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Rendezvous of fools  

This is one of my favourite tracks from my first album, Small Things Shining Bright.

Melody came first here. I was cycling on the rail path from Barrie to Orillia, humming and thinking through a different melody structure for a song. The rhythm of the pedaling helped a lot with the groove…

...and then that initial phrase, the minor sixth, da dum, popped into my head. I cycled it around, rolled with it (see what I did there?) and a melody started to form. It’s about 40km wheeling about from Barrie to Orillia so I had time, lots of time and that groove became more and more infectious. A two-step. Something you could dance to.

As so often happens with me in this process, I began to hear the orchestration: an accordion, a violin, an upright bass, a clarinet, maybe. That dotted rhythm moving the story forward. It had to be there.

So upon arriving home, I sat down, thought some more, took out Yolande (my Breedlove guitar), and dove into experimentation. A minor key. Fretted, not open, like E minor or A minor, the typical guitar keys for minor-sounding songs.

F minor, then. Barre chord, first fret, just to make things difficult, but good exercise for the left hand. Subdued. I wanted a continental, European feel to this thing. Something Parisian, Left Bank, at a cafe with wine and cheese and Gauloises and the subtle light stroke of your companion’s foot on your calf.

And the tune grew.

The words were a real challenge. Theme? Story? This took the better part of half a year. Finally, an image: an older couple, reunited by chance or disguised intent after lives lived apart in their own worlds. A rendezvous, an old flame reignited, a French film from the fifties. Un rendezvous des fous. A rendezvous of fools. Love that “oo” sound shared by both languages. A cinematographic feel to the words, images, music, and storyline.

And the rest is history.

I remember one time I performed this in the small bistro under my apartment. There wasn’t much room between the stage and the dining room, but somehow a couple managed to find enough room to dance as I played this. They became lost in their own world the music painted for them. It was a lovely, touching moment, and we all applauded them as the song wound down to its conclusion.

Is this the way old lovers recall / the suns of passion long since cooled?/

Who knows how wintered flesh remembers the touch / of a rendezvous of fools?

...they’d rather be beside each other than beside themselves...”


You'll Have my Memory  

You’ll have my memory

(TW: for those with religious sensitivities)

I had a past life, at this writing, almost seventeen years ago, as a United Church minister. I did that for twenty years. After a major mental health crisis – another story for sure – either the god I half believed in left the building or I left the household of faith and went AWOL. The result was a new direction to an unknown destination.

I had played and sung much of what folks called Christian music. Immeasurable measures of treacly but nonetheless beloved warhorses, “Onward Christian Soldiers”, “In the Garden”, “God Be With You Till We Meet Again” and such like. There were the mindless and repetitive praise choruses, and songs hardly distinguishable from pop earmush where the word “Jesus” could be substituted by whatever intended romantic idol or unrequited lover existed in the mind of the singer.


Well-produced, predictably arranged, nice, innocent, beloved, manipulative, beige, and horrid drivel. Religious, white, musical shite. Taylor Swift meets Jesus Loves Me

<Cue Gollum’s voice: We hates it! We hates it forever!>

This is not to say that there isn’t some damn good lyrical hymnody out there, classical and contemporary. I have a special place in my heart for Poulenc’s Mass, and, paradoxically enough, a gospel song “Angel Band” by the Stanley Brothers. I first heard the latter one while watching the movie “O Brother, Where art Thou?” Anything by Palestrina and Byrd. And Bach oratorios. I recently sang in a choir performing Mozart’s Coronation Mass. A lovely piece but the music seemed to belong more in a comedic opera than a mass.

Call me a blasphemous snob. I don’t care. That and a quarter will get you ten minutes’ worth of parking in Collingwood.

I wrote “Memory” as an anti-gospel tune. Perhaps I should re-phrase that. I wrote it as a life-affirming reminder that all we have is life, no afters. Expecting an afterlife after we die is a waste of good terrestrial time. This life, this bag of bones and dreams, this time where we cry, love, screw up, and maybe reconcile is the whole meal, and that dinner lasts until we finally disband, disintegrate, and decay. Our only legacy is the memory others have of us.

I remember performing this song at a concert in London, Ontario. Afterward, a woman about my age came up to me. She said,

“My father died three months ago. I haven’t slept well, wondering, 'Where is he?’ It’s been hard. Your song answered so many questions. Thank you.”

That’s as good a summary of why I do this kind of thing.

In writing the song, I concluded that the concepts of God, Jesus, the Scriptures, and the doctrines of sin, forgiveness, and salvation were, in the end, unnecessary.

All we have is each other and the stories we tell. Presence and memory.

That is all that is needed.

Facing the Music and Dancing  

The Ten-Minute Test

A strange title for a song, I’ll admit. It does have an explanation.

This song arrived much later. I had been living in downtown Barrie when a musician friend of mine, Roy Hickling, invited me to a local songwriting group, The Barrie and District Association of Singer-Songwriters.

BaD/ASS. Of course.

They were. Still are.

We would gather on the first Thursday of the month. Some of us brought songs we had written or were in the process of writing. We’d perform them, distribute the lyrics, and listen to commentary by anyone present. It was non-judgmental, genial, and perceptive.

Much food and drink was consumed. Ribaldry and hilarity ensued.

On occasion, the organizer would give us a writing exercise. On one particular evening, he said:

“OK. You have a pen and paper. You also have ten minutes to live. Write in 3...2...1...go”

And off we went.

Some amazing stuff came out of that session. I wrote the major part of the song that night, and added another verse and the chorus after. And the title.

So how did I come up with that crazy tune?

I am partial to jazz and popular standards between the 1930’s and late 1950’s. I had a copy of the “Real Book of Jazz”, consisting of melody and chord sequences, as well as lyrics. One of them intrigued me, Irving Berlin’s Let’s Face the Music and Dance [link] The initial sequence of chords puzzled me for a while. I didn’t have a piano, so trying to figure out on the guitar chords that a keyboard player would easily interpret was a bit of a challenge.

Then asked myself, in all those changes, which line is moving in such a way that it attracts my attention? I figure it’s a good question to ask in any kind of life situation. Listen to the thing that moves.

So I did. And it was the line that moved in half steps. And I found it worked as a bass and as a treble. I chose bass and there were my guitar chords. Keeping one fingering and moving the bass line one fret at a time. Chromatics are us! And I decided to keep the flavour of that in the chorus as well.

Change it from four beats to three to keep with the rhythm of the words I wrote.

Ten minutes to live? I thought an attitude of gratefulness with a tinge of naughtiness would best be the way I’d begin. I had a Leonard Cohen taste in my brain as I was writing, knowing that at the end of the ten minutes, I’d be dead. So the first line, “Thank you, my love, your body was light” seemed apropos.

And then family, and the one whose mortgage I was paying to keep a roof over my head, and of course my friends, whose supply of medicinals and companionship never was in doubt. A not-so-good-natured jibe at my erstwhile and abandoned religious pastimes within the evangelical fold. And memories.

So it travels, into the last chorus, “I’ll be gone, but you’ll do just fine.” There are some weirdly apt percussion and sound effects throughout. A ten minute test in a four-minute song.

As you can tell in the recording, Ray Dillard and Don Bray had some fun with this. We all did. It's on the first album, Small Things Shining Bright. Wait till the very end for the studio talk.

It’s dark. It’s funny.

I like it. Hope you do, too.

Home from the Forest 

I was in grade seven English class. Woodland Heights Public School, London, Ontario. We were in the poetry mode and our teacher, a genial, bespectacled gentleman, Mr. McRorie, introduced us to a poem/song “Home from the Forest.”

Written by a Canadian, he said. Gordon Lightfoot. He took out the class record player (Remember those?) And he played it for us.

It was like a revelation for me – that voice, that melody, and most of all, the poignancy of the storyline of a homeless man who eventually dies. Told in a simple, sympathetic, poetic way

I learned the paradox of beauty that can be horrible and heart-wrenching. The question toward the end of the lesson was, “What does Lightfoot mean when he says at the end of the song that ‘The old man has come home from the forest.’”?

I think we were all almost afraid to say it, “He died.” Fate, dreams, and mortality.

Those were big feelings for a twelve-year-old. And Mr. Lightfoot did that.

Even more, I wanted to learn that song. And more songs by him.

You have to keep in mind that this was way before the age of cell-phones, MTV, and computer search engines. My only access to music at the time was to become a denizen of music stores. Almost every chance I would get to be downtown I’d find myself in one of the two music stores there.

My father still had an old guitar he occasionally played. I bought a book on guitar chords. The problem was manifold: the height of the strings over the fretboard was measured in sixteenths of an inch. It was a big, awkward thing with a huge neck. Tuning it was well-nigh impossible. Translated, it meant that the thing was a bugger to play, and my pre-teen fingers were never going to be strong enough to push the old and rusted strings down behind the frets.

But I wanted to learn how to play guitar in order to play Gordon Lightfoot songs.

I babysat. A year or two later, I washed dishes for my father’s kitchen. The music store in downtown London had a Yamaha steel six-string acoustic for just over a hundred bucks. And I saved enough to buy it, the first of many Gord’s songbooks that would litter my bedroom floor.

I can credit Gord (and his publishers) for my introduction to Travis picking and dropped ‘D’ tuning.

When I see titles of his songs, about 90% of the time the tune and lyrics of at least the first verse and melody will spring to mind. That yodel of “Steel Rail Blues” still rings in my head even as I write this. For opening the doors to other artists and singers: Joni Mitchell, Ian and Sylvia Tyson, Bob Dylan, Murray McLaughlin, Valdy, Bruce Cockburn, the McGarrigle Sisters, and of course the multitude of wonders of the Mariposa Folk Festival.

Indeed, when I look back, Gord was the catalyst, bringing together a host of disparate influences and curiosities in my young life: choirs, high school band music, my father’s classical repertoire, my mother’s attraction to musicals and C&W, dysfunctional family, and teenage angst. I think the climax of all of that was a performance I gave of the Canadian Railroad Trilogy for a high school lunch concert. Even if I have problems with the real history of the Trans Canada Railroad, playing Gord’s interpretation of that historical song in its entirety at the time was a coup for me and well-received by my peers. If ever I wanted to feel even close to being “Canadian” Gordon Lightfoot was the ticket.

His songwriting is poetic, down-to-earth, full of the empathetic storytelling skill that held and still holds me. Whether it was a trip to a hometown friend wondering about an old flame, riots in Motor City, or a shipwreck, philosophical musings of the wherefore and the why, or, one of my personal favourites, a road trip to the mountains to greet Marianne, Gord had the knack of bringing the story home to me.

And when I began to write songs, he was the springboard. I am eternally grateful for his life and legacy.

Ah, parting is such sweet sorrow. Safe havens, Gord. You’re home from the forest.

Take No Prisoner Eyes  

More stories about the songs on “Small Things Shining Bright”

This one goes further back into the late eighties and in my first marriage to a truly beautiful woman and mother of our two sons. Crackerjack French teacher possessed of a ringing laugh that makes her easy to find in crowded, noisy places.

I first met her in Quebec City. I had just finished my final year of undergraduate studies in French at Laval. This was all in preparation for further theological study for the United Church ministry, part of which required me to be a part of a local United Church congregation. Indeed, the only United Church congregation in the city, Chalmers-Wesley. The incumbent was an old-school British Methodist, Don Rabson. Straight, stiff upper lip, cigarillo-smoking, and funny as hell. After my first Sunday seated in the pews, a lovely couple, the Kitchens, introduced me to the choir, I joined and it give me a bird’s eye view of the small but lively group of worshippers.

We occasionally had visitors, mostly in the summer, the tourists, the curious, the transplanted. The English Diaspora in Quebec City was like a small town surrounded by the metropolis’s French language and culture, so any visitor and new face was a novelty met with an almost covetous sense of ownership.

So when one Sunday two young women entered the sanctuary and sat down we could not help but notice.

I could not help but notice one of them. It’s amazing what eye contact does to the heart in the ten metres between choir and pew.

Oh, be still my beating heart. It was definitely her eyes. And it being summer, her ankles.

I was hooked, caught, netted, and willingly, most pleasantly enthralled.

There is always more to the story, isn’t there? You see, at the time all this was taking place with the eyes and all, I was just back from Haiti to visit what I thought was my girlfriend at the time. She was teaching at a Baptist missionary school for the deaf in Port-au-Prince. I was to stay for a week. Upon my arrival, she told me as I got into the van, that it wasn’t going to work out. So I spent a week from hell in a missionary compound feeling ever so pathetically sorry for myself. I returned to Quebec chastened and heartbroken. I poured my soul out to Don, who listened sympathetically and offered me wine for comfort. He was a good man, God rest his soul.

Unbeknownst to me, Elaine, the one with the take-no-prisoner-eyes, was debating with herself whether or not to stay in Quebec or return to her hometown of Barrie. She had arrived about a year earlier and found work but didn’t quite feel like she belonged anywhere. She spoke with Don about her quandary, and he listened sympathetically (he was very good at that). Now the conversation went something like this (I know because Elaine told me afterward):

Don: “Do you like Quebec?”

Elaine: “Oh, I do. It’s lovely here.”

D: “What, then seems to be the problem?”

E: “It’s just that there is nothing and no one here to keep me here. And I’m missing my family.”

D: “Well, did you know that Ed’s spare?”

Yes. He did use that word. Spare. Like a tyre in the boot. The British English references are entirely intentional.

And the rest is...go ahead. Fill in the blanks.

I'll be your violin  

Album: Small Things Shining Bright

Song: If You'll Be My Gypsy

This is the first in a series of commentaries and stories surrounding the songs I recorded over two albums and through the last eight years.

Recording an album of songs is intense work, requiring collaboration, skill, generosity of spirit, humility, and patience. Lots and lots of patience. Many thanks to Don Bray for the initial push to get this thing going, and to Bruce Rumble, Alyssa Wright, Anna Atkinson, and Ray Dillard for the musical and mixing skills, and the encouragement. And those who took part in the funding drive for the seed money.

Great big bear hugs to you all.

The following will be from my first album ‘Small Things Shining Bright”

So. If you’ll be my Gypsy.

Queen Anne’s Lace in the fall is a lovely sight. Looking at the cluster of florets in the afternoon sun sets my heart aglow. It reminds me of a dear friend, my muse, my witch, my tarot card reader.

And so I gave into the inspiration of a road trip:

If you’ll be my gypsy, I’ll be your violin/ we’ll ride around the country, see what trouble we’ll get in”

I make no apologies for the fact that when I wrote this song almost a dozen years ago the word “Gypsy” and its connotations as an ethnic slur had not yet hit me.

It has now. Without going into its use as an insult and a Western ethnic designation of a marginalized and ostracized group of humans, I am looking for a suitable equivalent – a Romani term of endearment, perhaps. The search continues.

Back to the story. I’m walking on a path passing by a field of Queen Anne’s Lace, and thinking of my friend Caroline. A visit to my sister, who was living in Montreal at the time. The road trip there as we took the train along the shoreline of Lake Ontario.

We were dreamers with a bucketful of hopes.

We still are.

So when Don and I planned to make the recording, I knew I needed a violin. So I wrote the part out and hired an extraordinary musician, Anna Atkinson, to play.

I had been playing with the opening guitar riff for some time and was wondering what kind of song would fit into it. The lyrics of the road trip were ideal. My sister was in Montreal pursuing (and eventually getting) her Ph.D. Of course, we had to visit. I knew a bit of the city and we had a wonderful time. Rue St. Denis is a treasure on a Friday night.

The rest? Swimming naked in Lake Ontario? Bucket list. Didn't happen, but would still love to do it.

The first song on my first album.

Thank you, Caroline.