ME AND WILLIE O’REE

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Every now and then, the National Hockey League, even under Gary Bettman, does the right thing. So it was with the recent selection of Willie O’Ree to the Hockey Hall of Fame. O’Ree, 82, was chosen under the hallowed institution’s “builder category”, as the first black to lace ‘em up in the NHL and a long-time ambassador for youth and hockey diversity. In recent years, the honours have piled up for the likeable O’Ree. Banners raised, arenas named, ceremonies, inductions to other, more local halls of fame, and in 2008, the Order of Canada. O’Ree has taken it all in stride, evincing little bitterness over the setbacks and racist taunting he experienced at times during his long hockey career, which lasted until he was 43 years old.

Most of that time was spent in hockey’s minor leagues, a respectable place in those days to earn a few dollars, followed by a summer job to fill out the year’s earnings. Back then, there was nothing pejorative about being “a career minor-leaguer” like O’Ree. And he was a good one. All told, he scored more than 400 goals over 17 seasons, most of them in the Western Hockey League, which included the Vancouver Canucks before they jumped to the NHL in 1970.

Willie O’Ree played only 45 games in the National Hockey League. I was lucky enough to have been at Maple Leaf Gardens for one of them, and I have very clear memories of that magical night. It was my best friend’s birthday, and, baby-boomer parental indifference being what it was, (“go out and play”), we went on our own to the Gardens to watch the Leafs take on the Boston Bruins.

That meant taking the mighty Grey Coach bus from our sweet home town of Newmarket all the way into the big city, about 30 miles distant. This was different from daytime trips with the parents. As a young teen-ager, I remember being awed, and slightly intimidated, by the bright lights and nighttime crowds swirling along Yonge Street, particularly outside the legendary Brown Derby Tavern. But we made our way to the nearby Gardens and plunked down $2 each for standing room tickets. That was the only way to get in, since Leaf games were always sold out.

At the Gardens, you could stand behind the blues, which were best, the greens or the greys at the top of the rink, which were worst. From there, you could barely see the distant players through the haze of cigarette smoke.

 

We lined up in the cold with the other standees. An hour before game time, they opened the doors. Everyone rushed through the turnstiles and dashed frantically up the stairs to get a good place. Rather than risk being crowded out behind the blues, we opted for the lesser greens. We may have been the youngest guys there, but we didn’t care. We were at the Gardens seeing the Leafs, our hockey heroes, for a paltry few dollars.

I also knew that Willie O’Ree would be in the lineup for the Bruins. His historic first appearance had been the year before, but he suited up for only two games, before being shunted back to the minors.. Now he’d been called up again, and the Toronto hockey scribes had been writing about O’Ree and what a curiosity he was, a black player in the NHL. So I was curious, myself, to see him, in addition to rooting for the Leafs.

I watched him closely in the warm-ups, noticing what a fast skater he was. He also seemed to have a good, hard shot, based on the noise the puck made cannonading off the boards when he missed the net. It was fun to see him on the ice. But the Bruins were a last-place team, and the game went well for Toronto. As an added bonus, Johnny Bower, my all-time favourite player, made one of the best saves I’ve ever seen, Despite losing his goal stick, Bower hurled himself full length across the net to deny the Bruins a sure goal. The crowd rose as one in a roaring salute to the greatest custodian of the pipes the Leafs ever had.

oree_willie_action3But back to O’Ree. He didn’t do much in the game. Indeed, during his 45 games in the NHL, he amassed only four goals and 10 assists, which was not enough to keep him in the league beyond the 1960-61 season. Watching him, you could tell he had the speed to be an NHL-er, and he didn’t shy from mix-ups. Yet, he had trouble hitting the net and making those key passes to set up scoring opportunities.

Only much later in life did O’Ree reveal that an early injury had left him virtually blind in his right eye. He had kept it a secret, figuring, probably rightly, that few teams would want him if they knew he had full use of only one eye. No wonder he missed the target so often. I wasn’t the only one to notice it.

Boston teammate Don McKenney recalled a magazine article on O’Ree headlined “King of the Near Miss”, which highlighted the number of his shots that sailed wide. “I’m sure his eye problem was the cause of that because Willie O’Ree was an excellent hockey player in every other regard,” said the skilled McKenney, who occasionally centred a line with O’Ree and Jerry Toppazzini. In the same 2007 interview, McKenney noted exactly what little ol’ teenage me noticed from my perch behind the greens: “He was extremely fast and had a strong shot.”

So not only was O’Ree the first black to play in the NHL, he might have been the first one-eyed winger, too. Remarkable achievements on both counts.

Playing left wing, as he did, forced him to turn his head over his right shoulder to see a pass clearly. In 1963, however, while with the WHL’s Los Angeles Blades, wily coach Alf “The Embalmer” Pike, an off-season mortician who presumably knew something about the human body, sensed something was wrong with O’Ree’s eye. He switched him to right wing. O’Ree began to score like gangbusters. His 38 goals led the league that year, followed by four more 30-goal seasons, including one at the age of 39. One is left to speculate how good Willie O’Ree might have been with 20-20 vision in both eyes.

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As hockey’s black pioneer, O’Ree is often called the Jackie Robinson of the NHL. It’s a poor comparison. Taking nothing away from O’Ree’s breakthrough, the two situations are miles apart. Whether NHL owners were biased against blacks is an open question, but there was no rigidly defined colour bar as there was in baseball, forcing some of the best players in history to play in the Negro Leagues. Robinson’s signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers caused a sensation. O’Ree’s first NHL game was treated as more of an unusual footnote than anything else.

Outside of the Maritimes, from where O’Ree hailed, few black Canadians played hockey. A handful did well in the minor leagues and might have been denied a chance because of their colour, but there were no obvious stars. O’Ree deserves every credit in the world for preserving in the sport he loved from boyhood (“I loved the feel of the wind rushing by as I flew along the ice.”) and making history by making it to “the show”.

Back in Toronto, after the game ended, my friend and I streamed out of the Carlton St. Cash Box, as sports writers liked to call it, into the late-evening crowds, and headed to the bustling, grim bus terminal at Bay and Dundas for the return trip to Newmarket. We sat quietly in the darkened bus, as the miles flashed by, tired but happy. , It had been a wonderful night. The Leafs won 4-1, with the Big M, Frank Mahovlich, and a young rookie, Dave Keon, among the goal scorers. My hero Johnny Bower was the first star, and I had seen Willie O’Ree.

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DODGING DANGER IN PARADISE

It’s a while since I’ve been caught up in a world-wide news event, especially one where I MIGHT HAVE DIED. But there we were, after a five a.m. wake-up call by Kauai’s ubiquitous red roosters, on the first day of our holiday, groggily sipping our coffee in the Saturday morning sunshine. All of a sudden, the island quiet was pierced by an urgent loud buzz on our cellphone. It sounded like an Amber Alert on steroids. “What the heck was that?” I said out loud to other breakfasters gathered on the patio of our inn. No one looked up from their buttered toast. Thinking it was just some sort of glitch, we didn’t investigate further. Then, my companion reported back from the office. The woman behind the front desk had said something about a missile threat, as she busied herself with the office routine. The patio remained an oasis of calm. I glanced at the sky, saw nothing and continued with my coffee. Nobody, it seemed, including ourselves, was going to be bothered about a little thing like nuclear annihilation. After all, we were on holiday.

When I subsequently checked the Globe and Mail website, I discovered that the alert had actually been pretty scary, the nonchalance by our front desk clerk notwithstanding. ‘SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” Yikes. And the Hawaiian missile alarm was at the top of the Globe’s story list. We’d been part of history, bad coffee and all.

A little later, when we traipsed in to nearby, sleepy Lihue, I asked some of the locals how they’d dealt with the alert. Unlike reports of panic elsewhere, people seemed to have taken it in their laid-back stride.

Our cab driver said she’d been stuck in an unrelated traffic jam. She did what anyone would do facing an incoming ballistic missile. She phoned her supervisor. Her boss told her not to worry. The boss’s husband was in the military, and he’d confirmed it was a false alarm. The volunteer at the local museum said he’d slept through the whole thing. “If it was real, that’s the best way to go.” I agreed.

A genial, bearded Uber driver was the only person I talked to who actually reacted to the alert. He’d been at his Saturday men’s Bible class (I refrained from asking whether he thought the Apocalypse was coming at last…). All their phones went off at once, and everyone rushed outside. He immediately phoned his wife with specific instructions: “Stay inside. Don’t go to that garage sale!”

As we talked, he noted that some of those who hadn’t taken it seriously questioned why anyone would launch a ballistic missile towards Kauai. He pointed out, quite rightly, that the US Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility is on the island, right by the wonderfully-named Barking Sands. The PMRF’s latest mission is to track incoming missiles and shoot them down. “So we could have been a target,” he said, cheerfully.

Another fellow I spoke to further up island was rational about it. His community tests its emergency sirens once a month, to ensure their readiness in case of an incoming tsunami or other calamity. He got the alert, poked his head out the door, heard no sirens and went back inside, figuring he was going to see the sun set on another day in paradise, without a mushroom cloud obscuring the view. Plus, as many observed: “Seek shelter? Like, where, dude?” This is Hawaii. According to a local newspaper round-up, one guy took refuge with his son behind a palm tree…

I particularly liked a few other reactions. Who should be a longtime permanent resident of Kauai, but Samantha Geimer, the victim in the Roman Polanski child sex abuse case? On Facebook, noting the blasé indifference around her, she posted: “I guess panicking in Hawaii is making coffee and shrugging our shoulders.” A youngster phoned his mom to tell her a ballistic missile was coming their way. “OK, I’m at the farmers’ market,” she replied. And finally, a tourist from Utah sent a text to her kids, saying: “This could be it. I love you.” They texted back: “Send us a picture.”

And that was that. There were reports of understandable panic elsewhere, but overall, on beautiful Kauai, the response to possible nuclear annihilation seemed to be: keep calm and carry on. It’s probably not real, and if it is real, what can you do?

On reflection, I am little less sanguine about the bizarre incident. First of all, the frightening alert was apparently put out by an employee “during a shift change”. Hey, we’ve all experienced shift changes. Issuing a ballistic missile alert is just one of those things that can happen, right?….But I mean, really??? And then it took an unforgiveable 38 minutes to issue a cell phone correction. (Many got the news much earlier from Congresswoman Tulsi Garbbard, who posted her own “all-clear” message a mere 12 minutes after the alert.) Those twin incompetencies are truly beyond belief, particularly given the two nutbars allegedly in charge of North Korea and the USA, who make anything seem possible. (In the winning way that is coming to characterize society these days, the unfortunate who put out the alert has received “dozens of death threats by fax, phone and social media,” officials said.)

Meanwhile, for us veterans of the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis, this brought back a lot of unwanted memories, from a time when “Duck and Cover” exercises were very real. During crunch day of the Cuban Missile Crisis, we went to school, not knowing if we would be coming back home. It was truly an eerie and frightening feeling. But of course, we still did exactly what many Islanders did on Saturday. We went about our normal routine. If the bomb was coming, so be it.

So for now, ballistic missile dodged. Slap on the sunscreen.

 

A TOAST TO FINLAND!


(Mårten Beijar photo)

You may have missed it, but the land of my ancestors recently celebrated it’s centennial. On Dec. 6, 1917,   small but mighty Finland officially severed itself from Russia, becoming an independent country for the first time. Russia’s new Bolshevik rulers did not protest. I remember leafing through one of my great aunt’s photo albums and seeing a grainy picture of the raising of the Finnish flag in their small community for the first time. A bit more than two and a half years after independence, my mother was born in the fishing/farming village of Sideby. When I first visited “the relatives” in the winter of 1971, I was given the very room where her birth took place. Under the mountain of blankets my two great aunts supplied, I remember going to sleep that night looking at the same walls that oversaw my mother’s first breath of life and pondering the chains of existence. Because my great-grandfather August Jossfok, a rough-looking, bearded fellow in big boots, and a young woman down the road, Ida Mathilda Karlsdottor, found favour with each other 130 years ago, I am here today. (My grandmother’s family was from the small farming community of Karperö, further north.)

My mother’s family are Swede-Finns, part of the predominantly Swedish-speaking communities that line the Gulf of Bothnia, left over from the several hundred years when Finland was part of imperial Sweden. In the old days, Swede-Finns spoke only Swedish. When the family left for Canada in 1928, my mother didn’t know a word of Finnish. Few outside Finland realize that the country remains officially bilingual, although mixed-marriages and migration to Sweden have reduced those for whom Swedish is their first language to barely 6 percent of the population.

In fact, there is probably much else people don’t know about Finland, besides saunas, Sibelius (a Swede-Finn, incidentally), the prowess of its hockey players and its remarkable education system, which consistently produces student results among the best in the world. Herewith, in honour of Finland’s 100th birthday, are a dozen things you might like to know about a country that has punched above its weight for a long time, and continues to marches to its own drummer. (Even before independence, Finland had been the first jurisdiction in Europe to give women the right to vote, in 1906–10 years before good old Canada.) First, some history.

 

  1. The fierce polarized politics of early Finland were frightful. Immediately after independence, conservative Whites and socialist Reds duked it out for ascendancy, resulting in a short, brutal civil war that claimed 36,000 lives in a country of just three million people. With the critical assistance of several thousand German troops, the Whites were victorious.

 

  1. The bitterness of the civil war had a tangible impact on far-away Canada. Thousands of “Red Finns” left their divided homeland, now in the hands of the vengeful Whites, and emigrated to Canada. Many found work in the logging camps and mines of northern Ontario. The new arrivals did not leave their politics behind. A number became political activists and radical union organizers. In 1929, Janne Voutilainen and Viljo Rosvall “drowned”, while trying to organize some nearby loggers. Most believe they were murdered by anti-union thugs. Their funeral was the largest ever held in Thunder Bay, which retains a Finnish flavor even today, most notably with the venerable, 100-year old Hoito restaurant, still on the bottom floor of the Finnish Labour Temple. My grandfather was also among the “Red Finn” contingent, but thankfully, he brought his family to Vancouver.

 

  1. In World War II, Finland was an ally of Germany. Hitler made a brief visit in 1942 to wish the country’s military leader, Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, a happy 75th birthday. The previous year Finnish forces had attacked the Soviet Union to regain territory lost to the USSR during the Winter War. After some initial success, the venture ended disastrously. After the war, the Soviets exacted heavy reparations, claimed a chunk of border territory, and took jurisdiction over a strategic peninsula not that far from Helsingfors (as Swede-Finns call the capital) until 1956. Finland was also required to remain “neutral” in world affairs, a position they scrupulously maintained until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

 

  1. During the post-war years, Finland established one of the most extensive state social services systems in the world, believing, along with other Nordic countries, that governments have a duty to intervene on behalf of their citizens. Shredding the neo-con argument that taxes and government get in the way of economic development, Finland’s per-capita income has more than held its own among other Western industrialized countries. In 2016, the World Economic Forum ranked tiny Finland first in terms of World Human Capital. Other international reports found Finland the most stable country in the world from 2011-2016, and second best in terms of the gender gap. As baseball broadcaster Mel Allen used to say: “How about that?!”

 

  1. Finland has military conscription. All my male cousins, on turning 18, had to interrupt their education to serve at least six months with the Finnish army.

 

  1. Coalition governments are the order of the day. For many years (until 2015), the small Swedish People’s Party (Svenksa Folkpartiet), supported by just about all of my relatives, was part of the government.

 

  1. In 2014, Finland became the first, and so far, only country to put homoerotic drawings by a gay artist on its stamps. They were the work of the artist known as Tom of Finland (Touko Lasksonen), subject of a recent bio-pic this year by director Dome Karukoski. (The one below is the mild one.)

 

  1. Of course, Finland isn’t perfect. Alcoholism remains a big problem, no doubt contributing to the country’s relatively high homicide rate, while youth unemployment is stuck at around 20 per cent. And, as in most European countries, anti-immigration sentiment has become an issue, fueling the growth of a worrisome, nationalist party. The good news, however, is that political leaders banded together in June to freeze out the Finns Party, after it elected a hard-line, anti-immigration leader. Twenty elected members of the party left to help the coalition government maintain its majority. “This decision will likely ruin our political careers, but we are determined to do this,” they said in a statement. “Today, we are not politicians, but we are doing this for the fatherland’s sake.” How rare is that in today’s political world?

 

  1. In the final of the world hockey championship in 2011, playing against their loathed, arch-rivals, Finland whacked neighbouring Sweden 6-1. It was the greatest triumph in the history of Finnish hockey.

 

  1. Believe it or not, the national sport of Finland is not hockey, but baseball. However, banish any thought of the North American version of rounders.  The Finns call it Pesäpallo, and the rules seem to come from outer space. Would anyone else other than the fun-loving Finns have three designated players on each team called “Jokers”? You think cricket is complicated? It takes this guy more than five minutes to explain all the ins and outs of Pesäpallo. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yom1_q8WRck Unlike any sport you’ve ever seen.

 

  1. Well, maybe not. There’s also the Finns’ fondness for fen football, otherwise known as swamp soccer. The august New York Times had a hard time taking it seriously, headlining their story on the  competitive bog slog: “Finland has a sports screw loose.” This from a country that relishes bowling. But never mind. Read about it here. Try hard not to laugh. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/27/sports/finland-has-a-sports-screw-loose.html

12. Last, but certainly not least: according to the Guinness World Records, the 19-letter Finnish word saippuakivikauppias (a soapstone vendor), is the world’s longest palindromic word in everyday use. That prompted my friend Lorne Slotnick to ponder: “Why would the word for a soapstone vendor be in “everyday use”?” And the answer is: Because it’s Finland!

Happy 100th birthday, land of my mother’s birth, and a Merry Christmas/God Jul/Hyvää Joulua to you all.

 

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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