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January 27, 2016
The Vancouver Sun

Q&A: Brian D. Johnson offers a refresher course in the work of Al Purdy

Many Al Purdys captured in documentary
by Shawn Conner


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
Cornwall Standard-Freeholder

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."