Turns out that I owe Lawrence Gowan an apology. I was unaware that an apology was necessary until this past weekend but apologize, I must. And yes, I am talking about that Lawrence Gowan who, in the 1980s had big hits with songs such as “A Criminal Mind”, “Strange Animals” and “Moonlight Desires”. You know, that guy with the huge mullet! He was known just as Gowan back in the day. That guy. In the 80s, Gowan was a big star for a while just at a time when Canadian music was coming into its own. It was the dawn of Much Music (and MTV to the south) and a whole host of artists and bands were becoming household names across Canada because of the videos they were making that ended up in high rotation on the nation’s music station. Gowan was certainly right up there with the likes of Honeymoon Suite, Platinum Blonde, The Spoons, Lee Aaron and a host of other bright, shiny new stars. But then, after an album or two that sold well, Gowan did what so many other artists and bands tend to do, he disappeared from the public eye. The hit songs dried up. The demand for new videos ceased. He went away. As quickly as Gowan had appeared on the national music scene, he was gone…or so it had seemed. This is where the apology comes in.
I spent this past weekend reading a terrific new book called Massey Hall by David McPherson. As you may know, Massey Hall is a famous concert venue in downtown Toronto. For those in need of a comparable, many artists and bands say that Massey Hall is quite similar to Carnegie Hall in New York City. In any case, this book did a fabulous job of telling the story of how Massey Hall came to be, why it is so beloved by performers and audience members alike and who some of the biggest names were that graced the stage there. Mr. McPherson did extensive interviews with anyone and everyone who had something to do with Massey Hall, and as a result, it reads like a musical history book for modern times. Everyone from Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson and Glenn Gould played there, as well as Rush, Lou Reed, The Beach Boys and Chuck Berry. If you wanted to listen to Anne Murray or Blondie or K.D. Lang, then you could have bought yourself a ticket and enjoyed their show. The story of Massey Hall is told in chronological order and reads like a walk through The Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. It was so interesting! I highly recommend it.
It was 1982 that I graduated from high school in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia and moved to Toronto to attend university. I ended up living not too far from Massey Hall. In fact, I had to walk past it every time I had to go to the nearest grocery store, which was nine city blocks from where I lived. On April 9, 1984, I was walking home after buying groceries. I didn’t have a little cart or a backpack in those days. I carried my groceries in bags which, as you can imagine, grew exponentially heavier with each block I walked. My arms were aching by the time I reached Massey Hall (which was the halfway point in my journey). My head was down. I wasn’t gawking all about as I usually did. I just wanted to put my groceries down and be home. So, I didn’t notice the crowd of people were milling about beside Massey Hall. I walked ever onward and actually ended up bumping into somebody with my groceries! I mumbled an apology and glanced up to see that the person I had smacked with my tins of soup was none other than singer Thomas Dolby! He was arriving for afternoon rehearsal after having released “Hyperactive” from his Flat Earth album. Other than shaking the hand of Buffy Sainte-Marie once, literally bumping into Thomas Dolby outside of Massey Hall is my only other physical encounter with a celebrity.
I realize that this story would have been tighter if the person I had bumped into was Lawrence Gowan but it wasn’t. At the time I smucked into Mr. Dolby, Lawrence Gowan was not yet the music star he was to become. Lawrence Gowan was originally born in Scotland. He moved to Scarborough as a young child and grew up in the Greater Toronto Area. As a teen, he was very much into theatre acting. He brought this sense of theatricality into his music career, even when he was just messing about in high school bands of one sort or another. With his strong voice and captivating stage presence, it wasn’t long before he was spotted by a talent agent and signed to a record contract. Gowan’s debut album didn’t sell well, but it did enable him and his band to tour around Ontario. At one point, he found himself at the Canadian National Exhibition (the C.N.E.) in Toronto. The C.N.E. is a huge fair that typically acts as an end of summer event in Toronto. At that particular edition of the C.N.E., there was an exhibit by folks who were promoting the recently closed Kingston Penitentiary as a museum. In this exhibit, there was an actual cell from the prison, along with a guard who used to work there. Lawrence Gowan happened by and sat in the cell for a while. As he sat, he chatted with the guard who told him stories about some of the inmates he had watched over. The guard told him that even though these were bad men who had done bad things, that he actually came to like many of them and considered some to even be friends when all was said and done. This talk struck Gowan as being profound and caused him to create a song that was to launch his career, “A Criminal Mind”. Because of the theatrical nature of his performance style, Gowan was able to create an imaginative video for his song which ended up being played on high rotation on Much Music, and just like that, Lawrence Gowan was a star! His second album, “Strange Animals”, spawned three singles and ended up selling almost 70,000 copies (which was a lot for a Canadian act in those days). He ended up winning the Juno Award for Best New Artist and for Best Video (just beating out Corey Hart and his “Never Surrender” song).
Here’s where the apology comes in. We are all consumers of music. As such, we tend to place our musical influences into one of two categories: those we have frozen in time and keep forever in our memories as they first appeared to us (The Beatles, Elvis, The Rolling Stones, an 18-year old Kate Bush dancing in a red dress and singing about “Wuthering Heights”), and then we have those we consider disposable. These are the singers who had a hit or two or maybe even three and then they went away. Forgotten. Relegated to being nostalgia acts in our minds. There are so many great songs that were one-hit wonder type songs. These songs have equal weight to music by the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Famers when it comes to the soundtrack of our lives, but, as consumers, we tend to simply keep the song but throw away the artist. This is what I did with Lawrence Gowan. I actually did this without so much as a second thought. I truly like his three hit songs and am happy to listen to them whenever I hear them played on radio or stumble across them in an 80s playlist. But, as for whatever happened to Lawrence Gowan after the mid-80s, I never gave it much thought at all to be honest. He seemed to have disappeared and like so many others, I simply let him go.
So, imagine my surprise as I read through my Massey Hall book and arrived at the chapter dedicated to the decade of the 1980s. Mr. McPherson talked about concerts by The Police, U2, Robin Williams and then he devoted a whole sub-section to…Lawrence Gowan! Wait, what?! I knew that Gowan had been a music star for awhile in the 1980s, but I never considered him to be in the same class of musician as Sting or Bono or Madonna, but yet, here he was being featured as if he was. I owe Mr. McPherson a debt of gratitude for taking the time to present Lawrence Gowan in a way that refused to allow me to just cast a cursory glance. So, I read all about Mr. Gowan. In doing so, I discovered why his own career seemed to grind to a halt after getting off to such a strong start in the mid-1980s. Here is what I learned.
The first thing I learned was that Lawrence Gowan’s career didn’t stop as the 1980s ended. In fact, he has been going strong for forty years now! The big thing I learned was that his career has had two phases: the first phase was when he toured as Gowan and sang about “Strange Animals”. The second phase came when he became the co-lead singer for the famous rock band Styx! Wait, what…again!!! The story is that the members of the famous rock band Styx (They of the hits like “Mr. Roboto”, “Come Sail Away”, “Lady”, “Renegade”, “Blue Collar Man” and many more) had, for most of their career, had conflicting visions for what kind of band they wanted Styx to be. Co-lead singers at the time, Dennis DeYoung and Tommy Shaw worked together to produce some of the most memorable rock songs of the 1970s, but the process of reaching consensus toward what to record, when and where to tour, what kind of venues to play, etc…, wore on everyone over time. Eventually, as the 1980s progressed, it was becoming clear that Shaw and DeYoung were becoming an incompatible pair. A power struggle of sorts ensued. The battle came to its conclusion one time when Dennis DeYoung became ill and asked the band to stop touring until such time as he had recovered. There was no timetable for his recovery. This brings us back to one time on their final tour with the original lineup. The band was scheduled to play in Montreal. In need of an opening act, Gowan was contacted. By the late 1980s, he was no longer in the music limelight in Canada, and no longer had a band of his own in his employ. He responded to the guys from Styx that he would be happy to open for them but that he would only be able to perform an acoustic set. The band agreed. Lawrence Gowan went on stage and performed for thirty minutes. He played his three hits and a few more songs thrown in for good measure. He closed with “A Criminal Mind”. Ever the performer, Lawrence Gowan managed to wow the crowd using nothing more than an acoustic guitar, his charm and his wonderful singing voice. Well, as often happens at concerts, the boys from Styx stood in the wings as Gowan finished his set. They were as impressed with him as the audience was. Fast forward a few months…Styx ended their tour. Tommy Shaw and Dennis DeYoung had their final blow-out battle. DeYoung announced that he wouldn’t be touring for the foreseeable future. Shaw announced that the band would go on without him. One of the very first people brought in to audition to replace DeYoung was Lawrence Gowan who, when all was said and done, was given the gig! For over two decades now, Lawrence Gowan has been the co-lead singer (along with Tommy Shaw) of the 1970s behemoth rock band, Styx! He has been so accepted by the band and integrated into their world that Gowan’s 1980s hit songs have been incorporated into the Styx song catalogue and are regularly played in concert: especially “A Criminal Mind”. And, until I read it in a book this weekend, I didn’t know anything about any of this.
For that, I apologize, Mr. Gowan.
What I really apologize for is that rush to judgment that so many of us make so easily about others without having any facts to warrant such thoughts to begin with. I am guilty of being dismissive toward an artist who was, in fact, thriving. I have no idea if Lawrence Gowan lost any sleep over the years because I had relegated him to the ranks of a nostalgia act in my mind. Regardless as to whether he did or not, I know that I have been guilty of forming opinions about others without a basis in fact. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have books written about them like Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell have. To those performers who had their moment in the spotlight and then, seemingly, faded away and out of sight, my promise is to dig a little deeper to see what became of them after the curtains closed and the applause faded into silence. Instances like this one with Lawrence Gowan serve as a timely reminder to me to do better as a writer and as a researcher. Who knows how many other “one-hit wonders” or “one album wizards” are having fulfilling careers away from the media eye? My job as a storyteller is to tell an artist’s story fully and properly. I strive to improve my craft. I will leave any judgments as to my success in your hands. For now, I will simply thank Mr. McPherson for writing a truly wonderful book and congratulate Mr. Gowan for having had such a long and stellar career. Well done, gentlemen!
The link to the official website for Lawrence Gowan is here.
The link to the official website for the band Styx is here.
The link to the video for the song “A Criminal Mind” as sung by Lawrence Gowan and Styx can be found here.
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