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.”
M.D. Dunn is the captain of this here website. Welcome aboard.