Better Than Gold

My first music teaching job after graduating from McGill, was in Manitoba. I inherited a healthy band program from my friend Kenny Gold who had recommended me as a bilingual music teacher. I made the move out west and worked my butt off to keep the program growing. 

My predecessor had started a jazz combo which I continued. We had a lovely group of kids that took it pretty seriously. In the combo were three kids whose parents were musicians. 

Pete and Joe were brothers. Joe played alto sax and flute, although he didn’t play flute in the combo. His brother Pete played drums and piano. Both boys were very adept at their instruments and I could not teach them anything technical as they had already surpassed my knowledge. What I was able to teach them was style, humour and attitude and pointed them towards the right things to listen to. Their parents played in the Winnipeg Symphony and both brothers had had extensive private training. Both boys went on after school to playing, writing and recording original music. Joe had his own studio. For a while as well. 

Clayton was a tenor saxophonist and had a lovely tone. A big sound. He was not a very good reader, but made up for it with a great ear and his ability to imitate his tenor heroes. His dad was a jazz bass player, so Clayton heard lots of that style of music. I never told him what to play, though I did suggest he try to copy solos from pros. His playing on St. Thomas (Sonny Rollins calypso tune) was particularly beyond his years.

Another set of brothers, Bruce and Richard played trumpet and bass clarinet respectively. Bruce was a hard worker and was able to extend his range pretty high à la Maynard Ferguson. Their dad was a “band booster” and drove kids all over the place and was able to get us playing opportunities outside of school. 

Our pianist was Leanne. She never improvised, but was a very good reader, so was able to play jazz voicings that were written out for her. Her mum and dad also were very supportive. 

Our bass player was Ricky. He was a tall, quiet, steady ginger who was a very steady bottom for our horns. At the Brandon Jazz Festival the band was billeted in a dormitory. When I did my rounds checking on kids, some of the rooms were pretty rowdy, and mildly naughty things were going on, Ricky was reading the bible……

The combo kept getting better and better. Joe graduated, but returned to school for rehearsals. We went to Jazz festivals and at one of them we won a gold medal in our category. We were thrilled to bits as you can imagine. This win meant we were invited to a national competition held that year in Calgary. It was a big honour, and we started to fund raise even before we got the go ahead from “the suits”.

After all the plans were put into place we had a band meeting before a rehearsal so I could complete our application form. I needed the birthdays of all the kids. Ricky had just had a birthday and as I wrote the info on the form, I realized it bumped us up into a higher category (18 -22). I told the kids, and arguments started. Some of the kids wanted me to lie about his age. I said that it was tempting, but what kind of a role model would I be if I lied? I managed to convince them that the goal was to play and do our best, and who cares if we don’t get a medal, we already proved ourselves. I also said that getting a medal if we know we cheated would not be an honour.

In Calgary, the kids saw and heard excellent music, attended workshops with pros and fraternized with jazz music nerds from all around the country. It was fun and interesting.

Our performance went very well. All the kids were at their very best. Joe, Clayton and Bruce played particularly inspired and with a new fire. They played with nothing to lose, up against really good college kids against whom we felt we had no chance.

On awards night, we sat through some really great music interspersed with each categories results. As each category was read and the honourees lauded,  we saw products of great well-funded programs reaping their well-deserved awards. When our category came up, we all crossed our fingers and when we heard the words “Silver goes to St. Norbert Collegiate” we all were on cloud nine. I had tears, pretty sure they all did. It was such a great feeling.

The evening continued and individual awards were presented. Clayton won Yamaha award for “outstanding soloist” Bruce also won a similar award for one of his solos.

I think we went out for a treat afterward, and we talked it over. Everyone was ecstatic at our placing. I asked if anyone regretted not lying, and everyone said “no”. 

I was proud of those kids, they were like a little family.

Sometimes Silver is better than Gold.

P.S. we were invited to play the Montreal Jazz Festival, but most of the kids were not able to go. So, in order to attend, we changed the combo lineup and I got to play with Pete and Joe who had been accepted to McGill and two other musicians who went on to successful music careers. 

After Calgary,  I decided I had done a good job, but I wanted new challenges and to be back in Montreal, so I resigned and enrolled in the Masters program at McGill.

Not the combo, but Senior Band from 1987 or 8




My Best Lesson Wasn’t Planned….

One of the most effective lessons I ever taught came spontaneously as the result of a “teachable moment.”

The year was 2001 and the date was several weeks after 9/11. I was teaching a grade ten music class in a private school and as part of my lesson I was exposing the children to music that they might otherwise never hear. 

Some of the details of this lesson are hard to retrieve, like what music I was playing at the time. Let’s just say it was Chicago playing Saturday In The Park. It might more probably been Tower Of Power. I do remember It was a band with horns, of that I am sure. A boy in the class said “that sucks!” I immediately stopped the song and asked a one word question: “Why?”

The boy replied “because it does!” I replied: “I see, and what criteria did you use to make that assessment?”. He said “I don’t like it!” Which I said was a more acceptable statement because it was a personal opinion. I dug deeper. “”Why don’t you like it?” I continued “ it is tuneful, well produced, well recorded, a very listenable piece of music.” I then made the parallel of food, saying: “I don’t particularly like lasagna, do you like it?” He answered in the affirmative as did most of the class. I asked what he thought his response would be if I had said “Lasagna sucks!”? Lights went on around the room as the discussion grew deeper. 

We recognized that sweeping statements were poor communication and realized that one needed to have a reason to like or not like something. The boy really had no vocabulary for what I was seeking from him. I was able to give twenty reasons why I did like it and how, with all the great music out there I would not play them something that “sucked!” 

I told the kids that it is much easier to say something destructive than it is to very create something. Blank stares. 

I went to the closet and picked out a retired hand drum. It had once been half of a set of bongos, but had lost it’s partner and was just one of the useless unusable instruments hanging around a music room. I held the drum up and asked how it was made, and how long it might have taken. We discussed the materials, wood that was grown, harvested, sawed, beveled, shaped, glued, varnished. The skin was a calf that had to be birthed, kept, slaughtered, skinned, cut, tanned, stretched. The skin was held in place by metal pins. The ore needed to be mined, smelted, shaped, plated. There had to be a design for the drum, etc. The point being, making the drum took ideas, effort and time and cost. We agreed on a value of time and a cost. 

I then threw the drum on the ground as hard as I could and jumped on it, completely destroying it. The kids looked at me like I was insane. They asked me why I did that. My response was: “It is really easy to destroy something that was hard to create!” I asked them how much thought and energy went into destroying the drum? I saw more lights go on. 

I then guesstimated how long it took to build the twin towers which we had watched collapse live the previous month. We talked about all the architects, engineers, tradesmen, etc. Same as the drum. And as it happened there were half a dozen Mohawk children in the class who said their fathers had been away in New York for seven years working on the girders. Mohawk people have a long tradition of being high altitude steel workers. We discussed the human cost of their absence and the long commute to and from Kanawake. We then reflected on how long it took for the buildings to fall and how much skill it took to bring them down. 

All the lights went on.

To wrap up the lesson I paraphrased: “It is harder to create something than it is to destroy it” “Be a creator, not a destroyer!” 

The kids actually applauded. 

Some thoughts on Pro Sports

I was talking with my friend Luigi yesterday, and I innocently asked if he would be watching Les Canadiens that evening. He replied in the affirmative. I told him I don’t usually watch, but this year I tuned in to the Montreal/Toronto series and got hooked. The team was playing well and looked like they were having fun. They beat the Leafs and then swept Winnipeg and eked past Las Vegas to appear in the finals with Tampa Bay. 

I asked if he noticed the size of the brutes playing for Tampa Bay, and he said “and the size of their salaries, they slipped through a loophole and have slipped past a salary cap” which means they have superstars against our mere asteroids. I said it is kind of disgusting to be in a race on a scooter next to a souped up Hemi Roadrunner. It takes the fun out of it. Like playing cards with a stacked deck…. not exactly fair. Not exactly “sportsmanlike”.

It was evident that the Canadiens would lose game three from the first period on. It was 6-3 finally. The Lightning (Greased Palm Lightning) are ahead in the series 3-0. It is possible that the Canadiens could fight back. They have done it before, but this Lightning team has a goalie that, if he were a few inches bigger, could effectively seal the crease without moving. Their team are all at least a head taller than our guys. Orcs vs. Hobbits. Good should finally prevail, but probably won’t. It is a shame, because I was enjoying this run at the cup until we met the bullies.  The Lightning are VERY SKILLED, there is no doubt about that, they will win the cup and should win it. It is the league that is flawed and money driven.

Luigi told me that he was enjoying the Euro cup, especially….you guessed it…Italy. He told me that the coach for Italy didn’t want superstars who would wade in and score, he wanted athletes that cooperated and treated each other with fairness and respect. 

I get it. I won’t follow soccer, just because I find it to be like geriatric hockey and the players, although marvellous physical specimens are a bit wimpy when it comes to a slight kick in the shins….. But I love watching the various communities driving around with their proud flags and honking horns etc. I abhor hooliganism and racist b.s. which seems to mar the sport. Watching drunken English soccer fans for example is embarrassing not just for my heritage, but for the human race.

These two things remind me of why and when I stopped following sports. I was an Expos fan from their birth til their death. They were only a contender once, but that never deterred me from following them fervently. The team was sold to some “flippers” who gave zero shits about baseball, or Montreal. Jeffrey Loria and Claude Brochu whittled away at the talent and the support  until they finally sold the team to Washington D.C. 

The death knell for me was when the English language radio no longer had Dave Van Horne or Duke Snyder…. I listened in French often, but I preferred the colour commentary of Duke ’n Dave.  I stopped reading the sports in the paper and stopped any watching or listening. Period.

I am not sad that I invested my time last month. I truly enjoyed watching the games I did, win or lose. I just hate the Star maker machinery of the mainstream world. Greatness can’t be bought, it has to be earned. 

I have my life back. Bravo to our scrappy talented team. Hold your heads high!

Standing Up

When I was in the third grade I “failed” music. It probably wasn’t a “fail” per se, but it was a capital U on my report card. Not an E for excellence, a VG for Very Good or a G for merely good but a U which stood for “Unsatisfactory”.

This requires some explanation on my part.

It was 1964. I had just turned nine years old in February. I sang in a church choir. Not yet the more serious Cathedral choir which came the next year, but I could always sing, and sing I would. Whenever I was happy. I was a happy child for the most part. I still am happy and I still sing. I don’t have to be happy to sing now, but it will still make me happy. 

Music in school consisted of designating a small period of time each week to sing easy hymns like “This Is My Father’s World” and “Jesus Loves Me This I Know” or folk songs like “Un Canadien Errant” or “Land of the Silver Birch”. We also learned patriotic songs: “God Save The Queen”, “The Maple Leaf Forever” and “O Canada”. The School I attended was part of the Protestant School Board and the kids were mostly white. This was before the province switched to linguistic boards. Protestant meant “not Catholic” or “Les Autres”. My Jewish classmates sang “Jesus Loves Me” without balking…. I don’t recall if there were any children of other faiths, but they would have been lumped in with us as well.

I usually excelled at music because I was enthusiastic and sang in tune. I didn’t excel at much else except making my friends laugh at my hijinks. I had not yet had the diagnosis of “dyslexia” that I would carry with me after testing in grade four. I made an adequate bench warmer in sports and could not figure out my dominant side. I write left handed, but the testing called me “ambidextrous”. “A-dextrous” would have been a more accurate description. Our jock neighbour who lived next door had a derogatory nickname for everyone he encountered. Mine was “spaz” as in “spastic”. His nickname should have been “bully” or “asshole” which aren’t necessarily exclusive.

In grade 3, the teacher (a generalist-not a music teacher) decided we should sing “Onward Christian Soldiers”. Here is where the trouble started. I was singing along with the class, proud to be loud and in tune and leading. I sang a line in particular that bothered me. “Marching as to war”. This struck me as not something I could support. I had a strong Christian background and knew the Ten Commandments by heart. I knew that killing was wrong. My first awareness of news and current events had arrived several months before on November 22,1963. I then became exposed to and aware of the war in Southeast Asia and saw the bodybags on the news. Looked wrong to me even at such a young age.

The teacher noticed that the hymn was not unfolding as it should and saw that I wasn’t singing. She ordered(not asked) me to sing and I refused. I told her I didn’t like the song because it promoted war. I was sent to the corner. I know now that “as to” is two prepositions together meaning “as if” and is an imaginary comparison, a simile. The song did not mean “marching to war”, but following with the determination and discipline of the military. She could have explained that to me and it might have been win/win.

The whole idea of Christian Soldiers was/is confusing. Protestants and Catholics were killing each other in Northern Ireland, the Nazis as well were ostensibly Christian but doing decidedly un righteous things. 

I hadn’t yet discovered Bob Dylan or his song of ascerbic irony “With God On Our Side”. I was just trying to make sense of things. My religious upbringing at home was making me an idealist and it flew in the face of senseless authority. I dug it when Jesus overturned the tables at the temple. Surely Goodness and Righteousness shall follow me all the days of my life.

Having grown into a life where music plays a defining and central part  and from which I have made my livelihood, performing, teaching and writing, I look back on this event and wear the badge of “Unsatisfactory” with honour. I don’t know where I got this rebellious streak, but I have had to stand up against other teachers, administrators and school boards and parents with their skewed and fearful versions of reality and defend my choices of my reality with conviction and honesty. Also able to promptly admit when I was wrong.

 “Truth and Beauty” to quote Bill Evans. It is in my music, my teaching,my writing, my love, and a pretty good raisin d’être.

Synesthesia

Watermelon season is upon us. It often comes up in my teaching that we categorize things and put them in songs. I like to use music to reach kids on several levels: cerebral, emotional, visceral and olfactory. It is a multi-sensory approach to teaching, storing information in different parts of the brain, a sort of manufactured Synesthesia. Synesthesia can be: hearing colour, seeing sound, tasting emotion etc. My eldest daughter, for example, can see colours as numbers.

One of the things we categorize with young children is “favourite desserts” (primary motivators). I think that watermelon is, if not my favourite dessert, it is at least my favourite fruit and my favourite healthy dessert. Several years back I had a Kindergarten class sing “Watermelon Man” (J’aime le Melon d’eau) by Herbie Hancock (but the Mongo Santamaria version). I put on my helmet as a secret surprise when they were on stage ready to perform.

We had friends over yesterday for an afternoon of camaraderie and music in the garden. We served frozen grapes and fresh strawberries and watermelon ( along with chips and veggies and hummous etc.). Lovely to see friends as we emerge from a year and a half of strict isolation. We were a bit rusty on the music side… but fun and contentment was had by all.

I woke up this morning thinking about watermelon and an incident that happened to me about thirty years ago. I was at a similar party at a couple’s home in the plateau area of Montreal. I had known John for a decade or so, and Adele was a new friend to me, but she knew my girlfriend well. We were all very comfortable around each other. I remember the house and their sweet little girls Camille and Sabine. Those girls were two of the reasons I decided to become a father myself.

The incident was an embarrassing one. At least it would have been if it hadn’t been so hilarious. Adele was being the hostess and was passing around hors d’oeuvre on a platter and had a bowl of sliced up watermelon in the other. I blurted out “I love diarrhea!” and Adele immediately cracked up, doubled over laughing. I apologized exclaiming that I had meant to say “I love watermelon, but it gives me diarrhea!” which in retrospect seems like too much information in the first place. Adele went around telling people who hadn’t been in the room of my verbal faux pas, and suddenly the party came alive.

My constitution has changed and I seldom get gastro-intestinal issues with watermelon anymore. I have some cut up in the fridge and thinking about it made me think about this story this morning. I am still in touch with John and Adele though they are no longer together. I see tidbits from their girls who are now vibrant young women and it was a gift to think of them this morning via this silly little story.

  • Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which information meant to stimulate one of your senses stimulates several of your senses. People who have synesthesia are called synesthetes.
  • The word “synesthesia” comes from the Greek words: “synth” (which means “together”) and “ethesia” (which means “perception). Synesthetes can often “see” music as colors when they hear it, and “taste” textures like “round” or “pointy” when they eat foods.
Silly video

Remembering my friend Charlie Biddle

I met a man when I was 21 who was to become a good friend; a roommate; and a mentor. It was the year 1977. I had hitchhiked to a little town called Val David which is in the Laurentian mountains north of Montreal and around 18 km from my home in St. Sauveur-des-Monts. I had gone there to buy some hashish from a shady acquaintance that my friend Stu had introduced me to. After our transaction, I chanced upon some music wafting through an open door in a rustic ramshackle building called “Le Bistro d’la Butte” in Val David, Quebec. La Butte à Mathieu was a famous “Boite à Chansons” where many of the largest acts in Quebecois music performed. Le Bistro was an adjunct building much smaller. I guesstimate it could probably hold 50-60 patrons.

I peeked in the door and there was Nelson Symonds (guitar) and Charlie Biddle (upright bass) playing their hearts out even though there was no one in the audience. I knew almost immediately that the passion and authenticity of expression in this kind of music was for me, and that I had to find out more about it. Charlie gestured to me to come in and I entered, but embarassedly explained that I didn’t have any money (I left out the part that I had just spent it on dope). He said come in anyways and his wife Connie offered me some fried chicken…. Thus started my friendship with Charlie.

I was a bedroom guitar player at the time. I learned songs by Bob Dylan; Peter, Paul and Mary; Paul Simon; Cat Stevens; etc. but this jazz music was something new. I recognized the tune they were playing from my dad’s record collection. Pretty sure it was “Night And Day” by Cole Porter. I was fascinated. It had (seemingly) a zillion chords and was way beyond my skill set. My casual conversation with Nelson and Charlie during the “break” was the start of my upward climb into music that I have embraced with religious fervor.

I was working my summer job with a landscaper company and several of the guys were jazz buffs. I started to tag along with them on excursions to “The Rising Sun” in Montreal to see the cream of international Jazz stars pretty well every week-end. I saw and heard Dizzy Gillespie (the guitarist was Al Gafa), Dexter Gordon, Kenny Burrell, etc. I started to read Downbeat from cover to cover and buy albums based on the information there. Weather Report, Chick Corea, Oscar Peterson and Joe Pass. Joe Pass’ music in particular made an impact on me and I bought a music book of transcriptions that I couldn’t yet read, but I learned some of the chord shapes and started to introduce them into my playing. I also purchased a book from “International Music Store” on Ste. Catherine Street by Mickey Baker called Mickey Baker’s Complete Course in Jazz Guitar Book one). The hours I struggled with that one…

I went to see Charlie and Nelson as often as I could that summer and continued to absorb their music and jovial friendship. On July 26th,1977 Charlie turned 51 and I was 21. At his birthday gig I jokingly told him he was “one short of a full deck”. He howled with laughter and the habit of our male put downs for each other was established.

Over the course of the summer I decided to return to school. I had been studying Philosophy in the Maritimes but wanted to be in Montreal. I started night courses at Concordia University and found part-time employment as a Parking lot attendant. My favourite time at that job was after the main attendant left and I changed the music in the booth to Radio-Canada which is the french radio station of the CBC where there was a very good Jazz show. The host was very relaxed and soothing and my music education and my French improved immensely. Paycheques were spent mostly on records.

After a few months of almost daily commuting via Voyageur bus from St. Sauveur to Montreal for classes and my job, I was getting pretty tired. If the walkman had been invented, it would have been an easier commute. During that winter Charlie started to commute as well. He was playing a bar on Crescent Street around the corner from the Hall building of Concordia and we started to sometimes commute together. After my night class I’d wait until his last set was over and I’d drive him in his huge boat of a station wagon as far as St. Sauveur and he would continue on to his home and family. After a bit of this grind, he asked me if I’d like to share an apartment on Bishop Street that he had found. It was near the Annex, Cheap Thrills and Concordia and was very cheap, so I agreed. I had bought a VW hatchback from my brother to help me manage my time better between work and school and my home up north..

Living with Charlie was an education. We hung out a lot! We were only on Bishop Street for a short time before Charlie told me we were going to move. He had found a “loft” in Old Montreal that was a block West of a famous Jazz club on St. Paul St. There was no rent!!!!!! The idea was to stay there until the bottom two floors were to be converted into a flagship Jazz club. We had the whole place to ourselves, but lived on the top floor. I learned how to mop! A few drawbacks to the place…. hot water tank needed fixing, so showers were not hot…. the shower stall was one floor down. The heating system was shared by several office buildings and was minimal on weekends and holidays….. other than that it was great! My record collection was expanding and I had a good sound system, so when I was home and not practicing, I would listen to great Jazz. Charlie and I hung out a lot. He was a great story teller. One day I will try and recall some of his better ones and the outrageous exaggerations that never seemed to change. I can still conjure up his voice and facial expressions in my mind’s eye and ear.

Quite often during this time we would both be between paycheques or I’d be out of work and we had not much between us. On more than one occasion I’d be broke and Charlie might have 5 bucks and would say “Let’s go get breakfast”. There was a Deli on Ste. Catherine that had a breakfast special. We’d come out of there and be stuffed. He said there was no point to not eat like a king even when things were tight. He also introduced me to a place that he called “Sausageville” which was a Delicatessen on the Main where you could get a sausage sandwich and a drink (Cott Black Cherry) and sometimes splurge the extra dime for a pickle. I am pretty sure that it was either just under or just over a dollar for the drink and sandwich.

I continued to go there for decades and introduced my friends and my younger brother to “Sausageville”. As an adult, my brother actually bought sausage sandwiches and drinks for himself and his girlfriend and drove up to the top of Mount Royal and proposed to her over their picnic. When Hoffner’s closed, I went down the street to the competition “Slovenia Deli”, but it wasn’t quite the same. I went without for years, but by chance found another Slovenia sausage place on the North Main…. near Beaubien Street. I would often detour there just to have a hot sausage.

Now I live in a suburb about twenty Kilometres away and one day I was craving a sausage. I noticed that in my neighbourhood was a Deli called La Bernoise that I had always meant to try. I went in and they had the sausages that I was used to, but didn’t make sandwiches. I said to the lady behind the case that I usually go to Slovenia for my hot sausage sandwiches. She told me that Slovenia had just gone out of business, but that La Bernoise was their supplier. I bought a dozen. They have a butcher’s dozen: 13 for 12. I keep a supply on hand in the freezer at all times. I am mostly vegetarian, but in denial about sausages.

Enough about food, though. Charlie taught me how to live royally without very much money. Cheap restos, shopping at the Sally Ann, where to find the free parking spots. He taught me through his example that sometimes bills have to wait. He always paid them, but not always “on time”. Sometimes needed a prompt. The Hussier (bailiff) called…..I’d better get on it. He also showed me through his generosity, to be kind. If you have, share, if you don’t have, ask. As he grew more successful in the city, he moved his four kids and Connie down to the city part-time. Sometimes I’d get home to the loft and it would be teeming with the youthful exuberance that children bring. I loved those kids and Connie, but usually their arrival dovetailed into my going up north to my parents house. Biddle’s golden rule was NO NOISE DURING DADDY’S NAP. Charlie took a nap every day in the late afternoon. He played music til the wee hours and got up with the kids, but all was OK if the nap was undisturbed. I acquired the same habit which I try to do every day.

One night, I was all alone at the loft. Practicing and/or reading and/or listening to music. I fell asleep in my bedroom which was a cordoned off area of a huge space. Charlie had the other room away from the Big Space and near the bathroom and kitchenette. He was on a gig. I fell asleep with my guitar in my hands. I was awoken by the sound of boots on the floor on the other side of my bed. I sat up to see two guys with hand guns drawn who said “Who the fuck are you?” I said I lived there. They were looking for the owner who had lent us this space and they looked like they were “collecting”. I said he wasn’t there and I hardly ever saw him at all. The men stomped out and when Charlie got home I told him what had transpired. He replied… “OK we’re moving!”.

The next day he found a multi level rental on Rue Notre Dame above a specialized hardware store. The area was the eastern fringes of the traditionally predominately black neighbourhood housing railway porters called Little Burgundy. At that time we moved in, rue Notre Dame looked on to what had been the Turcot Yards which used to be the railway yards for both Windsor station and Central station. It was a vast expanse of weeds and old asphalt and detritus from having served the city for a century. It is now built up into condos and is a very different neighbourhood.

On Notre Dame St. I had my own apartment on the left side of the stairs and Charlie had two floors on the right side. we had an adjoining back “deck” palettes strung together on the roof of a neighbouring workshop/garage. Seeing as I had to now pay rent again, I walked down the street and I asked at the various businesses if they needed any part-time help? One actually did. It was a start-up courrier company that needed an evening person to sort and record the manifest. The secretary liked my spirit and the fact that I was literate and I got hired. It fit in well with my schooling, so after the owner interviewed me, I was hired.

With the change of address, my new job and Charlie’s family there all the time now, the dynamic shifted, but I used to love hanging out and watching tv with them and was often over there for dinner. We would get into huge loud and funny disagreements about all sorts of stuff…. I miss that. One of us would say something outrageous just to get the other one going. Thinking back fondly of those times.

It was around this time that Charlie partnered up with a successful businessman (George D.) and opened up a jazz club on Aylmer Street. Named Biddles Jazz and Ribs. This venture became very successful and attracted a wealthier crowd than I was used to hanging out with. Most Jazz clubs in the city could service students and marginalized people. Nelson Symonds’ cousin Ivan Symonds had Le Mixeur before he opened up Le Jazz Bar. Very different. Sort of like the difference between uptown clubs in New York and Greenwich Village clubs back in the day. Nowadays it all costs a fortune.

Ivan Symonds club. Note the “translation” of Jam Sessions…lol

I saw Charlie less, mostly it was if I went out to catch him play at the club where he was “on”. I went over to his place less as we both got busier, but every time we did see each other it was a lovely homecoming. Charlie and Oliver Jones also played a cocktail gig at The Queen Elizabeth Hotel. I sometimes went there to see him and my dad went there after his work and kill time before catching a suburban train.

We saw each other less as my studies and work and girlfriends took over and Charlie got more opportunity to be in films and better gigs etc.

My four years in Winnipeg really put time and distance between us. I came back to Montreal to get married and Charlie was a guest. He pulled me aside as was walking down the aisle and whispered “so long, sucker!” in my ear. We would see each other only sparingly as my kids became focal points and I had many weekend gigs out of town and I didn’t get out much to listen to Jazz during the week. I took my girls to see Charlie a few times, but the dynamic had shifted.

My next encounter with him was a shock. My brother-in-law had been working at Biddles as a waiter and he was visiting his sister and me and just casually asked if I had heard that Charlie was in the hospital? All the blood rushed out of my face as I tried to absorb this news that my friend, tower of strength and hero was suffering. I sped over to St. Mary’s hospital and found the ward where outside the door a nurse informed me that “only family is allowed to visit”. Constance heard my voice through the door and emerged and said “It’s OK, Ian is family!” A wave of pride and shame came over me. Proud to be considered family, but ashamed at how absent a son I had been.

I entered the room and Connie said “Look Charlie, you have a visitor!” “Hey Eee” said Charlie from his hospital bed. Charlie is one of only four people I have known who shortened my name to “Eee”. They are all dear to me (My “Aunt” Hemmy, my sister, my present wife Sharon and Charlie).

Connie took some time for herself and Charlie and I had a lovely visit albeit a sad one. We tried to keep each other laughing like usual, but Charlie grew tired and I knew I should go. Judging from his diminished frame and weakness I sensed it might be the last time I’d see Charlie. I said “I’m going to give you a hug, so don’t play with my tits!” I hugged him and he pinched my “tits”.

He died a few months later at home. The same address on Notre Dame street where we had shared so much time together.

Loving him will never come to an end.

Charlie and me at my first wedding.
Gift from my friend Lyle Robinson
portrait of Charlie by Linda Rutenberg on the wall beside my piano

Ashes To Ashes

One of my favourite places to visit in Montreal is Mount Royal Cemetery. 

It is a lovely, quiet place to walk and reflect on all the names and dates of people that no longer exist written on the slabs and obelisks and statues that adorn the hilly leas of this pacific neighbourhood atop Mount Royal.

Today it was raining fairly heavily, so I drove slowly up and down more narrow avenues than I would have on foot. I was struck how, in places, the panorama looked like a petrified forest of lifeless stumps and in others like smaller versions of the structures of the long abandoned kingdom of Charn from one of the illustrations by Pauline Baynes in C.S. Lewis’ “The Magician’s Nephew”.  

One of the avenues taken went past row upon row of white tablets with the same expiry dates (1939-45) and carved maple leaves. A mini version of Flanders Fields. These are from the hapless casualties of Canadian troops in the Second World War. I was thinking they were among the fortunate to have been repatriated and interred in their homeland, but there is nothing fortunate about being brutally deprived of a full life. Ironically there are cannons in these fields to mark them as military. 

Yet another fork in the road led me for the first time to an area set apart that was filled with tombstones marked with Chinese writing and symbols. I don’t know whether this was a systemic Apartheid or the efforts of an ethnic community to establish their own area. A dead Chinatown. Maybe it is just so the living mourners can find what they are looking for more easily by this classification like finding jazz albums in a second hand store without having to flip through all sorts of pop and classical albums to get there. 

The cemetery I was in is the Protestant one, so mostly Anglo. The Catholic Cemetery (Notre Dame-des-Neiges) is right beside it to the west, separated by an iron fence. The Jewish Cemetery is similarly on the other side of a fence to the north.  The great leveller of all living beings is death. The cultural differences and things that set us apart in life should disappear with us, but they don’t. 

I wondered if I would have liked any of these people interred here and if they would have liked me. There are at least two. My mum’s best friend and my ex’s brother are buried here. I also spotted a family plot near the road that I recognized. It had a former grade two classmate of mine who was an early casualty of the AIDS epidemic. 

It is obvious that some of the graves are from moneyed families. The bigger the monument, the more ornate, the information carved deeper and less susceptible to erosion or to be obscured by lichen. One huge monument was tilting precariously as a huge hardwood tree’s roots have been pushing up relentlessly for over a hundred years. Nothing lasts forever. 

My great grandfather was a stone carver and had his own monument business in East Finchley which is a suburb of London, England. He would have been able to tell me with an expert vocabulary about everything in sight in great detail. I never met him. My grandfather escaped an apprenticeship in stone carving by emigrating overseas to Canada. I am not entirely sure of his motivation to do so, but I gathered that the certainty of working with his hands under the tyrannical tutelage of his father who my grandfather referred to as “the old pot” was far less attractive to an unknown future in an unknown land. 

As we approach the inevitable with less in front of us than we have behind us, it is only natural to want to prepare. Some people buy plots, choose tombs, pre-plan funerals. They don’t want to leave a mess for their loved ones. There are some graves I saw that have names and birth dates on them and a hyphen …..waiting to be completed. I don’t want that. 

My wife says she wants her obituary to be: “I’m dead. Move along”. Although I would tell you, if asked, that I don’t care, a Folgers tin would suit me fine as long as I didn’t have to drink it (it might kill me). 

I kind of do care. I wish to be remembered fondly by loved ones, maybe someone in the future listen to some music I wrote or read some scribblings of mine or remember something good I did in my life, laugh. Ultimately though, it amounts to naught. I won’t be there, and, like the names carved in stone, will fade with time and return to dust like my ancestors.

On my tour, I crossed paths with an itinerant man with his possessions in a bag in a far recess of the cemetery. I was immediately struck by the irony of him living among the dead, but I also thought of the advantages. Dead people probably make great neighbours. No complaints, no arguments, no worries, no gossip. 

I am going to stop being morbid and live each day to the fullest. I don’t want to be dead before I die. Living among the dead is ultimately better than being dead among the living.

Brakes/Boundaries

This is a story I wrote in 2014. This year (2021) I had a near catastrophic event in my car due to excessive rust intrusion on the sub frame…. because I braked so hard to avoid an accident.

Have you ever neglected your brakes? We need brakes to help us stop, to help us slow down, to yield and to park. If you don’t get your brakes checked regularly you run the risk of not being able to do the above mentioned things adequately. What also happens is that as the pads disappear, the disc or the drum gets damaged by the mechanism itself resulting in major irreparable damage causing an expensive lengthy garage visit to change everything (preferable) or a traumatic accident causing greater damage to the vehicle and perhaps to one or more sentient beings.

There are always reasons to neglect routine maintenance, aren’t there? I mean, who has the time? We also view going for maintenance as throwing money into a hole never to be seen again and it’s never good news. There is always something. 

I started out talking about cars, but really it is a metaphor for our own lives as well. Saying “no” is our ability to brake adequately. At work, without “no”, fatigue and frustration may set in. At home, one runs the risk of bearing the unbearable, tolerating the intolerable, accepting the unacceptable. Each of these things on their own are avoidable if we look after ourselves first and have the prescience to get our brakes checked regularly. 

Brakes can’t save you from everything. Some things are unavoidable (Montreal potholes) but cautious driving and good steering may help you traverse these eventualities. Am I talking about cars again? This is supposed to be about healthy responses to what life throws our way. 

Having boundaries in your relationships is like having brakes in your car. If you drive a car without brakes you are in a demolition derby and if you don’t have boundaries with spouses (spice?) children, pets, friends, colleagues, family members (note to family members…I did not put you last on purpose) your life may be a demolition derby.

In order for brakes to work, one force has to interact and impede an object that has inertia.  Brake pads on a bathtub don’t work unless somehow the bathtub is moving (there is always at least one smartass doubter).

 In order for boundaries to work, one cannot deny reality. Try setting a boundary (or using brakes for that matter) with an express train or a volcano. Good luck with that! 

There has to be a setter and a respecter for boundaries to work. If you are fortunate to interact with people whose pathologies are not toxic, and who set boundaries themselves, the result should be a healthy and safe balance of energy and stasis and balance and flow ensue. 

Unfortunately, some people you may have to “interact” with won’t or don’t or even can’t see or recognize boundaries. (Random thought….bumper cars don’t have brakes). These people are rude, entitled, arrogant and impossible. This is what an accelerator is for (no, not to run them over….) to go as fast as you can in the opposite direction. 

From May, 2014.

Tangible History

I am not sure what compels artists and musicians to seek out places where their heroes/mentors lived or died. I have been reading Patti Smith’s book “Just Kids” and she often refers to famous events that occurred at the precise spot she was inhabiting at that moment: The place where Dylan Thomas lived shortly before his death or the place where so and so was murdered, etc. She visits France to trace the hangouts where Beaudelaire lived and died. Her pilgrimage like so many others to the Père Lachaise cemetery to visit Jim Morrison’s grave that lies among hundreds of luminaries such as Oscar Wilde, Chopin and Molière et al.

Stories of pilgrimages abound. I recently read “Innocents Abroad” by Mark Twain which details a tour of Europe and the Middle East which is best described as a pilgrimage. Holy sites, the very streets where DaVinci walked, the river Jordan where John The Baptist did his thing. The Mount of Olives, etc. There is a certain comfort and insight to visiting these places. To tread on the ground where our heroes trod.

I think my first experience of this kind of visit to a dedicated site of remembrance to a famous person was seeing Louis Riel’s grave in Winnipeg and seeing the remnants of the coffin in which he was carried to his final resting place. I caught the bug. Tangible History.

My most recent pilgrimage was to England and Wales where a millenia of my ancestors had lived and breathed. My ancestors invaded Great Britain in 1066 with William The Conqueror. Although I did not visit an exact place, I had a strange sense of belonging where the accents all resembled my Grandfather’s. 

I once asked my Grandfather why he had an accent only to be rebuked with: ”I don’t have an accent, YOU do!, I am British!”. 

On my agenda for this trip overseas was a trip to London where I needed to see the Abbey Road crosswalk and the studio where so much great music was produced.  I also wished to see “Berkeley Square” of the famous song “A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square” and Trafalgar Square of the song lyric “I Was Born In Trafalgar Square, If it’s Good Enough For Nelson, It’s Good Enough For Me”. We also ate and drank at a very Dickensian pub that had been frequented by Charles Dickens. I also wanted to visit 21B Baker Street which didn’t look at all like what I had imagined, but I came to the realization that it had also been imagined in the first place by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I was visiting a shrine that was fictional…

 Our stay in North Wales was less than two hours from Liverpool, so we made a day trip and were able to visit Strawberry Field and Penny Lane and The Cavern Club replica as well as the actual site of the Cavern Club and all the other Kitschy Beatlesesque nostalgia sites. We were ten minutes too late for the last Magical Mystery Tour, but so be it. My eyes were opened to a different reality from what I had imagined. John Lennon’s childhood home and neighbourhood resembled many in my home town. If I had done more research, and we had had more time I might have visited William Blake’s grave. 

Later that same year, I visited New York which I do fairly frequently. On this occasion I visited the “Strawberry Field” and the Imagine commemoration in the shadow of “The Dakota” where John Lennon had been murdered. Other places and “shrines” I visited in NY include all the Jazz clubs and/or places where they had existed. 52nd street sure ain’t what it used to be, The Apollo Theatre. Bleecker Street and all the folkie haunts. Just  walking the streets of Greenwich Village was inspiring although like everything else in the capitalist world, it is ruined by gentrification and cheesy tourist traps. Broadway and Times Square with their rich history did not impress me, but seeing the “Brill Building” where so much great pop music came from was inspirational.

I live in Montreal, which was home to Leonard Cohen. There are wonderful large posthumous murals of him in several locations around the city. His duplex on Ste. Dominique street has been the spot that people go to to reminisce and to somehow get a taste of where so much great art came from. My girls both attended the elementary school where Leonard had gone to school and played in Murray Hill Park just a Stone’s throw away from Leonard’s ancestral home (although we didn’t know it at the time). Leonard is buried on Mount Royal between Westmount and The Plateau (his two homes). Mount Royal Cemetery has many famous people in it, although maybe not world famous. Former Prime Ministers, etc. The Anna of “Anna and the King of Siam” is buried there.

What inspired me to write about shrines today was a picture I saw yesterday of a musician (Jon Wurster) in front of Bob Dylan’s childhood home in Hibbing Minnesota. The picture was accompanying a story about how the same musician had opened up for Bob Dylan and during soundcheck he pocketed a Kleenex from Dylan’s area on stage. A souvenir he kept to this day. 

Bob Dylan has some famous stories of visiting shrines. The film footage of him and Alan Ginsberg at Jack Kerouac’s grave come to mind as well as the time Dylan was on tour in Winnipeg and he visited the home that Neil Young had lived in as a teenager. The present owners were awestruck… or the  time Dylan was walking around in a hoodie in New Jersey to get the  vibe of Bruce Springsteen’s stomping grounds. He was picked up by a young police officer for vagrancy and had no ID. He was amused that the “kid” didn’t know who he was but is now legendary in the precinct because the older cops sure as hell knew. 

In the early 2000’s I drove my family out west to Winnipeg to visit friends I had made during my four years living there in the late 1980’s and also so my wife at the time could record an album at a studio complex owned and run by a former student of mine. We had our two young daughters in tow and our lovely dog, Stardust. It is a Loooooooong trip from Montreal to Winnipeg. With two kids in tow it meant park stops and pee breaks and motel stays. If I drove non-stop it would take about 25 hours. to traverse the 2300 kilometres, so you can imagine how long it took us in a mini van with all the kiddie stops…. We went south of Lake Superior as I wanted to partially retrace my hitch hiking adventure from when I was sixteen years old and decided to hitch hike to the Yukon to see my sister. 

I wanted to see the town of Marquette where I had been stranded and where some hippies had picked me up from the side of the road near midnight after I had just been hit by a flying beer bottle thrown by some local redneck hoodlums and the hippies made me a palette on the floor. I wish I knew who they were, because they really comforted me at a low point. 

Also on my list was Duluth, Minnesota where Dylan had been born and Hibbing, Minnesota where he “came from”. Hibbing was a detour for us. It took us about two hours out of the way on an alternate route to Winnipeg. My goal was to seek out his house and have my picture taken in front of it. I can’t stress enough how important this was to me. Don’t forget that this trip was pre-cell phone and pre-internet. I had taken the time  to research the addresses from the several biographical sources that I owned and had a visual from one of them. I may have even brought one of those books with me… We found the house, and from the street I could see the bedroom window where Bob had dreamed and started playing and writing. I posed for my photograph and my wife took several. Mission accomplished. We saw the strip mining area that brought people to Hibbing in the first place and drove past the high school and the location where the Zimmermans had a dry goods store and a theatre.  Hibbing is pretty “fly-over America” it is stuck in a time warp and the chances of my ever going back are pretty close to zero. 

Everybody was itching to get to our destination which was another six hours away. I thanked my family for indulging me that detour, but now it was off my “bucket list”(not that I have a bucket list, per se). 

We got to our friend’s house just south of the city and had dinner and I settled the girls down for the night with a bed time story. They were acting weird and conspiratorial and I asked them “What’s up?” They said “we promised mom we wouldn’t tell!” “Tell what?” I replied “We don’t keep secrets in our house”. They both blurted out “There was no film in the camera!” “Mummy told us not to tell.” …………….

The picture I saw of Jon Wurster in front of Bob’s house should have been me.

Merry Pranksters

I recently heard from my old friend Roy of the passing of yet another of my mentors. Cahill Rooney died on Good Friday 2021. Along with this news came other news that someone had written a book called “Brothers In Montebello”.

The author (Shawn Urlocker) arrived the September after I graduated, so I never knew him, but I purchased the book anyway,buying it online on Monday. It arrived Thursday morning and I devoured it by Friday evening. The stories inside stirred up memories of school mates and names long forgotten and places that I had known intimately. The book mentioned an event that I was involved in. The back cover said that:

“Presentation High school in Montebello was a ‘last chance’ for Montreal’s most incorrigible youth, while also offering a quality education for “regular lads”.”

Needless to say, I was not a “regular lad”. I did graduate with top grades in English and Religion, and went from being a mediocre student to being accepted at Acadia University.

The book told of the kids at the school and their lives in and out of school. It also mentioned a caper that I had been involved in.

Mr. Rooney was the Vice Principal of Presentation High School. The school year I attended was my final year of high school. 1973-74. Mr Rooney was a character to be sure. Physically, I felt he looked like Roy Orbison. He had a thick mop of jet black hair and black rimmed Ray Ban glasses. He walked on the balls of his feet and it seemed like he was always smiling. He had a way of emitting a short and high pitched “hm” and raised his eyebrows in surprise as he entered a scene. I am pretty sure it was a nervous habit of his, but it made us wonder what he knew and we would wonder if he was “hmm”ing disdainfully or playfully. I often found myself copying this mannerism of his in my own teaching career from time to time, and each time I did, I would think of Rooney.

Cahill Rooney loved cars. He had several classic Jaguars that were not running, but parked on the lawn beside the school. The year I was there he had a Hemi Roadrunner which is a honking big muscle car. I only remember riding in it once, which was a trip to Ottawa and back. The date was Saturday March 16th, 1974. I had convinced some of my pals to come to a concert in Ottawa with me. I played guitar and was becoming increasingly fascinated by things musical. Mr. Rooney took courses in Ottawa and went frequently. He was going that Saturday and we were able somehow to not only get tickets, but get a ride, (we also got some potent LSD) and all this before internet and not having any credit. Rooney was a pretty cool guy, all told.

The concert was a triple bill. The first act was “The James Gang” which at this time had Canadian guitar legend Domenic Troiano on guitar (not Joe Walsh…who had left by then). They were loud and heavy. Not my thing, I was there for Roy Buchanan who was a blues based telecaster slinger who I had discovered while hanging out at Phantasmagoria record store which was a cool store with barnwood, sofas and tropical fish. I heard Roy there and bought the album “Second Contribution” on the spot. I think he came on second, but I can’t be sure. I know I loved the music. The other band on the bill was “Soft Machine” which was a prog rock outfit… lotsa synths and I did not relate to them at all. Fortunately the double barrel orange pills we had taken before made all the music and the experience a cloudy jumble. Meeting up with Rooney after the show was a trip in itself…. We were so blotto… every thing he said and every growl of the engine were amplified with cosmic significance somehow. Rooney drove fast! We were doing well over a hundred and twenty. (Miles Per Hour) Canada would go metric in almost exactly one year. Ripping down the 417 from Ottawa to Hawkesbury was like when the Enterprise goes warp speed… all the while with Rooney smiling and “hmm”ing and we feeble ados not able to discern if he knew how fucked up we were… The bridge to quebec and up the road we all knew so well back to Montebello. There is now a high speed bypass from Lachute to Gatineau, but the old road is pretty much as it was then.

That was not “the” caper. It sticks out in my memory, though. I remember Dave MacDonald was with us, and I am pretty sure there were two others but time has erased those details.

AT our “reform” school there were brothers who taught and ran the place and several teaching positions held by “lay people” The year I attended there were two men from Queens, NY . I remembered them as Bart and Steve, but in the book it refers to a Mr. Ross. They both used to regale us of stories of going “clamming” near their native Queens. Very heavy and thick Queens accents. I think they may have been “old boys”. We’ll call “Bart” “Ross” for the sake of this story.

Ross had an old Volvo like this one:

Volvo Classic Cars | Volvo oldtimers for sale at E&R Classic Cars!

His was easily classifiable as an old car… junker….beater….etc. It had a manual transmission.

One of my classmates (I don’t remember who, but probably Dave) came up with the brilliant idea to “relocate” the Volvo as a practical joke. We snuck around after lights out and got to work. We needed many strong boys to push it and someone behind the wheel to steer. Gerry (Muttsey) was the strongest and Bruno was also muscular. There were others, but only hazy in my memory. David and a long haired kid named “Poshton”. I had my driver’s licence and knew stick, so I was elected the wheel man. The goal was to push the car around to the back of the school and deposit it in the Gym. The school was built on an embankment. Two storeys visible in the front, but two more storeys beneath those levels. We got the car around to the back alright, but hit a snag at the Gym door. The car did not have enough room to turn the 90 degrees necessary to go through the door. We had to lift the back of the car up and swing the tail around without very much room to do it because the sidewalk we were on could accommodate the car, but dropped off severely not unlike a mountain road. When we got the car perpendicular to the school, we realized the gym doors needed to be removed and the car needed to be lifted in the front to get over the threshold and into the gym. Imagine all the grunting and swearing of pubescent boys exerting themselves and picture the bedroom window of Mr. Rooney’s bedroom two stories directly above. It is a miracle we didn’t wake him.

We got the car into the centre of the gym and someone took a picture. I wish I had that photo now, I don’t even remember who took it. About a dozen boys in the middle of the night atop and astride the Volvo. We all snuck off to our dorms and went to sleep feeling pretty damn proud of our collective naughtiness. We were awoken rudely before the usual time by the Brothers and Ross yelling for the grade ten and elevens to wake up. They told us that the Volvo had been stolen and we were the prime suspects. No-one spoke. Muttsey was singled out, but he remained mute. We had a code as young punks to not “squeal”. This is before they found it in the Gym… The Securité du Québec officers were there and one officer strolled downstairs and came back grinning and said “J’ai trouver ton auto, monsieur!” and Ross went downstairs and came back fuming and ranting (and smacked a few of us that he was sure were in on it. Muttsey and Timmins….. Still we were all mute. Mr. Rooney came in with a shit eating grin and brother Raymond came in smirking as well. They lectured us and made us skip breakfast and we had several duties piled on the lot of us. That was it.

I felt kind of bad because Ross had gotten up very early to drive to Montreal for a dentist appointment which he ultimately missed. We really loved the guy, and were totally not thinking of the ramifications or consequences of our brilliant, but admittedly delinquent caper. Idiot boys.

I am pretty sure that Brother Raymond and Mr. Rooney were secretly proud of our teamwork and our ingenuity in pulling this off even though they feigned anger, disbelief and revenge. I can picture them sitting over a scotch and howling with laughter at how their incorrigibles did.

I am quite sad that I couldn’t find pictures of Cahill Rooney (the right one…) on line. He was ultimately a very private man. I have many pictures of him etched into the recesses of my brain and another memory of seeing his name in the Gazette in 2012 in regards to a development project in Shaughnessy Village where his home backed onto the development. I checked the phone book for Rooneys and found one on Chomedey Street. I knew the street as I had had an apartment in a converted townhouse there in the 70’s. I called him up and we chatted a bit agreed to meet up at a café nearby on another day. He was thrilled to know I became a teacher and was eager to discuss my music with me. Alas, it never transpired. I regret it. My life was about to become unmanageable as I was close to burn out my job, my mother’s health, worry over one of my children and my marriage had unravelled beyond repair.

Now he is gone. We never have anybody forever, but having him ever present in my memories and habits will have to do. I am surely not the only boy he ever helped as I see from Urlocker’s book. I intend to have a chat with my buddy Roy who went on to help him establish his own school in Aylmer, Quebec a few short years after I graduated.

I have another tale from school days here:

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