Murray McLauchlan was eight dates into his current national tour, playing to a near-capacity house in Ottawa’s gloriously spiffy National Arts Centre. Introducing his song What Would Bogey Do?, McLauchlan told a story about another man suffering a Casablanca fetish, Woody Allen. While their divorce proceeding was the talk of New York, Allen’s estranged wife Louise Lasser was raped in Central Park. Reporters got wind of it and rushed to Allen, to find out what he thought of her being violated. “Know-
ing her,” he said, “it probably wasn’t a moving violation.”
Backstage, McLauchlan came out of the dressing room smiling wryly and waving a note: “I’ve got a live one. ‘This is to let you know that at least two of us were sickened and disgusted by your little joke. Rape is far too serious an offence to be joked about.’ ” Tossing it aside, he objected halfheartedly, “The point of the joke was what an ass Woody was.”
It’s hardly the first time McLauchlan has been misunderstood. In 1971, he
called his first album Song From the Street—and found himself heralded as a low-life poet laureate. Once established as a major folk artist, fans wondered whether he had sold out or flipped out when he decided to try rock ’n’ roll. After his move to a modest home in Toronto’s east end a year ago, rumormongers insisted that he had fled the street for the discreet charms of the sandblasted bourgeoisie. “The things that have been said about my work— the identification with street people and life at the bottom—that’s a box that’s arisen out of somewhere,” McLauchlan explains with a patient shrug. “I was never that much a part of it. I lived with some bikers but that’s about it.”
Not quite: McLauchlan’s bio contains all the scenes crucial to mythologizing—parental estrangement, transcontinental traipsing, exhilarating first moments of poverty. It’s no surprise that he has assumed the mantle for a generation. Yet his appeal goes far beyond these confines. The Junos he has accumulated tell part of the storythree in country categories, two for folk-singer and one for composer of the year. “The only genre I fit into,” says McLauchlan, “is that of songwriter. I’m one of a group, working in a new style that draws from folk, country, rock, whatever. John Prine, Danny O’Keefe, Tom Waits, Steve Goodman, Louden Wainwright, Jackson Browne, Randy Newman—I don’t know what you’d call it.”
Unique will do. McLauchlan’s songs have insinuated themselves into amazingly diverse lives. The crowd in Ottawa was typical—gracefully greying mandarins, stranded hippies, eastern cowboys, matrons in fur, students, data processors and local genius Bruce Cockburn. About a third spoke French. The first few notes of each song would elicit applause—from different groups. “I try to project myself into other people’s situations,” he says. “I pay close attention to the way people behave, what they surround themselves with, how they move. I just put myself in their place. One Who's in the Past, for example, is a song I wrote for my mother about the death of my father. I was writing a musical called The Wid-
ow's Waltz while I was in L.A. and it’s one of several songs I wrote in that context. It tries to deal with mourning.”
If McLauchlan’s steps into hard rock were misread, so was his stepping out. Eighteen months ago, midway into a national tour with his longtime backup band, the Silver Tractors, McLauchlan pulled the plug. He cancelled the remainder of the tour, packed some belongings and his wife Marguerite de Sackville-Hunt into a car and set out for points unknown. “The band and I wanted to go in different directions. We were into high, thin sounds, anger and violence. I figured I’d gone as far in that direction as I wanted to go,” he says, running a large hand through his hair. “One-nighters are incredibly fatiguing—hours and hours of boredom broken only by moments of sheer terror, which are the gigs themselves. You never meet anybody, you just get interviewed. You drink, because you’re always nervous. Nothing whatever happens to loosen you up. I had to take some time away, to have some experiences other than the road. I don’t want to write about the road—I’ll leave that to Jackson Browne.” McLauchlan disappeared from the music scene—he surfaced to play only three times last year. “Maybe it was early menopause, I don’t know,” he grins. “All in the same brief time span I blew out of the rock and roll business, went on an extended sabbatical, turned 30 and bought a house. It was a year of violent change for me.”
Now he is back with a vengeance. His new album, Whispering Rain, is something special. From its delightfully ambiguous reflections-and-rain jacket (by sculptor Michael Hayden) to what’s inside, the record is not one step forward but several. The arrangements are more considered and melodic than ever; as McLauchlan’s first shot at producing it may be a lucky accident but no less brilliant for that. Record buyers apparently concur: after only 10 weeks Whispering Rain turned gold, and with airplay just beginning, seems a good bet for platinum status.
Midway into his three-month crosscountry tour, McLauchlan has never been more thoroughly in command. In Ottawa he delivered two of the finest performances of his life, back to back. A week later on home turf in Toronto’s Massey Hall, he rose above a subversively inclined sound system to deliver the goods again. At the peak of his form, McLauchlan is soaring—quite literally.
Accompanied by his skilled bassist Dennis Pendrith and a skeletal road crew, McLauchlan flies to each city on the tour at the wheel of a leased Piper Aztec. “Learning to fly was a confidence builder for me,” he explains. “I wasn’t sure I could still learn something completely new.” He reflects for a moment,
smiles and adds, “There is also a certain amount of the mentality, ‘If you’re scared to fly you’re scared to die, and if you’re scared to die you’re scared to live.’ ”
Already established on the New England circuit at clubs like New York’s Bottom Line, McLauchlan is poised for wider horizons. He and manager Bernie Finkelstein are currently eyeing several deals for American distribution of Whispering Rain. Clearly excited about the possibilities, he sinks back in his chair to ruminate: “In a general political or artistic sense, I think it’s impor-
tant for people like me to go out and work internationally, to compete for an audience on that scale. Maybe to prove we’re as good as they are. But there’s also a specialization occurring in Canadian music—and it is being recognized internationally, the same way the Czechoslovakians became known for making incredible films. The more of us that go out, work and come back, the better. It’s not for nothing that the Beatles won the O.B.E.” He sits up again, restless, scanning the room, “Fresh territory is such a challenge.”
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