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It seems I’ve only had minutes here in the Hammer before it’s time to head out again. I truly lucked out in having a week of glorious summer weather since arriving from Costa Rica. The blue skies and sunshine just won’t quit. I’ve unpacked and am now repacking to go to the northeastern US for a couple days – heading to a Quaker retreat in Vermont on a lake, so I sure hope this weather will follow me there and make the lake swimmable. Will then visit again with Cocky and Peter on the coast of Maine and stop in to see Carlos Guindon, who is moving forward with the final details of the Spanish translation of Walking with Wolf.
Between preparing to head out, juggling my book event schedule (have just added a talk on November 19 for the Kingston Field Naturalists), and meeting up with friends who I haven’t seen for a few months, this week has flown by as quickly as the planes that keep appearing above my house as part of the Hamilton Air Show. As is usual when I’m here in the Hammer, I’ve managed to catch a lot of live music this past week.
There is a new music venue that opened up while I was in Costa Rica, just a two minute bike ride from my house. I can see myself becoming a regular here when in the city. What used to be the old Copperhead Bar on James Street North (or the Copper John or Copper Corner or something like that – a place I’ve passed for years but never really taken notice of) has been given a new life as “This Ain’t Hollywood” – more affectionately known as The Saint. Hammerheads Lou Molinaro, Glen the Hamilton Kid and Gary Daly have taken over this ancient beer hall (slinging beer since 1893), done a few smart renovations and added a big sound system. The new stage is filling with rock, punk and alternative acts passing through the area as well as regular open mic nights where local musicians and their friends and fans gather.
Local singer-songwriter-music producer, JP Reimens, has organized a songwriters’ soiree at The Westtown over on Locke Street for a few years, but last week moved his Tuesday night gathering to The Saint. I’ve managed to catch the shows. It is a real nice room to see musicians play with good sightlines and there is a full clear sound. There is so much great talent around and you never know who will show up to perform or just drop by to see what’s going on: from the sultry sirens Ginger St. James, Lori Yates and Buckshot Bebee to guitar wizards Brian Griffith and Dan Walsh to the city’s songwriters with attitude Tim Gibbons, Linda Duemo and Dave Rave.
Last weekend was “the biggest Ribfest in the country” on the Burlington waterfront. With my friends Jeff (no last names please – the CIA is watching) and Heather, we went over to hang out on the beach in the late afternoon and have a barbeque, waiting for the sun to go down before heading up to the biggest pig-out in the land.
It’s a very different beach than the Caribbean shore in Cahuita I just spent the last two weeks on – chilly Lake Ontario sipping at its sand, just as often lashing it with serious waves. But the lake was calm and the full moon was rising and the city startled to sparkle as a gorgeous night came on.
We rode our bikes up the waterfront path to the big rib-affair to see Tom Wilson, another of my favorite musical beasts of Hamilton, along with some great musicians, including Jesse O’Brien, keyboardist extraordinaire.
Tom’s son Thompson and friends have a band – Harlan Pepper – as well as a big self-promoting father who gets gigs and press, so these four young guys are getting some exposure (opening for Tom’s show as they did on this night.) Some talent, some good songs, but still young and could do with some attitude. But the papa-musician, Tom, rocks as always and is guaranteed to be playing with hot talent no matter who he is at the moment – Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, Junkhouse, Lee Harvey Osmond, or he himself with an assembled band.
That big full moon continued hanging over us the next night when I went to Sonny Del Rio’s birthday party. Sonny’s the father of the sax here in the Hammer – been playing forever and at 66 is playing more than ever and loving it.
There was a backyard full of musicians and they stepped up to the mic, including Gord Lewis of Teenage Head who played a few with Sonny and friends. It was a real nice evening spent with my good friends Mike and Freda as well as Dean and Gary Duncan and his brother Randy, folks I love but I don’t get enough chances to see.
It is so great to come back to this happening little city where good friends reside and I never need be bored – not a word in my vocabulary anyway. Yet it is all on a scale that makes you look at the central core of Hamilton as truly down-town, as in the backbeat of a town, not the staccato of a big city.
Now I’m hanging my sign on the door of this blog:
GONE ON ROADTRIP…THE DOOR’S OPEN…MAKE YOURSELF AT HOME…BACK SOON
It is snowing outside. The rooftops are cold enough that the snow is turning them white. Lucinda Williams is on the stereo and singing about snow covering her streetlamps too but she’s talking about Minneapolis in December. This is Canada in April, the spring bulbs are out of the ground and shivering, and you just gotta love it. I should have known that the weather I came home to last week was too good to be permanently true.
One of my favourite Canadian pastimes – helping someone else stack their firewood…
I’m a few days away from heading to Maine. I hope the weather smartens up so that the highways and turnpikes and interstates are dry and quasi-sane. At the same time I’m preparing for this trip, I am also contacting people on the west coast for the book tour out there in July. If you are reading this and living between British Columbia and California and have a good idea of a Quaker meeting, naturalist group or bookstore who would be interested in hosting a Walking with Wolf evening, please send me a comment to this blog. I’m also making a few corrections to Walking with Wolf, preparing it for a second printing of the English edition to be done in the next weeks. And I’m helping with the details of the production of the Spanish translation in Costa Rica. I’m also making my plans to return there in May. I think I’ll be home about one week a month all summer. It’s a busy time.
With Lauren Schmuck and her mother Patricia Reynolds and Grandma Reynolds
I did a presentation of the book to the McMaster University Biodiversity Guild – a nice group of people, mostly with biology backgrounds. There was a good little crowd and it was a nice evening. One of their members, Lauren Schmuck, put it together – she has a burning desire to go work or volunteer in Costa Rica and I expect I’ll see her down there one day. I told her that any volunteer work I have ever done has paid off in spades - and it is true, many of my lasting friendships and most valuable contacts have come from being a voluntary grunt worker with a smile on my face (that last part is important.)
I’ve managed to hear some great music in the week I’ve been home – por supuesto. I went out and danced away a night when some of the top musicians in town (Jesse O’Brien, Brian Griffith, Joel Guenther et al) got together for a great gig of blues, funk and reggae tinged music to make ya dance. Love those guys.
My four dates for the night - Randy, Pete, Kevin & Jeff (taking photo)
The other night I went and saw Lori Yates, backed beautifully by Brian Griffith and Lisa Wynn, break our hearts with her tunes and that honey voice – she writes some hurtin’ songs, but she is very funny and irreverent and outrageous and she makes us cry as much with laughter as pain. Then Tom Wilson did a great show, fitting this hometown concert in amidst a very busy tour from coast to coast in Canada and the US – it was a Hamilton proud night. Followed by Jesse, Brian and Mark LaForme keeping it moving at the Westtown. I need those nights of music – my soft little soul is feeling all aflutter and music always soothes me.
I also saw the great Charly Chiarelli – a Hammer-boy with Sicilian roots who also happens to live down near my friends, Kingston way. I’ve heard him play his harmonica and tell great stories over many years. He has written a trilogy of plays about growing up Italian here in Hamilton and Sunday afternoon was the last performance (at the good ol’ Pearl Company) of the third play, Sunamabeach. He is a very talented, funny, charismatic actor/musician/story teller – and the local crowd of Italian offspring were loving it. So were we who have not a drop of olive oil in our blood. Charly got in trouble with the Sons of Italy (no doubt the daughters too but that would be a different story) in the United States over his last play, Cu Fu. They felt he was negatively stereotyping Italians when really he was just telling stories from his life with great passion and amusement.
I also saw, at the same ol’ Pearl, a rehearsal for their next play, Tobacco Troubadour, written by the art director of Artword Theatre, Ron Weihs. It is about local musician, songwriter and music producer, J. Paul Reimens. When Ron heard Paul’s songs, he decided he needed to write a play around the stories that Paul tells in them. I had gone out on Thursday to see Paul playing at a local pub (with Brian Griffith – how lucky was that, hearing the best guitarist in town play four times in a week) and we got to talking about this play, written about his life growing up in the tobacco country of southern Ontario and just wanting to play the guitar. Since I won’t be around for the performances, I went and sat in at the rehearsal and am truly sorry I won’t be here for the real thing. It is going to be a very poignant and entertaining play with Paul’s sweet songs throughout.
This all takes place at the poor ol’ Pearl Company, where my book launch was back in September. Gary Santucci and Barbara Milne have poured their energy, soul, money, and heart into creating this very alive art center in an old three story brick factory building that once was home to a costume jewelry business. They also run the popular Art Bus that takes people around to arts events throughout the city twice a month. They both received Arts Hamilton Awards last autumn and Barbara just received a Woman of Distinction award recently.
Against this very successful backdrop, sits the big purple elephant of stubborn and stupid bureaucracy that is attempting to close them down due to zoning. For many years this old neighbourhood was zoned commercial, sitting about four blocks outside of the downtown core. It then went residential, but the commercial use of the building (along with paying commercial taxes) continued for decades. Now the city is issuing a new zoning plan and one of the biggest problems is parking spaces as well as a very expensive re-zoning application process. Considering that the Smart Plans and Green Plans or whatever plans that cities issue these days do a lot of talking about minimizing the use of automobiles and promoting public transit, the requirement of parking spaces to allow an arts center to exist is mind-blogging – and the spots do exist, just not in a neat parking lot adjacent to the building. The Pearl folks may have to take their struggle to keep this center going to the national press if the city doesn’t step up here soon and support what is such a happening community place. The Pearl Company drives a big part of the cultural scene of Hamilton. Anybody who wants to read more and support their cause can go to their website at www.thepearlcompany.ca
In late great breaking news, the local newspaper, the Hamilton Spectator, has finally put a small article in about the book. Jeff Mahoney, a real nice journalist who writes an always interesting column about local people and cultural things, interviewed me last November. He also read the book and told me he loved it. I had asked that they don’t print anything while I was away in Costa Rica – so today there was a small piece and picture about my presentation to the Biodiversity Guild and singing the praises of the Canadian embassy’s financial support. Jeff told me that he’ll try to get his review of the book in the paper in May. I’m very appreciative that the local, under-staffed and over-worked newspaper finally found a couple of inches of space for Walking with Wolf.
I feel like I’ve mostly been sitting in front of my computer, contacting people, working on book stuff, feeling lovesick, but when I read what I’ve just written here, I realize that I’ve been enjoying myself too, taking advantage of being in this very dynamic, culturally-rich city lovingly called the Hammer, formerly known as Hamilton the Steel City. I continue to sing its praises wherever I go, invite my friends here who inevitably fall in love with it, and try to get out and support as many arts events while I’m here as possible.
In a moment of extreme stupidity, I managed to erase all my photographs off of my laptop – all the more stupid because, yes, I do have an external hard drive in which to download everything but, no, I didn’t do it since I got home. I then decided to make room on my laptop by taking out the photographs from one program – and they disappeared off all programs and I emptied my recycle bin and well, it wasn’t pretty. I paid a man to recover them and have them all on DVD in messed up files but at least I have them for when I need to access the photographs for my power point presentations or my blog!
That was definitely a low point.
The rest have been high, except for the cabanga, which will go away as soon as I go back to Cahuita in May.
If you’ve been reading this blog (and I know there are people faithfully reading – amazing but true!), you’ll know that I’ve been moving around a lot in the last few months. Since I started writing this little cyber-journal in April and then printed Walking with Wolf in May, I’ve written about my impressions and experiences while wandering through a bunch of places, selling a bunch of books. However, I don’t think I’ve written all that much about Hamilton Ontario, my birth place which I returned to after about twenty-five years of living in the northern bush and the tropical tangle.
In 2000 I came back here and bought a house with my ex-partner, Jim, in the fiercely proud north end of the city. Hamilton is a port and this is the oldest part of the city, close to the water. It was the only neighbourhood I was interested in living in, as it is bordered by the Hamilton Harbour and the Bayfront Park, giving me close access to the waterfront, as well as being a fifteen minute walk to downtown. Although I wouldn’t swim in the water here, there are places that I can go to sit on a park bench and look across the bay, and totally forget where I am which I find quite conducive to day-dreaming and creative-writing. As it says on the back of Walking with Wolf, I was born here but left, then came back rather unwillingly but stayed because I found this artistic renaissance happening here - and, always a grassroots person myself, I appreciated that the cultural revolution was swelling from the ground up.
Hamilton, once a raging steel-factory-dominated city, built by Italians and with deep working-class roots, has always been maligned. I grew up across the bay in Burlington, a suburban city - from there the body of water is called the Burlington Bay. From the big houses along the Burlington lakeshore you look east or south at the Hamilton skyline of smokestacks and shoreline of slagpiles. When the industrial barons built those big houses over in Burlington, they no doubt liked to look at the factories that were making them rich. That skyline was one of the things that sent me running to the northern bush as a teenager.
Now, from my vantage point on the Hamilton side of the bay, I don’t see the factories at all. I go a few minutes from my house and look north toward the tree-lined coast of Burlington, at the sailboats flying across the waves, the sun setting in the west, and the convoluted rocky Niagara Escarpment that adds a geographical uniqueness to the landscape.
I told Jim that I would stay here for two years and that was IT! I quickly found out that I could live here cheaper than in most places and that was reason to stay, since I was gone half of the year to Costa Rica. Jim had his work here and I began writing the book and didn’t want to uproot in the middle of that process. After a couple years, we bought the house directly across the street from where we were living - an indication of how much I liked the street and our neighbours. The neighbourhood changes constantly - people can actually afford to buy houses here and, even in a collapsed market, houses in this barrio sell quickly. About four years ago I gave up my vehicle, realizing that I didn’t need it to get around in this city, preferring to walk or ride my bike, and public transit can take me easily to Toronto and the airport. When Jim and I split up a few years ago, I stayed in the house which is perfect for one person, on this street where a number of single women live (a sign that it is a comfortable and safe neighbourhood to be in), and in this city, which slowly but surely seduced me with its dirty urban charms and incredible artistic community.
This is the appropriate time to focus on the gritty city (even our literary festival is called Grit Lit) because it is the week of the Hamilton Music Awards, when local fans and music industry folk get together to celebrate the Hammer’s musicians and the music. This is my fourth year working as a volunteer backstage. I do it simply to help JP Gauthier, whose brainchild this is, to honor the musicians, and to spend several nights feasting on the fine music here.
Although the classics in all fields are represented in Hamilton (there is a thriving Philharmonic Orchestra and an ever-growing jazz scene), the music that excites me the most is the stuff that feels like it was born on the streets. The musicians I’ve met and those I’ve watched perform have a voice and a sensibility here that is very different from the other musical communities I’ve been part of - Quebec and Costa Rica – which actually share many characteristics - or eastern and northern Ontario. I’m not sure how to describe the difference – beyond being urban - but it is definitely fed by gravelly-voiced irreverant singer/songwriters (Tom Wilson, Tim Gibbons), vixen songstresses (Lori Yates, Buckshot Bebee, Jude Johnson), smokin’ guitarists (Brian Griffith), flying keyboard fingers (Jesse O’Brien) and a whole slew of talented musicians, raunchy performers and hard-working producers. Uber-producer Daniel Lanois (U2, Bob Dylan, Neville Brothers, on and on) comes from here and returns regularly. The music community tends to be very supportive of each other. In this city of about half a million people, there is still a feeling of it being a town, a hard-rock over-sized village, but there have been enough imports and exports that there is a bit of a cosmic-politan air as well, even if that air is a little dirty.
Last Sunday afternoon, I set up a little Walking with Wolf table at the Mad Hatter’s Green Tea Party in Dundas (once its own town, now considered part of the larger Hamilton area unless, of course, you live there). After a week of balmy weather, it had turned cold and grey with frosty flakes drifting about. So it was pleasant to be in a cozy room with a number of greenish vendors, a silent auction, live music provided by locals Kim and Frank Koren, and a bonus to be set up right next door to the coffee and goodies. They were healthy ones and exceptional, especially a chocolate-covered mousse-filled biscotti….
Besides spending a very nice afternoon, I sold two books and traded another one for a stained glass peace dove and a glass bauble. I also bought a theatre ticket from a fast-talking man who I had met the night of my book launch at the Pearl Company [see A Pearl of a Night.] The play, “You Are What You Do” is actually at that same Pearl in December and now I’ll be going, thanks to this very good salesman (not that I mind at all-in fact look forward to it). The organizers of the tea party – including Peter Ormond, a local Green Party candidate, and Barbara Maccaroni, a raw food chef and soon to be house-sitter while I head south – did a great job, provided us with a pleasant time, and even made a fair chunk of change for the Green Party.
The rest of the week is about the music. It got started off in a great way as people gathered last night at the Bread and Roses Cafe to celebrate Jackie Washington’s 89th birthday. Jackie is a local legend, a great blues man but not just that - he is reputed to know more than 1200 songs off the popular charts. He is a very entertaining storyteller, his voice strong and clear even on the cusp of his ninetieth year. Jackie was born in Hamilton and has been singing songs since the age of five, first with his three brothers, and then as a regular well-loved participant in blues and folk festivals around the country. He’s played with Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee as well as Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot. He no doubt could have had a career in the United States but instead rode the rails in Canada working for Canadian Pacific to satisfy his restlessness and always lived his life in the Hammer - in the words of songwriter Colin Linden, in a song sung by Blackie and the Rodeo Kings – ”He never crossed over that American border, though he lived just a few miles away. He said ‘everything I need I can find right here – north of the USA’.”
A crowd of local musicians, fans and friends came out to honor him last night and listen to his stories of what the music business was like in Hamilton in the thirties, the sixties, the eighties – well, close to ninety years of tales and tunes. So very happy birthday, Mr. Washington – “long may your sweet song carry on”.
I was there with my pal, Lori Yates, and also bumped into guitarist extraordinaire, Brian Griffith. Brian is Jackie’s nephew – he has the incredible musical genes that have been passed through this family – these genes also have given them both the longest fingers in the land. He is another man happy to stay in the Hammer and as he says, will only go on the road if the opportunity is just too much to miss – as in when he toured with Willie Nelson for three years and played with Bonnie Raitt or was asked by Dan Lanois to sit in on recording sessions. He is Hamilton’s guitar idol and the sweetest man as well. That’s in his genes too.
So for the next four nights I will be out at musical events, taking tickets at the door (at the Pearl, once again), running around backstage first at the industry awards on Saturday and then the big celebrity-laden rockin’ Hammies on Sunday, each night followed by fun and frolicking in the Hammer-core. In the days, I’ll be re-working my power point presentation to present the book in Guelph at the eBar next Tuesday night as well as be connecting with the kind folks who are helping me set up book events next spring in Philadelphia, New York City, Boston and Maine. Yaaaaawwww - excuse me -nnnnn…I’m getting tired just thinking of it.
Your roving reporter will be back in a few days with more musical tales from the Hammer.