It’s the day after Thanksgiving and I am sitting in the bar of this hotel speaking with friends I’ve met over the past few years. This hotel is north of perogy line (The Yellowhead Highway) in Manitoba, Canada. I don’t want to tell the name of it is as I believe it will be better off left to your imagination. I can assure you with every last breath that it exists and the people are real. Real Ukranians inhabit the town. Farmers, fisherman, drinkers, dancers, First Nations folks, gamblers, singers, hunters, artists and even some Methodists.
I’ve performed in this hotel six times now. When I started I wouldn’t play my serious pull-at-your-heart-strings story telling songs, nor my irreverent comic-riffing Jake Rivers songs. No I started with Cash and Prine, Kristofferson and the like. The songs found their natural home in these walls among these bar-flies. ‘ANOTHER ROUND OF DRINKS FOR ALL MY FRIENDS!’
It began when I was stranded out here due to a gig cancellation. Another musician suggested I contact the owner and she would likely help me out. She did. I came – I played – I stayed.
Now it seems that every time I pass through, I am afforded the luxury of a few days off to come and play then meet the town. Recently, the band has been playing and staying. They feel the same way. The hotel, the people and the village are something special. Hell, I had my first ever moonshine experience here. Likely the reason I lost the love of my life…but oh well…no big deal right?
The band has returned home for the week leaving me to stay in this small room atop the hotel bar. Donnie and Shelley return next weekend for the final show of this tour. I often tell people from the stage that we did 175 shows this year – in a way I say this to remind them that this blank squirrelly stare plastered onto my road weary face is just a by-product of too much fun, too many miles and not enough time.
You see it goes like this:
Wake up at 10:30am in the Costa-Lessa Motel. Call the front desk to beg for an extended hour before check-out. Brew up the stale coffee and eat a three day old banana. Discuss with your band mates who wants to make the run to the motel office to raid some oatmeal packs and war surplus apples. Load up the gear into the vehicle, punch in the next address and hit the highway. Drive anywhere for one hour to five hours stopping along the way for more sodium infused snacks and tepid gas station coffee. Car rides are dotted with a lot of silence where we all retreat into our private worlds. A sanctuary of beautiful thoughts awaits us there. We think about our loved ones back home, our loved ones last night or what may become of the day ahead. This constant living in the moment is such an engaged feeling that often days slip into years without realizing that the time has evaporated so quickly? For example, last week we argued whether we’d played THAT venue two years ago or just last year. The argument raged on for ten full minutes until someone pulled out their phone to check the past calendar date and finally layed down the gauntlet.
“Well…according to my calendar it says we played Cowtown last year! We started early and ended early. The entire thing was a fuckin non-event! That’s why I thought it was two years ago.”
No one likes to admit when they’re wrong. I was certain we’d played this one last year as I am usually a bit more in tune with these things.
Chalk one up for the boss!
“Oh wait….my bad my bad….I was looking at 2014 on my calendar. Yup, just as I said…it was two years ago!”
Yikes. I gotta get my shit together.
I kept quiet knowing that I was dead wrong. Sometimes I miss two years. (It’s true!) It’s a crazy way to live. But never one to let a great opportunity go by I shout out “What type of calendar app is that? Is it on a Samsung 7? You know they just recalled those eh? I think we need to wait until we get to the motel tonight to look at my website for proper verification.”
Usually laughter ensues. After the silence broken it’s always time for the dreaded song selection from someone’s phone. It seems the only thing we can agree on is silence.
Once we arrive at the venue it’s always sound-check, followed by checking into the new digs; dinner; concert; meet and greet; sleep. Every once in a while when there is a perfect storm and maybe a few days off you can find that necessary debauchery and the love of your life willing to listen to some new songs on the beach or a bed. Sometimes you may even want to stick around. That’s the hard part. “Love me tender baby I’m only passing through.”
And then that annoying alarm goes off again. It’s 10:30am. “Call the front desk. Get an extension on our check-out time!”
Shower. Rinse. Repeat.
In my particular case, I’ve been afforded the luxury of developing a network of kick-ass regional players across the country and in parts of the US. (and I mean KICK-ASS!!!) The list is long and amazing. I count myself fortunate to have so many great players willing to join me.
For the most part though I’ve been happy to play with my Toronto band along with multi-instrumentalists Donnie Zueff in Manitoba, Robbie Smith in Nova Scotia and occasionally young blues maven by the name of Jenie Thai. (I believe she’s The Killer reincarnated – Great Balls of Fire!)
I could write ten books on each and every one of these players and fill the Library of Congress fifteen times over with stories and anecdotes to make you laugh and cry and twist and shout. But as you know, time is evaporating and we’re all missing years. Randy Newman calls them “The potholes on memory lane”. Memories just sink into them.
Check out his song POTHOLES and tell me he’s not a goddammed genius:
Now I used to pitch
I could get the ball over the plate
Anyway this one time
Must have thrown a football round or something the day before
I walked about fourteen kids in a row
Cried, walked off the mound
Handed the ball to the third baseman
And just left the field
Anyway many years later
I brought the woman who was to become my second wife
God bless her
To meet my father for the first time
They exchanged pleasantries
I left the room for a moment
This is first time he met her, you understand
When I came back
He’s telling her the story
Right off the bat
About how I walked fourteen kids
Cried and left the mound
Next time he met her
He told the same goddamn story
God bless the potholes
Down on memory lane
God bless the potholes
Down on memory lane
Hope some real big ones open up
Take some of the memories that do remain
I love that song. I guess it’s safe to say, as fast as time slips by we hold onto the good memories and hopefully the awful ones slip into those memory lane potholes. So yeah, we’re gonna forget about a few years but we’ll never forget the spirit and the people who were with us and shared the feeling. I know that all touring musicians can relate to this on a profound level.
I’m back up in my room now and it’s very quiet in this hotel save for the jukebox cranking “Son of a bitch, give me a drink” by Nathaniel Rateliff and The Night Sweats. The jukebox is right below my room and some local characters are toying with me. They know my band is gone. They know I’m tempted. They know I haven’t been drinking much these days.
My room is small but mighty. A tiny TV affixed to the wall beside a relatively modern print of a Parisian street scene. It’s so properly framed it seems out of place. The wood grained paneling and mirrored chest of drawers beside my double bed feel perfectly in order. There is another double bed in the opposite corner beside the tiny fridge, microwave and heater. The window overlooks the street below the front of the hotel. It’s snowing. There is no activity here tonight. The day after Thanksgiving and this whistlestop is barely breathing.
I’m in a contemplative mood as I’ve just had a great conversation with my sister Mary about the siblings who made it home to celebrate my father’s 95th birthday. A big one magnified as we lost our mother on Mother’s Day this year at 90. Dad told me just the other day, he keeps starting a conversation then turning toward her but finds only an empty chair where she used to be. That’s gotta be tough – almost seventy years of marriage.
My sister’s story was hilarious. The typical Thanksgiving Day / Dad’s birthday festivities ensued: Everyone drives 8 hours home to cook, eat, party and after the third day of being cramped together on limited sleep it turns into a version of Stressmas. We always seem to walk away feeling closer and better for it. I was sad I couldn’t be home for this one – but THEN AGAIN!
Mary finally asked “Where’s Waldo today?”
“Oh me? Thought you’d never ask. Oh I’m just in a small room in an old hotel above a country bar in a snow covered village in the middle of Manitoba on Thanksgiving. I’m fine. Don’t worry about me. No one else does!”
I felt the sarcastic pity party would elicit a good chuckle.
“Hmmm…you’re actually sounding more like Del Griffith – shower curtain ring salesmen – right out of Planes, Trains and Automobiles!”
That is one of my sister’s favourite movies. Mine too. We have a tradition that we try to watch it at least once a year. Poor John Candy plays Del Griffith who ultimately has nowhere to be on Thanksgiving. Steve Martin – his adversarial road companion ultimately bonds with him and brings him home for the big dinner. Another John Hughes classic.
“Yeah Mary, someday I can sure feel like Del. It doesn’t happen often but when it hits, well I kind of wish I would have settled down and married one of those girlfriends back in the day. But that’s just me feeling sorry for myself.”
I went on to explain how this particular Thanksgiving may have been the saddest yet most fulfilling one of them all.
I was invited down to the closed bar for a turkey dinner on Thanksgiving Day at 5:30. A server here mentioned she would be cooking for those of us on our own. She invited me to dinner. I thought it was a beautiful gesture.
When I arrived, we all helped carry the food out to the table and proceeded to dig in. There were only four of us. The leftovers were plentiful.
“Hi my name is Ernie…I saw you play here last year!”
“Hi Ernie, yes I remember you for sure. How have you been?”
“Oh it’s been a rough day. We lost our mother late last night. She was in the home.”
“Oh wow Ernie. Are you ok? So sorry to hear that?”
“Not really. I’m having a hard time today. My sister is getting my mom’s dress altered today. I’m worried about her driving in this snow. My mom wanted to be buried in that dress.”
Ernie was wearing a ball cap which was pulled down low. I knew he’d lived all around the western provinces doing odd jobs (as he said) until the work ran out. He informed me he’d come back home almost twenty years ago and found permanent employment with the town dump. He was only into coffee and cigarettes these days. He’d seen things.
“Hey Ernie, we lost our mother this year too. She was 90. I know what you’re going through man. My deepest sympathies.”
Just then, I saw one lonely tear roll down his cheek beyond the shadow of the ball cap brim. He wiped it away, stood up and said “I’m going to have another plate…want some?” I looked at him and immediately welled up. I don’t know how grief is supposed to be expressed. Why it shows up at the strangest times. I knew in that moment I was grieving the loss of all mothers, not just mine. I thought of just how beautiful the spirit of women and motherhood is. How that power can reduce two grown men to tears on Thanksgiving Day. When dinner was over we all cleaned up and said our good-byes.
I retreated back to my room to process what had happened and lay down and let the tryptophan weave its magic. I felt the emptiness of the hotel. The sadness kicked in. I couldn’t stop thinking about family and friends. Then as the night progressed it slowly turned in something comforting. I was taught a lesson in loneliness. I counted my blessings. What a notion to think that I was invited to Thanksgiving Day dinner from relative strangers? Good on those who are giving the misfortunate a bit of comfort during these times. Faith in humanity restored! “2017 is the year I start volunteering more!” I decried (I must find a way to do this.)
I turned on the idiot box for some reprieve only to be inundated with a non-stop barrage of the orange haired no-nothing on every channel. It so tarnished my pure feelings of the human spirit, I turned it off immediately and pulled out my guitar and wrote the first lines to a new song:
“He never had a father, he struck out on his own
He found himself a wanderer who never had a home
His mother was his guiding light his sister was his friend
He found his way back home to hold her at the end”