Tag Archives: small town life

Andy Michaelson Plays Leonard Cohen

songsofleonardcohenIt must have been early in 1968, because Songs of Leonard Cohen was released in December of 1967. I was 15, hunkered down in front of the Philips High Fidelity, listening to the 4 to 6 PM rock ‘n roll program being broadcast by CKYL, the radio station in Peace River, an hour’s drive north of Grande Prairie. CFGP, Grande Prairie’s only station, didn’t play any rock ‘n roll, and so this was my sole daytime opportunity to listen to the music that mattered to me about as much as anything could possibly matter back then.

(As an even younger boy I had lain under the hi fi, my head looking up into the hollow interior of the cabinet, listening to Auntie’s Barbara’s Children’s Hour, if memory serves. I had to hold my head sideways to slide it in to where I could then turn and look upward. I’m not sure why I enjoyed this practice, but I know I’m not the only one who did as, years later, I was delighted to see as much in the background action of a movie directed by Anne Wheeler.)

The DJ for the show was Andy Michaelson, a cantankerous fellow who freely admitted that, “Andy Michaelson shoots his mouth off!” Weeks earlier I had heard Andy confess to probably aggravating listeners with the assertion that, “Herb Alpert is not a great trumpet player! He is a great arranger!” I had no idea why this might be a contentious claim, but it seemed it was, and that was interesting to me.

At any rate, this day Andy intro’ed a song by stating, in his usual obstreperous fashion, that, “This is hip music!” And then he played So Long Marianne

The horizons of this small town boy’s world proceeded to expand exponentially. I had never heard anything like this. The reedy voice, the ethereal female background voices, and mostly of course, the lyrics. The odd, contrapuntal, redolent lyrics.

Months later, I was to be seen clambering up into the attic of my parents’ home, crawling, hands and knees, across the rafters, dragging a wire that would serve as an aerial for the hi fi, by then relocated to the basement, where I now had the ‘rec room’ as my bedroom. Each night I would carefully twirl the dial in a ongoing effort to tune in fleeting radio signals from afar, always in search of an experience equivalent to first hearing Leonard Cohen. The signals came and went, fading in and out through static like the beckoning northern lights, only from the opposite direction, south, from places like California.

I’d leave the radio on as I got into bed, a cord held in hand and strung over to my bed, so as to pull the plug from there as I finally fell asleep.

Radio ruled music in those days, in a way that it never will again. And within music, rock ‘n roll ruled in a way that I don’t think it ever will again either. 1968 was the year The Beatles released ‘The White Album.’ The Stones released Beggar’s Banquet, for my money the best record they ever did. Led Zeppelin first played together in 1968, billing themselves as ‘The New Yardbirds.’

In David Chase’s (creator of The Sopranos) much under-appreciated semi-autobiographical movie about coming of age as a member of a rock ‘n roll band, Not Fade Away, the protagonist’s younger sister begins and ends the movie by quoting from an essay she’s writing for school. In the final scene, Chase adroitly pulls off a meta moment as she directly addresses the camera and says, “America has given the world two inventions of enormous power. One is nuclear weapons. The other is rock ’n’ roll. Which one is going to win out in the end?”

Then she turns and dances away into the distance, as now are all we boomers who came of age in step with rock ‘n roll. And for at least this listener, the question asked by the younger sister is a no-brainer, because rock ‘n roll changed the world in a good way.

A google search reveals that, as of 2012, Andy Michaelson was living in St. Albert, Alberta, describing himself as a “writer and poet,” contributing a column to the St Albert Gazette and writing a blog.

So here’s to you Andy. You altered my course, undoubtedly for the better.

And so long Leonard. We won’t see your like again.

Where We Live

“Chicago, on the other hand, was not built for people to come together but for them to be safely apart. Size, power, and the need for privacy seemed to be the dominant dimensions of its architecture. Vast as it is, Chicago ignored the distinctions between freedom and isolation, between independence and selfishness, between privacy and loneliness.”

             Aleksandar Hemon, from The Book Of My Lives

 

Aleksandar Hemon grew up in Sarajevo, where he knew his neighbours and they knew him, where anonymity was “well-nigh impossible.” He was stranded in Chicago when the Bosnian war broke out in 1992, so settled there, learning English and before long becoming an accomplished writer. He eventually grew to appreciate Chicago, even writing an article entitled 20 Reasons Why I Do Not Wish To Leave Chicago in 2000, but, as indicated by the passage quoted above, it was not an easy adjustment.

He walked about the city endlessly, trying to know its neighbourhoods, seeking out a connection like the one he knew with Sarajevo, with the residents and the built environment that would help tell him who he was.

Growing up in a small town, as an angst-ridden teenager I couldn’t wait to escape to the anonymity of a big city. I regularly walked about town as well, and I clearly recall finding insufferable the knowledge that, as I walked about, I was constantly being observed by people I knew, either from their passing vehicles, or out the windows of their homes and businesses.

Home version 1 domo k photo
Home version 1
domo k photo

As with nearly all the immaterial conditions of our lives, when it comes to the distinctions Hemon mentions, between “freedom and isolation,” between “privacy and loneliness,” we seek a balance not easily achieved. In Vancouver, the neighbourhood my wife and I live in—that is the zone where we actively know and interact with certain people—is immediate, within a few blocks of where we reside. Beyond that small zone, anonymity is not hard to attain.

On Galiano, our home is secluded, at the end of a long wooded lane; we can sometimes hear but never see our neighbours. Privacy is guaranteed, though, as we move about on the island, we are rarely anonymous. But the balance is off; especially during the long, dark winter months the isolation is too much, requiring an effort to get out and interact, or travel to the city.

Home version 2 p. sebastien photo
Home version 2
p. sebastien photo

One unavoidable factor in this consideration is that we are all the malleable product of our immediate social and physical environment. Sometimes sooner, sometimes later, but inevitably you will become a different person as you stay in different places. As much as anything, the ‘climate of opinion’ that you are living within will seep through your pores, into your bones, eventually causing you to think, feel and behave differently, if only it is to sometimes remain silent. And this is never more so than it is with children.

Thus it behooves us to think carefully about, and hopefully choose just as carefully where we will live. Especially so if you have, or plan to have children. They will be different beings, depending on where you choose to raise them.

There is a time in your life when it is easier to resettle, and it is earlier in your life, not later. We all know of people who have tried to make this transition at the age of retirement, and how problematic that has been. When you are young, eager to engage socially and professionally, recreationally and vocationally, it happens naturally, as a consequence of that needed engagement.

I like to think that my wife and I have achieved some kind of balance, living both downtown and at the end of a long wooded island lane, but life never stops throwing changes at us, and so it requires constant adjustment. The scales tip easily, and so we have to constantly seek a new balance, a new sense of community. Walking about helps it seems, and that happens for us more often in the city. On Galiano we are more often out of doors, more active in ways other than walking, and that too helps.

Choosing where to live is not so much about choosing the city or the country or both. It’s about choosing who you want to be, or become.

Facetime

Last month the city of Nelson, BC, said no to drive-thrus. There’s only one in the town anyway, but city councilors voted to prevent any more appearing. Councillor Deb Kozak described it as “a very Nelson” thing to do.

Nelson may be slightly off the mean when it comes to small towns—many a draft dodger settled there back in the Vietnam War era, and pot-growing allowed Nelson to better weather the downturn of the forest industry that occurred back in the 80s—but at the same time, dumping on drive-thrus is something that could only happen in a smaller urban centre.

The move is in support of controlling carbon pollution of course; no more idling cars lined up down the block (Hello, Fort McMurray?!), but what I like about it is that the new by-law obliges people to get out of their cars, to enjoy a little facetime with another human being, instead of leaning out their car window, shouting into a tinny speaker mounted in a plastic sign.

For all the degree of change being generated by the digital revolution, and for all the noise I’ve made about that change in this blog, there are two revolutions of recent decades that have probably had greater effect: the revolution in settlement patterns that we call urbanization, and the revolution in economic scale that we call globalization. Both are probably more evident in smaller cities and towns than anywhere else.

Grain elevators, Milestone, Saskatchewan, about 1928
Grain elevators, Milestone, Saskatchewan,
about 1928

Both of my parents grew up in truly small prairie towns; my mother in Gilbert Plains, Manitoba, present population about 750; my father in Sedgewick, Alberta, present population about 850. Sedgewick’s population has dropped some 4% in recent years, despite a concurrent overall growth rate in Alberta of some 20%. Both these towns were among the hundreds arranged across the Canadian prairies, marked off by rust-coloured grain elevators rising above the horizon, set roughly every seven miles along the rail lines. This distance because half that far was gauged doable by horse and wagon for all the surrounding farmers.

I grew up in Grande Prairie, Alberta, a town which officially became a city while I still lived there. The three blocks of Main Street that I knew were anchored at one end by the Co-op Store, where all the farmers shopped, and at the other by the pool hall, where all the young assholes like me hung out. In between were Lilge Hardware, operated by the Lilge brothers, Wilf and Clem, Joe’s Corner Coffee Shop, and Ludbrooks, which offered “variety” as “the spice of life,” and where we as kids would shop for board games, after saving our allowance money for months at a time.

Grande Prairie is virtually unrecognizable to me now, that is it looks much like every other small and large city across the continent: the same ‘big box’ stores surround it as surround Prince George, and Regina and Billings, Montana, I’m willing to bet. Instead of Lilge Hardware, Joe’s Corner Coffee Shop and Ludbrooks we have Walmart, Starbucks and Costco. This is what globalization looks like, when it arrives in your own backyard.

80% of Canadians live in urban centres now, as opposed to less than 30% at the beginning of the 20th century. And those urban centres now look pretty much the same wherever you go, once the geography is removed. It’s a degree of change that snuck up on us far more stealthily than has the digital revolution, with its dizzying pace, but it’s a no less disruptive transformation.

I couldn’t wait to get out of Grande Prairie when I was a teenager. The big city beckoned with diversity, anonymity, and vigour. Maybe if I was young in Grande Prairie now I wouldn’t feel the same need, given that I could now access anything there that I could in the big city. A good thing? Bad thing?

There’s no saying. Certain opportunities still exist only in the truly big centres of course, cities like Tokyo, New York or London. If you want to make movies it’s still true that you better get yourself to Los Angeles. But they’re not about to ban drive-thrus in Los Angeles. And that’s too bad.