The year 2016 saw many icons of music die who had had an impact on my life. In January, the rock artist David Bowie died within days of releasing the masterful and poignant Black Star. On Nov. 7 Leonard Cohen died; On November 8 the unspeakable was elected in the U.S.(democracy died). On Nov. 13 Leon Russell,and Nov. 15, Mose Allison died. These may not mean anything to you, but were huge losses to me.
In a year marked by such public tragedy and grief, an enormous personal tragedy befell me and my family. Our beloved friend (uncle to my girls) Danny Lewis died on October 21st.
Danny wore many hats in his life. It would be hard to find anyone more interesting and/or unbelievable than Danny. He was well-travelled, had jobs from taxi driver to potter to technical writer and organic farmer. He seemed to know so many odd facts, conversed at length on disparate subjects and always injected his thoughts with abundant humour and intelligent ideas. Some of Danny’s stories were pretty far-fetched, but he was always able to convince that most elements of the story were true and that if there was some reason to stretch it, that also became true. His stories, rants, and his general take on things delighted and fascinated all who came in contact with him. My daughters loved him dearly. He was a confidante and a sage non-parental unit to them.My younger daughter even has a caricature of Danny tattooed on her arm. I valued Danny as a friend. He never let me down except by dying….
The girls and I spent lots of time at Danny’s organic farm in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, near the Vermont border. His farm was on a crest of land that Danny bragged was the highest elevation of arable or cultivated land in the province. Who knows if that is true or not? The way Danny said it, it became true. He called his printing business and his farm “Topedahill” which is a nonsense word that he was able to get past the Office de la langue Francais (businesses in Quebec can’t have English names.) Danny was clever. Danny was kind. He let my family vacation at the farm dozens of times. When I was going through my separation and divorce he sheltered me and the girls for many months at his home in the city. Danny seemed unfazed by visitors. He always greeted phone calls and visitors enthusiastically, even when he was suffering and in dire pain. In 2007 I wrote the song below for Danny. The original recording of this song was a “one off” demo that I gave to Danny and, like him, it is gone.
On September 21, 2016 Leonard Cohen released a CD for what was going to be his last time. I purchased “You Want It Darker” as soon as it was released. Leonard’s late in life music tended to blues forms and lyrics that rhythmically interested me. The song “You Want It Darker” hit me like a freight train. I transcribed and learned it immediately. I don’t often cover Leonard’s songs, but this one hit me in the same way “Make It Rain” by Tom Waits hit me. They could be companion pieces. When the news of Cohen’s death in November spread through the tiny “folk” community to which I belong , we immediately went into mourning. My friend Brenda worked for the synagogue that was going to process Leonard’s funeral and had been sitting on exclusive news of his demise for three days (Leonard died on the 7th and the news broke on the 10th) before the news became public. She was present at our open mic. and heaved a huge sigh of relief and tears and had a stiff drink. She had been sworn to secrecy, and like the trustworthy person she is she kept her word. We musicians immediately wanted to pay tribute. My contribution was “You Want It Darker”.
Retracing my autumn, I go back to a story of what my friend Hal Newman posted on the 20th of October just a day before Danny died. Hal lived in Stanstead, Qc. on the border with Vermont. He had been awakened pre-dawn by hundreds of crows ( a murder of crows) in a tree outside his bedroom. I quipped “Murder On The Border” which I thought would make a great song title. (Apparently already existed as a book and movie, but I didn’t know that.) We agreed that it was a great song title. With Danny dying the next day I was “distracted” and forgot about the title until I started to imagine macabre scenarios. Danny’s body was at the morgue (as yet unclaimed by his family) and lengthy conversations between us survivors added to the imagery. Danny’s farm is also on the border with Vermont about 18 km away from Hal. Many of the scenes I imagined in this song are actual locations on Danny’s property. I was drinking coffee at my favourite Mexican cafe (Cafe 92). On the walls are beautiful and macabre posters celebrating Dia de la muerta. The next day we were to celebrate Danny’s life and commit his ashes back to the earth. This song is the confluence of Leonard Cohen, Danny, Cafe 92 and the Crows and Hallowe’en approaching. The song and the video arrived effortlessly in my imagination.
Retracing again, I received three urgent messages from my accountant which was highly unusual for October. Danny and I were both clients. I believe it was Danny who recommended him in the first place. We were both viewed by Doug as “slackers” in the tax filing department. It was a standing joke as to who would get his crap in first. I knew it was something bad. The news broke my heart. I then got to the task of informing others of this sad news. My daughters took it very badly. Friends in common were aghast! My friends Peter and Helen had had Danny over the night before and there were no indications of anything beyond the usual wrong with Danny. The next day, this came out:
Three urgent messages
What could be worse?
They always said of love
Someone always leaves first
two short words
there goes my universe
Your heart gave out
My heart just burst
Who can I call now?
Danny knew everything
Who can I call now?
Danny was always there
Who can I call now? He was my first call
who can I call now? he could spin silk
Who can I call now? who will divert me?
Who can I call now? Why’d you desert me, huh?
With news good or bad
Any time of night or day
He never let me down
He never pushed me away
Who can I call now? Danny knew everything
Who can I call now? Danny was always there,
Who can I call now? Now that Danny’s gone
Late Autumn is generally a stark and foreboding time of year where I live (Quebec). The trees become skeletons and the ground becomes hard. We all know what is coming. This Autumn of 2016 was the worst. The US election was the foulest and worst nightmare scenario imaginable. I won’t talk about that here because there has been too much written about it already…. I was a big fan of Leon Russell. His “Stranger In A Strange Land” and “This Masquerade” are two pearls among many others. Wonderful musician. Mose Allison was a witty and sardonic Jazz and Blues artist whose style and hipness and great songs influenced me greatly. Needless to say all this death and dying and the hopelessness of the world events weighed heavily on my shoulders. This ensued:
Thank you for reading and listening. I apologize for jumping around in time. It isn’t supposed to make chronological sense. Hard to make any sense out of anything when grieving. I hope I was able to convey that songs don’t just come out of nowhere. This was a sad period. Art was made.
Life goes on until it doesn’t.