Sunday, August 10, 2008

Last Waltz at the El Strato

Speaking of rude awakenings, and the CBC's role therein, I really should have known something fishy was going on as soon as I was woken up to an Al Tuck song. On the radio!

The El Strato lounge and Al Tuck were and are Halifax fixtures that are forever tied to my earliest impressions of this city. They appropriately exemplify the romanticised relationship between creativity and authenticity that is expressed in this city in a myriad of ways, as in the often dilapidated buildings that are nevertheless painted brilliant reds and blues.

The radio played "Last Waltz at the El Strato" when it was too late for a last waltz, on the morning following a fire that burned the building to the ground.

I used to go there with roommates and new friends, to enjoy tiny $1.35 drafts and conversation and the experience of bearing witness to the cross-section of art school students and VLT addicts and alcoholics who made up the seedier side of the north end. The bartender showed me an old photo album that was kept behind the bar, and which declared the owners' earnest and optimistic intention of creating a western-themed venue on Gottingen street. The decor still included a western-themed mural on the back wall, and large wagon wheels affixed to wooden posts. Beside the entrance there was a display case that was always lit up and showcased a blank piece of paper that never, in my recollection, was removed or adjusted to advertise the events that actually did - rarely - occur within the venue. Blinking lights that proclaimed nothing at all.

My day job then was selling pocketbooks, cigarettes and pornography at United Bookstore on Barrington street, and my boss Dave turned me on to Al Tuck's music almost immediately after I began working there. I listened to Brave Last Days all the time, without ever recognising that Al Tuck was that cute, tall guy from Sam's who came in to buy cigarettes almost every day. I didn't make the connection until I went to see Al play a show at Oasis, during an East Coast Music Awards No-Case, or whatever they were called at the time; those supplementary events not supported by the music awards themselves, because the musicians were too weird or unpopular or interesting to be sold as being representative of the kind of "culture" the tourist bureau and its affiliates are intent on promoting to the rest of the country.

I'm still hard pressed to locate many other musicians with as much integrity as Al Tuck. This largely unsung hero of Atlantic Canadian music continues to (barely, I imagine) eke out a living by writing and performing songs at such venues as Gus' pub and Bearley's, and every time I see him perform I am so aware of the fact that it is only the good fortune of my geography that allows me the incredible opportunity.

When I think about Halifax, I think about music, and when I think about Halifax music, Al Tuck is one of the first musicians to come to mind. He so exemplifies the spirit of this place, and all of the contradictions and grittiness and beauty that keep me in this tourist town.

**Quintessentially Halifax blue house photographed by Andrew MacDonald. I wish it looked more dilapidated, but maybe it's in a sketchy neighbourhood!

Last Waltz at the El Strato - Al Tuck


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