It occurs to me as I begin this letter to you, one that you'll likely never read, that writing to a writer, a lyricist, a intellect, and a poet will be trying. How could I ever put into words my sentiments tonight? The words are not beautiful enough. At least in any combinations I can find. How could I tell you, without reverting to my fourteen year-old brain, about the time when I found you and then you saved me, what you've meant to me, all along?
The fourteen year-old me would attempt to cleverly embed lyrics from her favourites songs into the prose. Like, I might have told you how you've always been Ahead by a Century, or something equally cringe-worthy and obvious. I'd have thought that was witty, you know. It's okay, though, you probably wouldn't mind.
Instead of trying to recreate the painful banter of a fourteen year-old, I'll tell you how I found you. It won't be original but it will be true.
It was 1991; I was in my grandparent's basement avoiding the grown-up party upstairs. It was hazy with cigarette smoke up there ( Export A green, if you must know) and the adults laughed too loudly and were never without a Moosehead beer in their hands. They were happy, and friendly, and just a little bit too much like my friends and I are today, but mostly boring to a teenage girl who wore a denim jacket that had Alice and Chains written on the sleeve in script like a bad tattoo, though she couldn't name a single Alice and Chains song. I can't remember what they were celebrating, a birthday, or a holiday or maybe just a Tuesday evening. My family is Irish and need little reason to celebrate. All I knew was that it was lame, and I wanted no part of it.
The basement at my grandparent's house was the epitome of cool to me. There was a bar and along one wall was a bar mirror. You know, the long skinny kind that ran the length of the wall. There were old signs hanging here and there boasting 5 cent beers and other quaint offerings. There was a couch, void of springs, a television, a coffee table and most importantly, behind that bar, many many milk crates full of albums. There were seven children born to my grandparents and it would seem at least a few of them adored rock and roll. My cousins and I would browse the expansive collection regularly, never once opening up a record because we had ghetto blasters and tape decks in '91, but nonetheless we would browse the records and pick our favourites. I was partial to the David Bowie albums because I liked his make-up. My cousins would often choose AC/DC or LED Zeppelin as their favourites. The cassette versions were often playing and we could pretend we were DJ's or clerks at a really hip record store. It never got old. Remember those? Record stores.
On that evening, as I was perusing the milk crates once again, I heard a song. Now keep in mind it was just a few short years before that I had been writing love letters to the members of New Kids on the Block, so I had yet to develop a taste for rock music, but this song struck me like nothing ever had before:
It gets so sticky down here
Better butter your cue finger up
It's the start of another new year
Better call the newspaper up
Two fifty for a hi-ball
And buck and a half for a beer
Happy hour, happy hour
Happy hour is here
Now, like any good child breaching the gap between the glam of the late eighties and the grunge developing in the early nineties I was rejecting dance music in favour of anything angry, melancholy or so hard done by (you see what I did there? The fourteen year-old got one in, after all). This song, this rock and roll song that advised we should eat our chicken slow, stirred something in me that I had been looking for. A love of music, a true love, a love that was represented by all those albums for another generation and a love that would see me through a most tumultuous teenage existence.
I crawled out from behind the bar and left the records alone. I wouldn't need them anymore. I asked my older brother (who also preferred the anonymity of the basement) who we were listening to.
"The Tragically Hip, idiot." He snapped as older brothers will do. (Don't worry, we're friends now and even enjoyed Saturday's concert together.)
Fair enough, I thought, as apparently I was late to the game.
My plan was simple. As soon as we got home I would sneak into my brother's room and search his tape collection for this band. I wanted to play that particular song on repeat as soon as I possibly could.
I found it among the Guns & Roses, Cult and Stevie Ray Vaughan cassettes. It was called Road Apples and Little Bones was the first track. Surely, I wore it out over the course of the next few weeks. Only when my brother wasn't at home, of course. On the rare occasion when I would let the tape play out rather than rewind obsessively, I would discover other gems. Cordelia and Fiddler's Green are still in my top ten. Did you know the Stereophonics do a great version? Of course you do.
I wanted more.
I did some research pre-google, which mean't I had to find a Sam the Record Man in the mall and ask the clerk my questions. He directed me to Up to Here and a self-titled album, and I purchased them with the money I made working at a movie rental store (how cliche is that?). Remember those? Movie Rental Stores.
I took them home and lay down on my bed and played the tapes while I sang along with the lyrics included inside the tape cover. I was content. More content than should be allowed for a sullen fourteen year-old girl.
That was only the beginning, Gord. There would be family strife and break-ups and things I've only ever told you, and for everything you gave me a song. Day for Night and Fully Completely were like bookends to a less than stellar high school experience. There was Grace, Too and Nautical Disaster. Then there was Courage (which had me reading Hugh McLennan before I could appreciate him) and Locked in the Trunk of a Car which was dark when I needed dark.
Later there was Ahead by a Century (So haunting, right?) and Gift Shop. I had seen you live a half dozen times by the time this album emerged. You were playing close to home again, and I went with some boyfriend or another, none of them could be you. We brought items in for the food bank and were given a ticket for a chance to win "Tickets to the Henhouse". Do you remember that tour? There was a strange kind of henhouse re-creation on the back left of the stage and the winning ticket holders would be invited to watch the show from the stage. The venue held about 7000 people so when my number was called I was beyond thrilled. We rushed up to collect our prize and sit on the stage to watch the greatest band of all time preform. Only we couldn't really see you from that weird henhouse, and we couldn't really hear you, either. We stayed though, because we were close and that was cool. We were close to greatness and it meant something.
I didn't get to see you again after that.
Life got in the way.
I became an adult and though you continued to be prominent on my playlist during those university years, there was no more extra cash to find you in concert. You didn't come around the East Coast as much anymore. Phantom Power was making its rounds with the greatest song I've ever had the pleasure to hear, Bobcaygeon, but I wouldn't see it live and I'll forever regret that.
Later when I was really grown-up, like 'getting married and starting a family' kind of grown-up, a time when it just wasn't that cool to be 'right into your music', I lost touch with some of your later albums. I guess I was becoming part of a generation that downloaded singles and gone were the days when we would buy the whole album and lay on our beds and read along with the lyrics that came along inside the cassette case. Now, we would let record charts decide which songs we needed to hear. Much Music no longer played in the background while I was pretending to do homework. Now, my iPod shuffled whatever plethora of songs I decided were worth my $1.99 and work beckoned.
You're still on every single one of my playlists, you know. It's usually Bobcaygeon, or So Hard Done By. Sometimes, I need something a little more nostalgic so it's Twist my Arm or Little Bones. (I had a cat named Little Bones, you know.) I thought you would like that.
Anyway Gord, I don't want this letter to be about my reaction to the news of your cancer. I want to tell you how I found you and where I've kept you all along. I hope I did that.
I was watching Saturday night when you and the band played to over eleven million Canadians live to remind us that you weren't giving up. You, the most intellectual of thinkers, the most prolific of poets stood on stage and told us that you weren't done serving Canada.
Gord, you make Canada so righteously cool. Your albums are the soundtrack of all of our lives.
I love you
I'll miss you