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October 13, 2016
Toronto Gobe & Mail
Canadian artists on the genius of Bob Dylan
by Brad Wheeler
With the news of Bob Dylan being awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in literature, we asked some of Canada’s top singer-songwriters to weigh in on the genius of the first songwriter to ever win the esteemed prize.
Bruce Cockburn, the 13-time Juno winner: “Dylan, especially the young Dylan, was the tip of the spear when it came to contemporary, folk-based songwriting. The elements of his style, both as a writer and in the way he at first presented himself, included lots of borrowed stuff, but he had the ability to distill those elements into a whole that captured everything we cared about in a single package. Nobody has ever written a better song than Hard Rain or Visions of Johanna or, for that matter, Tangled Up in Blue or Ring Them Bells. It’s interesting to me that the Nobel committee has seen fit to include songwriting in its definition of literature. No one exemplifies that connection better than Bob Dylan.”
Colin Linden, the producer-musician who played with The Band and was recently a member of Mr. Dylan’s touring ensemble: “The power, imagination, honesty, depth and beauty of what Bob Dylan says and how he says it cuts to the core and make you feel deeper. I crave that feeling and I need to hear Dylan to get it. Each of Bob’s songs is like its own universe. Each one comes from somewhere and takes you somewhere. And each fulfills so many desires. Literature doesn’t even begin to describe it, but it’s a good place to start.”
Tamara Lindeman, of The Weather Station: “Each of us approach Dylan in our own way, finding at different times of life another Dylan to happen upon, whether the gentle romantic, the rake, the mystic. Dylan makes words feel beautiful, or wry, or thunderous or ugly – he twists and rearranges the ordinary syllables of our monolith of a language in ways that still feel fresh, years later. When music feels colourless and stale you can stumble across a few bars of another Dylan and feel shaken through and through.”
Corin Raymond, the Hamilton-based troubadour: “As Warren Zevon put it, ‘Bob Dylan invented my job.’ When I get asked at a party what I do for a living, I say ‘I’m a singer-songwriter.’ It’s not an answer my grandmother would’ve understood, but it’s enough to claim my place in the social fabric. ‘Singer-songwriter’ comes directly down from Dylan, the first for whom such a term was required. Bard, folksinger, rocker: Dylan expanded every tradition from which he sprang. He brought a blazing literacy to music, and provoked new poetic possibilities for the word ‘song.’ And the force of his creative daring can never be undared. His songs are a ‘call to alms’ for any of us who labour at this vocation.”
Chris Luedecke, the Nova Scotia banjo-playing songster who records under the name Old Man Luedecke: “There is literature in Dylan’s folk songs we have loved so long and sometimes known without loving. There are musical rhymes that rise above the music, that stand alone in space and time, transcendent, that knock around in your head at odd moments, changing your daily life. This is the door that Dylan opened for so many people and so countless many artists. Them old dreams aren’t only in your head.”
Melissa McClelland, of Whitehorse: “These days, lyrics are often considered to be more superficial window dressing than legitimate poetry. Is the purpose of a lyric simply to be a phonetically pleasing ear worm? A shallow accompaniment to the music being heard? Thanks to Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, I am reminded that lyrics are the beating heart of a song. His lyrics can be viewed and felt from a hundred different angles. They are funny, disturbing, sexy and deep all at once.”
September 7, 2016
Blackie and the Rodeo Kings Tap City and Colour, Bruce
Cockburn, Nick Lowe for 'Kings and Kings'
by Gregory Adams
Five years on from the release of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings' collaborative Kings and Queens release, the roots rock group have announced a companion LP. Bringing aboard male musicians including City and Colour's Dallas Green and Brit power pop vet Nick Lowe, their Kings and Kings collection is due October 7 via File: Under Music.
While the project last delivered South in 2013, Kings and Kings is the spiritual successor to Kings and Queens, which found Blackie and the Rodeo Kings working with vocalists including Roseanne Cash and Lucinda Williams. As a press release explains, this time around the band's Tom Wilson, Colin Linden and Stephen Fearing reached out to their "best 'guy' friends from the world of roots, blues, and country" to help put together some new tunes.
The roster of talent includes past collaborators like Bruce Cockburn, Buddy Miller, and Keb Mo, while Linden brought aboard artists like Chris Carmack, Charles Esten, Jonathan Jackson and Sam Palladio, with whom he'd worked with on the Nashville television series.
Other notable names involved with Kings on Kings include Dallas Green, Nick Lowe, Vince Gill, Rodney Crowell, Eric Church, and Raul Malo.
Thematically, the full-length kicks off with "Live By The Song," a tune written by all three Rodeo Kings, and featuring guest vocals from Crowell, that is dedicated to "every working musician/songwriter committed to the 'life.'" Elsewhere, Cockburn and Linden wax on "timeless beauty" for "A Woman Gets More Beautiful."
You'll get the full breakdown on the LP below, where you'll also find a stream of the set's Wilson-led, City and Colour-assisted "Beautiful Scars."
Kings and Kings:
1. Live By The Song (ft. Rodney Crowell)
2. Bury My Heart (ft. Eric Church)
3. Beautiful Scars (ft. City and Colour)
4. High Wire (ft. Raul Malo)
5. Playing By Heart (ft. Buddy Miller)
6. Bitter and Low (ft. Fantastic Negrito)
7. Secret of a Long Lasting Love (ft. Nick Lowe)
8. A Woman Gets More Beautiful (ft. Bruce Cockburn)
9. Land of The Living (Hamilton Ontario 2016) (ft. Jason Isbell)
10. Long Walk To Freedom (ft. Keb Mo)
11. This Lonesome Feeling (ft. Vince Gill)
12. Where The River Rolls (ft. The Men of Nashville)
August 17, 2016
The Town Courier
“Feast Your Ears – The Story of WHFS 102.3 FM” is Schlossberg’s work-in-progress documentary about WHFS, where locally-legendary DJs—including Weasel, Cerphe, Damian, Josh, Adele and Thom—spun non-Top 40 tunes and chatted about the important issues of the day. “It was more than a local radio station,” Schlossberg said. “It was the voice of a generation.”
The substance was transmitted in more than one way. “Not only were we getting messages through the music of these national and local musicians,” said the Dufief resident who is the film’s director and executive producer, “but we also were getting local news (on topics like) when an anti-war protest would be held, where to buy records, health food, the nearest surf shop. The station served as a conduit for all the thriving retail businesses that sprung up around the culture.”
Most important, Schlossberg emphasized, was that WHFS promoted and supported local music. “We heard news about the live music venues—who was playing where and when.” After rattling off the names of some of the major places—The Psyche Delly, The Cellar Door, Redfox Inn, the Bayou, Lisner, the Warner, he observed, “’HFS was the center of it all.”’
Schlossberg’s allegiance to the station was cemented at age 17 when the Charles W. Woodward High School student was fortunate enough to have a summer job there. “I’d pay you to let me work here,” he remembers thinking in 1972. At Montgomery College the following year, Schlossberg was among 16 students who started the campus radio station. He served as WMCR’s program director and DJ, aspiring to be like Weasel and Cerphe, and honed his guitar skills by jamming in the student lounge when he was supposed to be in class.
The idea to tell the WHFS story came to Schlossberg some 30 years later after seeing a group photo on Facebook of the iconic station’s DJs, taken at the April 20, 2013 Record Day celebration at Joe’s Record Paradise in Silver Spring. “I said out loud, ‘Oh my God, they’re all not dead yet. Someone needs to tell this story,’” he recalled. “Of course, I knew them all already, but seeing the photograph just crystallized it. A flashbulb went off.”
Schlossberg is president and owner of Media Central, the global crewing, production and post-production services broker-agent company he founded on Aug. 1, 1993 (Jerry Garcia’s birthday, he noted). His clients have included HBO, Lucasfilm, Discovery Channel, Paramount Pictures, Showtime and BBC Worldwide. His company Media Central Films has produced a web series, “AutoExotika Presents: Cars ‘N Coffee,” with episodes in Bethesda, Las Vegas, Santa Barbara, Cincinnati, Palm Beach and Paris.
Despite his successful businesses and concomitant media industry contacts, Schlossberg had never done a documentary before. Thus, it was essential that he research and brainstorm the project by talking to people who had been there as well as industry professionals. About six months post-epiphany, he hosted what he called a “meeting-party” with the WHFS DJs in the building where they once broadcasted.
Maryanne Culpepper, former president of National Geographic Television, was enlisted as executive producer “to help with the front and back ends, to help me get the plane off the ground and into the air and with the landing,” he said. “She knows about film festivals.” Also on the team are consulting producer Jonathan Gilbert AKA Weasel; story consultant and former Washington Post writer Richard Harrington; and Bethesda native and writer of “Homicide” and “The Wire” David Simon, who helped with background and context.
Filming began in June 2014, and a Kickstarter fundraising effort in October and November 2015 raised $65,000 for the project. With two-thirds of the filming completed, Schlossberg expects the editing process to begin in September with a rough cut by the end of the year. Plans include local screenings—perhaps at AFI in Silver Spring and Landmark in Bethesda—and Netflix and Showtime and even director Morgan Spurlock have expressed interest and encouragement. Schlossberg is confident and optimistic about the film’s future. “We have gotten a lot of positive feedback from the trailer,” he said. “And I think the film will have wide-ranging international appeal, too.”
Having acquired a taste for music documentaries, Schlossberg is also acting as executive producer of “The Humbler,” a film about legendary guitar player Danny Gatton.
Visit www.feastyourearsthefilm.com to see the trailer, donate to the film, buy merchandise and read other stories about the documentary.
Photo: Courtesy of Jay Schlossberg. Bruce wih Jay at the City Winery. Bruce appears in the trailer and in the film.
August 13, 2016
August 11, 2016
Vancouver 24 Hours
24 Seconds with the great Bruce Cockburn
by Joe Leary
24: You’ve been doing this for 40 years and have released 30 albums or so. Does it seem like you’ve really been at it this long?
BC: It depends on where you start counting. I kind of date my professional career from the beginning of 1966, which makes it 50 years and 31 albums officially but some of them are compilations. It’s been quite a run so far and it doesn’t seem like it’s over yet, which I’m grateful for.
24: I was surprised to learn that back in your group era, your band Olivus actually opened for Jimi Hendrix and Cream. How did that come about?
BC: The bands I was in were rock bands and they varied stylistically. The first band was sort of ‘Beatles-y’ oriented singer/songwriter band. I’m kind of understating it somewhat — it was a broader range of stuff than that makes it sound but just for the sake of the conversation that was The Children in Ottawa. I was in a couple of other bands and then I went to Toronto and joined the band that was originally called The Flying Circus and then became Olivus. That band opened for Jimi Hendrix in Montreal and for Cream in Ottawa but the band couldn’t make up its mind — the organ player was a big fan of Garth Hudson and would have like our group to go in the direction of The Band and I wanted to be more like Frank Zappa and the drummer and bass player were coming from an R&B place. We had all of those elements in there and I injected as much psychedelia as I had the chops to pull off I guess, as the rest of them were willing to accommodate. Actually we got reviewed in a Montreal paper and the guy said that if it had been anybody other than Hendrix and Soft Machine that we were opening for we would have ended up stealing the evening; which I think is a measure of how much that guy smoked (laughs). We opened for Wilson Pickett in Toronto and the audience was not into our kind of music at all; two songs in their yelling at us and shaking their fists. That was a short set. We didn’t have very many gigs but the ones we did have were kind of spectacular.
24: Did you feel confined in the group environment and want to go solo?
BC: When I dropped out of Berklee School of Music and joined that first band, I had no idea what I wanted to do or what my direction was supposed to be. The only thing I knew was it wasn’t was I was learning in Berklee. So I joined this band and I started writing songs in earnest at that point. By the end of the sixties I had a little body of songs that I liked better when I played them alone than with any of the bands that I had been in. The songs were the product of trying to write for each of the different bands so there was quite a wide variety but the ones I liked best just sounded best when I just played them. I was also getting tired of big long, wanky guitar solos; not tired of playing them particularly but tired of hearing them and I thought that I probably wasn’t alone in that and I thought there must be an audience for the kinds of songs that these represented; basically what’s on the first two albums. I went solo and initially just played little gigs in little clubs and it kind of expanded from there.
24: The music business you embarked upon is completely different than the one we see today. Back in the day one needed to be signed to a label and the record label needed to get radio play. What do you think of the way the business is today?
BC: Well it’s certainly different. I’m not involved in it enough at the starting level to really have much of a say to the extent of what the difference is and the fact that there obviously aren’t record companies offering record deals and if they are, it’s extortion to the extent of publishing and so on. Unless you’re the type of artist who’s really aimed at mass commercial radio, you’re on your own basically. That was to some extent the same back in the day because in Canada at least, there weren’t very many record companies; in fact there were no Canadian record companies other than independents that weren’t interest in Canadian talent at all in the sixties. One or two people maybe leaked through in spite of that; Bobby Curtola from Thunder Bay had a hit; the Beau Marks from Montreal had a big hit around the world in ‘Clap Your Hands’ and Paul Anka of course but that was really rare. It took awhile for there to be enough momentum in the Canadian scene; it took the CRTC regulations in fact to get the business going to push radio to play Canadian stuff and it worked. I’m not really in favour of government intervention but it worked.
24: You were one of the artists getting radio play before it became mandatory.
BC: I was getting a limited amount of play before those rules came into effect but I’ve never been motivated by stuff like radio play or awards or that whole end of things but there are people and really legitimate artists who really do think about those things. For me it was all about the songs about living a life that would allow me to find fodder for the songs in a way. I didn’t think of it consciously like that but that’s what it amounted to. So I didn’t want to get in on playing the success game for wont of a better way to put it. Luckily I hooked up with Bernie Finkelstein and he did want to play that game so it kind of worked out because he was very good at that and is still and I was able to offer him enough ammunition that he could play the game well. What artists now are facing is something that’s pretty intimidating in a way because it’s not hard to get your stuff out there; everybody can make a record in their bedroom and put it out but to get anybody to notice it to be able to make a living off of it is a whole other thing. In other words; like getting paid. It’s one thing to have your song everywhere but how does that translate into making a living and I don’t think anybody’s really figured that out yet. Maybe I’m behind the curve and there are theories now that can be applied. I hope so because otherwise it’s not a very attractive picture. The thing that’s missing from the equation is money and to me the important thing about the money is the ability to pay musicians. Not every record wants to be made in a bedroom. Sometimes you want to make it in a good studio; sometimes you want to have an orchestra or horn players or something and where do they come from? Somebody has to pay for that and traditionally it was paid for by record companies who then got their money back from selling the records to the public. That only works for a very few people now. The audience is being deprived of a great variety of stuff that they might like. I feel for people starting out. I remember when the coffee house era ended, suddenly there was an absolute sense of rooms in which people really listened to the music. In bars people were noisy and it changed songwriting because the songwriters couldn’t expect to have an attentive audience and those that didn’t want to make that change had to struggle with the presence of noise and whatever else adverse working conditions. That was one thing but we all kind of got over that but this is a whole other ballgame; the interface between art and technological culture.
24: You’ve always been an artist with a strong social conscience. Has that ever inhibited perhaps some of the access to your music whereas the content might steer someone away because it was considered too political?
BC: I think there’s been a little bit of that but I don’t think I’ve suffered greatly from it. The point being ‘If I Had a Rocket Launcher’ and ‘If a Tree Falls’; those kind of songs have done well and I didn’t find any great resistance that I saw. The people in the trenches; the sales people may have I don’t know but I didn’t feel that coming back at me. With very few exceptions that I am aware it really hasn’t hurt me.
24: When you have songs like ‘Rocket Launcher’ and ‘Wondering Where the Lions Are’; songs that have become Canadian standards, does it ever frustrate you as an artist because that’s obviously what people know you best for but perhaps in your estimation you’re probably thinking there’s much better material on deeper cuts on the albums.
BC: The regrettable part of that picture might be that people don’t get to hear some of those songs and then make a choice. It’s just a fact of life. To the extent that radio’s been a part of my career for wont of a better thing to call it, radio obviously can’t play everything. Even the most enlightened freest form radio can’t play everything so people are going to be attached to the things that they hear repeatedly; hopefully something will catch their ear and maybe they’ll come out to a show and they get to hear the other stuff and even more hopefully they’ll buy the record but nowadays that’s a bit of a forlorn hope because people just download the tracks they want and there are no deeper cuts but we’ll see what happens with my next album because I’ll be swimming in that same sea.
July 15, 2016
The dam over Almonte's troubled waters
by Linda Manzer
Citizens of a picturesque town outside of Ottawa lament the expansion of a hydro dam they claim will ruin a pice of paradise
Picture a lovely, quiet town surrounded by old stone mills that have scarcely changed in a hundred years. The main street is full of charming shops selling local crafts and restaurants that attract interesting visitors — including recently Justin Trudeau and family.
Right through the heart of town runs a magical river with cascading waterfalls. It’s a special, loved place where people fish, kids swim and wildlife abounds. This is Almonte, a town of 5,000 people about 50 km southwest of Ottawa, recently voted one of the 10 most charming towns in Canada by Expedia travel site.
Alongside turtles and herons, this section of the Mississippi River (no connection to the famous U.S. river) is also home to the endangered Rapid’s clubtail dragonfly. You can sense the river running through Almonte is magical, but the dragonfly’s presence here highlights how truly rare this setting is.
Yet right in the centre of this enchanted river, a company called Enerdu Power Systems wants to add a massive new powerhouse to a small existing generating station, blasting the riverbed to increase water flow and installing a dam over top of the cascades.
Although the town of Almonte has fought this dam tooth and nail for years, its construction is due to start this week.
Along with several dozen other Almonte residents, I protested this dam last week by wading into the river. We stretched across it in a line, holding hands, desperately hoping for publicity to attract the attention of someone with power to stop the company at the final hour. We started a petition to Catherine McKenna, federal minister of the environment, which includes signatures from singers Bruce Cockburn and Paul Simon, as well as cartoonist Gary Larson.
This is truly a David versus Goliath story. The town of Almonte has never wanted this project and has been fighting for more than four years to stop it. Despite the strong local opposition, including from Mayor Shaun McLaughlin, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) has approved the project. Jeff Cavanagh, owner of Enerdu, is determined and has ample resources.
Yes, his dam will generate electricity. But, actually, no new energy will be added to the overall grid because the Appleton dam just upstream will lose whatever power it gains due to changing water levels, according to a report by the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists.
Cavanagh also says his project will create jobs, which is true. But they’re just temporary jobs. Once the project is done, there will be, at most, a few employees.
Unlike another power plant downstream, which is owned and operated by the town, Cavanagh’s privately owned plant will add no new revenue to Almonte.
Something is wrong here.
There is an endangered dragonfly making its habitat at the exact location Cavanagh wants to dynamite to build his power plant.
The MNR is mandated to facilitate renewable energy but it is also tasked with implementing the Endangered Species Act. So where do the MNR’s priority lie? Given that there is another power plant upstream that can easily handle increased capacity, the answer should be clear.
The MNR insists the dragonfly does not make its habitat here, even though there have been documented sightings of the dragonfly in areas impacted by this project.
We believe the entire Environmental Assessment conducted by provincial authorities on this Enerdu project was based on insufficient and outdated facts.
The report by the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalist documents how the highwater levels caused by Enerdu water control devices already in place are drowning 600 hectares of protected wetlands.
Now Cavanagh wants to expand further down the river and add a dam that will control even more of the river’s flow. Does the government of Ontario serve the people of Ontario or Jeff Cavanagh?
There is so much wrong with this project, which will forever mar the beauty of Almonte with unsightly fences, safety notices, warning systems and restricting buoys. The part of the river where children now swim will be offlimits.
A river that was once teeming with life and the jewel of our town will be harnessed like a wild animal in a cage.
I stood beside the river last week with a native elder and asked him if this would have been a sacred place. “Most definitely,” he said.
Sometimes you do know what you’ve got before it’s gone.
Linda Manzer is a guitar maker living in Almonte.
Photo: Emma Jackson
July 13, 2016
Bruce Cockburn still kicking at the darkness at 71
Canadian guitarist talks politics and free jazz ahead of headlining Vancouver Folk Music Festival
A legend in the Canadian music world, Ottawa-born Bruce Cockburn has made his home in San Francisco for the last seven years — but he wears his status as a foreigner with pride.
"I don't get to vote there, because I'm what they call a 'resident alien,'" Cockburn told The Early Edition host Rick Cluff.
"I love the term. I'm very proud of being called a resident alien. Any kind of alien, actually."
Over his more-than-four-decades-long career, Cockburn has become known for his political songwriting. But even if he could vote, Cockburn is not particularly excited by any of the options currently available to Americans.
"It might have been [Democrat presidential hopeful Bernie] Sanders, actually, who described himself as a 'hopeful pessimist,'" Cockburn said with a laugh. "I kind of feel like that."
"I see people working on particular issues [locally] and doing a good job. But you know, globally, nationally, not much is being done to address very, very big issues."
Music critics are also often quick to pick up on themes of faith in Cockburn's songwriting, but for him, it's not the most apt description.
"That's not a word I use, exactly," Cockburn said. "It's more of a quest than a faith. It's really about finding out what that relationship [with God] is supposed to be and how to actually make it go, how to hold up my end of it."
For much of his life, Cockburn identified as a Christian. But over time, he grew less comfortable with it, for a variety of reasons — "some personal, some social."
Lately he finds himself coming back around to religion. Is it a product of the 71-year-old's age? He figures it probably is, in some part.
"After a while you become sort of more concerned again about the spirit, [and] in some contexts, mysticism — that question of how we relate to the divine."
Cockburn is an accomplished guitarist who has dabbled in numerous genres, but the one genre he's never been able to tackle? Free jazz.
"I get attached to a rhythm, and then I start playing the rhythm, and then I can't depart from the rhythm because the bottom falls out if I stop playing it," he said.
"I've always wanted to do that, and I've never really quite had the chops, or given myself the space to do it."
As a kid, the last thing Cockburn wanted to listen to was his parents' music, so it still surprises him to see kids singing along with their parents at his shows — but he's come to enjoy it.
"It's actually really rewarding to think that the music isn't just kind of growing cobwebs and dying with my generation."
Bruce Cockburn plays the main stage at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival this Sunday at 8 p.m.
With files from CBC
Radio One's The Early Edition
Photo: Margaret Gallagher/CBC
July 6, 2016
The Ottawa Citizen
Remembering Bill Hawkins: The poet
who became a songwriter
by Chris Cobb
A poet is deeply conflicted and it’s in his work that he reconciles those deep conflicts.’— Irving Layton
It’s traditional to begin these types of obituaries with an anecdote that best sums up the subject as a whole person.
But Bill Hawkins defies the one anecdote rule.
Bill Hawkins defied many of the rules, often to his personal and professional detriment.
And as with most people who communed with many, and lived the younger portion of life to excess, it’s occasionally difficult to determine where the truth ends and exaggeration begins.
Indeed, Kris Kristofferson might have written his song The Pilgrim for Hawkins – “He’s a walkin’ contradiction, partly truth, partly fiction . . .”
First and foremost, Hawkins considered himself a poet – he WAS a poet, with several books and some fame to his name, and who early in his career was the opening act with Leonard Cohen for a poetry road show starring Irving Layton.
To many of Ottawa’s political elite, he was a cab driver of 35 years and always able to engage his customers in conversation whether the subject was Marcel Proust, Zen Buddhism, the latest episode of Homeland or last night’s Senators’ game.
So it’s no surprise that he had a group of regular customers – MPs, journalists, judges, political operatives and the like who contacted him directly when they wanted transporting from A to B with a little erudite conversation on the way.
And then there was Bill Hawkins the reluctant musician who could find his way up and down a guitar fret board, had a decent voice, but disliked being on stage.
Ottawa impresario and arts patron Harvey Glatt recalls booking Hawkins’ band The Children as one of the opening acts for The Lovin’s Spoonful and The Association. It was at Maple Leaf Gardens in the mid-’60s.
“Bill walked off the stage and said ‘that’s it for me. I’m done performing.’ ”
Hawkins was in three bands – The Children, Heavenly Blue and The Occasional Flash – with members that variously included Bruce Cockburn, Sneezy Waters, Amos Garrett, Sandy Crawley, David Wiffen, Neville Wells and other luminaries of the 1960s Ottawa music scene.
Sneezy Waters recalls a poet who was reluctant to become a songwriter – or perhaps writing songs had never occurred to him.
“Bruce began to write the music for some of Bill’s poetry,” Waters, “Then told Bill ‘you’re missing out on 50 per cent’ start writing the music. But there weren’t too many people writing songs in those days. Bruce and Sandy Crawley wrote some, but most of us did covers.”
And so it was that the poet became a songwriter.
Perhaps the best reference for how good a songwriter he became is the double compilation album Dancing Alone produced by Ian Tambyn and featuring an array of younger and older singer-friends, including Cockburn, Waters, Murray McLauchlan, Sandy Crawley, Lynn Miles, Ana Miura and Neville Wells.
“When I think back to those early days I see Bill as a cool gent and recall great conversations,” recalls Waters. “I didn’t see too much of him in later years, but I play with my band every year at the (NAC’s) Fourth Stage and he always did his best to come down – last time, with his big bottle of oxygen.
“Bill has always been with us and was always going to be with us,” adds Waters, “and then suddenly he’s gone. Many of us had wonderful relationships with him.”
Cockburn recalls his early writing experiences with Hawkins somewhat differently than Waters’ version of events and says he was writing music for Hawkins’ lyrics and that it was Hawkins who encouraged him to write his own.
“Bill was an inadvertent mentor to me,” Cockburn told the Citizen pn Wednesday. “I don’t think he would have seen himself that way, but he had that influence and it was important to me. We were both interested in the mystical and metaphysical things that were around in the ’60s. And I had been studying the beat writers in high school and I equated Bill with the great beat poets. I held him in great esteem.”
Cockburn says he lost contact with Hawkins for a long period after those musical beginnings and didn’t re-connect until a decade or so ago at the Ottawa Folk Festival when Hawkins had emerged from his alcohol and drug abuse.
He went pretty dark but became a somewhat different person,” adds Cockburn. “He had become a gentler person and more considerate of other people’s feelings. It looked good on him.”
Musician David Wiffen, Hawkins’s close friend of 50 years, describes him as “a smart and talented, very caring and loving individual.”
Both Wiffen and Hawkins shared a notoriety for alcohol and drug abuse that too often pulled them into dark abysses.
“He helped me out when I was down on my luck,” says Wiffen. “He’d give me somewhere to sleep and something to eat until I got on my feet again.”
Wiffen, who wrote his classic song More Often Than Not in Hawkins’ basement, credits the cab-driving poet with encouraging him pursue songwriting.
“He taught me it was all right to write and wasn’t just a fool’s errand,” says Wiffen. “Bill wrote a lot of his songs with my voice in mind. I was also the first person to record his material on the 3’s A Crowd album.”
(3’s A Crowd was another group with multi-personnel changes during its short life from 1964-69).
An emotional Wiffen was still coming to terms with Hawkins’ death when he spoke with the Citizen on Tuesday.
“The first time I met Bill he said: ’I think we’re going to be very good friends. He became my best friend – a dear and caring best friend.”
In his book We Are As the Times Are: The Story of Café Le Hibou author Ken Rockburn refers to Hawkins as “The Ringmaster” to describe his influence on the Ottawa music scene of the 1960s and early ’70s.
It was his friend and fellow musician Sandy Crawley who came up with the ringmaster epithet.
Poet and novelist Roy MacSkimming rounded out Hawkins of the 1960s for Rockburn: “He took drugs, drank too much, and insulted important people. In fact, he insulted most people, important or not, more or less on principle. A few exceptions earned his respect – artists of one kind or another who were his close friends.”
One of the better-known, perhaps apocryphal, Hawkins anecdotes involved the $6,000 Canada Council grant he got back in the day when $6,000 was a handsome sum – especially in Mexico where Hawkins re-located with the grant money.
He returned six or seven months later with no money and one poem.
When someone asked why only one, Hawkins replied: ‘They didn’t tell me how many they wanted.’
William Alfred Hawkins died July 4 of cancer. He was 76. He is survived by his adult children Andries, Jennifer and Cassandra. Family and friends will place a plaque in his memory at Beechwood Cemetery’s Poet’s Corner on Friday. A future public event is being talked about.
July 5, 2016
The Ottawa Citizen
A man who was one of the great names of Ottawa’s thriving 1960s music scene has died at the age of 76.
Bill Hawkins was a songwriter, poet, musician and journalist. In 1997, he had been working as a Blueline cab driver for 25 years when the Citizen’s Norman Provencher spoke with him as he prepared to pick up the pieces of a promising career he left behind. Below is part of that interview.
• • •
Bill Hawkins was once a pretty big fish in this small-ish pond. As a poet, a songwriter and a musician in the ’60s, he was at the epicentre of Ottawa’s thriving blues-rock-folk scene, a scene that pre-dated the snootier and over-hyped Yorkville. He was tutor, mentor and self-described ”megalomaniac manipulator” behind a series of lamented bands that featured younger artists like Bruce Cockburn, David Wiffen, Colleen Peterson, Sneezy Waters and a dozen others.
There are those who were around at the time who insist to this day that, with a break or two and maybe a little more discipline, Hawkins could have been a bigger fish in a bigger pond. But, in case you weren’t there, the ’60s weren’t a time of moderation and Hawkins wasn’t the sort of guy to deny himself a pleasure or two. Ask people who were around at the time and they’ll tell you — in terms midway between admiration and a shudder — that Hawkins was a guy of considerable appetites, even taking the open-mindedness of the times into consideration.
As sometimes happens, the pleasures eventually became liabilities, and then just plain dangerous, and life can drift away from you.
Unlike some less fortunate victims of the times, Hawkins was strong enough and had enough friends to come out the other side. But the stress was powerful and, in the early time of recovery there’s always the fear of relapse. For some, a nice, fairly comfortable job as a cab-driver is a lot more attractive and healthy sounding occupation than trying to push your luck in the music business snake pit.
”The cab was a perfect way to hide out,” Hawkins says now. ”It was an outlaw existence, nobody knew where you were. It kept the temptations away.”
But, anyway, the past is done with, for better or worse. At 57, he’s looking to the future and he figures he’s finally ready to face the music business again.
More important, he’s confident the music business is finally ready for him.
He laughs and calls himself ”just a lad from the Valley,” but that’s not strictly true.
William Hawkins is Ottawa born and bred, son of the late Graham Hawkins, a car salesman, and mother Fern (now Fern Horsey). He grew up mostly around Ottawa, near Hopewell Avenue School. To hear him tell it now, he wasn’t much of a student, not much interest in it really, but he was raised to be a hungry reader by his maternal grandmother Jenny Louisa Lockyear, who was the subject of one of his first poems.
”She was a wonderful old woman. She read everything, she had this broad, exciting imagination and she made me see the world of books and writing.”
Jenny Louisa Lockyear gave him a love of writing, but Hawkins says the Canadian Press news agency, which he joined at the age of 17, taught him the basics of writing. The agency’s meat-and-potatoes, just-the-facts style taught him to organize thoughts on paper and tell a story simply and effectively.
What the agency couldn’t provide was an outlet for Hawkins’ growing love of poetry. Coming into the ’60s, Hawkins was hanging out more and more with the bohemian types who gathered in the Market and, in 1961, he and author Roy MacSkimming combined for their first published work, a chapbook with the goofy title Shoot Low Sheriff, They’re Riding Shetland Ponies!
The book was a minor phenomenon in Bytown literary circles, such as there might have been at the time. More important, it caught the attention of Harvey Glatt, then and now something of a godfather for the Ottawa music scene. Glatt, now chairman of radio station CHEZ-FM, was then the owner of the Treble Clef chain of music stores and he encouraged Hawkins to keep writing, offering him a job selling records in the downtown Treble Clef store.
”It was one of those things that Harvey did that he did for so many musicians and artists in this town, things he never talks about but things that are crucial moments in peoples’ lives,” Hawkins says.
Around this time, the memories start to get fuzzy. It’s probably the ’60s/Woodstock syndrome: If you were a full-fledged participant you really can’t pin specific dates to specific events. All anyone can agree on is that, around the mid-’60s, the nucleus of what was to become The Children, one of the most talent-heavy acts to ever come out of Ottawa, were hanging out together.
For example, Hawkins remembers running into a teenaged Bruce Cockburn at a ”jazz-mass” Cockburn had composed for a west-end church. Other original Children, people like Sneezy Waters, Neville Wells and Sandy Crawley were hanging out at Glatt’s Le Hibou coffee house on Sussex Drive. Later, folk-blues singer David Wiffen joined the group. The characters and personalities just seemed to float together until they gained critical mass. Hawkins urged Cockburn to write lyrics, Cockburn urged Hawkins to write music.
”It was probably the nature of the time,” says Hawkins.
”You met people, you jammed, you showed people your stuff. It was, I hate the way this sounds now, a sharing period and we came together as mostly equal partners.”
Well, by Hawkins’ memory of events, some members were more equal than others. In a way, there were just too many talented people for The Children to remain together as a band. In another way, though, Hawkins says he feels responsible, as the oldest member of the band, for not being able to keep the group together.
”It’s true that there were a lot of internal pressures. But I was slipping badly, drinking way too much, partying too much. You’ve got to remember I was five years older than the rest of the band. When you’re 50 or something, five years is nothing, but when you’re in your 20s, it’s a huge difference and I was the de facto leader and I wasn’t leading.”
The highlight of the band’s career was an opening slot for the Lovin’ Spoonful at Maple Leaf Gardens (”probably in 1966”), but by early 1967 The Children were no more and things started getting strange.
Hawkins still had some personal control and he formed the band Occasional Flash, which included the late Colleen Peterson and Cockburn and which performed before the Queen and 50,000 others at Lansdowne Park for Centennial year. There was the jazz blues supergroup Heavenly Blue with Amos Garrett on guitar, Darius Brubeck (son of Dave) on piano, Sandy Crawley on bass and Carl Corbeau on drums. There was another top-rate band called Heaven’s Radio …
For this period in his life, Hawkins’ memory starts to get shaky. He and his crowd were the centre of attraction in Ottawa and not only did they have party friends in the community, visiting performers looked to Hawkins and the bunch to show them the sights.
”Every day was party time. I remember going up to Wakefield (then a major centre of pharmaceutical distribution) with Wiffen, Jerry Jeff Walker and (insane Cajun fiddler) Doug Kershaw. We got into more trouble in six hours than most people could get into in six years.”
By 1969, even Hawkins realized things were out of control and he came up with the idea of travelling to Mexico to get his life together. It seemed like a good idea at the time. In hindsight, it was stupid.
”(David) Wiffen tells me I left in October (1969) but I’m sure it was earlier. Anyway, all I know is I got in the car with (his ex-wife) and two kids and didn’t stop until we got to Mexico.
”I thought I’d go down there to get my strength back, that’s how screwed up I was. I mean, beer was, like eight cents a litre, tequila was eights cents a glass and you could walk into the pharmacy and say ‘Could I have a quarter-grain of heroin, please?’ and they’d give it to you. A guy like me was not going to get healthy there.”
Of course, it took him about 10 months to come to that realization, and by the time he got to Toronto in the summer of ’70 he was worse off than when he left. He tried gigging and got a little work that way, but mostly he remembers the early ’70s as the years he spent dealing dope and using it.
The memories are also unclear as to how he ended up at the Donwood rehab centre in 1973. He knows the entry sheet listed ”acute malnutrition (he weighed 118 pounds), alcoholism, heroin and a bunch of pills. I can’t remember which ones.”
Twenty-eight days later he was certified clean and sober and was faced with a choice. So, he got behind the wheel of a Blue Line taxi.
Which brings us to the Elgin Street Diner on a Sunday morning in 1997.
It’s not that nothing’s happened to Hawkins for 24 years, it’s just that, fortunately, it’s been pretty much a normal existence. There was a divorce from Sheila Frances Louise, although Hawkins says they remain good friends and the three kids grew up and left home. There are four grandkids (”the loves of my life, it’s a whole lot less responsibility than raising your own”). There’s the cab.
What there wasn’t was music.
”I don’t know if it was a conscious thing or not but I just stopped listening to anything, really. Bruce’s 23 albums? I haven’t heard one of ’em.”
That started to turn around a couple of years ago when he stopped smoking cigarettes. He started fooling around on guitar again and found himself invited to a workshop at the 1996 Folk Festival with the late Colleen Peterson. Surprising himself as much as anyone, he found himself enjoying performing a couple of songs on stage.
”It was the first time in my life I’d been on stage when I was straight. I was terrified, but what a rush.”
He picked up the pace a little bit and, on a vacation to visit his son in B.C., he put together the idea of a comeback.
”He’s built this beautiful home up in the mountains and he offered to build me a sort-of grampy-cabin on the property. It’s spectacular up there in the mountains and it’s completely different from Vancouver, it’s dry and crisp. When you get to be my age you don’t need damp weather.
”So I had this offer of a cabin, but he’s sure not going to give me spending money so I started thinking about an album of my songs and maybe a complete book of my poetry.”
Oddly, in this age when 12-year-olds in garage bands have CDs, neither Hawkins songs nor The Children as a band ever officially recorded their own material, so Hawkins and producer Victor Nesrallah had lots of fresh material to work with. Nesrallah, a respected singer-songwriter and musician, brought his recording equipment to Hawkins’ living room, looking for simplicity, and together they put down 15 tracks.
What surprises many listeners hearing the 95-per-cent-finished tape for the first time is how current most of the material is, despite having been written 30 and more years ago.
”I think there are a lot of factors, but I like some of the songs and Bill’s performance a lot more than I did when I heard them the first time (30 years ago),” Harvey Glatt says today.
”Maybe he just didn’t have the voice to carry the material then, I don’t know, but it’s there now. The music is very current, too, I hear chord changes that were out of place then but they’re almost perfect now.”
Right now, Nesrallah’s putting some finishing touches on the recording while Hawkins girds himself to take on the music business again. This time, he’s going to try to do things as much on his own terms as he can.
”For one thing, I’m not going to play any more bars. I want to concentrate on the universities and the folk circuit and the festivals. I just want to get this together and make a few bucks. I’ll survive, I’ll be poor and humble.”
The photo of Bill was taken in 1997.
April 18, 2016
Hawksley Workman and Art of Time Ensemble Team Up for
Bruce Cockburn Tribute Concert
by Sarah Murphy
spring, Andrew Burashko's Art of Time Ensemble will team with
Hawksley Workman to
present the work of one of Canada's most beloved songwriters — Bruce Cockburn.
The 10th concert in the "Songbook" series will run for two evenings on May 13
and 14 at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto.
The sets will hear Workman and Burashko's group of musicians performing original arrangements of Cockburn's most famous protest songs. Joining the lead vocals of Workman will be Phil Dwyer on saxophone, Rob Piltch on guitar, Erika Raum on violin, Amy Laing on cello and Burashko himself on piano.
New takes on "Call It Democracy," "Red Brother Red Sister," "It's Going Down Slow," "If a Tree Falls," "Burn," "Gavin's Woodpile" and "If I Had a Rocket Launcher" will all appear in the show, as will a rendition of Workman's recent Old Cheetah track "We're Not Broken Yet."
"I've loved Bruce Cockburn's music for a very long time and consider him one of my biggest influences," Workman said in a statement. "He is a master of the protest song, always keeping beauty and poetry front and centre. In a time where protest is stifled and muted, I thought it might be good to revisit his music."
Find ticketing information for the special two-night performance over here.
March 24, 2016
The Golden Star
Bill Usher Recalls Radio Production With Cockburn
by Joel Tansey
Long before he arrived in Golden and began to have an impact on what is now a bustling arts and culture scene, Bill Usher was a radio documentary producer and musician, with one of his proudest works coming in the form of a two-hour documentary titled On Tour with Bruce Cockburn.
Usher had worked with the Canadian folk icon on his 1976 release In the Falling Dark and toured across Canada with him on the subsequent tour. The idea to document the cross country tour with Cockburn seemed like a winner, and Usher took his idea to CBC, having produced documentaries for them previously.
“As soon as I knew that I had the gig…I basically went into one of the producers (at CBC) and said ‘I’m going out on the road with Cockburn for 12 weeks. I have this idea that I could do an on the road back stage documentary, are you interested?’,” he remembered.
The producer was interested, and Usher proceeded to round up all of the five inch reels of tape that he could before hitting the road for the tour.
Film and radio was a different animal back then. The days of digital recording were but a pipe dream, making production a lengthy, time-intensive process compared to contemporary standards.
“Back then we had a razor blade, cutting the tape. I’d sit there for two or three months with pieces of tape hanging all off the walls…you’d cut out all the good stuff and keep that and you’d start to put it together on a reel separated by white tape and you’d listen to it over and over again,” he said.
After splicing and editing reel upon reel of tape, Usher submitted his work to CBC and his documentary aired in September of 1977.
The doc remained mostly dormant in recent years. Usher kept a copy of the old reels in storage, but it wasn’t digitized and released online until earlier this year. When the Kicking Horse Culture Director gave it a listen this year, he was pleased to hear how it sounded nearly forty years after the fact.
“I’m really proud of it. It holds up,” Usher said.
One area that surprised Usher was how much his and the rest of the crew’s accents had changed over four decades.
“If you hear me talking now and you listen to the way we were all talking back then, our accents have changed,” he said.
There are several highlights for Usher throughout - one involving a grumpy tour manager during a show’s setup - but the most poignant commentary featuring Cockburn came during a one on one interview that Usher had with the famed musician at the tour’s conclusion.
“He was pretty loose by then. He’s a shy guy, he’s always been a shy guy,” Usher recalled.
“Shy folks like that that are out in that world of adulation, it’s really tough…I don’t know why it is but we went down this certain path around reconciling the adulation with the real person and that is the theme of the interview.”
On Tour with Bruce Cockburn, as well as a new introduction from Usher, is available for streaming at http://brucecockburn.org/circles_in_the_stream_tour_1977.html.
March 1, 2016
The Brock Press
Concert Review - St. Catharines, ON
by Adam Bradley Thompson
There’s nothing quite like a warm, intimate concert on a cold February night, especially in a beautiful setting like the new FirstOntario Performing Arts Center (FOPAC) in downtown St. Catharines. On February 24, the sold-out crowd of 782 people were treated to a spectacular show by humanitarian, 13 time Juno winner, and Order of Canada Officer, Bruce Cockburn.
Cockburn shuffled onstage to emphatic applause, while he flashed a smile and thanked the audience. Cockburn’s seemingly small presence on the large stage of the FOPAC was quickly enlarged with the first clear strum of his guitar. Jumping into a passionate version of “Rumours of Glory”, the sound of Cockburn’s strong voice and pristine guitar filled the room. The clear sounds floated by and then disappeared with no hint of feedback or echo. Cockburn’s skillful picking created elaborate patterns and rhythms that danced around the verses and themes of the songs. The first set was met with many of Cockburn’s hits including “Lover’s in a Dangerous Time” which according to the CBC was a positive message to his daughter and her generation, as well as the politically charged “Call It Democracy” where Cockburn pulled out a sleek black guitar and strummed a rocking version, bringing passionate cheers from the crowd. Other highlights from the first set included “World of Wonders”, the galloping instrumental “The End of All Rivers”, and the chugging blues number “Jesus Train” which ended the set and brought a break for, as Cockburn said, both himself and the Audience.
The second set was as immaculate as the first, transporting the audience to different places as he transferred from song to song. The most moving piece of the set titled “When it’s gone, it’s gone”, had no lyrics, but an instrumental story that featured the sound of waves roaring on a beach like a squadron of F-16s according to Cockburn’s song “Planet of the Clowns” which he transitioned into using the waves as a Segue. The atmospheric songs moved the audience to a small island off the coast of Morocco, on a beach, with nothing but the whole universe in the sky to look at, and together with Cockburn the meaning of the songs was discovered. The set continued with the massive sing-along that was “Wondering Where the Lions Are” as Cockburn’s jovial picking continued to fill the room. The set ended with a version of “If I Had a Rocket Launcher”, the lyrics describing the horrible atrocities that occurred in Guatemala, Mexico and Central America in the 1980s are still relevant today and seemed to comment on the violence and politics of the time.
The end of the second set was greeted with hooting and hollering as the previously quiet audience had finally found their voice and appreciation for the Canadian Legend. The standing ovation was well deserved and Cockburn responded with a moving three song encore of “Deer Dancing Round A Broken Mirror” and “All The Diamonds in the World”, the latter featured a disco ball which made the room sparkle as if Cockburn’s song was coming to life. The final song of the night was a bluesy “Mama Just Wants to Barrelhouse All Night”. After the show, Bruce came into the lobby and greeted a crowd of fans with a smile and a glass of red wine as he shared more stories and signed autographs. It was truly a special show and Bruce Cockburn continues to prove that even at 70, he is still a virtuoso on guitar and an example of vocal prowess. This Canadian icon’s show is surely not one to be missed.
February 22, 2016
The Globe and Mail
Musicians Bruce Cockburn and Hawksley Workman on artistic legacy
The title of Bruce Cockburn’s memoir, now out in paperback, is Rumours of Glory. Upon reading the book, it occurred to the Cockburn enthusiast and fellow Juno-winning musician Hawksley Workman that there was too much rumour and not enough glory affixed to the standing of Cockburn. The two artists spoke to each other recently by phone, about credit due, MTV and roads worth taking.
Hawksley Workman: The passing of David Bowie got me to thinking about artists who seem supremely aware of what they’re creating for themselves and their own self-mythologizing. My sense, Bruce, is that you weren’t ever really aware of the legacy you were creating. Is that fair to say?
Bruce Cockburn: It strikes me that legacy is a very ephemeral thing. I’ve had that word thrown at me, but I don’t know. I think it’s out of my hands.
Workman: But people like Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, they nurtured or fostered an image of themselves that accompanied their art. I have trouble that you’re not included in the group of names we seem to culturally deify, and that it’s because their kind of self-mythologizing wasn’t part of your landscape. Do you feel that?
Cockburn: For me, it’s always been about the music and words. But under the surface, I recognize I have an ego like everybody else. I want to be noticed. In the beginning, I was defensive about that. I didn’t want to think in those terms, and I went to great lengths to avoid acquiring an image of any sort. But then I found that I had acquired an image of somebody who was trying not to have an image. So, I couldn’t beat that one. Once you put yourself in front of the public, an image is thrust upon you – by people’s response, by the media, by some sort of natural reaction to having somebody who is up on stage seem larger than life.
Workman: I hear all that. But your compulsion to do or to go or to be seems to eclipse that of somebody who might stroke their chin and think about what move might make them cool.
Cockburn: I’d be a liar if I denied being aware of how things might look to other people. But, again, it’s out of our own control. You can make choices, and people might see you as being cool or as a jerk. I got called names for supporting the Sandinistas. You can’t take that out of the picture, but, for me, it’s always been about curiosity more than anything else. I don’t see anything as a compulsion.
Workman: After reading your memoir, the thought that came to my mind was that I’m not working hard enough.
Cockburn: I’ve been curious and I’ve had opportunities that I’ve taken advantage of. In some cases I went around looking for the opportunity, like the first trip to Central America. I tried to make that happen, and had given up on it, before it actually did happen. Once I did that, I got invitations to all sorts of interesting places. And it seemed morally appropriate as well. I don’t feel I’ve ever been a crusader of any sort. But I feel it’s good to do what you can do.
Workman: You were putting political videos and songs on MTV. You were doing things that were as punk rock or as rebellious as you could at the time. Did you understand just how unreal it was?
Cockburn: Oh, I don’t know. Most of the credit I receive for anything I’ve done has had a lot to do with [long-time manager] Bernie Finkelstein. He’s the one who knows how to get out there and get people’s attention.
Workman: I just don’t feel it’s been recognized or celebrated that you were breaking all kinds of rules.
Cockburn: I suppose people could say there was a certain amount of strategizing that I didn’t do. But I don’t feel like I’ve given anything up. People would say, especially in the U.S., “Do you think this political involvement stuff is going to hurt your career?” For one thing, I don’t think of what I do as a career. It’s just what I do. And for another thing, it doesn’t appear to have hurt it, because the most quote-popular-unquote song of all, which was If I Had a Rocket Launcher, was almost the biggest hit. Mind you, I was totally shocked it got on the radio.
Workman: Do you feel that you’ve received all the credit you deserved?
Cockburn: I’ve done what I’ve done. I didn’t go to Central America looking for song material or anything else. I went there to see what the Nicaraguan revolution looked like up close. When I got there I found myself very deeply moved by the things I was encountering. That experience changed the direction of the next couple of decades for me. Invitations came up – invitations for adventure, to Nepal, for instance. And who’s going to say no?
Bruce Cockburn is touring Southern Ontario through Feb. 27 (brucecockburn.com/tour). Hawksley Workman, with the Art of Time Ensemble, plays the songs of Bruce Cockburn at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre Theatre May 13 and 14 (harbourfrontcentre.com).
The Vancouver Sun
Al Purdy Was Here
Jan. 28 & 31, Feb. 3 at Cinematheque
Tickets and info: thecinematheque.ca
Who remembers Al Purdy? The poet, regarded by those in the know as one of Canada’s finest, has largely been forgotten by the general populace. Produced, directed and co-written (with Marni Jackson) by Brian D. Johnson, the former film critic for Maclean’s, Al Purdy Was Here offers a refresher course in the Ontario-born writer’s work, as well as bringing insight into his personal life and his influence on other poets and artists. (Purdy died in North Saanich, B.C., in 2000 aged 81.) The documentary includes performances and/or appearances by such literary luminaries as Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen, Joseph Boyden and George Bowering, as well as music from the Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie, Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq, and singer/songwriters Sarah Harmer and Bruce Cockburn. The film debuted at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, where it finished third in audience voting for the documentary category.
Q: One of the most impressive moments in the documentary is Sarah Harmer performing her song Just Get Here.
A: Doing the music was the most exciting thing for me. I have spent time as a full-time musician on the road in the late seventies, early eighties. Music’s always been important to me. The great thing with Purdy is, it’s not my name that drew in these talents, really. It helped to have connections. But it was Al Purdy’s name that let me go to somebody like Sarah Harmer and say, “Would you like to write a song for The Al Purdy Songbook,” which is the album we were producing in tandem with the film, and for the film. And then months pass. And then we drove out to her farmhouse, and she basically performed it for the first time on her piano. That was the first time I’d heard it, and we shot the performance. You don’t get to see that kind of thing very often, you don’t get to see people recording live off the floor. We did the same thing with Bruce Cockburn. That song (3 Al Purdys), again, just blew me away. It’s one of those classic Bruce Cockburn songs, sort of overstuffed with lyrics. He’s the only singer-songwriter we approached who seemed to try to embody Purdy’s persona.
Q: Another impressive moment is when we hear Leonard Cohen.
A: It’s kind of the piece de resistance. It’s an amazing reading of what is really my favourite Al Purdy poem, Necropsy of Love, which is about sex and death. Which is right in Leonard’s wheelhouse. I didn’t send him that poem right away. I sent him a much more canonical poem, The Country North of Belleville, to read, thinking that would be historic. Leonard sent me back a message saying that he didn’t quite understand the poem, and he couldn’t pronounce all of these Scottish names. He said, “Maybe if you sent me a recording of Al reading it, I could figure out how to pronounce the names.” And I wrote him back and said, “Leonard, if the poem doesn’t speak to you I’m not going to ask you to read it.” I said, “I’ll find something else.” The reason I didn’t send him Necropsy of Love in the first place was I thought it was a little too close to home. I though it sounded exactly like a Leonard Cohen poem. But sometimes the obvious thing is the best thing. And he responded, “Yeah, I think I can take a crack at this.”
Q: For someone just learning about Al Purdy, there are a lot of layers in the documentary. People are going to come away with different aspects of the story in their heads.
A: That was the biggest problem in making it, is that we had more than one story to tell. Ideally, you want one story. This was a bit of a balancing act. I started out wanting to tell the story of the A-frame’s restoration (part of the doc is about the restoration of the house Purdy and his wife Eurithe built on the shores of Roblin Lake, Ontario) and artists young and old who were drawn to Purdy. It was going to be more of a celebration of Purdy through contemporary poetry and music. But the deeper we got into it the more we realized, well, Al’s story has not really been properly told. The documentaries that exist are all done with people interviewing Al Purdy. His version of his own life is very selective. So the element of biography got much bigger. At the same time I didn’t want to just make a biographical film. At one point Sam Solecki, who was his editor, says in the film, “Well, there are many Al Purdys.” And I did feel we were dealing with a subject that couldn’t have a simple, easy focus.
Q: One of the neat things about the doc is how it quotes Al Purdy’s statue’s Twitter account ( People love the statue. I think the statue is the most popular thing in the film. It happened by a real quirk of circumstance. I didn’t know about the statue. I was interviewing Margaret Atwood for the film and she said, “Oh, did you know that the Al Purdy statue in Queen’s Park has a Twitter feed? We don’t know who it is, but he comments on what’s happening that day.” That same day I interviewed Atwood, that night I went to the Griffin Poetry Prize Awards gala and this guy comes up to me and says, “You’ve got to introduce me to Margaret Atwood.” I said, “Why?” There were reasons why. And then he blurted out, “I’m the voice of the statue of Al Purdy. The Twitter voice.” Well I’d just heard about this thing that day, and here’s this mysterious figure tapping me on the shoulder at the poetry awards saying he’s the voice of the statue. And I thought, “This is weird. And interesting.” And it occurred to me that making the statue a part of the film would be a cool interstitial device. It’s so ethereal and otherworldly. Some people thought that we’d made it up. I picked the tweets from years of tweets that the statue actually tweeted. What’s interesting is that it’s not as if he’s tweeting from the POV of Al Purdy, it’s tweeting from the POV of the statue. Whatever the statue sees that day is what gets tweeted by the mysterious voice of the statue. I’m not going to give away his identity. It’s actually somebody I knew. And I remember he told me, “I’m not that crazy about Al Purdy. I just love the statue.”
Photo: Al Purdy at Robin Lake, 1968
January 21, 2016
Cockburn performs at St. Lawrence Acoustic Stage
by Lois Ann Baker
The St. Lawrence Acoustic Stage has brought the area some pretty big names and some fantastic talent, but none more so than their headliner on Feb. 21 when Bruce Cockburn will be gracing the stage.
"I would say that this is the single biggest show we have done at the St. Lawrence Acoustic Stage," said Sandra Whitworth, SLAS board member. "And I say that even though we've brought in artists like Serena Ryder, Garnet Rogers and Shane Kayczan. But Bruce is so widely known as Canadian music royalty. We are hugely excited to have him in."
The concert is already sold out and audiences are sure to be pleased with what Cockburn will be offering.
"There's a few new songs," said Cockburn in a phone interview. "My hope is to get an album together this year sometime, towards the end of the year. The show will be a cross-section, which is typical of me." Cockburn said when there is a new album already out, there is a lot of emphasis on it during a show, but that is not the case this time.
"So there will be some new material, some brand new stuff people haven't heard," he said. "Otherwise it will be a cross-section of whatever. There are always a few of the ones that I feel like people pay the money to hear. Lovers in a Dangerous Time, Wondering Where the Lions Are, stuff like that tends to be in every show because people want that stuff. At least they appear to."
Cockburn said he isn't quite sure what he is going to do at the concert just yet, but if anyone has seen him in concert the past couple of years it will be similar.
"It's a solo show," he said. "That defines certain parameters of what happens."
Cockburn said his daughter requested he include a song from the 1970s, Free To Be, "which I haven't performed in at least 40 years," he said. "Whether I will get that together or not I don't know yet, but I am under some pressure to do so."
When asked if his music has changed at all through his career, he said he prefers to think of it as growth or development.
"I think it's (still) recognizable," he said. "If you put my last album and my first album back-to-back, you would hear it is the same guy. But there are a lot of other elements I have acquired, a certain amount of guitar techniques that I have acquired over the years. There has been change and what I am doing right now, especially in a solo context, is going to sound more like the stuff from the early 1970s than the stuff I did in the 1980s."
Cockburn said people familiar with his work with bands in songs like Lovers in a Dangerous Time, Tokyo, If I Had a Rocket Launcher and others that were on the radio, will see a difference in his show.
"It kind of depends on what people are expecting," he said.
Cockburn said he draws inspiration for his music from "life, the universe and everything."
"The songs spring from an emotional response to a situation that I am confronted by," he said. "It might be a situation in my own life or it might be a situation in the life of someone who is close to me or whose company I find myself in. It might just be something kind of geographical. But it all starts with this emotional response and then I think where does it go from here."
Cockburn said with a song like If I Had a Rocket Launcher, it was specific to a place and time. Most of his other music can be applied to any place and time and they wouldn't seem out of place.
Whitworth said everyone on the SLAS board has seen Cockburn perform at different points throughout his career in both large festival settings and more intimate venues.
"Of course his songs are so widely known, but when I saw him two or three years ago in Toronto at Roy Thompson Hall, it was the guitar playing that gave me chills," said Wentworth. "He is such a masterful guitarist."
Whitworth said the concert has been four years in the making, but schedules never seemed to line up until now.
"In the end it seems particularly fitting that we were able to include him in our series this year, after we made the move to the new venue at the Upper Canada Playhouse," she said.
Cockburn said it is his first trip to Morrisburg and he is looking forward to it.
"I hope people will be pleased," he said. "And perhaps they will be a little surprised or maybe they won't. But I think we will have a good time and I am looking forward to that."