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moon over boats

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.

the saint

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.

heather, jeff and me

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.

burlington skyline

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.  

tom wilson

 

 

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, jesse and harlan pepper

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.

moon over house

 

 

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.

 

 

gord lewis, sonny, dean

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.

 

randy & dean

gary

 

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

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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.

happy-with-wood1

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-family

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.

with-the-boys

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.

troubadour

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.

hamilton

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.robertos

 

The rest have been high, except for the cabanga, which will go away as soon as I go back to Cahuita in May.

It has been a very busy couple of weeks since I last wrote a post. If people are going to keep reading, I feel a responsibility to keep writing. And, as the title of this post hints at, I’ve witnessed first hand the power of putting information out on the internet. But I’ll get to that in a bit.

The next two weeks promise to be crazy as I leave on December 15 and won’t be back till the end of March.  I’m headed to Lake Atitlan in Guatemala to spend Christmas with my friends Treesa and Rick at their winter home in the community of San Pedro.  I’ve wanted to go to this enchanting country as long as I can remember,  specifically to this lake since my sister went there in the mid 70s. I saw the pictures and heard the stories and am already  captivated by its beauty. So in my quest to go to the places I’ve been putting off over the years of working on Walking with Wolf, and despite the economic downturn – my view is I better spend money while I have it because I could be working at Tim Hortons splashing coffee down people by next year – I am making a stop in Guatemala on my way to Costa Rica. 

bromelia-fire

I will be in Monteverde for New Year’s Eve when the locals put on a big Beatles show which I’ve heard about but have yet to experience. That is just the beginning of the evening and I know that the night will be filled with more music, dancing and mayhem.  One of the best New Year’s I spent was the year of the millenium when we started the night under a starry sky around the firepit at Bromelias, my friend Patricia’s home and business in Monteverde. If the weather cooperates, I like to think that’s where I’ll be on December 31st.

 

four-beatles

I spent a night last weekend listening to a variety of local musicians here in Hamilton, organized by the stupendous Christopher Clause, performing the Beatles White Album. They raise money for a shelter for the homeless in the basement of the church where the concert is held. Many of their covers of the songs from this great album were truly inspired. The energy that Saint Clause must put out to organize all of these evenings (he’s pulled together many musicians to do other Beatles albums in the past) is remarkable along with his own enthusiastic singing and skill on the guitar. The Beatles night in Monteverde will have a lot to live up to – the bar has been set high.

Here in Canada we are in the middle of a very wild ride in our parliament.  You’d think that we had enough excitement this fall with the American election of Barack Obama…the huge collective sigh of relief that went around the world the day after his victory was palpable.  Here in Canada we had our own federal election about a month before where nothing really changed. We had a minority government with the Conservative party in control and they were returned to office with only slightly altered numbers. Following the election, the buzzword was “cooperation” – as in there was a new air of a cooperative spirit in Ottawa and the four parties with elected members would work together and get on with running the country. This of course means dealing with the economic crisis that has basically smothered us with its dire predictions, pocketbook panic, and totally inconceivable amounts of cash buckets that are bailing out the barely floating ship of commerce (protected by the ever-bouyant corporate powers-that-be).

Well, how things change…

As the Conservatives launched their economic package last week, they seemed to leave out their version of a bailing bucket except for the part where they removed the funding to the other political parties. This sent the other three parties to the backrooms to make a deal to bring down the government and organize themselves to step in as a coalition government.  Our constitution and parliamentary system allows for this – when the Prime Minister loses the support of the majority of the House, he can be defeated. The politics involved in all of this seems very schmarmy, the strategy is polarizing, the result is extreme.  We are now sitting listening to the pundits and party purveyors – trying to figure out the constitutional aspects of what is going on, the hidden agendas – but the speed in which we fell into this only serves to point out how fragile this new government was and how truly uncooperative the air was in Ottawa between the Conservatives and the others. Basically the opposition has had enough of dealing with the very right-wing agenda of the minority Conservatives who proceeded like they had a majority.

I’d be thrilled to see Stephen Harper and the Conservatives go – I’m obviously not a C/conservative, never have been, never will be (one of the few times I would let myself utter “never”) – and I rarely agree with any of their policies concerning taxes, social programs, the environment or war.  I was saddened when they got in again, although the way our election system works there was as much support for the other parties collectively as there was for them – which only goes to support the argument for proportional representation where the numbers of elected members in parliament would truly reflect the voting numbers.  I heard Michael Moore say the other day on a radio show that after all these years of telling Americans to try and think more like Canadians, it is funny that when they finally took the step in a new direction with Obama, we Canadians supported (or half of us did) the more conservative agenda here.  

I have no problem with the idea of a coalition government.  Canada is this huge country with so many different cultures, climates, histories and social requirements, that it only makes sense to me that our government needs to reflect all of those diversities and give them all a voice. There is this huge cry over the fact that the party that represents the majority of Quebecois, the Bloq, known for its sovereignty plan for Quebec, is now in the position of being part of the sitting government (if the coalition goes through). Which I don’t think is true – they are not actually part of this coalition, they just support it.  I think the only way we can continue in this country is by having representatives of all sectors of our huge country represented.  And the Bloq is voted in and represents much of Quebec.  Perhaps the scariest and saddest part of this is the polarization that will likely rear its ugly head again (having only been a big napping ostrich) between the west and east of Canada, the French and English, and the left and right.  Spirit of cooperation indeed!

canadian_bacon1

 

 

 

The amount of anger on the airwaves is reflecting how unhappy and unhomogenous we truly can be in our big land of bacon and beavers. At a time of the year already fraught with darkness, coldness and pre-holiday stress, I don’t know if this political adventure is a good distraction or a bad omen.

 

 

brent

 

Speaking of across-Canada-cooperation, a few days ago I took part in a CBC radio show.  This is our national public radio and the GO show airs across the country on Saturday mornings.  The GO crew, with host Brent Brambury, taped the live show here in Hamilton at the famous-on-my-blog Pearl Company. I got free tickets and went with my friend David.

 

brent-k-2

The theme of the show was “If Hamilton were a country song…” and the musical guests were Garnet Rogers, Kim and Frank Koren (who I have written about before), Thomas Wilson (not the original Hammerhead, but an import from Winnipeg who must tire of having to share his name with the larger-than-life native son Tom Wilson), and Tiny Bill Cody. The challenge was for the songwriters to write a country song about the Hammer.  The songs were truly brilliant, incorporating local legends and features of the city, and hilarious. We put out a lot of energy in laughter in that room for so early on a Saturday morning.  I was asked prior to the show to be the audience plant who they would call on to be part of their trivia challenge and of course I said yes.  So here I am at the mic, answering the silly questions that Brent threw at me though I had to correct him on my name (he called me Faye, I said, “That would be K! Brent”.)

The question that stumbled me was about Michael Moore’s film – Canadian Bacon – which was filmed here in Hamilton but I remember many of the scenes were in Niagara Falls – unless one of Hamilton’s 100+ waterfalls subbed for the big one.  And Brent talked on the phone with Michael Moore (this is where I heard him say that thing about Canadians/Americans – somehow this blog just keeps tying it all together, no?) who has a love for the Hammer too!

tiny-bill

 

A couple of days after that, Barbara Milne (who I thank for a couple of these photos) and Gary Santucci, who own the Pearl Company, won a Hamilton Arts Lifetime Achievement Award – which they totally deserve for years of supporting the arts community, as the boundless energy behind the Pearl Company as well as the Art Bus – and Tiny BIll Cody (aka Tor Lukassik Foss), a brilliant songwriter, musician and visual artist, also won a Hamilton Arts Award.  (This is a wonky pic of Tiny Tor waiting to sing his song about our notorious Sheila Copps)

Now I want to tell another tale, one that began on this blog back in July.  In the post “East Coast Pleasures”, I wrote about my friend, Roberto Levey, who lives in the steamy tropical forest near Cahuita on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica – okay, if you want to go and read that now, I’ll wait for you…..or you can pick up the story here…

 jungle1

About mid-August, when I was back in Canada, I received a comment on this blog from a woman in Perth, Australia.  She wrote how she and her daughter, Gabriella, had read with interest the story about Roberto (and his father Bato) as Gaby was Roberto’s daughter.  Debra and Roberto had been together for awhile eighteen years ago and she had returned home to Australia to find that she was pregnant.  Debra decided to stay in Australia, always imagining that she would return to Costa Rica one day.  Roberto had stayed in touch for many years, offering to do his share of parenting if Gaby was to return to Cahuita.  But father and daughter never met and as the years went by, Debra eventually lost contact with Roberto.

As Gabriella is now at an age when her interest in knowing her father and visiting her Tico roots on the Caribbean is intense, Debra had plans to take her, along with her younger sister Angelique, to Cahuita.  However, despite her attempts to contact him, Debra was unable to get any news about Roberto. Perhaps he wasn’t picking up his mail – I know he had gone through a rough period following a collapsed relationship a few years back. I had seen him in that period, but then had seen him again in July and he was more like the man I have known for fourteen years.

Debra had tried to get information about Roberto’s whereabouts from the police, the school, a variety of hotels in Cahuita – but either she was contacting new people who didn’t know Roberto (who has lived there almost all his life) or those who did know him were keeping their information close.  People aren’t quick to give out information to foreigners in Cahuita – it can get you in more trouble than it is worth. So even as Debra went ahead and booked their tickets and proceeded with the plan to make this big trip via the United States to Costa Rica with her two daughters, she truly had no idea what they would find – thinking that it was even possible that Roberto was dead since he hadn’t returned any of her letters in a long while.

Then in August, a couple months before the proposed trip, she googled Roberto Levey’s name one more time – and this time it kicked to my blog.  She wrote me that she and her daughter had cried reading my descriptions of both Roberto and his father – Gaby’s grandfather – and filled with relief knowing that Roberto was truly still alive. Debra and I began a correspondence then that continues today. I put her in touch with a friend in Cahuita, Inger, who actually uses her email once in awhile and was able to help Debra  contact Roberto and tell him that he was about to meet his daughter after eighteen years.  roberto-gaby

In October, father and daughter met. Debra, Gabriella and Angel spent two wonderful weeks in Cahuita.  Father and daughter got to know and love each other and all of Roberto’s family welcomed them as well.  And, of course, Debra and Roberto’s own love was re-ignited, not a surprise at all to me. Roberto is easy to fall in love with, it was bound to happen.  At the end of the two weeks, Debra, bit by both the coastal mosquitos and the bug of love, returned to Australia, a long long way from Costa Rica.  I’m sure Roberto was also suffering in Cahuita with his heart stirred up again. Debra wrote me that she couldn’t decide what to do about the situation. Should she return to Costa Rica – where she really didn’t have any interest in living except for being with Roberto – or did she help him to go to Australia and be part of his daughter’s life there? Everything sounds good in the short term, but would he really be happy, this beach and bushman living in the suburbs of Western Australia? He had lived elsewhere before and always returned to his home, where his roots run much deeper than the shallow root systems of the tropical trees. Debra was letting herself take some time to figure out what to do, weighing her options, seeing if her feelings are strong enough for such a big commitment, looking for a sign.

roberto-letter

 

 

Debra and I continue exchanging letters. She appreciates that I understand her feelings and the great dilemma she finds herself in. I have been in love at a distance and know how it feels to leave it behind. Because I know Roberto, I share her feeling that he is a good man but I also have watched international relationships fail quite regularly. I find myself in this very personal conversation with a woman I have never met, though have grown fond of, about a man that we both love. (They have permitted me to share this story with y’all by the way.)

 

 

robertos-shack

Then, about two weeks ago, the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica was hit hard by torrential rains from a near cyclonic condition that moved in and just sat over the area, causing serious flooding with extreme damage to thousands of people’s homes.  Roberto, who lives just outside of town in a little shack nestled in the elbow of a stream, was at home when a huge head of water came down the creekbed without warning.  His home was taken away in an instant and he had a struggle just to get himself across the now raging river. He was lucky to not be washed away himself, hit by floating debris, or drowned. He lost everything he had, taken by watery force down the creekbed and out to the sea.

The last thing I heard from Debra was that they were trying to get him a visa to go to Australia.  Roberto has had his little world rocked several times these last few months. I’m sure at this point he’s just grateful to be alive. The opportunity to spend time with his daughter and Debra came just when his waters were seriously shifting. I don’t know how long the visa process will take but I selfishly hope that he will still be in Costa Rica in January so I can visit him before he goes down under. Roberto would survive just fine somewhere around Cahuita – people begin again after these disastrous storms and carry on – but if Debra was looking for a sign that they should try to be together, this was it.

I was astounded when I read that first letter Debra sent me, amazed at what a small world cyberspace encompasses. I wonder if I hadn’t gone to see Roberto in July and written about him on this blog, how differently things may have happened. I’m happy that I was able to bring joy and relief to Debra and Gaby, this teenager who was wondering if her father was even alive so she could one day meet him. Through the miracle of google-dust, my blog helped the women in the suburbs of Western Australia connect with the rasta who lives his very simple life in the Caribbean jungle. Love endures despite distance, time and really bad weather.  It makes me feel like … Kupid!

frankie-release-party-7069191

 Frankie Venom 1957-2008 

Well, where does one start? I’ve just survived a week of music here in Hamilton, Ontario, where the king is (was) a punker and rock still rolls but there is room for everything.  The Hamilton Music Awards is an event that stretches over four days and takes up the downtown of the city. This is my fourth year volunteering backstage and each year I’ve been turned on to more great music, met more talented and whacky musicians, and come away having walked and danced beyond what my feet are happy with.                                                     jp                                                                     

The Hammies are the work of Jean Paul Gauthier, who grew up around his parents’ bar and the musicians who played there, then went on to establish the Hamilton Music Scene Festival in 1995 that has now grown into the music awards and festival.  JP manages musicians, produces concerts with Daniel Lanois and has brought a variety of names to the awards – Lanois, Garth Hudson of The Band, Eugene Levy, Ronny Hawkins, U2(via satellite).  The venue changes each year and this year the show took place in the Hamilton Place Studio Theatre, a very industrial mid-sized concert room – and the room was packed.  This was the year of Teenage Head, one of the original punk bands, and they were being honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award.  That honor was announced back in October the same day that their lead singer, Frankie Venom, died of throat cancer.  So the weekend naturally became a memorial gig for Frankie.  As was said in the local paper on Monday, this weekend was a punk love-fest.  I have to say, there is something very sweet about a roomful of leather-clad hard-rock looking punkers with tears in their eyes.  After eight years in this city, I’m quite sure that the music community here is about the tightest and proudest in the land – tribal, as one of them said to me.  They may fight inwardly, but outwardly they’ll watch each other’s backs. And proudly declare their love of the Hammer.  And grieve for the loss of their own together.

panel-no-tom On Friday, the weekend kicked off with a music conference for high school students.  I was out at the Thursday night opening reception and had gone to catch some of JP Reimens and Brian Griffith picking their guitars and singing sweet songs till late at night, but was up to help at the registration table for the conference.  I agreed to come in just to have the chance to see the morning panel.  It was on the future of the music album and was moderated by our east coast friend, Bob Mersereau.  Bob lives in Fredericton, New Brunswick and is a long time arts reporter for CBC TV.  Last year he authored the bestselling “Top 100 Canadian Albums” and now spends his time discussing his choices with people from across the country.  I doubt that the conversation will ever stop.         

Bob’s a great guy. I met him last year when he came here to be a presenter at the awards.  JP had invited him since 16 albums on the list are from Hamilton.  Bob loved it here and begged (as he says) to come back.  He was joined on Friday’s panel by Graham Rockingham, who covers music for the Hamilton Spectator; Ric Taylor, all-round media music guy; Amy King, a music producer in Hamilton who also came from the east – Newfoundland; and Hamilton’s own Tom Wilson of Florida Razers, Junkhouse and Blackie and the Rodeo Kings.

tom-on-panel1

  Although Jean Paul is in charge of keeping the embers glowing on all aspects of the production of this awards weekend, Tom is the flame that keeps things hot.  I’ve talked about Tom before in this blog [see East Coast Pleasures] when he showed up on the hamilton365 website on Canada Day – I agreed that he would be my choice of Canadian songwriter who speaks to me of home and has an attitude I can identify with.  Tom is a big guy – physically he towers over you, vocally he fills the room, and his presence is impossible to ignore. The best part of him to me, besides his musical genius, is his irreverency.  He will say anything and he keeps things stirred up.

With two nights of award-giving, tele-prompted introductions and drawn out back-slapping amongst the musical community, it could get real dull if it weren’t for the fact that Tom throws out verbal darts that prick you awake every once in awhile. He is smart, experienced and very very funny.  He has been engaged for a few years to a well known east coast (are you sensing a sub-theme here?) comedian, Cathy Jones, but made a point of announcing that that relationship was over. So whereas his little darts in past years had a bit of lovedust dulling them, this year they were definitely sharper.  He sat at the outrageous end of the morning panel, he emceed both the music industry awards on Saturday and the big award show on Sunday (along with the very wonderful, very nice, very funny actor Patrick McKenna), he took his turn singing a few songs at both Teenage Head shows and did a set with his hot new band (musical collective he calls it), Lee Harvey Osmond, on Saturday night.  And then he actually hung out on the dancefloor at the rap party on Sunday night when the young band, the Mississippi Kings, played. That’s a lot of energy – keep it rolling, Tommy – don’t ever let it stop.tom-sing

 

 

 

Bob Mersereau says that after spending years going to musical events and gatherings all over Canada, he thinks that the best ones are the East Coast Music Awards, held in various locations in the Maritime provinces, and this weekend in the Hammer. I would guess that, beyond other reasons, it is because these are events that celebrate home grown music that rises out of the soul of the place – though there would definitely be a different tone and rhythm to the east coast than here in the industrial Hammer. I missed if the panel on Friday drew any conclusions about the future of the album, but I did see a room full of students saying they still buy CDs, not just download single songs; I heard alot of discussion around some of the incredible albums that have come from Canadian artists – The Band, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Willie P. Bennett, on and on and on – and I heard them all talk about the difference between the business aspect of the industry and the artistry of the musician.  Real musicians/songwriters will probably always be inclined to make multi-song albums as complete reflections of the full collection of their creative work, despite what the industry might demand for sales. I had an interesting conversation a couple days later with my friend Dean Huyck who pointed out that the workshop aspect of weekend musical festivals is dying out along with the complete album – because of modern technology, today young musicians are able to produce single hit recordings in their home studios but aren’t necessarily experienced at jamming with other musicians or able to play beyond their own isolated basements.  As the older musicians, more experienced with playing collectively, stop participating in the workshops, the music jam slowly disappears. High-quality albums filled with one brilliant song after another are getting harder to find. The industry demands commercial success more than musical ingenuity…aaargh, it goes round and round.

ron-palangio-sextet

Over the weekend, there were many bands playing everywhere, but I can only talk about the shows I saw. On Friday night, I worked the door at the Pearl (my old friend, the Pearl Company) – where the Ron Palangio Jazz Sextet played a tight set of standards; followed by Shawn Trotter, a funny finger-picking guitarist with Scottish roots and great stories; and then the Lowest Lanes provided smooth harmonies to fill the lovely acoustics in the room.  This little trio does nice covers and a few originals – they get their name because they all work at the Hamilton Spectator, our local daily newspaper (on a side note, I finally did an interview today about Walking with Wolf  with Jeff Mahoney who writes a column in the Spec).  Then Santucci and Doumas were going to be playing but I cut out to go and catch the Teenage Head show that was to be a tribute to the fallen Frankie Venom.

head-with-mickey

It was late when I walked into this sea of men with big frizzy hair, cloaked in black leather jackets (can there be a black cow left alive?), with many a blonde at their side, at Hamilton Place – fortunately, in true punk-style, the show was going to start real late so I didn’t miss anything (I knew I would miss Rackula and The Forgotten Rebels who played earlier).  The remaining members of Teenage Head – Gord Lewis, Jack Pedlar and Steve Mahon – were accompanied on stage by two huge photographs of the late Frankie – as well as a line-up of local singers, each who covered a couple of songs – all aware that they couldn’t fill Frankie’s bottomless shotglass, that alone his stageman shoes. Tom Wilson, Tim Gibbons, Edgar Breau (who, in his nervousness, did this dance thing that I thought was brilliant – great seeing new moves Edgar!), Adam Castelli, Brad Germain of Marble Index, Jimmy Vapids, Chris Houston, the always colorful Mickey DeSadist and the raver, Dave-Rave, along with the Head musicians, rocked the house in Frankie’s memory. 

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Gord’s brother John came out and sang a beautiful Irish lament accompanied just by Gord’s guitar, a song that they had performed at Frankie’s funeral – sorry I don’t remember the name of it – but it was a somber sweet note amongst the otherwise kick-ass stuff. 

 

 

gord-talk

As someone who wasn’t a Head fan when I was young (I was living in the northern bush in Quebec in the late seventies when the Head reared its ugly self listening to Harmonium) but came to love them when I was a little older – and who is pretty new in this community – it was very touching watching the emotion of the musicians and listening to the influence that Frankie and the band had on all these other musicians in the city. Gord Lewis talked alot over the weekend – on stage and while receiving awards – and spoke eloquently of his band brother Frankie. I think the most recurring theme was that he influenced them to write original songs – that it wasn’t good enough to be a cover band, and so as long as they were writing their own music, they would all support each other. That is a big reason why the Hammer is so smack full of original sound now – this town has its own distinct snarly voice.  Frankie was a rebel, and a punk, and a growling showman and a great singer of songs. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like punk music or even rock n roll, but you have to appreciate someone who has a stage presence that ignites rooms and a manner that inspires others. That kind of charisma is a gift and the rest is talent.  The night was magical, in a dark gruff steel-city kind of way and you had to be moved.

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Saturday was the music industry awards that recognizes the work by media, promoters, album designers and music producers. The lovely Kim Koren won an award for Musical Event of the Year for the concert she organized and played at raising money for the SPCA.  I caught her resting, reading, and guarding her Hammie in the Green Room.  Kim and her husband Frank can be found contributing their talent to benefit concerts and needy organizations everywhere in the city.  She deserved the award, not only for the quality of her work, but in appreciation of her big heart.

Following the awards, there were three concerts that followed: the first was by local blues man and guitarist, Alfie Smith – who is recovering from his house having been burned back in the summer.  Then we were treated to a set by John Ellison, the man who wrote the song “She’s Some Kind of Wonderful” – originally recorded by his band the Soul Brothers Six and played on the black soul stations in the United States in the sixties, then made super famous on the white radio stations by Grand Funk Railroad. Apparently that song is one of the most covered songs in the world – and as John said, every time you hear it, be assured he is getting the royalties and still being supported by it.  He and his drummer Dean put on a high energy soulful set of covers and originals, including that famous song. Although when they came into the Green Room earlier in the day most people didn’t know who they were (and Dean told me that though John lives closeby in Dundas, they mostly tour in Europe, and we were lucky to have him there that day), by the time they rocked out the awards ceremony on Sunday with Some Kind of Wonderful to a prolonged standing ovation, we all knew who he was – not just a great entertainer and songwriter but a real nice proud gorgeous man.

The last show on Friday night was by Steve Strongman – by now I was only dancing and the camera didn’t come out, but his show blew out the room.  When all was said and done, two words came to mind with him – he was versatile in his guitar playing and song selection, and beautifully restrained in how he delivers both the vocals and the screaming guitar…as in it isn’t always screaming. And, having talked with him backstage a few times, a real nice guy.                                             MY HEAD GOES HERE

the-dress

We jumped into a taxi and tried to make it to see Lee Harvey Osmond at the Corktown, but walked on to the dancefloor just as the last chord hit – and despite a real appreciate crowd, the band didn’t return for an encore.  We headed to my nearby pub, Fisher’s, to finish off the night with the Sugardaddies – always a great band for dancing.

 

So before I finish up on this lovefest of Hammer-music, I have to throw in a fashion statement. Last week I went to Blackbird Studios where the design duo of Buckshot (she of the Evelyn Dicks) and kiki (she of the Lorrainas) make their glam rock creations. It’s a beautiful space they have and a dramatic line of clothes.  I bought this little number to wear to the awards show.  There were at least four of us wearing their line – and I got a lot of comments all night on the dress – to which I replied – “kiki from Blackbird dahling”.  Like at a real awards show! Very cool. Next year I’ll seek out a jewelry designer who will lend me a million dollar bauble to show off!

It was a long night but a musically-incestual hilarious celebration of the remarkable talent in this little city. There were many super performances by everyone from my old friends the Evelyn Dicks, to Rita Chiarelli, to Brian Melo (who won the big Canadian Idol contest last year and happens to be a Hammer boy), to Danny Lockwood – a session drummer who won at least three awards for his new big jazz album “A Few of my Favourite Grooves” and filled the stage with musicians and latin-beats (making me a little homesick for Costa Rica) – and finished off with another set by those never-say-quit Teenage Headers.  It was a repeat of the concert on Friday night, but we all could have kept jumping with them for hours more.  The after-party continued at the Corktown and I danced till the last chord was struck and the feet pleaded to take them home.

Whew – this blog is easily as long as the weekend was…I need Tom Wilson to step in hear and say something outrageous to keep you all going – but almost done…just a couple more things.

Monday I slept.

emil-y-lynda

Tuesday I went up to Guelph to present Walking with Wolf in my old university town at the eBar.  A good sized group of long-time friends, activists and many new faces came out to see the book show and hear the sweet sounds of The Regulars, who played before and after my little photo journey and readings.  I sold a nice buncha books and have to thank my pal Lynda Lehman (who I met in Monteverde in 1990 when she was with her old boyfriend Emiliano – who I saw in Guelph for the first time in maybe 15 years).  Lynda wrote a beautiful review of the book for the Bookshelf’s publication Off the Shelf and helped me put this evening together. I saw some of the folks who influenced me in my early years as an activist – Peter Cameron and Carole Milligan. What a privilege to share my book with them all these years later.

laurie-david

 

 

 And the lovely Laurie Hollis-Walker and her husband David came up from their home an hour away to share in the celebration since they hadn’t made the launch at the Pearl back in September – and gave me the opportunity to embarrass her in front of a crowd, thanking her for her work on laying out the book. And I made a fistful of cashola!

money

 

 

 

 

 

gbs

Wednesday night I had free tickets to see Great Big Sea – a band from Newfoundland who’s been singing its shanty songs across the land for years. My friends, Cocky and Peter, in Maine had met them last year and because of that, I got comp tickets here in the Hammer so I took my friend Bob. We had real great seats but were barely in them as it was an on-your-feet Newfie kitchen party most of the night. My still recovering feet were not amused yet rose to the occasion but actually I found that it was more of an arm work-out with all the hand-clapping involved. 

hand-clapping

After all the east coast references through the awards weekend, it was funny to go see an east coast band a few days later. They played in the Great Hall of Hamilton Place to a very packed-to-the-rafters house. The strange thing was that they made many many comments on not being a punk band, generally to a swell of applause by the crowd – obviously many east-coasters.  It was a great show and I thank Brit, the guitar tech who arranged for me to have the tickets. But after the punk lovefest that I had been a part of all weekend, and knowing that the Hammer is still mourning its king, Frankie, it seemed disrespectful.  I’m not sure what was behind all the comments(they said they’d been watching a Sex Pistols video that day), but I felt like I was in a foreign land, well a stranger’s kitchen, and I felt a bit like a traitor to my tribe.

Then I thought about Wolf’s line in our book that people shouldn’t get too territorial about things – and shook off the strange feeling. Instead I appreciated the performance for what it was, put the tendency-to-drama backstage, and remain thankful that there is this thing called music that rocks our worlds and satisfies our souls.

sunset1

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.

skyline

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. 

 

treeswater

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.

green-table

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. 

jackie

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’.” 

birthday

 

 

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”.

 

 

 

 lori

 Lori Yates

 

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.  

 brian1

                                                                                      Brian Griffith

 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.

 My home and the natives’ land, Temagami

 I am once again writing from the lowlands. I’ve come to the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica.  Before I talk about sand and surf however, I want to acknowledge the fact that I missed Canada Day on July 1st.  I’m not a flag-waving patriotic type, but I am happy and thankful to be Canadian and remember that no matter where I am, just not necessarily on THE DAY. There have been things that have reminded me however – the odd Canadian flag here in Puerto Viejo, the picture of Tom Wilson on the hamilton365.com website that I follow (Larry Strung’s daily photographic diary of Hamilton (my hometown) people in 2008 – I am featured on February 26) If I were to choose a Canadian singer-songwriter who speaks for me of where I live, it would be Tom. He’s all attitude, talent, irreverent, and a great entertainer/singer/guitar player/composer. So Larry’s choice of him as the Canada Day portrait on his website struck a huge chord with me, one that sounded a lot like the beginning of “Oh Canada”…but I digress (and also stopped writing this…)

 

 

More than a week has gone by, and a warm wonderful week it was. I arrived back in Monteverde last night on the bus – amused by the reaction of a couple from New York sitting beside me to the never-ending road. We went up in darkness but you could still see the steep precipices that dropped off to the sides in the shadows. The woman looked horrified – when we got to Santa Elena, I told her to be sure to leave on the 6:30 a.m. bus when they were ready to go, as that is the most beautiful ride back down the mountain. The sun will be coming over the mountain and glimmering on the waters of the Gulf of Nicoya and lighting up the flatlands of Guanacaste – the clouds will be at play all around you, drifting up from the valleys, hovering in the mountains, and tumbling across the lower landscape.  And she will truly see what she couldn’t in the darkness – the narrow winding road that we just crawled up, alive with milk trucks, tourist buses and other early morning machinery – the whole effect tends to wake you up very quickly. I have noticed this year that there is even more traffic on the roadway and on each bus trip there have been numerous occasions that the bus had to back up to make room so that it could clear the sides of a passing transport truck, or pull off as far to the edge (whatever you do, don’t look!) so that some other large vehicle could pass. I’ve been on the bus much more this year than any other but this is a new phenomena, a sign of the great increase in business and vehicular traffic in Monteverde.

 

Fortunately the weather up here has been beautiful they tell me. The rains have come as they should, a little downpour each afternoon, but otherwise it is sunny and hot.  Bodes well for the beach babe recently returned – it is hard to leave the beach when you like sun and water and lazy days, and returning to cold, wet, windy and busy Monteverde can be a harsh shock. So I appreciate that I can walk out this morning in summer clothes and perhaps not have to think about my rubber boots, umbrella and raincoat till later in the day.

 

My week on the Caribbean was made up of reunions with three friends, two of whom I hadn’t seen in years, hours spent floating in the warm sea and wandering through the shady jungle, a great book (End of the Spear by Steve Saint), and a lot of fish and fresh fruit. The bus ride from San José to Limón and then down the coastal highway to Puerto Viejo was very smooth. You get used to the fact that in Costa Rica the state of the road changes quickly. They get fixed and freshly paved but it doesn’t take long before the pavement is washed out and huge potholes appear, forcing vehicles to wind their way slowly around the obstacles. This route had obviously been recently done as we practically flew on a very smooth flight.

 

You leave the city and go up over the mountain range of Braulio Carrillo National Park where it is always cool and often wet and windy but with spectacular views over the protected forests. The road winds down near Guapiles and from there heads straight and flat across the lowlands, passing over wide rivers and past the endless banana plantations along with the acres of trucking containers that transport the bananas for Dole, Del Monte and Chiquita to places throughout the world. The foliage and landscape change to something mossier and drippier in a different shade of green than the western side of the country. The light is different as well. Coming over the mountains to the Atlantic side of the Costa Rica is like coming into another country without a border crossing.  Even the color of people’s skin turns a darker brown – this is the Afro-Caribbean province and there is also a noticeable population of indigenous – Talamancas and Mestizos especially.

 

When I got to Puerto Viejo, I went to the home of my old friend Susana Schik, who appears on one of the last pages of Walking with Wolf, but who hasn’t appeared in my life in probably eight or ten years. She used to live in Monteverde, teaching natural history courses, but now does that down in Puerto. She is married to a lovely man, René, and has a very sprightly four-year-old daughter named Hannah. Once Hannah got over her initial shyness with me, our time was spent trading wild cat screams and responses – and this girl can roar! Susana and René care-take some vacation houses along the Black Sands beach on the north side of Puerto and they offered that I could use an apartment that was empty in one of these houses.

Beautiful! I spent three nights with a great balcony, cable TV, phone and very hot shower – more than I’ve had in most places I’ve stayed. The only head-shaking part was the amount of locks and barriers involved – every window not only had heavy wooden shutters but iron grates and locks. The doors had deadbolts, the iron grates were double locked. And even then, there were signs that someone had been trying to hack their way past the deadbolt in the few days since Susana had last visited there. She told me not to leave the house less than thoroughly locked up even if I only leave for a few minutes to go to her place or to the store – someone will surely break in. The signs of people trying to get at whatever they can, to share illegally in the obvious wealth that exists for some in Costa Rica, are omnipresent.

 

I took the local bus through the now-almost-city of Puerto Viejo, full of surfers, rastas, university students on vacation, and locals working in the bustling service industry, to quieter Punta Uva, a few kilometers down the coast. My friend Sarah Dowell, prolific and extraordinary artist, lives there. We have been friends since I came to Monteverde in 1990. She lived in a great funky house with its artistically displayed shell collection (Sarah commented that they collected these shells a few years ago but now have a hard time finding many of these shells – they want to donate this as an exhibit somewhere in the town) up on the mountain. I would go and visit while she painted. This is how she makes her living and so she is quite disciplined about the time she spends painting each day. She works from photographs – of nature, animals, flowers, and various human models she’s collected images of. I was a model for her many years ago and get a thrill each time I recognize some part of my anatomy, if not all of me, in a painting. Her paintings are for sale at the Hummingbird Gallery here in Monteverde, where I once worked, and I often stop and visit with the owners and look at the fresh crop of Sarah’s water colors. They range from very green jungle scenes with nudes running through the foliage, to underwater sea life, to vibrant exotic flowers. Simply beautiful. Sarah gave me a painting that my likeness is in, standing in a pool at the base of a waterfall along with a nude man (the model was Bill Kucha, another artist). I have shown the painting to a couple of people and they knew that it was me and also know that I would happily be standing nude in a pool of water at the base of any waterfall.  So thank you Sarah, for that gift.

Sarah’s home and gallery in Punta Uva

 

Spending several hours in Sarah and her partner Mel’s open-air home (a beach version of her Monteverde home) and studio, with her paintings, great coffee, and birds singing and howlers chuckling around the large open windows, talking about anything and everything we could in our attempt to catch up, was time spent in pure enjoyment. At some point, Sarah’s grand-daughter, Ashanti, joined us. She is another enchanting four-year-old. We walked down the path to the beach and played in the water. It is always fun to be with a child just learning to swim and who is confident enough to take chances – the only way to learn. Sarah lost her own son, Singer, in a car accident a couple of years ago. She is finally recovering and there is no doubt that having Shanti close by, and the child’s mom Connie (who gave me a fantastically relaxing massage on the beach), helps.  To have a bit of her son alive in this funny, smart, energetic little girl is another gift.  

 

Sarah and Shanti on the beautiful beach at Punta Uva

                                                                                                                                                                                              We saw a sloth. This is my favorite animal here and this was the first of many I saw this week. I’ve had many great sloth experiences.  The first one I saw my first year here was on this coast, a dead one, washed up after a few days of terrible rains that had no doubt knocked down the tree that the sloth was in and washed the poor animal out to sea. My Tico friend, Macho, and I came upon it, this peaceful looking creature seemingly asleep on the beach, curled up like a baby, all covered in a fine coating of green – these animals live their lives in the trees, and are basically mammalized containers of chlorophyll. This poor little guy was very dead – I wanted to take pictures, they would have been beautiful, but Macho was appalled that I would take pictures of the dead, even an animal, and so we moved on (as I recall, it also involved returning to the cabin to get my camera – which was more of a problem than his reluctance). 

 

Another time I protected a sloth as it slowly ran through downtown Cahuita very late at night.  While the fiesta rages on in the bars, the sloths often make their way through town, holing up in the trees of the park, then making a “run” for it to get to the next bunch of trees. Well, if you have ever seen a sloth move, you want to pick them up and help them along. It is a silent movie slowed down to almost pause. But I can always imagine the inside of their little leaf-filled brains screaming, “run, man, run – I’m outa here”, even as their long arms and legs slowly move them along the ground. That particular night, I fended off the drunken boys who wanted to harass the poor creature, and walked with him till he got safely back into the shadows. Gary Larsen, the cartoonist, has a great drawing called “what sloths do when no-one is around” – which shows a very happy sloth boogie-ing on the ground to the music from a boombox – and I identify with that. We tend to have ideas of how others live by how they appear – and we never really know what happens when the doors are shut, the lights are off, and there is no one else around.    

 

These are turtle tracks, the mama come out of the sea to lay her eggs…could be tractor tracks come to dig up the beach…we spent awhile raking the tracks away so noone would find the nest and steal the eggs.

 

The amount of growth in Puerto Viejo is staggering – as in so many parts of the country. The issue of concern now is the proposal to build a large marina. The original concept was for 400 slots! That would bring an immense amount of traffic off the seas into this already bursting town. They have downsized it to one hundred berths and even that will make a disaster of the reef, the sea, and the community. I didn’t spend a lot of time investigating this – I just look at development as it has occurred in so many parts of this little country and see that the planning has been haphazard, the execution swift, and the result often devastating to many, while obviously profitable to others. Of course, there is that idea of not stopping progress, but there is also that big question “is this really what you call progress?” Hmmmmm…

 

I left Puerto and went half an hour up the road to my old stomping grounds of Cahuita.  There has always been a huge difference between these two neighbouring communities.  People tend to be either a Cahuita person or a Puerto person (like red and black beans I guess). Back in 1990 I spent a week in Cahuita and fell in love with it – and then traveled down to Puerto for one night before quickly returning to Cahuita. Whatever the differences were then, they are more obvious now – Puerto Viejo has grown immensely and stretches over a large area and it is busy with a surfer-dude subculture due to the legend of the Salsa Brava wavebreak (even though I think it was negatively affected by an earthquake years ago that shifted the coral reef) – Cahuita is smaller and more laid back with an older crowd moving slower. In Cahuita everything takes place in a very small area – the two main bars for beer or dancing are beside each other and the beautiful white sandy beach and National Park is two blocks away. You can stay in a pension, walk two minutes to any restaurant for Caribbean food, dance, shop, and walk along the shady path that follows the beach until you get to the quiet waters where you can float or swim lazily. I always spend a lot of hours on that beach in the shade of the trees when I’m not afloat in the warm water of the Caribbe.

 

I have known many characters in this town – some pretty unsavory, others classic Caribbean. I won’t get into what I have seen and witnessed over the years, for without explanation I know it all sounds rough. But being on the Atlantic is a very different culture than in other parts of Costa Rica – one that is very laid back up until there is a problem between people, then it can be very aggressive. As long as you don’t put yourself in the middle of anything, you have no worries. The drug trade has affected this coast perhaps more than other parts of the country (though all of Costa Rica has become a clearing house for Columbian cocaine and marijuana). It is not far across the sea from South America to this coastline and people work at making money in their nefarious ways. Unfortunately, you also see the affects on the people themselves of a poor economy mixed with cheap drugs and the opportunity to make a fast buck. I’ve seen the result on many friends on both coasts who have fallen to the constant fiesta. But these temptations are part of life all over Costa Rica, as well as in many other parts of the world. And you can either focus on that and reject the place, or appreciate the other aspects of the Caribbean culture, the warmth of the people, the spice of the food, the relax of life stewed in coconut juices.

 

In short order, I bumped into my old friend Roberto. We go way back, a history of love, friendship, and conversation. There is a famous song written by a Cahuitan calypsonian, Walter Ferguson, called “Cabin in the Water.”  My friend Manuel Monestel and his group Cantoamerica play and have recorded this song (Walter himself recorded it, finally, at the age of 83) – it tells the story of Bato, a man who built himself a simple cabin in the water off of the beach and was living there when Cahuita National Park was created. The administrator of the park came and told him, “Bato, you can’t live here, this is now a National Park.” He held his own for a long time but eventually moved up to another beach. Bato was a very interesting man. If you came across him in his hammock on the beach, you’d think he was just the marine equivalent of a street person – but he was actually a very intelligent, poetic philosopher. He knew what was going on in the world. I knew Bato through the 90s when I spent a lot of time here (he died about six years ago) and would go and sit and visit with him. Even as an old man, he never lost his ability to attract females, even young ones, and was quite the charmer. But my business with him was talking – listening to his tales and his ideas, told in his lilting Caribbean patois. I was always amazed how his home changed – one year I would arrive and his house would be a construction as big as a castle, built by driftwood, flotsam and jetsam that had washed up from huge storms. He would have walls, roof, tables, bed (although still sleep in his hammock) and decoration. The next time I came, the sea would have taketh away, and he was back to the simplicity of his hammock, maybe starting with another table assembly from fresh driftwood. He was a man who chose to live life with little money and less possession, but still lived. He wasn’t always a nice man, but he was an interesting one. And my friend Roberto is his son.

 

Roberto Levey grew up in Cahuita, was on his own by the time he was fourteen years old, and moved to San José where he became a shoemaker. He came back after twenty years to Cahuita and lived in a little casita a few minutes walk from town. When I met him in 1994, he was a fisherman and sold organic fruits from the trees on his land. A rasta with a life time growth of dreads on his head, he lived a very earthy life by the sea. I was charmed by his kindness and his positive energy and his humor, but truly impressed with his intelligence. He sang in local reggae and calypso bands and wrote poetry. His house had his own graffiti all over it. He was a friend to me and my old boyfriend, Macho, and we often camped in his yard and he fed us breadfruit and akee. Nothing was sweeter in Cahuita than lounging in his hammock and listening to him reciting poetry or talking politics or explaining the Caribbean culture which was very different from anything I knew. As I got to know his father, I could see the genetics, even though Roberto had never lived with him. He inherited his father’s way of viewing the world and living his life, with a minimum of money and a whole lot of interest in what made the world go around and a great sense of humor about even the ugliest of human behavoir. 

 

Women easily fall in love with him, as I did, and he has children on three continents. The phenomena of foreign women coming to exotic places and getting pregnant by, sometimes marrying, perhaps taking the local boys home is easy to criticize but more complicated in its effect on both the beach men and the foreign women. Roberto is not happy that he has five children who live far away from him – as they get older, they will no doubt reappear in his life, or at least some probably will. In the meantime, their father continues to live his life just as his father before him did, under the shade of tropical trees, to the rhythm of the calypsonians, holding on to the idea that love and peace are worthy goals. I saw Roberto a couple of years ago and he was in a very hurting state, his heart once again broken and so he was surviving by medicating himself – at the time I could only admonish him, tell him that he was worth so much more, plead with him to get it back together, and leave him with the hope that he would come through this horrible period. When I arrived this year, I knew that he was back to himself, smiling, thinking, warm and relaxed. He had bought a little piece of jungle a short walk out of Cahuita and was living, just like his father, off the land, making just enough money by selling produce when he needed to, and living in his own peace. 

 

I told him that I’d like to give him a copy of Walking with Wolf as long as he’d read it and he said he was very interested. So as I floated in the sea, I’d look up and see him reading and when I came out of the water, he’d talk about what he had been reading, asking questions and expressing his own take on some line I’d written or statement of Wolf’s. It was as pleasant of an intercourse about the book as I’ve had with anyone. If you saw Roberto, his heavy head of dreads tied up over his 55-year-old face with white beard, his clothes smelling of the wood stove he cooks on, and his poverty obvious, you’d probably assume he was just another pothead with too much party going on and little to live for. And once again, you’d have judged the man quite differently from his reality. I spent a morning sitting by the stream outside his jungle shack and the conversation never bored or stalled. I felt privileged to have been invited to  Roberto’s home in the jungle.

 

Sarah Dowell is anxious to return to Monteverde, in a large way because of the level of thinking and depth of conversation that exists throughout this community. She repeated a line from a Bill Bryson book that says “the cheery vacuity of beach life”, and she is dying from that particular virus. But in my week on the beautiful sands of the Caribbean, spent with Sarah, Susana and Roberto, I never lacked for intelligent conversation and intriguing analysis of life and society. Maybe I’m just lucky in the people I know, yet often they are not at all what they appear to be. Fortunately I’ve learned to look past the color or state of the paint on peoples’ houses and that ability has led to some of the richest experiences of my life.

November 2017
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