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What is it about that circle of golden faces, that skein of wood-smoke, that ring of under-lit pines, that so sticks with us?
If you discount the light-bulb-in-red-tissue around which the 41st Cub Scouts gathered every Thursday in the church gym, my first was at a boys’ camp in Georgian Bay in the summer of 1959. I can see that fire now. And smell it. And hear it. I remember the warmth of the flames on the front of my legs and the chill of the forest’s shadow on my back. I remember watching the sparks scatter upward. A handsome councilor, with the improbably handsome name of Bailey Carlisle, led the singing. His guitar was the colour of corn syrup in the firelight. I was seven years old, away from home for the first time, and I hoped nobody could see my wet cheeks at the end of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
What is it about campfires? Why, when so many other summer memories blur, do they remain vivid? I can see my first as clearly as the one we had at my sister’s cottage in Muskoka a couple of summers ago, after our mother’s eightieth birthday dinner. Just as precisely, I can recall the campfires we had out on the smooth flat reefs of Georgian Bay when our two children were small enough for the entirety of our life-jacketed family, plus dog, to fit into a single canoe for the paddle there and (under an amazement of stars) the paddle back. What is it about that circle of golden faces, that skein of wood-smoke, that ring of under-lit pines, that so sticks with us?
To say that the appeal is atavistic is correct, but not a complete explanation of the place that campfires hold in the mythology of summer. Sitting around a campfire does connect us to our earliest ancestors. But it’s not the antiquity of the ritual that draws us, marshmallow sticks in hand, to the flames. Had the human race been born yesterday, campfires would be no less compelling. They’ve been with us forever because they speak so directly to the most basic of human needs. Warmth. Safety. Community.
They are also sexy – which is just a slightly silly way of saying that they are sensual. Campfires warm flesh, encourage languor, have a way of bringing a protective arm up around the shoulder of someone next to you. I remember that at camp, the waitresses sat on a slight rise of ground, a little removed from the mosh of campers – as befitted their status as sun-tanned, gleaming-haired goddesses. They wore rolled dungarees, heavy socks, plimsols, and, with their arms tucked round their knees, the over-sized football jerseys of their boyfriends. I’m not sure that any group of women will ever seem to me so resplendent.
The campfire’s delights are the delights of being alive: of feeling warmth, of slowing down, of joining in, of clearing a patch of cheer and fellowship in the wilderness of the night. Whether populated by two people or two dozen, a fire on a rocky point, beneath a clear black sky, conjures these imperatives. The rising smoke always looks to me like a ghost in the stars. Like summer itself, the campfire is a brightness encircled by a much wider and colder darkness.
It is possible that at that very moment I feel better, have a more magnificent view, and am surrounded by more natural splendor than anyone else on the planet
The first time we drove up to Temagami, the day was unusually hot. Or so I thought. This was fifteen years ago, and I’ve since come to regard the infernal bouts of heat that enwrap Toronto in the summer as routine. But when I was a younger man, the father of two younger children, the husband of a younger (not that she looks any older) wife, and the owner of a younger black Lab – all of whom, along with a mountain of suitcases, duffel bags, groceries, paddles, life-jackets, and a small library of children’s books were crammed into and on top-of a not-very big Volkswagen for our first trip -- I was naïve enough to be shocked by the temperature. “Christ, it’s hot,” I said as I loaded up the car in Toronto. And that’s what I kept saying as we drove, and as, seven awful hours later, I unloaded the car at the dock, and as I loaded the boat, and, half an hour later, unloaded the boat at the island, and then lugged the suitcases and duffel bags through the woods.
It was only when my haulage duties were complete and I was leaving the sleeping cabin to return to the main cottage that I paused. I was sweaty and tired and irritable. And that pause was like glimpsing a shimmering oasis. I decided to go for a swim.
I knew that swimming at the front of the island would entail walking past the main cottage and thereby entering into a discussion with everyone about whether anyone wanted to join me. I’d been a father and a husband long enough to know that this would not be quickly resolved. Bathing suits and towels would not be readily found. There would be air mattresses and noodles and swim goggles nobody could locate. There would be an argument about sunscreen. There would be a lecture on water safety. Were I to go to the front of the island, it could be days before I actually got in the water. And so I decided to swim on my own. No fuss. No discussion. No bathing suit. I’d slip into the water at the back of the island, and I would return to the main cottage – cooled and refreshed – before anyone even noticed that I wasn’t still busy huffing and puffing from dock to the cabins and back again like a sherpa.
At the time, it never occurred to me that this would become a tradition. But that is what it now is – one that I think of often during the non-Temagami portion of the year. Every summer, when we first arrive, and after the bags are deposited in their cabins and the groceries deposited in the kitchen (the lugging now performed mostly by shockingly tall teenagers) I sneak off to the little dock at the back of the island and go for my swim.
What I envy most in other cultures is insouciance about things that Canadians are anything but insouciant about. A Parisian can, without exclamation, have a glass of wine the quality of which would launch entire oenophile societies here. An Italian can have an ordinary lunch and quietly expect a culinary standard that only the most snobbish of gourmands would insist upon at some fancy downtown restaurant. And it is in this same strata of unheralded, taken-for-granted excellence that my traditional first swim in Temagami exists. Without getting very worked-up about it – without in fact doing much more than leaving my shorts and t-shirt crumpled on the little back dock and jumping into the water – I have a swim that is, without exaggeration, about the best swim that anyone has ever had.
At the back of the island no other cottages are visible. There are rarely boats in sight, and when there are, they are far away. The lake is deep and cool and clear. I’m naked which, after wearing a hot crowded car for seven hours, feels improbably terrific. From the shimmering, dancing surface of the water, I see the island’s dark, shadowed pine trees rising majestically against the blue sky. Their boughs move gently in the summer breeze. I float on my back for a while. I do the crawl for a while. I do the breast stroke. I duck-dive and glide through the weightless silence, pretending, as I have since I was a child, that I’m flying. I pop back up and shake my head, and bob around. The air seems so pure, I feel like I’m inhaling undiluted oxygen. I listen to nothing but my own splashing and the lap of waves against the rocky shore and the wind in the trees. And always, as I take my first swim of the summer in Temagami, I think to myself that it is entirely possible that at that very moment I feel better, have a more magnificent view, and am, quite literally, surrounded by more natural splendour than anyone else on the planet.
I have approached the Canadian outdoors in any number of guises. I have been a stubble-faced canoe-tripper who hasn’t changed his clothes in a week. I have been a freshly-laundered, clean-shaven cottager. I have been a boy at summer camp, and a parent watching splashing children. I’ve been a canoeist, a kayaker, a picnicer, a hiker, a sun-bather, an on-the-dock gin-and-tonic sipper. I’ve worked at resorts and I’ve taught my children how to paddle. I’ve fished, and I’ve portaged, and I’ve helped build cribs. I’ve read for hours in a deck chair, and I’ve tried for hours to start an ancient outboard. I’ve thrown tennis balls, for entire afternoons for a beloved black Lab. And as I look back on all these roles, I realize that the one constant in all my exploits in the wilderness, or semi-wilderness, or former-wilderness has been water. Whatever else I’m doing, I always get undressed and jump in. There is nothing on earth like a Canadian swim.
I often think of the city’s tourist destinations as impostors – institutions that have been pretending so stridently to be the city they have almost obscured what the city really is.
Our house is tall, and narrow, and made of brick that, like much of the red, Victorian fabric of Toronto’s downtown, was quarried and kilned beside the Don River. The valley, one of the largest of the many ravines that wind their hidden way below the grade of Toronto’s streets and sidewalks, used to be a dramatic fall of wilderness between the city and what would become its eastern flank. Today there are bike paths and hiking trails, and the valley is popularly known as the home of a long-neglected river and a desperately overused highway. But toward the end of the 19th-century, it had a kind of Shire-like peacefulness. There were a few mills along the willowed banks, a few small settlements, winding dirt roads, swimming holes, and, rising from the chimneys of the brick works, the curling smoke of a growing city’s requisite industry.
Our home was built in 1887 by a developer – a gentle precursor to the condominium builders whose glass-lofted towers are so changing the face of Toronto today. He built our house on the corner of what is still a surprisingly quiet downtown street. He lived here, but used his residence as a model for the houses he offered to build for purchasers of the various lots he owned along the block. He must have done well – judging from the number of nearly identical houses I pass as I head eastward, on my daily walks through the University of Toronto.
We live only a few blocks from the downtown campus. As a result, the sidewalk that runs directly along the western edge of our property, just beyond our garden fence, is well-used. So is the scruffy alley directly to our south. This must be one of the few areas in the city where there are more shoes than tires going by.
But it is the fact that we are on a corner that most distinguishes us from the majority of downtown Toronto houses. We have good light. We have exposure on the south, the north and the west sides – something that many of the city’s tall, narrow, semi-detached Victorian houses cannot boast. But this also means that we are not tucked away. We have no mystery to our back.
There are back yards in the downtown – behind modest and grand houses alike -- that are secret groves. Like the city’s ravines, they are not obvious to outsiders. They have always been one of the things I like best about Toronto, but my affection for them feels private. It’s as if they are too modest an attraction to mention. There must be visitors to Toronto who never guess at their presence -- who, having taken-in the destinations that are listed in the tourism brochures in their hotel rooms, wonder why anyone thinks of this city as being other than ordinary.
That might be because they do not know that Toronto’s neighborhoods are where the city’s real beauty lies. Or because they have not been told where to slip from the street-level of neighborhoods, down to the cool, wooded other-world of the ravines – the hidden places that the distinguished writer, Robert Fulford, has called the “shared subconscious of the municipality” and that the architect, John Van Nostrand, calls the “Other Places.”
The city’s hidden downtown gardens have the same effect. Behind their rickety fences, under their canopy of maples, beside their shadows of lilac and bridal wreath, they reveal an aspect of Toronto’s personality that is not apparent in the Eaton Centre or on the observation deck of the CN Tower. Often, the gardens feel old-fashioned – which is another way of saying that they naturally reach back into the brambled generations of the city’s history. In fact, as a Torontonian, I often think of the city’s tourist destinations as impostors – institutions that have been pretending so stridently to be the city they have almost obscured what the city really is.
More-so than in most other cities, tourists aren’t privy to what the people who live here know about this place. Torontonians seem to be reticent about these things – a civic shyness that is not without its charm, as the author and professor, Richard Florida has noted – but that sometimes undermines our ambitions and that tends to keep private the deepest pleasures we take in our city.
No-one is likely to tell out-of-town visitors that they should make a point of watching the sun set at the end of College Street on a late-winter evening as a snowstorm is clearing. There is no song, or poem, or accumulation of repeated opinion that lets tourists in on the fact that the streaked purple sky behind the tower of the Bellevue fire station is a beautiful sight. Nor does anyone advise them to stroll up and down the streets of the most ordinary and un-picturesque neighborhoods in order to see, at first hand, what the Globe and Mail city columnist, John Barber, calls the triumphant experiment of Toronto.
The term, world-class, used to be trotted out by gung-ho journalists, bureaucrats, businessmen, and politicians whenever the subject of the Olympics, or an NFL football franchise, or the SkyDome’s retractable roof came up – at least, it was so-trotted until the groans of embarrassed Torontonians became too loud. But Toronto’s real relationship to the world is apparent, not in what is usually a cavernously-empty sports facility, but at modest meeting places such as the corner of Vaughan and Oakwood: in the Nova Era Bakery, and the Eritrean Orthodox Church, and the Istanbul Bazaar, and the York Italian Hunting and Sports Association, and the Mt. Zion Bible College, and the Oakwood Baptist Church, and the Chinese grocery stores, and the Portuguese grocery stores, and the Caribbean grocery stores, and the Brazilian Sports Bars. No tourist will likely be told that the “world-class” place to be in Toronto is the perfectly ordinary park adjacent to Riverdale Farm in Cabbagetown on a perfectly ordinary Sunday afternoon in June. There, Canadian families from Pakistan, and Jamaica, and Nigeria, and Ukraine, and Indonesia, and Chile can be seen picnicking, playing, strolling, relaxing.
In reality, there is nothing ordinary about this. In a Toronto park, many are enjoying freedom from sectarian strife and violent crime, freedom from poverty and disease and environmental degradation, freedom from political oppression and class injustice. This spectacularly un-spectacular scene – the snoozing Dad, the romping kids, the women chatting at the picnic tables – is freedom that an enormous percentage of the earth’s population would give anything to share. And this is what is so very odd about Toronto these days: a scene that, at first glance, seems as unremarkable as a pleasant Sunday afternoon, takes on global dimensions when cast against the invisible, distant, and often-horrifying context that created it.
To some considerable extent, tourists will entirely miss the point of Toronto: because they are not told stories we hardly tell ourselves. Figuratively as well as literally, they are rarely given the opportunity to sit up late in back gardens that seem a world away from the bright, noisy city that presides out front.
Downtown gardens are about illusion. This is especially true in Toronto. Large or small, they conjure something that isn’t rural exactly, isn’t pastoral exactly, but that is tucked-away and that is slightly anarchic. Toronto’s private, modest little gardens – higgledy-piggeldy or obsessively manicured, blousy and overgrown or trimmed and precise -- are the unregulated expressions of individuals in a city of individuals. They somehow stand in opposition to the super-sized gas stations, the stingy sidewalks, the architectural blunders, the swaths of concrete, the screech of subways, the often-nasty weather, and the week-in, week-out regimen of work that is so often Toronto’s most obvious presentation.
In a city that seems often bleak, there is something subversive about these little green patches of flower-beds and vegetables and bushes and trees. In their way, they are “off the grid” – to use John Van Nostrand’s term -- which may explain why they are so removed from the city’s boosterish and frequently idiotic public swagger. The booming, hectoring, profoundly irritating commercial voices that won’t let baseball fans alone for a between-batter instant at a Blue Jays game, find their very opposite in the tinny little radios that are on in the secret backyards where, for generations, Torontonians have cut the grass, or done the weeding, or had a beer, while listening to the ball game.
But a secret place is not a possibility where my family and I live. In our downtown, corner, back-garden, you can read a book by the light of a streetlamp. You can smell the cigarettes and (with un-American frequency) the marijuana of people on their way to the College Street bars. The bounce of basketballs and the gravelly rush of long-boards interrupt our conversations. For the duration of about a dozen steps – the length, more or less, of our back property -- passing discussions are clearly, sometimes regrettably audible.
Cars park just a few feet beyond our fence: their stereos, their slammed doors, their not-always cooperative ignitions, and their (insert string of expletives) alarms are a presence in our lives. When we eat outside on a summer evening, our table is as close to the curb as a fire hydrant would be. As a result, there is nothing abstract about our objections to idling cars and trucks. The solid, eight-foot high wooden fence is a barrier, but it can’t make us feel farther away from the street than we are. Our garden is never capable of pretending that it is anywhere other than exactly where it is.
In fact, the only time the back of our house gives way to illusion is early in the morning. We have large windows that look out, to the south, over our garden, and I sometimes sit there with coffee as the sun is coming up. To the south-east are alleys, garages, and the unpainted brick-backs of old houses. There are fire-escapes, sheds, and parked cars. There are trash cans, bits of old bicycles, a rusted refrigerator door, scraps of lumber, concrete blocks, graffiti, sewer grates.
But this is not my view. Not at all. Our fence and the roofs of two of my neighbours’ garages cut off the scrappy, dusty reality of what I’m looking at. From where I sit, there isn’t a split garbage bag, a broken sherry bottle, a rusted-out hibachi, or an old tire in sight. What I see for the most part are the trees that are there – the upper branches of trees that grow between the parking pads, and the sway-backed sheds, and the old chain-link fences. The distance between the far trees and the closest ones, the range in size from high old maples to ironweed, the shafts of morning light – all conjure a pleasant hallucination. They convey the impression that I am not looking over an undistinguished maze of asphalt and trash and parked cars. Early in the morning, the trees and the generosity of space between them create the illusion that my view is of a leafy common garden.
This trompe-l’oeil happened without effort on my part. I simply transposed memories of civic gardens I have known onto what I can’t quite see. There is a bit of Paris’s Bois de Vincennes in my imaginary landscape – or at least that’s where I think the pond and the paths and the footbridge come from. And there’s some of Greenwich Village’s MacDougal-Sullivan Gardens in the civilized enclosure that I like to pretend is there. Most of all, there is a common garden in London that works its way into my invented landscape – a view that I knew very well from a year, long before Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts arrived on the scene, when I lived on the second floor, at the back of a rooming house in Notting Hill.
This is an occupational hazard of being a Torontonian. For years, Torontonians squinted at what was, and imagined what might be. Why couldn’t we have wider sidewalks? Why was it necessary to tear down so many lovely old buildings and raise so many ugly ones? Does the flow of automobile traffic have always to be a municipal priority? Why can’t we have water clean enough for us to swim at our beaches? And for years, all this squinting and imagining was thought to be the stuff of fantasy by the grey, sober, practical, business-like, and decidedly dull presence that seemed to loom over the city. A beautiful waterfront? A thriving artistic community? Imaginative architecture? An opera house? Until quite recently, these were viewed as the most impractical and frivolous pipedreams – much like the sleepily imagined common garden that I sometimes think I see from the back of my ordinary, red brick home.
Much of what I now think of as our kind of music can be played simultaneously by people intent on playing really well and by people trying to get from the beginning of a song to its end without too many disasters in between. This combination would be us
After years of nothing much, I’m happy to have something to say when someone asks, “What’s new?” But when what’s new turns out to be that I’m in a garage band – a basement band, actually; a basement band called Three Chord Johnny to be perfectly precise -- people are not inclined to share my enthusiasm. It’s not a subject that gets conversation rolling. Dinner guests don’t want to know about the way we do “Shame, Shame, Shame.” Luncheon companions don’t want to hear about our “Tears of a Clown.” No-one wants to learn how long it took me to achieve a level of distortion that sounds as if I dropped my amp while unloading it from Ike Turner’s car and into the Sun Studios one day in Memphis in 1951 – just the right knife-through-the-speaker buzz for the guitar riff on our version of “Rocket 88.”
I am almost fifty years old, and I’ve never been in a real band before. (A real band being, by my non-critical definition, one that gets together for regular practices.) I played guitar a little when I was a teenager, but of the campfire-strumming “Blowin in the Wind” variety. Nothing wrong with that, and nothing much came of it either. So let’s skip the next thirty-five years to a day when for reasons that won’t bear much looking-into (“You did what??? my wife asked with what we might politely call incredulity) I bought a Fender Stratocaster.
I can’t explain it. I just did. Will “because I’d been listening to the Rolling Stones’ 1963 cover of Bobby Womack’s “It’s All Over Now” even point in the direction of a reasonable answer? I didn’t think so.
So I’ll grant you ridiculous. At least it could look that way, from the outside. Mid-life crisis, Peter Pan syndrome, diminishing virility, threatened vanity, general male silliness. I won’t argue. One can very easily protest too much when it comes to denying one’s demographic predictability. Affairs, motorcycles, teeth-whitener – they all come with the territory. However, there is one , and perhaps only one good thing about being somewhere past the middle of middle-age. It has obvious bearing on why a group of mostly fifty-ish men are capable of getting together with evident enthusiasm to play rock and roll in the basement, and then sit around afterward having a beer and listening to the 17 year-old Stevie Winwood doing “Georgia” with the Spencer Davis Group in 1963, or Don Covay’s 1964 “Mercy, Mercy.” And the good thing is this: not giving a fuck about appearing ridiculous.
About a year or so ago a friend of mine --someone with whom I’ve worked one way or another for most of my professional life -- heard that I was fooling around on an electric guitar. This struck a chord with him. E would be my guess.
John Macfarlane is the editor of Toronto Life magazine. I am a writer who lives in Toronto, and in the past twenty years we have both so often had to tell people that we are not related that we should probably have the explanation tattooed on our foreheads. One day, not long before last Christmas, he invited me out for a drink. I imagined he wanted to speak to me about some terrific magazine assignment. But John, who is a little older than I am, and who as a kid listened to the pre-Elvis black music coming out of Buffalo on WKBW on his transistor radio, and who, as he put it, “almost peed myself the first time I heard the Everly Brothers do “Wake Up Little Susie,” it was so good” wanted to talk about forming a band.
The idea seemed quixotic. In my quest to master the electric guitar I wasn’t very far beyond strumming “Blowin in the Wind.” I’d concluded that on a scale of pop musical prowess that had Jimi Hendrix at one end and my father’s tuneless whistling of “Row, Row Your Boat” at the other, I was somewhere in the middle. A kind of Switzerland of funkiness. I was so neutrally talented, in fact, that I was asked to play my guitar at a Christmas Carol party in our neighborhood that year.
There would be a piano player there, as well. And I discovered two things at the party. (1) “Good King Wenceslas” is way harder to play than “Wild Thing.” And (2), the pianist, Dave Wilson, a writer and editor, had musical interests beyond “Come All Ye Faithful.” Talented, knowledgeable about rock and roll, R&B, and blues, he was eager to find some people – some “guys” was the precise musical term used -- with whom to play. Feeling a certain momentum building, I called another Toronto writer, David Hayes, who I knew to be a good bass guitar player. David had played professionally for some years, before trading in the uncertainty of a career in music for the extravagant wealth and rock-solid security of freelance writing.
Thus we arrived at the time-honoured quandary of all nascent bands: where do we play, and who will be on drums? For obvious reasons, these two questions tend to go hand in hand. Whoever has the drum-kit, gets the band.
“My son’s a drummer,” I said. And so, unbeknownst to Blake, who was at the hour of our genesis, in the second of a double math period in grade eight at Deer Park Public School, he was hired on the spot.
We had the bodies. We had the place. We had the instruments and extension cords. But I have to say things did not look promising. We had two good musicians – on keyboard and bass – both of whom I was sure would quickly get bored with the rest of the talent. We had two self-described duffers on guitar, both of whom I thought would quickly run out of familiar chords. So far as I knew, nobody could sing. And we had a thirteen-ear old drummer – a devotee of Weezer and Moby -- who was facing the prospect of playing really old stuff with really old guys, one of whom was his Dad. Blake had agreed to give it a shot, but with a certain lack of wild enthusiasm. Clearly, there were Rubicons of ridiculousness he would not cross. Singing “Tears of a Clown” with me was one of them. I also had the feeling that were I to show up for our first practice in a pair of red Converse high-tops, a silk scarf, and with a bottle of Jack Daniels, he would be gone. Real fast.
On the other hand, there were a few auspicious signs.
The elderly couple who live in the adjoining house are both going deaf.
As well, my concerns about the two good musicians tiring of the neophytes have proven groundless. I’d like to say that the neophytes turned out to be far more talented than we thought we were. But no, actually. Our estimation of our skills was reasonably accurate – as evidenced by the yawning gulf that opened up the first time we reached the guitar break in “Roll Over Beethoven.” It’s just that the good musicians among us, like so many good musicians, are generous souls who are happy to play. Not quite with anybody. But almost.
On top of which, the basement has been transformed. By clearing the area of life-jackets and skates and broken chairs and garden hoses, I’d miraculously discovered the only kind of room the dingy, catch-all storage space could convincingly become other than a dingy, catch-all storage space. Suddenly, it looked like a band room – a comfy, worn-down, subterranean, who-else-would-want-to-come-down-here kind of space where we could make a lot of noise, huddle around the CD player listening intently to Big Joe Turner’s version of “Corrine, Corrina” or Paul Butterfield’s cover of “Look Over Yonders Wall,” and talk about riffs and licks and grooves without sounding too idiotic or pretentious. There was even an adjacent bathroom – with a toilet seat, I noted with some satisfaction, that remained permanently up.
And most importantly, my wife didn’t object to all this. She liked everyone showing up at our place for “band.” On Sunday mornings, “the boys,” as she charmingly referred to the non-resident players, arrived at our place with lattes and croissants, and she called upstairs, again, to get the drummer out of bed. There was something familiar about her role, and eventually I realized it was that of the friendly Mom who didn’t mind if the neighborhood kids just walked in without ringing the doorbell. She was also our first encouraging, if one story-removed audience. Three-Chord Johnny has met once a week every week since the depths of winter, and for our first month or two we tended to sound better through floorboards than thin air. But the first time we managed to play the sweet, 1963 Johnny Rivers song, “The Poor Side of Town,” Janice came down to the basement immediately. “Hey,” she said, and I could tell that this was the last thing she had expected. “That was kind-of good.”
Kind-of good had never occurred to me as a possibility either. It seemed wildly and unreasonably ambitious. I was still fumbling around on the fretboard, was terrified at the propect of singing, and seemed sometimes incapable of the most elementary progressions. It’s hard to make a lot of mistakes if you’re just playing the chords in “Midnight Hour.” I managed.
But we made two key decisions that brought kind-of good within our range. Searching for something that would keep both the musicians and the duffers in our midst happy, we decided to stick to straight-ahead blues, basic R&B, and early rock and roll. This worked. Many of the greatest songs of what I now think of as our kind of music can be played simultaneously by people who are intent on playing really, really well and by people who are trying to get from the beginning of a song to its end without too many disasters in between. This combination would be us. The decision has also plugged us in to some fantastic music – Jimmy Reed, Little Junior Parker, the Coasters, Carl Perkins – music that was often as much a revelation to me as to my son. Whether you’re thirteen or sixty, the experience of trying to play in a band means that you never listen to pop music the same way again. And when you hear the really good stuff – let’s take Don Covay’s 1964 “Please Do Something” or The Spencer Davis Group’s cover of “Searching” as examples -- you marvel, if you’re sixty, at how simple it is, and how difficult simplicity can be to achieve. Or, if you’re thirteen, you look up from your homework, and give a little lower-lip curling, worldly nod of acknowledgment at how cool it is.
We also decided that we wouldn’t do songs that were overly familiar to absolutely everybody on the planet. No matter how good your chops, if you do “Brown Sugar,” you’re going to be compared to you-know-who. And since the guitar section of our band didn’t actually have any chops, we felt the comparison would not be to our advantage.
This was wise, although the wisdom was not mine. I still cringe at some of the songs I suggested we do before it became clear to me who we were – musically speaking. Stares come no blanker than the one John Macfarlane shot me when I wondered outloud whether Gordon Lightfoot’s “Go-go Round” (“Only a go-go girl in love with someone who didn’t care…”) might be a number for us. There were a few Bob Dylan songs that didn’t get very far off our basement floor. When I proposed that we try The Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renee” Dave Wilson looked at me quizzically. “Pretty song,” he said. “Which one of us should play the cello?”
The day the floor monitors, the mixer, and the microphone stands arrived was not my happiest. Even if, from a décor point of view, they did accentuate the bandishness of the band room.
We had been playing with cobbled-together equipment. We had one mike, but no boom stand, and we had to lean it over the keyboards so that Dave Wilson – who turned out to have a fine voice -- could sing “Poor Side of Town,” and “Memphis,” and, “Mustang Sally.” We struggled like this for the longest time; I can’t now think why – although it may have had something to do with commitment. At our rocky outset – and outsets don’t get much rockier than the first time we tried Lucinda Williams’ “Can’t Let Go” or Mark Knoppfler’s “Junkie Doll” – it was by no means clear that we were going to keep doing this. But, apparently, we were.
The lattes kept coming on Sundays; the e-mails shot back and forth by the dozens every time we tried to schedule a practice (I don’t know what bands did before computers; Three Chord Johnny is so dependent on e-mail that for a while we considered calling ourselves No Subject); the obscure Charlie Rich and Ike Turner CDs circulated among us; Blake actually loaded his discman every now and then with music that was before my time, let alone his; I found myself looking forward all week to “band” and I began to think that I had never had more fun; with nowhere to go but up, we improved. And one day – maybe it was the day we realized that “kind-of good” was not beyond the realm of possibility – we suddenly remembered that four out of the five of us were grown-ups with jobs and bank accounts. We realized that we could go out and get the equipment we wanted without asking permission, or borrowing money from our parents, or getting paper routes.
So we did.
The great disadvantage of floor monitors, and a mixer, and microphones is that you hear yourself. As opposed to imagining yourself. This can be a brutal shock. The first time I got up my nerve and sidled up to the microphone, it wasn’t Sam Cooke’s, or Otis Redding’s, or Mick Jagger’s voice that came out. It was my own – quavering and tentative and weak. We play, standing in a circle in the band room, and I had the unfortunate fatherly experience of watching my son bite his lip, trying to hold back his laughter, as he drummed his way through my attempt to be Smoky Robinson.
But this probably won’t come as news to you. Most people know that it will be a brutal shock to confront their own vocal inadequacies and musical failings. Wild horses couldn’t drag them to a microphone. That’s why most people don’t get involved with middle-aged garage bands. Most people prefer not to appear quite so ridiculous.
Which is fine. But the remarkable thing about being in a band is that things do get better. It is possible for a person, and for a group to find a voice. And anyway, there are a few things about being in this little basement band of ours, this gallant few, that make the risk of appearing ridiculous seem small potatoes indeed.
The first would be friendship. It’s not easy at my age suddenly to make new friends, or to shift old friendships into some new and unexpected gear, but that’s what has happened to us. We enjoy sharing musical enthusiasms, and we enjoy one another, in the strange, new light we’ve found in the band room. I don’t really care if we’re good or not – although I’m happy to work, even to work hard, toward improving. I just know that sometimes, when we’re pounding through one of our songs, I start to laugh at the giddy pleasure of it all, and I can’t recall when that last happened.
The other delight, of course, is playing with my son. He’s good. Unlike his old man, he actually has real talent. But even if he didn’t, I’d consider all this a great stroke of paternal luck. “A gift,” as John Macfarlane has put it. It’s not always easy for a father and son to have such fun together. It’s not always easy to find common ground. But once a week, we do. The other night, he came up with the band motto, and it still makes me laugh when I think of it. “Play hard, play hard.” And whenever someone – feigning interest at a lunch or dinner – asks who plays with me in this band, I say, “Four good friends.” None of whom laugh anymore when I sing.