Introduction: The Old City
I drive to Kingston to visit my sister Margaret. It was high time I got to doing that. I hadn’t done that very much before, seeing my siblings. I used to live an insulated life, just engaging with the nuclear family and work and barely ever branching out beyond that. Now, as this blog suggests, I am changing that.
When I drive to Kingston from Ottawa, I take the scenic route. I take Highway 15. I follow the Rideau Canal system, the waterway that goes from lake to lake, lock to lock to link Ottawa to Kingston, Rideau River to the St. Lawrence. I can stop at Smith Falls for a pit stop, or just a little further to check out the vista at Otter Lake, or I can drive a little further and stop at Chaffey’s Lock, off of Indian Lake, maybe even stay at the Opinicon Hotel Resort, named after the lake at the other end of the lock. If I’m feeling rich with time, I could stop at Brewer’s Mills and check out the Doner Art Studio and the lock by there too. But I’ve done all that before. Today, I just want to get to my sister’s place by lunch.
Growing up, I used to take the 5 hour bus ride up to my sister's from Niagara on the Lake quite often back in the 80’s. Marg and I had always been close. Her being twelve years older than me made her the perfect age to be influential in my formative years, driving me places like the library, the park or the pool (not as accessible as you might think coming from a farm a half hour’s drive away from anything you might call civilization). She was nurturing to me like a second mother, but young enough to be a sister and my first best friend.
I didn’t like that she moved to Kingston, and rarely saw her after she left, but when I was old enough, I would go up there myself to visit her and her husband, then later, my nephews and nieces too. I would take long long walks around the city, loving the old historical buildings, the waterfront and the youthful instillations brought by Queen’s University, whose students brought a certain modernity to the city’s institutional antiquities. But there was more to be done than just some familial catching up.
A couple weeks before my trip to K-town, I had done a blog on Toronto, with a particular focus on Canada’s greatest musical export; Rush. I planned to do the same for the landmarks and home town of Canada’s other band, The Tragically Hip.
I pulled into Kingston around noon and had lunch with Marg. My sister has a beautiful, spacious split-level house in a richly tree’d suburb, with a gorgeous large deck on it’s western length, perfect for a morning coffee and a leisurely read. It would be my home base for the next few days. Anthony Bourdain had once said that it’s always best to have a friend with a history in the city you’re going to tour, and Marg was going to be my guide, having been a Kingstonian for nearly the past 40 years.
Part One: Breakwater Park: The Love of My Life
Right away, we went to our first destination, Breakwater Park, with its centrepoint, The Gord Edgar Downie Pier. Set on the shores of the very tip of the toe of Lake Ontario, the park had been part of a very extensive and expensive waterfront revitalization in the city that had been in the works since 2012. But, in light of their favourite son’s rise to fame, spectacular last act and tragic passing, they decided naming the pier after Gord would be a fitting tribute.
The park had always been a place where local kids could swim off the old pier, as Gord and his siblings no doubt did, though the years had not been kind to the structure and it had become a danger, especially with the rising water level of the lake in recent years.
Now, the park is rigged out fully to be user friendly. Open only a week before my visit, it was already a crowded but happy place where Kingstonites of all ages had come to enjoy. Teenage bros tried to impress the bikini-clad girls with acrobatic flips off the pier, parents with young children waded in the pebble beach sheltered from the waves by that same pier (I’m sure Gord would have loved that).
I loved the fact that this was all happening across the street from the house where Gord had spent his artistically formative years. In his very last public statement, the album Introduce Yerself, posthumously released 10 days after his death, the song “The Lake” documents his lifelong love affair with that body of water. Much of his music was written while gazing at those glittering waters. The Tragically Hip’s resident recording studio, the Bathouse, actually faces the lake and Gord spent many hours staring out, using it to aid his creative process.
I could totally relate to that. I, myself, have grown up just across the lake from Gord, in Niagara. From the age of 13 on, I biked down to Fort Mississauga, going to the breakwater boulders behind the golf course, just to sit and read and sometimes write while the waves lapped at the rocks at my feet. I’ve always lived by a body of water: Lake Erie, the Niagara River, the Welland River, the Ottawa and now the Rideau River. Numerous times a week, I still will take that walk to go an visit the waters, gaze into its refracted bed and consider whatever things are troubling my mind.
Walking through the park, I noticed a fella walking by with a Hip tee shirt, and I couldn’t resist stopping to talk to him. I was totally floored to find out he was from Holland, and had been a fan of theirs since 1989. We shook hands with him, his wife and his teenage son and he introduced himself as Gerry. He told me how he had gotten into the Hip when he heard “Up to Here” in Holland and immediately, he sought out the blue e.p., then henceforth every other opportunity he could get for new releases and tours going through Europe. I was amazed that he was able to hear about the Hip so early, as they were still emerging in 1989, but in retrospect, that was the power of the music community back then. In the late eighties and early nineties (and mind that this was before the arrival of the Internet), there was an unbelievably pervasive network of communities sharing new music through independent radio, magazines and import record stores. Rumblings from anywhere in the international music scene would vibrate around the world when something good was coming out. And the Hip were GOOD. Later, Gerry would find me on Facebook and we have now become FB friends. Proost, Gerry!!
Part Two: The Downtown Core: a celebration
From the park, we moved on to the setting of The Hip’s last concert: The K-Rock Centre. The centre is named after a radio station that has become a bit of an institution in Kingston, home to any kind of music that can fall under the category of Rock, from classic to psychedelic to alternative to metal. An imposing edifice on what was once called Barrack St., which was renamed Tragically Hip Way in 2012, the arena was built in 2008 directly across the way from what was once the north bastion of Fort Frontenac. With the sickening new tradition of sports and entertainment venues being named after bloodless corporations, it has managed to hold onto its inaugural name until just this July, when Leon’s Furniture Warehouse inexorably acquired the naming rights and shanghaied the once proud name of the place. The name has changed on the internet and in all other ways, but thankfully I was able to see the place before the signing on the actually building had changed. I cringe to think that people may be misled into thinking they can buy furniture there, rather than remember the place’s finest moment.
On August the 20th, 2016, the city compressed en masse around the arena to watch their pride and joy put on what was begrudgingly supposed to be their last concert, and to bid their most beloved poet laureate goodbye. The country of Canada too, descended on KRock to join in on the ‘National Celebration’, as CBC television would call it. For that one night in Kingston, KRock was the center of the Canadian universe.
We turned down Earl St. so Marg could tell me where Kingston Collegiate and Vocational School was located. KCVI is the high school where all of the current members of the Hip had spent the large part of their teenage years, where they met and began to jam. This was where lifelong friends Rob Baker and Gord Sinclair started what was to become KCVI’s most popular band, The Rodents, watched adoringly by one Gord Downie, who would soon after sing in another KCVI band, The Slinks. Johnny Fay joined the Hip exactly the same night as his high school graduation, 3 grades behind the others, and Gord D’s best friend Paul Langlois would join the band later in 1986. The Hip, in totality, is a KCVI band.
|Frontenac St. preppie entrance|
First opened in 1792, it’s the second oldest high school in Canada, and it looks like a classic high school, fitting in with the architectural nuance of the rest of the buildings downtown. When I went out to take pictures, I followed a quote from Rob Baker in the indispensable Hip biography by Michael Barclay, The Never Ending Present:
“If you were from one social set, you went in the Earl Street entrance, whereas the rich kids tended to use of Frontenac Street entrance, and the real outsider used the Alfred Street entrance. I don't know why but we were able to transcend those divisions and use whatever door we liked and hang out with whichever group we liked.”
|Earl St. entrance|
|Earl St. exit?|
We then drove on down Johnson St. to what was Rob Baker’s old house, a tall two storied home with round, almost nautical portals featured on its second floor. My sister Margaret has a personal history with this house and it’s owner, having lived in her first house just around the corner for the better part of 30 years. She remembers Rob’s father Phil, known formally as Judge Baker, who had served in provincial court for many years and was a much loved man in the city. Margaret remembers seeing the Judge walking his dogs by her house often. In the case of the Judge’s son however, Marg has to be more diplomatic. She could recount several times when Rob had to restrain his own dogs behind the iron gate atop the steps leading to their front porch as they menaced her and her dog as she walked by. She never appreciated the smug smile Rob would have as he did so. Myself, I had my own encounter with the guitarist in 2006, when I had taken my two sons and their cousins up to the go kart park for a night of fun that I recount in an earlier blog I had written about the Hip:
“Like me, he was there with his kids, doing fatherly things. I shook his hand, that hand that held a guitar and made all that wonderful music. To this day, I remember how that felt. There was no sadistic smile, though I found his voice had a surprisingly deep bass tone to it. I talked with him about family, and kids and his side project at the time; Stripper’s Union, then I left him alone with his private time. I was starstruck, of course, but you could do that; talk to a member of the band as easily as running into someone from your high school graduating class. They were that accessible.”
That encounter solidified my understanding of the symbiotic relationship the Hip have with the city. Though they are some of the most famous people in Canada, you can still meet them on the streets of Kingston. Paul Langlois, the band’s rhythm guitarist, still does small gigs with friends of his in a loosely configured band they call The Campfire Liars Club. With Greg Ball, Jim Tidman, Joe Carscallen and occasionally Jeff Montgomery, all great songwriters in their own rights, and local boys growing up in the Kingston/Gananoque area, they will play loose acoustic sets full of great stories and camaraderie. I had the great opportunity to see them at the Gananoque Playhouse this past May, the first show they’d done since Gord Downie passed, and was blessed to witness Paul playing Gord’s ballad for his daughter “Trick Rider”, leaving the entire audience on their feet, applauding and wiping their teary eyes when they were done. Paul himself, had to wipe some tears
Part Three: The Copper Penny: There’s this fuckin’ band ya gotta see...
The cartography of the Tragically Hip’s Kingston is more than their childhood haunts and big news triumphs. To get a sense of the band’s history here, you need to consider the bar scene, especially the bar scene that features live entertainment. Being a collegiate city thanks to Queen’s University, it’s requisite to have as many bars and clubs as possible in a small area to facilitate those hugely necessary pub crawls that are so intrinsic to campus life. Right from the start, the Tragically Hip became part of that scene. Rocking places like the Terrapin Tavern, Lakeview Manor and the Copper Penny, the Hip solidified a strong following of fans that kept getting bigger and bigger until it was something the local scene ‘could no longer contain’, to cop a Hip lyric. With their repertoire of deep blues/rock classics, their hotlick guitarist and insane dancing shaman of a lead singer, the Hip quickly became loved for their sweat and grit, in town raised on sweat and grit. In the eighties, the home decade of punk snot and new wave fluff, they had their fists full of soil and soul. No one else was doing that.
That night, Marg and I ate at the Copper Penny on Brock St. There’s a bootleg recording on YouTube of the Hip’s set there back in 1985, when they still had a saxophone player rather than a rhythm guitarist and they were still playing Lou Reed and Rolling Stones covers. A lot has changed at the place over the years. It’s always been a family restaurant, but today you would never suspect that a rock band would be playing there, but back then, they did. Mom, Dad, Grams and the kids would be finishing their ice cream dessert when some longhaired freaks would be setting up in the back, thrashing their guitars into tune. We were given a table in the back, right across from where the band would have played, where there was now a shelf unit with a nautical theme and some sectional booths for larger parties. It was a small place to fit a five-piece band, but then they were smalltime too, kind of in the way the universe was a tight dense singularity in the infinite days before the Big Bang.
I ordered the perogie poutine and thought it was pretty good. A nice tie-in of two ethnic groups very important to the Canadian identity, and a good mixing of two distinct tastes. I looked around to see if there was anything that might have been around in those early eighties and didn’t see much until I saw the brick wall that was left exposed behind layers of stucco in a way that the decorator must have seen as chic. I thought: the sound of Johnny’s snare drum probably slapped off of that wall. Gord S’s bass probably made it shudder and Gord D’s voice probably made it ring.
Sated and tired, we called it a day and headed back to Marg’s house, so she could work on her garden and I could catch up on my reading on the deck I’d been reading Milton Acorn’s collection “Dig Up My Heart” (only Milton could think of a title like that). Milton Acorn was a man that certainly wore his heart on his sleeve, but with a heart so bare, he was wont to get hurt easily and reply with some rough abrasions to give of his own.
He was no pushover, as a passage from ‘A Shard of Steel’ suggests:
“If through the perversity
of chance or aim, it shattered
my brain and left my body living;
from some darkness I'd eventually
struggle up; as even now I
hammer as on a door against
the mist of my stupidity.”
When the sun went down, we played a couple of high-energy games of Sequence, talked about ourselves, talked about each other, talked about our siblings, children, parents, past spouses. Hours later, we realized it was time to go to bed, so we cleaned up the table, left our dishes in the sink, and called it a night.
Part Four: Precious and Sacred: The Never-Ending Present
The next morning, I drove Marg to St. Mary’s Cathedral downtown so she could attend morning mass. This left me time to walk over to Market Square, another landmark indelibly steeped in memory of the Hip. Walking down Brock St., anyone could see that Kingston is a vibrant city, with its many people and many shops. As far as I could remember, it’s always been like this, full of commerce and interest. It can be a rarity among older cities in North America which, more often than not, display a shameful host of boarded up businesses and decaying architecture. But not Kingston. Kingston has a lot going for it, a lot of history, a lot of attractions like Wolfe Island, the penitentiary, the waterfront, Old Fort Henry, the Royal Military College, Queen’s University… interest in this old town may never fade. Coming to the end of Brock St., space seems to open up to Market Square at the corners of King, Brock and Market. It seems like all roads lead there. Being a holiday Monday, so much of the usual market fare was present, selling their food and flea market fare under the dome of Kingston City Hall.
Throwback again to Aug. 20th, 2016. The Hip was playing their last waltz at KRock and those that couldn’t get tickets (don’t get me started about that ***king scalping scandal) were convening at the Square. When the CBC announced that it would broadcast the last concert nationally, cities and towns across the country started plans to put up a screen and a speaker system in their own centers so everyone that could partake would be able to partake. Kingston, the host city, would not be outdone.
As KRock pulsed and rocked like a huge rocking heart, it was Market Square that sang and wept out into the open skies. The crowd was with Gord with every note and every movement. When Gord began to scream in real unbridled anguish through the end of Grace Too, the crowd was enraptured, held in his naked display of emotion, crying with him, their old friend and brother. A plaque was later laid out to commemorate the event in the square. It took a bit of searching to find it, but if you walk along King St., and end up directly in front of the dome of City Hall, you should see it there. “Everybody was in it, from miles around”.
Standing at the plaque, I met another Hip fan who had said he was a little bit older than the boys, but growing up in Kingston, he had watched them often as a frequent patron of the places they had played. His sister became a fan and her infection appreciation for the band affected him and he soon began to see them every chance they passed through. He was there, in the Square that night when they last played, because he hadn’t been able to get tickets. He told me what a magic night it had been, and he just returns every once in a while to get that feeling again, that feeling of being part of a larger thing though so much a part of Home.
A year and a half later after the last show, the crowd would return, October 18, 2017, when Gord passed away. Again the skies were lit up, but now with candles, and the crowd gathered and sang. What they had feared all that time had happened, and they celebrated as much as they mourned. The Kingston Whig-Standard article about the event reported that most in attendance just felt it was "just felt like the most logical place to gather", and it was, more than any place on Earth.
I walked back to St. Mary’s Cathedral to find my sister talking with her friends in the front foyer of the church. Marg has been a part of the Catholic community the entire time she has lived in Kingston and they are just as much a part of her family as her four kids, three grandkids and five siblings. When her husband passed away in 2013, it was the church that filled the void for her. She will go to mass and prayer services every day, participate in retreats whenever they are offered and her budget will allow. The majority of her friends are through church. It’s woven right into the fabric of her life. And that’s beautiful.
The cathedral is an immense and ornate structure, held tall with pillars whose cores are made directly from the actual trunks of trees. There is light everywhere, from candles, from the stained glass windows, from the shimmering gold and brass trim everywhere. When Marg asked if I would like a tour, I thought the opportunity would be great. The elderly woman who led gave us a look into the history of the construction of the church. First built in 1848, it had just undergone 7 million dollars in renovations on the north wall and replacing the roof to slate shingles. But the real adventure with the tour was when we went down into the basement. Now, as an old Catholic boy, I’ve been down in a few church basements, it’s where the parish keeps the banners and regalia for the various seasons and feast days on the Church calendar, maybe the chairs and tables for bingo night and whatever old furniture has been put out of commission. The difference is, St. Mary’s is a cathedral, the center of the hub for the whole diocese of Kingston. And in most cathedrals, there are the crypts of past bishops and notable parishioners. Here is no different.
The tour took us to the resting places of the first bishop of Kingston, Alexander MacDonnell, born in 1787 and died in 1840, 8 years before the cathedral was finished. There were other bishops and generous donors to the church interred there, and even the faithful housekeeper of one particular bishop, rewarded for her service with a tomb alongside the most blessed and devout. One particular story was about a homeless man that used to sleep in the side doorways of the church. The bishop offered him room and board in that basement if he would take charge of making sure that the church’s furnace was kept stocked with coal. So the man lived in that dark basement and did his duties to the church. The picture of his quarters looks like something out of a horror film, but it probably beat trying to sleep through the cold Kingston winters, no doubt. His body is interred in one corner of the foundation as well.
After the tour, there was still much left in the day, so back to the downtown core, we walked. Marg wanted to show me an interesting feature of the downtown; Artisan’s Alley. It’s a winding passageway between the 300 yr. old buildings, making home for a dozen little shops, restaurants and galleries, all with an almost bohemian flair, not unlike something one would find in Kensington Village in Toronto. It was nice to see this little establishment of whimsy in the heart of the old city. It’s like a little alcove of creative personality tucked away almost secretively behind the slabs of limestone and the asphalt modern jumble.
From there, we walked over to The Public House. Once housing the law offices of the man that would become Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, The Public House has been a popular pub in the city for the last seven years, after a prior life as a pizzeria. I, myself remember going there with my brother during visits to Kingston, sitting at the bar and having a pint. I loved the thought of so much history having gone on in those walls and could easily imagine Sir John A. doing his business there. Once known as “Sir John’s Public House”, the name was changed due to requests from Kingston’s indigenous community. To someone unaware of Canadian history, the REAL Canadian history, this might come as a surprise. Sir John A. is indelible in our beginnings as a country. His face is on our 10 dollar bill. He is one of the fathers of Confederation. It was his persistence that made Canada a country and we can’t be ungrateful for that. But in light of increasing awareness of the racially motivated policies Macdonald enacted while Prime Minister, there’s been mounting pressure to remove his name and image from public view.
It was his administration that started the the design of residential schools for indigenous children in Canada, to “remove the savage” by way of eradicating aboriginal languages and cultures in favour of a more ‘white English’ education. He routinely broke land treaties and seized land without negotiation. During the building of the Trans-Canada Railway, there were aboriginal communities that refused to move to reserves. When a famine struck the area, the government withheld food and aid from those communities until they moved to the reserves, effectively allowing the railway to progress and for non-aboriginal communities to be erected in place. Once the people were moved to the reserves, food rations were still suppressed. Malnutrition and disease set in, and thousands died. That was all done under Macdonald’s administration.
But we can’t just point fingers at Macdonald alone. Canada as a whole- white Canada anyway- was pervasively bigoted. There were riots over the influx of Chinese immigrants in British Columbia. Urban centers in the east decried the arrival of Irishters fleeing conditions in their homeland. Businessmen in Toronto refused to give work to freed slaves leaving persecution in the States. Perhaps then, though Sir John A. Macdonald isn’t a scapegoat for Canada’s racist past, he can certainly be a figurehead for it. We can remove his statues from our city squares, we can remove his name from our schoolfronts and public houses, but we can’t erase the past. We can’t exclude him from our history books, but we can add the truth to them. Then, we can learn from it, apologize and vow never to return to those days again.
I stayed another day with Marg. I enjoyed going to Mass with her, and spent time with my niece and her 7 year old son. When I finally left, I felt I had achieved all I had come to do. I had reunited with some things, reacquainted myself with others, and still learned much more.
Kingston has a deep history. Its limestone buildings and archways house a rich past. Its streets are alive with art and song and its people have a deep sense of faith, love and empathy. It has a deep history, even just with me. Everytime I come to Kingston, there is a sense of being in a familiar place, something like Home. So much has happened here, so much to remember, so much to cherish. It’s always been like this. There has always been something new to discover, in the 3rd oldest city in Canada. There’s never been a time when it hasn’t been vibrant and progressive. In Kingston, there is a far-reaching past, a never-ending present and a future… it goes on and on and on...