When I was a kid on the farm in Northern Saskatchewan, I didn’t know all that much about the outside world. My main sources of information were the CBC and 630 CHED (the top-40 AM station) out of Edmonton. CBC was the only television we had on the farm (we would have had to get a separate antenna to put on the roof of the house to pull in the CTV feed) and I would endure that snowy signal to see my favorite player on Hockey Night in Canada every Saturday night. CHED was my main new music source (when I could pick it up) and I spent hours taping my favorite songs onto my little shoebox cassette recorder, setting the radio next to the little mic on the recorder when “Video Killed the Radio Star” came on, cranking it up full volume and pleading with my sister to “shut up! For 2 minutes!”. Lotsa cassettes of badly distorted, static-y mono recordings, with faint (sometimes not-so-faint) traces of yelling in the background.
Although this huge country of ours was largely a mystery to me (Montreal was home to the Canadiens, and they spoke a different language there, which is why there was French on the cereal box), even at an early age I felt very proud to be Canadian, that this was a great and noble land. Obviously too young to understand the politics, I was so confused by Rene Levesque and the Parti Quebecois’ urge to separate from Canada – why would anyone want to leave the best country on earth?
Even though the struggles between French and English and white and Aboriginal citizens were well documented, and we spent a lot of time learning about them in school (I was a massive Louis Riel fan), I naively thought it was all in the past, that we all could live in harmony, that the biggest conflict was whether the Leafs or Habs sucked.
It wasn’t so, and all through my school years the tension between aboriginals and whites was a daily reminder of our differences. To get a really good idea of the situation up there, I would encourage you all to read Warren Cariou’s “Lake of the Prairies” (He was a year or 2 ahead of me in school, I was pals with his brother and once had a heartbreaking crush on his sister). I read his book in one sitting – incredibly powerful, and the most honest and accurate portrayal of the place I grew up there will be. If you’re in town, give me a call – I’ll lend it to you.
After I left school and Meadow Lake, I found myself in many strange and wonderful places, one of them being BC’s Okanagan Valley, where there is a rich aboriginal culture as well, and where I fell in love with a girl who was actively involved in the Western Canada Wilderness Committee. They were one of many groups in strong opposition to plans for a logging road through the Stein Valley on the West Coast, one that would disrupt land sacred to the Nlaka’pamux people who lived there. In order to raise funds an awareness, the Stein Valley Festival was launched, and in 1990 (partly because of my politics, partly because of the girl, but mostly because of the music) I went to the festival, which was held on the Tsawwassen First Nation, just south of Vancouver.
There was a heightened sense of urgency at the festival that year, not only because of the fight to preserve the Stein Valley and the spiritual home of its indigenous people, but also because of the crisis happening at the same time 5000 km across the country in Oka, Quebec, – just a few miles from the Montreal Forum I’d see almost every Saturday on HNIC – where the Mohawks were trying to preserve their sacred lands. Tons of media attention on the struggles of Canadian aboriginals and the electric atmosphere at the festival really made me feel like I was part of something really important.
Many of Canada’s biggest musical acts came to Tsawwassen that weekend, none bigger than Gordon Lightfoot, who headlined the show. Lightfoot was a staple on the radio and TV when I was a kid – you heard/saw him on the CBC on a weekly basis – and I was fascinated by him. Not only did he have dozens and dozens of amazing songs, but he (along with Tom Thomson and Guy Lafleur) was somehow the very definition of ‘Canadian’ to me.
I hadn’t listened to him in a long time (I was more into Husker Du by then), and many of my friends who were there with me were guffawing about the ‘old man’ who was about to play.
Admittedly, I was not that enthused either, but I was interested enough to hear him that I wandered away from my clique, to the back of the field, in order to listen to the show without distraction. It was a beautiful summer night on the ocean, the full moon was rising as the sun was setting, directly behind the illuminated clam-shell stage, the entire crowd in front of me. I really wish I had a photo – the sight was mind-blowing.
Lightfoot was on fire, too. “Whooo! Whooo! How are you tonight, Tsawwassen?!?! Whooooo!!” I did not expect him to be so gleeful at such a gravely important event – all the other acts had been far more earnest and sober, and he, being the elder statesman of the bunch… well, it was a bit incongruous. Anyway, the set was amazing. He played all of his classics, singing beautifully with that rich tenor of his, the band supporting him flawlessly. I was taken back to my younger days when I would be in the truck on the farm with my Dad and “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” would come on the radio, or seeing one of his countless TV appearances, cross-legged on the living room floor, entranced.
Now, it’s easy to be revisionist here, but this is how I like to remember it:
The dusk has settled and the full moon is shining brightly over the ocean as the drummer goes into this hypnotic, insistent beat. Lightfoot thanks the audience for coming, says a few words about the reason we’re all there, and starts strumming his guitar. Bass player kicks in, and they settle into an unreal, trance-inducing groove, which seems to go on forever. Just when you think vertigo is gonna take over, he begins to sing:
“I can see her lying back in her satin dress/in a room where you do what you don’t confess”
Sundown. Could it be more perfect? I don’t think so. I was utterly mesmerized, one of my favorite musical moments, ever.
The Oka Crisis came to and end, and the Stein Valley is now protected – I guess we were in some small way taking part in something important that weekend – but to say that tensions between the various segments of our country are settled would be a lie. Maybe if we all got together to watch a game or 2 on Saturday night and then had a listen to “Gord’s Gold” it would all be better… at least I’d like to think so.
After many repeated listenings of the song over the past 20 years, combined with my memory of the one time I saw him perform it live, I seriously suspect that Gordon Lightfoot, Canada’s Folk Laureate, was a Velvet Underground fan. Chan
ces are I’m totally wrong, but that sure wouldn’t be the first time.
Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown”
(Click on the Play button beside the song title to launch the music player
or right-click on the link to download it to your computer.)