On the last day of my last year in school, I was taking the last bus ride home, effectively ending one phase of my life and hesitantly entering another. As I waited by the bus door for my stop, I took a look at the back of the bus and there, seated on the back bench corner window, was the prettiest face I had ever seen.
After I walked out onto the sidewalk, I stood to watch the bus go by and she turned and looked at me as the bus drove off.
I felt like we had a "moment."
About 4 years later, much to my surprise... I was already a dad and had moved back to St. Catharines from Quebec with Jocelyne and my son Christopher who, at that time was about a year old. One night Jocelyne had gone out to a party with a friend while I stayed behind with the kid. Later on after she returned home, she was all excited about meeting some new friends and in fact, a couple of them were coming over for dinner the following night.
Well, you can probably see where this going!
Around 5 pm the next evening, the doorbell rang and as I opened the door, there she stood - the girl from the back bench. I hadn't seen her since the last day of high school but I hadn't forgotten her either. Her name was Lenna and she, as it turned out, was Jocelyne's new friend.
Lenna, like yours truly, was also a young parent and had a daughter who was around the same age as my son. So we all became fast friends and saw quite a bit of each other over the next year or so before we moved up to Toronto. Some nights after drinking and smoking at our place, I'd walk her home but I never got up the nerve to ask her if she remembered me from that day on the bus. I was too afraid to find out if what I thought was a "shared moment" was all in my mind. Probably better not to know.
Some time after we had moved to Toronto, I was thinking about Lenna and feeling guilty for having a crush on one of Jocelyne's best friends, so I started writing this sort of secret love song with her in mind. It wasn't just about Lenna though. It was also written for Jocelyne, especially the lines in the second verse such as "We've got everything we need, to get all that require from this marketplace."
I was trying to be romantically optimistic about what seemed like our dim prospects for succeeding in Toronto at that time I guess. This song, like "Secret Heart" was a bit of a turning point for me as it felt like I was finding my voice as a writer.
The only other thing I'd like to add is that it was partially inspired by the song "Georgy Girl" by The Seekers. It was a big hit around the time I was born and I absolutely loved it (it's still one of my favorite songs) but as a kid, I never quite understood the lyrics nor did I know that it was the theme song for a film of the same name.
Anyway, one afternoon the movie "Georgy Girl" came on (starring Lynn Redgrave and James Mason) and for the first time, I was able to hear the words clearly and get the meaning of the song as it related to the film. The line that really stuck out for me was the line about "You're always window shopping but never stopping to by" which inspired me to write the line "If we window shop too long, we'll get nothing back from this world."
It's funny how life works sometimes.
Many of the songs on Grand Opera Lane have this central theme in common of wanting to get off the ground and of just trying to think positive in effort to will good fortune to our doorstep (just like I had willed Lenna to our door step in the previous song!). I've always loved '50s rock n roll and you can certainly hear that influence on some of these tunes including this one, which in my mind was like something Buddy Holly might've done.
The actual recording of it turned out to be much funkier than I could've imagined but back then I sort of fancied myself to be a bit of a soul singer anyway. I was trying to carve out a career in the vein of Van Morrison or Bob Dylan perhaps and their albums always seemed to have a solid foundation in roots music.
The first time I met Bob Wiseman (the producer of Grand Opera Lane) was at the open stage Fat Albert's where he introduced me as the reincarnation of Elvis Presley. I told him afterwards that I share a birthday with Elvis, which has always provided me with a cosmic reason to keep going when all seemed bleak. Well, this was the first song I ever played at Fat Albert's and with an introduction like that, I had no choice but to try and knock it out of the ballpark - can't remember if I did or not.
I haven't played "Spending Money" in a few decades now but it used to go down really well back then and I think Bob captured a pretty good performance of it on GOL.
DON'T MIND LOSING
In keeping with the heroic theme of the record, I wrote this mildly humorous song mostly to keep my spirits up and hopefully rock out while doing so.
By the time it was written, I was already playing with Don Kerr and Steve Charles, so it was great to have a solid rhythm section to back me up on it. Steve Charles (whose last name is actually Rapos) was and probably still is, an extremely melodic and creative bass player. I felt real lucky to have him in the band though I probably never told him that. Just check out the bass line here and on the previous song for example.
And with Don Kerr's drumming and harmony singing, well, I felt there was no way we could possibly lose. Like "Spending Money," we used to "knock 'em dead" so to speak with "Don't Mind Losing" in the bars. It felt like three minutes of solid joy.
One other thing I should mention is that there's a high note that I hit on the recording near the end where I sing "To win some time" (I stretch out the word "win") and to this day I swear it is the best bit of singing I've ever done.
And I mean EVER!
I've never been able to hit that note since or at least I was never able to hit it quite the same way. For that brief moment I was like Jackie Wilson or something... seriously. I was always listen for it now and beam proudly from within.
One of the bands we used to play with quite a bit in the late '80s and early '90s was The Leslie Spit Tree-O. Their star was rising in Canada and we felt excited to hitch our wagon to it. They were the first band that I knew to get offered a major record deal (with Capitol) and I'd be lying to you if I said I wasn't envious. I was working my courier job and was beginning to feel like maybe my dream was too unrealistic to ever come true.
I could envision a home in music, but I didn't know how to get there. I started singing this song to myself one day on the job like a prayer or a mantra and it did wonders in terms of lifting my mood. It's about feeling like you're not where you should be or something.
It also reminded me of a campfire song and I thought if worse come to worst that maybe The Leslie Spit Tree-O would do it and I'd make some dough. As I wrote it in my head, I could hear the potential for three party harmony and I couldn't wait to show it to Don and Steve.
Before long we were performing this one in the bars and it's one we still enjoy playing to this day. Truth be told, I don't think the recording of "Tell You" quite does it justice. There have been some live versions though over the years that have been wonderful, but we've never managed to capture it on tape somehow.
One of these days I believe we will.
GONNA GET WHAT'S MINE
Our first apartment in Toronto was on Woodbine Avenue not far from the horse-racing track (which doesn't exist anymore). We were absolutely broke and struggling in our first big city winter. Toronto seemed awfully cold. Sometimes on the bus home from work, I'd see all these characters on their way to the racetrack.
One of them was lyricist Pye Dubois who wrote the words for all those "Max Webster" songs that I loved in high school. (Max Webster was a rock band fronted by guitarist Kim Mitchell who had some success in Ontario mostly during the mid '70's and early '80's).
Anyway, I knew nothing about horse racing but I was desperate to make some money and there were times I thought about trying my luck down at the track. I never did go, but I sing about it in this song at least.
Bob Wiseman, who was in Blue Rodeo at the time brought in Greg Keelor (also from Blue Rodeo) one day to play some electric guitar on it. For those of you outside of Canada, Greg (along with Jim Cuddy) is one of the principle songwriters for said band and they're kind of a big deal up here.
Bob, I guess, felt that with Greg on it, perhaps the labels would be more interested in signing little old me. They weren't. In fact I was turned down by every Canadian label at least twice before signing with Interscope in LA some years later.
I was never a big fan of this particular song to be honest but like the other ones, it went over really well on Queen Street (it was our show stopper!!) and recently another hip Toronto band called The Beauties invited me up to sing it with them during their release party at The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern. At least they like the song.
SPEAKING WITH THE ANGEL
I realize I've already written about this song in terms of what it did for my career but I guess I never really got into the origins of writing it.
It was March of '85 and my son Christopher was brand spanking new. Jocelyne and I were getting acquainted so to speak and we were living in a converted barn in the middle of Quebec with no other English people in sight. I was listening to Leonard Cohen and I mean really listening for the first time. I had checked his albums out of the library when I was a teenager but I was too young or dumb to understand it. But now it was hitting me like a bolt of lightning that completely lit up the path that I would try and follow in the years to come. I was mostly impressed by the economy of his words and how carefully chosen each one was.
Up until then, I was mostly into English rock music but I was starting to see where I could possibly exist. I wanted to try and make music that I could grow old gracefully doing if that makes any sense.
One night my son was lying on his baby blanket making funny baby noises when Jocelyne said "He's speaking with the angels." I asked "What do you mean?" and she said it was an old French expression meaning that when a baby makes those kind of noises, he or she is really communicating with a divine entity that we can't see anymore.
There was an old out of tune piano in the barn and I was tinkling away on it and so I started writing this song based on what Jocelyne had told me. I was pretty overwhelmed with the situation I found myself in. I wasn't ready to be a Dad but here I was and so I just wanted to try and be a good one.
Around that time I had seen a disturbing news report on TV about how some parents in the deep south USA were teaching their kids racism. I just started thinking how no one is born a racist It's something that is taught or passed on and it really bothered me that anyone would set out to ruin a perfect child with hatred and backwards thinking.
So I guess it's basically a song about trying not to ruin a beautiful thing. My son is a man now and he is truly a good and honest person... a much better human being than his Old Man that's for sure.
EVERY WORD OF IT
Before I moved to Toronto I had released an independent cassette called There's A Way that was produced by one of my best friends Kurt Swinghammer. Kurt, at the time, was an extremely prolific songwriter and released a flurry of indie cassettes back in the '80s. I still own every one.
Having just moved back to St. Catharines from my stint in Quebec with a fistful of songs and a dream, I wrote Kurt a letter (this was years before the internet) asking him if he would produce a cassette for me. He said he would on condition that I would give my babies up for adoption.
By "babies" he meant my songs of course and not my offspring. I said he could do whatever he wanted and that I just wanted to get these songs out somehow.
Kurt would end up playing practically all the instruments and in truth it sounded more like Kurt Swinghammer than me but it managed to get the attention of a fellow named William "Skinny" Tenn at Island Records in Toronto who expressed interest in managing me and as well encouraged me to move up as soon as possible.
Well, having no money to speak of, it was quite the undertaking just getting my family up there but we did it, and so when I finally got situated, I called Skinny but as it happened, he had taken on another songwriter named Andrew Cash and was now too busy to work with me. Everything is fine between Skinny and myself now (and Andrew Cash too) but at the time I felt like I'd been had - mostly because he was the main reason for the move and the general upheaval. Now of course, I realize that it was the best thing I ever did but back then I turned it into this bitter song of betrayal called "Every Word Of It."
This was a hard song lyrically to write and I pulled my hair out over it while on the job as a courier. The line "Your eyes have fell" for example has always driven me nuts for it's grammatical mistake but I do like the song and I think it has a great chorus if I'm allowed to say that.
Around this time there was still much speculation in the tabloids at least, that Elvis was still alive or that JFK had been spotted in Greece and even Hitler was still on the loose. I remember thinking to myself "Some people just can't leave a dead man alone" and could immediately feel a song coming on.
It was fun to write an observational song which was new for me back then. I guess being inspired by local songwriters Kyp Harness and Bob Snider,.. part of me just wanted to impress them mostly.
The recording for Grand Opera Lane was on and off and there were long periods of time where it was really incredibly off. A year and half would go by sometimes without anything being done so whenever Bob came back to town from his busy touring schedule, we'd try to get back in the studio and work some more on it.
On this occasion, we recorded two relatively new songs: "Some People" and "Savin' Her Love" (which I'll talk about shortly). It was great being back in the studio with Bob and I think you can really hear it on this performance. We had been playing quite a bit in his absence and I think we were becoming quite tight. The other different thing about this session was that it was the first one where we introduced beer into the equation and I think it gave us some much needed swagger. I remember we all went home feeling quite drunk but also triumphant which is how rock n roll is supposed to make you feel.
I'd have to say that this is not only the best song on the record but I think it to be one of my best songs, period.
I was watching the movie It's A Wonderful Life for the very first time with Jocelyne in our upstairs apartment on Woodbine Avenue. I related to the plight of Jimmy Stewart's character in a big way. How life kept getting in the way and prevented him from realizing his dreams and how he was always greeting someone at the train station or waving goodbye but never getting to be the one on the train.
This made me think of the day I left St. Catharines for Quebec to be a father. Nobody in my family knew why I was going there because I was too afraid to tell them (I could barely tell myself).
Just like I say in the song, a light rain was actually falling that night which seemed completely appropriate and I must confess that I cried all the way to Toronto where I got off and met a friend for dinner before changing trains to Trois Rivieres. (I recall we ate at Swiss Chalet and it was my first time.)
So anyhow, all of this came back to me as I watched that classic Christmas tear jerker and these words appeared in my mind "All our lives we wait on trains." It's still hard for me to think back on those days now. I feel sometimes like damaged goods compared to who or what I used to be.
SAVIN' HER LOVE
I guess you could say that this was the "throwaway" of the record and you would be right. I don't think it's a very good song but I actually really love it!!
As I said earlier, it was recorded the same night as "Some People" and you can hear the beer consumption in my slurred but free vocals. I don't think I've ever sounded more loose or less self conscious than on this song. There's even a point towards the end where I sound a little bit like Elvis Presley.
Well, at least to my ears.
It was Bob's idea to use that sort of Latin beat and it totally makes the song for me. I also love the lead guitar interplay between myself and John Gzowski which was overdubbed separately about a year or so later.
I didn't get to meet any of the musicians who played on GOL to be honest, except Greg Keelor who I've gotten to know quite well in recent years. They recorded a lot during the day and I had my nine to five job to worry about so I wasn't around much.
With "Savin' Her Love" I guess you could say we had the opposite experience to the song "Tell You," meaning that this was a song which sounded cool on record but we could never play it very well live so it has long since been retired.
THE LAUGHING CROWD
Before I get into the origins of this song I should probably mention here that the title Grand Opera Lane came from a street sign that I used to pass while delivering packages in the downtown core. It's the sign that graces the cover of the record in fact. The strange thing is though, the day after we took the photo of the sign, the city went and replaced it with a newer sign that said "Grand Opera Ln" and not "Lane" so we sort of lucked out.
The thing that intrigued me most about the sign was that there was no Grand Opera House in sight (or lane for that matter) and in some ways I kind of felt like a street sign in need of a street if that makes any sense and so I went to the library and looked up the street in a history book (again, this was long before the internet) and I found out that there was indeed an opera house at one time located on that very spot but it had burned down if I'm not mistaken.
Now, where was I...oh yes! "The Laughing Crowd" was inspired by something that happened before I moved to Toronto. There had been an article about me in the local newspaper - I can't remember why - but it quoted me talking about my dream to make it in music and other such wide-eyed things.
Well, after work one afternoon, I walked into the Mansion House (the oldest bar in town) to have a pint of Guinness and, as fate would have it, I overheard a table of people most of whom I knew, who were reading the article out loud and basically laughing at me behind my back. I walked in and the table fell silent. Nobody was sure if I had heard anything and I didn't want to make anyone feel bad but it stuck with me.
So there I was in Toronto thinking about all this and the general cynicism that greets most of us who set out to do this sort of thing for a living and I suddenly realized that we need the snickering doubters almost as much as we need the folks who encourage us. The combination of the two is what ignites our drive to succeed.
At any rate, it seemed like a good song to end the record with. I was always proud of the line "The Laughing Crowd, they'll never be happy," which was more or less a happy accident.
Also, in the booklet you'll notice that I give Bob Wiseman a co-writing credit but in actuality, I wrote the whole thing myself. I took it to the studio to play it for Bob one night but I didn't think it was finished. I had an unfinished 3rd verse and I didn't know how to bring it all home. Bob suggested I take the unfinished third verse and turn it into a bridge. At this point he had step out to pick up some food or something but before he left he said, "See if you can finish this before I get back." Which I did.
We recorded it later that night in fact.
In closing I should say that I learned a lot from Bob and I'm forever in his debt. Sometimes I shudder to think where I might be had we not crossed paths back at Fat Albert's in 1987.
Haven't shuddered in awhile though.