January 26, 2021
TOPIC: David Campbell, Vancouver, teachers, time
Sleep has been difficult. For you, too? The isolation, winter, and a lingering imbalance in mood have been hitting hard. We, of course, share this experience. Whatever "this" may be. May your dark moments lead to light from unexpected sources.
With stores on lockdown, The RadZone, my favourite record store of all time, is functioning with curbside service. Founded by Paul Muncaster way back before MP3s, before the genome had been mapped, before Elon Musk had built his first killer robot, The RadZone, source of music, movies, books, boards and gear, deserves a post of its own. For now, I want to share a bit of today’s magic. The wonderful Melodie, clerk/manager/magician, posts videos of new albums and books on the Instagram feed, which i wait for like a dried out daisy waiting for rain. Today, as Mel flipped through the “Fresh Crate” of new arrivals, I saw the familiar face of a mentor flash by: David Campbell, poet, songwriter, teacher. Hardly believing what I’d seen, I texted Mel to ask if she'd put aside the album, Pretty Brown, David’s major label debut from 1977. At least, I thought it was his major label debut. It turns out I do not know as much about David Campbell’s music as I thought I did. For example, his early albums were released by major labels -- Columbia, for one -- before David started his own label based on Manitoulin Island. I did not even know David had a connection to Manitoulin! There is so much to learn.
Not only did Mel and Paul have Pretty Brown, there were five more albums, including a German pressing of Through Arawak Eyes. All of this is new to me. Although I knew David – somewhat – this is the first time I have held one of his albums. These records have been rumours to me. David was famously prolific throughout his life, more books and albums than I know of, none of which have been particularly well preserved. And then, six albums, found in a box. Thank you, RadZone.
I met David Campbell at a poetry reading in Vancouver in the early 1990s. The name of the venue is not important because, as I recall, the venue did not have a name. It was a pop-up reading with music organized by a young poet, a student I’d met at Langara College, and held in an abandoned retail space somewhere on the tired end of Main Street. I remember many of the people and few of their few names. There was a guy who recited a poem about a fish that lifted its head out of the water to spit at the writer. I forget the guy’s name. He was a white fella, probably in his thirties, tall, thin. We got to know each other a little, turning up at readings and open stages, coffee houses, and clubs. At that time, I was fairly shut down and could not make easy conversation with anyone. I could sing, if you gave me a guitar and threatened me, but I was not rushing the stage to read poems or strum out my very emo-ish early folk tunes. The guy with the fish poem – a poem that began with the line: “Nice trick, fish…” – was at the table with a few other open mic writers and performers. Although I can’t remember the fish poet’s name, I remember the expression on his face when David entered the room. And when Mr. Campbell sat with us, the fish guy became noticeable nervous.
“Are you reading tonight, David?”
“No. Just listening,” said David Campbell.
I had no idea who David Campbell was. He had a heavy vibe, like someone who had seen and felt more than he could express, even after ages of expression. For whatever reason, David sat beside me. We started talking. I was a new face, maybe. Or my cardigan? [Fashion Fact: I wore a cardigan sweater long before Kurt Cobain made it a uniform for recalcitrant Gen-Xer would-be poets and songwriters. I don’t claim to have invented the cardigan or to have popularized it. My claim is that I was the only person I knew who had a cardigan, and that I wore it without posturing and without irony. It was warm. It had pockets for paper and pens. That is all that mattered]. It likely wasn’t the cardigan that had David sit at our table. Likely, it was the fish poet. They’d known each other.
A few people were asking me to read and play. They asked not because they liked my poems and songs but because they had never heard me play. Who is this kid in the cardigan?
I didn't know, how could they have known?
I remember talking about music with David. Music, poetry, darkness. He was talking about the thing I’d felt around me but had not yet identified. I must have looked like something partially hatched to him, stunted, static. You’ll never be a tree, if you don’t start growing, I imagine him saying, having no memory of David having said anything of the sort. He didn’t say that. Let's be clear. I don’t remember what we talked about, but it must have been enough to make a link of some kind. Over the next few years – although I can’t say we became friends – we had interesting conversations, with David functioning as a sort of distance-ed teacher and me standing outside the classroom listening through an open window. We never played music together. He would play a song, and I would listen with everyone else. He would comment on a song I played that night, more about the energy than the songs.
The room changed after David left that Main Street pop-up reading, like light and gravity had shifted in his absence. I stayed around, listening to the readers and singers, wishing I had the confidence to get up and sing, then started made my way to the SkyTrain station for home.
Leaving alone, I walked the dark street. Rounding a corner, I heard my name called. It was David. He said he had stopped in to see a friend and was now going home. We walked together for a few blocks.
"Did you play?" he asked.
"Sometimes, it's not the right time. You can't force it."
As I recall the moment, I want to write that he said Spirit, but I don't think he did. He meant the song, most likely, in that moment, the performance. But the song, the enactment of the song in performance is -- or can be -- an act of Spirit. He was, I think, talking about performing that night specifically but also meant that the spirit of the song doesn't always want to come. Since that time, I have learned that songs can be coaxed but never forced. The audience knows when the performer forces the song. Sometimes the song just won't come. Although you've practiced it for years. There is something in that room, or in the moment, or in the performer's heart that will not allow that song to come through. So, as a drunk old heckler might say, play something you know when the spirit of the song won't come through.
But he was right. You can't force it.
My problem wasn't that it was the wrong night. Every night was the wrong night for me. I had stopped drinking. Most likely, I was twenty-one. This would have been the second time I had stopped drinking. The first time I'd stopped drinking, I was eighteen years old and woke from a sound sleep in my room in my parent's house, McDonald's wrappers scattered everywhere, half eaten burger on the floor. I was in bed and still dressed. Assembling the crumbs of memory, i remembered having been really very drunk, too drunk to drive, and i remembered having borrowed my Dad's green Chrysler Volaire [*], a four-door that I loved. I remembered driving to the party. I remembered having one beer. Then i woke up. I did not remember going to McDonald's drive-thru, nor do I remember driving home. Somehow, I managed to do just that, or no one has yet come clean with the parts of the story that are blank for me. At the time, all witnesses were likely just as blank.
I quit drinking then for the first time, and have never driven with alcohol in my system again. Come to think of it, when I met David at those coffee houses i was still drinking. I was just not drinking in public. Privately, I would have had a bottle of something going on in the apartment and, if I had the cash, beer in the fridge. But when i went places where I might play, I did not drink. That likely describes my state at the time more accurately.
That was the first time I met David Campbell. I had not yet heard his music or his poetry. I had not had a drop to drink.
David Campbell was born in Guyana. His father was Arawak. His mother was Portuguese. In his live sets, he talked a lot about his family, about growing up in Guyana and moving to Canada. I likely had never heard of Guyana or the Arawak people at that point. Everything is new when you are new.
From then on, David would show up at open stages. We continued our conversations. He, of course, had many friends to see, so it wasn’t like he spent all evening talking with me.
The first song I remember hearing him play was “I Am a Harbour,” written in Alert Bay, a community, way up north in the Queen Charlotte Strait near the top edge of Vancouver Island. It’s Kwakwaka'wakw territory, I now know. Then, I substituted the place in the song for every place and person I missed. The song had a chorus “I am a harbor / and you are a sailor / with the sea in your soul.” David played it on a nylon string guitar, gently picking the melody. His voice was warm wind from the still part of creation’s engine, centred in the balance of the dancer. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
It seemed that David was planning a return to performance at that time. He showed up at more coffee houses and open mics as the months went by. He asked a lot about my life. Where I was from? What I thought of this strange world? But he was guarded. I learned very little about the man. I knew the standard stuff, what he said on stage, and the legends people told: How he’d been signed to major labels; How the labels had abandoned him; and that his music can summon the Spirit of Creation for a moment. People talked about dozens of albums and books, a mythical library of material. One of his books of poetry was titled Between Songs. I saw it in the window of a secondhand bookshop. At the time, I was living in a $150-a-month room in the basement of a house owned by a retired engineer. I help him with his junk gathering business and watched the house when he traveled. Books were beyond my budget, and I couldn’t very well ask David if he had any spare cassettes or books kicking around.
So, I knew David Campbell’s writing and music from only what I had heard him perform.
It’s funny that in the conversations we’d had, David had not mentioned Manitoulin Island. He knew I’d grown up near the lakes. I suspect that his perspective was too broad for geography. Maybe it was his way of keeping distance from a young writer. Maybe he knew it was the spiritual aspects of his history, what he saw beyond the senses, not the specifics, that could most benefit a new writer. Either way, the man is a mystery to me. Over time, his influence on my writing and thought have taken on a mythic scale that is more imagined than apparent.
I do not want to imply that we were friends. As recently as 2008, I reached out to David, having found his astonishing YouTube channel with hundreds of poems and songs. In that message, I told him of his influence on my writing and consciousness. He did not remember me. How could he? What teacher can remember everyone who eavesdropped on their classes. I cannot call myself his student, but he was my teacher. There must be hundreds of artists with whom he has shared the magic of creation over these decades. Mostly, our conversations were invitations to open. He sensed my fear, reluctance, self-judgement. He knew I was scared and uncertain about allowing the songs to live in a moment. He sensed, I think, I would not let out my song.
“Look at me,” he said once, skipping along. “I’ve given my life to Creation, and I am fine. You’ll be okay, too.” It must have been frustrating to talk of faith to the faithless.
I will post my thoughts on each of the six albums Paul and Mel have gathered. They couldn’t have come at a better time, truthfully. I was very low today, returning to bed between work commitments to lose myself in the oblivion of sleep. But something has shifted. We move toward light.
This arc began a few days ago, when for no reason at all, I thought of David, of a concert he gave at La Quena Coffeehouse, the sadly defunct revolutionary café on Vancouver’s Commercial Drive, just at the end of the street from the engineer’s house where I sulked in my tiny rented room, wending my way around walls of old electronics and furniture. David had just returned from a tour across Canada as the resident storyteller and musician for VIA Rail. He was telling stories about people he’d met, sang a few songs, then launched into a cautionary critique against No Smoking signs.
In the early 90s, many Vancouver venues were discouraging indoor tobacco use, and those red circles with the slashes running through burning cigarettes were everywhere. David didn’t say anything about the act of smoking, its dangers, or criticize Vancouver venues from trying to keep the air clean for staff and patrons. Instead, he was concerned by the symbol itself: the slash across the circle was blasphemy.
“They don’t know what they are doing when they cross out a circle like that,” David said from the stage. “The circle is everything. The circle is life.”
I tend to write blog posts with word processors and paste into the blog. This gives me me more control over format and timing, but it also means I forget to post from time to time. Here are a few neglected posts.
August 19, 2020 –
The world is changing so quickly I can almost feel my brain sprouting new synapses and altering its neural pathways to compensate. Are things changing at a quicker pace, or is my brain less able to adapt to the regular old pace of daily change?
Today, a woman dressed for summer in shorts and a tanktop did something like a chicken dance by thrusting her knees and elbows away from her body. She did this for a long time, dancing along the path beside the river. She’d do the dance on the spot for a few beats, then continue East with the river. There was song to go with the dance. It went something like:
What about elves and trees and lions?
What about time and teeth and torture?
Underlying the chant, the woman made a constant sound of “bla:, bla:, bla:,” not like one might in dismissing a boring lecture but to sound more like rapid tapping of raindrops in a bucket of water.
Without prompting from me, my brain redirected its body to take us away from the riverside pathway to the parking lot by the abandoned hospital where an elderly couple were helping a young woman learn to ride a red motorized bicycle. The rider took off in a straight line once I’d passed safely by, the motor making a similar plopping noise as the dancer.
What about sin and sad and silk?
What about rain and run and ruin?
What about death and breath and bread?
What about safe and mace and mate?
The days are so strange, the President of the United States just “tweeted” his followers to ban a brand of American-made tire because the company won’t sell his caps, which are made in China. Let’s see the brain accommodate that one.
Here is a question for Gender Studies folks. Walt Whitman portrayed himself as a lusty frontiersman and paid a fortune for photographs to back the claim, each with a slight difference in angle, in lighting, or with one more button of his cotton shirt undone. All through his life, Whitman had self portraits made to preserve his various ages. He hid his gayness behind the masculine image of his day, yet published a poem cycle called “Calamus” that could have been called “Hymn to the Phallus” and no one noticed. Even back then, no one read poetry. And, if they read it, they didn’t understand it. Yet, at the end of his life, WW redacted his diaries feminizing masculine pronouns and burning pages too committed to be changed. All because he thought his gayness would destroy his legacy.
Whitman worried about how he’d be remembered and projected the homophobia of his age into the future.
Here is an interview with Bruce Cockburn published in early 2020 by an excellent Canadian poetry journal Contemporary Verse 2. The topics vary widely, but stay fairly close to poetry and writing. We spoke in August, 2019, before the pandemic and the lockdown and just a month after Maria and I saw Bruce with his band in the lovely Capitol Centre in North Bay, Ontario. That concert was intensely emotional for me as my father had passed away after a long illness just days before. The account of that concert and the healing properties of music are part of a lengthy project I am working on. Maybe one day it will be published, who knows? For now, this interview is quite impressive. Mr. Cockburn is funny and insightful as always. It is a companion interview to the article I wrote for Penguin Eggs Magazine about Bruce's latest album, Crowing Ignites.
I hope you enjoy. Thank you, Mr. Cockburn, for your generosity and compassion.
The city where I live is an ecological wonder. Built at the only natural outflow from Lake Superior, Sault Ste Marie is uniquely positioned geographically. Before Europeans arrived, the area was fertile fishing grounds and the site for the gathering of Indigenous people from around the Great Lakes regions. One can only imagine the relationships, trade deals, and peace agreements that developed here over the millennia.
European colonization brought European industry. For a time, this seemed to work out just fine for some. Sure, the Indigenous nations were pushed out. Sure, generations of people grew up dependent on the vagaries of the steel and pulp-paper markets, riding an addictive cycle of boom and bust all the way to the cancer ward. Now, centuries after the beginnings of colonization, we have an economy that putts along, a failed pulp industry, a steel industry that employs a small fraction of the workers it had in its prime, and, to top it off, inter-generational illness. In fact, we have among the highest rates of cancer in Ontario.
With all this in mind, the city is now courting a new saviour in the form of a small mining company called Noront. I am not an economist, but Noront's financial records scream volatility. This company wants to build a ferrochrome refinery on the Great Lakes waterway, in the centre of the city. I won't go into it here because there is lots of information available from more reliable sources, but ferrochrome smelting is lethal business. The nearest comparison to the mill proposed for my city is in Finland. The Finnish refinery, as i understand it, is located away from human settlement, at the edge of open ocean where emissions are difficult to measure.
City Council has already committed to a partnership with this new industry, presenting the key administrators with personalized street signs. Stay tuned.
Below is a version of a letter sent to my councilors and the mayor of SSM It has been edited for this blog posting. If this issue is important to you -- if you live in the region or live downstream -- please consider expressing your thoughts and concerns.
August 12, 2020
Dear Mayor and Councilors,
I hope that you and your family are well in these strange times.
I am writing to express my opposition to Council’s decision to option Sault Ste. Marie for the site of Noront’s ferrochrome refinery. In recent years, through your efforts and those of many young entrepreneurs and visionaries, the Sault economy has experienced a grassroots renewal focused on local services and products. While these endeavours are more modest than the “$100,000/year” jobs promised by Noront, community-based economic growth can be sustainable and environmentally sound in ways that Noront’s interests cannot guarantee. It is my contention that the opportunities found in community-based initiatives are more realistic than the promises made by Noront, which has no real connection to or investment in Sault Ste. Marie, its ecosystem, and the long-term health of its people.
Our history as an industrial centre will lead many to accept Noront’s interest as a grand opportunity. By force of habit, the Sault would accept Noront and its potential dangers. The promise of steady industrial jobs is seductive to many people in our community who have grown up in industry and believe that prosperity and well-being can be manufactured in a furnace. Partnering with Noront is an easy, temporary answer to our long struggle in creating sustainable employment. It is easy because we have always looked to industry for economic salvation. It is temporary because Noront is interested in Sault Ste. Marie for its infrastructure and access to transportation and would choose any community that met its technical demands and welcomed its ambitions. I ask that City Council look more deeply at Noront’s proposal and at the company’s history and track record for community development. Are they conscientious, proven partners? Or are they looking to make their reputation on St. Mary’s waterway?
There has been much debate over the safety of the ferrochrome refinery process City Council wants to bring to the Sault. Health professionals and environmentalists have addressed the very real possibility for inter-generational health effects from Noront’s proposal. I do not have the expertise to add to these arguments. However, the harmful effects of centuries of industrial activity on the health of our region are widely documented. We are now, again, at a turning point. We have the choice to break away from the old, default patterns of behavior that generate dramatic boom-bust economies in favour of a more egalitarian, sustainable community-based model.
I understand that the challenges to build an environmentally sound local economy are many, and the temptation to sacrifice future health for apparently immediate prosperity can seem like a good deal. It is my fear that partnership with Noront in the contentious and environmentally devastating “Ring of Fire” project will lead us to deeper dependence upon limited resources and externally based industry. This is the time to be bold and to reject a return to old patterns.
Batchewana First Nations has expressed its opposition to the ferrochrome refinery, and Sault Ste. Marie should follow its lead. The band’s opposition alone should give us pause.
Thank you for all that you do.
When I am feeling playful, I point out the bicycle lanes to cyclists who ride on sidewalks. I am careful not to make accusations or to give directives. Simply, I say, “Hey, look at that. We have bike lanes now.”
Responses vary. Most riders ignore the comment, but I’ve had people tell me to copulate with myself and others stop long enough to give me a “what are you going to do about it?” ultimatum.
The answer is: Ultimately, nothing.
Today, a fella geared-up in new polyester, helmet gleaming, stopped to explain that he was breaking no laws by riding his fat tire, carbon-framed mountain charger in the middle of the pedestrian pathway. He’d done his homework.
“I called the city police,” he said, hands flashing and waving between us. “I have every right to ride on this pathway. I don’t have to use the bike lane.”
I began to remind him that I had said nothing about his rights, the law, or what I thought he should do, but had merely indicated to him the existence of a bike lane just a meter to his right, in case he hadn't noticed. But he didn’t want, or was unable, to listen. He was caught up in a performance of some kind. It was clear that he’d practiced the speech, perhaps in front of a mirror -- I may well be the first person to whom he has unburdened -- so I let him go on without interruption.
He is harassed by pedestrians every day when he rides his bike along the sidewalk, and he has had enough. People film him with their phones. There’s one now, calling someone, likely the police. “One woman yells at me,” he said.
After a while, I missed the sound of my own voice and tried again to assure this anxious man that I truly did not care if the law allows him to ride his bike on the sidewalk. It made sense in a way. The city has spent millions in recent years adding bike lanes in response to requests from cycling advocates. Sections of the 22.5 kilometer system that weaves through the city and immediate bushlands is multi-use, with pedestrians and cyclists dodging each other. But a good bit of the trail, especially those that double as city sidewalks, are split with paths for walking and lanes for cycling. Yet, according to the man waving his hands in my face this afternoon, no law exists to bar cyclists from the sidewalk along a major street, although there are designated lanes for bicyclists.
Curiously, I have just learned from the "City Trail Guide" that it is illegal for pedestrians to walk in the bike lane.
But my purpose was not to debate the law or to exert control over a free-spirited cyclist who had clearly practiced for this moment. I was merely pointing to the path, acknowledging its existence, and hoping he might as well.
Eventually, he revealed the true reason he chooses to ride within arm’s reach of pedestrians, the old, the young, the wobbly, the drunk. It is fear. “I ride on the sidewalk because I don’t want to get hit by a car,” he said.
But isn’t that why the city made all these bike lanes? Look, there's one now.
An article about Bruce Cockburn's new album _Crowing Ignites_ and in which Mr. Cockburn talks guitar and a few players who have impressed him over the years. From Penguin Eggs Magazine, Fall 2019.
Wrote this after attending the first citizens meeting regarding the construction of a ferrochrome refinery in Sault Ste. Marie.
Your Life For Money
Will you trade your life for money?
They say it’s just a little
bit of poison, nothing you can’t handle.
You might lose a hand, and keep the middle finger.
It will hurt a bit at first, but the pain is going to linger.
When you trade life for money.
How far does the water flow?
How deep does the poison go?
Will you sell your blood to vampires,
who dig up the wilds
who spread contagion building empires,
who solve their problems by writing out cheques?
They look you in the eye while they measure your neck.
When you sell blood to vampires.
How far does the water flow?
How deep does the poison go?
Will you trade your life for money,
to drive a big truck,
pay for your funeral, and keep pushing your luck
with the billionaires who make holes in the ground?
They got a grave dug for you when you finally fall down.
When you trade your life for money.
How far does the water flow?
How deep does the poison go?
How far does the water flow?
How deep does the poison go?
M.D. Dunn is the captain of this here website. Welcome aboard.