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Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the month “July, 2013”

No confidence


Keith Richards, Life (2010)

There are several references to Canada throughout this book – not surprising from a member of a band that regularly tours the world, and has also made a habit of rehearsing in Toronto (for tax reasons, apparently).

Rather than cataloguing all those, I’m going to focus on the most interesting reference to Canada: the section that deals with Richards’ arrest for drug trafficking in Toronto in 1977.

The band was waiting for me in Toronto early in 1977. I put off going for many days. They sent me telegrams: “Where are you?” We had a gig at the El Mocambo, which would provide more tracks for our Love You Live album. We needed some days of rehearsal.  (391)

That reference to the El Mocambo will have an undeniable frisson for Torontonians of a certain age.

But finally we [Richards and Anita Pallenberg] flew there [Toronto] on February 24. The gigs – two nights at the club – were scheduled for ten days later. I took a hit on the airplane and somehow the spoon ended up in Anita’s pocket. They found nothing on me at the airport, but they found the spoon on Anita and busted her.  (391)

It has nothing to do with Canada, but I love that “somehow”; how did the spoon end up in poor Anita’s pocket?

They [the Canadian police] went to great effort to prepare the big bust of me in the Harbour Castle Hotel…. Alan Dunn, the longest-serving Stones man, the logistics and transport supremo, discovered later that the regular personnel who worked in the hotel suddenly found themselves working alongside many extra people, who had been hired mostly as telephone and television engineers. The police were setting it up: massive resources against one guitar player.  (391)

There’s something amusing about this picture of the Canadian police – they’re portrayed like small-town cops trembling with excitement at their chance to catch a big-time, big-city celebrity. It’s hard to know how much of this is true and how much is just Richards’ grandiosity.

So the police came straight to the room. Marlon [Richards’ son] would not normally have let in any policemen, but they were dressed as waiters. They couldn’t wake me up. By law you have to be conscious to be arrested. (391)

Well there’s an interesting little nugget of information – did you know you had to be conscious to be arrested? I didn’t. It makes sense when you think about it, since they have to advise you of your rights, and if you’re not conscious you obviously can’t take in that information; I suppose the truth is I’d never really thought about it. The wages of a relatively sheltered life.

It took them forty-five minutes – I’d been up for five days and I’d had a heavy-duty shot and I was out. This was my last rehearsal day, and I’d been asleep for about two hours. My memory of it is waking up and them going slap slap, two Mounties dragging me about the room slapping me. Trying to get me “conscious.” Bang bang bang bang bang. Who are you? What’s your name? Do you know where you are and why we’re here? “My name’s Keith Richards, and I’m in the Harbour Hotel. What you’re doing here I have no idea.”  (391-92)

Ah, those bungling Mounties – no match for the insouciant Richards wit!

Really it’s not a particularly appealing image of our red-coated, brass-buttoned national police force, dragging a drug-addled rock star around his hotel room and slapping him to try to wake him up. I doubt they put that on the recruitment posters.

Meanwhile they’d found my stash. And it was about an ounce. Quite a lot. No more than a man needs. I mean, it wouldn’t feed the city. But obviously they knew their shit, like I knew my shit, and it was clearly not the Canada smack. It had come from England. I’d put it in the flight case.  (392)

It’s encouraging at least to be told the Mounties “knew their shit” – this is the first real indication that they’re not a backwoods version of the Keystone Kops. But it doesn’t last.

So they arrest me, take me to this Mountie police station, and it’s really not my time of day.  (392)

The Richards wit again.

…because of the amount they found, they decided to charge me with trafficking, which is an automatic jail sentence for a very long time, in Canada.  (392)

Oh, they send you to jail for drug trafficking in Canada? How positively medieval.

I said, OK, fine. Give me a gram back. “Oh, we can’t do that.” I said, so what are you going to do now? You know I need it and that I’m going to have to get it. What are you going to do? Follow me and bust me again? Is that your game? How are you going to play this? Give me some back till I figure this out. “Oh no, no.”  (392)

Here Richards comes across as the practical man stymied by the prissy, almost school-marmish attitude of the Mounties, who refuse to give him back enough of his heroin to get him through.

But all of this is relatively minor compared to what follows. Any reader who knows anything about Keith Richards would expect him to be conversant in matters of narcotics and dealing with the police, but we now enter into subject area where his expertise may come as a bit more of a surprise: political philosophy:

Yet again someone was seriously after my ass, and the situation was further complicated by Margaret Trudeau, the wife of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, moving into the hotel as a Stones appendage, offering a double-big tabloid story. The prime minister’s young wife with the Stones, and you throw in drugs, you’re looking at a three-month run. In the end it may have played in my favor, but at the time it was the worst combination of circumstances. Margaret Trudeau was twenty-two and Trudeau was fifty-one when they got married. It was a bit like Sinatra and Mia Farrow – the power and the flower child. And now Trudeau’s bride – and this was exactly their sixth wedding anniversary – was seen walking in our corridors in a bathrobe. So then the story was that she had left him. She had, in fact, moved into the room next to Ronnie, and they were hitting it off really well, or, as Ronnie put it so nicely in his memoirs, “We shared something special for that short time.” She flew to New York to escape the publicity, but Mick flew to New York as well, so it was assumed they too were an item. Worse and worse. She was a groupie, that’s all she was, pure and simple. Nothing wrong with that. But you shouldn’t be a prime minister’s wife if you want to be a groupie.  (392-3)

Groupies shouldn’t be married to prime ministers – talk about incisive commentary. (And please note the restraint I’m exercising in avoiding any obvious “Stones appendage” jokes.)

Actually, I found this part of the book exciting: there was Canada, right at the heart of a celebrity scandal. The wife of our prime minister was living in a hotel with the most famous rock band on the planet. Canada was, for a brief, shining moment, cool. Of course we didn’t know it at the time; we were probably embarrassed – or, more likely, horrified.

At another hearing they added a charge of cocaine possession and revoked bail…. I would have loved to have dared them to put me in jail. It was all bullshit. They didn’t have the balls. They weren’t feeling confident.  (393)

Well, there it is: “They didn’t have the balls. They weren’t feeling confident.” Richards is referring to the Canadian authorities, but could any two sentences more succinctly sum up the way the rest of the world views Canada? Our whole national identity seems to be captured there. We’re not confident. We don’t have the balls.

Things brighten a little bit from there:

It was Stu [Ian Stewart] who suggested that I should use the waiting time to put down some tracks of my own – put something down to remember the man by. He hired a studio, a beautiful piano and a microphone. The result has been doing the circuit for a while – KR’s Toronto Bootleg. We just did all the country songs … but there was a certain poignancy because at that moment things looked a bit grim.  (393-4)

So that’s the prize we got out of it – Toronto is forever associated with a Keith Richards bootleg recording. Here’s a sample:

Richards managed to get out of Canada and into the U.S., supposedly into a drug treatment program, and later had the charges reduced, plead guilty and got a suspended sentence; here are the details for those who really want to know.

And here’s a picture of him in the suit he wore for his trial:


You probably can’t read the caption, but it says:

Suit bought with difficulty on a Sunday for my trial in Toronto, October, 1978.

This will no doubt bring up fond memories for all those who recall Toronto’s “Sunday shopping” battles of a few decades ago. Richards is clearly tweaking Toronto as a sleepy, pious city so trapped in a small-town mentality that you can’t even shop on the Sabbath. Whether this look flatters him, or was likely to win over a Toronto courtroom, I’ll leave for others to judge.

In the end, Richards seems to have been left with a positive view of Canada: his praise of Toronto in this video starts at around the 30-second mark:

Interestingly, he remarks that Toronto has always “been good to us,” i.e. to the Rolling Stones, and then goes on to say, “Especially to me. I mean, they got me out of jail.” An odd way of looking at things; since Keith was arrested and tried in Toronto, he might say it was Toronto that put him in jail.

But, ever the optimist, he sees it the other way round.


Canadians: Boring or Bastards


Tina Fey, Bossypants (2011)

This book seems to be a cross between a memoir and a humour book; it’s difficult to say precisely what it is. It’s not exactly crammed with profound insights into the human condition, but it does have some funny passages. And, excitingly for us here at Wow Canada!, Fey’s life in the world of comedy has involved a few brushes with Canada and Canadians.

Here she is discussing the Second City comedy group:

There’s a Second City in Chicago and one in Toronto, and between the two they have turned out some mind-blowing alumni, including John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, Chris Farley, John Candy, Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Steve Carrell, Amy Sedaris, Amy Poehler, and Stephen Colbert.(81)

Nice to see the Canadians getting name-checked – by my count, 5 out of 12 comedians mentioned in that list are Canadian – nearly 50% – suggesting Northern roots to a lot of American comedy. This reminds me of a TV special I watched years ago – I think made by the CBC – called The Canadian Conspiracy. The idea was that Canadian comedians were working together to take over the American comedy system, and as I recall it featured a sweaty Eugene Levy confessing all the details of the “conspiracy” in an interrogation room.

The following passage refers to Fey’s first meeting with Saturday Night Live producer (and Canadian) Lorne Michaels:

I could have never guessed that in a few years I’d be sitting in that office at two, three, four in the morning, thinking, “If this meeting doesn’t end soon, I’m going to kill this Canadian bastard.” (121)

It’s at least moderately exciting to think of a Canadian as a bastard, if only because it conflicts with our more expected polite image.

In the following passage, Fey is asked in an interview (around the time of her famous Sarah Palin impersonation on SNL) what she would do if the McCain-Palin ticket won the election:

I said in a joke-y, actress-y voice, “If they win, I will leave Earth.” It was clearly a joke about people who say stupid things like that. No matter what your political beliefs, everyone knows some loudmouth: “If Bush wins, I’m moving to Canada.” “If Bush wins again, I am seriously moving to Canada.” (224)

This idea of Canada as a place where Americans can escape from the unpleasant realities of American politics has arisen before.

The italics in the first instance seem to mark Canada off as a strange, distant place; the fact that someone would do something as extreme as moving there indicates their horror at the idea of Bush as President. Of course in the second quote it’s “If Bush wins again,” indicating that they didn’t actually move to Canada the first time – because things are never so bad that any American would actually choose to move to Canada, right? They’d rather endure Bush and hope for better next time.

And the last mention of Canada, in a passage about  how Fey & her family spend their holidays:

Our annual pilgrimage from one set of in-laws to the other happens every December 26, or, as they call it in Canada: Boring Day. (245)

I can’t get much out of that one – is it just the idea that Canadians are boring? – an idea so tired, by the way, that it is itself boring. Or is our Boxing Day shopping frenzy just not frenzied enough to impress someone hardened by the outlet malls of suburban Pennsylvania?

Overall, I feel like this book gives a reasonably positive impression of Canada: we’ve produced some great comedians, and Lorne Michaels may be a bastard, but he’s a successful bastard. American loudmouths threaten to move here without ever really intending to because our country is just too far-off and obscure – but as Fielding says, let them know, to their confusion, that we don’t really want them anyway.

So there.

Hollywood: It’s All About Canada


Bruce Wagner, I’m Losing You (1996)

My introduction to Bruce Wagner came through the TV miniseries Wild Palms, which I watched long ago and from which I remember three things:

1) A rhinoceros standing in an empty swimming pool

2) Robert Loggia reciting “Running to Paradise” by Yeats

3) This bewitching cover of the William Faulkner novel of the same name, which I’ve never read

Since then, I’ve been aware of him as a writer of dark, satirical Hollywood novels, none of which I had actually read – until now. I’m Losing You certainly fits what I imagined as the Bruce Wagner template: lots of amoral power-mongers and desperate losers whose dreams of “making it” in Hollywood lead to their own downfall, all sprinkled with liberal doses of drug use and sex.

But who cares about that stuff? What really matters is that this novel has more references to Canada than any other American novel I’ve ever read. So many that I keep wondering if Wagner is actually a Canadian. (If he is, I can’t find any evidence of it.)

For the first time, in fact, there are so many references to Canada that I’ve divided them into sections for ease of reading.

The Heartbreaking Story of an Aspiring Starlet

In the second section of the novel, titled “Women in Hollywood,” we meet Kim Girard, a waitress who dreams of being an actress. And guess where she’s from:

Often, at the strangest moment {usually smack in the middle of reciting the Specials}, my mind toggles back to Vancouver and the friends and family I left behind; and I am temporarily sidetracked by that sinking homesicky feeling – penny dreadful!  (73)

Yes, an eager young Canadian who has left the relative safety of Vancouver to make it in the wilds of Los Angeles. Is this a cliché, or is it something so common that it has come to seem like a cliché? I’m not sure, but the Canadian actress is a type we have run across before. And since Kim is a recurring character in the novel, we can use her career to chart the path of an (admittedly fictional, but perhaps representative in some sense nevertheless) aspiring Canadian actress, and to draw some conclusions about what a major American author thinks of Canada and Canadians.

Kim befriends another young starlet-wannabe, who goes by the name Jabba:

We went to an NA meeting after and I asked Jabba about her dad. She usually sees him around the holidays and said if I didn’t go back to Vancouver, maybe we could all have Turkey Day together. I told her I would really like that {which I would}.  (82)

I hate to be the sniping variety of critic who, as Jonathan Swift says, does nothing but point out a writer’s faults, but I can’t help but feel that Wagner, like Homer before him, may have nodded here. Canadian Thanksgiving occurs at least a month before American Thanksgiving, so it’s difficult to see why Kim, who is Canadian, would be going back to Vancouver to see her family at the same time Jabba is having Thanksgiving with her father.

Kim changes her name to Kiv Giraux, and an agent gets her an audition for a role in a remake of Pasolini’s Teorema, of all things:

I suspected as much from the start because they seemed to be actively casting other things while I was there, such as PICKET FENCES. {I was hoping to see DAVID KELLEY and MICHELLE but that they would even be there was naive on my part. Guess I’m still the majorly starstruck Vancouver girl. (102)

As a Canadian not yet hardened in the ways of Hollywood, Kiv is excitedly dreaming of running into what Wagner calls “Big Stars”. As an aside, one of the curiosities of reading this novel is seeing which stars who were famous then still have currency now (“MICHELLE,” above, clearly referring to Pfeiffer) and which have been forgotten (Hello, “LAURA DERN”. What’s new, “MADELEINE STOWE”?).

To express her thanks for the audition, Kiv has sex with the agent (Canadians are so polite!), something that even she seems to recognize as a bit of a cliché:

I didn’t want him to think sleeping together was the “prize” for getting me the audition – that would be SOOOO Hollywood.  (102)

Kiv doesn’t get the part, and loses her job as a waitress as well:

Diary, I cried and cried and for the first time thought of returning to B.C. (110)

Not only does Wagner know Vancouver, he knows which province it’s in! Kiv finds work in a strip club, which leads to another Canadian reference:

I’ll tell Ursula to ask if Blockbuster has it when she picks up EXOTICA {{CIRCA 1995}} {{EXOTICA}} takes place in a strip club – we’re viewing it as part of our Research}}.  (122)

I wonder whether Wagner was actually thinking of the Canadian connection when he worked in the Exotica reference; it’s nicely done if he was, since whenever Atom Egoyan makes a movie, any Canadian who listens to the radio or watches TV is bombarded with news about it.

Working in a strip club is, of course, the first step on the predictable downward path of our Canadian ingenue; soon she’s being moved into an apartment by her boyfriend, Troy Capra, who just happens to be a porn director – though she convinces herself that the apartment is a step on the road to legitimate stardom:

The doorman told us GOLDIE once lived here during her ascent … as did JAMI GERTZ, THERESA RUSSELL … LILSA EILBACHER, COURTNEY COX and DAPHNE ZUNIGA. Also KIM CATTRALL {a fellow underappreciated Canadian, especially in TICKET TO HEAVEN {{CIRCA 1981}} }  (125)

Kiv’s extreme naïvete must be obvious by now, though it’s a bit more difficult to determine whether Wagner sees this as a Canadian characteristic, or if he would have a similar attitude if Kiv were from, say, Oklahoma, or even his own home town of Madison, Wisconsin. It strikes me as true and almost touching (Wagner can be touching when he chooses) that she would take encouragement from the fact that another Canadian, who had achieved dreams similar to hers, lived in the building she was moving into.

Kiv’s career path, of course, leads to porn, and soon she’s being interviewed by Troy for a “Starshot Skinscape” episode on the Adult Channel:

(Kiv Giraux lies on a blanket, sunbathing…. She is topless. Troy interviews her from OFF-CAMERA…. A supered title: THE FOXXXY NETWORK’S STARSHOT #10 – XXX-FILE GIRLS….
Where from?
Beautiful place. Lots of television production up there now.
Maybe I should go back!
We don’t want to lose you just yet. That’s close to Seattle, isn’t it?
Vancouver? Uh huh.

What kind of acting have you done, Kiv?
Mostly stage. Various productions in Vancouver. But I came to Hollywood so I could get experience in front of the camera. (CAMERA ZOOMS on bush) My plan is to cross over, like Traci Lords-

The naïve Vancouverite still hasn’t woken up to reality. And note how nicely Wagner captures that irritating American habit of always relating to Canadian cities by finding out what American city they’re closest to. The reference to TV production in Vancouver intrigues me: I seem to recall there being protests in Hollywood about how much production work was moving to Canada. I don’t know if that was around the time of this novel or if it was later, but certainly the impression of Canada as a nondescript double of the U.S. where American films and TV shows can be shot on the cheap lies behind Troy’s remark. And could the fact that a lot of productions were happening in Canada at the time the novel was written be the reason there are so many references to Canada in the book?

A bit later, Troy and Kiv go to look at a mansion together:

As Troy approached the surreal structure, Kiv’s hickish oohs and aahs broke the quixotic spell. With great annoyance, he walked to the car and waited.  (187)

So we’re hicks now. What Troy responds to here is the provincialism Canadians are so often accused of: Kiv is an unsophisticated girl who is embarrassingly impressed by a tacky Hollywood mansion.

And at this point, Wagner drops his Canadian character: Kim Girard has become Kiv Giraux, and gone from waitress and aspiring actress to stripper to porn star. Wagner apparently feels he has traced her downward career arc far enough to let us extrapolate the rest, should we care to. Through her, we get a look at how Hollywood views young hopefuls from Canada: as naïve dreamers whose fantasies of stardom can be used to make them serve the ends of those who understand how Hollywood really works.

Miscellaneous Canadian References

There are several other references to Canada that don’t involve Kiv Giraux, which I’ll catalogue for the sake of completeness.

Toronto vs. Montreal

Another character, a screenwriter named Katherine Grosseck, introduces a conflict that any Canadian – or should I say any Torontonian? – will recognize:

What the fuck am I doing here? I mean, besides going to dailies and jacking the director’s ego. Well, that’s what I get for exec-producing. Hate Toronto, always have. The only thing good about it is Leonard Cohen, and he’s from Montreal, n’est-ce pas?  (128)

Ouch! This is such a clever and spot-on put-down of Toronto, so perfectly calibrated to hit at one of the city’s biggest insecurities, that you would almost think the character was a Montrealer herself. And I love the slide into French at the end of the sentence.

But now we get into the bizarre part: Bruce Wagner was married to Rebecca de Mornay from 1986 to 1990. The same Rebecca de Mornay who was “romantically linked” (to use the odious tabloid phrase) to Leonard Cohen in the early 90s, and to whom Cohen’s 1992 album The Future is apparently dedicated.

On the basis of those personal details alone, we can assume that Wagner must be aware of Cohen; and that’s not even mentioning Cohen’s longtime residence at a monastery on Mount Baldy near Los Angeles, studying Buddhism (though Wagner is apparently more of a Castaneda fan), and the presence of his music in the 1994 film Natural Born Killers (as well as the afore-mentioned Exotica).

So perhaps the reference is just a tribute to Cohen’s career renaissance in the early 90s, when he seemed to become a part of pop culture for a few years. Given the context, though, it’s hard not to think there is some kind of personal resonance to the reference as well. If nothing else, it’s a nice shout-out to a guy who was bedding your ex not long before the book was published.

A Deceptive Non-Torontonian

This is a strange one. The following conversation takes place between Bernie, an aging producer who wants to resurrect a zombie movie franchise he made in the 70s, and Pierre Rubidoux, a young producer at Showtime who grew up with Bernie’s son, Donny, and who pretends to be interested in Bernie’s films:

“Your son’s a helluv’n agent,” said Pierre….
“Taught him everything I don’t know. Say, you and Donny didn’t go to school together, did you?”
“No, we didn’t.”
“He grew up with a Rubidoux-Jesus, I think it might have been a Pierre!”
“I know two other Pierre Rubidouxes. We get each other’s mail.”
“The mother was Clara,” he said, irresolute. “You’re not related?”
“Not that I know of. Were they from Toronto?”  (176)

Not to unnecessarily regurgitate plot, but what lies behind all this is that Bernie killed Pierre’s mother while driving late one night, and Pierre is now using his power at Showtime to take some kind of strange Hollywood revenge on Bernie. And so when he says he’s not the Pierre Rubidoux who grew up with Bernie’s son, Donny, he’s lying.

Canada comes in here as what I would read as a slightly desperate element in the lie. Pierre doesn’t want Bernie to figure out that he’s the son of the woman he killed, so he has to pretend to be a different Pierre Rubidoux. As an American, he apparently has some idea that Rubidoux, because of its French origin, could conceivably be a Canadian name; Toronto probably being the only city in Canada he can name, he brings it in to try to make the lie convincing, though in fact Montreal would be far more believable here.

This is ironic, given that Wagner has already shown some awareness of the cultural conflict between Toronto and Montreal; Pierre’s mistake seems to have been introduced here as a way of undermining Pierre, or signalling to the reader that he has ulterior motives.

And this, I think, is a first: an American author is using ignorance about Canada as a way to make his readers mistrust one of his characters. I have to admit, I never thought I’d see that. (Though perhaps I’m over-interpreting? Always a danger.)

We’re NOT All Named After Provinces

This is from a dinner event:

On Rachel’s left was an overweight, attractive Canadian called Alberta. Mordecai, the lovestruck schlemiel with braces, hovered breathlessly, too nervous to sit beside [Rachel]; he took a  chair by the great Province.  (248)

Just to be clear, all Canadians are not named after provinces. I love this reference, though: the fact that a Canadian (and she’s attractive despite being overweight) is named Alberta is funny, but bringing in a character named Mordecai right after it is priceless. Given the familiarity Wagner has already shown with Montreal culture, I assume he’s intentionally referring to Mordecai Richler, one of Canada’s most famous writers, and, like Wagner, a satirist, though in a somewhat different vein. And then he rounds it off with Mordecai sitting next to the “great Province” – particularly hilarious since it’s difficult to imagine Richler ever being “close” to Alberta in any way.

There’s another reference to Alberta:

[Mordecai] probably got [Rachel’s] number from Alberta, the portly yenta. Rachel called her Alberta, Canada, but never to her face.  (292)

Another joke on her size, which is perhaps also a play on the American idea of Canada as a geographically vast nation.

Incidentally, I seem to recall a character named Bobby Ontario in the film Blue Valentine (if you haven’t seen it, I feel it’s my duty to mention that the trailer doesn’t even begin to suggest the harrowing despair that can be conjured by watching the film – don’t be deceived into thinking it’s some sort of indie rom-com) – I’m not sure if that really counts as a reference to Canada, though, because it could just be a name.  Likewise, there’s a Leadbelly song about a woman named Alberta:

But again, there’s no suggestion that her name bears any relation to the Canadian province. In I”m Losing You, on the other hand, it’s obvious that Wagner is aware of the connection, and playing on it. How common is it for people to have the same names as Canadian provinces?

Health Care – Again

This passage comes from a section near the end about a scriptwriter dying in hospital:

Total care! Get real – that’s what they were talking about – and who paid? Medicare? Medicaid? I’ll tell you who: nobody! Nobody paid for total care, total care was for the rich! For English and Canadians, and the Swiss!  (301)

Slightly less amusing than some of Wagner’s other references, but this is an idea that has come up before with American authors: that Canada is a haven of free, socialized medicine, where everyone enjoys the kind of health care that, in the U.S., only the rich can afford.

What Does it All Mean?

This is what baffles me. Is it possible that an American author set out to write a wicked, satirical novel about Hollywood, and just happened to pack it full of references to Canada? (Admittedly, once you get a character from Vancouver in there, it accounts for a few of them; still, there are a lot of references that have nothing to do with Kim/Kiv.)

Did Wagner just have Canada on his mind for some reason? Does he have a close friend from Montreal? Does he pick a random foreign country to refer to in each of his novels as some sort of OuLiPo-style challenge for himself?

I’m not familiar enough with his work to give the last option an official stamp of approval, but my preferred explanation is along those lines: I think events in his personal life (i.e. Leonard Cohen) brought Canada to his attention and, as some sort of bizarre joke, he built a series of references to our country into his novel. Perhaps someone more clever than I can see a pattern lying behind these references to Canada and make it all make sense.

Or perhaps it’s just a coincidence.

The Canadian Sun Sets on the Western

Eddie Heywood & Norman Gimbel, “Canadian Sunset” (1956)

It was reading the Sylvia Plath poem “Two Campers in Cloud-Country” that reminded me of the song “Canadian Sunset,” about a couple who escape for a “week-end in Canada, a change of scene.” I first heard (and saw) it on the Lawrence Welk Show when some channel was showing re-runs years ago; I’m pretty sure this is the version I saw:

I’m not in love with the novelty-song aspect of the singer impersonating a trombone, but it’s Lawrence Welk – you have to expect that kind of thing. At least there aren’t any bubbles blowing across the stage.

Unfortunately, she drops out an important verse. We’ll have to go to the Andy Williams version (with a bizarre conclusion) to pick up a key reference:

Here are the relevant lyrics, just for the record:

Cold, cold was the wind
Warm, warm were your lips
Out there on that ski trail
Where your kiss filled me with thrills.

A weekend in Canada,
A change of scene
Was the most I bargained for.
Then I discovered you
And in your eyes
I found a love that I couldn’t ignore.

So essentially, an American couple finds love on the ski trails of Canada, that convenient getaway just a short distance to the north. Of course, it would be on a ski trail – what does Canada have to offer the vacationing American besides access to winter sports?

Not a lot – except a sunset:

Down, down came the sun.
Fast, fast beat my heart.
I knew, when the sun set,
From that day we’d never part.

No doubt the Canadian sunset was much more glorious than anything they could have seen in their urban American homeland. And naturally the Canadian sunset will be forever special to them, because it sealed their love. Sigh.

I think this is the original, “hit” version (it went to #2 on the Billboard chart in 1956!):

It’s difficult to see exactly why this song would have had such a strong appeal to Americans in 1956. It’s an instrumental version, so the lyrics, suggestive of a bucolic escape, can’t have anything to do with it. Was the evocative song title, redolent of slightly foreign romanticism, enough to push it almost all the way to the top? Or was it just a catchy melody? Difficult to tell at this remove.

For those with more sophisticated musical tastes, here’s a version by Wes Montgomery:

Or maybe Gene Ammons is more your style? He’s done it too:

And finally,here’s an interview with Aretha Franklin, where she plays it on the piano but (alas) doesn’t sing it:

It’s interesting that the song was used in a lot of Westerns; it does have a sort of loping rhythm that suggests cowboys cantering over the sagebrush plains, but how odd that a song about falling in love while skiing in Canada should provide the soundtrack to a genre as quintessentially hot, dry and American as the Western.

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