The Great Canadian Road Trip: The Stories Behind Canadian Songs That Mention Canadian Places…Song #8/250: Bobcaygeon by The Tragically Hip.

***Note: This post is from the archives. It was originally written as The Men They Couldn’t Hang in 2019. It is a post that describes an English band singing about France. It also mentions a Canadian band singing about cottage country (Bobcaygeon) as well as Canada’s biggest city (Toronto). But most of all, this post is about the joy of live music and one of the legendary places where it all comes together (The Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto). Enjoy.

I love live music. I love the energy of a band as they dive into a treasured song. I love the way a crowd of strangers unite in response: jumping and swaying and fist-pumping in time with each note. I love it when a crowd sings as a choir and becomes as one with the band, a shared journey made possible through the poetry of song. I have been to many concerts that have left me sweat soaked and emotionally drained. That is my kind of fun!

Iggy Pop in his prime!

The best concert I ever saw live was Iggy Pop at The Warehouse in Toronto in the mid-90s. Iggy ripped through a set dedicated to his seminal album, Raw Power! That music was as loud as I have ever experienced. My ears rang for days afterward. But, it was an amazing time, just the same. This concert was my first real experience with a mosh pit that teemed with violent mayhem. Sweat and beer and testosterone – a potent combination, especially when soundtracked by the driving beat of one of Rock’s sonic pioneers. I truly believe that a Rock n’ Roll show should have elements of violence and sex in it. After all, if you are not worn to the core by the end of it, then what really was the point of it all? Iggy Pop at The Warehouse was definitely a Rock show, in all regards. Music, as catharsis. Visceral and muscular. Fun beyond measure.

Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip. (CP PHOTO/Kevin Frayer)

When it comes to great Canadian live acts, the best I have seen in person was The Tragically Hip. They were a tight, five-piece band out of Kingston, Ontario. Some describe The Hip as playing straight-ahead guitar-oriented rock. But, that does the band a disservice. What elevated The Tragically Hip to the top of the musical mountain in Canada was a combination of the poetry of the lyrics to Hip songs and the showmanship of lead singer, Gord Downie. Simply put, Downie was one of the single most electrifying frontmen for any band, anywhere in the world. With Gord, you never quite knew what to expect on stage. He sang. He primped and pranced. He played excellent guitar. He offered monologues that may or may not have had anything to do with the song being played. He sweated and wiped that sweat away to theatrical effect. He made eye contact and bore his thoughts into our brains. He was amazing. A hint of the intensity of a Tragically Hip performance can be seen in their performance of “Grace, Too” from a concert in London, Ontario. That clip can be seen here.

A Tragically Hip performance was only part of their package. Their enduring legacy will be the songs they sang. It is, somewhat, cliche for us as Canadians to say that we have an unnatural relationship with that cultural juggernaut to the south of us called America. We bathe in their references, their personalities, while, at the same time, reveling in all that makes us different and separate from “them”. Gord Downie and The Hip wrote songs about Canada and about Canadian things in ways that made them seem like secrets that we could hoard. Like school children, we liked looking at the pictures of ourselves that The Hip painted. A Hip concert laid our Canadian souls bare. We danced to our History. We shouted out our stories. And, at the end of it all, as sweaty a mess as we physically were, we all felt proud of being who we were at the moment. We were Canadians in the presence of beautiful artists and storytellers. Like the weather, we were all affected by the experience.

So, in 2015, when it was announced that Gord Downie had an incurable brain tumor, it shook us all to our core. To have Gord taken away from us seemed unthinkable. As we digested the news reports, it was almost as if we could all hear the gods laughing. In response, Gord and the boys announced a final, cross-country, ten concert tour. It seemed equally unbelievable that someone with a brain tumor could still summon the massive amount of will and physical energy required to perform at the level of intensity that we had all come to expect from a Hip show. But, there he was. For ten nights, Gord Downie stood on that stage and gave every last bit of himself. At each venue, paramedics stood on guard should Downie collapse. But, at each venue, the band played on. Every song was a parting gift to a grateful nation. Canada was never more unified than on the night of The Hip’s final show. It was played in their home town of Kingston, Ontario, and was billed as a “National Celebration”. Our national TV broadcaster, the CBC, aired the three-hour concert commercial free. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau donned a Canadian tuxedo and attended in person. People gathered in arenas and parks, taverns and town squares, backyards and living rooms to give thanks for everything Gord Downie and The Hip had done. It was all coming to an end, and when it did, with “Ahead by a Century”, the tears were real and they flowed freely. Macleans magazine did a good job of capturing this emotion by filming the reactions of Canadians as they gathered in various locales across the country. This video ALWAYS makes me cry and leaves me spent, like all good music should, I suppose. It can be viewed here.

One of the things that happened during this farewell tour was that more scrutiny was given to the lyrics of The Hip songs. One of the most appealing aspects of their songwriting was that they often welcomed us, as an audience, into their stories by starting off with recognizable, universal truths. But, as often was the case, they would proceed to confound us with symbolism and/or obscure references that, at first blush, didn’t always connect with how the song began. Thus, their music invited you in, but if you stayed, you had to prepare yourself to think and engage. As a fan and as a reasonably intelligent person, I enjoyed learning more about these stories being shared. I will conclude this post by talking about one of their most popular songs, “Bobcaygeon”, and how I am still learning new things about it even now, long after Gord has gone to walk among the stars.

Like many of the people, events and settings referenced in Hip songs, Bobcaygeon is a real place. Located about two hours northeast of Toronto, Bobcaygeon is situated in a part of Ontario affectionately known as “Cottage Country”. The Kawartha Lakes region is where city dwellers come to get away from the noise and congestion of city life. As cultural myths go, Canada conjures images in the mind of lakes and forests, soundtracked by the cry of the loon, illuminated by a firework of sparks from a thousand campfires. Bobcaygeon is that myth brought to life.

The song “Bobcaygeon” contains one of the most beautiful and popular verses in their entire musical canon.

It was in Bobcaygeon

that I saw the constellations

reveal themselves,

one star at a time.

*(When I retired from teaching, the staff at my school gave me a framed print of those lines.) Even the most beer-swilling of Hip fans recognizes the beauty of those words. You only have to experience country darkness once in your life to know how lovely the stars can be. This was the universal truth that pulled listeners, like me, into this song. But then, as I said above, The Hip added elements to the second half of the song that had always puzzled me…until recently.

The first half to two-thirds of the song has a peaceful, cottage pace-of-life feel to it. But then, the final third roars to life,

That night in Toronto,

with its checkerboard floors,

riding on horseback,

keeping order restored,

until The Men They Couldn’t Hang,

strode to the mic and sang,

and their voices rang,

with that Aryan twang.”

I never knew what this had to do with being in Bobcaygeon, under the night sky. I had always thought the “Men they couldn’t hang” part and the “horseback/order restored” lines were talking about an outlaw and the police. I was wrong. Here is what I have learned about what they were really singing about. The Bobcaygeon video is here, for those who wish to view it.

HORSESHOE TAVERN. The bar and checkered floor of The ‘Shoe. The Horseshoe Tavern on Queen Street East is 60 years old this year. The live music venue has been a standard for punk and country bands for years and who knows what the next 60 years will hold . (Rene Johnston/Toronto Star) rpj

In Toronto, there is a legendary bar called The Horseshoe Tavern. It has “checkerboard floors“, as you can see in the photo. Also, if you watched the Macleans Magazine video of The Hip’s final song, The Horseshoe Tavern was one of the spots they filmed at. Anyway, The Men They Couldn’t Hang is an actual musical group from the UK. They are described as being folk-punk. Like The Hip, they sing about history and real people, places and events. And, like The Tragically Hip, they are amazing live. I am going to share with you a live performance of theirs singing a song called “The Green Fields of France”. It is, simply put, one of the single best live performances I have ever seen! First of all, the song is gorgeously written and speaks of the senselessness of War, as seen from the perspective of a fallen soldier during The Battle of the Somme in World War One. I had never heard of this song before but I am certain that it is easily one of the best anti-war songs ever. But along with the glorious lyrics, if you watch this video, you will bear witness to a band and an audience as one…and, I don’t just mean singing along together. Such fantastic trust on display. You have to watch it for yourself to appreciate it. If they played at The Horseshoe Tavern for The Hip members, the way they do in this video, then I can see why The Hip name-dropped them in one of their most popular songs. You can watch this extraordinary video here. I get goosebumps watching this, especially the rousing chorus. This is what live music is all about.

The Men They Couldn’t Hang and their fans.

So, who inspires those who inspire us? For professional musicians at the level of an Iggy Pop or The Tragically Hip, or even The Men They Couldn’t Hang, they gain inspiration from their fellow musicians, as well as the time and the place in which they find themselves. “Bobcaygeon”, for me, is now a song about finding inspiration: be it from the stars above or from the close, sweaty confines of a tavern where the poetry of song oozes from every pore of every human there, as well as dropping down in balls of condensation from the ceiling to the floor. Inspiration sounds like a story and smells like beer. It is sticky and warm, and if you are fortunate at that moment, it will leave you changed.

I love live music. Do you? If so, what are some of your favourite memories of watching live music being performed? I would love to hear your stories. Feel free to leave them in the comment box below. Thanks for reading my work. Your willingness to do so inspires me.

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

The link to the official website for The Men They Could’t Hang can be found here.

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

The link to the official website for the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto can be found here.

The link to the official website for the village of Bobcaygeon, Ontario 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 can be reblogged, copied or shared in any form without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

The Great Canadian Road Trip: The Stories Behind Canadian Songs That Mention Canadian Places…

One of the real perks to living anywhere in any town or city for a certain length of time is that you come to know where the true gathering spots are located. These are the places that have doors that always seem unlocked and a spirit inside that envelops you the moment you enter. These buildings may be dank and dark but they glitter like jewels to the regulars who regard them as a second home. A good watering hole will tell you all that you need to know about a community. Its chairs and stools will have a worn, lived-in look, its walls decorated with posters of local bands that have played there, the floor probably doesn’t shine any longer, either and is beer-soaked and tacky to the touch. But, it is a palace that regularly draws a crowd. And, not just those who can afford to pay a membership fee or exorbitant cover charge to get in. Every town has a place or a bar or pub where the weighty problems of the world are debated, blood is sometimes spilled, championships are celebrated, and on occasion, two bodies can be found joining together to share the space of one. This post is the story of one such place and the fight to keep it free from the wrecking ball’s swing. Welcome all to the Plains Hotel in Regina, Saskatchewan, and in particular, to Good Time Charlie’s Lounge.

The Plains Hotel, Regina, Saskatchewan.

The Plains Hotel was built at the intersection of College and Albert Streets in downtown Regina not long after WWI. In the early days of the Plains Hotel, it was a convenient source of affordable accommodation for soldiers returning from the war, as well as workers passing through on their way to the oil fields of Alberta, the endless wheat fields of the Prairies, or else the potash mines of the north. For about $20 a night, a traveler could get a clean room upstairs at the hotel and a hot meal downstairs at Good Time Charlie’s Lounge. The Plains Hotel sported a modern-looking “weather tower” on top of its roof. This tower was composed of lights that lit up with certain colours depending on the nature of the weather. It was just one of many reasons that folks in Regina were always drawn to the hotel, whether it was to stay there, to go to Charlie’s for a drink after work, or simply to check the weather at a glance.

In time, other, newer and more modern chain hotels came to Regina and the tourists started drifting away from The Plains Hotel. In their place, clients with far more modest incomes became the new regulars, and in fact, for much of the 1970s and beyond, The Plains Hotel found itself as home to low income renters who paid for their rooms by the month and dined in the Lounge below. As this transition took place, The Plains Hotel became more of a community with members whose faces and personalities were so familiar to each other that they became a type of family. Like characters from a novel, these renters were given nicknames that reflected their character and/or their habits. The Plains Hotel and Good Time Charlie’s Lounge became the center of their world.

The other thing that The Plains Hotel and Good Time Charlie’s Lounge became known for was as a venue for live music. The stage at Charlie’s was always available for local bands to showcase new songs, as well as singing covers of those songs favoured by the regulars. On occasion, a big band with a national reputation would be coming through and would stop by. That always caused a stir. But mostly, it was local bands playing a form of authentic Blues that only comes from those who have lived lives of sweat and toil. Many a night, passersby would pop in for a cold one, just to catch whichever band was playing at the time. The beer was always cold and the music was always hot. The regulars sat in their spots and sang and drank and talked. The visitors would occupy whatever seats were left and would drink and dance. Good Time Charlie’s Lounge was a place that welcomed all and on most nights, all felt welcomed inside those doors that never seemed to be locked.

Because The Plains Hotel had a full house of monthly tenants, there was a steady source of revenue for the owners of the building. However, as we all know, the cost of doing business rarely stays steady for long and never seems to go down. So, as inflationary times came to Regina, the cost of running and maintaining The Plains Hotel increased while the revenue stream stagnated. In time, the price of doing business started becoming too much for the owners. Occupying a prime corner of downtown Regina as it did, The Plains Hotel had long been on the radar of real estate developers. They had visions of convention centers and condominiums. To them, The Plains Hotel and Good Time Charlie’s Lounge was an eyesore and a poor return on investment. So, while the hotel was in its heyday, the real estate moguls were kept at bay, but as the hotel started experiencing financial stresses, they began to circle. Eventually, The Plains Hotel was put up for sale. One proposed plan was to knock it down, and in its place, build a new hotel/condo tower twenty-five stories tall. If that were to be the accepted plan, then those people who called The Plains Hotel their home would be cast out into the street. Those bands and their fans who viewed Good Time Charlie’s as a cultural mecca would be out of luck, too. So, a grassroots effort was made to save The Plains Hotel. That effort revolved around a music contest sponsored by the CBC.

In 2009, a call was put out by Canada’s national broadcaster, the CBC, for original songs from every province and territory in the country. Each province and territory would have a local competition complete with live performances and on-line voting. The winners of each provincial or territorial competition would win a cash prize and would earn a spot on a CD entitled, “CBC Songquest”. The criterion for entering was that each song had to reflect the essence of the geographic region it was from. It that way, the CBC was hoping to be able to release one CD that captured Canada in all of its glory from coast to coast to coast. Those who were involved in the effort to save The Plains Hotel saw this as an opportunity to memorialize this important community gathering spot in song and to shine a spotlight on their cause. It helped a great deal that a local band called The Deep Dark Woods agreed to write a song about what Good Time Charlie’s meant to them. The Deep Dark Woods were one of the local Folk-Rock bands that played the bar circuit in Regina and Saskatoon and throughout the Prairie provinces. They relied on places like Good Time Charlie’s for their livelihood. They also knew how important such bars and pubs were as community centers in the towns and cities in which they were located. The song the band created was called “Charlie’s (Is Coming Down”. The reason for calling their song this was because, not long after the Songquest contest was announced, Regina City Council approved the sale of The Plains Hotel to a new developer. The twenty-five story hotel/condo plan was given the green light. The fight to save The Plains Hotel was lost.

The Deep Dark Woods.

At that point, the CBC Songquest competition became something other than a game to be won. It became a race against time to honour a building that played such an integral part in the life of downtown Regina. It was also a race against time to do right by the regulars who had called The Plains Hotel home. Many of these people had been in poor health for many years, so when it became apparent a decade or so prior that it was becoming financially unfeasible to continue as they had, the owners of The Plains Hotel made a decision that says a lot about their character and about how those who frequented the establishment were viewed. As the regular tenants became unable to live on their own any longer and were moved by the province to long term care homes, their former rooms were closed down and not rented out any longer. If a regular tenant passed away and no family members were nearby, the folks at The Plains Hotel stepped in to ensure their friend was buried with dignity and respect. Eventually, the final regular tenant found a new place to live. The rooms at The Plains Hotel were now all empty. Meanwhile, “Charlie’s (Is Coming Down)” ended up winning the CBC Songquest contest. The final thing that the local community wanted was a stay of execution, if you will, so that The Deep Dark Woods (who were touring at the time) would have time to come back home and play the final concert ever at Good Time Charlie’s Lounge. Unfortunately, this story is bereft of fairy tale endings. The Deep Dark Woods have never known a king’s ransom from their music so they could not afford to abandon their tour and fly home. The developers of the new condo project did not wish to wait. The wrecker’s ball swung in 2011 and The Plains Hotel, complete with its iconic weather tower and along with Good Time Charlie’s Lounge, was no more.

The ironic thing is that almost immediately after knocking The Plains Hotel down, the new developer ran into financial difficulties of his own. As you read these words, nothing stands on the corner of College and Albert Streets in Regina. Nothing but an empty lot and silence. In a very short time, a new generation of citizens will grow up in Regina not knowing that anything of value ever existed at that street corner. Perhaps they will hear “Charlie’s (Is Coming Down)” one day on the radio and they will realize all that was lost. The lesson in all of this involves prioritizing the things that truly make a community what it is. While it is naive to think that money isn’t a significant factor in how the world operates, at some point, trading those precious places where people gather in exchange for trinkets and baubles has to stop. To my way of thinking, music is more important than silence. Community has more value than emptiness and loneliness. That sense of caring for each other that comes with being part of a family, regardless of bloodlines, is a treasure whose value is incalculable. I think of that whenever I listen to this song.

The link to the video for “Charlie’s (Is Coming Down)” by The Deep Dark Woods can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Deep Dark Woods can be found here.

The link to the official website for the city of Regina, Saskatchewan can be found here.

The link to a video for a news story about the history of The Plains Hotel can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post is the sole property of the author. No portion of this post may be re-blogged, copied or shared in any form without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

The Great Canadian Road Trip: the Stories Behind Canadian Songs and Canadian Places…Song #6/250: Goodnight, Attawapiskat by The Tragically Hip

The journey across Turtle Island is long and never ending. We walk on the land, beside the water and beneath the sky. We share this journey with all manner of creatures and living things who swim or fly or burrow. Like them, we are part of everything and everything is part of us. Of all of the legacies Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip have left behind, their respect for the beauty and importance of Indigenous culture stands at the forefront. The Hip’s early musical catalogue didn’t necessarily reflect this; built as it was upon a foundation of images and history of the land we now call Canada. But as time went by, and Gord Downie, in particular, scratched beneath the surface of our cultural identity, he discovered much of it was built upon the ruins of many Indigenous cultures that came long before the first European settlers and colonizers appeared. Songs that once invited “Jacques Cartier” to “step this way” now became more reflective of our true role in the evolution of how this land of ours truly came to be. The more Gord Downie examined it all, the more he realized that there was great beauty and wisdom that had been pushed aside and ignored in our rush to create a new world in an ancient land. The Tragically Hip, as a band, became more reflective and Gord Downie, as a solo artist, became more willing to use his musical platform to draw attention to the many wrongs that had been done to Indigenous Peoples and why those actions were such a tragedy for everyone. There are many ways in which Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip brought the full weight of their place in the Canadian musical landscape to bear, but one of the first was by way of a song called “Goodnight, Attawapiskat”.

Attawapiskat First Nation.

Attawapiskat is a First Nations community that sits on the shores of the Attawapiskat River that flows into James Bay in Northern Ontario. Like many First Nations communities, Attawapiskat existed long before European settlers arrived, but its present designation as a community came about as a result of treaties that established trade routes for colonial organizations such as The Hudson Bay Company. Having access to waterways allowed those who worked for the Hudson Bay Company to acquire goods, such as beaver pelts, and move them easily for shipping overseas. Because of the new economy imposed upon them by settlers, many First Nations communities, such as those near Attawapiskat, attempted to adapt by using their trapping skills to procure inventory for the white traders who had set up shop on the land. For a while, this arrangement worked, but in time, once the supply of beaver pelts was exhausted, the traders moved on to new, resource-rich areas and left the Indigenous communities behind to survive as best they could. For many of these communities, survival was difficult and life became very hard. Consequently, the community of Attawapiskat has a long history of existing in substandard conditions. Basic rights such as access to clean drinking water have been issues for entire generations there. Many people suffered from addictions, the rate of teen suicide was higher there than the Canadian average, and many of the youth of the community saw little hope for themselves in the way of a brighter future. For many youth of Attawapiskat, growing up meant eventually leaving their community to attend school in settler communities such as Moosenee and Dryden. Being an Indigenous student far from home was hard for many of them who came down from Attawapiskat. Assimilation into white culture was a bizarre experience at best. For many, it scarred their lives forever. So, the idea that the community of Attawapiskat could build a school of their own and rebuild their culture through education was an important one. However, getting a new school built was proving to be difficult. This is where the Tragically Hip came in.

The Tragically Hip perform in Attawapiskat Community Centre.

The community of Attawapiskat decided to hold a concert as a way of raising money that would go toward the new school. Local youth were encouraged to form bands and participate. But, it was felt that the concert stood a better chance of raising more money if they could get someone “big” to play there. Gord Downie had already spent some time traveling in the northern regions of the land so he knew of Attawapiskat and what the community was attempting to do. So, The Hip agreed to come up to play at the benefit concert. They headlined a bill that included several bands composed entirely of local youth. At one point, Gord agreed to sing on stage with one of the bands. The female lead singer immediately stepped aside to give Gord the spotlight. Gord refused to let her sit any songs out, admonishing her band, good-naturedly, to never let anyone silence their singer. They performed “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” together. Gord claimed that being at Attawapiskat deepened the feelings of respect he had for Indigenous Peoples and that he took that feeling with him everywhere he went afterwards. From that point on, he was known to often close shows from all over North America with the words, “Goodnight, Attawapiskat!

Hello! Good evening, folks!

We are the silver poets

Here in our thousand mile suits.”

The journey toward reconciliation between settlers and Indigenous Peoples is long and remains far from complete. Many people have worked tirelessly to make such a journey happen. However, every movement tends to have someone who becomes its “face”, and for many, that face belongs to Gord Downie. Gord devoted much of the last few years of his life to raising awareness of the beauty of Indigenous culture and of our role in the history of what has happened to Indigenous Peoples all across this land. But, with every telling of Chanie Wenjack’s story via “The Secret Path”, with every National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, with every “Orange Shirt Day” held and every grave discovered at a former residential school…we all move forward together. The journey toward reconciliation is slow and it is painful, but it is necessary and it is happening. I am very grateful to folks such as Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip for shining their spotlight on this shameful aspect of my own cultural history. I am sad that the foundation of Canada…a country I take pride in being from…came to be because of exploitation and genocide. The soundtrack for my own road trip toward reconciliation starts with today’s song, “Goodnight, Attawapiskat”. Feel free to make it your song as well.

If you have any other songs that would work well on this shared journey of ours toward making things right, feel free to add them below. Until then, follow me if you wish as we walk across Turtle Island in search of peace and love and harmony. Here are the Tragically Hip and their great and important song “Goodnight Attawapiskat”. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song “Goodnight, Attawapiskat” can be found here.

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

The link to the official website for the community of Attawapiskat can be found here.

The link to the official website for the Downie-Wenjack Fund can be found here.

***As always, all original content found in this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post may be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

The Great Canadian Road Trip: Canadian Songs About Canadian Places…Song # 5/250: Your Ex-Lover Is Dead by Stars.

Today’s stop on the Great Canadian Road Trip takes us to the beautiful city of Montreal, Quebec. Montreal is one of my favourite cities. Even though I have never lived there, Montreal has been part of my life for as long as I can remember.

My initial impressions of Montreal all came through my television screen. I grew up in Nova Scotia at a time when the national baseball team was not the Toronto Blue Jays, but instead, the Montreal Expos. All of my early baseball heroes were Expo players such as Rusty Staub (called “Le Grand Orange” because of his full head of orange hair), Andre “the Hawk” Dawson, Tim “Rock” Raines, Ellis Valentine, Timothy John Foli, Gary “Kid” Carter and, of course, from Maple Ridge, British Columbia, future Hall-of-Famer, Larry Walker. On the other hand, I always had a strong dislike for the Montreal Canadians hockey team because they seemed so unfairly talented during my youth. They always got the better of my favoured Toronto Maple Leafs. The only saving grace for me growing up was that Canadiens’ Hockey Night in Canada play-by-play commentator, Danny Gallivan, was from Cape Breton, so even though I hated the Habs, Gallivan was a source of hometown pride. A few years later, I was watching Sesame Street on TV when it was interrupted for a live news coverage of the FLQ Crisis. I was upset that my show wasn’t on anymore but my mother just shushed me because our nation seemed at risk and that was more important than whatever was going on between Bert and Ernie at the time. Let’s just say that we agreed to disagree.

Not me but, the stroller is similar to the one I was carted around in while at EXPO 67.

The first time I ever visited Montreal in person was when I was three years old, and my family and I attended the EXPO 67 celebrations that were happening there. I don’t remember anything about the exhibits, but one memory I do have is being pushed around in strollers that were shaped and decorated like cans of pop. There are photos somewhere of my mother pushing me around Montreal in a green 7-Up shaped stroller. Those were the days, my friend. Another time, during my university days, I was traveling through Montreal…changing trains at the downtown train station…when I noticed the Montreal Gazette newspaper headline announcing that Wayne Gretzky had been traded from Edmonton to Los Angeles. As a family, we have visited Montreal and have enjoyed its unique blend of history and vibrant culture. There is just so much to do there, even for someone like me who is not fluently bilingual.

Pierre Trudeau was my favourite Prime Minister. He was from Montreal, as is his son, our current Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau. I loved viewing Montreal through the eyes of great books such as The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz by Mordecai Richler, as well as the poetry of Leonard Cohen. I have also enjoyed learning more about Montreal via musical acts such as The Box, Ginette Reno, Celine Dion, Patsy Gallant, Sam Roberts Band, Men Without Hats, Voivod and, of course, the subject of today’s post, Stars. For my money, Montreal is a city that is truly alive, and one that ranks among the very best and most interesting cities I have ever known.


Having said all of that, Stars are a band composed of people who are, for the most part, all from Ontario. Lead singers Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan both hail from Toronto, but early in their career, Stars relocated to Montreal and have operated out of there ever since. Stars have been around for more than a decade and a half, and have carved out quite a space for themselves in the Canadian Indie/Alternative musical landscape. They are contemporaries of other Canadian bands such as Broken Social Scene, Metric and The Tragically Hip. It is quite common for members of Stars to appear with Broken Social Scene and vice versa. In addition, both Amy Millan and Torquil Campbell have released solo albums. Yet, it is their work as members of Stars that has gotten them the most notice. Stars has been nominated several times for Juno awards and have multiple Gold records to their name. They have also been one of the most vocal opponents of streaming services such as Spotify, and how poorly most performers are paid by these organizations who shamelessly use their music to boost their own corporate bottom lines. Campbell gave a recent example of how their latest album, From Capelton Hill, had been streamed over 300,000 times on Spotify in the past month, which earned the five members of Stars a whopping total of $900.00. Spotify, on the other hand, charges a $10 monthly fee for full membership, so if all 300,000 streams were from individual plan members, Spotify earned three million dollars while paying out only $900.00 to the actual artist who generated their revenue for them. Needless to say, Stars support people like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, who have removed their songs from Spotify. Stars are active on social media and regularly invite fans to support the band directly by buying their music through their own website.

Pont Champlain in Montreal. Old bridge in the foreground, new bridge in back.

The song “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead” came from Stars’ third album entitled Set Yourself on Fire, which was released in 2004, and which went Gold in Canada. I really like this song. It is so well written! It tells a complete story of what happens if you were mistakenly set up on a blind date with your ex-lover. The story is told from both points of view, and is one of those unique tales that doesn’t end happily ever after…and that is OK. The song begins with a taxi ride in silence across Pont Champlain, which was one of the main bridges that connected the island of Montreal with the suburbs on the south shore. The bridge mentioned in 2004 no longer exists. It was becoming structurally unsound and was replaced by a new bridge a few years ago. But, as far as the song goes, that journey across Pont Champlain sets the stage for a dramatic play about the choices we make in life, and about second chances that serve to open new doors, or else to confirm that some doors are best to remain shut. For me, “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead” is like a breath of fresh air. I really appreciate the fact that this band took the time to create a whole world within the confines of a three-and-a-half-minute song. Far too often today, songs are just a chorus and a verse repeated a dozen times…yes, I am looking at you, Justin Bieber! So, to listen to the nuanced phrases and points of view found in “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead” is a real treat and I am grateful. I can’t help but think that there is something about the city of Montreal that lends itself to inspiring creative artists such as those in Stars to go beyond the commonplace, and instead to create Art that is deep and rich and beautiful for all to enjoy. I think “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead” is Art. I hope that you enjoy listening to it as much as I do.

The link to the video for the song, “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead” by Stars can be found here.

***Note, the man who does the spoken word part at the very beginning is actor Douglas Campbell, who is the father of Torquil.

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

The link to the official website for the City of Montreal can be found here.

***As always, here is a gentle reminder that all original content contained within this post is the sole property of the author. No portion of this blog may be reblogged, copied or shared without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

The Great Canadian Road Trip: Canadian Songs About Canadian Places…Song # 4/250: Life is a Highway by Tom Cochrane

Fifty-five years ago, my mother and father decided to take me on a trip across Canada. We started out in Sydney, Nova Scotia, by train. My folks even put our car on the train! I can’t imagine how much that cost but the car and the three of us spent the next ten days traversing this great country of ours by rail. I can’t remember much about that trip but there is one exception…the Rocky Mountains. The train we were on allowed passengers to stand on an open-air platform at the back of the last car. I can clearly remember being in awe of the height of the Rockies, how crisp the mountain air was and at how snow-capped these mountains were. I, also, remember periods of blackness whenever we would travel through a tunnel. Going by train through the Rocky Mountains served as a clear reminder as to what an extraordinary feat of engineering the railway was that united the land we call Canada. I am grateful to the sacrifices of those who endured hardship in the building of it. ***For the sake of brevity, I also acknowledge the damage that the building of the railway did to the Indigenous Peoples of this land but will save further discussion on this topic for another post.

When we arrived in Vancouver, our car was unloaded and waiting for us when we got off of the train. We spent a couple of days there. Vancouver is truly one of the most scenic major cities in the world…with the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Rocky Mountains to the east. I haven’t been back to Vancouver since I was a child, but I do recall Stanley Park being a wonderful spot. As we began our drive back to Nova Scotia, we started up along the coast. It was there that I saw towering totem poles and forests thick with huge trees as far as the eye could see. Going over the Rockies might have been hard on the car engine, but from the back seat, unbelted, I had a panoramic view of the majesty of those mountains. We stopped several times at look-out points. I still feel small and insignificant when I think about those times. Everything that people say about the prairies is true to a point…all I remember was how boring the scenery suddenly became. It was hour upon hour of wheat fields…flat, flat wheat fields. The only break in the tedium of that drive was at the very beginning when we spent a day in Lake Louise, which is absolutely gorgeous. Somewhere in the many boxes of slides that I hope my mother still has possession of, is a photo of me at The Big Nickel in Sudbury, Ontario, as well as at Niagara Falls and Parliament Hill in Ottawa. All in all, we drove back across Canada over the course of twelve days. What an epic journey! Looking at the logistics of such a trip through my adult eyes, I am not sure if it was foolish of my father to have attempted it in such a short time frame, or instead if it was a Herculean feat for the ages! Regardless, I can truly stake my claim as someone who has traveled across this beautiful country, even if I was only three years old at the time.

Life is a Highway by Tom Cochrane is one of Canada’s most iconic songs, and Tom Cochrane one of our most successful and respected singers. From the mid-1970s, when he was the lead singer of a band known as Red Rider, through the 1980s, when the band became Tom Cochrane and Red Rider, and into the 1990s, when he performed as himself, Tom Cochrane has been involved in writing and singing some of the most well-known songs in Canada’s musical canon. HIs hits include songs such as Lunatic Fringe, White Hot, Big Leagues, No Regrets, Mad Mad World, I Wish You Well and his biggest hit, Life is a Highway. Tom Cochrane is an officer of the Order of Canada, the winner of over a dozen Juno Music Awards, and has been inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, as well as given a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame. As grand as those accomplishments may sound, to Tom Cochrane, his greatest accomplishments have come via his philanthropic and charity work. He is involved in many organizations that work to preserve our environment, but he devotes most of his time and energy into helping children in impoverished areas of our world. In fact, it was as a result of his first trip to Africa (on behalf of the World Vision Canada organization) that Tom came to be inspired to write Life is a Highway.

Cochrane in Africa on behalf of World Vision Canada.

Cochrane says that going to Africa for that very first time in the early 1980s opened his eyes to how privileged his own life had been as compared to how so many other human beings were living in abject poverty. Seeing the distended bellies of tiny African children caused Cochrane to re-evaluate his priorities in life. This reassessment of his purpose in this world became an integral part of his personal journey. As Cochrane reflected on the manner in which his life was transforming before his very eyes, he took pen to paper and wrote Life is a Highway. The use of a highway as a metaphor for a personal journey of discovery is nothing new in the world of literature, but in Tom Cochrane’s capable musical hands, he was able to create an iconic rock song that, at once, spoke to the massive breadth and width of our country, while still touching on the soul-inspiring nature of how one’s life can change when you travel: seeing new places, meeting new people and experiencing new cultures along the way.

To this day, Tom Cochrane continues to devote a significant portion of his time and energy toward humanitarian relief efforts around the world. But, to hear him talk about it, he doesn’t want any attention or pats on the back. Instead, he hopes that the example he is setting will inspire others to adopt a more charitable and compassionate outlook towards those in need, wherever they may be found. So, when you watch the video for Life is a Highway, you won’t see much, if anything, about poverty and hunger. Instead, you will see Canada. Canada has a long and proud tradition of helping those in need around the world. So, Cochrane’s video was shot in such a way that it helps to create feelings of pride in the beauty of our land, and, by extension, in being Canadians. Most of the video was filmed in and around the Badlands of Alberta.

In life, it is easy to be comfortable. Always living where you live and never straying too far from the safety of your home base is an easy and familiar way to go through life. But, many riches await those who travel. There are so many parts of our own country, as well as other countries around the world, that are just so interesting and inviting. As I have written in previous posts, leaving my Cape Breton childhood home and coming to Toronto as a teenager changed my life. I am so much richer for having experienced the diversity that a city like Toronto holds. For those who have traveled internationally, the history and culture and traditions of those countries adds to the fabric of our souls, and I feel makes us better as citizens of an interconnected world. Seeing how other people live their lives can inspire us to live our own lives differently. In the case of Tom Cochrane, that experience tugged at his heart strings and made him a more compassionate man. Whatever the case, life is indeed a highway, so let’s all get out there and ride it all night long.

The link to the video for the song Life is a Highway by Tom Cochrane can be found here.

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

The link to the official website for the humanitarian charity World Vision Canada can be found here.

***As always, please remember that all original content of this post remains the sole property of the author. There is to be no reblogging, copying or sharing of any part of this post without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

The Great Canadian Road Trip: Canadian Songs About Canadian Places…Song # 3/250: One Great City by The Weakerthans

I lived in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia for the first eighteen years of my life. During that time, I did so within the warm social embrace of a good community. I was well served by my teachers in the schools I attended. My parents both had good jobs. I lived in a good house on a safe and friendly street. I had friends who liked and accepted me as I was. Glace Bay is still the place I mention whenever I get asked where I come from. And yet I left…of my own accord…like so many others of my generation. We all answered the siren call of better lives lived elsewhere. The lure of bigger cities with fancier shops and restaurants was strong. Better-paying jobs with rosier futures awaited somewhere far from the rocky shores of home. So, at the age of eighteen years, I packed a steamer trunk with as many childhood memories as would fit, boarded a train bound for Toronto and have lived away from Glace Bay ever since. My time in Glace Bay now comprises barely one third of my life.

As a teen, many of us couldn’t wait to get away. As great as it actually was to live there, we regularly called Glace Bay a “hole”. We were bored with our lives there. There were no great prospects for us back home so we were happy to get out…to cross that Causeway that connects Cape Breton Island to the rest of Canada. The pull of a life lived somewhere else was the fuel for our childhood dreams. Everything would be better if we could only just get out. So, I left. Many others did, too. We built lives for ourselves in Ontario and Alberta or anywhere else that offered us money and steady employment. So, here we stayed and here we lived…in homes on cul-de-sacs with manicured lawns, dreaming of what it would be like to live by the Sea. As it turns out, I go home every chance I get. But, I am hardly recognized by anyone who stayed. I have become a tourist in the town of my birth, with a voice that now sounds like it belongs to someone from away. I still go back to the place I couldn’t wait to leave. Because, after all, it is where I am from. It is part of who I am, regardless of where my house sits. It is home.

I grew up believing that the outward migration of youth from Cape Breton Island to the rest of Canada was something that was unique to us there. But, as time has proven to me, the love-hate relationships that people have with their hometowns is fairly common and quite universal. Our hometowns are a mirror that we hold up to ourselves; sometimes we look pretty spiffy and we like what we see. At other times, that reflection is filled with wrinkles and grey hair and spare tires in places we would prefer were hidden from view. Today’s song, One Great City by The Weakerthans, mines this emotional seam as well as any song ever has. The Weakerthans were a band that grew out of the burgeoning music scene in Winnipeg, Manitoba, back in the 1980s and 90s. One Great City is about Winnipeg, but in reality it could just as easily have been written by someone like me about Glace Bay. There are lots of references to actual points of interest from Winnipeg, such as the Golden Boy statue that sits atop the Legislative building,as well as the band, The Guess Who, who were big news a long time ago, and the Winnipeg Jets hockey team, which had left town to play in that hockey hotbed of Atlanta at the time this song was written in the early 1990s. The chorus to One Great City consists of one line only: that line being, “I hate Winnipeg”, which is something only actual Winnipeggers are allowed to say. John K. Samson, who wrote this song and most of their other great tunes, calls One Great City a love song…an ode, if you will, to the city he grew up in and left and came back to. A place that those who live there all believe is slowly dying, yet there it stands as a place where people live and work and call home.

The Weakerthans no longer exist as a band but, in their day, many of their songs read like poetry. In the links below, I am going to leave you with two songs to enjoy. The first one is the subject of today’s post, One Great City. As mentioned, it is about Winnipeg and the love-hate relationship Winnipeggers have with their city. The second song is my favourite Weakerthans song, Left and Leaving. It is also about Winnipeg, although the name of the city is never mentioned. The song is told from the point of view of someone who couldn’t wait to get away, but like the prodigal son, keeps returning…a little more changed as a person, to a city he recognizes less and less each time he returns. I feel as though John K. Samson and I have shared much in common in our lives as far as how we have come to view the idea of home.

The truth of the matter is that your house is where you live but your home is where your heart resides. Sometimes it is difficult to separate the two. Sometimes the place you call your home only exists in old photographs and faded recollections of familiar places and familiar faces. At other times and in other ways, the idea of home as a destination is smokey and wisp-like when, in fact, its essence is most often found in the arms of those you hold dear. So, here I sit…in a house with a manicured lawn, thinking about the Sea but realizing that I am where I am meant to be. I am with those whom I love and who love me in reply. In other words: I am already home.

The link to the video for the song One Great City by The Weakerthans can be found here.

The link to the video for the song Left and Leaving by The Weakerthans can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Weakerthans/John K. Samson can be found here.

***Just a reminder that all original content contained in this blog post is the sole property of the author. This post shall not be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author…(who is a nice guy and will probably allow you to share this post, but just the same, wants to be asked first). ©2022