Before we begin, I want you to remember one simple phrase…
It’s not how hard you fall, it’s how high you bounce after you hit the bottom.
It was Labour Day, 2004.
I had just graduated and was falling into the melancholy of the first September after high-school. The sky was cloudy and the air was cool as I drove home from a fishing trip.
My mind was cloudy too, as I focused on three things waiting for me in my bedroom: an army green backpack stuffed with clothes and Kerouac books, an old black guitar case, and a bus ticket to Montreal.
The next morning I was going to step onto a Greyhound and travel 4000 miles across the country to a city where I didn’t know a soul.
I had no plan, no arrangements, no friends out there: nothing but a poorly thought-out dream of heading East and becoming a famous folk-singer just like Bob Dylan did in 1962.
I sat in the dark in my room that night scared and disheartened, talking myself in and out of taking that bus ride. When the first rays of morning finally lit up the blinds I took a deep breath and I tore up the ticket.
Who was I kidding? I had never even written a song.
A SECOND CHANCE
A couple years later I found myself in a different car on a different Labour Day with that same sad feeling in my heart. As the car wound through the mountains, Tom Petty sang through the speakers:
This old town is a sad affair
You’ll be glad, you’re not there
It ties your hands, it spikes your drink
I’d say more
But I can’t think
I had been working, playing in bands, getting drunk: all those things people do. Hell, I’d even written a few songs. I still remember a verse from one of them:
In the corner the jukebox looked more like the icebox
Frozen in time falling soft on deaf ears
I sighed as I was thinking about the way I was living
And I wished I was somewhere other than here
I called that “Somewhere Other Than Here.” I guess my subconscious believed I should have gone to Montreal after all. Well, something about that mournful Petty dirge in the car that day pushed me to action.
When I got home, I called my friend and we booked a flight to Montreal. I’m not sure why I decided to go East—Vancouver was only an hour away—but somehow I’d decided that Montreal was Canada’s musical mecca and I had to get there.
Besides, this trip was going to be different; I was older now: wiser, smarter, and even though I didn’t have many originals written yet, I could play almost any Dylan song. I’d always have something to sing at the gigs I was going to get.
Plus, I’d probably be so inspired that I’d have a thousand songs written after the first week!
THE PROMISED LAND
We landed on a dark November night. It was cold. It was snowing. As we hailed a cab at the airport, I questioned our decision to travel across Canada in the winter. Nevertheless, optimism kept me warm as we made our way to a hostel in Old Montreal.
We put our bags on our beds and set out to find the nearest live music venue, have a few drinks and start making connections!
We soon grew tired of trudging through snow and ducked into a pub. A drink or two to warm up, we agreed, then ask the waitress where to find an open mic and continue on.
I came to my senses under a streetlight. I was facing an immense gothic cathedral and listening to a peculiar sound. As the beer haze subsided I stumbled onto the sidewalk, realizing the sound was my friend pounding on the huge wooden doors of the cathedral in the middle of the night, drunk, screaming for “respite.”
As the door opened from inside we ran off into the night. This was a poor start to our “business” trip.
In spite of the incident I awoke the next morning only slightly hung over and doubly determined to play some music. I knew this was going to take some work going into it, and besides, it was only the first night…
Unfortunately, Montreal was not my promised land.
After one disappointing week, I had played only two songs at one open mic, seen one “concert”—an impromptu sidewalk jam involving a criminally-insane xylophonist—and performed When The Ship Comes In in a drunken midnight duet with a homeless man named Wolf. The duet ended with the theft, absconding, and guzzling of Wolf’s half-drank 40 of Olde English Malt Liquor by yours truly.
I hadn’t been alive in 1962, but surely this wasn’t anything like Bob Dylan’s experience in New York. My heart, mind, and liver told me I had to get out of this town fast!
The dream wasn’t dead: it just had to be relocated.
We decided to push further East, to the Atlantic. Halifax, our port of call, was waiting! We could regroup there, just up the seaboard from the Statue of Liberty in New York! If I took Halifax by storm maybe I could head south to Greenwich village—maybe even play the same clubs Bobby played so long ago!
We took an overnight train called “The Ocean.” As we travelled over the snowy wastes of Quebec I tried counting all the big wooden crosses, lit-up with Christmas lights, that dotted the landscape. Perhaps my musical salvation was really waiting for me at the end of this track, I thought…
As it turned out, I was right and wrong.
A NEW HOPE
Cold and rain met us as we stepped off the train. Advertised as a “chance to rest overnight,” the 22-hour train ride resonates as one of the great discomforts of my life. But this was a new city and a second chance and I remained hopeful.
We found a hostel that smelled like a fish market. The front-desk clerk warned us about random violent assaults that had been happening at night, charged us a ten-dollar deposit for the room key and disappeared. I got stuck with top bunk and we settled in, trying not to wake the ex-convict napping across the room.
That night I played at a bar called “Pogue Mahone” which is Gaelic for “kiss my arse.” The place was empty and a sinister blonde man named “Bear” performed after me. He played electric guitar, screaming and grunting incoherent lyrics. The only word I could translate was “darkness” and every song was in A minor.
The next night we found a place called “The Roost.” I prepared a version of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” and planned to sneak in an original.
That night, the dream finally died.
When we Walked in I saw a middle-aged man with stringy hair and a trench-coat on stage. The chords he strummed seemed familiar and although his squawking was difficult to interpret, I realized he was singing You’re No Good: the first song from Bob Dylan’s first album.
How could this be? I thought. Who was this man and how did he know this obscure song? Why… I was the only person who knew that song! I could play it perfectly!
A coincidence perhaps, I told myself. He must have learned it by accident. Nobody was doing this Bob Dylan thing anymore. I was the only one! Wasn’t I?
But then this man did the unthinkable…He played Idiot Wind. All of it.
A plodding emotional masturbation that lasted over 15 minutes.
To the average person, one man performing one fifteen-minute song at an open mic is an obscene gesture.
To a Dylan fan, someone having the audacity to cover that epic, with its sneering rage, and its personal reflections on Dylan’s dissolving relationship with his fame, with his wife—at an open mic, no less—is blasphemy.
How how could I get up on stage and pretend I was Bob Dylan after this burnout had made a mockery of everything I was trying to be?
THE BITTER TASTE OF DEFEAT
If you like to drink and party and you lack restraint, stay away from Halifax. The college-kids, cheap pints of Keith’s, and maritime music will wreak havoc on your well-being.
After that ill-fated night, I put my guitar away and drowned in the bottomless party pit of Halifax. Greenwich village and Bob Dylan became wisps of smoke in my red and faded eyes.
I woke every morning dehydrated and depressed, screams of “Sociable!” throbbing in my ears, fragments of drunken conversations stabbing into my head. The hostel clerks would shake us out of bed and make us check in for another night. I had abandoned all hope. By day I wandered on the empty pier in the rain humming Stan Rogers’ Barrett’s Privateers, waiting for night to return with its darkness and excuses.
God damn them all, I was told
We’d cruise the seas for American gold
We’d fire no guns, shed no tears
I’m a broken man on the Halifax Pier
The last of Barrett’s Privateers
What the hell was I doing? I hadn’t come here to party. I’d come here for something bigger, something better. I had music to make, didn’t I? Unfortunately, I had used up all my second chances.
The end came after one especially riotous night out.
My friend and I had become estranged. I had witnessed him screaming as a group of bouncers dragged him outside by his ankles and then heard of him no more. The next morning he woke me up as he came stomping into the room. He was beaten and bloody and the laces had been cut off of his boots. He told me to go to hell and I said that I was already there.
The clerk came upstairs to tell us that we owed money for another night. I had emptied my wallet again that night before so I told her I would have to go to the bank first.
The ATM gave me some bad news: I was broke. I could barely afford to pay the hostel for that day and I realized I was going to have to beg money from my parents just to get home. A pathetic end to a journey that was supposed to launch my dream, not see me limping back home from a nightmare.
Disappointed and dejected with my hangover beginning to set in I sat down on a bench and put my head in my hands.
And then it happened…
I heard a woman’s voice say, “Excuse Me…”
A tiny glimmer of hope fluttered in my stomach, Here’s what I’ve been waiting for, I thought, Some divine messenger sent to get me back on track! I looked up at an elegant woman with red hair and kind eyes.
She smiled at me and asked, “Are you hungry? Do you need something to eat?”
I had travelled 4000 miles to become famous and after a few short weeks I had been mistaken for a homeless person.
I took my time walking back. I stopped at a travel agent and used my parent’s credit-card number to book our flight home for that very night.
Back at the hostel I told the clerk we wouldn’t be staying and we gave her our keys. She kept our deposit money because checkout was at eleven and we hadn’t checked out until eleven-fifteen.
I didn’t care.
LEARNING LIFE’S LESSONS
Although I didn’t write a single song on that trip, I learned that the only person I could write songs like is me.
Now I write, I perform, I travel. I live in cramped vehicles, far from the people I care about; I’ve poured out my heart on a thousand barroom floors; I’ve battled temptations, hangovers, poverty; failure. And I love it all.
The creative spark has to burn you. It’s ugly, difficult, and painful. But you have to let it disfigure you. It will be worth it in the end.
Oh, and I almost forgot! I haven’t told you how the story ends yet.
I had arranged for my little sister to pick us up from the airport in Vancouver. When we landed, my friend, limping and without shoelaces, decided he would wait on the plane until everyone had cleared off. I was pretty beat up myself, but I left him there and headed off with the crowd to the arrivals area.
When I saw my sister, she gave me a hug, and do you know what she said to me?
“You look Cool.”