Teleportation - the "Ianpossible Tour" of 2013
In the winter of 2013, I embarked on a musical trip across Canada. I called it the “Ianpossible Tour.” The tour started in Chelsea, Quebec reached its apogee in Dawson City, Yukon, a trip that included 33 concerts in 40 days. There were any number of people who questioned my sanity about a winter tour across Canada but I had a religious belief that my trusty 2006 Suzuki Areio would make it. After all it had already taken me over 300,00 kilometers. Why they discontinued that model I will never understand. And, people have questioned my sanity on any number of occasions, why let that get in the way.
My son, Matthew had this idea to put all the names around the silhouette of my car and my designer friend, Albert Prisner came up with the perfect T- shirt, something I had never included on my merch table. He came up with a design with all the concert names on it, in the shape of my beloved car, complete with a raven and Ray Charles. It was bound to be a big seller. With my car loaded up, two guitars, a hammered dulcimer, a p.a., etc. as well as a sleeping bag, flares and a candle – you never know- I headed out down Hwy 17.
Guided by mysterious forces I did not hit one storm on the way out west. All across Ontario and on to the prairies I felt like me and my Suzuki were the camel through eye of the needle. Even the north shore of Superior which can be notorious for its lake effect storms spared me. The concerts went well, mostly house concerts, where I enjoyed the hospitality and comfort of the presenters along the way. After a few days in the Ottawa and Madawaska valley, the schedule across North and North-Western Ontario was relatively easy. It meant driving two or three hours each day to be met by friends and family in places like Sudbury, Blind River, Thessalon, Iron Bridge, Sault Ste. Marie and Goulais River. Things started to stretch out after that but I was lucky to have dates in Pic River, Marathon, Terrace Bay and Rossport before a concert in Thunder Bay. I remember one highlight was off the highway before I reached Pic River First Nation. Just as I crossed the railroad tracks heading down to the reserve, I came across a family of lynx chasing each other around a stand of birch trees. They seemed oblivious to me and were intent on playing an extended game of tag. I watched them cavort about in the snow for about a half an hour. I had played in Pic River before, hosted by musician and activist Bonnie Couchie. The last time only a handful of people came out, friends of Bonnie’s, but this time for some reason many elders of the community showed up. It was an honour and a wonderful evening. Either I had passed some test or there was nothing on the tube. It was late February.
When I got to my brother’s place on Nicol Island, Rossport, it was ice boating season on Lake Superior. There had been a brief meltdown, enough rain to take off the snow cover and now a healthy stretch of clear cold weather. The ice was perfect. I was anxious to redeem myself in David’s iceboat because the last time I had sailed it I had found the only protruding rock island near Land’s End east of Rossport. It is hard to run an iceboat aground but I managed to do that. Sadly, I had pretty much totalled the iceboat and cut and blackened one eye in the process. It was embarrassing and I needed a new memory so my brother would stop telling his friends about the other one.
My brother seemed reluctant to turn the helm over to me however, and so I was relegated to the windward outrigger of the iceboat. Everything went perfectly for awhile until the boat was going at such a speed that the outrigger became airborne. My brother seemed to get some sadistic pleasure out of this as he watched me cling to the boat to save my life while travelling across the ice at 80 kilometres an hour! I tried to remind him that I was the talent at the evening’s show but he continued in this fashion for several kilometres.
In Thunder Bay, I did a concert with my old friend Rodney Brown at the Unitarian Church on Algoma Street. It was a great playing with Rodney again, it was great for us, I hope the audience enjoyed it as well. Rodney doesn’t often show it on stage but he has a wry sense of humour and enjoys a good joke. I had worked with Rodney over the years producing three albums for him. I admire his songwriting very much. We also did a tour together during a time when we were managed by Liz Harvey Foulds. Liz once put us on an extensive tour of Ontario without once consulting a map nor considering the ergonomics of such an enterprise. We played Sudbury, Parry Sound, then Cobalt, followed the next night with London then on to Ottawa, Ontario, racking up the miles. And on it went. Rodney and I were just so grateful to have a tour, we never questioned the ridiculous lay out of the itinerary. At some point in the dizziness, Rodney and I found ourselves in Manitouwadge, Ontario. It seems that a doctor wanted to put on a concert for us at a local motel and bar and he had rented the room. The problem was this room was also home to the town’s only bar and pool table and the local loggers and truckers were there en mass waiting for the spring thaw to be over. It soon became obvious to Rodney and myself after we set up the sound system that there was going to be trouble pulling off the concert. The loggers and truckers explained to us that we were fucking assholes and that they were not going leave at the required time. However. What the boys didn’t reckon on was the good doctor. As it turned out the doctor’s last locum had been at the Warkworth prison, just south of Peterborough. In his words, he had dealt with worse turkeys plenty and he was quite sure the boys would leave at the appointed hour. Did I mention that the doctor was a big man. A very big man.
Concert time came, the audience was in place and the boys were still playing pool when the doctor addressed the boys atop the pool table. He told them in no uncertain terms that he had booked the room for the evening and that rental did not include the loggers and truckers. One of the boys told the good doctor to Fuck Off! At this point the doctor jumped off the pool table, grabbed the loggers pool cue and broke it over the bar. He then placed the remaining part of the cue across the man’s neck and addressed the room. “Ronnie” he said, “if you don’t get the fuck out of this place right now I am going to shove this cue up your ass and let this crowd here know exactly what you came in with last week!” Ronnie, managed to choke out, “We’re leavin’!” And they did. It seemed like the rest of the boys may have had health problems as well that they did not want shared with the rest of the community.
The audience sat in shocked silence. Rodney and I knew that the better part of the entertainment for the evening had just happened. But we tried. We tried and tried but the audience was distracted, preoccupied perhaps with their own thoughts about their next appointment with the new doctor in town. I wouldn’t say it was one of best nights on the tour, we were nervous let’s say, but after the show, the doctor invited Rodney and I to join him and his date in the hot tub that was next to the motel where we were staying. Again, not being the brightest lights on the tree, Rodney and I agreed this would be a good way to mellow out after what had been a tense evening. However, as we packed up our gear and headed back to the motel, it occurred to us that sitting in a hot tub cabana next to a no tell motel in Manitouwadge might not be the best thing to do. Particularly if it was mowed down by a logging truck in the middle of the night, that would not be a fitting way to end to the tour. And yet, there had been the promise of a few bottles of Beaujolais and Brie cheese. Two guys from Thunder Bay could hardly resist that offer. Thinking that the loggers might take out my car first, we brought everything into the motel room before heading down to the hot tub. In retrospect I am not sure of the wisdom of that even. If the loggers did take out my car where would be, stuck in a motel in Manitouwadge with a shit load of equipment. It was -20 C that night as we scampered across the parking lot, nothing on but towels and shoes. As we ran, we imagined the trajectory a logging truck would have to take to notch out the cabana without hitting the motel. It was possible we assessed. It would be an embarrassing end to our careers no doubt.
When we stuck our heads into the cabana we realized that the Brie and Beaujolais were already in play, entertainments continuing. As the clouds cleared briefly we discovered the good doctor and his date were in flagrante delicto in the tub.” Want some Brie?” the good doctor said. It did give me pause before I answered. I turned to find that Rodney had swilled half a bottle of wine, his cigarette was lit and was now he was working on the Brie, in the tub. I joined him and but by the time the doctor and his date had worked through the kama sutra we were back in our room. We did not sleep well at all that night, visions of logging trucks and pool cues., among other things.
The next part of the tour was in new territory for me even though it was part of my homeland, North Western Ontario. I had never played in Atikokan, Dryden or Kenora before though I had played Sioux Lookout, Red Lake and Ear Falls. I played for the first time in the near ghost town of Atikokan , former home of the Steep Rock Iron Mine. The deposit was found at Steep Rock Lake which they drained and began digging a huge open pit mine. The mine was considered one of the biggest in the world. It operated from the late 1940’s to the mid Seventies and fuelled North Western Ontario’s economy with a rail line that took the ore to the docks in Thunder Bay where it was shipped to the world. But like many mid- Canada corridor towns, once the resource was extracted, the mine shut down, commerce dried up. There was nothing left but for the town to slowly die. As I walked the down town district, shops were boarded and shuttered, closed and left some fifty years ago. It was if the whole town had become a museum or the set of a movie. It was as if time had stopped in the mid Seventies. Fifty years after the closing of the mines, the mine pit is now filling up with water and will soon pose an environment challenge when it reaches the level of the water table as well as neighbouring lakes, streams and rivers. I recently read an article about tourism at Chernobyl, Ukraine. I think Atikokan is not much different, abandoned, a disaster but worse in a way, without the nuclear attraction.
Despite the sadness I felt in the town, the people there were exceptionally kind and welcoming. I was put up in the Atikokan Hotel which had seen better days but you still imagine director’s of the mine enjoying a fine meal in the dining room. Now ghosts walk there.
In striking contrast to the quiet tragedy that is Atikokan and other single resource towns in North Western Ontario, the landscape around Atikokan, Rainy Lake to Fort Francis is stunningly beautiful. It is a mecca for canoeists from the US and Canada. While driving through the Quetico Park region I could hear the words of Sigird Olson speaking to me. I remembered as well my grandmother, Vera Baird McCavour. Nan, was she was known to us grew up in the Keewatin, on Lake of the Woods, near Kenora . After the First War she became a singer in the towns and lumber camps around this district. She had an accompanist who travelled with her and great Poole piano that was carted in a wagon. When I was young she still owned that piano and occasionally I would catch her humming some of the repertoire. I still have her song sheets in my piano bench. She met her future husband Samuel McCavour when he was working at the pulp mill in Fort Francis. Travelling and playing through this part of the country placed me in a tour lineage with her. I was travelling the same road as her but could only imagine what her days were like. She passed before I had a full understanding we were on the same road.
A few years before this tour I was playing a shortened version tour with gigs in Sioux Lookout , Red Lake before heading west to a conference in the Qu’appelle Valley, Saskatchewan. I had also been challenged to write a song about the prairies by Connie Kalder and Roy Forbes. I can’t remember the circumstances but it came about that they found my songwriting wanting as I had not written a song about their beloved flat lands. I explained to them in the kindest terms that I found the prairies not that inspirational to me. Connie noted that my assessment of her home country lead her to believe that was in turn, two dimensional. This stand off left me needing to write song. How could you want to write a song about something flat as a pancake when you came from the north shore of Superior or compared to travelling through the Quetico district. Really.
However, the challenge was out there when I started the trip. I knew I needed some good CDs to get me through the prairies. I had recently heard of a new CD featuring Ray Charles and the Count Basie Band. The thing was they had never played together but through the magic of modern audio technology they obtained a recording of Ray’s vocals from a European jazz festival and mixed it with contemporary arrangements of the those songs by the Count Basie Band. The combination was said to be incredible. The problem was that the only place where you could get this album was at Starbucks. And I had problem with Starbucks, let’s call it a boycott. Because, with the demise of retail outlets, Starbucks had become the largest distributor of CDs in North America. This left me, a little fish, flapping outside the bowl. But the thing was, I really needed that CD for the trip. So I called up an expression that a friend had given me, “a man’s greatness can only be assessed by the number of contradictions he embraces at one time.” One day I was feeling great and full of contradictions so I snuck into the Starbucks store on Bank Street, bought the CD and got out quickly. Nobody saw me so it never happened.
I was playing Ray Charles on this trip as I came towards Falcon Lake, Manitoba, near where a flying saucer burned a guy’s stomach n the 1960’s and, as importantly, where the great Canadian Shield finally gives way to the flat- as- a pancake ocean bed that once was Lake Agassiz– now called- Manitoba. It was there as I was playing “Hit the Road Jack”, I happened to look up and saw a raven flapping along in time to the same groovage that Ray and the Basie Band were putting down. Hit the road Jack, flap, flap. It is was incredible, a harmonic convergence you might call it and Valdy would have had he been in my car. But he wasn’t. I was trying to figure out how long I could keep this synchronicity happening. If I stayed at the same speed as the raven, the raven was heading straight down the highway with same groove, I had enough gas to make it Brandon when, for no particular reason, the raven dived straight down towards the car! He then, right in front of the window, did a barrel roll, like ravens do for yuks! He then rose up and disappeared. This experience was now in the territory of spiritual experience and, if Bruce Cockburn had been in the car he would have confirmed it, but he wasn’t. But I knew what happened. I knew in that moment that I no longer needed maps for this trip. I grabbed all my maps from the glove compartment and in a wasteful, littering gesture, tossed them out the window. I didn’t need them because I was now – guided by the “Raven and Ray Charles”. I had my song.
Guided by the raven and Ray Charles
Pitch poling, down Highway One
Drifting snow and the parallel lines
Late November sky and paling sun.
In Winnipeg I played a gig on Osborne Street that was organized in part by Folk Roots Canada. I was headed west and north to take part in one of their tours and it was great to make contact with them. Folk Roots Canada is an organization that places musicians from across Canada on tours to places in the country less serviced by music concerts and musicians. I was headed to the Yukon for one of their tour segments, a series of fourteen house concerts mainly stretching from Watson Lake to Dawson City. For those engaged in house concerts and community based music the Folk Roots circuits are wonderful opportunities to play for audiences in parts of the country you might otherwise never see. Folk Roots was the brain child of the notorious pirate Mitch Podolak, sadly now deceased. Mitch was an outrageous character who could pull off amazing things complete with an unreasonable dollop of bluster and bluff. He was the founder of the Winnipeg Folk Festival, its first artistic director for many years and he had a hand in the creation of the Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton Folk Festivals as well. I don’t exactly know what kind of Communist he claimed to be, probably a North Winnipeg communist, but like that expression above, he was a great man of many contradictions who loved single malt whisky.
Though I had not played in Winnipeg for many years the audience was a good one, and I was surprised to see some familiar faces, Mike Grandmaison among them. Mike is one of Canada’s premier landscape photographers who originally hails from Sudbury but he and his family have lived in Winnipeg for many years. Mike did the cover for my Superior: Spirit and Light album as well as Raincoast. Several years ago I was part of a photography conference in Winnipeg where I wrote several instrumental pieces based on a presentation of his work. I really enjoy writing for such projects, I did another such project with Mike Beedell, another excellent Canadian landscape photographer as well as presentations with Newfoundland photographer, Dennis Minty. A lot of inspiration for songs comes from the eye of the photographer so this was a natural fit.
It was actually the photography of Mike Grandmaison that gave me indication that the prairies was not just flat nor boring, simply more subtle. I saw this in his photographs of the long grass prairies, Riding Mountain National Park and around Lake Winnipeg. I learned this but would never admit it to Connie or Roy.
After the gig we went on a nostalgic trip to the Salisbury House. I was alarmed to learn that Burton Cummings was now a part owner of that famed chain of Winterpeg eateries. I was never a fan. Let it go. When I was a teenager we used to hitch hike to Winnipeg to see Neil Young and the Squires before they took up residence at the Sea Vue Motel in Thunder Bay. If our luck was right we could get to Winnipeg in about seven hours, catch a show at one of the community halls with the hope that the Chad Allen and the Expressions were not playing! After the show, we’d head to the Salisbury House till they kicked us out. Sometimes Neil and Kenny Koblun would show up, easy to recognize as they were both tall lanky characters. Though not much older than us they were rock stars and we were in awe, at least I was. Friends of mine knew Neil when he went to Kelvin High but I never mentioned that to Neil. By about 3 a.m. our welcome at the “Sals” had pretty much run its course, we were escorted out of the place, and so headed back out to the Perimeter, the highway that goes around Winnipeg. Usually we’d stand in a culvert for a few hours to get out of the wind, then start hitching back to TBay as the sun came up over that endless horizon. Such was our weekend, standing outside Ignace, English River, or Upsula, the black spruce swamp of North Western Ontario, praying for a decent ride home.
At the suggestion of Mike Grandmaison I decided to take a secondary road to Saskatoon that skirted
Riding Mountain National Park. He wanted me to take a second look at the prairies. Driving the plains is actually a wonderful time for free association and thinking about the prairies as long you don’t wind up driving off the road. In this state, I realized it was the Edmonton based artist Dean Tatum Reeves who first showed me the subtleties of the prairies. At the time Dean was living in Edmonton and working on a series of hedgerows, ditches and endless sky all done in pastels. His ability to portray the small detail of prairie against the enormous sky was quite amazing. So there are his pastels coming out before me in the groves of aspen, the golden stubble fields highlighted by a dusting of snow, drifting snow snaking down the highway, a gigantic skyline. There were the stories too remembering Jake and the Kid, Sharon Butala, Guy Vanderhage or Bill Kinsella. On this route there were as well the forgotten homesteads, abandoned elevators and rusted railroad tracks that recalled a better time. The past stood alongside the present Cargill plant. All these images and songs too like Rick Neufeld’s Moody Manitoba Morning, songs by Dan Donahue, Heather Bishop or Don Freed. Joni Mitchell. Poems by Peter Pail van Camp tumbled through my head as I rolled by Riding Mountain National Park. To say it was a mountain is a bit of stretch even by prairie standards, more of an escarpment but it affords a view of several different landscapes. There was evidence of the long grass prairie that once dominated the landscape before we arrived. There are rolling aspen hills like you might find in Southwest Saskatchewan and there a unique oasis of boreal swamps, landscape like you would see in North Manitoba. Okay Connie and Bim not so boring after all. Space releases mind. Cut back the clutter to reveal the elemental, the spiritual.
As I gazed across the endless prairie and an even greater skyscape, oddly enough I started thinking about a flower called the Prairie crocus. Across this white landscape I was told that by early April, the prairies would be dotted by this delicate purple plant. Apparently it is a big deal out here, a harbinger of spring they say. I have heard that people actually go out for spring walks, seeking signs of the mighty prairie crocus. Gazing across the plains can do tricks with your eyes and imagination and, in my imagination, I could see hundreds of small purple flowers popping up like gophers on the bald as a pancake prairie. I had been told about these flowers with great enthusiasm by Norm and Bonnie Walker. I produced a song with Paddy Tutty written by Norm called the “Prairie Pagan”, celebrating this crocus. Funny how the mind spins. I was on way to a concert at the Saskatoon library, presented by Paddy. Coffee, I need coffee.
Saskatoon is a quaint little prairie town. It nestles around the North Saskatchewan River, it has a vibrant downtown district and as I recall, it even has a few hills. I met my hosts Paddy and Billy at their home.
I had met Paddy years before at the Regina Folk festival , and produced her first album of mostly traditional songs. Paddy is an excellent musician playing English concertina, Appalachain dulcimer, guitar and piano. Fiddle too. She is an excellent researcher of British and Irish traditional songs but her musical tastes are even more wide ranging. When I recorded her album, Paddy was very nervous of the recording process and despite her ability to play these songs live without difficulty, when the red light came on in the studio she seemed to freeze. I am not sure what was going on but sadly the process became less joyful for her than it should have been. It could have been perhaps her belief that maybe even recording these songs was a corruption of the process but there was nothing I could do to make the recording process more invisible. Until. One day, after we struggled through a passable take of a song Paddy sang harmony to her vocal track. Her harmony track was impeccable and without any of the nervousness of the first track. Marty Jones, my engineer, and I noticed the difference immediately, we did a bit of lateral thinking and came up with a plan. We decided to do a scratch vocal for every track and then Paddy would sing double to that vocal, even though doubling was not being used on the album. It worked, Paddy’s second vocal was usually right on and that track became the principle vocal track. It was an unorthodox step and I am not sure Paddy was ever convinced but we got the album recorded. Later Paddy did a “live” album which I was not involved in and it seemed to be the better way to go to catch her spirit.
The concert at the library went well and Paddy had attracted a good audience. I am always tremendously grateful to the organizers who put in these shows. It is a lot of work and tremendous gamble. I am known to a fragile tangent of people across the country, created in part by my work and play on CBC radio. I am always relieved when the room is full and know it is the work of the organizers and volunteers who have filled the room. However, a long time ago I decided that seven or seven hundred, the audience would get an honourable show. I have always thought that if I did less than my best for the seven, ultimately it would affect me, I would be cheating myself. I don’t often talk about the performances but basically here’s how it goes. The day’s energy is usually focused to the evening concert. I try to get a decent soundcheck but I don’t fuss as much as some because in most cases the sound will change once there is an audience to absorb reflections and hollowness in the room. If I am in an impossible cinder brick room or gym while, what can you do.
I do fuss over tunings, usually before the door is open and then five minutes before I play. Especially if I am playing hammered dulcimer which goes out of tune if you look at it the wrong way ! I don’t hang out in the green room, I like to be with and talk to the audience before I play. Finding out a mood in the audience is important to me. I don’t know if there is any scientific basis for this but I believe there is a circuitry that can exist between an audience and performer. When the performer and audience are synch the circuit is open. For this reason I seldom have a set list because I believe the audience can inform me what the next song or direction the evening might take. If I am on and the audience is on it can make for a better evening. I remember Chilli Gonzalez talking about this in a different way when he played at the NAC last year. He thought that a performance was a contract between the performer and the audience. He felt if he brought his best to the show, the audience in turn, by their reaction to the performance could lift it up and the evening to another level. If I am on and paying attention, each introduction and song is a chance to do it perfectly, but if there is a slight flub or clam, let it go, it can still be good if not perfect. If I miss the audience and go down a path that I can feel not working, I get really angry with myself for not knowing where the audience is. At other times, I will know I have given a really good concert and left wondering where the audience was that night. Most nights I do not suck to badly and the audience is invariably great. My goal is to do what Jesse Winchester did one night at the Great Canadian Theatre Company. He played one of his love philosophy songs that was simply transcendent, his singing and guitar playing perfect.. The audience as one became lost in the song. At the end of the song the audience at first did not clap. They gasped. I heard it. And then the applause came. To me – that is goal. A goal I have on occasion forgotten.
After the show Paddy, Billy and I repaired to their home where we enjoyed a we dram of single malt. The single malt got me to thinking about my next station of the cross – Edmonton. Edmonton was the sight of two of the darker moments in my career on the road and the first misadventure did involve Scotch and a Scot. Many years earlier I had been invited to play the Half Moon Coffeehouse in Edmonton, sponsored by Jim and Jeanette McLaughlin. Jim and Jeanette were responsible for bringing many “old sod” players to Canada with a particular emphasis on Scottish folk bands like Silly Wizard, the Tannahill Weavers, Shooglenifty and songwriters like Dougie McLean and Archie Fisher. I had a great time with Jim and Jeanette, they were both pretty good with the craic as they say, and my interest in Single malts lead me to their basement bar for a wee dram after the show. Well, the wee dram turned into several amidst the craic and, with the Lagavulin gone, we left all pretence behind and dove into the Bell’s which Jim favoured anyway. “No decent Scot would nae waste their money on a single malt, North American snottery brought them on”, he declared. At some ungodly hour we both staggered off to bed. I had an 8 am flight back to Ottawa, which I had to catch or the ticket would be invalid. “No problem” Jim said, “I ‘ll drive you there.” Now how this was going to ever happen I don’t know but I was in no condition to argue. I woke an hour later with a screaming headache and a kind of shivering greenness about me. I tried to raise Jim and Jeanette but to no avail. I desperately called a cab and eventually one arrived. But the Edmonton airport is situated about halfway to Fort Saskatchewan and by the time a got there the plane was pulling away from the ramp. I was shaking, green as a sheet and my head was pounding.
“I’m sorry sir, that is your plane pulling away, this ticket is no longer valid. If you want to be back in Ottawa today a one way ticket will be $900. If I may say sir, you don’t look well.”
I wasn’t well at all. Not only did I not look well, $900 was about what I had made on the gig including record sales, and going home with nothing was not really an option. Not only that but I was supposed to open for Tony Bird the next night in Ottawa. I asked if there was anyone else I could speak to. The person at the desk said I could talk to the superintendent but she didn’t think it would do any good. She pointed me down the hall. Good luck. As I was about to knock on the door , I caught a glimpse of myself in the glass. Not a pretty sight. A well dressed and compact woman created me at the door and quickly back away. I told her my story, I told her my whole story. I grovelled, I begged, I pleaded. I was pathetic and that’s exactly what Diane Larsen said to me when I had finished. She said. “You are pathetic! You come in here reeking of cheap- scotch I believe, looking like death warmed over. You are worse than pathetic. This is the most pathetic excuse of a story I have ever heard and normally I would just kick you out but because I don’t want you seen around this airport in this condition I am going to put you on the next plane to Ottawa in the hope that I never see your sorry face in this shape again. “
He thought I would give her a hug but again she stepped away, wrote something down that I was to give to the woman at the departures desk. Go to gate 28. She showed me the door and I was gone. In an hour was on the next direct flight to Ottawa, beating the milk run I was supposed to be on by several hours. On subsequent trips to Edmonton I always brought her some flowers and/or a latest album. Finally, one time I asked after her and found out she had become airport manager. There she was, just down the hall. I greeted her with a gift and she said in the same direct way. “This, now this is becoming pathetic Mr. Tamblyn. No more flowers please. Any debt has been paid several times. I must say you’re looking better. Be on your way and good luck”
I shook her hand, waved goodbye and I have never seen her since. But I will never forget her kindness.
The next trepidation I had about Edmonton did not involve alcohol I hasten to add. It involved worms. Arrogant Worms. I had been asked to open for the Arrogant Worms on Grey Cup day in Edmonton. It was at the beginning of another tour I had organized in northern Alberta and B.C. so I said yes. I should have said no but musicians generally don’t say no to gigs or anything really. But there were clear signs. I had seen the Arrogant Worms before and while I admire them on one level, our sense of humour is not the same. If I do have a sense of humour, I don’t write in the same park as the Worms, how can I say this, we make a poor fit and this day brought it home. Then, you add in the component that I was to play before the Grey Cup Game and the Worms were to play at the half time show and after the Cup had been won, it was not a game I could possibly win. It was not an optimal situation one might say and it got worse. The organizer of the show told me on the day to play an hour and a half before the game. When I started my set there was a table of four people and at the end of my set there was a table of four people. “We came to see you play”, they said. “Thank you”, I said. Then the audience began to arrive. I had other friends in town who could have come to the gig but my name was not included on the poster. At half- time there was a great noise at the door of the legion, did I mention it was a legion, and sixty fans of the Worms arrived banging on things and waving gigantic worm balloons over their heads. At this point I wish there had been alcohol involved but on came the Worms and we were off to the frat house. I can’t remember who won the Grey Cup that day but at the end of the afternoon / evening there I was with the same four people at the same table. I went to see the organizer about payment. He told me bluntly he didn’t have any coin for me because I didn’t bring in an audience. I suggested that this was not part of the agreement but it was no use. Then I asked about my hotel room. “Sorry buddy, like I said, you didn’t bring anybody to the gig, I got no money to pay for your room.” I was fucked. I had no money, it was the beginning of the tour. I was not yet in the more feisty period of my career although this was a good beginning. I wondered what the Worms got paid. I left him and thought about my predicament. The table of four was still there. Hmm. I approached the table and said. “Gee folks, I have just found out my hotel accommodation is not available so I was wondering if I did a house concert for you, for free, you call up some friends, I could play for you, then, maybe I could crash at somebody’s house tonight…. “
They went for it, I followed them home and played for about twenty people that evening in their living room. They knew some of my songs and it worked out fine till the party emptied out I was left again with the two couples. Just before heading to bed on their couch, one of the four approached me.
“We just need to tell you something before we go to bed.”
Well, we don’t want you to worry if you hear us up during the night. You see, none of us sleep well and we have to take our meds.”
“Yes, all of us are diagnosed schizophrenics, we found each other at the hospital, and we are out on a weekend pass.”
“But whose home is this?”
“It’s my mother’s, she’s staying with friends. I hope you sleep okay.”
The fact was I didn’t need to worry because the concert in Edmonton was in the caring hands of Linda Aris , one of the kindest people I have ever known. I met Linda at the massage tent at the Calgary Folk festival. Though I am not really into the touchy feeling world of massage, I found occasionally at folk festival a lie down on a table is just the thing to take the edge off things. I find folk festivals tense affairs to be honest. It is nice to see fellow “winter soldiers” on the festival trail but at the same time there can be too much ego, pecking order and way too much sitting around time to speculate on all of this. Songwriters tend to be observers and I have always found it a contradiction of the trade to be in the centre, knowing that your best work is done from the edge. Some find the festivals wonderful places to jam with others but I tend to want to order sound and truth be told I am not a real musician. All these things lead me to the massage parlour on the festival site and into the capable hands of Linda Aris. Linda, ever effervescent, liked to chat and she told me her last client had been none other than Ry Cooder . I hopped on the table right a way, eager to occupy the same space that Ry had just left. Maybe his linger vibe could pass on some of his talent to me through my back. I hear these things can happen. Though committed to some kind “nothing leaves the table” sort of confidentiality, Linda regaled me with Ry Cooder stories for the next hour. Not only was I getting a fantastic treatment I was getting way better gossip than in the beer tent! I had followed Ry from his time with Taj Mahal to his more recent work writing songs on Pull Up some Dust and Sit Down. I think I have most of his albums. Ry is my favourite electric guitarist next to Jeff Beck. What I didn’t know but later was confirmed by friends at the Elkhorn Sough, Linda told me that Ry and his wife Susan were keen birders. Who could have guessed, but this is the stuff you really need to know about an artist. Just like Jeff Beck spends much his time fixing up hot rods, Ry and his wife like getting in a kayak and doing a bit of twitching. This is getting down to the real soul of a person and the hour disappeared invisibly. We shared a few laughs and she was interested in hearing my hammered dulcimer again. She had heard it at a workshop earlier in the day and wanted to hear more. I told her I could meet her at the hotel later where we were all staying. Now I never thought the hammered dulcimer was the key to getting a date with a massage therapist but it goes to show you never know. I left the massage tent relaxed and smiling. Maybe I did get some of Ry’s mojo.
I was rooming with my friend and musical compatriot Fred Guignion. Fred is a brilliant guitarist and I would put him number three on my list of favourite guitarists, followed by Mark Knofpher. Good company. I have been playing with Fred since 1986 and he never ceases to amaze me, he is a wonderful musical colourist and at the same time, a dedicated rocker. Fred speaks through his guitar but generally speaking I would have to say that Fred, under normal circumstances, is not a real conversationalist, preferring ‘Hmmpfs’ and grunts to needless chatter. However, when Linda and her friend Jen Babcock arrived at our room, Fred transformed before my very eyes. It turns out that he too had had a massage with Linda. Go figure – never thought Fred was the massage type. Linda and Jen then proceeded to open old Fred up like a can of sardines. All of sudden this cat who hadn’t said more than a few grunts to me in several years was suddenly charming, funny and even loquacious. Who knew? He was like a rare flower that only blooms on the rarest of occasions. It was nothing less than a revelation. I played the dulcimer while Fred entertained the two women, and encouraged me to play some more. What a crock! Fred hated the hammered dulcimer, “I can’t play with that fuckin’ thing Ian, it’s got too many strings and you never have it in tune!” was his assessment. But on this occasion – well it was to be believed. They weren’t here to see me – they wanted to meet Fred- the affable guitar god!! The evening lasted long into the night with great laughter and frivolity. I remember still. So many laughs.
I kept in touch with Linda over the years, I thought she was a special spirit, and indeed she was. She continued her work with massage therapy and holistic healing and continued as a volunteer at both the Edmonton and Calgary Folk Festivals. I saw her a few times again and it was always special. Between the last time I had seen her, and the concert at her house, Linda had taken a course in grief support and was hired to join a support network in Edmonton. She was now living with a new man Hayward, and she had become an avid touring biker, travelling across North America with him. Her son Quinn, was 21 and working as sous chef in a local restaurant. When I saw her this last time, Linda was at her best, happy, funny, full of spark- fulfilled and surrounded by love. We had an excellent evening of laughter and song at their house. A year later I got news from her friend Jen Babcock, that Linda had developed brain cancer and the prognosis was not good. She fought the disease with all she had, it seemed like all she had taken up in her life was but a rehearsal for her own struggle. Reading her last notes to me now, there was no anger however in her words, no regret, only a certain weariness and a great deal of love. She was one of the great light givers.
With 4000 kms on the mighty Suzuki at this point in the trip, it was time for an oil and filter change before setting off into the next unknown part of the journey. My next stop was Fort St.John where I had a gig on the return leg of the tour but I’d never been there before. Though I put a lot of clicks on the car I was quite religious about oil changes and general maintenance of the car. I had already had one Suzuki Aerio that took me 380,000kms so I was confident that, with some care, the car would make it. I purchased a map of B.C and the Yukon, I felt my guidance thing with the raven might be waning and realized I still had about 3500km to make to Dawson City! Jesus, It was alright going gig to gig day by day but there was a lot road out there before me and all of it was heading north. Yikes. Still no storms though.
My own personal maintenance was also good ... I was eating well, by that I mean healthily, and avoiding the hot roast beef sandwiches and fries which I normally favour on the road. But I realized that they are dangerous not only for your health but if you have an artery clogger for lunch, an hour later you are nodding off, banging your head on the steering well. This has happened! I found the only cure for that was a few cans of Red Bull to wash down the gravy and fries but then you are descending into dark territory indeed. So this trip it was all fruit cups and gorp and though I was eating the diet of a gerbil I was healthy. This is not always achievable. I bought a back support for the car but the seats in that Suzuki were killer and the first few steps when I got out of the car were agonizing. I am getting old. Still I was firing on all cylinders, voice was as good as it gets , and the late night partying was kept to a minimum with so many concerts before me. After Fort St. John I would travel through north British Columbia to join the Home Routes tour of the Yukon for two weeks of shows stretching from Watson Lake to Dawson City. As I left Linda’s house ad home I knew I would be leaving the last of friends behind for awhile and truly out there.
I had toured northern B.C before from Rupert to McBride and played Whitehorse and Dawson City but I had never taken this route. It was new country for me. I was anxious to see the Rockies knowing they were much further to west than when you leave Calgary. As the day wore on the high plains of Alberta yielded to a more rolling terrain. But the mountains were still not on the horizon. I was on the high plain of Alberta and with every mile there were more and more trucks carrying strange equipment to the new gas fields. Soon I found myself in the middle a gas boom. Every twenty kilometres there was another camp and off the highway there were working towers and exploratory wells everywhere. This was in the boom years and it was intense. Some the loads on the trucks were enormous and took up both lanes of the highway at times.
I continued up highway 43 to Valleyview then over to Grand Prairie on 34. I guess that’s why called it grand prairie cuz there were still no mountains! It wasn’t flat like Manitoba or Saskatchewan but I wanted the mountains so bad, I’d seen quite enough of the great prairie sky and now the gas fields and flames reaching up to the same skyline. The industrial explosion was all over the landscape and it was somewhat oppressive. Because I was then headed to Pouce Coupe and Dawson Creek, home of Roy Forbes, I threw Roy on the cd player. It has to be said that Roy is one of the best guitar players around on both acoustic and electric. He is so clean on that old Michael Gurian guitar. I remember seeing him at the Regina Folk Festival in 1973 when he was Bim and a kid full of dreams. He was a solo artist but he played like he was taking down the house at Madison Square Gardens. I guess he was a folky but he really had a rock n roll spirit. And his voice is unique in all pop music. Roy is such a dedicated player and fan of music, with his voice he could be anyone but I am pretty sure by the way he ends phrases, he listened to Bill Holiday a lot. Roy has a massive collection of vinyl records and I have been lucky to receive a different Christmas collection every year, a favourite cut being Bahamian Joseph Spence’s brilliant interpretation of ‘Sandy Claws is Comin’ to Town.’ He did the trick, a few times listening to an album dedicated to his mother’s favourite songs, Roy took me through his hometown of Pouce Coupe and into the boreal foothills of the Peace River District. The prairies were slipping behind me. I can’t remember who said Canada is famous for its great expanse of geography, the problem is there is just too much of it. I would agree with that.
Dawson Creek is also mile zero of the Alaska Highway, that incredible project that began in 1942 and finished at Fairbanks, Alaska, remarkably only 8 months later. I would be travelling this historic route for the next ten days along the Rocky Mountain trench. Eight months to build a road through rock and boreal forest, swamp and rivers and through five mountain ranges. Impossible to imagine the effort and fear that drove the construction of the highway. It takes two years to change the plumbing on most urban streets these days.
The gas field exploration boom stretched on towards Fort St. John. Big trucks often forcing me off the road, half tons caked in mud roaring by, gravel flying. The more I saw of this the less I liked and I could begin to sympathize with Wiebo Ludwig and his life long protest against sour gas wells. Wiebo had recently died with complications from throat cancer. Subsequent research has found that hydrogen sulphide found leaking from these wells, that he protested against, are in fact toxic to human health and the levels permitted in the atmosphere in Canada far too high. And yet, he was made out to be a crazy radical.
In Fort St. John was a gas boom town. I dropped in on Joe at his psychedelic record shop and made arrangements with him for my concert there on the return leg of the trip. Joe turned out to be pretty straight, he explained the bongs and paraphernalia were for the yo- yos working the gas fields which somehow made sense thinking about those trailer camps. He old me about a modestly priced motel in town, I had a late meal and crashed. The next day would be into the Rockies and a long haul up to Watson Lake.
I was up early the next day and keen to get on the road. I hoped to get to Watson Lake by the evening with stop at Laird Hot Springs on the way. About fifty clicks outside Fort St. John I began to see the Northern Rockies. I got to say I was more than happy to see them .I had done my best with the prairies, I saw them in a different light, in many lights actually but there is only so much you can take and it was joy to see them in the rear view mirror! The Northern Rockies are different than my normal entrance point west of Calgary and I realize that the Calgary entrance has been my reference point and in a way, expectation. But view of this range looks more like looking west from the Turner Valley in southern Alberta, Ian Tyson country, and now coming before me a great north – south wall of mountains heading to the northwest. It was a spectacular road as headed up towards Muncho Lake, a long narrow lake that is defined by the Rocky mountain trench. It was a great road but I couldn’t help but imagine what it must have been like to build it. I have seen black and white photos of “mules”, early tractors, mired in the mud and my father talking about working on the highway during the summer of 1942. He said the bugs were terrible.
I stopped for lunch at the Northern Lodge on Muncho Lake. It’s not really a lodge, more an expensive hotel but with a bit of a commercial northern log cabin feel for German tourists. There was a fly- in marina for fishing parties. I had their supposedly famed Weiner schnitzel, forgetting the gerbil for a moment. It was okay. I find the more famous a place is for something, it seldom quite gets there, with the exception of course of Schwartz’s deli on the Main, even though Celine Dion now owns the joint. What is with this pop stars owning restaurants these days? However, I think Celine would do well to chow down on the full mixed platter there. I was now talking to myself. About Celine Dion.
The road north of Muncho Lake turned extremely exciting as large animals started appearing, on and at the side of the road. At first I came upon a herd of Wapitae (Elk) wandering down the middle of the road, I don’t know how many, 20 -30, a sizeable number and before I could take that in there were bison lounging in the snow at the side of the road. It was a beautiful day and the bison seemed to be enjoying the sun and snow. I stopped for a few photos and they seemed unafraid, oblivious of me. I on the other hand was somewhat nervous that this one ton animal might suddenly seek revenge for the past millions slaughtered. But no, they seemed content to bury their heads in the snow for some roadside grasses. The next 100 kilometres were a succession of these sights until I reached the Laird Hot Springs. I think Laird Hot Springs is one of the best hot springs I have ever put my toe into. There is no hoopla about the place, a simple aboard walk and some change huts off the highway in the woods. No ticket, no signs. On this day the snow around the hot springs was soft and hanging from the trees, the steam bellowing up into the trees. The wet wood walkways gave the place a Japanese feeling, like those places on Hokkaido where the monkeys stay warm in winter. I had the place all to myself and this monkey lingered there for an hour. It was heaven. The road peeled away and all that tension I had taken up in the mile after mile I left there. I should have written a song about the place but I was too relaxed. But I should have known better.
And then it was on to Toad River where I had to stop just because the place was called Toad River. At the general store there were certainly T- shirts indicating that they knew they had a good thing going with the name Toad River. Sadly, it caused me to reflect on my own T-shirts sales which were not selling like gang busters. I had only sold ten so far. Come on, the ‘Ianpossible’ Tour, how could you beat that. More and more sightings of Bison and Elk accompanied me right into Watson Lake and there I was beginning the Home Routes Tour.
Within ten minutes of meeting my host Moe, I realized I was in deep trouble. As soon as I got in the door and introductions were made, the gloves came off. Moe had read up on me and knew I was from Quebec and lived just outside of Ottawa. Jesus. No sooner than my jacket was off he launched into the best diatribe of eastern bashing I have ever heard. Within minutes he revealed that he was a great supporter of Stephen Harper but felt that Stephen was not to the right enough in the things he was doing. He said that Ottawa had soften him. This guy was to the right of Attila the Hun. The vitriolic spew was unbelievable, he was then on about Pierre Trudeau and the National Energy Programme from 1976, he was on about the fuckin’ French and how they should separate , no, we should separate from those cocksuckers! And then he was on about taxes and before you know it he was on about the fuckin’ Indians and bums they were specially right here in Watson Lake. Son of bitches and lazy fuckers the whole lot of them. My head was wheeling. How did Home Routes allow a guy like this to host a concert series? What about the socialist leanings of the folk community? How could they allow a racist to be part of this series. But the thing was I was stuck here for two days and so I thought myself, do not blow your top Ian stay cool. What is the expression, keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer.
Now normally when feeling an attack, I usually attack back and not very rationally I admit, but this time perhaps realizing there was no recourse I said to Moe, “Look Moe, let’s step back a moment. I am going to be here for the next two days, I have to be and so I am willing to engage you in this argument, debate, rhubarb- whatever you want to call it but let’s agree on flesh wounds only – no budgeoning and hacking- agreed?”
“You like homemade wine?”
Red or white?
“I think any colour would go down well. Red might match the blood on my shirt.”
“We’re having elk for dinner, I sure hope you ain’t like the last group in here – vegans. Eat like fuckin’ gerbils. Couldn’t wait to get rid of them. How do them people survive?”
“ Beats me, never had elk before, sounds good to me!’
And so a way we went long into the night, long into the night and, long into the bottles of wine. As far as I was concerned, there could never be enough of it in this scenario. But was Moe a good cook! We had everything that walked, flew or swam in that part of the world. – all shot or caught by his own hands. I am sure some will be horrified but for me, having survived on tamari almonds and dried apricots for 20 days, Moe’s meals were fantastic. I didn’t care if sitting down with Moe meant listening to more right wing bullshit, to have lovely rainbow for breakfast was well worth the punishment. We came to get along and only revived the harangue on special occasions like each evening from the first glass filled to the last drop late into the night.
Though Moe and his wife lived in a bungalow in Watson Lake, he really belonged in the woods , he was a woodsman. He knew every about the woods and the machines that went along with it. He had a great garage with all kinds of camping gear , canoes, packs, rifles and every kind of internal combustion engine you might need in the woods. He showed me his collection of knives , he knew all about the animals . He knew everything you could want to know about , moose , bison, elk, mountain goats , cougars and bears. I was very interested in all of this and he took me under his wing a bit to let me know about the natural world and mostly how to shoot it or catch it around Watson Lake. My thinking was as long as I kept him on topic he wouldn’t go after Quebec, the East and the various fuckers who lived there. I didn’t work all the time and occasionally he would drift off into musing on how for example it would have been better for the country if the flesh eating disease Bouchard caught hadn’t stopped with his leg. I didn’t come up for that one but looked forward to the bison stew we were having for lunch.
That night I played in Watson Lake . There were about thirty of Moe’s friends on one side of the ski lodge and two first Nation couples on the other side of the room. I was in the middle . The two groups never spoke a word to each other. At half time , I spoke to one First Nation couple, turns out he was the chief of the band.
“Thanks for coming to the show”
“Thanks for coming here. Heard you on the radio when I lived in Edmonton.”
“Yeah they played you quite bit. What kind of guitar is that?”
“It’s a Stonebridge. Made in the Czech Republic, you want to try it?”
“No that’s okat. It sounds pretty good. Looks like a Martin.”
“Yeah- a D-28, I think it is about the same shape.”Thanks for coming to the show.”
“Yeah, we always come. They don’t want us here, but we come anyway. We stay on this side of the room. “
“Yeah, I noticed. Doesn’t feel that comfortable to tell you the truth.”
“It is what it is. Come back.”
“Thanks, I will.”
But I never did.
The next morning Moe and I got into it again, this time over coffee, waffles and bacon. The topic of course was going to be Indians.
“I seen you talkin’ to the chief last night?”
“Yeah, he was asking me about my guitar. I didn’t know he was the chief.”
“Yeah, he thinks he’s some kind of country singer. “
“He didn’t mention it.”