Saturday, October 17, 2009

Ballad of the Devil's Backbone Tavern

Several years ago I came to the sad conclusion that I probably wasn't really a writer. I mean, it's something I'll always do. I'll always write little songs and stories, but I don't actually have what it really, really takes. Confidence, nerve, and above all: Commitment. I won't quit my day job, and there aren't enough hours to do it any other way. I won't be miserable. I mean, I still work in a bookstore; not a government office. And I would be miserable and not quite myself if I wasn't compelled to embrace the bursts of inspiration that arrive happily and unbidden. Nothing is more satisfying than saying it how I mean to.

But there are brave souls in this world who have the confidence, nerve and commitment that I lack. And I would be far worse off if I didn't have them to read and to listen to. I can't even imagine the person I would be.

I have a lot of friends who make music in Halifax, and most of them do this in their spare time. Like a hobby, I guess I mean. Songwriting seems of a different order than most "hobbies" but maybe I only think this because I don't feel compelled to play hockey or knit sweaters the way I feel compelled to write songs. Maybe it's actually all the same. For those of us who don't abandon our day jobs.

But there are those few people who make it their livelihoods, and I can't give them enough respect for that. Like the two fantastic people who rolled into town last night to play a show at the Seahorse Tavern Not nearly enough people were there. Or, at least, there to see them.

The first time I saw Paul MacLeod and Lucas Stagg perform, I was working the door at Ginger's Tavern. I knew nothing about them, but judging a show by its poster, I already suspected it would be good.

Ginger's did not have a regular or walk-in crowd, and being one of many venues in a city that supports so many locally revered band and their fan bases, crowds were always hard to come by for a couple of unknowns from Ontario. But Paul MacLeod shouldn't have been an unknown. His impressive resume includes collaborations with members of Rheostatics, an album produced by Hawksley Workman, and a long stint as a member of The Skydiggers. It still amazes me that I had no idea who he was.

I liked them both so much before they even picked up their guitars. Both Lucas and Paul are genuine, interesting, entertaining people and conversationalists, who always maintain their positive outlooks and their curiosity about new people and places. I went downstairs and tried to convince friends and regulars to shell out the measly five dollar cover charge, eventually finding only two recruits. But being the professionals that they are, they nevertheless played their hearts out to the three paying members of their audience, and to myself at the door and Myndi at the bar. It could have been - should have been? - a disheartening experience for them, but they were obviously having a blast. Their tiny audience sure was appreciative.

I came really close to drinking that night. It was one of the two most tempting evenings I spent around alcohol since I quit, and I can remember so clearly my inner struggle. Because it was about - as was the other occasion - the best things about drinking. The way that it can - in early stages at least - foster community and comaraderie, make conversation easier, looser, the way beer can be both relaxing and celebratory. And it was about music and bars and I don't know that that romantising I do will ever quit. But I had a great time anyway, and without the regret that would surely have followed.

They came back a few months later and played three shows in town. I went out to their shows at Gus' and the Seahorse alone, but I convinced a few of my friends to come out to the matinee at the Carleton. Because, I suspect, that show was the free one. And I can't really begrudge people for that. It's hard to get excited about performers you've never heard before. So it's a leap of faith to see someone new, and despite recommendations, money is always an issue, and besides, there are always other, safer, shows going on.

But I kind of worried they'd never come back. A selfish worry, because I like hearing them play so much, and I like hanging out with them, too.

A few days ago their car broke down a couple of hours outside of Montreal, leaving them stranded, with expensive repairs to take care of, and forcing them to miss a couple of their shows. My anxious self would not have done well in this situation. I don't pretend to know Lucas or Paul particularly well, and surely they have moments or days where they consider packing it in for a greater level of security or stability. But it seems to me that more often than not, they consider themselves very fortunate to be able to do what it is they love to do. I would think it would be hard, to come out this way every few months, across such long expanses of highway and trees and sparsely populated communities, to play for only marginally larger audiences each time. But I guess that is how it's done. And I guess it is infinitely better than most things that people do to get by.

I should have probably used a song by Paul MacLeod or Lucas Stagg for this entry, but Todd Snider - he says it all right here, way better than I just did.

Ballad of the Devil's Backbone Tavern - Todd Snider

Old Miss Virgy tended bar at this shack out in the hills
It never made her any money, boys, but paid off all of her bills
Now she must have been 80 years old but her heart was warm
And her beer was cold
She gave away more than she ever sold
Smiling all the time

I used to sing off in the corner every Friday night
To a loud crowd of cowboys, bikers and bar room fights
They were drinking beer, carrying on, not a one of them listening to one of my songs
But old Miss Virgy sang along
She said she knew 'em all by heart

And then one night after closing she poured me another beer
She said "Come on over and sit down you little shit
I got something you need to hear"
She said "Life ain't easy getting through, everybody's gonna make things tough on you
But I can tell you right now if you dig what you do, they will never get you down"

She said life's too short to worry
Life's too long to wait
Too short not to love everybody
Life's too long to hate
I meet a lot of men who haggle and finagle all the time
Trying to save a nickel or make a dime
Not me, no sireee, I ain't got the time

Now I ain't seen Ol' Virgy in must have been about ten years
I've been bumming around this country singing my songs for tips and beers
Now the nights are long
The driving's tough
Hotels stink, and the pay sucks
But I can't dig what I do enough, so it never gets be down

I say life's too short to worry
Life's too long to wait
Too short not to love everybody
Life's too long to hate
I meet a lot of men who haggle and finagle all the time
Trying to save a nickel or make a dime
Not me, no sireee, I ain't got the time

1 comment:

Eric Kincaid said...

Thanks for sharing. Any friend of Todd's is a friend of mine.