Books

Two singers' stories

A pair of Canadian stars open up their lives

NICHOLAS JENNINGS January 18 1999
Books

Two singers' stories

A pair of Canadian stars open up their lives

NICHOLAS JENNINGS January 18 1999

Two singers' stories

Books

A pair of Canadian stars open up their lives

On the surface, singers Rita MacNeil and Murray McLauchlan have a lot in common. Both are in their 50s and began their careers in Toronto’s Yorkville district. Their simple, direct but emotionally powerful songs won them Juno Awards and memberships in the Order of Canada. Now, the two have written autobiographies. While both books seem refreshingly honest, their contents are as different

as the musicians’ styles: if McLauchlan’s has the rowdy energy of a beer parlour, MacNeil’s has the quiet charm of a tearoom—not unlike the one she runs back in Big Pond on Cape Breton Island.

McLauchlan’s Getting Out of Here Alive (Penguin, $32) opens in his birthplace of Paisley, Scotland, to which he recently returned with a documentary crew to film a TV special about his life. Revisiting his family home triggered some vivid memories, including his arrival in Canada in 1953 as a five-year-old with a thick accent and a tartan kilt. But his early life in Toronto was uneventful until the night in 1963 he first heard Bob Dylan on the radio: “I snapped awake and was never the same again.”

McLauchlan began hanging out in fabled Yorkville, eventually making his debut there

in a small club. But he lacked some essentials. “How the heck was I supposed to sing or write about living hard and riding freights, about the humble heroics of the migrant worker, or most important, about turning your collar up to the wind and leaving your girlfriend if I’d never done anything tougher than walk down the street to a coffeehouse?” he reflects in the book. A hitchhiking trip across Canada changed all that.

His departure also sparked his first successful composition, Child’s Song.

To his credit, McLauchlan never slips into a self-congratulatory recounting of his musical history. Instead, he details how his career suddenly crashed and burned in 1977 with one major, money-losing tour. Still, he bounced back. After several disastrous albums, including Into a Mystery, an overblown, cocaine-fuelled production by Bob Ezrin (Pink Floyd), McLauchlan came up with one of his best: the stirring, heartfelt Timberline. Although both his marriage and an extramarital affair were finished, he landed back on his feet by taking to the air: earning his pilot’s licence, he began flying, a pursuit that quickly became a passion.

Flying provides some dramatic stories.

The budding pilot had several near-fatal flights, including one during his 1979 Whispering Rain tour in which he ran short of fuel outside Halifax. And McLauchlan writes wittily about groupies, his crush on Joni Mitchell and how he shared the drug misadventures of politician Richard Hatfield, record executive David Geffen and singers Don Everly and Tim Hardin.

What elevates Getting Out of Here Alive above other celebrity autobiographies is McLauchlan’s candour and insight—especially regarding his divorce and fatherhood. Now married to MuchMusic executive Denise Donlon, with whom he has a six-yearold son, Duncan (he also has a daughter from his first marriage), McLauchlan emerges as a man who has learned not to take life for granted—which is a good thing considering how he was unceremoniously dumped recently as host of the cable-TV talk show Grumps after only four months on the job. “Life is unpredictable, random, messy and dangerous,” he concludes. ‘You can either shrink away from that because you’re afraid to be hurt, or you embrace it because the rewards that it offers are so rich.”

Rita MacNeil has also prevailed. But the Cape Breton singer has faced quite different demons in her life. On a Personal Note (Key Porter, $26.95) tells how MacNeil struggled with sexual abuse, cleft-palate surgery and weight problems to find her place in the image-conscious music industry. Written with Nova Scotia novelist Anne Simpson, the book lacks the intensity of McLauchlan’s story. Yet it still manages to convey MacNeil’s true Maritime grit.

The fifth of eight children, MacNeil writes that she suffered teasing at school and abuse at the hands of an uncle. Despite her shyness, she discovered a love of singing. “I sang first because I was compelled to,” she writes, “as if it were a freeing of my spirit.” After moving to Toronto and having two children, she joined the women’s movement by attending meetings and performing benefits for feminist causes. In 1972, she wrote one of her first successful songs, Born a Woman, to protest a Toronto beauty pageant. Yet she continued to battle depression and a dependency on pills and alcohol.

But MacNeil writes that she is “a tenacious soul.” Proof can be found in her description of an interview with the CBC’s Eric Mailing, during which she showed photographs of herself when she was young. “So, you were a dish then,” Mailing remarked. “I’m still a dish,” MacNeil shot back. When Mailing asked about her weight gain, MacNeil asked him about his bald head. Like McLauchlan, MacNeil is a survivor, one who doesn’t pull her punches. And both books are enlivened by the authors’ indomitable spirit.

NICHOLAS JENNINGS