On a Train Bound for Nowhere

I am trying to stay off the news today because the last week has been a little overwhelming with the constant updates and rapid changes. The chyrons on the local news station are giving me headaches unless I un-focus my eyes and look slightly to the side. Our 24-hour news cycles mean that every update – however minor – is given priority of place.

It comes as something of a surprise that anything not virus-related can really stand out in the constant bombardment of new cases and new lock-downs and new warnings.

This morning when I got up it was out there everywhere already. Probably because so many of the people I hang with on social media (and IRL when we’re allowed to do that) have similar tastes and experiences and memories, and the presence of Kenny Rogers in our shared world was basically a given. A randomly-cited lyric from The Gambler needed no explanation as to its origin. It is a rare person in my life who doesn’t know the song and won’t start singing along when provided with the opportunity.

That song has been played at pretty much every house party I have ever hosted. One of my bffs (now a semi-responsible financial advisor and father of two) performed an interpretive dance while wearing my mother’s wicker hanging planter on his head as he belted out the tune. I have pictures, if you doubt me. Another friend and I managed to get it into rotation in the post-meal singsongs at our camp when we were first year staff. Visiting years later, it was heartening to see that it remained a favourite – alongside The Ship Titanic and Charlie’s inability to get off the MTA. It still receives a ritual playing when certain friends come to visit, as a final wind-down to an evening of beers and talk.

The loss of one person – and a person who had a long, fruitful, impactful life at that – at this point in time, as we deal with uncertainty and anxiety and, in some cases, more immediate losses, might seem negligible in the overall scheme of things. But so many people have already left fond memories and feelings up and around the social medias I feel like I’d be irresponsible if I don’t add my double pennies.

I grew up in a house in which we were fortunate to be surrounded by grandparents and older relatives pretty much all the time. When we were very young both sets of grandfolks lived within walking distance – and they were all very much part of the fabric our of regular lives. I wrote about one of them here (back in the days when I will still pretending it wasn’t me that was writing this blog). Gramps loved Hee Haw. He loved the country music of the time – and the stories the songs told. They were closely aligned with his way of seeing the world and his own deep love of a great tale, well-spun.

I’m not sure when Kenny really hit my radar in a big way but I do know that I received his Greatest Hits record for Xmas the year I turned 10. I knew that record start to finish. I know that record start to finish, actually.

You see, I have this thing I do when I’m anxious or stressed or, as is increasingly the case, when I start getting concerned about my memory with the whole aging thing – a panic that can easily turn to paranoia about incipient dementia, given our family experience.

I’ve always had a thing for lyrics – I remember them easily and pretty much forever. Even songs I don’t like much get stuck in there. It’s a mixed blessing sometimes (looking at you Achy Breaky Heart). But it provides me with a fantastic stabilizing exercise – one that comes in very handy in weeks like the past few have been.

I run through certain songs more frequently than others – I have my standbys: I wrote out the words to Tears for Fears’ Mad World before every exam – high school to doctorate – and two from that regular playlist came to me from Kenny.

The Gambler, of course (a song as celebrated for its catchiness and sing-along compliant nature as it is underrated for the overall philosophy of life it presents) but Coward of the County has long been another of my go-to head-songs (since 1980!) in times of stress. I ran through it all while in the shower this morning, as a matter of fact. And I cried. Which, I understand, is at least partly in response to the stress all around us. Except that it always makes me cry. Always.

The words run through my head, but I hear Kenny’s voice singing them (I wouldn’t want to hear my own) and the emotion and authenticity with which he imbued the lyrics resonates completely. Still. I never doubted for a second that he had a nephew named Tommy whom folks called ‘yellow.’ Never. Just like I never questioned his chance encounter with the old gambler on that train. It happened. All of it.

Kenny – and others like him – helped shaped my musical taste in a very real way. I remain drawn to those singer-songwriters who speak to life experiences and general states of being on the planet, while reflecting on weightier issues of good and evil and love and hate. Small stuff to the very large. Basically all aspects of our interactions in the world with other humans.

Most artists rely on touring and merchandise sales to support themselves and ensure the continuance of their wonderful contributions to the world of art and music and storytelling – something that has been interrupted at the moment.

Spotify and the like are all fine and well and good for exposure to new music, but these platforms doesn’t do enough to support the artists who are creating the music. As we look for things to fill the days as we distance and isolate, this is something that we can actively do to change things for the better.

One of my very very favourite guys has a new album coming out on March 27. The songs he has pre-released for us are beautiful, heartfelt and representative of incredible growth in his songwriting trajectory. Brian Fallon was supposed to visit us at Danforth Music Hall in early April, but we’re not going to get to see him just now. We’ll make sure we’re there when he is able to reschedule, and I’ll make do with multiple playings of the new album in the meantime. Please check him out and buy Local Honey – and his other records – directly from his website.

Then there’s this other guy, who I’ve written about before. He was out on tour in support of his latest record (we saw him here in the fall) – but it seems likely that it will end sooner than anticipated. He released a new video this week – along with a remarkable article in Rolling Stone about the subject of the song – that notorious and remarkable songwriter, Shane MacGowan. Follow Jesse on his website for information about his tour and how to get Sunset Kids.

While I’m talking about Jesse, the opening artist at that show I talked about in the post was a singer-songwriter named Matthew Ryan. Since seeing him that night – and having the opportunity for a quick chat – I’ve followed him on twitter and the fb, accessing new tunes as he brings them to us and appreciating his thoughts on life, the universe and everything, He posts lovely reflections about his favourite songs – definitely a kindred spirit – and he sings about things that can break your heart. Give him a listen. You won’t be disappointed.

I can’t consider complete any reference about the overlap between story and song without noting that Mikel Jollet has a memoir coming out in May, concurrent with the release of The Airborne Toxic Event’s first record in five years. He was on the fb yesterday, live streaming and talking about favourite tunes and concept albums, and playing bits from the new record alongside some old favourites. He has been a significant and important presence on Twitter since that 2016 election – calling out all the things that need calling out, but it was wonderful to listen to him talk about the healing that music – and the completion of his story in order to share it with all of us – has brought to his life. I wrote about the band what seems like ages ago. Even then, I was reflecting on memory and the tricks and trials it can bring. Plus ça change, as they say. You can pre-order the book and the album here.

I love a good concept album (there are Pink Floyd records that make me shiver just to think about them), and there is no one, these days, better at that than Lord Huron. If The Gambler is a poignant short story, then albums like Strange Trails or Vide Noir are epic novels in which you can lose yourself completely. Ben Schneider, the driving force behind the band, trained as a visual artist and the tangible storied imagery of the settings comes through like individual paintings in every song. I can see the scenes and the characters as he sings about them. I wrote about the band, along with another guy you might’ve heard of, when I was hoping to get back into the habit of writing – and when I was searching for inspiration in the face of too much loss. Again with the plus ça change… Lord Huron is planning to produce a movie based on Vide Noir. I don’t know where those plans might be sitting, given all that is real right now, but you can buy the album – and lots of other fun merch – here.

It sort of feels like this train we’re all riding together right now is bound for nowhere. Or nowhere we’re going to like and want to stay, anyway. As I wrote the other day, regardless of what happens in the next weeks and months, change is going to be our new and continuing reality for the foreseeable future.

We might not be able to get out to see the musicians we love right now, but this time should be teaching us about our continued reliance on the artists that make the hard times less hard and who celebrate the good as it comes right alongside us. The best ones teach us something about ourselves as they tell us their stories. They deserve to be fairly compensated for all that they bring into our lives.

Support them directly, however you can, and spread the word about the songs and the stories that are keeping you going. Start playlists with friends – recommending and linking those musicians you can’t live without.

Stop taking for granted that their hard work and inspiration will always be there to get us through, and acknowledge the important role they play in providing entertainment, and inspiration – and in keeping anxiety in check when things are really hard and uncertain. Make sure they get the appreciation they deserve.

Pay the creatives.

We need them more than ever now, as we think about what is important to throw away, and what is important to keep.

Go gently, and with thanks, Kenny. I’ll keep those aces you dealt me held as tightly as I can.

Changed, changed utterly

It’s hard to know where to begin, here. It’s been so long. Those who haven’t seen me around these parts much lately but who remember the days in which I was far more prolific in my thought-sharing and voice-raising about all those things that unite and sustain us as human beings might also remember that today marks six years since we lost my Dad.

Six years.

There’s been so much change over that time. It might seem trite – and like I’m quickly becoming one of those oldsters who rails about the ‘good ol’ days’ – but a great proportion of that change hasn’t been positive. Please keep in mind that, although I might legitimately be approaching antique status, I’m also an historian – and therefore fully aware that there is no such thing as ‘good ol’ days’.

As an historian – and more importantly, as a human being – these last years have demonstrated a distressing level of social regression that has left me feeling impotent to do anything other than shout into the void of self-serving greed and insular politics that widen divides that had been diminishing as we became aware that there is more that unites us – one to another – as people living together on this planet than the opposite.

Shouting into the void is exhausting, and, I’ve found, serves little purpose.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m well aware that there has been change for the better. We started listening to voices that had gone unheard for too long. #Metoo, we cried. And perspectives from POC, First Nations, Inuit and Metis communities and commentators in this country, at least, are gaining exposure (if slowly, and not without a huge load of push-back from those who see their inherited privilege being threatened).


Too long a sacrifice/ can make a stone of the heart.

When I look back over the posts I’ve put up here over the years – and all the wonderful interactions I’ve had with the valued friends I’ve met through this forum, I can trace a rise in the existential angst I was feeling in the lead-up to the conservative back-slide that has marked the time that we’re currently navigating.

It started, for me, with the mismanagement of my hometown by an unqualified populist who somehow ended up mayor. We are still dealing with the results of the inaction and pull-back from his time in office and the lack of progressive change under his replacement – who is more competent, certainly, but still unwilling to address the concerns and needs of anyone outside of his base of support.

And then…

Since November 2016 it seems as if a terrible tide turned, and all subsequent attempts at progress have been greeted with hostility and manufactured narratives designed to hold tightly to a status quo that protects the very very few while leaving the rest of us worse for wear. I need not identify the source, but I’m sure you’d agree that the consequences of that event started an acceleration of negative repercussions around the world (looking at you, in particular, Brexiters) and permitted hatefulness to flourish unchecked.

Continuing to contribute to my little piece of the internet became an exercise in futility and repetition. I was saying the same things over and over. And over. And screaming at my friends in the choir, for the most part. We all need to be careful of not falling into echo chambers – even if our intentions are well-meant. Writing about the world necessitated paying a lot of attention to the world, and the world was increasingly an unrecognizable and frightening place to me.

My particular privileges had kept me blind to aggressions – micro and those that are anything but – that are a constant fact of life for great swaths of our population. Suddenly, it seemed, no one was keeping the prejudices and biases and hatred in check. Rather, they were given free reign and were encouraged by those at the very top of our leadership structures and by people who should have known, and done, better.

I went underground. I admit it. Historically, I have had significant issues coping with anxiety – especially when it arises as a result of things over which I have no control. In reaction I started social distancing long before this health crisis mandated ‘staying away’ for all of us for our collective good. Sure, I was out in the world – interacting with others, maintaining connections and, even, from time to time, giving a good long shout into that there void about those things I find most egregious and upsetting. But none of those reactions have been productive. Not in any real, helpful way.

And certainly not in ways that live up to the example of my grandparents, my extended family and friends, my mother, and especially my father – who left us six years ago today.

But I’ve been noticing something this week. The enforced distancing and isolation (and maybe even self-reflection) that is accompanying responsible responses to the pandemic is producing a movement of support and positivity that I feared was buried beyond recovery in the rhetoric and intentional polarization that has been the norm over the last few years.

All of this socializing media is turning a corner, it would seem. Writers are sharing their work – reading from novels and engaging with their audience in impromptu book clubs to discuss the stories and their origins. Musicians are treating us to tunes recorded in their living rooms – since they can’t get out to come see us in person right now. Teachers are offering parents suggestions of in-home learning they can share with their children as their regular school routines are disrupted – and critics may even be starting to understand the important role that our teachers play in ensuring that our children are able to cope with the world in an informed and responsible way. And cats have retaken their rightful possession of all things interwebs. Okay. Dogs, too. Animals of all kinds, really (and don’t get me started on that sock puppet eating the cars…).

We are seeing communities come together – while remaining at a safely mandated distance – serenading from balconies, offering to drop groceries outside the doors of people who aren’t as mobile or who are at greater risk of exposure if they venture out for necessities. The pulling together stories seem to be outnumbering those that are about the endless tearing apart that has dominated feeds on the twitters and the fbs and the instas for the first time in forever.

Those still seeking to divide are increasingly being ignored – when they aren’t being shouted down in concert.

Resilience is a human characteristic that has been low in its visibility as we deal with people and governments and ingrained systems that remain determined to have us toe a line that continues to benefit those who hold the power – to the detriment of the rest of us. This time of trial that has us all caught in its grasp at the moment seems to be letting us bounce back into an understanding of the importance of community and support of one another as we live together in social groups both – IRL and online.

It’s leading me into something I haven’t felt in a while. Despite the anxiety and concern for those who are most affected by this pandemic – whether in increased concern for the continuing health of those at risk, or as a result of the economic impacts that are coming along with it, and the measures we need to have in place to stop it in its tracks – I’m feeling actual optimism, if cautious (under the circumstances, caution is called for in all things), that we can come back together and find the terrible beauty that is life on this planet with all of our human family.

We seem to be using this time to push for changes that benefit the many. We are offering support where it’s most needed. We are stopping and actually listening to one another when all those around us use voices to discuss experiences and perspectives that might differ from our own way of living in the world.

I realize I am fortunate to be in a country that is showing sincere and reasoned leadership. Even the unqualified brother of the unqualified mayor (who is, inexplicably, premier of the province) is listening to the people who actually know stuff and behaving like a responsible adult who understands the importance of aligning vision and action in this situation. I know that other people don’t have our safety nets – those extant, like our healthcare system, and those newly-created to offer assistance in this unprecedented global situation. I also know that other countries – some really close by – are hampered but the gross incompetence and rank corruption of their ‘elected’ leaders.

But I feel like that might be changing, too. Adversity can bring out the best in us – and, despite the toilet paper hoarders and the hand sanitizer re-sellers, we’re starting to see an increasing amount of good overall.

It’s not Easter, and this isn’t, exactly, a revolution that we’re fighting, but yesterday was the traditional day of the wearing of the green (if celebrated less publicly and enthusiastically than is the usual case) and Yeats’ words resonate through time, regardless.

Hearts with one purpose alone   
Through summer and winter seem   
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream. 

Social structures – with all their benefits AND problems – that we take for granted may well crumble under the new reality that this virus is creating. The lessons of the last years can – if we have been paying attention and if we act in accordance with the better natures that have been on display the last couple of days – lead us to rebuild with a conscious awareness of all the highlighted gaps in equity and fairness and community solidarity that have come to light in the face of this global emergency.

There’s going to be a long haul ahead – with new challenges and picking up the pieces once we are through to the other side, but, if we work at it, we can institute a new world order that builds upon these early glimmers we’ve been this week. It won’t erase the negativity and hatred that became somehow acceptable before we were hit with this, but perhaps we can take a lesson from this history (since it’s so recent and doesn’t involve reading texts written by the winners) and ensure that it doesn’t repeat.

Make music. Or buy it directly from the artists you love, who can’t tour at the moment. Read books – or get back to that writing project you’ve been putting off forever. Check in on one another – and take care of one another. Take this time of enforced social distancing to reflect upon the world we want to see when we can all come together again – following the examples of community support and working together for a common goal, in defiance of created political divisions and antiquated ideologies that are happening right now. Stay home and monitor the clouds and keep watch for their eventual dispersal – and think about how we can maximize the changes we are sensing and enacting as we weather this storm together.

Be the stone. Be the change. Stay safe and well.

A shadow of cloud on the stream   
Changes minute by minute;  
Minute by minute they live:   

The stone’s in the midst of all.*

*It occurred to me as I tried to sleep last night that I didn’t cite my source well at all – that should tell you how long it’s been since I’ve written anything. Bad form. The poem cited throughout is Easter, 1916, by my fave poet-dude, W.B. Yeats. He wrote it in response to the unsuccessful Easter Uprising against British rule in Ireland. Most of the revolutionaries who led the uprising were executed for treason. The poem is a reflection of Yeats’ support for Irish nationalism – even though he disagreed with violence as a means to that end – and his disbelief at the actions of the British following the uprising. It is an indication that the powers of the time (the British government) started – rather than stopped – a movement that continued to grow and develop through the act of executing the Irish republican leaders. The shock and horror of that act gave the revolution new life – and birthed the terrible beauty that would forever affect the course of Irish history and Irish-English relations.