His Bob-ness joins Yeats, Beckett and Eliot

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In the winter of 1990, I waited with a handful of reporters and photographers in a grand salon of the Palais-Royal in Paris for Bob Dylan. More than 25 years ahead of the Nobel Prize people, the French had decided that Dylan’s lyrical prowess was worthy of the country’s highest cultural honour, Commandeur dans l’ Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. T.S. Eliot was one of the first to receive the award in 1960. Borges followed in 1962. And now, following in the footsteps of Sean Connery (1987), it was Bob’s turn.

Finally, the gilded, ceiling-high white doors opened, and there he was, ambling into the opulent room, followed by France’s flamboyant minister of culture at the time, Jack Lang. He was wearing a snazzy, tux-like black jacket over a sharp white shirt, sleek dark pants and, I couldn’t help noticing, cowboy boots. As flashbulbs went off, Dylan seemed like a deer caught in the headlights. He looked haggard, eyes half open, as if he’d just been roused from bed, without a shower and“ one more cup of coffee before I go”. We were separated only by a low velvet rope. I could have reached out and touched him.

It was almost unnerving, being so close to the figure who’d been my hero and constant companion since high school, when I put on my father’s copy of Another Side of Bob Dylan for the second time, and began listening to the lyrics. (The first time I thought what I heard was a joke…)

As Jack Lang spoke briefly about Dylan’s music and “poésie”, Bob rocked nervously side to side, glancing about, twitching. He appeared “lost in Juarez” or “old Honolulu, San Francisco, Ashtabula”, an ordeal merely to remain still. Lang then reached into his pocket for the illustrious medallion and closed in to affix it around his neck. Dylan stiffened, as the Culture Minister embraced him on both sides of his cheeks in that winning Gallic manner. Awkwardly, Dylan took out a crumpled piece of paper, and muttered: “Mille mercis.” Seemingly relieved that was over, he said in English, a bit more audibly, with his hand over his heart: “A thousand thank you’s.” For the first time, he actually smiled. Briefly. Dylan stayed another 30 seconds or so for the photographers (“Bob! Bob…!”) and poof, he was gone. The Jokerman had made his escape.

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(Lucie McNeill photo)

He’d been before us no more than five minutes. As is almost everything about Dylan, the entire experience was surreal. One can expect something just as strange IF he appears before the Swedish Academy to pocket the Nobel Prize for Literature on Dec. 10. There’s no guarantee he will show up at all.  The night the Prize was announced, Dylan’s “never-ending tour” played, appropriately, Las Vegas. (On Oct. 30, he’ll be in Paducah.) True to form, he said not a word to the audience about anything, least of all the astounding recognition of his life’s work. And so far, not even an official statement. Is anyone surprised? If there is one constant of Bob’s oddball, reclusive life, it’s this. He has remained, from the beginning, a contrarian. As University of Toronto literature teacher Ira Wells wrote perceptively in the Globe and Mail: “It’s hard to think of an artist who has worked harder, or more consistently over a span of decades, to alienate his own fan base.” Like a true artist, and I am one of those who consider Dylan the Shakespeare of our age, he lets his work speak for itself. And what a legacy it is.

People who criticize the Nobel Prize going to “a songwriter”, miss the point. Dylan is so much more than that. His vision and lyricism over more than 50 years is out there all by itself. It goes far beyond his terrific protest songs and mind-bending rock canticles of the 1960’s. There is a reason so many books are written about Dylan by serious literary critics. For all the greatness of Bowie and Prince and Springsteen, that doesn’t happen with their music, outstanding as it is. Bob Dylan has treasured words all his life. He uses them in a way no songwriter has, before or since. (Leonard Cohen comes close, but lovely Leonard has never come close to the over-arching influence of Dylan, who changed the face of music. They are mutual admirers of each other, by the way.) At 75, Bob’s mystifying muse continues to drive him forward. The Nobel Prize is for an exceptional body of work, not for a bunch of good songs. In the words of the Academy, it went to Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. I couldn’t be happier over their decision.

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A final note. While dismissed by many who just like his “old stuff”, Dylan’s output following his lost decade of the 1980’s is exceptionally rich and rewarding, containing some of his best songs. But they are no longer anthems of a generation. They don’t impact society the way Dylan did all those years ago. So they tend not be listened to all that much. And, as always, some are put off by his voice, now in heavy croak mode. But Dylan still knows how to wind it around his consistently-brilliant, deep lyrics. Plus, his veteran band fits him like a glove. Start with the under-rated Oh Mercy (1989), all the way to Modern Times, released in 2006 when Bob was 65, which I would put in the top five among all his albums. I could go on and on.

Never expect the expected from Bob. A reverse chameleon, changing to ensure he does not fit it. Frank Sinatra covers, anyone? As he sang more than 50 years ago:

 And if my thought dreams could be seen

They’d probably put my head in a guillotine/

But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only.

 A few years ago, I put together my list of Dylan’s Top 100 Songs (reduced a bit). It wasn’t easy. So many favourites didn’t even make the cut. Imagine, not just a few great songs, but more than a hundred. Anyway, here it is, with selections more  or less chronological. Enjoy and nitpick away.

Song to Woody.    He Was a Friend of Mine.    Who Killed Davey Moore?

John Brown.    Lay Down Your Weary Tune.    Blowin’ in the Wind.

 Girl from the North Country.    Masters of War.    A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.

 Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.    Farewell, Angelina.    Tomorrow Is a Long Time.

 The Times They Are A-Changin’.    The Ballad of Hollis Brown.    When the Ship Comes In.

 Boots of Spanish Leather.    With God on Our Side.    One Too Many Mornings.

 The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.    Chimes of Freedom.    It Ain’t Me Babe.

 To Ramona.    My Back Pages.    Subterranean Homesick Blues.    She Belongs to Me.

 It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.    Maggie’s Farm.

Love Minus Zero/No Limit.     Mr. Tambourine Man.    It’s All Right, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)

 Gates of Eden.    Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream.    It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.

 Like a Rolling Stone.    Queen Jane Approximately.    Ballad of a Thin Man.

 Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.    Desolation Row.    Visions of Johanna.

 Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.    I Shall Be Released.    All Along the Watchtower.

 I Dreamed I Saw Saint Augustine.    I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.    I Threw It All Away.

 Day of the Locusts.    Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.    Forever Young.

 On a Night Like This.    Simple Twist of Fate.    Shelter From the Storm.

If You See Her, Say Hello.    Tangled Up in Blue.

You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.    Hurricane.    Romance in Durango.

 Black Diamond Bay.    Where Are You Tonight (Journey Through Dark Heat).

 Gotta Serve Somebody.    Slow Train.     I Believe in You.    Every Grain of Sand.

 Angelina.    Blind Willie McTell.    I and I.    Jokerman.    Licence to Kill.

 When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky.    Dark Eyes.    Political World.

 Everything is Broken.    Man in the Long Black Coat.    Most of the Time (bootleg version).

 What Was It You Wanted?    Series of Dreams.    Tryin’ to Get to Heaven.    Highlands.

 Not Dark Yet.    Cold Irons Bound.    Mississippi (first bootleg version).

High Water (for Charley Paton).    Things Have Changed.    Nettie Moore.

 Workingman’s Blues #2.    The Levee’s Gonna Break.    Ain’t Talkin’.

 Thunder on the Mountain. Dignity.    Red River Shore.    Huck’s Tune.

 Tell Ol’ Bill.    ‘Cross the Green Mountain.    It’s All Good.    Titanic.

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THE GREATEST

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A tough week for us sports fans of another generation. Losing two great heroes of our youth: Muhammad Ali, and now, Gordie Howe (he never changed his name to Gordon..). This is about the champ.

It’s been said many, many times, but it remains true. Never again will we see the likes of Muhammad Ali. “For all you kids out there”, it’s difficult to convey just how dominant a figure he was during those first 20 years he reigned as by far the most beloved and admired athlete in the world. Evidence of his unsurpassed skill and courage in the ring are easily found on YouTube. And most accounts written after Ali’s death relate in great detail his bold, in-your-face defiance of white America. He stuck it to “the man’, as few had before, with his loudly-proclaimed conversion to the radical Black Muslims, his name change from Cassius Clay to (gasp) Muhammad Ali, announced while standing beside Malcolm X (another gasp), and most of all, his willingness to go to jail rather than be sent to Vietnam to kill people “who never called me nigger”.

Still, it’s not really possible to capture just what it was like to actually experience those years, when Clay/Ali bestrode the world like the proverbial colossus. With his flashing fists, dancing feet and outrageous, versified braggadocio, he opened up the narrow, closed confines of boxing to the great beyond, as no one had before. The charged anticipation for every one of his big fights was unsurpassed. It was as if a cloak had been thrown over everything else going on, except for Ali’s showdowns against Sonny Liston, or Joe Frazier, or George Foreman. Everyone listened, watched on big pay-for-view screens, or followed round-by-round dispatches sent out by the wire services. Long before social media, we were a global Ali community.

Nor can one quantify the extent of outrage and villification that spewed down on Ali when he turned his back on everything American. Even those who loved him as a boxer were confused by his decision to join the Black Muslims, an extremist, black separatist group led by the shadowy Elijah Muhammad, who was a long way from Martin Luther King. Yet, with everything to lose, and it did cost him big, Ali stood up for his rights as a black man, loudly and unabashedly, and was hated for it. No wonder he feared for his life.

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(The famous cover from Esquire.)

It was only after he returned to the ring, three and a half years after his title was taken away for refusing induction into the armed forces, that sentiment began to soften. He was now admired, rather than loathed, for remaining true to his convictions, and for his renewed prowess in the ring. No longer able to float like a butterfly and sting like bee, he harnessed raw courage, tactical brilliance, and a frightening ability to take a punch that almost certainly contributed to the Parkinson’s Disease that finally silenced him to claim the heavyweight crown two more times. From the dusty villages of Africa, to the streets of Iraq, to the halls of presidents, he was celebrated and loved. It’s a lesser world without him, even reduced as he was over the years by the relentless scourge of his illness.

I saw Muhammad Ali, once. It was in Pyongyang in 1995, at the strangest event I’ve ever been at. For reasons known only to its alien-like leaders, the crackpot regime of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea staged a series of professional wrestling bouts before upwards of 150,000 bewildered North Koreans at the city’s massive public stadium. They called it the Sports and Cultural Festival for Peace. Participants were all from the Japanese wrestling circuit. They included the usual gang of archetypal villains in evil, spiked costumes, tough-looking women with blue hair, Canadian Chris Benoit, the legendary Ric Flair and Antonio Inoki, the most famous grappler in Japan.

The matches took place in almost total silence, as spectators had no idea what to make of competitors slamming their opponents’ head into ring posts, jumping on them from the top of the ropes, or hurling them out of the ring and stomping on them. The only hook for the absurd event seemed to be a tenuous connection between North Korea and Antonio Inoki. His early mentor was Rikidozan, founder of professional wrestling in Japan, who happened to have been born in what became North Korea. That was enough for Rikidozan to qualify as a national hero and for the wacky poobahs of DPRK to stage an entire festival around the first showdown beween Ric Flair and Inoki. Most of the Beijing press corps, complete with cameras, microphones and tape recorders, were among the select group of “tourists” invited to attend.

Just when I thought Wrestling Night in Pyongyang couldn’t get any more bizarre, they announced the presence of Muhammad Ali. But of course. Wasn’t he the world’s greatest athlete, North Korea the world’s greatest country, and the Sports and Cultural Festival for Peace the world’s greatest festival? To the organizers, it made perfect sense. Besides, Ali had once fought Inoki, himself. In the most ridiculous match of all time, Inoki spent all 15 rounds on the mat trying to kick his opponent’s legs, while Ali threw a grand total of six punches. You can look it up. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t3vOssizwW4

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Anyway, there was Ali, unmistakeable in the stands. The crowd applauded politely, not quite sure how to greet a representative of the “Yankee wolf”, as English phrase books in North Korea labeled the USA. The champ half stood up and gave a half wave. Even from far away, I was thrilled.

All of which is a long-winded introduction to something I wrote a couple of years ago, on the 50th anniversary of Ali first great victory, his upset over the feared Sonny Liston to give him his first heavyweight championship. Looking back, I still find it hard to believe someone as wonderful and outlandish as Muhammad Ali really existed. As my original blog confesses, however, I was one of Cassius Clay’s many early doubters, a belief that socked me right in the wallet. But I was so spurred by the magnitude of his triumph that I tried a bit of Clay doggerel, myself, for the school yearbook. May you survive it, and may Muhammad Ali be sitting on the right hand of the black God he worshipped. We will never forget him.

SONNY LISTON OWES ME BIG

Fifty years ago today, I turned on the radio, smug in the belief that this was going to be the easiest dollar I ever made. That brash, upstart, crazy Cassius Clay was finally going to get his long overdue comeuppance, his taunts and boasts rammed down that big throat of his by the meanest, scariest fighter who ever lived, Sonny “The Bear” Liston.

An ex-con whose baleful scare frightened even hardened sportswriters was violence personified in the ring, Liston had twice taken on the skilled, much-loved former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson. Patterson didn’t make it past the first round in either fight, hammered early to the canvas both times by Liston’s murderous fists. Few fighters dared to face him, despite the big payday of a heavyweight championship match.

Not so, Cassius Clay (the “slave name” that he later changed to Muhammad Ali….you may have heard of him…). Just 22, with thefastest mouth in showbiz but a spotty  record of dispatching ho-hum opponents, Clay had the audacity to challenge the seemingly invincible  Liston.  Not only that, he openly and repeatedly taunted Liston, even yelling at him outside his house in the middle of the night. An even-keel Liston was frightening, enough. Now, the Louisville Lip had made him mad. Yikes.

Some worried Clay might not even survive the fight, and just about everyone expected Liston to pulverize him in short order. Everyone, that is, except my friend Gary Toporoski, a bit of a loud-mouth in his own right. (sorry, Gary…). “Topper” was completely convinced Cassius Clay really was “gonna whup that big ugly bear”.  Why? Well, it seems he had seen Cassius Clay’s guest appearance on a CFTO sports show, and Clay started the show by flicking an array of lightening jabs at the camera.  “He’s sooo fast,” said my enthralled Newmarket High School friend. “There’s no way Liston can beat him. He’s too slow.”

I told him he was nuts. We decided to bet on the fight, something I’d never done before. In fact, I was so confident Liston would prevail, I even gave Toporoski the going 7-1 odds. His dollar against my seven.  I had already decided to treat myself to a hamburger at the Newmarket Grill with my big winnings. Instead, of course, I ate crow.

With a heavy but wiser heart, I handed Gary seven smackers (a lot of money in them there daze) at school the next day. He only said “I told you so” about 84 times. I’ve never bet on a match since.

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Months later, still stung, I burst forward into doggerel for the 1964 school yearbook. Move over, Longfellow.

THE INCREDIBLE UPSET

The Bear was ugly, mean and detested.

Only once in a fight had he been been bested.

The Louisville Lip had no more chance

To whip the Bear than the Premier of France.

 

But came that decisive night in Miami,

Cassisus Clay had some sort of whammy.

For he blasted the myth that the Bear was too strong.

He proved he could box, as well as talk long.

 

In the fifth, when not a thing could he see,

He displayed some footwork that baffled Sonny.

With a continual jab and by dancing around,

The man with the mouth survived that tough round.

The Bear was a Cub by the end of round six.

The fans in the Hall began to yell “Fix!”.

For he threw in the towel to the man he despised,

And Cassius Clay had our opinions revised.

 

He floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee.

His speed had conquered the ferocious Sonny.

Clay’s gift of the gab was far from the latest,

But who could deny that he was “the greatest”?

— Montana Worthlesswords (c’est moi)

Here’s the famous fight that made losers out of both Sonny Liston and me.

 

 

CHRISTMAS CAROLS AND MY 10 WAYS TO A COOL YULE

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A confirmed atheist from birth, I nevertheless fell under the spell of Christmas carols early on in my twisted, hippie life. I well remember a time when, in the days leading to Christmas, CBC Radio would broadcast the singing of carols every morning from the Timothy Eaton’s Store in Toronto. And this was no professional choir. The singers were the shoppers, and whoever else showed up to carol at 8.30 a.m., when the half-hour live broadcast began. Complete with coughing, the grave, echo-y announcements of the next carol, the audible rustling of the carol sheets and finally, the glorious sound of all those voices raised on high, it was an indelible part of my “child’s Christmas in Newmarket”.

I can tell you they never did Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or Frosty the Snowman. Maybe a spirited rendition of Jingle Bells might have slipped in, but these were the real carols, the ones we seem to have forgotten how to sing in this age of cultural sensitivity. You know, with all that stuff about the heavenly hosts, angels on high, shepherds watching their flocks, “three Kings of Orient are” (tried to smoke a rubber cigar….) and so many other elements of the wondrous Christmas story back there in Bethlehem, how still we see the lie. Who knew what “lowing” even meant, until Away in the Manger?

These marvellous carols were everywhere at Christmas when I was a kid, and mercifully, they did not start until well into December. They still mean Christmas to me, and I miss them, for all the excellent, non-carol seasonal songs out there (“The fire is slowly dying/And my dear we’re still good-bying/But as long as you love me so/Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.”)

Another musical tradition that’s gone by the doors is combing record store shelves for yet another album of Christmas music. I’ve got a lot of them. I once ran into the great Roy Forbes at A & B Sound’s extensive Christmas Music section. He was on the same annual quest for musical treasures, as I was. Alas, A & B Sound is long gone, and so are record stores with large selections of Christmas music beyond Bing Crosby, Michael Buble and a few lacklustre others. Is there nowhere to buy Christmas Turkey by the Arrogant Worms, or Yogi Yorgesson’s I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas?

Anyway, enough of that. Herewith, restricted to records I have at home, my Top 10 List of Favourite Christmas albums, the last you are likely to read this year. It is Christmas Eve, after all. Better late than never.

  1. “What a remarkable boy…”

 I just realized I can’t really pick a 10th album and eliminate so many other fine albums I cherish as part of my cool Yule. Here are some of them: The McGarrigle Christmas Hour (Kate and Anna McGarrigle), Santa Baby (best of my many CD collections, led off by Sarah MacLachlan and River), It’s Christmas (Quartette), Aaron Neville’s Soulful Christmas, The Bells of Dublin (The Chieftains, if only for The Rebel Jesus), Christmas With the Rat Pack (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr.), A Merry 1940’s Christmas (Collection by Collector’s Choice Music), A Merrie Christmas to You (Blue Rodeo), Christmas (Two albums, same title: Bruce Cockburn and Colin James), Bright Day * Star (The Baltimore Consort), A Very Special Christmas (Springsteen, U2, The Pointer Sisters, The Pretenders, Madonna et al, for the Special Olympics) and, of course, the unforgettable rarity, Kolędy W Wykonaniu Zespołu (Z Kościola Akademickiego Św. Anny W Warszawie).

  1. Soul Christmas

 Nothing says Christmas like Clarence Carter’s salute to festive ribaldry, Back Door Santa. Was there ever a naughtier “Ho Ho Ho”? Other highlights: Otis Redding’s White Christmas (no comment…), and The Christmas Song by King Curtis.

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  1. Handel’s Messiah.

 No Christmas is complete without this magnificent oratorio. There’s really nothing quite like it. When I’m not at a live performance or tuning in to CBC, I like to listen to a highlight package I have on Phillips Classics, featuring…oh never mind. I’ve never heard of any of them. Me bad. But it’s great. I’m not religious (see above), but surely, as some have suggested, when he penned the Messiah, Handel was touched by the hand of God.

  1. Selection of Merry Christmas

 As you might be able to tell by the title, this comes from a cheapo record store in Hong Kong that specialized in likely pirated knock-offs. But it’s a great two CD collection of just about all the Christmas songs I like, both carols and non-carols. There’s not a Frosty, Rudolph or mommy kissing Santa Claus in the bunch. I’ve got a lot of traditional Christmas carol records, but I chose this one because of the mixture. Hard to beat Der Bingle closing out the 36-song set with the best Christmas song ever written by a Jew, White Christmas. And, as a special treat, tho oddly, there’s Billie Holiday’s version of God Bless the Child.

  1. A Child’s Christmas in Wales

 And of course the version read so beautifully by its author, Dylan Thomas. I’m not sure why anyone else bothers to try. I notice something different and delightful every listening. The last time, it was the way Thomas refers so anonymously and yet so memorably to “the uncles” and “the aunts”. No names, but you picture them perfectly. A tip of the hat to the CBC’s Sheryl MacKay and North By Northwest for airing A Child’s Christmas in Wales every year in the week before Christmas.

  1. Blue Christmas

 Listen to Elvis Presley’s definitive version of Blue Christmas, then open a vein, weep, or down another vat of whiskey. But that’s far from all on this keeper of an album. Renew your cheer with the best rocking version ever of Here Comes Santa Claus and even, gasp, Santa Claus is Back in Town. Carols and White Christmas, Too. As good a selection of Christmas songs as there is, beautifully sung by Elvis at the peak of his career. This album has had many re-issues. My vinyl version is a fairly early one, but not the original.

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  1. Bluegrass & White Snow, A Mountain Christmas

 It’s hard to imagine how this Christmas bluegrass album by Patty Loveless could be any better. A sublime mixture of traditional carols beautifully sung by Loveless, bluegrass instrumentals and some sweet, Loveless originals. In fact, this is the album I put on for a jolt of Christmas spirit, whenever I feel dragged down by shopping among the masses (talk about cattle lowing…) and my never-far-away Scrooge-like gloom.

  1. Phil Spector’s Christmas Album

 The coolest, most frantic, most waaay out there Yuletide collection ever. The mad genius put his legendary Wall of Sound and “stable” of wild girl singers to work on a dozen classic Christmas songs, and the result was pure magic. From the first notes of White Christmas by the amazing Darlene Love, to the final strains of Silent Night, it’s a wild, wild ride. There are stops along the way for Frosty the Snowman by the Ronettes and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer by the Crystals. Inevitably, perhaps, someone recently observed , Grinch-like, “Who’d’ve thought such a great Christmas album could be produced by someone who became a crazed murderer?”

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  1. A Charlie Brown Christmas

 Pretty well a perfect album, combining both swinging jazz melodies and the spirit of Christmas. The music is so gentle, yet so evocative. Does anything say Christmas more than the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s version of O Tannenbaum? And it fits the animated, TV classic like a woolen mitt. I recently re-watched A Charlie Brown Christmas for the first time in ages. I’d forgotten how movingly it depicts the Christmas story. Yes, the manger, the shepherds, the star on high, the carols, and those lovely passages from the New Testament, which were such a part of my Christmas, too, all those years ago. I’m not a believer, as I’ve said, but who could deny the wonder and narrative drama of the birth of Jesus. I still love it, and these days, at Christmas, I kind of wish it were more prevalent.

  1. En Riktig Svensk Jul.

No record takes me back to magical Christmas mornings in Newmarket more than this wonderful collection of traditional Swedish Christmas tunes. I’m not sure who bought it or when, but it seemed to be always on our ancient turntable, as we unwrapped our presents. At least one of these songs shows up in Ingmar Bergman’s movie masterpiece, Fanny and Alexander. With a rollicking pace pretty well all the way through, the record puts a lie to the widespread theory that “jolly Swedes” is an oxymoron. It meant most to my mother, who came from a Swedish-speaking family in Finland. She grew up with many of these songs. We lost her just after Christmas seven years ago. I still play the album every year, but now there is a touch of sadness. RIP, mom. God Jul och Gott Nytt År!

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Finally, I do have a Grinch side, so it’s only fitting to also nominate two of the worst Christmas albums I know. I’m sorry, Bob, but one of them is your recent croaking collection, Christmas In The Heart, tho I do love Must Be Santa. The other, candelabras down, is Twas The Night Before Christmas by the late, flamboyant phony Liberace.

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On that ludicrous note, Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a good night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

AL ARBOUR, THE GUY WITH THE SPECS

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One of the fun things about growing up in Newmarket, Ontario, besides knowing where all your teachers lived for purposes of Hallowe’en, was being able to root for the Toronto Maple Leafs the last time they were a truly great hockey team. Under the hard-nosed but savvy guidance of coach Punch Imlach, the team won three straight Stanley Cups – 1962-1964 – and copped a surprise fourth Cup in 1967, the final year of a six-team NHL. They haven’t come close to winning since. But of course, that was only half a century ago….

Back then, my hockey heroes were anyone who wore the big maple leaf, although a special place in my “love bug” was reserved for Johnny Bower, ageless custodian of the pipes, as the knights of the keyboard liked to call him, and The Entertainer, aka Eddie Shack. And, lest we forget, both also made a contribution to the world of music, Mr. Bower with his classic Honky The Christmas Goose and Mr. Shack, subject of the equally immortal Clear the Track, Here Comes Shack.

But I loved all the players, as only kids can, including the guys who didn’t get much ice time. And here I am thinking of good old Alger “Al” Arbour. Although he never came close to making an all-star squad, everyone who followed hockey in those days knew the lanky, durable defenseman. Not only was he a fearless shot blocker, he did so while wearing glasses. 1958-59 topps 64 al arbourImagine that. Hurling yourself in front of slapshots, face first, with nary a thought of what might happen if the puck shattered your prominent specs. That was Al Arbour, as courageous a player as the NHL ever had. In fact, he was the last guy in the NHL to wear glasses on the ice. No contact lens for him. He really stood out for us kids. Sure, a Gordie Howe hockey card was treasured, but so was the card of the guy wearing glasses. It just seemed so insane.

Alas, for all that, Al Arbour was hardly one of the league’s elite blueliners He was slow, and his shot would barely shatter glass, let alone his own spectacles. In 712 games, he registered a mere 13 goals and 66 assists. Still, you never heard a goalie complain about having Arbour out there, as he dove to stop yet another cannonading drive with his body, before it reached the net.

The Leafs were one of Arbour’s four NHL teams. He was there when they won the Stanley Cup in 1962 and 1964. But he had the misfortune of being the fifth defenseman on a team that had two of the best defense pairings in the league: Tim Horton and Allan Stanley, and Carl Brewer and Bobby Baun. The four of them played together for years. It’s not like today, when defensemen are switched around like Parcheesi pieces. On the Leafs, ice-time for Arbour was always a rarity.

Yet it was always a thrill when broadcaster Bill Hewitt would announce his presence on the ice. You felt he was an underdog, too, scuffling for his place among the big boys, as was I in Grade Nine. Despite his lack of flash, I don’t remember him ever making a careless play.

Plus, he was a factor in one of my favourite anecdotes from the good old days of Six-Team Hockey. Punch Imlach was a big fan of the unorthodox, and if that meant putting his five oldest players on the ice during the last minute of the last game of the 1967 Stanley Cup final, he did so. Anyway, one night, with the score close, for reasons known only to himself, Imlach ordered the slow-moving Arbour over the boards to take the face-off and play centre. Unabashed, Arbour calmly stood up and said in a loud voice to the equipment guy: “Get me my stick-handling stick.”

Later, Al was the brains behind the bench of one of the most successful franchises in NHL history, the New York Islanders of the early 1980’s. He was the main reason I became a firm fan of the Isles, who won four successive Stanley Cups, with the no-nonsense, mournful-looking Arbour at the helm. http://www.lighthousehockey.com/2015/9/1/9242695/nhl-islanders-video-tributes-al-arbour

Al Arbour died last week at the age of 82. The hockey world is already a poorer place.

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MRS. REID AND THE TRC

IMG_0898 (Thanks to Maria Tippett’s book, Bill Reid, The Making of an Indian, for some of what follows.)

One of the early things I did after ending my daily journalism career of 119 years, besides endless Googling of past Montreal Expo games, was take in the Vancouver public hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in September, 2013. The experience was overwhelming. It’s one thing to read about the unspeakable tragedy of what happened in Canada’s residential schools. It’s another matter Imageto hear former students testify first-hand, and in depth, about what happened to them and the ongoing, debilitating impact it has had on their lives and those of their families. No wonder organizers placed so many boxes of Kleenex among the seats at the PNE Agrodome.

At the same time, you know these stories represent only a handful of the thousands and thousands of grim experiences suffered by children who attended those terrible institutions. Everyone was scarred, even those who seemed to come through unscathed. I remember one dignified woman breaking down in tears, as she recounted how, with her parents far away, she was unable to celebrate something as simple and basic as her birthday. “I didn’t celebrate my first birthday until I was 28,” she wept. There was no love in those schools.

Now, at last, we have the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s comprehensive report and its 94 heartfelt recommendations. Sadly, they are almost certain to be ignored by a federal government that seems to care little for matters outside the orbit of its own base of support. Amid all the media hullabaloo last week, however, my own thoughts drifted back to someone I hadn’t thought of for a long time. She also attended a residential school. Here is her story.

Canada being essentially a small town, it happened that my parents were acquainted with the family of renowned Haida artist, Bill Reid. My dad and Bill were lifelong friends, the two first bonding in their teens, strutting the wild streets of Victoria. Image 9 Bill’s lovely sister Peggy Kennedy, who lived for many years in London, was always on our Christmas card list. The Reid I knew best was their mother. My parents usually referred to her as “Mater”, but us kids knew her only as “Mrs. Reid.” Only after she died did I learn her first name was Sophie.

She was a striking woman, with prominent cheekbones, beautifully-coiffed silver hair, stylishly dressed and a deliberate, dignified way of speaking. She seemed every inch the full-blooded Haida princess we were told she was. When Mrs. Reid came to visit, it was always an occasion.

Sophie Gladstone was one of the 150,000 native children who attended one of this country’s soul-destroying residential schools, with their stated goal of taking “the Indian” out of the child. The result, as we now know, was purposeful, cultural genocide. Innocent children were ripped from their families, forced into a hostile, alien environment. No effort was spared to eradicate every vestige of their native identify. The message drummed into those poor youngsters over and over again was an echo of the refrain from that Linda Rondstadt song: “You’re no good, you’re no good, you’re no good…” When they emerged from those dreadful schools, many were incapable of normal affection and a nurturing relationship with their kids. The ensuing dysfunction of First Nation families remains with us still, long after the schools were finally shut. It is truly the blackest chapter in Canadian history.

Mrs. Reid went to Coqualeetza Industrial Institute on the banks of the Fraser near Chilliwack. By the time she left the three-story brick building at the age of 16, the “Indian” in her was gone. She no longer identified with her aboriginal status. She married a rambling rum-runner and sometime hotel owner named Billy Reid, and for the rest of her life, she scorned the native traditions of her childhood. Mrs. Reid believed the only way forward for her people was assimilation. Nor did she think much of her celebrated son’s embrace of his Haida roots to become one of Canada’s great artists. (Mind you, Bill Reid did tell me once, in that wry way he had: I notice she hasn’t returned any of the jewellery I made her over the years…) BIO_01b-B1-Sophie-Gladstone-1918- This was another legacy of residential schools. With such a rich cultural background, the daughter of esteemed carver Charles Gladstone and the great niece of the finest Haida carver of them all, Charles Edenshaw, Mrs. Reid turned her back on all of that to make her way in “the white man’s world”. One of Bill Reid’s school chums reflected that, despite many visits to their house in Victoria, he had no idea idea Mrs. Reid was Haida.

At the same time, Mrs. Reid was also touched by the same problem that was affected so many other residential school students. She had trouble being a warm, loving parent, although it’s important to add that had to cope, as well, with the added stress of being a single mother, abandoned by her husband. Peggy Kennedy told author Maria Tippett their mother would often scream at her kids all weekend, non-school days they came to dread. It was an unhappy household, Tippett wrote, with the children seeking what comfort they could from their nanny/housekeeper, Leah Brown.

None of this was known to me in the days when Mrs. Reid used to visit. She was very kind to us young ‘uns. Only later did my mother, who was particularly close to her, tell me how Mrs. Reid praised the education she received at her residential school and disparaged natives unwilling to adapt to modern, white society.

A strong, distinguished woman, she found her own way to persevere in a world that considered aboriginals second-rate – first as a young teacher, and then as one of the most fashionable dressmakers in Victoria. Bill Reid attributed much of his artistic success to his mother. “Whatever I learned about design, I learned from her,” he told a magazine writer in 1986. Yet, it could be said that Mrs. Reid, a successful woman on many levels, who raised three accomplished children, was a victim of residential schools, too.

(Meanwhile, here is some of what I wrote after attending the TRC hearings in Vancouver.) https://mickleblog.wordpress.com/2013/09/17/reporters-and-the-trc/

https://mickleblog.wordpress.com/2013/09/19/margaret-commodore-tells-her-story/

https://mickleblog.wordpress.com/2013/09/20/tears-and-laughter-at-the-trc/ IMG_0887

ANNE OF GREEN GABLES AND THE DEATH OF ‘GILBERT BLYTHE’

statements_524456 Social media reaction to the unexpected death this month of Canadian actor Jonathan Crombie, who so memorably played Gilbert Blythe in Anne of Green Gables, came almost entirely from the distaff side. Not too many guys were fans of the movie, I guess. Well, I’m a fan. A big one.

Like many of my gender, it seems, I was originally pretty dismissive of the whole Anne of Green Gables thing. Who cares about the adventures of some spunky 11-year old orphan girl in turn-of-the-20th century Prince Edward Island? She hates her red hair. Boo hoo. Bring on Anna Karenina.

But my mind was changed when I went to what I had hoped would be a party at a friend’s house, only to discover all the women heading into the TV room to watch Anne of Green Gables. Thinking they couldn’t possibly be serious, I tried cracking a few jokes. They told me to be quiet. So I reluctantly sat down to watch, too. Of course, much to my surprise, once I parked my prejudices by the door, I was charmed. No violence, except for Anne smashing her slate over poor Gilbert’s head, no sex, no deafening sound effects. Just a tender, perfectly made movie, with a superb cast.

Could anyone have been better than Megan Follows as Anne Shirley, Colleen Dewhurst as Marilla and Richard Farnsworth as dear Matthew, the loveliest man on the face of the earth? Then, there was Jonathan Crombie as Gilbert Blythe, the sweet-natured soul tortured by his love for the spirited but flinty Anne. Opinion was divided. He didn’t fit everyone’s idea of Gilbert from the book, and at times, he did appear a bit awkward on screen, a tad too old for the part (18 when the movie was filmed). Others found him perfect. Over time, however, since this is a movie that effortlessly absorbs repeated viewings, even those of us who were at first reluctant have grown to cherish him, too, along with everything else about this fine Canadian film. Anne-07 There’s much to be said for a movie that tells a good story, that’s well-acted and gently escapist enough to let you forget about that increasingly bad old world outside. It’s also unapologetically Canadian, in the good sense of that fine word. So, if you’re like I used to be and still dismissive of Anne of Green Gables, now’s the time to give it a whirl, surrender to its charm, and mourn Jonathan Crombie. He was 48, but forever young as Gilbert Blythe.

Here is a full length obituary of Crombie from Saturday’s Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/television/dreamy-gilbert-blythe-actor-jonathan-crombie-loved-the-stage/article24124077/

And this is an excellent piece from the Guardian that praises the character Gilbert Blythe as superior to many other rejected mail suitors in literature : http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/apr/24/jonathan-crombie-dead-gilbert-blythe-novel-anne-of-green-gables

P.S. A sequel, Anne of Avonlea, was pretty fair, as sequels go, but the less said about Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story the better. Anne and Gilbert don’t belong on the battlefields of World War One.

A further personal postscript. My aunt loved Anne of Green Gables and Canada’s most famous author, Lucy Maud Montgomery, her entire life. She read all the Anne and Avonlea books. Having grown up on a farm in the Fraser Valley, the bucolic splendor of Montgomery’s PEI gave her nothing but pleasure. As noted above, I kind of sniffed at this “defect” in my beloved Auntie Gret with that knowing smugness of someone pleased with himself for being into “serious” literature. Don’t need no stinkin’ girlie stuff! But was won over by the movie.

UnknownMy mother, a high school English teacher, was slow to warm to Anne of Green Gables, too. But my aunt’s view had prevailed  by the time she compiled her pioneering textbook in 1973 with the pulsating title, Canadian Literature, Two Centuries in Prose. Believe it or not, this was the first book designed to introduce high school and college students to our own country’s literature in one distinct volume. And she did not hesitate to include an excerpt from Anne of Green Gables, defending it as far more than a “children’s classic”, with its universal Cinderella theme (Jane Eyre, Pygmalion) and particularly Canadian motif of nostalgia for a world of peace and protection.

Later, we all shared the joys of the long-running, spin-off CBC series, Road to Avonlea, that introduced us to the remarkable Sarah Polley. The series also featured fine Canadian actors R.H. Thompson, Cedric Smith, Lally Cadeau, and of course, the late Jackie Burroughs as the indomitable Aunt Hetty. Sure, it wasn’t The Sopranos or The X-Files, or anything like that, but it was well-made, entertainment that everyone in our diverse family could enjoy. We were in China, my brother’s family was in Thunder Bay, Auntie Gret was in Burnaby, and my mom and sister were in good old Newmarket. Watching it made us all feel together, despite our vast separations. There’s a lot to be said for that. (My brother’s step-daughter loved Sarah Polley in the series. When she heard that young Sarah lived with her father in Aurora, just south of Newmarket, she and my sister ferretted out her address to say ‘hi’, but no one was home.)

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Yet the author who created all this enchantment, Lucy Maud Montgomery, had such a sad personal life, herself. She made an unfortunate, late marriage to a minister who suffered from deteriorating mental health. Despite the world-wide fame of Anne of Green Gables, such were the times that Montgomery loyally followed her husband to his modest church posting in Uxbridge, not that far from Newmarket. Their two children disappointed her. Acutely lonely and battling her own depression, she tried to escape by churning out more and more Anne-style books set in Prince Edward Island. They sold well, but there was only one Anne of Green Gables.

Years after she died in 1942, her personal journals were published. They sold well, attracting many new readers with her Unknownfrank, adult descriptions of her struggles with life and the hardships of being a woman, long before feminism. My mother and my aunt read every word. When Auntie Gret came east for a visit, she and her sister went prowling around the wilds of Kettleby and mighty Zephyr, looking for the manse where Lucy Maud lived with her difficult husband. Sort of like us younger folk searching out Dylan landmarks in Hibbing.

When my aunt was forced to move into an assisted-care facility, she took only one book with her. It was, of course, her life-long companion, Anne of Green Gables.

FAREWELL, THEN, MINNIE MINOSO

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What is it about being a kid that makes you attach yourself to certain ballplayers, none of whom you’ve ever come close to seeing in a real game and only rarely on television? Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Sandy Koufax were obvious targets for our affection, of course, although in my schoolyard it was always either Mantle or Mays, never both. Even when I was barely knee-high to a Baltimore Chop, this lifelong Yankee hater was a Mays man all the way.

harmonkillebrewBut the guy who really had the number one claim on my heart was Harmon Killebrew, a big, strong-armed power hitter from the potato state of Idaho. He was hardly Mr. Colourful. Asked once whether he had any hobbies, the devout Mormon thought for a moment. “Just washing the dishes, I guess,” the soft-spoken slugger eventually replied. So why did I latch onto Killebrew, from among all those flashier stars? Other than the fact that he was a hell of a hitter, who knows? It’s just one of those unfathomable mysteries of youth. But he remained my favourite ballplayer for 15 years, until his retirement in the mid-1970’s.

Another ballplayer I loved almost as much in those lazy, hazy carefree days of baseball was good old Minnie Minoso. He found his way into my young heart through the usual vehicle of silent box score and baseball cards, plus the entrancing rhythm of his name. I knew nothing about him, really, other than that he stole a lot of bases, played the game with enthusiasm, and, a solid clutch hitter, he knocked in a lot of runs. But most of all, as a kid, what was there not to love about someone baptized Saturnino Orestes Arrieta Minoso Armas, who gave himself the sweet tag of Minnie Minoso?

As he kept on playing, oblivious to Father Time’s order to hang up his spikes, my fondness grew. He didn’t seem to know the meaning of retirement. When his major league career was done, the ageless Minoso drifted down to the Mexican League, where he played through his 40’s. At the age of 45, he hit .359 to win the Mexican Winter League’s batting title. In his final season, by then nearly 48, he played 120 games, hit 12 home runs, knocked in 83 runs and batted.265. Three years later, Minoso was brought back to his beloved White Sox by owner Bill Veeck, the best baseball impresario in all the world. Two months short of his 51st birthday, Minoso faced major league pitching for the first time in 12 years. He went one for eight, knocking a single off a Sid Monge fastball. That made him the fourth oldest player in big league history to get a hit. The Gordie Howe of baseball. (Minoso might have been even older for these landmark moments. His birth date tended to bounce around like a Mexican jumping bean.)

Someone with a lot of time on his hands added up everyone’s major and minor league lifetime statistics, and figured out that Minoso stood second, behind only Pete Rose, on the list of most total hits in professional baseball. Ty Cobb was third.

Much later, I learned that the Cuban-born star was also a baseball pioneer, the first black from Latin America to play in the allyn2majors, suiting up with the Cleveland Indians in 1949, and the first black to play for the Chicago White Sox. That was in 1951. In his first at bat, he hit a home run, launching a lengthy tenure with the White Sox that made him one of the most popular players in team history, with his own statue at what I will still call Comiskey Park.

When Minoso passed away a few days ago, there was universal sadness at the loss of someone whose embrace of the joy of baseball was unsurpassed. I’m also sure I wasn’t the only one taken aback by his death, despite his many years on Planet Earth. Heck, if anyone could defy the odds and live forever, surely it would have been Minnie Minoso. I kind of thought he would live forever.

Here’s the NYT obit on this great man. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/02/sports/minnie-minoso-dies-treasured-white-sox-ballplayer.html?_r=0 Even better, if you’re obsessed, like I am, about Minnie Minoso, and have a few spare moments, this is a marvellous, definitive look at his long career, with incredible detail and photos from his days in Cuba and early years in the majors. Outstanding. http://www.cnlbr.org/Portals/0/Hero/Orestes-Minoso.pdf

Fidel Castro Sitting Next to Baseball Player Minnie Minoso

(Actually, Minoso hated Castro and left Cuba, never to return, in 1961. But late last year, after President Obama announced a landmark rapprochement with his homeland, Minoso expressed the hope that he might now go back and revisit the sugar cane fields where he laboured as a youth.)

Meanwhile, although I never saw him play, I do have one Minnie Minoso anecdote. It goes back to my time in Newmarket, Ontario, when our gang of four seemed to be the only true-blood baseball fans in town. Besides myself, there were Doug Cane, Dennis Myers and the great Paul Ingledew, who might have been a slugger in his own right, except for a bad eye.

One evening, we were playing home run derby. You got three tries an inning to hit the ball far enough for a homer. We had set up Ingledew’s bike out in the field as the home run marker. But it was too far. As dusk approached, not one of us had even come close to belting the ball over the bike for a homer. Up came Paul Ingledew for his final at bat. For who knows what reason, he suddenly announced in a loud voice: “Pinch hitter, Minnie Minoso!” Whereupon, he whacked a towering blast that soared way over his heretofore-unreachable bike for the only home run of the game. We laughed ourselves sick. Then we went home.

RIP, Minnie Minoso. And shame on all those sports writers who broke your big heart by keeping you out of the Hall of Fame. “Even if it hurts on the inside, I will always be smiling on the outside,” said Minnie, after falling short once again in 2011.

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