Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the month “January, 2015”

The Sexy Side of … Ottawa?

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Graham Nash, Wild Tales (2013)

This book is not so much an autobiography or memoir as a series of anecdotes strung together, and how much you enjoy it (or don’t) may depend on how much of an admirer of Graham Nash you are. Graham Nash is certainly an admirer of Graham Nash: he never misses an opportunity to tell you how great one of his songs is, or how well he performed at a particular show or studio session.

The focus of the book is really on the music he made and the musicians he worked with; there are tangential references to sex and drugs, but if you’re looking for a lurid portrayal of the debauched rock star lifestyle (and why not?), look elsewhere, because you won’t find it here.

You will, however, find a lot of references to Canada. I suppose that’s not surprising, given that Nash had a lengthy (by his standards) affair with Joni Mitchell and was in (and out of) a band with Neil Young for decades. I’m not going to catalogue every single one, since they aren’t all particularly interesting; instead, I’ll pick out a few of the more characteristic ones.

Joni’s Enchanted Castle

This passage describes how Nash met Joni Mitchell for the first time, while he was on tour with the Hollies in Ottawa, of all places:

Eventually, she invited me back to the place where she was staying, the Chateau Laurier, a beautiful old French Gothic hotel in the heart of town. Her room on the seventh floor was out of this world, literally: It had a beautiful steepled ceiling, walls made of stone with gargoyles hunched just outside the windows. Flames licked at logs in the fireplace, incense burned in ashtrays, candles were lit strategically, and beautiful scarves had been draped over the lamps. It was a seduction scene extraordinaire.  (116)

Joni then seals the deal by … grabbing a guitar and playing some songs. Nash is suitably impressed:

I never knew anyone could write like that. There was pure genius sitting right in front of me, no doubt about it. I was awestruck, not only as a man but as a musician. I thought I knew what songwriting was all about, but after listening to Joni’s masterpieces, one after the next, I realized how little I knew. She was twenty-four years old. My heart opened up and I fell deeply in love with this woman on the spot.

We spent the night together. I’ll never forget it for the rest of my life. It was magical on so many different levels. The next day we woke up at two in the afternoon and I realized I was in hot water. I’d put in a wake-up call with the hotel’s front desk, but somehow misplaced putting the receiver back in the cradle. The Hollies had already checked out of their hotel without leaving details about our itinerary. I only knew they’d be somewhere in Winnipeg. I had no idea where they were staying or playing or how to get there. Our gig was only a few hours off. Somehow, I got the details and found a flight to Winnipeg. Traumatic, but worth every minute of it.  (116-17)

Wow! Who knew that two musical icons of the 60s first met and fell in love in Ottawa?

And Ottawa, contrary to its usual reputation as monotonously grey and cold, provides a wonderful atmosphere for romance – the “French Gothic” hotel with gargoyles perched outside the window, the fireplace, the steepled ceiling – the Chateau Laurier sounds like the enchanted castle in a fairy tale, where the lovely princess leads her bold knight. Perhaps Ottawa is just different enough from other places Nash had been to lend his night with Joni a magical quality – or maybe it was all Joni.

And then, alas, the quotidian reality of Winnipeg calls, and the idyll comes to an end. Mitchell and Nash would eventually end up living together for several years in California.

Square, Straight Canadians

Later, there is a description of Joni Mitchell’s parents that gives us, perhaps, a sense of the typical Canadian upbringing of the time:

I’d met her [Mitchell’s] parents, Bill and Myrtle Anderson, a few months before this. Joan and I had gone to visit them in her hometown, Saskatoon – a nice suburban house, not posh but very clean, stark white walls. I can’t describe what Joan’s room looked like because I wasn’t allowed within twenty feet of it. Bill and Myrtle were a very straight, religious couple, and they weren’t about to let a long-haired hippie sleep with their daughter under their roof, that was for sure. It surprised the hell out of me. It wasn’t like she was a virgin, not even close. But just to make sure, they put me in a downstairs bedroom, separating us by a floor, and made it clear I’d need an army behind me if I tried to sneak up there.  (140)

“Not even close” – ouch! We almost pity these poor, prudish Canadian parents, valiantly trying to protect the sanctuary of their daughter’s honour, not realizing it’s been conquered and sacked countless times before. They’re just so out of touch with the realities of life in the major U.S. centres – an ignorance perfectly summed up in the single word, “straight,” which seems to capture so much of what Nash sees in Canada, and Canadians, at this time.

Genius Joni

There’s also this description of the crowd backstage after Mitchell’s first solo show at Carnegie Hall:

There was a great backstage scene after the show. Crosby was there, and David Blue, and Joni’s Canadian friend Leonard Cohen….  (141)

I find that description of Leonard Cohen endlessly amusing – “Joni’s Canadian friend”.

It does, however, raise a couple of points of interest: first, that in a music scene that was based largely in California and New York, an Englishman like Nash, at least, was aware of who the Canadians were, and used their nationality to mark them off and associate them with one another.

But even beyond that, Cohen is not given an identity of his own: he’s not the poet Leonard Cohen, or the singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen, or even the Canadian poet or the Canadian singer/songwriter: he’s just a Canadian who is friends with Joni Mitchell.

This might partly be due to the fact that Nash knows Mitchell, and so he sees other people in relation to her. But the way he portrays Cohen as just a sidelight to Mitchell is also part of a larger, recurring element in the book, which is Nash’s admirable respect for what he repeatedly calls Mitchell’s “genius”. To Nash, Joni isn’t just a woman he had an affair with: she is a truly great artist in her own right and someone who, through her talent, demonstrated to him how much farther he could go in songwriting, and who serves as an example and inspiration to him throughout his career (though he very modestly (and correctly, from what I’ve heard) says he never wrote anything as great as her best songs). Like Dave Van Ronk, Nash regards Mitchell as one of the leading songwriters of her time, and demonstrates how much of an influence this Canadian woman had on the development of the singer/songwriter tradition.

It’s interesting to hear Nash describe the influence Mitchell had on him as a writer when we consider, for example, Lorrie Moore’s portrayal of the music of Joni Mitchell versus that of CSNY in Who Will Run The Frog Hospital? In that book, CSNY, an all-male group, are connected (through their song “Ohio”) with the public world of war, politics, and the general social ferment of the times, whereas the music of Mitchell, a woman, is connected much more with the personal sphere and with the concerns of women – one might almost say it provides the soundtrack for types of experience that are shared and understood exclusively by women. Nash, however, makes no such distinction: he never suggests that Mitchell’s music is somehow feminine or “for women,” only that he admired her brilliance and did all he could to learn from it.

Bad Joni

But the course of true love never runs smooth, as someone or other once remarked, and it’s not all roses for Nash and Mitchell. Here’s a scene of an argument they had:

“You keep slagging America after it gave you all this opportunity,” she said. “Why are you biting the hand that feeds you?”
Like us, Joni was opposed to Nixon and the war, but she didn’t think it was fair to throw hand grenades from the side of the stage. We argued, and she ended up pouring a bowl of cornflakes and milk over my head. I was stunned – to say nothing of being pissed.
There was a maid in the room. I turned to her and said, “Would you kindly leave?” Then I put Joni over my knee and I spanked her.
Needless to say, it was one of the more interesting moments in our relationship.  (180)

Mitchell here seems to be showing some North American solidarity, as a Canadian defending the U.S. against the attacks of an Englishman. Does this indicate some subliminal Canadian desire to free ourselves from our subservient relationship to the UK (the past) and form closer ties with the U.S. (the sexy, exciting future)? If we wanted to stretch a point, we might see Nash’s violent response as expressing the attitude of the colonial overlord determined to assert its continued dominance over its overseas possession by chastising it for daring to offer an opinion contrary to what the colonial overlord expects….

But no, we won’t.

The Mysterious Mr. Young

In addition to Joni Mitchell, there is (unsurprisingly) a lot about another Canadian: Neil Young, who, over the years, has temporarily turned CSN into CSNY, though never stuck around for too long. The following passage describes a party where David Crosby took Nash to meet Stephen Stills, though it ends up being more about Young:

I knew all about Stephen Stills. I was totally into Buffalo Springfield. Allan Clarke had given me their album, which I’d carried throughout our [i.e. the Hollies’] tour of Canada. I practically played the grooves off that record. The word on the grapevine was the group was about to break up. The problem, apparently, was with their lead guitar player, Neil Young. He often turned up late for gigs, or not at all. He didn’t show at Monterey Pop, flat-out refused to play an important showcase on The Tonight Show, all of which frustrated the hell out of Stephen. He’d had enough of Neil’s shit. Besides, Stills was a guitar virtuoso in his own right and wanted the lead guitar position of the Springfield for himself. Looking back, it’s doubtful Neil ever wanted to be part of a band. Here’s an illustration that’ll put it in perspective: David and Stephen saw A Hard Day’s Night and knew exactly what they wanted to do. Neil didn’t give a shit about A Hard Day’s Night. He saw Don’t Look Back (twice) and took that as his role model. Neil always wanted to do what Dylan did: be an individual, a great songwriter, an interpreter of his own music. You couldn’t do that in a group, a lesson I’d learn about Neil much later in the game.  (113)

Notice the skilled use of foreshadowing at the end of that paragraph.

There’s a lot of information and opinion there, obviously, but what’s interesting from our perspective is the portrayal of Neil Young as an individual who can’t or won’t be part of a group: in Nash’s view, he seems very much the opposite of what one expects of a Canadian, given that our country is supposed to be more cooperative (socialist?) than the U.S. Here Young appears as the classic American loner, despite the fact that he’s actually Canadian.

The book also contains a little history lesson on how CSN became CSNY: apparently, Ahmet Ertegun suggested adding Neil Young to the CSN lineup to bring more “heat” to their live performances. Crosby agreed; Stills, despite bad memories of Buffalo Springfield, came around, but Nash was unconvinced, and so he insisted on meeting Young, one-on-one, for breakfast:

Turns out Neil Young was a funny motherfucker. I knew he had this dark, looming presence, a scowl and a loner tendency. But Neil was funny. Now, maybe he understood that I was the group’s lone holdout where he was concerned and he was on his best behaviour, but at the end of breakfast I would have nominated him to be the prime minister of Canada.  (161)

Breakfast? Really? This is what world-class rockers do: they meet for breakfast, like high school girls scarfing down pancakes while rehashing the details of last night’s drunken party?

At least Nash shows some familiarity with Canadian politics: he knows we have a Prime Minister (being British helps there, I suppose). No doubt he knows prime ministers are actually elected, and that Canada doesn’t seek nominations for the office from rock stars.

Back to Joni

Later on, Nash and Crosby are trying to pull together songs for an album:

And there was always something to write about Joni. When we were still a couple, I’d spent some time with her in British Columbia, where she had a little stone house on a beach. It was a place where she was indeed bouncing off boulders and running on the rocks, so I wrote “Mama Lion” to capture that snapshot.  (224)

So Mitchell not only inspired Nash to develop his own songwriting skills, but she also continued to provide material for him to write about long after their relationship ended. The stone beach house carries a suggestion of idyllic solitude that is not surprising to find associated with Canada.

The Absent Goldfish

We get another glimpse of Canadian narrow-mindedness in the description of Nash’s tour in support of his 1980 solo album, Earth & Sky:

Despite all of that, I had to get it up to promote the album. There was a two-month tour, mostly small theatres, just a trio, nice and laid-back to complement the songs. Leah Kunkel, Cass’s sister, opened for me. The only other participant was Joey the Goldfish, who swam in his bowl onstage throughout all forty-eight shows except the show in Canada, where thanks to immigration I replaced the real fish with a slice of carrot.  (273)

What? I really can’t figure that out, but apparently Canadian immigration officials refused to let a goldfish cross the border. Here we are portrayed as almost hysterically focused on protecting our homeland from the dangerous influence of marauding foreign rock stars (and their pets) – though I suppose, given the RCMP’s experience with Keith Richards, we aren’t totally to blame. The only notable result of this championing of security was that the Canadian audience (note it sounds like there was only one show in Canada – is that an insult or a mercy?) was forced to stare at a lump of carrot floating in a bowl of water, rather than a goldfish, which no doubt drastically reduced the entertainment quotient of the concert.

The Music

On to the good stuff. This is Joni Mitchell singing “Willy,” a song she wrote about Nash (“Willy,” apparently, was his nickname):

Here is “Our House,” which is Nash’s song about living with Joni Mitchell in Laurel Canyon:

And here is a conversation with Nash (via the Library of Congress) that covers some of the same material as the book:

So if you don’t want to take the time to read it, that at least gives you a taste.

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Montreal: The Only Canadian City Worth Mentioning

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Rebecca Lindenberg, Love, An Index (2012)

All the poems in this book relate in one way or another to the death of the poet’s lover, who, according to the back cover, disappeared while hiking a volcano in Japan. (Volcanoes, apparently, were an interest of his.)

The only reference to Canada comes in the long title poem, which is organized by the letters of the alphabet; under each letter there is a list of words beginning with that letter that are connected to the poet’s relationship with her lover.

This is the entire section on the letter “V”.

V

VANISH, dematerialize. Poof! How does one sail
to the land of vanished things? And what colour
does your flag have to be to get back?
VOLCANOES, we visited many: Vesuvius looming over Naples
like a history of violence and Pompeii’s ash
packed around a man-shaped hollow. The perfect cone
of Stromboli. Cloud-forests sweating around Poas,
its caldera cupping an aquamarine lake of boiling acid.
Thira’s thin crescent rising from the sea. A Mexican church
half-submerged in basalt. A cobbled path of fractured granite
descending into the North Atlantic. I thought I understood
your longing – it looked so much like mine.
VOLKSWAGON,
Golf (green), from Salt Lake City to Omaha in a day.
You were so angry because I’d stayed up late
the night before and couldn’t drive the first shift.
Later that summer, Duluth, Sault Sainte Marie,
Montreal, Marblehead. Harry Potter on tape,
your son asleep in the back with his feet on my lap
and his head resting on your guitar.
Golf (red), I could see you coming from so far
down the snowed-in road. Me at the bus station
freezing my ass off. You cranked the heat,
plucked off my wool cap, put your mouth over my ear.
VOW, I think as much now about the ones we failed to make
as the ones we faithfully kept.   (57)

The reference to Canada is a passing one, simply placing it on the itinerary of a road trip. A Canadian will naturally read Sault Ste Marie as the city in Ontario, but in fact there is also a Sault Ste Marie in Michigan, directly across the river from the one in Ontario – or perhaps they are better thought of as one city that straddles the Canada-U.S. border. So the mention of Sault Ste Marie alone can’t be considered definitively Canadian.

Once we come to Montreal, however, I think we can be certain. We can also guess at the outline of the trip: from Duluth, driving east along the southern shore of Lake Superior, then crossing into Canada at Sault Ste Marie, more or less straight across Ontario and into Quebec to Montreal, then back across the U.S. border and southeast to Marblehead in Massachusetts. So they would have passed through a significant chunk of Canada if that is the route they took.

In spite of that, Montreal is the only Canadian city to rate a mention: this book is yet another piece of evidence (along with recent examples such as Warren Harding’s love letters and Tao Lin) that Americans perceive Montreal as an exciting, romantic, interesting city, but see the rest of Canada as nothing more than a slightly blander extension of the United States. Having passed through Montreal is worth mentioning; having passed through Toronto, however, is not.

Other than the implicit judgement that Montreal is the only Canadian city that deserves to be named, there’s no real comment about Canada, so it’s hard to draw conclusions: our nation features here simply as a place that Americans occasionally journey through on their way to other places. In fact, Lindenberg makes no distinction between the naming of Canadian and American places and never explicitly mentions having crossed a national border. Duluth and Montreal appear equally in the list, as if the national divisions between us did not exist at all, which only adds to the sense that Americans see Canada as just an extension of their own country.

A Canadian at Baskerville Hall?

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Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902)

The action of the novel begins with the arrival in London of Sir Henry Baskerville, the heir to Baskerville Hall; Sherlock Holmes is the first speaker in the following passage:

“Then how can I assist you?”
“By advising me as to what I should do with Sir Henry Baskerville, who arrives at Waterloo Station” – Dr. Mortimer looked at his watch – “in exactly one hour and a quarter.”
“He being the heir?”
“Yes. On the death of Sir Charles we inquired for this young gentleman and found that he had been farming in Canada. From the accounts which have reached us he is an excellent fellow in every way. I speak now not as a medical man but as a trustee and executor of Sir Charles’s will.”  (31-32)

We have come across a similar view of Canada before, though from a slightly different perspective: in Dickens’ Little Dorritt, Canada represents a fresh start for Tip, the ne’er-do-well brother; here, Canada again represents a new opportunity, though in this case it is for a gentleman who comes from a good family but is unlikely to inherit the family estate.

It’s a bit surprising that he would become a farmer in Canada, which isn’t the most gentlemanly pursuit – why not, for example, take up law in London? Farming in Canada seems like more of an option for English farmers who can no longer farm successfully in England (such as Bunting’s Morpethshire farmer) – but perhaps we shouldn’t inquire too deeply: Conan Doyle’s plot requires the new Baskerville heir to have been stashed somewhere out of the way … and Canada is certainly out of the way. By keeping Sir Henry off the scene until he is actually required, Canada has served its purpose in the novel, and to an English reader of the time the idea of farming in Canada would likely accord well enough with their existing impression of our country as essentially a wilderness where a few rural settlements have been carved out.

The lifestyle of the Canadian farmer is alluded to later in the novel, when Holmes admires the portraits of the Baskerville family, and Sir Henry reveals the sort of expertise he acquired during his years in the New World:

“…these are a really very fine series of portraits.”
“Well, I’m glad to hear you say so,” said Sir Henry, glancing with some surprise at my friend. “I don’t pretend to know much about these things, and I’d be a better judge of a horse or a steer than of a picture.”  (202)

You can almost hear him aspirate the initial “p” on that last word, as if spitting it contemptuously out. This makes it clear what people concern themselves with in Canada – and it’s not paintings, or the arts in general. Sir Henry’s Canadian life has been that of a stolid farmer with knowledge of livestock and no interest in the finer things, such as paintings.

And yet there is a curious bifurcation in the character of Sir Henry. At moments like this, Conan Doyle seems almost at pains to portray him as a rough colonial who knows about livestock but couldn’t care less about art. By contrast, in other parts of the novel Sir Henry is described as a true English gentleman, one who has taken naturally to his inheritance of Baskerville Hall and seems to have an innate understanding of his role and an instinctive sense of how to conduct himself as the leader of his community.

We could interpret this as an illustration of the “blood will out” idea: no matter how much time he spent in the wilds of Canada, Sir Henry is an English nobleman by blood, and as such is always ready to take up his birthright and exercise his prerogatives.

I’m afraid I’m inclined to settle on a somewhat more prosaic explanation: Conan Doyle doesn’t have a particularly strong sense of Sir Henry as a character, and so his portrayal of him changes to suit the immediate needs of the plot. Likewise, Conan Doyle isn’t really interested in the life of farmers in Canada or in describing the sort of person who follows that lifestyle; Sir Henry’s colonial sojourn is simply a way of explaining his absence from England so that his arrival can be used to start the story.

An Aside: Conan Doyle vs. Nancy Mitford

At this point we can pause to compare Conan Doyle’s image of an heir to a large British estate living in Canada with another writer’s portrait of a character in a similar situation – Cedric Hampton, in Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate. The comparison is a little tricky because, as noted, Conan Doyle’s characterization of Sir Henry is somewhat inconsistent. As regards the scene with the paintings, however, we can say Conan Doyle’s portrayal of Sir Henry is much closer to what the English characters in Love in a Cold Climate imagine Cedric will be like – that is, an unsophisticated colonial.

Of course, Cedric turns out to be quite the opposite. Perhaps, over the decades between The Hound of the Baskervilles and Love in a Cold Climate, English perceptions of Canadians evolved; perhaps Mitford’s desire to use Cedric’s character for satirical purposes led her to the unexpected; perhaps Mitford is simply more focused on character as a writer – whatever the reasons, Love in a Cold Climate has a similar set-up but offers a notably more nuanced portrayal of a Canadian than The Hound of the Baskervilles.

The Boot

Then we come to the matter of the boot. Sir Henry, shortly after his arrival in London, complains that one of his boots has been stolen from his hotel:

Sir Henry smiled. “I don’t know much of British life yet, for I have spent nearly all my time in the States and in Canada. But I hope that to lose one of your boots is not part of the ordinary routine of life over here.”  (49)

It would be a gross disservice to Henry James to refer to this moment as “Jamesian,” and yet, in its portrayal of the New World innocent horrified by the corrupt ways of the Old World, it does seem to contain, in a radically simplified form, a germ of one of the themes that fascinated the master.

It is Sir Henry’s stolen boot, of course, which the murderer will use to put his hound on the scent of the Baskerville heir when he walks the moor at night in the novel’s climax, and so the theft of the boot marks the beginning of the process by which Sir Henry will become enmeshed in a scheme that involves the commission of murder in order to inherit a fortune. (When you put it that way, The Hound of the Baskervilles does begin to sound like a very faint echo of a James novel).

The boot crops up again at the end of the novel, when Holmes and Watson are tracking the fleeing murderer through the deadly Grimpen Mire:

Only once we saw a trace that someone had passed that perilous way before us. From amid a tuft of cotton grass which bore it up out of the slime some dark thing was projecting. Holmes sank to his waist as he stepped from the path to seize it, and had we not been there to drag him out he could never have set his foot upon firm land again. He held an old black boot in the air. “Meyers, Toronto,” was printed on the leather inside.
“It is worth a mud bath,” said he. “It is our friend Sir Henry’s missing boot.”  (228)

At least Conan Doyle knows the name of a major Canadian city. The boot shows Canada is not completely rural: boots are made here, which suggests industry at least at a minor level – more likely something closer to a cobbler’s shop than a boot factory, but still, Canada is capable of producing some of the finer needs of a gentleman for itself – and doing so well enough that he would wear the boots in England – and is not just a land of farms.

Incidentally, it is in honour of this small plot point that the Canadian branch of the Sherlock Holmes Society is known as The Bootmakers of Toronto (better than, say, “The Farmers of Canada,” which is the most obvious other option suggested by the novel).

Overall, The Hound of the Baskervilles presents a rather mixed view both of Canada and of Sir Henry himself, and it’s hard not to feel that for Conan Doyle, Canada was merely a distant colony that his readers would know just enough about to allow him to use it in whatever way best suited the requirements of his plot.

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