Part One: Making ConnectionsSummertime again. A time for freedom and for getting things done. Usually, my first order of business right after my last day of work for the school year is to confine myself to my apartment with the doors and blinds closed and sleep as much as I could. Unfortunately though, one of the worst heat waves in recent history foiled those plans, and in my un-air-conditioned apartment, sleep - nor much of anything - was going to happen. The next weekend arrived however, with a breath of fresh air, quite concretely. A cool, clear wind arrived from the north and allowed me to breathe easy again. And not a day too soon either. I had come to Toronto for what I would call The Summer Confluence of Siblings, otherwise known as a family get-together and had spent that Saturday reunited with my brothers and sisters for the first time in over a year. Getting together was an uncommon and sometimes difficult affair for us, as we're all situated all over the province of Ontario, all of us busy with our lives and families. But a strange alignment not unlike the alignment of planets, a rare chain of fate allowed us to co-ordinate our schedules and see each other, all in one place at one time.
And since I would be in Toronto, I thought I would use the day after to visit different landmarks around town. When I was younger, I would marvel at the exoticness of going to a true big city where there were skyscrapers and traffic jams and throngs of people walking the sidewalks. I would see the actual streets whose names I would only hear on the radio, Islington, Yonge and Bloor, Finch, The Don Valley Parkway... From a beach in my hometown of Niagara on the Lake, I could look across the steel blue expanse of Lake Ontario and see that telltale needle of the CN Tower punctuating the landscape on the opposite shore. It was like looking upon Jerusalem to me. And when I was old enough, I would hop a bus to take that hour and a half ride from St. Catharines to the Elizabeth St. bus terminal, and step off to set foot in a world far removed from the quiet farmland I'd grown up in. There was the crackle of the bus terminal P.A., the thrum of buses, then you would step out into the light and be confronted and conflicted with a million choices, a million directions to turn, a million bucket list items to cross off...
I would wander the streets, radiating out from Yonge Street to explore what the city had to offer. Downtown Toronto in the 80's provided a deep underground culture of head shops, art galleries, alternative record stores and porn shops, all of which seemed so exotic to my teenage bumpkin sensibilities. It was such a subversive thrill to browse through shelves and shelves of bootleg albums in search of that obscure Pink Floyd concert recording, or leaf through rack after rack of punk/rock tees in some basement head shop to find that perfect YES raglan.
Later, as my tastes changed, I would go on pilgrimages catering to whatever obsessions I would have at the time. While the Maple Leafs flew high in the early nineties, I would visit the Hockey Hall of Fame and Maple Leaf Gardens- especially just before the Gardens closed in 1999 to give way to the Air Canada Center, which has now sickeningly taken the tradition of acquiring the name of whatever soulless corporation is holding the lease, like some mail-order bride forced to take the name of its patriarch (and which I will now only visit out of necessity rather than nostalgia).
A decade later, I began to explore the literary cartography of Toronto, visiting the site of the former Bohemian Embassy: 4 Nicholas St., where CanLit founding authors such as Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje and Gwendolyn MacEwen would read what would soon become winners of the Gonernor General's Award for Literature for those years. I would also visit Coach House Press, where some of CanLit's greatest offerings had been printed, and behind which, on bpNichol Lane, Stan Bevington has one of bp's concrete poems permanently embossed into the concrete. Tradition was that each morning, Stan would complete the concrete poem's meaning by filling the Lake impression with water. That morning when I visited, I noticed that LAKE had not been filled, so I took it upon myself to do the honours, while other tourists around me started snapping their own photos.
Of all the pilgrimages one could make to Toronto though, the one still outstanding for me had been one to comemmorate the city's most successful cultural export, the rock band Rush. I had been a fan since the early eighties, and my attraction to them was mainly through the amount of personal connections I had with them. I'm big on connections. I'm kind of Dirk Gently that way. That's what turned me on to much to Rush. By 1981, they were part of Rock's royalty, but so close to me. For one; having grown up in a farming community in Niagara, my father had brought his tractors to Dalziel Equipment in St. Catharines, which happened to be owned by Neil Peart's father. I smile to think that there may have been a time when I stood in the shop while Neil was equipment manager, just before he auditioned for the drummer position with the band. I can imagine myself standing there, 8 years old and bored, waiting for my father to finish his shoptalk, and Neil behind the parts counter, 21 and bored, counting the hours til closing time. There are tons of Niagara landmarks to connect me with Neil as well; Lakeport High School, wherein you can still find Neil's picture in their yearbook from 1968. And of course, you could always go to Lakeside Park in Port Dalhousie to drink by the lighthouse and smoke on the pier as their song from Caress of Steel will urge. http://www.2112.net/powerwindows/transcripts/19940624stcatharinesstandard.htm
So I'd covered all the Niagara references. It was Geddy and Alex's history in Toronto that I still needed to explore. Once in the 80's I took the subway to the intersection of Danforth and Pape, which is featured as a segment of their epic instrumental La Villa Strangiato, characterized by a frenetic jazz fusion-type of solo by Alex. One could envision the chaotic traffic conditions there, vehicles struggling to progress through the maze of stoplights and congestion. When I finally arrived, I saw it was would be called the Greek sector of town, punctuated with Greek restaurants and bakeries. (This entry was started just days before the shooting incident in Greektown. Deep condolences to the families of the deceased. We need to stop being so lackadaisacal about who we give guns to. We need to work harder to help people with mental health issues.) It was cool to be there and take a photograph of the street sign, but visiting it would not be enough for me. I wanted a memento to show that I had been there. So I would enter different businesses, looking for something, some sort of literature that would display the name of the intersection. Finally, I found it when I walked into a dentist office on the second floor of one building, stood by the reception area and picked up a business card. It mentioned the location as the "On the corner of Pape and Danforth", which was accurate enough for me. I then looked up and saw the eyes of all the patients in that waiting room, wondering why someone dressed in weathered jeans and a faded Rush tee shirt would come in and take such interest in their business card. The receptionist then interjected and asked if she could help me, and all I could do to answer was raise the card and nod to myself, then leave the office immediately. I never did any more exploring in the name of Rush after that, but after the documentary "Beyond the Lighted Stage", Toronto, or more specifically North York, came alive with Rush landmarks to visit and explore. On this trip, it was my endeavour to see those sites and those sights, satisfy my curiosity and pay a fan's homage to a band that had been so important to me.
So it was that my brother and I would head downtown to see the old places and do some fraternal bonding for a change. John himself had lived and worked in Toronto and had a lot of stories to tell of his times working as a bouncer and a park attendant in his past life. I always wondered at how much riff-raff a guy could see in one lifetime, but given that those two occupations could give a an intimate connection to the seedy side of the town, maybe it wouldn't be that much of a stretch of the imagination.
Part Two: True StoriesFirst stop would be Nathan Philips Square, where the Toronto Outoor Art Show would be taking up residence that weekend. What we found was a white tent city of artists displaying their wares while the odd curved edifices of Toronto City Hall loomed over them, they themselves works of art in their own right. When they were first built in 1961, their odd shape was emblematic of a city eager to redefine itself as modern and progressive, but it wasn't exempt from the derision of the old guard, the old protestant establishment decrying an abandonment of substance for style. Another victim of this resistance to change was the abstract sculpure that stands at the entrance to City Hall. Its title is "Three Way Piece No.2: Archer" by Henry Moore. Its odd, almost shapeless design raised angry questions in 1966 when it was erected, about how the mayor was spending money. Through all the controversy, the sculpture became important to one young poet who would often sit and contemplate its meaning, alone in the crowd lounging in the shade of the Square. That poet was Dennis Lee and his ruminations of The Archer are foundational in his masterpiece long poem "Civil Elegies". In that poem, The Archer symbolizes the wild exteriors of the country, and how it situates itself in the center of the urban sprawl. The sculpture has a natural, curving organic shape, anomalous in its surroundings of converging lines and harsh angles. Dennis Lee used the sculpture as a metaphor for what Canada should consider as its identity, and in fact, even says "the Archer declares / that space is primal, raw, beyond control and drives toward a / living stillness, its own".
Civil Elegies went on to win the Governor General's award for Poetry in 1972 and solidified Dennis Lee's position as one of Canada's most important poets. The poem would become a synthesis of what was going on in Toronto and in a larger way in Canada, when we would adopt a way of reckoning with the wild nature of the country with the progressive attitude of its citizens, galvanizing it as the long-sought and elusive Canadian identity. It had been there all along, in the paintings of the Group of Seven, in the songs of Gordon Lightfoot and Stompin' Tom Connors and in the poetry of Margaret Atwood, Al Purdy, Milton Acorn and Dennis Lee himself, but it was something that had to be explored and proclaimed and Civil Elegies had done that. All these things came to be at a time when the nation was just beginning to recognize itself, and found that there was indeed something to celebrate. So this is why all these things are important, and why I mention them now. City Hall, The Archer, Civil Elegies and Dennis Lee are all part of what made Canada recognize itself in the last half century and gave it confidence to move into the new millennium with its head held high.
We wandered through the different artists' kiosks and were impressed with the amount of creativity that was on display there. One artist had a concept of abstract landscapes that reminded me of my own attempts to paint a feature of the Ottawa River called the Deschenes Rapids. From a vantage point, you can see the rapids, bottlenecks by two promontories of land, which to me seemed dynamic and motivated me to paint it, sky, land and water. I never did get what I was reaching for, succeeding only in adding layer upon layer of corrections, eventually giving up. Indeed, it's true what Leonardo DaVinci said: "Art is never finished, only abandoned." But in that artist's style, I saw what would be the missing link to what I had really wanted my painting to be, a perfect wedding of sky, and and water. When I excitedly told the artist this, his smile disappeared, as if to say "You're going to steal my idea, aren't you?". I then knew better than to ask if I could take a picture of one of his works and left with haste.
We decided to head north on Yonge St. to visit Maple Leaf Gardens. Once a shrine to Canadian hockey, the Gardens bore witness to some of the most legendary games and players to have ever laced on skates. Both John and I had been there numerous times to watch a Leafs game or see Rush or even Triumph, as we did in 1987 for their Thunder Seven tour (still to this day the best laser show I'd ever seen- and I've seen Floyd and Genesis!). I had always planned on stealing a brick from the Gardens if they were ever going to tear it down as they had Chicago Stadium or the Boston Gardens, but thankfully they never did, and it still exists as an athletic center for Ryerson University and a shopping mall.
Walking down that part of Carlton St., it was an uneasy feeling seeing it so... empty and seeing the shops in the area so... underutilized. I always remembed that street scene being so vibrant and alive with excited people, all anticipating whichever event they were going to see at the Gardens. Today it just looks stark and desolate. Carlton St. had definitely seen better days. Still, I stopped to take the obligatory selfie, putting myself in the surroundings to say "I was there.". While my brother looked on, he scoffed at my vanity. An avid hunter, he would always comment on my photos on Facebook with a disdainful "Shoot deer, not selfies!". To which I always reply "No one dies when you take a selfie," although there are some contestants of the Darwin Award that can refute my claim.
Nextly, we stopped at Fran's Pub on the corner of Yonge and College for lunch. It's a great 70-year-old pub, deep and ancient, where you can hide yourself in a crowd and allow yourself to be buried in an old and friendly place. From there, we walked on to Queen's Park, the site familiar to all Rush fans as the building in the background of the cover of their most successful album: Moving Pictures.
I remembered being young like they were and seeing these things for the first time. In fact, my first visit to Queen's Park came along with a bizarre brush with another kind of famous person. It was the summer of 1990, and the country was embroiled in what would later be known as the Oka Crisis, where Mohawk warriors from the Akwesasne reserve outside of Montreal put up a blockade to stop real estate development on their sacred lands. It had become a violent incident, but was bringing Indigenous issues in Canada to the fore. That day, the day after the provincial election in which Liberal David Peterson lost handily to Conservative Mike Harris, there was a large protest in favour of the Mohawk warriors on the front lawn of the provincial legislature. I meandered through the crowd, picking up literature as I did, then stood in front of those arches in a state of awe. I envisioned the album cover, placed that camera crew there, and envisioned the framed works being delivered by men in red overalls, and imagined the family on the steps, moved to tears by the approaching delivery. I then went up the steps, following those moving pictures, to see if I could get inside and indeed the doors were wide open. I walked in and took in the splendor of the ornate architecture, all the marble and wood. Drawn ever deeper, I went up some stairs and saw that there was no one stopping me from venturing any further, so I walked on, finding a door that had Office of the Premier printed on its translucent glass window. I was shocked to find that I could make it that far, especially with a protest outside where any violently fervent activist could enter and to any kind of damage he wanted. I moved away from the offices and just leaned on the bannisters looking down on the foyer when I heard a bustle down the hall. A door opened and a group of men in suits came out into the hallway. Gobsmacked, I recognized one of them as David Peterson. As he passed me by, he looked up, saw me briefly and then returned his gaze down to the ground, looking almost ashamed of himself. I thought I had better get back outside. Obviously, I was not in a place where I was supposed to be. True Story.
Further down College, we decided to stop for a beer at the Prenup Pub on the corner of College and Beverley. Oddly enough, the menu they gave us suggested the name of the pub was Delerium, so I just assumed that there must have been a change in ownership that still hadn’t been completely put in place. I would love to know the story of the new name. Is it a prenup agreement in enactment? Makes one curious, none the less. John knew that this is one of the few places around where we can get Mongozo Coconut Beer. In fact the place is a virtual library of exotic beers, boasting 70 varieties on tap alone. Sitting out on the patio, we could watch the local human fauna walk by. Skater brats were across the street trying to get footage of some unattainable skateboard stunt, failing every time, trying again and again, their clacking and scraping echoing everywhere. Gorgeous women walked by- I'm guessing from the Fashion district, their faces caked in makeup, their hair swept up to perfection and their clothes pristine and flawless. A myriad of cultures and ethnicities came by in their traditional dress in accordance to their religious affiliations, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu... Comic book geeks, executives with perfect suits, blue-haired art chicks. A schizophrenic talking aggressively to himself, his long blond dreadlocked hair piled high and offbalanced atop his head, his messianic beard darkened with cigarette smoke and food he had neglected to wipe with a napkin... I thought to myself that Toronto is a place where you can be whoever you are. That's a big city, a metropolitan area. There's room enough to be whoever you are. To be whoever you WANT is another thing- that's something that needs to be driven toward and worked on. But in Downtown Toronto at least, there is always a niche for you. The streets generally are okay with you.
Refreshed with our coconut beers, we walked on down Beverley to Dundas to visit the Art Gallery of Ontario. There was an exhibit there of the Inuit artists Kenojuak Ashevak and Timootee Pitsiulak that I had been wanting to see. So many time, living in Ottawa, there had been great exhibits that had passed through the AGO, so this time, I was not going to let this one get away. Both artists hail from Cape Dorset, which seems to be a hotspot for great Inuit art.
Kenojuak Ashevak is one of the first women from Cape Dorset to take up the arts of drawing and stone printing back in the 1950’s and have actively promoted with art to generations that have followed. She was pivotal in the development of the West Baffin Eskimo Art Cooperative and in 1963, she was the subject of a National Film Board documentary, which brought a wide audience to Inuit Art and succeeded in helping to weave the Inuit experience into the Canadian cultural fabric. She also was made a companion of the Order of Canada. Her heavily stylized depictions of Arctic wildlife and traditional Inuit scenes are what people now conjure up when they contemplate of Inuit Art, and her style has proven emblematic for the genre to this day.
Timootee Pitsuilak learned his art under Ashevak’s tutelage, being part of the art cooperative through her active years. He himself was very active in the Cape Dorset community and the Inuit art community at large. In a special commemorative 25 cent coin, the Canadian Mint used his image of two belugas and a single bowhead whale to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Canadian Arctic Exhibition. Pitsiulak especially loved the bowhead whales and featured them in his paintings often. Pitsiulak would also depict implements of everyday Inuit life,, such as rifles, seal hunts and even heavy machinery used to dig foundations for housing in the cold Arctic ground.
Part Three: Pilgrimage
Afterwards, John and I broke off once again and stopped at our parents' gravesite in Thorold. It had been about 6 years since I had been there and it was a little hard for me to be back. So much had happened in my life since they'd passed away and not much of it brought me any pride. Still, I was glad to have been there and glad I wasn't alone. We then piled back into my car and drove two hours to Ingersoll where my brother lived. We had dinner at Louie's Pizza and Pasta. Normally such a place wouldn't have much distinction at first glance, but this restaurant had once been featured in the foodie show "You Gotta Eat Here!" I'd watched the show and gotta say they know where to find the best places and from the looks of the handsomely topped pizzas I saw coming out of the kitchen, Louie's had earned its place on the show.
I had originally planned on staying a couple of days with John, but a notice came that first night that the water would be shut off in his building for maintenance the next day, so I only stayed the one night. In the morning, we were leaving for breakfast when John directed me to turn right to get to downtown Ingersoll: "You gotta turn right to get anywhere in this town," he said. The phrase stuck with me. Maybe it was just so, a sleepy farming community, well steeped in the church, holding onto conservative values like they were going to disappear forever. Or maybe completely not so. At any rate, the phrase stuck with me, and I resolve to use it sometime. We broke fast at Dino's Grillhouse, and though we didn't sample their award-winning ribs, I had an honestly good helping of eggs benedict. It made me miss the good old breakfast places I'd gone to in places I used to live and no longer have, presently living in Ottawa. Ingersoll could boast a few good places, which makes you wonder why Ottawa is so seriously lacking. (If I'm wrong, I hope some Ottawaiians will steer me right.)
I dropped my brother off at his apartment after Dino's and set my GPS for 45 Princess Ave. in North York. Lee Lifeson Art Park. The trip was basically an argument between that GPS and myself as to whether or not I should take the 407 toll road or not. I always preferred the 407, the road less travelled over the annoyingly congested 401, but the GPS was having none of it and always brought the route back to the 401. Finally I had to concede if I was going to find the park at all that day. Winding through the busy streets off of Sheppard Avenue, I finally found it with it's huge mural of Geddy and Alex circa 2112 days; Al with the long straight haircut and his legendary Gibson Dot 335, and Geddy with that Rickenbacker bass and the familiar zigzag open shirt. I had to loop around the block to find some parking and finally had to test my luck and park on a no-parking zone. I only wanted the pictures.
There was one point in that interview when Alex pointed off camera and commented that there, out of sight, was the walkway where they would be ambushed by bullies on their way home from school. I looked in the direction that Alex had indicated and there it was, that pathway. It was fenced off on both sides and indeed seemed to descend into the dark obscurity of thick foliage like it was some kind of ominous tunnel where fear lay in wait. Having been bullied incessantly at that same age myself, I know all too well how it feels to step out of a safe place and look on to a walk that may or may not end up with pain, either emotional or physical or both. For sure, when you walk down that pathway, there is a dogleg where a tormenter can ambush you before you even know he's there. It must have been terrifying to face that kind of thing. Obviously though, Alex and Geddy both have made it through without any apparent scarring. Neil himself, who had recounted with some bitterness his own experience with intolerant thuggery, has obviously overcome whatever damage the mouth-breathers had inflicted. Themes of the struggles of youth come up once and again in Rush's lexicon of songs, such as "Subdivisions". "Kid Gloves" and "War Paint", so you can say they've dealt with the past cathartically. Myself, I still deal with issues of self-esteem and confidence, but I've also put those memories in their place through my writing in one way or another. The bad guys haven't won.
Anyone who's read up on Geddy and Alex growing up knows that there are also some significant Canadian talent that has grown up with them. Steve Shutt was a close friend of Geddy's through his Fisherville Days and had an interest in music until hockey became more dominant in his life. He later went on to become a star in the NHL and won 5 Stanley Cups with the Montreal Canadiens. Another significant talent was Rick Moranis, who first became famous as Bob McKenzie of the McKenzie Brothers, but went on to do such blockbuster films with Disney as Ghostbusters and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Rick was a classmate of Geddy's from kindergarten to Grade 6, so in 1982, Moranis invited Ged up to the studio while the McKenzie Brothers were recording their soon to be smash comedy album, and they laid the tracks for the hit comic song "Take Off". It made me wonder why it was so fortuitous that such talent could come out of one small place. I'd like to know what factors there were that would facilitate such a coincidence as this. A good teacher? A supportive community? The drinking water? Something to consider... but it all started here.
I checked my GPS to see how far away St. Theodore of Canterbury Church was and pumped my fist to find that it was only 3 minutes away on Cactus St. More winding streets led me there and I found it: an almost completely triangular framed building much in the style of the early 60's again, when much of this part of the city had obviously seen a surge of development. I didn't really recognize the front of the church, though the sign out front assured me I was definitely at the right place, but when I drove to the parking lot out back, I saw the doorway through which Geddy and Alex had led the cameras to what once housed The Coff-In, the under-age coffeehouse where Rush played their very first professional gigs. I could imagine the boys, with their drummer John Rutsey, unloading the station wagon with their gear right where I had parked, and I could envision those long-haired and beaded youth of their audience having a smoke outside before heading downstairs to catch one of their sets.
It was a great feeling being in the same space that had once occupied some of my idols. It might seem like simple fanaticism, but Rush really did play a large part of who I was to become. When I was in high school, the music you listened to was emblematic of the person you were choosing to be, and being a fan held something akin to a pledge of allegiance to that band and the brand of music they played, as well as the lifestyle they suggested. Rush was quirky, brainy, sometimes goofy and sometimes point-blank serious but always fundamentally relevant, even when they were singing about spaceships and sorcerers. Their lyrics always told a cautionary tale of what it takes to live in this modern world and I think being a fan has tempered my thinking to face the issues this modern world presents. I have a lot to be thankful for to have Rush in my life, and that's why I pay homage.
And to the city of Toronto, I pay homage as well. The city has always figured strong in my environment. It's where we got all our television and radio, it was our cultural magnetic pole.
It's a great city. An international city. A Canadian city. A multicultural city. You can get whatever you want. You could be whomever you are. The city has everything. The city IS everything. A city that I can only and will only love. No matter how bad the Leafs are that year...