Friday, April 20, 2012

what we talk about when we talk about levon.

Over the years I lived in Toronto, I probably watched The Last Waltz no less than a thousand times. My best friends were hippies and music lovers and someone always had a copy kicking around. There was one summer when my brother and I were back at home and we had three Last Waltz DVDs in the house: his, mine, and dad's. There existed among us an encyclopedic and apocryphal knowledge of the film: the story about the supposed editing-out of Neil Young's coke nose, Mavis Staples' so-quiet-you-might-miss-it whisper at the end of The Weight. We knew that concert backward and forward, knew the Band's catalogue better than the books we pretended to study from as we listened in. And I always knew that it was Levon Helm I loved best.

What was it about Levon? He just seemed like a gentleman. He was quiet and kind in the interview portions of the film. Immortalized in his prime in The Last Waltz, I had such a crush on him; in the present day, he was the best father figure you could ask for (second only to my own father, of course). And oh my lord, could he ever drum. I've always had a soft spot for the guy keeping the beat. Watching Levon crane his neck over to the mike to sing as he drummed filled me with this surge of joy every single time. What a combination, to hold steady as you sing your heart out.  My brother is a drummer, and the first time I ever heard him sing and play was ten years ago at the Casbah, when his band had a weekly gig doing cover songs over the summer. Toward the end of the night, Noah kept time as he sang From The Back Of The Film by Thrush Hermit.  It was, and still is, one of my favourite songs. I felt like my heart might explode. "He's our Levon Helm!" I shouted into my boyfriend's ear. It was the highest praise I could bestow on anyone, really.

My own copy of The Last Waltz accompanied me out west, where I'd watch it whenever I was feeling homesick or sad. That music was a balm for all that ailed me. Sometimes I'd just watch the first few minutes over and over again; that incredible, rip-roaring version of Don't Do It made me feel like I was complete again. I loved the fact that the movie began where the band ended, with the last song they ever played together. Levon's voice held me back from the edge. Years later it would become the theme song for my doomed relationship with Tom. There was a particularly sketchy period out there at the lake when the only thing we had to listen to was a scratched-up copy of The Band's greatest hits and a Last Waltz DVD held together with tape and sheer force of will. We would drink wine and blast the volume and sing along with Levon till we lost our voices. Sometimes on Sunday afternoons as I debated driving back into town, Tom would put on the movie and say, "don't go yet." And so I wouldn't.

Tom had a great voice too, he really did. He'd always deny it when I said so, but he could harmonize with the best of them. Not surprisingly, he sounded best when he was singing along with Dylan or The Band, the music that was so ingrained in him it was more familiar than his own breath.  One of our favourite songs to sing together was Ain't No More Cane from The Basement Tapes--again with Levon's heart-wrenching vocals off the top. It was, and still is, one of my favourite songs. We'd sing it with the album accompanying us, we'd sing it with me on guitar, we'd sing it without any backing track at all. We'd sing it till people told us to shut up and go home. 

(I couldn't find the Basement Tapes version online. This one's a very, very, VERY close second.)

When they announced his death on the CBC on Thursday, I felt something in me sink. I fumbled through the CDs in my car, looking for Levon, and I found him in no time--there he was, singing The Weight along with the Staples Singers, on a mix CD I made in 2004 just before moving to Vancouver.  This morning I heard The Band's version of When I Paint My Masterpiece on the radio. It was, and still is, one of my favourite songs. (I'm sensing a pattern here.) I learned to play their version of it on the guitar when I was younger. I loved Levon's interpretation, so much more melancholy and beautifully world-weary than Dylan's. It was a song that made me feel sad and longing and full all at once. This morning I heard him sing his heart out one more time and I cried. Garth Hudson talked about Levon and then wished Jian Ghomeshi well, saying he hoped everyone was "doing alright up at the station," making the CBC feel suddenly like a solitary broadcasting tower in the middle of an Eastern Ontario pine forest. 

What was it about Levon? It was his soulful, groovin' voice, his incredible beat, his handsome face, his mesh-back trucker hat, his lanky arms, the way he held it all together.  He may have been a good old Southern boy, but Levon sounded the way Canada felt to me--the way it felt to be alone near water, watching the moon rise, the way it felt to be on the open road out of town, the way it felt to fall in love with a person and a place so fully and completely. I am, by all accounts, a city child, but Levon's voice helped me find my country heart, beating deep down.

Friday, April 13, 2012

shake shake shake. shake your booty.

A Friday afternoon playlist designed for ass-shakin' at the end of a long-ass week.

Addicted, Amy Winehouse. (instructive.)

God Put A Smile Upon Your Face, Mark Ronson. (the best Coldplay has ever sounded.)

Diamond in the Back, Curtis Mayfield. (slowdance/makeout.)

Make Her Say, Kid Cudi. (bouncing.)

Let's Dance, David Bowie. (yes, let's.)

Kick, Push, Lupe Fiasco. (for coasting.)

Passin' Me By, the Pharcyde. (a grand finale for old, old time's sake.)

Thursday, April 5, 2012

oh, holy holy.

I've always had a thing for Holy Thursday (for the long hard soul-searching days leading up to Easter in general, really). It stems from my wannabe-Anglican leanings, which I've written about before (on Holy Thursday, no less). I love the darkness before the dawn, the ending and the beginning nearly overlapping, the profound and heartfelt sadness you can feel free to immerse yourself in fully, since you know there's brightness coming, just a couple days away.

I always seem to find myself on the road on this Thursday, which is part of why I love it so much. Running away, running home, running back: I have always been a sucker for the great escape. When I was a student I'd usually be on my way back to my parents' place, loaded down with books, because Easter weekend always seemed to fall smack in the middle of finals. I'd be feeling tremendously sorry for myself, but also somehow hopeful. We were nearly through the shitstorm. The time was so close when I would never have to think about Absalom, Absalom! again. The darkest hour before the dawn, and all that. I'd schlep home for a few days and hunker down and eat candy and lie awake in my childhood bedroom and maybe take a trip to the garden centre to buy Easter lilies. The hard part was almost over. The summer escape was on its way. It was a good life.

The year I started this little verbal vomit trail, I spent Holy Thursday feeling happier than I'd been in a long time. After years of planning my way out of Ottawa, I'd finally found my exit route: I'd accepted a job in Kingston and was gearing up to move in a month. The job was fairly secondary to my happiness; the better news was that I'd be moving to the town where my oldest friend lived. I didn't know it yet, but we'd end up living five minutes from each other, just like we did when we were kids, and it would be wonderful. I was also, in spite of my better judgment, making the move to be closer to a man I'd fallen in love with. At the time I knew in my deep-down secret heart that hitching even the sketchiest of wagons to that particular star was probably a bad idea. And yet, and yet. We do what we can with what we've got when we've got it. At the time, the prospect of proximity made me feel happy, and that was enough. That April Thursday, I brought in chocolate for my Ottawa colleagues, who still didn't know I was leaving in a month (I'm a leave under cover of darkness kind of girl--I think they call it the Irish Goodbye). I left work early and drove home to Hamilton, fueled by the music of Joel Plaskett and the incredible high of knowing I would soon wipe my slate clean.

One year later, Kingston was home in all senses of the word. Tom and I had survived yet another winter at the lake and he was in the process of buying a piece of property that he promised would be ours together. It was unseasonably warm and gorgeous that weekend, and we planned to spend most of it truck-camping in those woods, his woods, our woods. First, though, we had some family obligations to endure. On Holy Thursday he picked me up after work and we drove out to Brockville together to have dinner with his parents. "We'll just get it over with," he promised, not that I needed convincing. Visiting his family was anthropologically fascinating to me. His mother's definition of vegetarian cooking was pretty heavy on chicken, and there was usually a Dairy Queen ice cream cake. We drank cheap red wine and dodged questions about having babies and took advantage of their cable television and trundled on up to bed in our separate rooms. If you've never spent the night alone in the single bed your boyfriend slept in as a child, sharing the room with a photo portrait gallery that includes a professional shot of his former longtime partner, I suggest you try it sometime. It was surreal. The next morning, Tom snuck into my room and jumped on top of me to wake me up. "We should get out of here," he said. "Fast." (In hindsight, two proponents of the Irish Goodbye in one relationship is probably a recipe for disaster). After a quick breakfast we hit the road, driving along the Thousand Island Parkway on our way back to the County. Tom pointed out all the islands he'd spent time on as a kid and yelled at me for blocking his view as I reached over him to take pictures as we passed. By lunchtime, we were home--home in South Frontenac, home at the hideout.

I haven't found myself in transition much lately, and after years of getting high off the terrifying potential of massive change, I don't miss it as much as I thought I might. This is not to say that I don't still have an escape route planned (I keep a sleeping bag and a tetrapak of bad red wine in my trunk, just in case), but at the same time, I've finally come to the realization that there's value in staying put and settling in. This Holy Thursday, I'll come home from work and sit down at my piano, maybe noodle through a few old Lenten hymns (I may be the only Unitarian in possession of copies of both the High and Low Anglican hymnals), and water the icicle pansies on the back porch. It's been an unsettled spring, fraught with hail and flash freezes, but they've survived. They're hardy, and their roots are deeper than you'd think.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

notes from the sick room.

It's been a pretty weird, sick week around the Canada Street homestead. I've been ferrying myself back and forth between work and doctor's offices and occasionally video stores, spending upwards of one hundred dollars on herbal remedies for my various maladies, and crafting a Google search history that very closely resembles a badly-researched Cosmo article ("antibiotics and alcohol," "birth control and irresponsible decisions," and so on). I can say with complete certainty that there is no worse feeling than lying on the couch trying not to die as the warm spring sun shines down in the clear blue sky outside your window. The good news, however, is that I have crafted an airtight personal care package for surviving both spring fever and cabin fever at the same time.

1. Game of Thrones. I am so, so, SO not a fantasy person, but my WORD this is an excellent series. Compelling characters, gorgeous scenery, incredibly addictive plots, and the hottest gentlemen in the British empire. I'm so lucky to have nerds in my life who force me to watch things.

2. Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan. This wonderful essay collection saved my life this week. It is so full of completely perfect sentences that I cannot choose just one to quote, but here is one passage, about reality television:

“People hate these shows, but their hatred smacks of denial. It's all there, all the old American grotesques, the test-tube babies of Whitman and Poe, a great gauntlet of doubtless eyes, big mouths spewing fantastic catchphrase fountains of impenetrable self-justification, muttering dark prayers, calling on God to strike down those who would fuck with their money, their cash, and always knowing, always preaching. Using weird phrases that nobody uses, except everybody uses them now. Constantly talking about 'goals.' Throwing carbonic acid on our castmates because they used our special cup annd then calling our mom to say, in a baby voice, 'People don't get me here.' Walking around half-naked with a butcher knife behind our backs. Telling it like it is, y'all (what-what). And never passive-aggressive, no. Saying it straight to your face. But crying...My God, there have been more tears shed on reality TV than by all the war widows of the world. Are we so raw? It must be so. There are simply too many of them-too many shows and too many people on the shows-for them not to be revealing something endemic. This is us, a people of savage sentimentality, weeping and lifting weights.”

I am such a sucker for smart, culturally aware essayists. He writes about Axl Rose, Christian rock festivals, his brother's narrow escape from death, and MTV's The Real World, and it is all beautiful and brilliant.

3. Would It Kill You To Stop Doing That? by Henry Alford. This book is about manners and etiquette in the modern age, and it is sharp, bright, snappy, and sympathetic. Also, observant and funny as hell. Alford has this incredible way of unpacking behaviour we engage in every day to reveal just how self-centred and thoughtless we are, and also how fervently we justify our complete lack of regard for other people by claiming it's just the way things work now. Choice sentence: "You need spend only a month or two on Facebook before encountering the eight saddest words in the English language: 'Mark Ekmann has commented on his own photo.' " You will laugh, and you will see yourself in these ridiculous anecdotes, and you will become a more considerate citizen.

4. Somebody to Love, by Queen. Best played over and over as you lie on the floor willing your poor sad self back to life. Oh hell yes.