what was ultimately a summer fling. I dated Aaron for a month or two, and it was the kind of quick, exciting relationship I used to have when I was younger. It was fun, and I felt young and happy while I was in the midst of it. I even chose to believe in its future, a boldly optimistic decision I hadn't made since I was in my very early twenties. But it did feel like a decision, as opposed to the outlook I'd brought into my much earlier relationships. Before I chose, I felt the nagging doubts natural to an experienced thirty-something year-old, particularly in Aaron's refusal to discuss the long and significant relationship he'd recently been in, or how that might still be affecting him. When it ended, as, duh, of course it did, I spent about a week feeling angry and sad, but I got over it. I didn't even miss Aaron, and I didn't want to be his friend. It was significant, though, but its significance was virtually unrelated to Aaron, and all about me. I felt possibility. I remembered that I was worthy; that I could be seen the way Aaron saw me, however briefly. And I knew that I didn't want light. And the two of us were definitely light. I wanted brutal honesty, but I wanted that to come with faith. I had always imagined these things in opposition to one another. I had been so doubtful of every romantic relationship I'd approached since I was 22, aside from this one, and including the one that lasted for four years. I decided, post-Aaron, that I would rather get hurt than enter everything with so much cynicism, despite the odds. 'Cause it's hardly possible to beat the odds if you go into everything so certain that they're stacked against you. And besides, however things ended up, I had a really fun summer.
That was also the first time I quit drinking with real intent. I mean, I had tried to quit drinking in the past, for set periods of time - a week or two that I never made it to. This time I was going to quit drinking for good, for real. It didn't work that time, but it set the stage for several months later when I did, with a lot of help, finally manage to quit drinking for good (hopefully!). It was an incredibly optimistic thing to do, and it came out of my decision to develop a more optimistic outlook, more generally.
The other thing I got out of that summer was my introduction to The Sorrys. And listening to The Sorrys on cd is great and all, but there's nothing like a live performance, something that took me far too long to discover. I was kind of nervous about going to see The Sorrys live, because I didn't want to run into Aaron and all those weird social dynamics. That's just not a way to live your life, though, if you're a music fan and you live in Halifax. This city is small, and your history is everywhere.
Jim, Steven, and Richard are great musicians, and they sound so together, but seeing them live, you also get to see how much they are enjoying playing together. They have so much fun! Even better though, is how they remove that line between performers and audience, inviting the people in attendance to truly participate in the event.
Trevor Millet is the best front-person in Halifax, maybe even in the country. He's entertaining and sometimes slightly offensive. He gets off the stage and wanders around talking to the audience while the rest of his band remains on stage. He drinks his band-mates beers. He is unpredictable, and he doesn't seem to censor his thoughts. He's so much more than that, though, and I feel really lucky to get to know him, however peripherally. He's a really great songwriter, and what makes him such a gifted writer is undoubtedly his genuine interest in the people around him. I get the feeling sometimes that he wishes he could be living parallel lives, that would afford him the time to really get into other people's worlds.
I've been going to watch bands since I was about sixteen, and I've been lucky to have had some favourite bands who have made me feel really appreciated as a fan. Certainly the most notable and constant has been Dave Bidini, of Rheostatics. But there's also, once you get to that level, a degree to which professionalism plays a role in being personable. Not that famous people have to be nice, or remember names, but it certainly makes for better press. When I was in high school, my friends and I used to sneak in through the back doors of Lee's Palace, left ajar by Dallas Good, of Satanatras, or Derek Madison, of Grasshopper,who found us underage fans endearing I think, who got excited by our enthusiasm. They weren't that much older than we were, after all. The way I felt then? That's how I feel when I see The Sorrys play. I love that I can be 35 years old and feel excited about hearing this super amazing band play songs that I love, and then sit down with them after the show and talk like we're friends.
All of that said, I don't feel like The Sorrys are on a different planet of awesome that is far, far away. They're grown-ups, with families and careers and responsibilities. They're grown-ups like the way I should be, could be, would be, if I had made different choices. I write songs myself, and Trevor likes my songs. I mean, he has really listened to and really appreciates them in a way that I don't think many people have or do. It means a lot to me that anybody could be affected by what I write, and especially somebody who writes great lines like, "I have an aversion to disaster, but I like the edges rough." The mutual appreciation makes the audience-performer line even blurrier, and I like that. It's more interesting, and fuller.
In my quest to live my life, and to experience relationships that are clear-eyed, honest, and built on understanding, while also being fun and exciting, I would like my soundtrack to be reflective of that as well.
*It has just been brought to my attention that the lyrics for "Dust" were actually written by Jessica Russell. I'm going to leave it here though. I almost like that it was a collaborative project even more than when I thought that it wasn't.
Dust - The Sorrys
The greatest lie that you ever told was in your laughing out loud.
The greatest sins that you did commit were always against yourself.
And in the end we all turn to dust.
Why don't you tell me, what was your rush?
The greatest pain was in your smile. I knew it was a lie.
But I always loved your smile, yes I always loved your smile.
"Blinking Lights and Other Revelations" is the title of an eels album. It's no "Electro-Shock Blues," but it's a darn good album. He's good at resonance, and I often find bits of hope and connectedness in his words and music. I love the album title; it's such a simplistic description of the weight of glimpses. A lot of songs are like that - all these big ideas and emotions contained in a four-minute pop song. Sometimes it's the composers intent and sometimes it's situational, but these songs are always, of course, interpreted by the people who get to hear them, and the things going on in their own heads and environments. I love music. It gets me through, it makes me feel connected, it lets me wallow, it makes my day amazing. I kept wanting to start a blog, but I could not figure out what I wanted to write about. I was walking home from work today, listening to Jim Bryson's "Where the Bungalows Roam," and thinking: 'How perfect is this? This is just how I feel.' And I didn't ever want to reach my door step, but I did, and when I got there, I had a little revelation. This blog is about music that means a lot to me.