And no, it wasn't Leonard Cohen.
Last night Stompin' Tom Connors thundered his way off into the sunset.
It's hard to convey the significance of both his life and his passing. Stompin' Tom was one of a kind, an authentic voice in a world of phonies, who lived an improbable life; a life so improbable that it reads like fiction, the sort of fiction a great national author might try to create in honor of his own culture.
Allow me explain, eh ...
Of any non-Canadians who know anything about him at all, only a tiny fraction will be familiar with anything beyond The Hockey Song. He wrote it 40 years ago, but somehow it only became the unofficial anthem of hockeydom over the last decade or so. Here it is:
Now, I know there are basically three categories of listeners to popular music. There are the snobs, who, though they may enjoy the stuff, deny that it is really "art". No, they will tell you, John Lennon, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, pick-your-own-generations-icon, were/are not poets -- not really. Opposite that set are those who take the view that the snobs are ... well ... snobs. And then of course, there are the overwhelming multitudes of folks who wouldn't ever stop to give it any thought.
My own opinion depends on my mood and the particular performer in question. Today, now, I have no doubt at all that Stompin' Tom Connors was a poet extraordinaire. Take for example that line in the song above (recorded in 1973):
They storm the crease like bumblebeesNow watch this clip, of Bobby Orr's sudden-death goal to clinch the 1970 Stanley Cup.
If you don't know, one of the 3 or 4 most famous photographs in the history of North American sport was taken from the corner of the rink, as Orr flew threw the air. This was the first Stanley Cup final I saw on TV, and I never forgot the image of what happened in the 20 seconds after Orr's goal -- and when I first heard The Hockey Song a few years later, I knew exactly where that line came from. That's a beautiful thing.
Stompin' Tom's work is filled with such crystal-perfect phrases, capturing the sense of a moment or a place or a person with precision and an improbable sophistication.
Why so improbable? Well, consider his biography: Born in the depression to an unwed teen mother, at the age of 3 he was hitchhiking around with her, at the age of 4 he learned to beg, at the age of 8 he was taken from her for his own wellbeing (apparently, he actually lived with her in a low-security women's penitentiary at some point), at the age of 9 he was given to an adoptive family, and at the age of 15, he left home and started hitchhiking around Canada, supporting himself with odd-jobs.
This is the sort of biography that gives the snobs fits -- the same snobs who think Shakespeare couldn't have written those plays, because he was so frightfully common.
Now consider this tune, which for years was played as the opening music to a Canadian TV newsmagazine:
If you don't get it, let me clue you in: There is more sociological, nevermind economic, sophistication to be found here than in many of the pratings of people with a superabundance of abbreviated suffixes appended to their signatures.
But that song is not at all typical of Connors' career. More commonly, his songs were witty, or thoughtful, or sometimes just sentimentally corny, observation pieces about the people and places of Canada. In all of the literature I know, I know of only one other person whose approach to song and place and nation compares with STC, namely Woody Guthrie. This is STC's absolutely definitive work, Sudbury Saturday Night, recorded at a now-classic concert in a tiny venue. Everything about this song, this performance, this performer sparkles and smokes with Canadianness. The only thing missing is the McKenzie Brothers sitting at one of the tables. ("INCO", by the way, is the International Nickel Company, whose flagship mining operations were in Sudbury -- home of the world's largest nickel.) I claim: If listening to this song doesn't evoke in you a fundamental respect and sympathy for ordinary working people, you have a long, long way to go on your path to becoming a progressive.
Here's a youtube video I was surprised to discover. For those of you younger folk who perhaps know kd lang as a vaguely matronish, mature, and supremely powerful vocalist (check her out at the Junos, singing Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah), and of course lesbian icon, I'll have you know that in her youth, Ms. Lang was a bit ... well ... odd.
Okay, let's be real, she was a freak. I mean ... she did some really strange stuff, bordering on performance art. But Canadians loved her anyway -- or some of them did anyway -- and here she is, apparently hosting the Junos or something, and from what I can tell, this is the first public performance of STC's wonderful, witty, admiring, and just damned proud tribute song to the little weirdo:
I could go on, but y'all all know how to use Youtube. (suggestions: Bud the Spud, The Ketchup Song, Red River Jane, and, for good measure, Luke's Guitar, the first Stompin' Tom song I ever heard.) And I suppose I could scare up various anecdotes -- like how, his first performance in a pub came about because he was a nickel short of a beer, and how he started carrying a slab of plywood to his gigs because the manager at one of his regular gigs got pissed off at him for wearing a hole in the stage, and how he returned his Juno awards in protest of the trophies being given to Canadians who neither lived nor made their music in Canada. Incredibly, Connors spent much of his life fighting just to get his music on the air, after Canadian radio stations latched onto the crossover pop country music that came to dominate the American country scene, beginning in the late 70s. The bottom line is this: a great Canadian poet has died, a man who dedicated most of his adult life to documenting what he saw as he traveled around the country that he loved beyond measure. To quote another Canadian songwriter: The world will never see another man like him.