Memories from the past, a simpler present, and an on-going future

November 30, 2007

in REFLECTIONS AND RANTS

Murray McLauchlan looks back at a 40-year career, as Richard Flohil remembers some highlights and near-disasters

Time: 1966
Scene: A circular office on the sixth floor of an old building on the corner of Bay and Richmond. Papers are strewn on the floor; there is a drunk in the hallway outside near the elevator; he has pissed himself.
Participants: Chain smoking publicist; a young art school student of with a portfolio of drawings and paintings.  The artist is a songwriter who is looking for a manager; the publicist demurs.

Time: 1971
Scene:
The washroom in a locker-filled auditorium “dressing room” at a school in Conway, Arkansas.
Lead participant: A young Canadian singer-songwriter is in a cubicle, discovering, as he is being introduced on stage, that several large woodticks have burrowed into the flesh of his inside thigh, the result of a stoned afternoon playing in a cow pasture.

Time: 1972
Scene: A bedroom in the “official” hotel for the Philadelphia Folk Festival; a guitar is being passed around, as are beers, cigarettes and joints.
Participants: John Prine, Steve Goodman, Loudon Wainwright, Jim Croce and Murray McLauchlan. Slumped on the floor behind one of the beds, this observer, feeling proud that his fellow Canadian was more than holding his own.

Time: Early ’80s
Scene:
The cockpit of s small plane on a clear, moonlight bright night, as the pilot brings half a dozen people in to a small Toronto suburban airport, direct from a gig in Sarnia, Ontario.

Time: Early ‘90s.
Scene:
An industry luncheon and showcase at Canadian Music Week.
Lead participant: An older, experienced artist, asked to present an award, and visibly angered by a total lack of applause as he is introduced to an indifferent audience.

Time: November 2007
Scene:
Hugh’s Room, the acoustic music venue in Toronto, with a packed house of musicians, on their feet applauding.
Participants: Veteran songwriter, with wife, son, long-time record company owner and friends old and new, watches as his peers — including Gordon Lightfoot — honour him as an inductee into the Mariposa Folk Festival Hall of Fame.

There’s a real danger that Murray McLauchlan — arguably one of the best singer-songwriters this country has ever produced — can be taken for granted. And earning awards is often seen as a way to say thankyou and push the “ignore” button and move on to the next big thing, whatever or whoever that is.

In part to prevent that possibility, and to remind new generations of listeners of his catalogue of Canadian songs, McLauchlan’s old record label, True North, has just released a lavishly packaged two-CD set of material from no less than 13 of his past albums. A quick glance at the titles on Songs from the Street is enough to launch nostalgia attacks for anyone over 40: Child’s Song, Down by the Henry Moore, On the Boulevard, Whispering Rain, and, of course, Farmer’s Song.

McLauchlan himself, as he approaches his 60th birthday, will tell you frankly that he wants to preserve a legacy. “It’s a collection of hits and misses,” he says, without a trace of false humility or sentimentality. “We decided to go through all the old albums, and pick some songs from each — songs that seem to mean something to people, and which mean something to me.”
Long before McLauchlan signed his first record deal with a young entrepreneur called Bernie Finkelsteins (whose “office” at the time was a telephone booth opposite a shabby variety store on Yorkville Avenue), he was building a local reputation. He had some good, fresh songs — and he could (and says he still can) sing almost every recorded Dylan song up to and including the Blonde and Blonde album.

Best of all, his curiosity and eyes and ears processed the harsh, difficult, and often hilarious business of being a young kid in a big city into songs that rang true.  The first folk boom — or folk scare, as some revisionists have it — had produced a flurry of guitar-playing “folkies” who listened to Dylan, a young and handsome Canadian duo called Ian & Sylvia, and such grizzled veterans as Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee; Toronto was the centre of the Canadian folk world then (although both Montreal and Ottawa had similar, but much smaller, scenes. And McLauchlan — son of Scottish immigrants to Canada — struggled to become part of the action.

The old adage about writing what you know has certainly been exemplified by McLauchlan’s work. His first “hit” was Child’s Song Song; memorably covered by Tom Rush, it’s about as autobiographical a piece as you can imagine — but it has resonated with succeeding generations of teenagers as they unhappily strain the bonds loving parents place on them.

It was the centerpiece of his first album, 1971’s Song from the Street, and it caused a huge buzz in the folk community in Toronto.  And while nobody tagged him with the “new Dylan” moniker, McLauchlan was a wannabe star waiting for his turn.  He scuffled around Yorkville, hitch-hiked and hoboed across Canada, hung in Greenwich Village, played festivals and coffee houses and small clubs and larger ones, got married too young, slept with Joni Mitchell, and raised as much hell as he could. He toured the interior of BC opening for the Everly Brothers, and returned with Carmelita, the one cover song he always plays, which he learned from the Everlys’ pianist, Warren Zevon.

That first album opened doors everywhere but it was the second album, though, that made McLauchlan a household word, and contained the song he still has to sing at every performance. Like his other material, it was based on hard reality: the way we city folk regard the people who grow our food. Farmer’s Song was his first bone-fide radio hit, and was produced by Ed Freeman, a hot producer at the time since he’d just completed Don McLean’s American Pie.

And while there were gigs and tours in the US (including one opening for Neil Young), McLauchlan failed to make any real impacy in the US market. There was, in hindsight, something too “Canadian” in his material, and in the Scottish burr in his voice.  McLauchlan, with Fnkelstein acting as manager as well as record company, changed direction — and eventually found himself working on CBC television and radio shows, emphasizing the “Canadian-ness” of songs like Hard Rock Town (on Sudbury), Red River Flood (Winnipeg), Down by the Henry Moore (Toronto), Out Past the Timberline (the North), No Change in Me (Newfoundland)…

Domestic life settled his wanderlust — his marriage to one-time MuchMusic TV personality and later record company president Denise Donlon (now working on a major project for the Clinton Foundation) has mellowed him. After pulling back from music to be “house-husband” and full-time father to their son Duncan (now 17), it took him a while to find his performance legs again.

His association with an informal group called Lunch at Allen’s (after the bar and restaurant on Toronto’s Danforth Avenue) has brought him back to an older audience which has grown alongside the other participants — Cindy Church, Marc Jordan and Ian Thomas.

The songs, now, seem to have taken a more laidback, personal approach. Path of the Moon is about young Duncan; Don’t Put Your Faith in Men is for his daughter Sarah, the loved offspring of his first marriage.  On stage, he still invests his classics with the feeling he used to, and — looking a little like a less-fuzzy Arlo Guthrie — he radiates an easy, relaxed respectful attitude to his audience.

The hell-raising of his youth is well past him, as is the bitterness that was sometimes evident as his career faded in the nineties.  The pace is easier, the schedule not as demanding, and the odd, unusual and funny gigs (especially with Lunch at Allen’s) seem more frequent and much more enjoyable.

“I don’t want to be seen as a ‘nostalgia act’ he says, as the waitress at Allen’s brings him another glass of wine. “I just want to keep doing it as long as it’s fun. I’ll know when it’s time to quit. But I don’t think that’ll be for a while yet.”