Monday, August 15, 2016

Big Tour of Small: Lost and Found in the Canadian West

Each year the Blog takes on a different style. Zulu Skies will be a bit of a mash-up. Here, I've crunched the first two months of road Tour into one long, long posting. It's reflective of my decades of travel and shows through these places, my life in motion on the Blues Highway, my state of mind, my world. I'll try to keep the upcoming postings more bite size– meanwhile, I hope you enjoy this chapter of the Canadian journey.

Canada goose. Actually, a giant, sheet metal version of a Canada goose. Perched on a rise over Highway 17, wings half splayed, ready to take flight, ready to run, ready to point you down the narrow two lanes of blacktop that tie this country together.  Which way? Which way? Since the 1950's it has been a rite of passage for every Canadian musician to travel this road. The Walk of Fame ought to run right down the middle of it: stars inset, buffed by the wheels of the semi trucks, scraped by the winter ploughs. The TransCanada Highway. Like Route 66, except with more trees and rock. A lot more trees and rock. Trees and rock. Back in the day, rolling through the mill towns, the hard rock towns, the railroad towns, the ports, the places with no reason, the places with gas stations and shattered cars, the sweet smell of fuel rippling on a hot day, bottled pop clanking out of a coin operated cooler. Ice cold. Ice cold. Bait and tackle. Motel. Motel. TV Vacancy. Cabins. Genuine Indian Souvineers. Moccasins. It was a long, long haul across Ontario in good weather, and sometimes a lifetime in bad.

The road to the Big Time. Homes left behind. As if this tour of punched out taverns and rusted skating rinks was going to change everything. It might change the way you drink, or your reasons for drinking. Girls, Girls, Girls. You were how old? Fluff shows with women who winked and called you "honey." Close enough that you could smell the perfume over the cigarettes and beer. Close enough. Untouchable. They were here for the railroad men, the miners, fallers from the lumber camps. Suckers with wallets, who knew exactly what they were getting into. Ten or twelve or fourteen hours out of Toronto, you'd hit the Big Lake. Superior. More like a freshwater sea, more like an angry ocean. And then here, Wawa, Ontario. The BFG. Plug full of kids with backpacks and dogs. Signs that read "VANCOOVER." Did they have any idea of how far it was to Vancouver? The other end of a continent? It didn't matter. And no one cared. A generation that later forgot nearly everything they might have learned out on this sunburnt highway.

I'm not hitch hiking today, or riding with the bins in the back of a rusted Econoline van. It's a near perfect day as I pull the Big Lincoln off the highway to get a coffee and find some wifi. It's hard to imagine this place without a coffee stop just over the hill. A couple of motor homes crowd the parking lot. Husband-wife Golden Eagles with Michigan plates. A BMW out of Alberta. Not a backpack in sight. I'm heading West. Day two. The first leg of a Tour that will see me drive across two continents– and not straight across, either. That's not my style. But change is in the air. I've been out on Hwy 17 many, many times– and this is the eleventh consecutive year I've humped north and west over the Great Lakes. I've got about 125 shows in front of me. I've got three guitars and a small PA. I've got an extra large coffee, and the Blues Highway is just as mysterious and compelling as it ever has been: and there– the white line escaping behind the car in a cloud of dust. "West," hums the motor, "west."

It's a small show this night in a small cafe I've played before. An old port town where the train no longer stops, but screams through anyway, just to let you know. The owners will put me up in a cabin, feed me well, pour me red wine. This show is really for them. And for me. Fair trade among friends. The rest is seasonal. Travellers who Googled up this town, this place: eager to get off the blacktop for a time, eager to look at Canada. Americans now looking south, homeward, across this great lake. I've got a small, after dinner crowd of perhaps twenty souls. The room being small enough, I don't put mics up for the show. An armless chair, a glass of red. Now, let me pour you some stories.

There's a handsome couple from suburban Chicago. She loves the blues. He's patient, he'll indulge her enjoyment. We chat for a few moments. Their nineteen year old son was stricken with an aggressive cancer during his first year at college. They've spent the last few months caring for him, but he's now insisted that they take a holiday. Clearly, they are exhausted. Any parent could feel their pain. I've got a nineteen year old son going to college. How would I deal with such a hard card of fate? I want to give them both hugs, but I don't. They're seated. Somehow awkward. They are supposed to be forgetting their troubles for a few days, or a few moments. So many tears, so many broken hearts. I play the next show for them. In the morning, all of us will be back on Hwy 17. Trying to lose something, trying to find something else. Hoping against hope.

Who dressed this cross, and when, for whom? The log church stands in good repair on the edge of this First Nations reserve, but most of the wooden markers have fallen. Now the bush consumes them. Already, the names forgotten. Maybe never inscribed. They knew who they were. As did the hands who buried them there, above the river. Now the bush sings in the wind: the same songs that mourned the parting of the dirt, as if these human years could be remembered long.

In Canada, the bugs are special at this time of year. The swarm of the little black fly. The constant buzz of the mosquito. And ticks. Wood ticks, deer ticks. I don't know one from the other– but there seem to be ticks everywhere this year. It's been dry. Every night I undress and inspect my body. I'm lucky I haven't had to burn them off, or salt them off, or tear them out of my skin. But I've caught a few, tickling around, getting ready for blood. Hate 'em. I'm usually west in the fall, when all these pests have past their prime. Tonight, I'm being eaten on a screen porch in the shadow of a Sleeping Giant. In the end, I don't think there is any part of me the mosquitos haven't found. In fact, I know this to be true. It's otherwise a pleasant night with friends. I'm so far off the beaten path it's not funny. Red dirt sticking to the tires, red dust coating the rest of the car. I'll be back to do a house concert here in a few weeks. I'm at the top of Superior now. Off grid. The generator hums. The waves murmur gently along the shore. Tomorrow, I've a short drive to Thunder Bay and my next show. And I've got plans for the morning.

Did you know that I'm a runner? It's one of the things I do between shows. I'm not as fast as I used to be. But I still like to get out and do it. Running keeps me thinner, younger, feeling good– things that appeal to my personal vanity. It's also my pension plan. I'm going to need a long life to pay my debts and make a little money. I'm up early this gloomy morning to run a special little chunk of highway.

Rip it up baby.

I ran that last strip of highway today. The last strip Terry Fox ran. A man who ran 148 marathons in a row, on one leg. Life and death. A man compelled by life and death to push his days to the max. It's not about running, or fighting a disease. It's about life, and struggle and dreams and things that might be possible. Today I shuffled in his shadow. Note to myself: live life. Don't miss a moment. Taste it. Smell it. Breathe it. Take it for your own and ride it. Now, put your black clothes back on and go play a show.

The inner sanctum. Still daylight in the locked bar. I use the time to do a little maintenance on the girls. These are my long time travel companions: a 1929 National Type O and an early 1950s Stella. The Dark Angel, my 1935 National Duolian, broods in her case. She's trouble. She knows I won't come to her until these other girls have failed me, until the wine has had it's way, until the night is truly dark, until the ground is cold and strange. And yet we are lovers, year after year, and cannot part.

Stage ready once more, I take a short walk about. I drink coffee. A new coffee joint in this hollow, casino dominated downtown. Read the local paper. I haven't made the listings. Pretty hard to fill a room when hardly anybody knows you are coming. Oh, it'll be what it is, 'bye. That's for sure, eh? Right out of the gate I'm worried about gas money to the next gig, much less paying the banks at the end of the month. The best thing to do, I figure, is to take a nap. I've got rock star parking outside the venue, so I sleep in the Lincoln the rest of the afternoon.

The Apollo. Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada. I love this room. Nice big place with great sight lines, great sound, great hospitality. Popcorn. Well known by the knights of the open road. We all stop here. Blues. Jazz. Rock. Metal. Punk. Folk. Stuff you can't figure out what it is. Old dogs. Wide eyed kids on their first tours. Big acts and small. Got a night to fill over the hump? Better give Sheila a call. Why would you play anywhere else at the lakehead? For a few dollars more? Like many of us, this old club has seen better days– but this is where the mojo is: the place where the stories are told, the place where you might hear anything, anyone. Like many of us, this old club could vanish in the night. This night the power company has turned off the mains, so I sit on the edge of the stage and play to the room without mics. People move up close in a semi-circle at the front. It's a small crowd. But it's a great show. Magic all around. Every once in a while you catch a night that's really special.

What Manitoba looks like in my rear view mirror. It's not heavily populated, but it's getting harder and harder for a travelling show to make stops. It's a great music scene, but heavily local outside of the flagship, Winnipeg Folk Festival. This won't be the first time I've driven through without a show, but it is cause for thought. It's tight on the ground, and harder to network for house and community concerts. The majority of the stuff I find out about now is gleaned from other touring artists. I wonder if the new, corporate face of folk music has anything to do with it? Don't get me started. It's the eastern part of the Great West, it's the middle of Canada. Today it's flying by in my non-aligned rear view mirror.

I'm now on Sweet Sixteen, the Yellowhead Highway. I've played the length of this road, from Club Zero on Haida Gwaii to Portage la Prairie. It's as storied and dramatic a highway as you'll find, snaking it's way across half the continent. In northwest British Columbia this road is known as the Highway of Tears. Women have disappeared there. For years. A dark and troubling mystery. A brooding highway holding unspoken secrets. But here, in western Manitoba, it's a blacktop farm road. Kind, but plain and firm. At least less broken. Pick up trucks hauling gear. Rigs hauling supplies to the oil patch. Mostly flat and dusty. Sunset finds me at a jog in the road. A little rest stop parking lot. Hey, the Canada geese point the way. West. I recline the seats and listen to Duff Dorough, one of my favourite contemporary musicians. Everybody needs a dream to keep from waking up so mean. Everybody wants to ride. Wake up on the other side. Will you laugh or scream? I sleep in the Big Lincoln while the semi trucks rumble by in the darkness. I live the dream. Whatever that is.

Looking for a gas station that sells coffee. I eventually find something hot and black in a plastic cup. I hate driving how many km before coffee. This may not be coffee anyway. But it's hot, black, and the road is opening up. I'm surfing heat waves in the Lincoln today as I enter the province of Saskatchewan. This is a place that's always been good to me. I've played a whole lot of Saskatchewan over the years. It's not all Big Sky, although I love that. I keep finding stuff here. It's always been friendly and welcoming, and is still full of surprises. The birthplace of Canadian socialism. Full of places with names you can get your tongue around: Saskatoon, Indian Head, Moose Jaw, Regina, White Bear, Cadillac, Kyle, Wadena, Forget, Prince Albert, Wroxton...

Listening to Smilin' Johnny and his Prairie Pals, rolling toward Saskatoon, Saskatchewan for tonight's Blues Society show at Vangeli's. I stop at Wroxton, SK, but don't see any sign of Johnny and the Pals. A strange landscape unfolding. Around here: Land cleared and towns built by Ukrainian immigrants. Abandoned Orthodox churches, once almost as important at the grain elevators– now housing the same birds, looking out over the same almost abandoned towns. Once this was really somewhere. A place where folks walked on tree lined streets, stopping to talk outside the little shops. Marrying. Dying here, too. The children of big families. The oldest boys, gone to the Great War. Their names carved forever on a stone by the edge of town. Names now forgotten, the young now moved away, the buildings now boarded over, or fallen. Like the fallen sons: broken. No black framed envelopes arriving. Tears long swallowed, long dried. Just the wind now. People danced here and went to shows. Smilin' Johnny was a big star. Today: not a soul, not a car. I give this place a moment of two of silence, and then gun the Lincoln back over the dust and the mud (how do you get both at once?) to the blacktop. It'll be an early, 8:30 show for me, and then down the street to visit with Big Dave McLean at Bud's on Broadway. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, on deck.

Well into the most ragged blues tour I've done in years. Western Canada. The prairies in late spring. A bit like Oz. Green. Manitoba. Saskatchewan, Alberta. The great flatlands. Parts of it burning. In the near middle of it all is Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, a small city I've come to many times. A city that seems to embrace me in good times and bad. A city where I belong to the Blues Society. Nice to roll in at the same time as my pal Big Dave McLean. We've played here together many times, but tonight we are in different clubs on the Broadway strip. The Blues is back in town.

Dave's show was what it usually is– only better. He's looking good, feeling good and probably playing better than he ever has. We've known each other for what– forty years? I arrive at Bud's in time for the last set, but let some local artists sit in instead of me. I need a drink tonight. Or maybe I just don't feel like climbing up on Big Dave's stage. My own show did not go well. From my seat, at least. That's rare, for me. I enjoy them all, and nail 'em down. I've spent a lifetime at this, and shows are what I do. I was really pumped for this show– bringing out some new material, and expecting a good crowd from my local fan base. The Blues Society put this together for me, and I always want stuff to be great for them, too. The show was fine, just not the barnburner I had come to deliver.

On my stage, the house sound tech did not understand what I wanted and needed– but I should have addressed the situation differently than I did. I let my disappointment get in the way of my professionalism. At the end of the night, the tech man left before I had an opportunity to make an apology, and the show was less than it could of and should of been. So I'll learn from this. It's about respect and communication, and playing the hand you've been dealt. In the scheme of things, one small show– but when you earn your friends and fans one at a time, they are never given, never taken for granted. That includes your support team, whoever they are, and whatever their skill set.

Shows done, Big Dave and I talk beyond the night and into the dawn. Short stories and long stories. Stories we save for each other. That's what friends are about. That's what keeps the Blues Highway worth traveling. Bud's puts on a room for me, even though I was playing a different, competing venue down the street. That's Prairie hospitality. It does feel like a home away from home.

I was getting mad at the Wind, but reminding myself that this is not very useful, I spent an afternoon running and riding on the banks of the Saskatchewan River. A hard run has a way of beating the stupid thoughts out of one's mind– or at least helping to manage them. Feeling much, much better, I'm now headed for Jasper, Alberta. A Friday show in the mountains. A Saturday run to follow!

Yeah, the Big Lincoln eats up the flatlands, eager to find the mountains. I've got to make time, and the newly tuned motor is running better than ever before. Doing a ton– American style– and there's a whole lotta room under the pedal. I could be doing time if I get stopped.

Taking the roads less travelled, I get as far as Rocky Mountain House before I run out of pavement. Now, pushing across the foothills, I'm running out of daylight. I haven't seen another vehicle in a long time. Quiet. Dead quiet. I pull off into an old meadow to wait out the night. I've seen wild horses up this road before, and maybe I'll get lucky again in the morning. Who knows? I do know that you don't see many Lincolns running up this log and ranch road. But what good is a car if it doesn't take you where you want to go?

Just me and the howling coyotes under a big moon. The racing clouds. The strange arms of the night wrapped trees. The edge of the forrest. The edge of the world. The edge of a journey. I'd stand outside and revel in the moment, but the mosquitos swarm, so I huddle in the front seat of the car– swatting at the ones that managed to get in. Remarkably, I've got cellular service in this spot, so I check in to the social networks, the email servers, the voice mail. Then I turn it off. The wind is rising, hushing and whispering in the trees. I fall asleep listening to their story. If I was in one of those silver busses outside the casino, I would of missed all this.

In the morning, the ride out to the blacktop is uneventful. Finally, there is a rest stop across from Glacier National Park. I clean up and have a shave in the spacious men's room, and then purchase the most expensive cup of coffee in the world. It comes in a smallish, styrofoam cup and tastes like something nine days old.

Roads through Canada's Rocky Mountains look like this... sometimes, in good weather, when you're not hairpinning up some icy pass in zero visibility late at night...

And soon I'm in Jasper, Alberta. And my show is sold out. And I don't have a sound techie. And I believe that I play really, really well. It's a good show from my seat. If not a great show. I raffle a tour jacket. Sell another one. Sell a pile of CD's. Get fed really well. The best wines. Encores. Good friends in a room I really love. I feel so, so very good that this show went off as it should. The next day I hang with my pal, Charlie. The trail I was planning on running is closed, so Charlie drives me up to another park. The idea is that it will be a mostly downhill run back to to town. Easy, eh? Typical of the trails in this area, it is not well posted, and typical for me– my GPS is not connecting me to a map. My 8- 10 km turns to about 15 km, with plenty of up and down. There's nobody on this trail but me, and I sing as I run so as not to surprise any bears. And I try not to limp, because I don't want a big cat to take me from behind. This is as far west as this Tour leg goes. I'll be flying west again in October to pick up the Pacific coastal area en route to Africa.

A surprise visit from my sister, Dr. Kathryn MacLean.

What I do out on the Blues Highway. Between the driving, talking, looking for a cell signal. Running some trail. Running some blues down. Playing the blues. Or maybe riding it like some dark horse. Or maybe it rides me, urging me reckless down these roads. Some nights the stories flow from unknown places, and the music is a gift- a surprise to both the artist and the audience. During a recent interview I recalled spending time with Son House. About how he would sometimes go into a trance like state, and about how he'd take you there with him. A whole crowd sometimes. And he didn't need a guitar. He could pace up and down in his living room, the blues as a story, a lever, as a memory, as a magic to take us beyond ourselves into different, otherworldly places. Today it took me to Edmonton, Alberta for a club date, and then to one of the nicest after hours, speakeasy places I've been to in ages. Blues under a starry sky. A roaring fire. Beer. Zulu Skies continues across western Canada... Worldly and unworldly. The sacred and the profane. The smell of gasoline. The taste of cheap wine. The humming of the highway in the distance.

I spend a couple of days in Saskatoon with my pal, Ross Neilsen. I run the river. Fall and hurt my shoulder. Maybe my knee, too. Quite a fall. Dirty and bruised I pick up my sorry self and finish my run. Barely. The uphill is a killer in the heat. I work on some songs at Ross's kitchen table. I look at a bag of receipts I need to process for a tax return. Pathetic, after expenses. Don't look at this now. No don't. Why bother? Gossip. Next, I'm drifting south to small town, Saskatchewan shows...

Dave "Too Tall" Kampman and Howard Schmenge Chapman came in from Calgary, Alberta to round out the bill in Kyle, Saskatchewan. Groovy, blues accordian and percussion. How come I never met these guys before? By the end of the night nobody remembered that they weren't my band. Steel guitar and accordian? Sounded great. Anytime, guys. I'll have to play Alberta next year as an excuse to do some shows with you.

Sometimes you drive across the flatlands for hours on busted roads: driving past places with small names and peeling paint, past the dust, the mud, the twist, the shake– past the horizon. Sometimes, with your name on the front page of a prairie paper, with pick-up trucks coming out of the night, pies on the counter, friends laughing, bourbon in plastic cups... Sometimes this is the Big Time. As good as it gets. Sometimes I'm a very lucky man. Garth Brooks might of owned Saskatoon last night, but we took Kyle, Saskatchewan for ourselves. Big Sky. Far from the blacktop and the hum of the silver busses.

I've been to Kyle before. I'm supposed to do a one day layover here to work on my taxes. The back seat of the Lincoln has boxes of paper that I'm sworn to process into something that resembles a tax return. Of course, my friends conspire to spare me the pain, and the day is blown off in a haze of garage tours, flatland hotels, and beer.

I've got a short drive day, so I take the road less travelled. I meet the Wizard of Oz at the Crossroads, talk John Deer for a while. Lots of these rigs are GPS controlled now, so you just ride them to the edge of the earth, and then turn them for the next row. Some of the guys get bored and program strange designs into their fields. To entertain anybody that might fly by. Because they can. And why not? Saskatchewan folks love to talk, so we had a nice visit, uninterrupted by anything or anyone.


I saw a white dot on the horizon, so I chased it along until it became a schoolhouse. Nothing else out here, as far as the eye could see... Built in 1914. Who sat at these desks? Wrote on this slate blackboard? What boys fed the wood stove in the cellar? Born and died and off to one War or the Other. Came back or didn't. Or wound up managing a bank in Petrolia, Ontario? Who? The building yields no secrets. Every story safe, every child a success. Every seat a mystery. The wind ripples the crop outside, like waves on a flat green ocean. I linger, and then flee the loneliness in a cloud of dust. I leave my mark behind with the marks of the other boys.

South and east now. A couple little shows across the fading lands, the half abandoned towns.

The grain elevator. The freight train. Oil pays better than wheat or livestock– or I'm betting it does. The church. God knows they've shut the elevator down. All the prayer in the world won't bring back the money and the dancing girls, the pick-up trucks roaring up and down Main St. on Saturday night.

The hotel. Hot in the summer and cold in the winter. You could leave your door open to try to catch a breeze. Lie there at night listening to the couple in the next room, listening to the trains roar by in the night, grinding and rattling. It's all grind and rattle into the witching hour. Have another drink and blow out of this place in the morning. Twenty miles east. Another town, the next letter of the alphabet. Try your luck again. I park under a tree and sleep for a while in the Lincoln. In a few hours I'll roll into the provincial capital, Regina. And try my luck again.

At dusk, I go for a run past the provincial Parliament. It has been a hot, hot day and now the tuner cars, pickup trucks, and motorcycles are cruising the strip. Windows open. Stereos cranked up. Drake. Adele. Hello. Everybody's noisy, talking. Cold drinks in parked cars. The Parliamentary parking lot is definitely owned by the people of Saskatchewan. Out on the trail there are a few other runners, plenty of walkers, and a multitude of Canada geese. They show their absolute distain for me by turning their backs on the camera. Soon it will rain hard– a massive cracker of a storm– I'm dry in the Lincoln, and these geese will be very wet. Serve you right! Honk! Honk!

An unremarkable two sets in a half-empty restaurant. In a couple of years, I will lose the memory of this place the way they lost my Tour posters. I open the Lincoln Hotel in the corner of a too bright parking lot, close my eyes, open them again, and that's it for Saskatchewan. They had a big music festival last weekend and, for some, that means the music can now be forgotten until next year. "You should play that festival next time! They'd probably like you!" I drive across town to Mr. Breakfast, go to the cheap gas place near the Casino, get a massive coffee from Tim's– and then I'm out sailing on the blacktop once more.

I like to explore the little towns and villages along the way. The roads less travelled have got some great thrift shops. This is a pretty typical, Manitoba prairie town. But I buy nothing today. Some days it's just more fun to look.

The prairie disappears pretty quickly as the road moves me east into Ontario. 

Rough country with a thin blacktop carved through it. That's what it is for hours, for days, forever. Northwestern Ontario. What it is. Roadside on a rock cut. I went looking for a widow today, but didn't find her. Instead, the old homestead: no longer proud, but overgrown, posted. No Trespassing. His old truck still parked where he had left it, where he had left this world by the sad glory of his own hand. And now. The business of life continues at the same pace. A face missing. A place missing. I remembered the backroad turns one last time, the too tall grasses waving behind me. We, the living, selfishly mourn the loss of shared memories: of things we count on, and expect. A hot coffee and a cold beer. The closing chord of a show. Crawling through a tunnel under the old railway tracks. As if this world were static, and here for our pleasures alone. 

I didn't know what these flowers were called, but at this time of year they are the colour guard of the roadside into western Ontario. "Lupins," chime my western friends. So now we know! Or, now I know. Brightening an otherwise gloomy day. Lupins. Today's gift to me.

Back on the shores of Lake Superior. A couple more shows. House concerts now. Small gatherings here this time around. I'm playing places that are well away from the blacktop, and people aren't driving as much in the dark anymore. Plenty of moose in these parts. People die when they hit these massive, dark animals. Plenty of police on the highways, too. Nobody wants to get stopped, and nobody wants to take any chances. My audiences are accordingly very local for these, off-grid shows. Pulled pork. Home made red wine in big jugs. I don't have to go anywhere at the end of the night. I'd like to stand outside and look at the stars, but the clouds of mosquitos get in the way of my view. 

My friend Vic does make a drive out to the last show. When I first met him he was the host of the only regional, blues radio show at the lakehead. We became friends, and it's been a pleasure to connect year after year on my travels. It's a strange life on the road. With Vic, like so many of my friends, we always seem to pick up exactly where we left off months ago. People will find their true friends and know them when they do. On this night, Vic stays over in my cabin and we talk far too late. The next morning we kayak Superior. The mysterious lake is smooth when we depart, but choppy enough hours later to provide a good workout. We explored a nearby river, working our way upstream until a treefall and white water blocked our progress. Nothing quite like northern Ontario by water. Nothing like a paddle with a friend.

The dusking highway. Soon to snake it's way beyond the call of this Great Lake. I'll coax the Big Lincoln over some long reaches. Watching the fuel gauges. Watching for moose.

Sometimes I ride in silence for the fleeting hours. Other days I crank up the music. Playlist across The north shore of Lake Superior: Big Joe Williams and Sonny Boy. I want to pull over, park and practice whenever I hear these guys. Later I listen to Jimmy Vaughn and Omar Kent Dykes. Omar's one of the only cats who has really absorbed the original Sonny Boy. And I love the way he sings. Next up: Catherine MacLellan. I play her when ever I need a hug, or have a heart that needs some mending. Today it's The Raven's Sun. Finally, I reach for a Johnny Cash collection I haven't heard in some time. American IV: The Man Comes Around. That's a strange and troubling track. But it's track two that nails it- and me. Hurt. I don't know if I've ever burst into tears during a song before. But I did today, and had to stop at this abandoned filling station to compose myself. As much as I love his earlier records, these last recordings take us to different places. The wisdom of an old heart. Magic.

Blues stage. One man with a guitar. Sometimes a little band. Amps: nicotine stained, still stinking of the good old days when the cigarette smoke drifted across these stages like fog. Out in front: cold beer, tables. Bikes and trucks grumbling in the parking lot. Plenty of mojo. Real deal with neon trim. Rough looking men, sporting pension money, pictures of grandchildren. Old wooden buildings that could burn down overnight. Hotels where towns used to be. Places where railroad men and bikers and miners and First Nations tough guys held court. Sawdust on the floor. Sometimes. Meat packers. Pavement guys. Cowboys. Places where you had strippers work the matinee show on Saturday afternoon. Where the old men sat quietly, shaking salt into their little draft beer glasses. Where young men would buy enough draft beer to cover the table. Beer. Buckets of beer. Bring more. Old school joints where the urinals in the men's room were always filled with ice. As if the neon wasn't cool enough. Places with history stapled to the walls and names scratched into the tables.

Almost gone. Not quite. It's not a dream you'd have on purpose. Instead, you wake up one day and find yourself in it. Playing pinball, craving the waitress. Killing time. Tuning before the first set. Now pushing two tons of chrome and steel down a highway, half hung over, halfway to the next town. My name left behind: still on the marquee. One letter missing.

And someday it will all be gone, vanished like the buffalo. And where will the blues live? Where will it go? With us? With the wind? The central-western Canadian part of this year's Zulu Skies Tour wrapped here, Saturday night. You bet, I love that stage. All these stages.

Next: The Canadian Maritime– the wild Atlantic roar. The Canadian Pacific. Africa...

1 comment:

  1. What?! I have to worry about cougars if I walk with a limp? She-ite!

    Those flowers are lupins. They're perennials.