I’m a firm believer that you can adapt to anything over time and slowly begin to accept it. I’ve been whittling my paltry fortunes down to the proverbial ‘hanky on a stick’. It started with the decision to jump back into music full steam ahead. “Hey dad, you need to buy a flat screen?” “Hey Ewen, you feel like buying those leather couches back?” This delicate dance resulted in shaking the landlords hand in my funky Toronto apartment – dropping the key into his hand, hoping this would be that last time in a long time I had to rent a space to keep my head dry and my bones restful. I would now complete the mission of “Aymar NFA – Troubadour”. It took a while to climb down from that modest perch and into the abyss. The unknown can at first be terrifying. Thank god for ‘sisters’ is all I can say. Between my two sisters, I would have been unable to continue on this path as I have. Their generosity and belief is unparallelled and the times when I’ve staggered or been wiped out from the notion of having given up stability (as meager as it was) they’ve been there to motivate me back onto the running track. (As for my brother-in-laws having to witness my shadowy being on occasion I don’t even know where to start – I promise someday when my ship comes in – I’ll bring us all on a beautiful cruise sludge boat in the Med! ha ha).
So, all of this to say that my newly minted deer mangled Camry slowly grew on me. Something like a bad rash. Over the course of the next few days I grew accustomed to its look and in some manner, I took pride that my ego was not injured with this new appearance. Yep, the crumpled hood, the rickety headlights, the hole in the bumper…very Troubadour Chic. More street cred fo-sho! I looked up from my grime filled windshield, took another bite out of my day old raisin bran muffin, washed it down with some cold coffee to see the city rising out of the prairie sky….here it comes….like a phoenix….grain elevators….tall buildings…WELCOME TO REGINA! Home of ‘something or other I’m sure!”
As we’ve discovered, the troubadour quite often lives a paradoxical life. Yes, I likely finished a Putters Light just before I hit the gym. I’ve brought the ‘everything in moderation’ line to the next level. Perhaps the only recreational smoker who uses a treadmill at least five times a week. Welcome to The Goodlife Fitness Centres of Canada where I’ve been a member for most of my adult life. A pair of sneakers and some gym shorts get me into a one hour moment of zen and I can safely say that my alter ego life of debauchery would have me looking well beyond my years instead of just a little bit beyond my years if not for the joy of working out. Yep so I wheeled the junkbox into the Goodlife, got my sweat on then drove over to the venue for the nights sound check. Here I was introduced to my billet, the folk club volunteers, sound techs etc….I call them ‘tenders of the trail’ as that’s exactly what they are. Always providing a safe place to land for the musicians – providing a room to play in – some good attendance – a nice listening room – and some great conversation pre and post show – usually about other crazy folkies living this exact style of life! (It’s reassuring – usually). We made a b-line to my new two-day abode and shared a nice home cooked pasta dinner to prep for the pending show.
As I slowly tailed my billet home his van was nearly side-swiped by some jackass speeding up to make a yellow light. This was the equivalent of an estranged deer arriving out of nowhere. It was a close shave as my billet was almost t-boned into oblivion. Again, as these things go, the tires squealed, everyone swerved and somehow a major accident was avoided. “Jesus Aymar…you’re becoming a fucking curse! Where’s Rocky’s Buffalo tooth? Ok I’m wearing it! Good!” Yep that’s what I said to myself (more on that later).
As we pulled into the funky, rough, artsy, newly gentrified area of Regina, I was reminded of the Dundas – Ossington area of Toronto. The originals of the hood were now sitting on some pricey real-estate. I love to hear when the working class have caught a break over time. (Mind you – many would tell you they don’t see it that way at all). It’s their neighbourhood and quite often the gentrification leads to an infestation of urban hipsters. These critters kill local flavour with Starbucks franchises and drive out working artists, working culture. (You know the story – let’s leave it alone).
What I did notice was the amazing site of the front yards all well manicured and totally functional. Nothing over the top. I decided to drive through some of the alleys and found that attached to almost every house was a working garage. One could literally hear buzz saws and drills ringing through the streets as part time craftsmen, woodworkers, mechanics, fabricators and the like came home to hit the garage. Amazing what a strong economy can do for the working class spirit. You may have your opinions on fracking, but the trickle down effect sure had some happy residents in this part of Regina. (The contents in most of the alleys reminded me of this Philly folkie Chuck Brodsky’s song Take It Out Back.)
After dinner we made it back to the Folk Club for the gig. During the mid-way point I sat down to speak with a table in attendance. One guy kept coming back at me with the state of my car. “Hey man, that’s one helluva bang up job. What happened?” Readers Digest version of ‘Oh…Deer Me!’ ensued and then he was off on a five minute non-sequitur tirade about vehicle collisions and repairs and friends in the industry. My first inclination was to accept his condolences for the loss of my vehicle and move on, but something told me he was truly empathetic to my cause. As I would soon learn – the fourth angel had arrived.
By his own admission, John had taken too many tire-irons and pieces of re-bar to the head and as a result he had a permanently shocked looked about him. His eyes were unfocused and they appeared to stuck while simultaneously looking at me and through me. He had a bit of the Einstein look and way about him. A nutty professor of sorts – yet his demeanour suggested that he may have been living quite a rough life. I simply couldn’t get a read on him other than to say, he was overly concerned about my car and the state of my well being in said car.
“Hey man, I know a lot of people in the car business…it’s a long story but let me see if I can at least track down a hood for you tomorrow before you hit the trail.”
“Sure, that would be great John” I replied. “I’ve put the word out to the auto-wreckers and they’re all on one system across the country and if you can believe it, between here and Vancouver they are showing twenty-three Camry hoods which will work for my car and not one of them is black. I’d have to go aftermarket and paint the hood which would bring the cost up to about $1000 at least.”
“Yeah, that’ the problem” he said, “the black hoods are going to be tricky. You don’t want to get your insurance involved but like I said, let me see what I can do. I know your billet so I’ll call over tomorrow.” And with that, I left the concert, crashed out and woke up to John calling over to say he might have had some luck.
“Hey man, I was laying there last night telling my girlfriend how much it would suck to be a travelling musician with a car that’s broken down. I used to be in a rock band for six years on the road in the 70’s so I know what it’s all about. Anyway I woke up last night at about 2am an scoured the internet for 2003 Black Camry hoods. I found lead on one in town here. I called the guy this morning and he may be able to have it into his yard by 2pm today. Can you hang tight one extra day? If possible, I’ll take the day off from my general duties – I’m a property owner around town and do a lot of general contracting etc…”
“Wow man, are you sure?” I couldn’t believe it. What would possess someone to follow through in this regard. I soon realized that he had the healthy mixture of empathy, love of cars, love of music, automotive connections, the garage workshop and the flexibility to take the day off to help.
“Absolutely, I have today free and we’re good to go!”
And with that, my journey with this unique character began. We jumped in his well used work truck and headed over to the wreckers to check out the hood. On the way over John began telling me in earnest about his life.
“You see that big empty space over there? That’s where they bulldozed over a city landmark. Good Time Charlies one of our oldest taverns. (I knew the story and have been enjoying The Deep Dark Woods song ever since they submitted it for CBC’s Great Canadian song quest:: Charlie’s (Is Comin Down)
“Jay, I spent every single day in that place for years and years. I’m living proof that a man can drink a case of beer every day and burn it off! I did that! I would finish work and head there and buy round upon round and it cost me….cost me so much. I’m pretty happy with where I’m at now. I quit drinking several years ago and I’ve been doing well.”
Something which I couldn’t help notice was the manic way in which John kept grabbing pieces of conversation from all over the place, as though randomly connecting bits of ideas and slamming them into phrases which at first didn’t make a lot of sense. Now, I’ve been accused of having this same problem at times (you’ll notice it right here in my writing) and often only the occasional girlfriend will tell me it frustrates them – AT FIRST. Then, over time they catch on to the dialect and the rhythm and the bullshit poetry of it all to learn that I usually have a point. It just might take an hour or a week to crystallize. All of this to say, that even I found John’s frenetic A-D-D style of ramblings hard to follow and I was beginning to question whether this was all just smoke and mirrors.
“Over there Jay, that’s one of the buildings I own. That house there is rental property of mine. You see, I did what you did for many years on the road in a rock band. Playing Black Oak Arkansas type of stuff. You remember them?”
“Sure do, my buddy Harrelstone used to blast them in his white Rabbit when we cruised Queen St. back in the day in the Soo!”
“Well, that’s what we played – Black Oak Arkansas type of stuff and we even toured through the Soo.’
“Let me guess John – The Eastgate?”
“Yeah that was it…great bar for rock bands! That’s back when we’d be booked for three or four nights in one bar! Back when people went to see live music. It was a wild ride but you know the story. Too much of this too much of that and we all wound up broke and burnt out. Anyway, when I gave it up, I decided to get to work doing manual labour stuff around town. Contracting mainly. I saved up my cash and bought a little fixer upper. Worked on it – still working on it – and over time leveraged that into a bunch of rental properties. You can do that too man! When you get tired of the road. It’s not a bad way to go.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence in my Holmes on Homes abilities John, but the truth is I don’t even own a fucking tool box. My dad used to tell me when I was a kid that I had the naturally ability to be a carpenter and we used to build things together out of wood at our camp. I’m the proud owner of a wooden dartboard case and about three rotting bird houses scattered around the property.”
“Hey man,” he replied “if you have the patience and the aptitude for it – you can do anything. Hey look at these peppers!” (That’s the way the convo went. Mid-stride he would change the subject and hold up a bag of peppers.) “Grew these myself right in my own back-yard. I could detect that the the auto-wrecker guy was from the middle-east somewhere and I’m hoping he likes the gesture. Hope he’s not offended!”
As the tour around Regina progressed I realized John was a likely a very misunderstood fella. I know many like him and I’m sure over the course of the many years of drinking and hard living he’d have racked up his share of haters. Yet, as I was listening to his story, and reading between the lines, I saw a person digging deep for redemption. Yes, I realized that in helping me fix my car he was helping rebuild his own soul in the process. Call it therapy – call it penance. It dawned on me what was happening and when stuff like this happens I simply say “Thank you” to the great spirits for making it happen. We’re all benefiting from the experience and that’s kind of miraculous when you think about it.
We hit the wreckers and John introduced us to the owner who couldn’t have been more overjoyed with the hot peppers. He immediately walked over to his assistant to show him the bag and take a nibble.
“We have the hood and we’ve even found a new light for the driver side,” he said.
And with that, John spent the next twenty minutes speaking on my behalf – giving the old ‘poor musician’ story to the wrecker. When we left, we had a hood in better condition than my previous one, a brand new light and some some extra lights for good measure. all in the back of John’s pickup and all for $380!!!! (to think every wrecker in Canada had quoted me at least $600 minimum for a damaged wrong coloured hood…I was contemplating getting an orange hood and driving around as the Voice Of Fire…but again…I’m a folkie in need of grant support and as such, I shouldn’t draw attention to such matters.)
“Hey John, I can’t thank you enough for your help with this buddy. You’re really saving my bacon. It’s unbelievable really. I mean, I was almost ready to pack in the tour a few days ago. It’s been draining – not to mention the psychological effects of nearly expiring on the highway!”
“Yeah man, damn lucky you didn’t hit a moose!”
I didn’t say a word.
As we drove back towards his garage I told him the story of the Buffalo tooth which I’d told briefly the night before on stage at the concert.
“You see, I wrote this song Crow a few years back about a first nations guy and his father. In the song the son, Crow passes away from years of hard living – too much drinking – living on the streets. His dad suffered from alcoholism and used to hit Crow. It just keeps getting passed down you know? Anyway, the song starts with Crow’s girlfriend finding him dead at the local Mission…only to tell everyone Crow’s story. Funny thing John, I wrote that song based on someone giving me the line “WHERE DO CROWS FLY?” and asking me to write a song about that line. I wrote it in about an hour one morning after having coffee in my apartment and never thought anything about it. We recorded it on my acoustic as it was just to save it. When it came time to release my Halfway Home album, my publicist asked if I had anymore songs. I begrudgingly gave him this rough demo and he suggested I put it on the album ‘as is’. I did. It’s become my most downloaded song on Itunes and most highly requested song whenever I perform. So, when I was touring through High River Alberta last year, Rocky Barstad an aboriginal artist, had read about my appearance, had heard the song and we met. After meeting we exchanged art for art. I gave him some CD’s and he gave me this buffalo tooth on a necklace and some reproductions of his beautiful paintings. I came to learn the significance of the buffalo tooth as “Safe Passage”. Much like an inukshuk along the highway. Well, the soft hide leather chain portion had worn down from constant wear and I took it apart to put a new one on it. I had been wearing it pinned to my jacket for the longest time but now it was off. As god is my witness, I took it off my jacket exactly one day before I hit the deer. It was in my glove box. You tell me man! You tell me!”
“I am really into native culture Jay. We’d have so much to talk about when we get back to the shop. And here we are….”
We were now in the back alley looking at John’s garage. Just enough room to wheel a car into it. You want to talk about nutty professors garage? For a joke I started humming the first few bars of Quincy Jones’ Sandford and Son theme song intro. He immediately lit up and got the reference which showed me I could raz him and let him know that as long as he razzed me, we were going to have a very productive and enjoyable day.
As I’ve mentioned before, my knowledge of automobiles is technically nil. I do, however, enjoy hanging out and using my left brain whenever possible and just getting into the task at hand and best of all – learning! What I witnessed from this point on was nothing short of pure genius. I mean that. Sure John had that ‘shocked’ look about him, and I can guarantee that most folks would not have had patience for his tragic tales of yesterday…but I did. Why? Because they were amazing. An amazing tale of survival and repentance.
So here we were – this guy slowly reminding me of everything I read in Pirsig’s classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Some of us drive down the highway (as I do) in this zen-like state, living in the moment, yet oblivious to the finer details. Some like John, live in a zen like state as well, yet drill down to the finer points, constantly wanting to know how things truly work. How to fix them and maintain them. It’s something I wished I had more of. I remember (in the novel) there are two types of mechanics Pirsig refers to. Mechanic A has every tool neatly organized and will lose his shit if you misplace one wrench and don’t put it back where it belongs. Mechanic B has his stuff strewn about in pure chaos, and if you remove one screwdriver from below the pile of scrap metal under the wooden boxes dangling off the shelves, he’ll lose his shit. John, quite obviously was Mechanic B. The interesting thing about Mechanic B is that what they may lack in x’s and o’s they make up for in creativity. What happened over the next six hours was nothing short of watching a master at work.
It really was like watching a Maestro conduct his symphony of metal parts. One minute sparks are flying as he’s grinding a new pieces for the hood. Next, he’s pumping pressure on a stuck seal – non stop – all day – new pieces and old pieces being torn out and put back in until some of the parts lay scattered around the garage.
“Hey Jay, hope you don’t mind but I like working to the radio!”
“Good call John,” fully expecting him to crank some mid-seventies Molly Hatchet (she’s alright lol)
“Yeah, I really like this Jazz station. It’s mostly modern jazz which is cool but I like the older stuff too. I was really into this stuff when I was a mechanical engineering student in university.”
Can you say never, ever judge a book by it’s cover. I never will again.
“Oh, hold on, it’s almost 4pm, and time for the Aboriginal Word of the Day on this other station. I try to learn a new word everyday. I couldn’t learn the one yesterday. It was too damned hard!”
And with this type of back and forth banter I learned about the guys true history. The rise and the fall. The promise. The destruction. I watched him drink a can of ‘O’Douls’ (non-alcoholic beer) almost every thirty minutes. A self-proclaimed costly habit, yet a far less costly one than the alternatives.
Now, according to the Maestro that day, my mechanical aptitude was ‘excellent’. He claimed with some time, inclination and training, I could easily be maintaining my own automobile while on the road. In fact, he really enjoyed this adventure as well. It was day of pure joy for me. Can’t explain it. I was finally happy to be drilling down below the zen-like surface of my voyage to dig deep into the working parts and practicality of my chariot – or in this case my car. At this point, I think I blew away the professor with the the line “Just hit it with a bigger hammer!”
(Stolen from the cult classic car movie ‘Dirty Mary – Crazy Larry’ – a movie introduced to me by my brother Dave who has been on a forty year search for the worst movie ever made and has the 5000 cult classic VHS tapes to prove it – and yes – we’ve watched them all together and loved every minute of all of them. My brother is so good now, he can watch a Terrantino flick tell you exactly what scene he is paying homage to (or stealing from) the original – but I digress).
Upon hearing that line…John put the hammer aside for a minute and looked up from under the hood and gave me a smile and a knowing nod. Just a way of saying “yeah we both know where that’s from and god-dammit isn’t this fun!” It was getting past 7pm and his final bit of construction was welding a new piece of metal for the hood latch. “And VOILA! Now, let’s put a wax job on it and take a few pictures and we’re out of here!”
I pulled the car out into the dimming prairie sun in the back alley and looked at it. Naturally people came around. It looked better than it had ever looked.
“Well done John. Now call up your girlfriend cuz I bought a bunch of streaks back at the billet’s house and we’re running late.”
We had a great round up dinner and everyone kept looking at the car simply shaking their heads. I shared the full “Buffalo tooth – Crow – Rocky” story over dinner in minute detail. That’s my version of working on a car – telling the microscopic details of a story. Just as dinner was wrapping up, John looked at me and said, “Hey…before we leave…check this out.” And he pulled out a tiny wrench from his back pocket and said “You remember what this if for?” To his amazement, I remembered what we had forgotten to do “It’s to tighten the bolts down on the hood!” lol…
Yep, after all that, we didn’t tighten the hood into place. A good clip on the highway at about 100K and there would have been a strong chance I’d be Nascaring my hood all over the Trans-Canada. “Let’s ‘gitter done!’ Now I’d morphed into Larry the Cable Guy. Six hours in a garage, a few glasses of vino and some fake shop talk I was a real blue collar comedy specialist.
As John was leaving house, he said he had to find some time to work on his own vehicle when he had the time. Wow. What a guy. He did all of this without wanting anything – although I insisted. “Hey buddy,’ he said, “good luck on the trail….drive safe and hit’er with a bigger hammer!”
He winked and strolled out the door. A more interesting character in this world I have rarely met.
The next morning I jumped in my newly polished Camry and looked around to see if it was all real as I spoke to myself: “Buffalo tooth on? Check!” With that I pointed the car west to continue on with my never-ending-Willie Nelson-style tour. I hit BIG SKY country once again and put it in cruise control. “Ok let’s try this again…” I hit play and blasted the Tom Russell CD about as loud as it could go. I grinned to myself knowing I’d been guided by musical angels who’d come along when I needed them most. I looked up from my windshield to find an extremely large and beautiful hawk, flying above my car down the empty highway about fifty feet in front of me. The hawk stayed with me for at least five minutes. It was otherworldly. Then as it drifted away from my vision I killed the radio and drove in silence.
Finally the song came to me:
You came upon me in a flash
Blood and bone upon my dash
Sent to set your spirit free
A piece of you now lives in me