UPPER CANADA ROMANTIC

BILL HOWELL May 1 1972

UPPER CANADA ROMANTIC

BILL HOWELL May 1 1972

UPPER CANADA ROMANTIC

BILL HOWELL

Another Goin’ Down The Road smash hit, starring Anne Murray, the Maritime Mafia and a host of other swell folks

The CNR’s Ocean Limited pulls out of Halifax at eleven-thirty every morning and heads north for Upper Canada. It reaches Montreal at seventhirty the next morning. The train is not unlike the country it runs through. It's full of beautiful reasons for leaving. Some of these are strictly business, like the farmer talking to his tractor the same way he used to talk to his horse. Of the others, it's fair to guess that when the Limited winds through Amherst and rattles across the Tantramar bridge into New Brunswick, when the bar car opens, a quarter of the day-coach passengers are leaving their native province for the first time. In the day coach, passing through a region of sea and strange footfalls, a dream is the best of all reasons.

One goes to Upper Canada in a white shirt. More than half the people in the day coaches wear their best clothes, shone shoes and new gloves. They sit stiff and self-conscious for the first half-hour to keep neat, but then they forget all that and remember who they are. It helps if you know someone when you get there, but this is unlikely. Sometimes, if you’ve got the money, you can pay the extra eight dollars for an upper berth. Then you’ll avoid the bawling babies, the stale cigarette smoke and the orange peel stink of the day coach, and arrive rested.

After the first few hours the rhythm of the rails takes everyone over, and people start to share the monotony of here and there and their own time in between. Where else can you talk with a stranger for five or six hours straight, plenty of time to explain your way through the first awkward words and stances, and then leave with the probability that you'll never meet again? And even if you do you'll never be sure what went on last time anyway. Is the guy across

from you really a shoe salesman organizing his order book before he gets back to Montreal, as he says, or is he a dynamite thief or on the run from some Far Eastern spy network? People on trains make strange friends. And maybe Toronto is just á great big Halifax.

It’s hard to hear a guitar on the train. The guy down the aisle’s working syncopation with the rail rhythm. He’s a curly-haired kid with a great big Gibson. The song's in three chords (G, C, and D7) :

“I can’t help it if I have to go, there’s a world there awaiting, that I just have to know. And if all my promises turn out to he in vain, then maybe we can work them out when I come home again. But I’m bound for Upper Canada to see what I can see, say Hi to Mom and tell the boys to have a beer for me. And even though I’m ’way from home I’ll try to treat folks kind. Why, even on the subway I’ll be from the Maritimes.”

Coming out of him, with his head hunched over the strings so he can hear them, the song sounds like a lone crow standing by the road. There are three rose decals surrounding the pick guard and the strumming. When he gets to Toronto he’ll mail home a subway transfer as a souvenir. But he’ll still be alone.

Sooner or later all these guys get around to Anne Murray.

It's late February now, and Anne's $70,000 nine-room Tudor brick house is nestled into four inches of grey snow in Forest Hill, Toronto. It's the kind of neighborhood they shoot television commercials in: the Upper

Middle Class Upper Canadian Centralist Romantic Love Story Dream. At this time of year Anne's street is full of seven-year-old kids with long red scarves án huge boots carrying brown book bags home from school, who trudge up behind you, grab the

bottom of your overcoat, and ask you: “Is that really Anne Murray’s house, mister?” And when you say yes they say ohhhhhh. The place has a patio and pool she uses until late in November (no place in Nova Scotia is more than 30 miles from the sea). But she's hardly ever here. She answers the door herself.

“Hi. What key are you in today?”

It’s a good opening line, but she looks bewildered, taking the coat and the Nova Scotia tartan scarf. Boots, men's boots everywhere.

"Uh, hello, come in. Uh, gee, what do you mean?”

In the expansive living room accountant Lyman Mclnnis bends over the facts and figures, double-checking everything as only an Islander can. Meanwhile manager Leonard Rambeau, a dark-haired Labrador retriever of a man, paces back and forth in his stocking feet, a frown of concentration on his steadfastly honest Cape Breton face. None of that questionable vegetable weaselly management for Anne. We say hello, how do you do, solid handshakes back and forth.

“I meant the tone of the day.”

Anne turns, leads me along the hall, past the beer-bottle kitchen, and on downstairs to her rec room. Quiet.

“Let’s agree on D,” she says, finally.

And here we are, wall-to-wall. There’s a bearskin rug in front of the fireplace, a Guild guitar propped against the wall next to her yellow leather chair, a glass table, a huge record collection in wall cabinets; Braun equipment. Merle Haggard, Bruce Cockburn, George Hamilton IV, Gordon Lightfoot, Ronnie Hawkins albums stacked and strewn around.

She’s wearing a sweater and slacks, the same moccasins she wore for the photographer last week. The room has soft yellow-green light. “I’d sure like to be able to go on stage in jeans.”

She could be any Toronto career girl on a Saturday afternoon. Except it’s Tuesday.

“I never listen to the radio or follow the charts.”

Neither do I. .She swings her right leg over the yellow leather arm.

“Well okay then, where does the music come from?”

She gets serious-friendly, like Lloyd Robertson on the CBC National during a strike.

“In Springhill everybody was into music. For me it started with the Hit Parade and the piano at home. But I learned pretty well everything I needed to know before I left Halifax.”

Music in Halifax is what happened when the end-of-the-line underground railroad blues met a North Atlantic storm of self-protective irony. The northend black music fed on the blacker sea shanties on ships with grass, hash and heroin hidden in their fire hoses and the popular music of the world on their public address systems. It wasn’t exactly the kind of stuff the folklore lady from Dartmouth, Dr. Helen Creighton, was collecting for our National Museum up and down the South and Eastern Shores.

“I know pretty well every school gym in the Maritimes,” Anne says.

Early in the Thirties a young hick named Hank Snow arrived at CHNS with another thing altogether, ending up with RCA Victor records and Nashville. (There are 32 radio stations in the Maritime provinces, and most people down there would be a whole lot happier if every one of those 32 stations played Nashville music 24 hours a day.) Snow’s material came from the olde tyme fiddle tradition of fire-hall jamborees, mostly dirt roads and dogs and pickup trucks, $50 fourth-hand Chevies, Jimmie Rodgers, and Ward Allen. By the Fifties Don Messer and his Islanders were showing up every week from Charlottetown and things really began to shape up. He started out in 1956 on CBHT-TV, the local CBC station, and if the show had one thing at all it had integrity. Eventually Don Messer’s Jubilee was second in popularity only to Hockey Night In Canada on the national network.

In the late fall of 1960 the American folk singer Pete Seeger, an old friend in Halifax, taped the pilot for a summer replacement for the Messer show. It was called Folksong Jubilee, and was produced by a young Haligonian named Bill Langstroth, then

Messer’s producer, now Anne’s: a pioneer in Canadian television. But before the show got on the air, the CBC and the sponsor lowered the boom because of Seeger’s notoriety in Washington and his affiliations with the civil rights movement: pink if not red. They weren’t about to be brave enough to broadcast the voice of the North American subconscious yet, so the show was canned, Seeger’s career held up, and Langstroth rushed himself into the Seeger roll with another new pilot to salvage the summer and make sure everybody’s cakes were baked right. Thus, from Seeger, came the first musical rule for the city: do the best you can with what you’ve got on hand.

“Meanwhile and to this day,” says Langstroth, “the Seeger pilot is missing from CBC Program Archives.”

Singalong Jubilee introduced Langstroth, Catherine McKinnon, Jim Bennet, The Don Burke Four, Fred McKenna (“I didn’t even like country music,” says Anne, “until I met Freddie”), and the Jubilee Singers to Canada. The show came on whiter than white, sorted itself out in front of itself every week, and finally signed with Canadian-owned Arc Records for a series of albums through Bill Gilliland, a young Torontonian in Halifax: “I’ve always believed

in Maritime talent. But at the time we recorded that product there was no way that talent was going to compete at regular prices.” Shortly afterward Catherine recorded Dr. Helen Creighton’s Nova Scotia Song, started to do guest spots on Toronto television shows, sold 200,000 copies of her first album, which was produced by Brian Ahern, and the compromise between the roots and the charts began in earnest.

Anne Murray showed up for chorus work on Singalong in the summer of 1966, and nobody thought she was great. But her warm, pure, lyrical alto was a welcomed part of a great new influx of talent to the show, most of it around 21 years old then, all of it Maritime: John Allen Cameron, an Oblate disciple from Mabou, Cape Breton, who sang his music better than anyone else in that wild Scottish Irish 12-string world of his; Edith Butler, a superb Acadian folk singer from Paquetville, New Brunswick; Ken Tobias, from / continued on page 64 Saint John, who would later write Stay Awhile for the Bells; and Steve Rhymer from Yarmouth-DartmouthHalifax, who wrote No One Is To Blame for Anne (For we are only meant to be/And no one is to blame). But it was the great blind flattop picker Fred McKenna, who just sat there and grinned and seemed to know what everything was all about, who insured that the doctor’s daughter from Springhill and anyone else who heard (and still hears) him would never be the same again.

W

Just before Anne reached Halifax, CBC-TV in Toronto decided to be rash and young and put a rock-androll show on the network every weekday afternoon from five-thirty to six. It came on after Michelle Finney and Howard The Turtle on Razzle Dazzle and it was called Music Hop. The idea was to bring teen-agers into Top 40 records on successive days in Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver. Only, in Toronto they were going to have a live band. Big Brother Toronto: "There are no musicians in Halifax, so you guys make sure you stick to records." That just goes to show how much they knew.

Because by then the blues in the largest black settlement in Canada was beginning to get public, with the help of a little Nova Scotia Light and Power. Music Hop started out in Halifax in the winter of 1965-66 according to the Toronto Rule Book, but eventually producer Manny Pittson couldn’t help himself. His part of the series was called Frank’s Bandstand after host Frank Cameron, a Halifax disc jockey, but right away it starred Brian Ahern and The Off-beats, who joined Karen Oxley, PatricianAnn (McKinnon), and great black performers like Davy Wells and the Raindrops to produce the new Halifax Sound. But it was a kid named Roger Gray, a black dancer, who won the show's National Songwriting Contest top song for 1966 and finally told Toronto where to go: What can you do / That I can’t do? Doo? Great fun over that one. But Brian Ahern felt that Maritime talent deserved more than crummy 99-cent records in the drugstores of the country. Rule Number Two was his: “Make a fiveyear plan.” He left for Toronto.

“I like recording best. In the studio something happens,” says Anne in her leather chair, drawing an imaginary thought ray out from the middle of her forehead with her forefinger, “between Brian and me. But he’s the one who had the plan.”

Brian Ahern and I grew up about two blocks from each other, but we didn't know each other well, we went to different schools. When we were 11 or so he used to drive around town on a special bicycle with a transistor radio screwed into its crossbar, wearing a red scarf and a buckskin jacket with Wild Bill Hickok fringe. And once, in our early teens, I met him standing with his guitar in the middle of South Street at dusk in the fog singing Your Cheatin’ Heart. He was a weird kid, but fun.

In 1967 Brian left Halifax for Toronto with the feeling he was running to something rather than from something else. He got a job with Bill Gilliland at Arc Records and Bay studios and set about teaching himself how to produce records. His early work was as a grease artist:

“You have to be careful. Because once you get it together enough to develop your own learning process, making the best of what you have, opening up as many options as possible, and calculating the appetites of the music machine, there aren’t too many other things left to say about what you’re really doing.”

He’s changed: Serious - mysterious with hard eyes, top producer in the country, involved with Trish McKinnon, house in Rosedale, pool table in front room with bright overheads, red push-button phone, long table/desk covered with charts, papers, Braun tape recorder, huge messy room, Trish is in Halifax taping Singalong, John Allen Cameron’s in from Ottawa, staying here while they finish up his ethnic album for Columbia, Anne’s going to LA, wonder what songs Langstroth wants to use for the special, album’s going to be too late for it now anyway, worry: Where’s the joy gone?

“Taking credit for things depletes your energies,” he says.

In a quiet, monotonous, but alert voice, he will talk about formulating and manifesting his data. No one knows yet what he means by that. As a producer he’s advanced to the point where the technology defines the art: Moog synthesizers, Dolby noise-reduction systems, and 32-input boards. He says Anne’s music works on two levels: “The first shallow and middle of the road, the second in the head.” With the next three albums he plans to introduce more and more of this second level into Anne’s music, ending up with “longer cuts and suites.” At the moment he provides about three quarters of her material. Someday he wants to use the world as his studio. (“I don’t see any difference between anything. It’s all one big throbbing mass to me.”) First the Maritimes, then the world.

He called Anne in the spring of 1969 and asked her to do an album for Arc with him. She was teaching phys-ed in Summerside after finishing off her degree at the University of New Brunswick.

“Toronto was terrifying the first time out,” says Anne. “It was a whole new world. After here, LA was nothing.”

The first time out to LA, to tape Anne’s album with Glen Campbell, bassman Skipper Beckwith and the rest of the band were picked up by a private limousine at the airport and a big-bad-black-Cadillac-Star thing happened to everybody for the first time too. Cruising on down into Turnpike City everybody was starting to feel Big Time Money Friendly. People in the other lanes kept waving and gawking back to see who the excitement was all about and well didn’t it just have to be about them? Slowing down, there was a red light flashing at the intersection ahead. But one guy was so far into the star gawking he went on through the light and hit another car at about 65. A woman and her 8-year-old daughter were thrown out of the car on impact. So much for LA. After that everyone got back into what Maritime Humble is all about. But that was before Christmas. This time the band isn’t going to LA.

“Now Toronto’s my escape from there, the same way the Maritimes used to be from here,” Anne says. “I’m beginning to like it here, though, in spite of myself. But I hardly ever get out, except to see friends.”

She grins, almost shyly, looks me square in the eye, and shifts in the chair from one slouch to another, crossing her legs at the knee.

“People aren’t the least bit afraid to walk up and introduce themselves to me, especially kids. I like kids. That's why I’m working for the Retarded Children’s Association. But I don’t like being used by journalists. You know, as some kind of national symbol. I’m an entertainer. I just want to share some joy with other people. That's all.”

But it can't be helped, it’s already happened. This week in late February her album with Glen Campbell is number five on the country and western charts of North America. In the States they call her Annie, true to the Johnny Canuck In America tradition. Perhaps it’s because down there the values she represents are obsolescent if not obsolete, but thanks to the mass acceptance of the musically simple but technically excellent Snowbird, she's in an artistic penalty box. In Canada everybody buys her; she’s taken over as All-Canadian Girl from Nancy Greene; they’ve made a movie, Face-Off, based on what seems to be a running joke pairing of Anne and Bobby Orr; instead of winning an audience with mystery, sophistication and distance, Anne has done it with friendliness, frankness and naturalness.

She’s toured coast to coast and for the past two years she’s won RPM magazine’s Juno award as Canada’s top female vocalist. She’s the biggest artist on Capitol Records (Canada), and, since she’s left Arc and joined with Capitol, Capitol is one of the largest major record companies in the country. And who knows? Maybe she is Miss Supernormal, the girl next door. Publicly, at least, she comes off as the young woman who, if she doesn't know where she’s going, does know who she is and where she’s from. And everybody knows that it takes time.

“I don’t feel I’ve deserted my roots at all. It’s more that I’m maturing as a performer. We’ve brought our roots with us, inside ourselves.”

There’s an incredible amount of emotional energy present when eight guys stand around a control room during a final mix, watching each other to make sure no one blows it. You have to be close. The “we” begins with Balmur Investments Ltd., a corporation formed among Anne, manager Rambeau, and television producer Langstroth. Balmur takes care of personal appearances, promotion, and all of Anne’s business arrangements, including records and television specials. The creative side of the operation is Happy Sack Productions, a company formed by producer-arranger Ahern and bandleader-arranger Skip Beckwith. Good friends of everybody in the Murray operation are CBC producer Athan Katsos, an exHaligonian, and Capitol Records through executive producer Paul White. Balmur-Happy-Sack also manage and produce old friend John Allen Cameron, who has just finished Get There By Dawn, the first of a series of albums for Columbia that could break anywhere from CHUM-FM to WWVA-AM. This is the first time anyone has recorded the man’s music seriously. But that’s where the common interest between these two companies stops. Because the TV special and Anne’s new album both have to be done by April 28.

Everybody in the outfit has a private bailout plan home to Halifax except Bill Langstroth, but it’s doubtful anyone will be beside the sea for a while yet. Toronto is everybody's compromise. Langstroth. who wears sharp red clothes as the old man of the group, wants to pursue LA, the Campbell show, Capitol (U.S.), and Balmur’s hired representative there. Meanwhile Ahern’s got Tessa Music going, which features the work of young Canadian songwriters such as Gene MacLellan, Steve Rhymer, Vancouverite Brent Titcomb and Haligonian Robbie MacNeill and Eastern Sound, Toronto, best in Canada, does more than half of its business with Happy Sack. Eastern provides engineer Chris Skene, and engineers Miles Wilkinson and Ian Goggin work directly for Happy Sack.

Anne’s last album came to $30.000 in production costs alone, and she’s contracted to do two a year. But if you're going to get the best around, you're going to have to pay for it. They hang out at George's Spaghetti House and The Castle George in Toronto. With Skipper's bass, Brian and Miles on guitar, Andy Cree on drums, Bill Speer's keyboards and the best of the rest around, including Bonnie Backlash and The All Walks of Life Chorus (any Maritimers who happen into the studio at a given necessary instant), the up home crowd picks up where the good old boys leave off.

“If somebody opens a door for you,” says Skipper, “you’re crazy not to use the space behind it.”

He’s the only one of the inner circle who has paid his dues in full. (No kidding, he used to be a Y-camp counselor.) He’s pure blue joy, a supermusician who has the kind of talent that gets people working together happily and well. But Anne’s only been in the business full-time, flat-out for two years, her management and production team eight at most. ( Most good teams — James Taylor-Carole King, Elton John — have been at it for 10 or 12.) Unlike most international show business associations, Balmur - Happy Sack - Tessa - Eastern Sound is having to pay its dues in public. It’s the old familiar Canadian phenomenon of too much too fast. And right now Anne Murray is at the most crucial point of her singing career. She’s sold more than a million copies of five albums since Snowbird, largely on the strength of it. It's time for something new.

“What if I'd been the one who’d written Snowbird, instead of Gene? But I didn't and I haven’t and I’m part of a big group.” She gets wistful. “Some people call us the Maritime Mafia, but I think we need a new name.”

Certainly the most costly management decision in Anne’s career so far has been on the part of Capitol Records. Put Your Hand In The Hand, another Gene MacLellan song, would have made it on the Top 40 if Capitol had done what everyone here wanted and released it as a single. But they left it on the album, and sly old Bill Gilliland at Arc rushed through a “throwaway” single with the rock group, Ocean, using the same arrangement as Anne’s album version but with a steadier rhythm track. Ocean's version sold three million, and there was a major headhunting expedition in Capitol (U.S.) over that. (Gilliland: “Our company has grown from a $10,000 investment eight years ago, in the idea that we could record Canadian artists and sell them on an international market. Now we're two million dollars a year.”)

You can be sure no one's going to hear Anne’s new material this spring until the single is ready to back it up. The Canadian recording industry is too sharp for that. But the new song hasn't happened yet, and every television special creates its own problems. It’s going to be a tough test.

“Anne.”

It’s Leonard at the top of the stairs with his watch. We’ve been at it for three hours. Anne sits stiff in her chair, thinking. We’ve been talking around it all afternoon, and now she’s ready to let it out. She looks away, at the door, concentrating, deciding. Then back to me, waiting for it.

“You know, it’s all right.” She breaks into a grin. “We’re all staying here in Canada.”

Sure, Anne, you’re in great physical shape but you need new sails. And how can anyone promise something like that? She moves toward the door slowly, lost somewhere inside herself. I’m left with more questions and am thinking: The cultured tension between our regions holds the country together? How can we communicate these regional cultures on their own terms? What’ll happen to the Atlantic provinces if Quebec separates? Who’ll preserve our indigenous culture? Our generation, Anne’s and mine. The group of people born five years on either side of 1946, the postwar babies, the people who turned 21 in Centennial Year at Expo, people who can remember that television hasn’t always been here, the generation that has been given everything except time, people who have seen time speed up so fast that another new generation occurs quarterly as the hit parade charts change, the generation that has effectively eliminated the historical usefulness of categorizing people in generations, anyone whose voice is shaped by the land the way a leaf is shaped like a particular wind, we who are providing the transition between analytic and synthetic thought: The Last Generation.

At the top of the stairs, Anne’s got an awful lot on her mind, she’s been working hard without a break for a long time now, she’s had to break some verbal teacup commitments, she can’t go skating on the rink up the street often enough, there’s a strike at the CBC, Langstroth’s slow with the Canadian content in the script for the new special; Athan’s hounding him, you can’t ask a man to write something he doesn’t believe in, Skipper’s dad is sick in Halifax so he and Bonnie are down there, Robbie MacNeill has a new song, we have to go to LA on Sunday . . .

At the door with Leonard and Lyman Mclnnis, she turns to me again. We don’t have to play Johnny Canuck anymore.

“Don’t forget that Snowbird sold a million copies before I left home.” ■