The Great Canadian Road Trip: Song #37/250: Rockstar by Nickelback

Nickelback: Michael Kroeger, Ryan Peake, Daniel Adair and Chad Kroeger.

Nickelback is a Canadian band that first formed in the mid-1990s in Hanna, Alberta. Originally known as Village Idiot, the band consisted of the three Kroeger brothers (Chad, Michael and Brandon) and their friend Ryan Peake. Eventually, Brandon Kroeger bowed out and was replaced by Three Doors Down’s drummer Daniel Adair. That lineup has stayed firm all through the birth of the band that became known as Nickelback. In the three decades that the band has played together, they have had several #1 hits and have had album sales totalling over 50 million worldwide. They have also enjoyed the greatest success when it comes to being a touring band with sold out show after sold out show all across North America. Since the year 2000, Nickelback is the #1 best selling rock band in the world! Just this past year they were elected to the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. Their success is undeniable. By any statistical measure, Nickelback is one of the world’s best bands. And yet…

Despite their overwhelming success, Nickelback is also a lightning rod when it comes to their critics, of which there are legion. The name “Nickelback” came from the experience a young Chad Kroeger had selling coffee as a teen. The term came from the change he would routinely give back to his customers. To Kroeger, the nickels and dimes that he acquired in tips helped fund much of his early musical aspirations such as buying second hand instruments for himself and his brothers. Because of the fact that he felt that the band was derived from working class roots, Kroeger always viewed it as the band’s mission to reflect that in the songs they wrote and the shows they put on. Thus, Nickelback has developed a reputation for writing songs about ordinary people and universal topics such as love and relationships and the desire for better things in life. Band members have stated that they draw inspiration from other rock bands such as Creedence Clearwater Revival and singers such as John Mellencamp. Critics respond by saying that what Nickelback has really done is to find a songwriting formula that worked for them and are simply repeating that formula album after album, song after song. Because the band has adopted such a formalistic approach to their music, they have found themselves routinely mocked as lacking the true passion that infuses all great bands and songs. In a world where the term “corporate rock” is equated to a lack of musical integrity, Nickelback find themselves the subject of countless internet memes and the butt of many condescending jokes.

A typical Nickelback meme.

The thing about it is that the people most in on the joke are the members of Nickelback themselves. Lead singer Chad Kroeger and his bandmates have made no secret of their songwriting style or how they portray themselves on stage. They have never even remotely attempted to be musical innovators like bands such as Tool or Radiohead. While those bands may be the musical equivalent of gourmet restaurants, Nickelback are quietly content to be the musical equivalent of McDonalds. Churning out verse-chorus, verse chorus hits such as “How You Remind Me” and “Photograph” allow fans to have a sense of familiarity with the band and their music. When you buy a Nickelback album, you basically already know what you are getting before you ever listen to it. Luckily for Nickelback, a great number of fans like Nickelback’s sound and keep coming back again and again simply because the band never changes. A Big Mac and fries is a Big Mac and fries, just as a Nickelback song from one album to the next remains the same, too.

There is no song in their catalogue of hits that exemplifies this philosophy better than “Rockstar”. The boys from Nickelback laugh at their critics from VIP lounges in clubs all over North America. These guys from Hanna, Alberta fly First Class everywhere they travel. Their bank accounts are flush with cash, making each of them millionaires several times over. They all date and/or are married to beautiful women. In short, they are living the rock star dream life and are unapologetic about how they got there. The song “Rockstar” is their anthem. It is a song about how great a life they all have. What helped give this song a somewhat higher profile than it may have had otherwise was the music video that accompanied it. In this video, the band has ordinary fans, along with various celebrities, lip sync the words to the song as it plays. While the song came out in the early 2000s, what makes it an interesting time capsule-esque watch is that it is populated with celebrities who, to a person, aligned themselves with U.S. President Donald Trump during his time in office. In the video, you will find Kid Rock, Ted Nugent and even hockey star turned conservative hero, Wayne Gretzky. It is interesting to note that the song speaks openly of objectifying women and uses women such as Playboy Playmates as examples of their version of what a woman should be. Singer Gene Simmons appears in the video, too. Why that is significant is that KISS is really the band that Nickelback emulates most closely. Simmons has always maintained that the members of KISS are not classically trained singers or the world’s best musicians, but what they are above all else is they are entertainers. So, his presence in this video is akin to him giving Nickelback his seal of approval as entertainers and showmen, too.

There is a market for the type of male-driven view of the world that Nickelback provides for their fans. While it is easy to mock the band as being derivative and corporate, it is something done at the peril of those critics who indulge in such bashing. On the eve of the 2016 Presidential election, I was asked if I was going to watch the election results on television that final night. I replied that there was no use wasting my time doing so because who in their right mind would vote for such an obvious loser as Donald Trump. I looked down my nose at a nation where almost half of the population saw their world through the lens of those who promote male-driven, white views. Consequently, for a while one of the most powerful men in the world was someone who trotted out trophy wives, lived in opulent surroundings and who viewed power as being for personal gain. So, mock Nickelback and their music all you will, their fan base is large and powerful and love them for the simplicity of their music and the comforting worldview the band puts forth with each song from each album. That each song from each album sounds exactly the same is not viewed as a tragic flaw or a weakness. Instead, fans of the band view their consistency as a strength and as something they can depend upon in these turbulent times in which we all find ourselves. If there is any sound of laughter surrounding Nickelback, it is coming the loudest from the band themselves. They know exactly who they are and are laughing all the way to the bank.

The link to the video for the song “Rockstar” by Nickelback can be found here. ***The lyrics version can be found here.

The link to the official website for Nickelback can be found here.

The link to the official website for Hanna, Alberta can be found here.

***As always, all original material contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

The Great Canadian Road Trip: Song #36/250: Man! I Feel Like a Woman by Shania Twain

Eileen Twain as she appeared in elementary school.

Please allow me to introduce you to Eileen Regina Edwards. Edwards was born in Windsor, Ontario in 1965. At the age of two, her parents divorced and her mother Sharon moved to Timmins, Ontario where Eileen and her two sisters were raised. Her mother got remarried to a man named Jerry Twain. A few years later, Twain legally adopted Eileen and her sisters, changing their last name to Twain as well. Eileen’s parents gave birth to a boy and then, a short time later, adopted another child bringing the total number of siblings to five. Times were tough for Eileen growing up. Because she was the eldest sibling, she began earning money for the family at the tender age of eight. Her first job was to sing cover songs near closing times in local bars. From this early age, Twain got used to the dual sensations of the thrill that comes from singing on stage and having an audience respond enthusiastically, coupled with the negative attention from men regarding her physical appearance. Eileen Twain knew from an early age that her looks would give her opportunities that she might not have had otherwise, but, all the same, she grew to hate being defined by her appearance. As a teenager, Twain witnessed bouts of domestic violence and often had little or nothing to eat. At one point, she and her mother and siblings ran away and spent time in a family shelter in Toronto. Eventually her mom returned to the family home in Timmins along with Eileen and the rest of the children. When asked how she managed to keep her spirits up during her childhood days, Twain spoke of always having her songwriting to lean on. She has stated that some of her fondest memories as a teen were of times when she would work as a tree planter and would stay in the woods for weeks at a time, alone with her saplings, her guitar and her notebook. At the age of 22, Twain’s parents were tragically killed in a car accident. Suddenly, just like that, Twain found herself responsible for the wellbeing of her four younger siblings. As luck would have it, she was able to find employment at a resort near Huntsville, Ontario called Deerhurst Resort. All four Twain siblings moved with her. It was there that she worked clearing tables in the restaurant and working as a maid. There were no dreams of a music career in her mind when an opportunity arose to sing on the Deerhurst stage. At that time in her life, Eileen Twain was merely trying to survive.

Eileen Twain performing on stage in her pre-Shania days.

The audiences at Deerhurst Resort took to Eileen as she performed cover song after cover song on stage. Eventually, she worked up the courage to start performing some of her original material. That went well, too. The positive reaction to her own songs allowed Eileen Twain to consider a career in music as actually being a possibility. Through her work at the Resort, she eventually was noticed by a Toronto-based record producer/D.J. who thought she had the singing, as well as the songwriting voice to make it in the world of Country music. Before agreeing to record anything, Eileen made a decision that added a layer of mystique about her. She decided to rebrand herself by changing her first name from Eileen to Shania. Twain’s family background was a mixture of Cree and Ojibway so she chose the name Shania because, according to her, it meant “on her way” in Ojibway. The newly named Shania Twain recorded some songs and made connections that allowed her to do some backup singing sessions. Eventually, she made enough contacts within the recording industry that a special session was held at Deerhurst for her. Many talent scouts were in attendance. Out of that session she was given a recording contract. By the time this happened, her younger siblings had grown up and were old enough to head out on their own journey through life. So, for the first time in her entire life, Shania Twain felt free to chart her own course in life. That started with the release of her first, self-titled album. She was, as the name implies, finally on her way.

From those humble beginnings, Shania Twain has enjoyed a career in which she has sold over 100 million albums worldwide. She is one of the biggest selling Country music stars of all time and has won just about every conceivable type of music award along the way in Canada and in the U.S. Her hits include such well known songs as “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under”, “Don’t Impress Me Much”, “From This Moment”, “(If You’re Not In It For Love) I’m Outta Here!”, “You’re Still The One”, “Up”, “Any Man of Mine”, “You’ve Got a Way” and many others including today’s song, “Man! I Feel Like a Woman”.

Shania Twain took the music world by storm, blazing her own path right from the beginning.

One of the things that helped break Shania Twain’s career was something that she initially found distasteful, and that was her looks. Twain came into her own in the world of music not long after MTV had established itself as the new way for musicians and bands to market their music to larger audiences. Music videos were a prerequisite for any new song being released. Fortunately for Twain, she had been hardened by years of experience singing in dive bars and knew well that it was important for her to take control of how she was being presented before the music industry took control of it for her. Twain knew that people thought she was attractive, but she didn’t want to be marketed as a sex symbol and dressed up in all manner of provocative outfits. In her own mind, she viewed herself as a strong, healthy woman and wanted to convey the sense that she was proud of her appearance and was in control of it, too. In a way, she projected a strong “my body-my choice” type of image. In the world of Country music, baring one’s midriff was not what singers traditionally did. But Shania Twain believed in herself and wanted to connect with other women in her audience in a way that told them that they, too, could be in charge of what they wore and how they presented themselves in public. Shania Twain always maintained that it wasn’t up to some arbitrarily conceived societal rules about the nature of femininity to dictate how a woman should feel about herself. If nothing else, Shania Twain wanted women (and men, too) to understand that women had as much right as men to dress how they pleased, go where they wished and have fun on their own terms. Many in the Country music establishment viewed her as a Barbie doll and didn’t take her seriously. But to younger female singers such as Carrie Underwood, for example, the message that a woman could write her own music (thus controlling what she was singing and recording) as well as control her own personal and professional image was very important.

The Deerhurst Resort’s convention centre. A young Eileen Twain watched drag shows on this stage before performing there herself.

One of the ways in which Shania Twain got her point across was via the song, “Man! I Feel Like a Woman”. This song was inspired by her experiences watching drag shows at Deerhurst Resort before she became famous. Twain remembers how transformative it was for the performers to change out of their everyday clothes and don their wardrobe for the show. She says there were many times when, after these drag queens would be fully dressed in their outfits, they would cry out about how much they felt like a woman and how ready they were to perform. To Twain, she likened those memories with her own experiences going from being a hotel maid to going on stage in the Deerhurst spotlight and how emboldened she felt doing so and how differently she was viewed by others once on stage. To be able to leave her old life behind, even just for a little while, and become this “character” on stage was all very liberating for Twain. She has stated that the main message in “Man! I Feel LIke a Woman” is to embrace who you truly are. Because of this, many have taken this song to be an empowerment song for women. Others feel that she is championing Gay Rights and attempting to pave the way for a more inclusive world. Twain says that both assertions are correct, but more to the point, she wants anyone and everyone to be able to live in a world where they can be free to call their own shots in life, as it were. Twain says that her song is a rallying cry in the same way that “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” by Cyndi Lauper is a rallying cry for personal freedom, too.

Shania Twain’s answer to Robert Palmer’s music video for “Addicted To Love”.

The other groundbreaking aspect of the release of this song came in the form of the music video that accompanied it. A year or so prior to the release of “Man! I Feel Like a Woman”, British singer Robert Palmer created a stir with the video for his song, “Addicted To Love” (which you can watch here). In his video, he performs in front of a bevy of beautiful women who sway in unison and who all wear skin tight body stockings and bright red lipstick. Many accused Palmer of making the statement that the individuality of women didn’t matter and that they all were really nothing more than sex objects, one no different or special than the next. Twain responded with intelligent humour. She took charge of the narrative by creating a video of her own that was almost identical to Palmer’s video with the exception being that roles were reversed and she was the one singing in front of a bunch of hunky guys all dressed the same. What made Twain’s version such a potent response was how easily she laughed off Palmer’s old school women-can-only-look-a-certain-way attitude. In the video, she constantly changes her outfit and makes the point in words and images that a woman can and should be the only one who determines how she looks. There is power in personal choice. That message, delivered in a humorous manner, helped to propel the video and the song, itself, to the top of the charts.

After the mega success of her trio of albums: “The Woman In Me”, “Come On Over” and “Up!” (where most of her hit songs can be found), Shania Twain retreated away from the limelight to a certain degree. She did hold a two-year “residency” in Las Vegas, but, other than that and few individual concerts here and there, she has mostly kept to her own private life. Shania Twain was married to her producer, “Mutt” Lange, for almost seventeen years before the couple recently divorced. She currently lives in Switzerland and has devoted herself to raising her own children. In many ways, Shania Twain has always placed the idea of “family” at the heart of her life. While she may be viewed by some as the sexy, genre-bending songstress from Canada, the truth of the matter is more that she has always been determined to look after those in her care and to always maintain a sense of pride and confidence for the person she really believes herself to be. For me, I find it easy to respect anyone who has such a well grounded sense of self. So, for what it is worth, I tip my hat in admiration to someone who has experienced much in life but who has given back much in reply.

The link to the video for the song “Man! I Feel Like a Woman” can be found here. ***The lyrics version can be found here.

The link to the official website for Shania Twain can be found here.

The link to the official website for the Deerhurst Resort can be found here.

The link to the official website for Timmins, Ontario can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this blog post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

The Great Canadian Road Trip: Song #35/250: Avalanche by Matt Good ft. the Visual Storytelling of Tim Thompson

The stories behind great songs about Canada.

Hockey has always been a part of my life. There is something almost mythical about being a young boy and having a stick in your hands, your words a fog of vapour in the air, the camaraderie of scoring a goal and celebrating with your friends and teammates. I was never a skater on a league team, but I spent countless days and nights playing road hockey on my street or in boots on the backyard rinks of my friends. All of us had plastic blades attached to our stick handles, all curved and sharpened into scythes in the belief that it made our shots trickier to stop for the goalie. We played under the sun. We played under the stars. We played in the snow. We played on the ice. We played until our cheeks burned red and our Moms called us in for supper. We were our heroes, only tinier. I liked Paul Henderson of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Many of my friends were Guy LaFleur of the Montreal Canadiens. We heard the voice of Danny Gallivan in our heads as we attempted our own version of the Savardian Spin-o-rama. Hockey was our world in the winter in Canada.

The importance of hockey in Canada was captured very well in a children’s book called The Hockey Sweater written by Roch Carrier. This book describes the all-or-nothing mentality of hockey life in small towns. The games all played out on sheets of ice or streets of asphalt by young boys and girls who were emulating their favourite players. But more than this, Carrier’s book showed how important hockey had become in a political and cultural sense. For those unaware, The Hockey Sweater takes place in a small French community in Quebec. It concerns a group of boys who are all fans of The Montreal Canadiens, and in particular, they all idolized one player, Maurice “The Rocket” Richard. In the story, one boy’s Richard jersey develops a tear and needs to be replaced. His mother, who does not care about hockey, orders him a new one from the Eatons catalogue. When it arrives, the boy is horror struck to discover the new sweater belongs to the dreaded Toronto Maple Leafs. That the Leafs were the professional rivals of the Montreal Canadiens was one thing, but, in the much bigger picture of life in Canada, the Toronto Maple Leafs represented English-speaking Canada while the Canadiens represented those who were French. The “two solitudes” of Canada as it existed in the 1950s were laid bare in this classic children’s book. In that light, Maurice “The Rocket” Richard was much more than just a hockey player, he was a powerful cultural symbol of strength to many in Quebec. To wear a Toronto Maple Leafs sweater in Quebec was sacrilege of the highest order. The boy’s mom makes him wear his new sweater to the next game. The boy ends up being shunned by everyone, including his coach and the referee. Sometimes moms just don’t understand. Hockey means everything.

Maurice “The Rocket” Richard: more than simply a hockey player.

Flash forward to a decade or so ago. Hockey Night in Canada is no longer reserved just for Saturday nights. The six-team league of my youth has grown to over five times that number. Montreal and Toronto are still rivals, but generations of poor Leafs teams had watered down that rivalry quite a bit. In the 2000s, the biggest rivals the Montreal Canadiens had were the Boston Bruins. The “Big Bad” Bruins had been a good team since the 1970s and had enjoyed just as much success on the ice as the storied Montreal Canadiens had. In 2012, the two teams were slated to meet in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Bruins were fast and tough and highly skilled. The Canadiens had two exciting star players in all-world goaltender Carey Price and hotshot young defenceman P.K. Subban. I tuned in to watch the sixth game of a tight series with much excitement and anticipation. The broadcast began with the announcement that “the following is a live presentation of CBC Sports”, but then, instead of going live to a rink side commentator or the in-studio host, music began to play and a film started. The film was created by an ex-hockey player turned filmmaker, Tim Thompson. It was a montage of tightly edited images and video clips that showed the entire history of the Boston-Montreal rivalry, including the series up until that point. The images were shown over the soundtrack of a song called “Avalanche” by Canadian singer Matt Good. The song itself speaks of the enormous effort it takes to move through life sometimes (Matt Good battles mental illness and addiction, so he knows of what he speaks). Against the backdrop of the whole history of both teams, the song took on another meaning about the sacrifice it took these players to make it to this point in their careers and specifically, to that point in the series and how much of a battle it is to win in the playoffs. Thompson does a stunningly good job of showing both sides of the rivalry equally. There are images of Bruins legends like Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito, as well as the fiery eyes of Maurice “The Rocket” Richard and the stoicism of Canadiens goalie Ken Dryden leaning on his stick, seemingly without a care in the world. The respect for the history of the teams was only matched by Thompson’s gift for storytelling and his skill as a film editor. While I had always been a fan of Matt Good and the Matthew Good Band, this musical hockey montage took “Avalanche” to a whole new level of meaning for me. To say I was pumped for the game is an understatement. I really, truly believe that you should stop what you are doing and watch this montage before going on. I have watched it dozens of times and get goosebumps with every viewing. It is the very best example of combining my love of storytelling with my love of music and of hockey, too. Simply excellent work! So, click here and let’s see what all the fuss is about.

Tim Thompson

We are linked together as a nation by our love of hockey and linked together in the present because of all that has come from the past. Tim Thompson understands this and has created many other wonderful hockey montage films that capture the enormity of the effort that it takes to win at any level. He was also the man who created the montages for the CBC coverage of the summer and winter Olympic Games. He is a very talented young man who lives in Port Hope, Ontario which is just one town over from where I live in Cobourg. We follow each other on social media. He knows me enough from that to call me Tom. You can watch more of his great work on YouTube by searching for Hockey Films by Tim Thompson. There are dozens. He tends to use cool Canadian songs by great Canadian singers and bands which is just one more reason to love his work.

Singer Matt Good

As for Matt Good, he does not know me enough to call me Tom. Matt Good was born in Coquitlam, British Columbia, and still lives in B.C. to this day. I have always been a fan of his music from his very earliest days when he performed under the moniker of The Matthew Good Band. Songs like “Apparitions”, “Hello Time Bomb”, “Everything Is Automatic”, “Rico”, “Weapon”, “Non Populus” and “Avalanche” all have a place on my own personal playlists. Good has been nominated for many Juno Awards and has won several as part of a band or as a solo artist. Many of Matt Good’s song lyrics contain terrific imagery and pack an emotional punch. His singing voice can be strong and powerful when it needs to be, but it can also be whisper-quiet, too. Good sings with a lot of emotion and plays guitar with a lot of skill. He is one of my favourite Canadian performers and one that I have seen in concert more than once. I would happily see him again, too. On the personal side, Matt Good has had a tough go. He has been diagnosed as being bi-polar and has also battled depression, at times. At one point, he developed an addiction to the prescription medication he was taking for his mental health. He has also experienced health problems that have made touring a hit-or-miss affair in recent years. However, having said that, Matt Good persists. He is currently on a solo acoustic tour and is well worth checking out should he be performing in your area. In the video link below, I will include an acoustic version of Good singing “Avalanche”, so you can get a good sense of how he sounds with just his voice and his guitar.

Music. Storytelling. Hockey. This post combines many of the things that I enjoy most in life. To me they are all important. All three resonate with me on a very personal level, and yet all three things are integral parts of our national identity, too. It is not without reason that an image from the book The Hockey Sweater adorned the back of our five dollar bill for many years. It is also not without reason that when Maurice “The Rocket” Richard passed away he was accorded a state funeral. We are the stories we tell and the experiences we share. It is part of what makes us Canadians.

What a good Canadian garage door should look like.

Although the Toronto Maple Leafs have broken my heart continuously over the course of my lifetime, hope springs eternal once again in my heart as the playoffs approach. Maybe this is the year they will win it all. Maybe, just maybe. However, it is more likely that I will end up crying at the end of my driveway as Gord Downie and his brother, Mike did when their favourite team, Boston, was eliminated that year. I don’t take shots against my garage door anymore, but my neighbour’s kid does. Their pock-marked garage door is every bit a symbol of Canada as is the call of the loon or the red maple leaf.

I will close by telling you all that one time I spoke with Tim Thompson online to congratulate him on the success of one of his montages, and I asked him if, when I die, he would put together a musical montage of images from my life. He hasn’t responded, but if he were to do so, I wonder what my life’s song would be? If you could do the same, what would your song be? What story about you would it tell?

The link to the video for the song “Avalanche” by Matt Good can be found here. ***The lyrics version is unavailable.

The link to the official website for Matt Good can be found here.

The link to the official website for Tim Thompson can be found here.

Since Matt Good is originally from Coquitlam, B.C., let’s go there for our pit stop. The official website for Coquitlam, British Columbia can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

The Great Canadian Road Trip: Song #34/250: The Springhill Mining Disaster by Luke Kelly

Today’s pit stop on The Great Canadian Road Trip takes us to the small town of Springhill, Nova Scotia. Springhill was formed over two hundred years ago. It sits adjacent to the New Brunswick border in the northwest quadrant of the Nova Scotia mainland. It boasts a population of approximately 2500 people today, but at one time well over 5000 people called Springhill home, including its most famous citizen, singer Anne Murray. However, today’s post is not about Anne Murray. Today’s post is about the one thing that put Springhill on the map, and that was coal. At one time, Springhill had multiple working coal mines, employing hundreds of workers from Springhill and the surrounding towns and villages of Cumberland County. The coal mining industry was the town’s biggest employer and was the engine that drove the local economy for well over a century. But, as with many things in life, there is balance. What the coal seams gave to the people of Springhill in the form of a resource-based economy, they took away in terms of loss of life. Springhill is the site of three of the world’s biggest mining disasters with well over two hundred husbands, fathers, uncles, sons, brothers and grandfathers killed in a flash of fire and/or under a wall of stone. The writing of today’s post (Feb. 21st) marks the 132nd anniversary of the very first Springhill mining disaster in 1891. There were two others: one in 1956, and then two years later in 1958. The song we will be discussing is aptly titled “Springhill Mining Disaster” and is specifically about the third and final Springhill disaster. Today’s post is about the history of these mining tragedies and why the third one in 1958 caught the attention of the world, including several famous Irish folk singers who have ended up making this song as much a part of Irish musical culture as it is about the coal miners and citizens of Springhill, Nova Scotia. So, pour yourself a cup of “hot”, settle in and get ready for a musical history lesson that is steeped in heroism and loss. Welcome, everyone, to Springhill, Nova Scotia.

A coal chute in the side of a house.

Like Springhill, my hometown of Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, was built upon rich seams of coal. Even though Glace Bay is almost a four hour drive east from Springhill, we share the same geological foundation. For those who may not be aware, coal is a stone that can burn and give off heat. All through my childhood, many homes in my hometown were heated by coal. These homes would have coal chutes built into the sides of their foundations. These coal chutes resembled cellar doors or, in some cases, mailbox flaps. Homeowners would order a delivery of coal and then would heat their homes accordingly. However, because coal is a non-renewable resource and, more to the point, because it is considered a “dirty” fuel in terms of pollution, coal production in Nova Scotia has become almost non-existent. But at one time, coal was every bit as important an industry in Nova Scotia as the fisheries were.

Coal miners underground at the face of coal seam, the fruits of their labour at their side.

It was also one of the most dangerous industries. Most coal mines are underground mines. These mines often extend for miles beneath the surface of the land (or in the case of my hometown, out under the Atlantic Ocean). Needless to say, hollowing out the earth is an exercise that requires a lot of engineering expertise in order to manage the incredible stresses caused by the weight of the bedrock that remains above the excavated tunnels. Not only are there thousands of tons of weight above the heads of the miners as they work, but another danger lies in the form of the coal itself. Coal gives off methane gas. In such a confined space, methane gas can build up. One spark from an electrical wire or an excavating machine, drill, shovel, etc. can cause the methane gas to ignite which can cause a huge explosion. As well, the air in a coal mine is filled with coal dust, which fills the voids below like a fog. The same sparks that can ignite methane gas can also ignite the airborne coal dust and cause a calamitous explosion, too. So, proper ventilation is critical to the safe operation of any mine anywhere in the world.

Families wait for news in 1891

The first Springhill Mining Disaster in 1891 was caused when coal dust ignited. 125 miners (including child laborers) perished in the blast. This was one of the worst disasters of its kind in the world at the time. The subsequent commission that looked into the cause of the 1891 explosion was one of the first to recommend improved gas monitoring devices within the mine, as well as the importance of proper ventilation and the safe removal of coal dust to the surface where it could dissipate and/or be disposed of properly.

Springhill mine after the explosion in 1956.

The second mining disaster in 1956 occurred when a train load of coal dust was being taken out of the mine to the surface. En route, two of the coal dust cars came loose and derailed. The derailment caused an electrical line to arc. The sparks from the line ignited the coal dust causing a massive, forceful explosion that damaged many buildings at the entrance to the mine. Because the derailment happened closer to the surface than it did to the working face of the mine below, the death toll was minimized somewhat with only 39 miners losing their lives. The bulk of that day’s shift were working further from the surface and survived. They were eventually rescued by specialized rescue teams called dragermen.

Dragermen prepare to mount a rescue in 1958. Many of these men were awarded medals of heroism for their efforts in saving nineteen lives.

The final explosion happened in 1958 and was the result of something that sounds rather innocuous called a “bump”. In coal mining parlance, a bump is “an underground seismic event” which essentially causes the floor to heave upwards and the walls and ceiling to lose their structural integrity. A bump basically destroys the tunnels in a mine and buries those working there under tonnes of stone, or else traps them on the other side of collapsed, clogged tunnels. The 1958 bump killed 75 miners instantly and trapped many others. However, there was a new, external factor at play in 1958 which caused this final Springhill mining disaster to receive worldwide attention, and that was the advent of live television broadcasting. In 1958, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (the CBC) covered the mine disaster and subsequent rescue attempts live. It was the first time the network had covered a news event in real time before. Their reporting was shared internationally with television networks in the United States as well as the BBC in England. And what drama there was to cover! As it turned out, two separate groups of miners who had been working far underground at the face of the coal seams had survived and were huddled in air pockets behind tonnes of fallen rock that had collapsed and blocked their escape routes. While a nation watched with bated breath, dragermen (rescue crews) descended into the wrecked mine and, after five days of searching, made contact with the trapped men. The discovery of these men so many days after the initial bump sent a wave of relief but also confusion into the community. In a small town like Springhill, all of the trapped and missing miners were known to everyone. They were all someone’s father or son or brother or husband. But, with so many men trapped or unaccounted for, no one could be sure who these trapped miners actually were. Emotions ran high on the surface as everyone waited for news regarding their loved ones below. After a week of being trapped, the miners who had survived the bump ran out of water and food. They were also running out of breathable air. As the world watched, rescue crews bore thin holes through the rock that was blocking the tunnels and managed to slide pipes from one side of the cave-in to the other and were able to pump in fresh air. Soon thereafter, enough of the rock was cleared away that the two groups of trapped miners were able to be rescued. Nineteen men were rescued in all. Nineteen families had a happy reunion with those they loved. The nineteen rescued miners became the first instant celebrities in the world of modern broadcasting. Their names and faces were beamed across North America and Europe. The men were given awards for heroism and offered jobs as pitchmen for various companies such as the makers of 7Up pop (which was how one rescued miner answered the question posed to him by CBC reporters as to what was the first thing he wanted to do now that he was back on the surface). The tale of what happened before, during and after the bump was chronicled extremely well in a book called Last Man Out by New York Times reporter Melissa Fay Greene. For a more indepth account of this mining disaster and the impact it had on those involved and the community of Springhill, as a whole, I highly recommend Greene’s book. Check it out here.

Peggy Seeger

As mentioned, the CBC broadcast this event live to the world. While living in Ireland, a singer/songwriter named Peggy Seeger was watching, too. Seeger was greatly moved by the story. To her, it conjured images of men literally digging their own graves. Because she possessed a lyrical mind, Seeger took pen to paper and wrote the lyrics for a song that was simply and aptly named “Springhill Mining Disaster”. At the time that she did this, Seeger was part of the emerging Folk music scene that was enveloping the world. Her brother was famous American folk singer Pete Seeger. Her husband was famous Irish singer and activist, Ewan McColl. The story of what happened in Springhill to the families and to the community, itself, resonated with the Irish who had known their own share of disasters (mainly due to political violence) so they took to Peggy Seeger’s song right away. “Springhill Mining Disaster” became a popular song in Irish Folk circles and was soon covered by anyone and everyone who was part of that scene. One of the most popular versions of the song was the cover sung by Irish singer Luke Kelly. Kelly was one of the original members of the popular Irish group called The Dubliners (named after the James Joyce book). In any case, Luke Kelly possessed the singing voice of a balladeer and was able to best capture the anger and anguish experienced by all those involved in Springhill. It is his version that I will present to you on this day. But just to show you how important a song “Springhill Mining Disaster” became in Ireland, in the mid-1980s, when Irish supergroup U2 was touring in support of their award-winning album, The Joshua Tree, they included Peggy Seeger’s song on their set list at fifteen of their concerts.

Luke Kelly of The Dubliners

When you live in a mining town, you have to be prepared for that inevitable time when something goes wrong underground. To those of us who lived on the surface, the only way we ever knew that the worst had taken place was by way of a siren that would wail at the entrance to the mine in the event of an emergency. One day when I was just a teenager, the shrill whistle of the mine siren sang in my town. There had been an explosion at a mine known as No. 26 colliery. It is hard to explain how the mere sounding of such an alarm can send a chill through an entire town, but it did that day for all of us who lived there. To this day I can still remember the shocking sight of a mass funeral at our hockey arena and how deathly silent it was all throughout the town for days and days afterward. Glace Bay is a chatty town most days, but after the mine whistle sounded, there was no more somber place in the world. I didn’t lose any family members that day, but many around me did. Sometimes it takes tragedies such as the explosion in Glace Bay or the various disasters in Springhill or the one in Westray (sung so eloquently by singer Sarah Harmer when she was just starting her career in a band called Weeping Tile. That song is here.) to make you realize what the word community actually means. We all felt the loss of our miners. However, such events often bring people together. Acts of charity and kindness abounded. We all stood up and reached out to our neighbours in the wake of the No. 26 explosion, just as those families in Springhill did in the 1950s and 1890s. (The Glace Bay choral group The Men of the Deeps sang about the disaster in my hometown. You can listen to it here). I suppose the Irish know a thing or two about community, too. Thus we have the definitive account of a Nova Scotian mine tragedy from a woman in Ireland watching the CBC news.

Although it often goes unsaid, there is nothing more important in the world than family. So hug and kiss and hold close those who make your heart beat. Nothing else truly matters.

The link to the video for the song “Springhill Mining Disaster” by Luke Kelly can be found here.

The link to the official website for Springhill, Nova Scotia can be found here.

The link to the Springhill Miners Museum can be found here.

The link to the Glace Bay Miners Museum (where my wife and I were married, btw) can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared without express written consent of the author. ©2023

The Great Canadian Road Trip: Song #33/250: The Spark by William Prince

In 1986, William Prince was born in Selkirk, Manitoba.

William Prince

I have written many sentences over the years but few have been so rife with historical significance as the one that begins this post. While keeping in mind that this is a post about a singer and his songbook, it is impossible to separate William Prince from his lineage and the role his ancestors have played in several important events in Canadian history. His is a bloodline that has known its share of grand accomplishments and tragic heartbreak. His past informs his present in many ways but none more so that the philosophy of spirituality that guides much of his songwriting. William Prince is one of Canada’s most distinctive voices. The deep, rich timbre of his voice sets him apart from most singers. The hopeful, passionate tone of his lyrics resonates with all who are fortunate to hear him sing. William Prince has released four albums to date and has already received a Juno Award for Best Contemporary Roots and Traditional Album of the Year. He has also been named as Canada’s English Songwriter of the Year in 2020. But to fully appreciate the story of one of the rising stars in the Canadian music scene, it is important that we journey back almost two centuries to a time when Canada, as we now know it, didn’t exist. This is the story of William Prince. It is also the story of how Canada came to be.

Chief Peguis also known as Cut Nose.

William Prince is a direct relation to an Ojibwe chief named Cut Nose. Our history books have christened him as Chief Peguis. Cut Nose was the leader of the Saulteaux Peoples. Originally, the Saulteaux lived in what is now known as Ontario. But, with the westward expansion of English settlers across Ontario, Cut Nose moved his people to the Red River Valley in what is now known as Manitoba. Not long after the Saulteaux settled there, a man named Lord Selkirk appeared in eastern Canada. He found that there was money to be made in acquiring land and helping new settlers to build homes and set up farms. He began his business ventures on land found on Prince Edward Island. The success of his plans there encouraged Lord Selkirk to search for vacant properties to the west. He applied to the British Government to buy a tract of land in the Red River Valley of Manitoba but was refused because that land had already been granted to the Hudson’s Bay Company for fur trading. Undeterred, Lord Selkirk teamed up with Alexander McKenzie. Together they bought for themselves a controlling share of Hudson Bay Company stock. To further consolidate his position, Selkirk married the daughter of one of the Board members of the HBC. With his newly acquired authority, Selkirk assumed control of the Red River Valley and began the process of helping settlers to safely establish settlements there. At the time, many Indigenous Peoples had already been working in cooperation with the Northwest Company, which was a rival fur trading company to The Hudson’s Bay Company. In particular, the local Metis Peoples had a long and successful partnership with the Northwest Company and refused to cede the land to Selkirk without a fight. In the years that followed, there were many battles between the Metis and the forces of those who represented “The Crown” leading to, in time, the rise of Louis Riel and the battle known in history books as The Red River Rebellion. Caught in the middle of this political maneuvering were the Saulteaux led by Cut Nose. In order to limit the spread of Indigenous unrest, Lord Selkirk opted for a different strategy with the Saulteaux and the other Indigenous Nations in the area. He called for negotiations aimed at the formal establishment of peaceful relations between the new settlers, the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Indigenous Peoples of the land. These negotiations ended with the landmark signing of a peace treaty that is known in Canadian history simply as Treaty 1. In this treaty, the Indigenous Peoples of the land agreed to cede control of the entire Red River Valley area and beyond for all time. In return, they would be guaranteed an annual stipend and access to a parcel of land that would be exempted from any new settlement plans. One of those who signed away the rights to their land was Cut Nose on behalf of the Saulteaux. As many Indigenous Nations in North America were to find out, the Crown would soon use the same combination of armed force and negotiated promises to limit resistance across the remainder of the West. But, as they also found out, once these treaties were signed, the promises made were soon forgotten and those left on the newly created reserves often faced very hard economic and social times moving forward. In an attempt to ingratiate himself into the good graces of Lord Selkirk and his followers, Cut Nose agreed to convert to Christianity. In doing so, he gave up the use of his Indigenous name and adopted the name given to him which was William King. He was called “King” because he had been chief of his Nation. His sons and all descendants to follow were christened with the name “Prince”. This is how singer William Prince came to have his name.

Tommy Prince Stamp (CNW Group/Canada Post)

But William Prince’s family tree had yet another experience with the glory of proud accomplishment and the tragedy of failure. Cut Nose/William King had a great grandson named Tommy Prince. Tommy Prince would enlist in the Canadian Armed Forces and would go on to become one of Canada’s most highly skilled and decorated soldiers in our history. He earned his fame as a member of The Devil’s Brigade, which was a highly trained covert unit of soldiers who operated in WWII, as well as The Korean War. Despite earning multiple awards for bravery while in combat, when Tommy Prince was honourably discharged he returned to a Canada where Indigenous people were often faced with much discrimination. He found it almost impossible to get a job because his fellow employees would refuse to work alongside him because of his Indigenous status. He was also denied entry into The Royal Canadian Legion. Eventually, Tommy Prince developed addictions and suffered from mental illness. He died alone in a boarding house room no bigger than a jail cell. His death resulted in calls for a re-examination of how Canadians treat and regard Indigenous people. A Heritage Minute video was created about Tommy Prince’s story. Canada Post has subsequently honoured him with a stamp. Tommy Prince died in 1976.

William Prince was born in 1986 in Selkirk, Manitoba. Although he never met Tommy Prince (his third cousin) or Cut Nose/William King (his great-great grandfather), the historical weight of the past is something young William has carried with him his entire life. For some people, that weight would be viewed as a burden. But for William Prince, he has embraced his past and is determined to bring pride to his family and to his Peoples. One of the very first things that happened to William as a child was that he and his family moved from Selkirk to Peguis First Nation, which sits about 100 kilometres north of Winnipeg. Once settled there, William was introduced to the world of music by his father, who was a minister. As a teen, William tried his hand at singing in a grunge band (which was all the rage in North America in the late 1990s/early 2000s). Prince discovered that his voice was too deep to sing as fast and as high as he would have needed to in order to sound like his hero, Kurt Cobain. But, those who did hear him sing all commented that his voice seemed well suited for a slower style. That prompted Prince to buy an acoustic guitar. He abandoned his Nirvana-esque dreams and began to see music as a way to try and change the course of his family history. Thus, he took time to play and hone his skills as a guitarist. William Prince also took time to perfect the craft of writing songs that had meaning and that came from his heart. All through his twenties, Prince practised and played and wrote. It wasn’t until 2015, when he was almost 30 years old, that he felt he had enough skill and life experiences to warrant putting his music out to the world. His first album was called Earthly Days and was a mix of Gospel, Country and Folk. His work was well received by fans and critics alike, who were equally impressed by the sound of his voice as well as the maturity of his lyrics. Not long after Earthly Days was released and William Prince began to tour and play live in concert venues for the first time, he was approached to become involved in the Artist Development Programme offered by the folks who run Massey Hall in Toronto. In this programme, new artists are helped to secure bookings in venues that are an appropriate size for them during the early days of their career. In this way, an artist can be guaranteed of having bookings and can begin to develop an audience following that will grow with them as their career rolls along. What this meant for William Prince was that he eventually found himself on a bill at Massey Hall when it reopened in 2018 after having been closed for three years for renovations. He appeared at a show called The Songwriters Hall of Fame Gala. He appeared on stage with Inuk singer Elisapie to sing the song “Stolen Land” by Bruce Cockburn for Cockburn and the assembled crowd. The message of the song was clear to all in attendance. Since that performance, William Prince has continued to work with the folks at Massey Hall in an outreach programme for aspiring songwriters. He travels across the country, attending small festivals and appearing at local theatres and concert halls. At every stop along the way, William Prince continues to dazzle audiences with his beautiful singing voice and his message of hope, love and understanding.

The story of William Prince is definitely one of the most uplifting at play in the Canadian music scene today. His star is in ascendancy. His profile is becoming more well known across the country. His message of love and of hope is universal. He remains a proud member of Peguis First Nation. He has embraced his past and is striving to use his family’s experiences to inform his craft, and thereby, to inform all of us, too. Our world can be…and should be…a better place. William Prince is someone who is working tirelessly to make this happen. Let’s reply in kind and welcome him into our lives. He is a jewel of a human being. If this post is your introduction to him, then I am happy to have brought Mr. Prince to your attention. He is the real deal. Get ready to listen to some wonderful music. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song “The Spark” by William Prince can be found here.

The link to the official website for William Prince can be found here.

The link to the Massey Hall Artist Development Programme can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Peguis First Nation can be found here.

The link to the Heritage Minute video about the life of Tommy Prince can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

The Great Canadian Road Trip: Song #32/250: Let It Rain by Amanda Marshall

Not the clearest photo but here is Jeff Healey jamming with a young Amanda Marshall in 1990.

I was blown away the very first time I ever listened to Amanda Marshall sing. That voice! So rich, deep and powerful. When she was barely out of her teens, Marshall was discovered by guitarist Jeff Healey. He took the Toronto native under his wing and helped introduce her to a larger audience. The first time I ever saw her perform was on Much Music when they were doing a segment on Healey. The segment was supposed to be about him, but instead, he made it about her by asking her to sing while he played backup. Marshall stepped up to the microphone…all hair and a huge smile…and began to sing “Let It Rain”. The voice that exploded out of her mouth made me sit up and take notice. It was soulful, almost Gospel-like. The sound was coming from deep within her. She appeared to be having the time of her life. To my way of thinking, I was watching the debut of Canada’s next big star.

Amanda Marshall

In 1995, she released her self-titled debut album. It was one of the biggest selling albums of the year and spawned an incredible total of six hit songs that found their way onto the Canadian charts: “Let It Rain”, “Birmingham” (which made it all the way to #3 in the US and helped earn her the opening act slot on Whitney Houston’s European tour that year), “Beautiful Goodbye”, “Fall From Grace”, “Dark Horse” and “Sitting On Top of the World”. After co-writing many of the songs on her second album called Tuesday’s Child, she was nominated for a Juno Award as Songwriter of the Year. She had the looks. She had the charm. But most of all, she had real talent. That lady could sing like no one else on the Canadian music scene. I was so convinced that Amanda Marshall was going to be as big a star as Shania Twain or Sarah McLachlan or Celine Dion that I used to daydream that Lorne Michaels wanted me to host Saturday Night Live and my one condition before agreeing to appear was that Amanda Marshall had to be my musical guest.

And then it all went south.

Amanda Marshall’s first two albums featured music that can best be described as soulful rock. With a voice that seemed similar to Janis Joplin or to today’s star, P!nk, Marshall seemed perfectly suited to be belting out songs with strength and passion and personal conviction. But, as sometimes is the case with singers and bands, after completing album #2, Amanda Marshall had used up her inventory of songs that she used to play with Jeff Healey in the bars that dot the city of Toronto. For her third album, she decided to write most, if not all of the songs herself, from scratch. For inspiration, she turned to the story of her own life. Not many knew this about her when she first burst onto the Canadian music scene, but Amanda Marshall identifies as being black. She is the only child of a bi-racial marriage. Her mother was from Trinidad and, in her words, her father was “Canadian”. Marshall claimed that she had grown tired of being a black person who most people thought was white. So, she channeled her energy into writing songs that explained how she felt about being racially mis-identified and about some of the adversity she has had to deal with, along with her family, because of racism. In writing these songs, Marshall embraced a part of her background that had, up until then, been kept under wraps, and she created an R&B album all about race. Even in a multicultural hotbed such as Toronto, Marshall’s music came off as being preachy. Her fans did not know what to make of her new sound and subject matter. Consequently, album sales for her third album tanked. Behind the scenes, Amanda Marshall and her record label began to argue about the musical direction she should be following. Those arguments led to disputes about financial matters to do with royalties and profits. Before too long, Marshall had fired her entire management team. They, in turn, took her to court. To this day, she remains entangled in lawsuits that have effectively ground her career to a halt. Just like with the story of singer Irene Cara in the U.S. (you can read about what happened to her here), because of these lawsuits Amanda Marshall remains unable to record new and original music. She still sings at music festivals and in clubs and local bars but the only “new” album of her music that has been released in the last two decades has been one Greatest Hits album consisting of the songs from her first three LPs. That’s been it.

In interviews, Amanda Marshall remains firm in her conviction that she is in the right and that she will prevail and be making new music again soon. I hope that this is the eventual outcome of her legal disputes because I, for one, would love to hear her return to the airwaves once again. Regardless of what the future holds for Amanda Marshall, as listeners we have been blessed to still have her early work to listen to and enjoy. While “Birmingham” was her most successful hit song as far as chart success and U.S. market penetration goes, “Let It Rain” was always my favourite of hers, so that is what I have chosen to go with in the links below. The sun may still shine one day on the musical career of Amanda Marshal,l but for now, “Let It Rain”.

The link to the video for the song “Let It Rain” by Amanda Marshall can be found here.

The link to the official website for Amanda Marshall can be found here.

The link to the official website for singer/guitarist Jeff Healey can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this blog post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

The Great Canadian Road Trip: Song #31/250: A Criminal Mind by Lawrence Gowan

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.

Lawrence Gowan

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.

Lawrence Gowan on the far right. Tommy Shaw in the middle. This is Styx!

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 video for the song “A Criminal Mind” by Gowan can be found here. ***Lyrics video is here.

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.

The link to the official website for Massey Hall can be found here. ***Note: Mr. McPherson’s book is available for sale via the Massey Hall website. Enter and click on Shop.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

The Great Canadian Road Trip: Song #30/250: Misguided Angel by The Cowboy Junkies

When I started writing the posts that came to be The Great Canadian Road Trip series, the idea was to write about songs that possessed the specific name of a Canadian place within its lyrics. However, as the series has progressed, I have made the deliberate decision to move beyond the original criterion that I imposed upon myself and, instead, I will move forward simply talking about Canada, the people who create music here and the places that merit mention because of their connection to music. Today, we are going to visit a place of significant cultural and historical importance to the City of Toronto, as well as to the world of social activism and the Arts. That place is the Church of the Holy Trinity in Toronto. Aside from the myriad of things the church is known for, one of the most enjoyable was that it was the location where one of Canada’s greatest albums of all time was recorded. The album was The Trinity Session. The band who recorded it was The Cowboy Junkies. Let’s find out what it was that drew The Cowboy Junkies to The Church of the Holy Trinity and what it was about the church itself that caused this album to have such a distinctive sound and to be such a career-defining success. Here is the story of a small church in the heart of a big city. Let’s go!

Maintaining The Toronto Homeless Memorial is just one of many compassionate and important acts performed by those who run The Church of the Holy Trinity in Toronto.

The Church of the Holy Trinity has a very interesting and important history. It was built in the mid-1800s on a parcel of land that was donated by a man named James Simcoe Macaulay. Mr. Macaulay was the surgeon to the British Army stationed in the area. When he was honorably discharged from his post, he purchased a parcel of land that comprised 100 acres of farm, forest and marshland in an area of Toronto that was undeveloped at the time. (In 2023, the heart of his property sat where the Toronto Eaton Centre Shopping Mall and office towers now reside). As time went on, Macaulay severed his land to various family members and other people who wanted to develop the area for housing and for business interests. One of the people who approached Macaulay about his land was Archbishop Strachan, the Anglican Archbishop of Toronto. Strachan had been contacted by lawyers from England who informed him that the diocese had been bequeathed a large sum of money (5000 pounds sterling) for the sole purpose of building a new church. The benefactor was an English woman named Mary Lambert Swale. Mrs. Swale stipulated that the church must be named The Church of the Holy Trinity and that it must be an “open church”, meaning that the pews were unreserved. (In the past, one of the ways that churches raised money was from the selling of their pew space in return for a monthly or yearly fee. This often meant that only the wealthy could afford to go to church and that the poor were denied access). Mrs. Swale’s conditions meant that The Church of the Holy Trinity would be a church that serviced immigrants, the poor, the homeless and anyone else who wanted to attend. Consequently, throughout the entire length of its history, The Church of the Holy Trinity has carried through with its mission statement and has served as home for all manner of those on the fringes of society including Vietnam draft dodgers, members of the LGBTQ2S+ community in the 1970s, the homeless (The Toronto Homeless Memorial Roll that contains the names of all homeless people who have died in Toronto is kept there), those battling addictions and many, many more. It was a building that took on the air of a sanctuary in the heart of Canada’s largest and fastest growing city. Not only was the Church of the Holy Trinity a champion for those in need, it also served the role as a patron of the Arts. Throughout its history, it has routinely offered the space within its walls to musicians in need of a place to perform or record. It was because of this that a group that billed itself at the time as the Timmins Family Singers booked the church for one day because that was all they could afford. The Timmins Family Singers turned out to be The Cowboy Junkies and that one day allowed them to record the album that put them on the musical map in Canada, The Trinity Session.

The Cowboy Junkies had their origin way back in kindergarten when Michael Timmins met his lifelong friend Alan Anton. The two boys grew up together and started forming bands while in high school. Their first band was called Hunger Project. Wanting to live in the land of their musical influences, the lads moved to England. Eventually Hunger Project went belly up, and the boys started a new, avant-garde band called Germinal. While that band earned them some small bits of recognition, they both agreed that it was time to return to Toronto, so back home they came. After experimenting with band lineups using various combinations of friends and acquaintances, Anton and Timmins came to the conclusion that their songs might sound better if they were being sung by a woman’s voice, so Michael recruited his younger sister, Margo, to join their band. The only problem with this was that Margo was extremely shy at this stage of her life. The last thing she wanted to do was to face a live audience and belt out tunes written by her brother. But when her brother and Alan Anton heard her sing, they knew her voice was mesmerizing, so they adapted their style of play to suit her hushed style of singing. As a result, The Cowboy Junkies stumbled upon their signature quiet sound quite by accident.

The Cowboy Junkies and crew recording at The Church of the Holy Trinity for The Trinity Session album.

After realizing that performing in a small and intimate way was the key to their future success, the band sought opportunities to capture that sound live on an album. Fortunately for them, they ran into a man named Peter Moore who spoke about recording music using a single microphone. The band liked the thought of all crowding around one microphone and believed that doing so would allow their whispery style of play to be captured authentically on tape, so they formed a partnership with Moore. Now, the only thing left was to find an acoustically perfect place to make this album. Being a relatively new band, The Cowboy Junkies did not have a huge budget. Somewhere along the way, it was discovered that The Church of the Holy Trinity would rent its space for a small fee as long as the music being recorded was “suitable and appropriate” for such a venue. That’s how The Cowboy Junkies became The Timmins Family Singers for one day. They told the booking person at the church that they would be recording a Christmas album. They said nothing about singing songs of longing or addiction or sex. The band loved the acoustics they found in the church. The space had no pillars of any sort supporting the roof so the interior space was wide open. This, combined with the stone walls and rounded roof meant that there was a crystal clear clarity to the notes being played and the words being sung. The band recorded the simplest songs first…adjusting the microphone and their own positioning accordingly as each song progressed and grew more complex. The final song they recorded that day was “Misguided Angel”. It was recorded in one take. There was no overdubbing or mixing required. The version you hear when you listen to it today is exactly the same version that was recorded that day. With the exception of a few additional vocal tracks which were laid down afterwards, the entire Trinity Session album was recorded in one day at The Church of the Holy Trinity.

When The Trinity Session was released, it was lauded for the sound quality of the music, along with the inspired choice of lyrics of a majority of the songs, such as their cover of “Sweet Jane” by Lou Reed (which he has stated is his favourite version of that song), “200 More Miles”, “Blue Moon Revisited (A Song for Elvis)” and, today’s song, “Misguided Angel”. The album flew off of store shelves going two times platinum in Canada. Music critics across North America rated it as one of the best albums of the year, and as if that wasn’t enough, The Trinity Session was named the winner of the Polaris Prize for Best Album in Canada for the decade of the 1980s. To celebrate the success of the album, The Cowboy Junkies re-recorded it twenty five years later, but this time adding singers such as Natalie Merchant, Vic Chestnutt and Ryan Adams to the mix as duet partners. That album was called Trinity Session Revisited.

The Cowboy Junkies have released eighteen albums as of 2023. The band’s lineup has remained the same for almost thirty years now. As for The Church of the Holy Trinity, it occupies one of the most prime pieces of real estate in downtown Toronto. There have been many offers to buy the property and turn it into condominiums or storefront retail space but all attempts to buy the land on which the church sits have been rebuffed. This church, which was once one of Toronto’s most distinctive buildings, now sits dwarfed on all sides by buildings devoted to commerce and trade. Yet, it remains a safe harbour for those experiencing personal storms. It also remains a place where musicians and artists can find a venue to showcase their skills and talents. There is a weekly music series that anyone can attend. The Cowboy Junkies have never performed there but if you ever see a group that goes by the name of The Timmins Family Singers on the schedule, alert your friends and head on down because it will be sure to be quite the show. The price of admission remains free and will be forever more.

The link to the video for the song “Misguided Angel” by The Cowboy Junkies can be found here. ***There appears to be no lyrics version but a photo of the lyrics can be found here.

The link to the official website for the Cowboy Junkies can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Church of the Holy Trinity can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this blog post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

The Great Canadian Road Trip: Song #29/250: Takin’ Care of Business by Bachman-Turner Overdrive

Elvis’ private airplane with the Takin’ Care of Business logo on the tail. This plane now sits at his Graceland Mansion Museum.

If you are familiar with the career trajectory of Elvis Presley at all, then you know how he burst onto the music scene in the 1950s with music and moves that left audiences in complete hysterics. In the early 1960s, Elvis left the bright lights of the music world for the discipline of the military. When he was honourably discharged from Uncle Sam’s army, Elvis returned to the world of entertainment but as a movie star instead of being purely a rock n’ roll singer. It was during this phase of his career that Elvis Presley began to experience a drop in popularity. Concerned about this, he decided to take control of his career back from his manager in the form of a national television special in which he would simply do what he enjoyed most and that was: sing! The television special was dubbed as Elvis’ “comeback special”. It was warmly received. Going back to his musical roots reinvigorated his spirits and caused Elvis Aaron Presley to want to perform live on a more regular and consistent basis. Thus, he gathered a new backing band and headed out on the road. The name he selected for his backing band reflected the renewed sense of purpose he felt inside. Thus, when Elvis launched his first tour in over a decade, it was called the “Takin’ Care of Business” Tour with Elvis Presley and the Takin’ Care of Business Band. The whole entourage flew on a plane emblazoned with the letters “TCB” next to a lightning bolt. All of the merchandise being sold on the tour had “TCB” and the lightning bolt on it. Elvis Presley was back and was takin’ care of business as only he could.

Just prior to the airing of Elvis’ “comeback special” on TV, a band from Winnipeg, Manitoba was climbing the US rock charts with a smash hit of their own, “American Woman”. The Guess Who, led by singer Burton Cummings and guitarist Randy Bachman saw their song go all the way to #1 on the charts, becoming the first Canadian act to do so in the Rock n’ Roll era. As was the case with many bands, Bachman and Cummings were busy writing and composing new material even as they toured with their older work. One of the songs that Randy Bachman brought to the group was a song tentatively called “White Collar Worker”. At the time, Burton Cummings dismissed the song as terrible because the chorus was clumsy and the melody of the song seemed to be merely copying The Beatles hit, “Paperback Writer”. But despite Cummings’ stinging rebuke, there was something about the song that Randy Bachman liked, so he tucked it away with a list of other songs he was composing with the thought of revisiting it at a future date.

Bachman-Turner Overdrive: Randy Bachman, Blair Thornton (who replaced Tim Bachman on guitar), Robbie Bachman and Fred Turner.

Well, that future date arrived several years later after The Guess Who had broken up. Randy Bachman found himself drifting through several bands, none of which were successful in gaining a new record deal. Eventually, Bachman turned to his family and convinced his brothers Tim and Robbie to join him in a band. They knew they needed a better singer than any of them were, so they recruited a fellow Winnipeg singer named Fred Turner. They named their new band Bachman-Turner Overdrive and set out to create some good, old-fashioned guitar driven rock n’ roll. Randy Bachman wrote all of the songs and kept all of the royalties for himself, which, in time, would prove to be a divisive decision. But, in the beginning, none of that mattered because the hits rolled off of Bachman’s pen. Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s first five albums all went Gold in Canada, with the first four also going Platinum in terms of sales. They had a string of iconic Canadian hits, such as “Let It Ride”, “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet”, “Roll On Down The Highway”, “Hey You” and their most famous anthem, “Takin’ Care of Business”. In the mid-1970s, BTO were as big a band in Canada as there was. Their songs, along with those of bands such as April Wine and Trooper, formed much of the soundtrack of my teenage years.

Randy Bachman was listening to Vancouver’s CFUN radio when he heard the magical phrase, “Takin’ Care of Business”.

While most critics and fans accept BTO’s other hits at face value as being straight-ahead rockin’ tunes that are fairly self-explanatory as far as meaning goes, there have always been questions about “Takin’ Care of Business”. In an interview, Randy Bachman stated that although he was an Elvis Presley fan, he had no idea that Elvis’ new tour was titled “The Takin’ Care of Business” tour, nor that his backing band was called by that name, too. He denied ripping Elvis off and claimed, instead, that his song, “Takin’ Care of Business”, had actually been written years before and went by the name “White Collar Man”. Bachman maintained that Bachman-Turner Overdrive used to use “White Collar Man” as a warm-up song during recording sessions in which they would tune their instruments and get proper mic levels all figured out while they played. He said that he never thought of replacing the phrase “white collar man” with “takin’ care of business” until one day in Vancouver when he heard a DJ on CFUN radio use the phrase to describe the station’s musical philosophy. After hearing that, Bachman tweaked the song lyrics and the BTO version of “Takin’ Care of Business” was born. But, even then, the band had no intention of recording it for inclusion on an album. How that came to be was one day during a live performance, lead singer Fred Turner began to experience a mild form of laryngitis. Not certain that he had enough voice left to finish the show, he asked the band to play something…anything for ten minutes while he guzzled water so he could finish the set. Not knowing what else to play, they fell back upon their “tune-up” song and Randy Bachman began to sing. The debut performance of “Takin’ Care of Business” was met with thunderous applause, with the audience singing the new and improved chorus back right from the get-go. Afterwards, it was decided that the song should be added to the next album and the rest is Canadian music history.

The heyday of Bachman-Turner Overdrive coincided with the rejuvenation of Elvis Presley’s career and the donning of his iconic white jumpsuit. By the time that Elvis died in 1976, Bachman-Turner Overdrive were also essentially done as a touring band, too. In the short span of five or six years, Bachman-Turner Overdrive carved out a place for themselves in the pantheon of Canadian music greats. But the intensity with which they toured and recorded new material, coupled with the lack of equity in the division of profits the band was accruing caused the band to bicker and argue, and eventually, it caused Randy Bachman, himself, to opt to leave. There were several iterations of the band as the decades rolled by, including an actual reunion between Fred Turner and Randy Bachman, but nothing of musical consequence emerged. In fact, as some of you may be aware, Robbie Bachman passed away just one week ago formally ending any hope of a reunion of the classic BTO lineup.

Looking back upon it all, Randy Bachman has said that he has no regrets over anything. He remains one of the few Canadian rockers to have two #1 hits with two different bands (“American Woman” with The Guess Who and “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” with Bachman-Turner Overdrive). A song that he always believed in (“Takin’ Care of Business”) became one of the most beloved and recognizable songs in Canadian history and still can be heard played at sporting events everywhere. And through it all, by some pure coincidence in timing, he has found himself forever linked with his hero, Elvis Presley, as two musicians who knew exactly what it meant to be takin’ care of business. The mere thought of it makes Bachman smile to this very day.

The link to the video for the song “Takin’ Care of Business” by Bachman-Turner Overdrive can be found here.

The link to the official website for Bachman-Turner Overdrive can be found here.

The link to the official website for Winnipeg, Manitoba…the birthplace of Bachman-Turner Overdrive can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this blog post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this blog shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

The Great Canadian Road Trip: Song #28/250: Stereo by The Watchmen

Pearson Airport at midnight.

It is just after midnight. After a long day of travel, I find myself at Pearson Airport in Toronto. From what I can tell, we are the last flight of the day to arrive. All of the shops are shuttered. There are no other people here except for a few folks in uniform pushing brooms or pulling vacuum cleaners. Canada’s busiest airport is empty and silent. If my life was a television show or a movie, my fellow passengers and I would break out in song, flash mob style! The baggage carousel is ours to surf should our hearts so desire. But, no one dances or sings at this hour of the day. Slump-shouldered and bleary-eyed, we allow opportunity to pass us by. We trudge silently toward the doors and the night air beyond. We all just want to go home.

Nothing but the open road before me.

The airplanes are tucked snugly into their hangars. The sky above Pearson appears calm. There is no one else moving on the roof of the Sheraton Hotel as I pick up my faithful car. It is just me and a sky filled with stars. I pull out of the parking garage and on to Canada’s busiest highway, known simply as the 401. In the wee hours of the morning, the 401 unfurls before my wheels. There are only truckers and me as we roll past empty shopping malls and darkened apartment buildings. Even the CN Tower has turned off its lights and gone to sleep for the night. The truckers and I, we drive ever onward unencumbered.

It has been a very long day of travel delays and flight cancellations. Although the driving is easy across the top of Toronto, I can feel my body wanting to shut itself down. I am tired but still far from home. In order to help myself stay alert, I call upon an old friend for company. I turn on the radio and punch in the call numbers for CFNY-FM. This is the radio station immortalized in the RUSH song, “Spirit of Radio”. *(I wrote a post about that song that you can read by clicking here). CFNY-FM (or 102.1 the Edge, as they have branded themselves today) has been the home of alternative music in Toronto since I moved into the city in 1982. It was where I first heard bands such as Yaz, Depeche Mode, Rough Trade, The Constantines and early U2. I have always felt an affinity for CFNY-FM so it seems only natural that in my moment of need I turn to them to provide the soundtrack for this final leg of my journey home. They do not disappoint.

One of the great things about listening to radio after midnight is that the tightly controlled structure of their day time playlists relaxes somewhat. There is more freedom for DJs to programme what they want, and so the early hours of the morning often offer a window into the creative heart of those on the other side of the microphone. On this night, I hear a smorgasbord of classic alternative and more modern fare. I hear female bands, male solo acts, synth Pop bands and straight-ahead rockers like the Foo Fighters. But the very first song I hear as I head out into the night is “Stereo” by the Canadian band, The Watchmen. “Stereo” is a terrific song. It was a big hit for The Watchmen in the mid-1990s and helped solidify their claim as being one of Canada’s top musical acts during that decade.

My life’s a stereo

How loud does it go?

What songs do I know?

What ever happened to my plans?

What ever happened to the life I thought I’d have?

My life’s a stereo.

Kind of cheaply made though

How bad does it show?

Whatever did become of all my friends?

Whatever happened to the likes of all of them?

My life’s a stereo.

Turn me on and let’s go.

Turn me up louder

I’ll scream as loud and clear as I can scream

If you like what you’re hearing then please hang on to me.

The Watchmen: Ken Tizzard, Daniel Greaves, Sammy Kohn and Joey Serlin.

Hearing “Stereo” blasting away as I sail past the usually artery-clogging exit for the Don Valley Parkway fills me with a sense of pleasure. I am instantly transported back to much younger days when I first encountered the vocal prowess of lead singer Daniel Greaves on a song called “Boneyard Tree”. Greaves and his bandmates Joey Serlin, Sammy Kohn and Ken Tizzard were fixtures on Much Music and were members of a wave of Canadian musical acts such as The Tragically Hip, Blue Rodeo and Sloan that formed a sort of musical renaissance in this country. The Watchmen released five albums during the 1990s, earning one platinum and three gold records along the way, along with several Juno Award nominations. They were never the biggest band in the land, headlining sold out shows in stadiums and twenty thousand seat arenas. Instead, The Watchmen were the sort of band that showed up in your own town. They could fill one thousand seat theatres with ease. They were regulars on the festival circuit. They loved the atmosphere of bars like The Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto. They played every university and college in the country. In fact, the birth of the band took place in the furnace room of the McLaren Hotel in Winnipeg (where the band is from) and gave rise to the title of their debut album, McLaren Furnace Room. As I leave the lights of Toronto behind and enter the suburbs of Scarborough, I remind myself that The Watchmen were the sort of band that often did what I was doing at that very moment. Traveling from city to city, town to town in the stillness of the night after having ripped it up mere hours earlier for another throng of sweat-soaked fans.

Scarborough. Pickering. Ajax, Whitby. Oshawa…all signposts on the side of the highway on this night. The further east I drive, the darker it becomes as the 401 enters the rolling hills of Northumberland County that I call home. CFNY-FM is rocking seemingly louder than ever (Sum 41, I believe) as I pass by forests and farmers’ fields. Bowmanville. Newcastle. Newtonville. Port Hope. Cobourg. Home. I bid adieu to my trucker companions and exit off of the 401 and enter my hometown of Cobourg. Now that I am driving more slowly and entering my sleepy hometown, the music seems excessively loud so I turn it down without giving it a thought. I am the only driver on the streets of my hometown. It is two in the morning now when I pull into my driveway. The house is dark. My wife and daughters are dreaming away in their beds as I turn off the radio and exit the car. Before coming inside, I take a moment and stand in the darkness in front of my house. The stars shine above. I can hear the water flowing in a nearby brook. A breeze rustles the branches of the pine tree next to me. I may seem to be alone but I am part of so much more, even at 2:00AM. This is my world. Finally, I am home.

The link to the video for the song “Stereo” by The Watchmen can be found here.

***The lyrics version can be found here. Please note that the only lyrics version I could find is a remix and, as such, it sounds slightly different that the original version.

The link to the official website for The Watchmen can be found here.

The link to the official website for radio station CFNY-FM (102.1 the Edge) in Toronto can be found here.

The link to a news article about the history of The McLaren Hotel in Winnipeg (where The Watchmen got their start) can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this blog post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this blog shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023