The Guitar That Reminds Us Who We Are

Sometimes the craziest of ideas can be terrifically inspiring. This one involves a guitar and a nation.

It was 1995 and Canada was coming apart at the seams. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney had decided that because Quebec had not signed the constitution when it was finally brought home from Britain in 1981, that he would seduce the signature by transferring a host of federal powers to it and the other provinces. The provinces loved it, of course. Then the whole package, called the Charlottetown Accord, went to the people in a national referendum. That’s when the arguments began. Revolutions had been fought about such things. In the United States, over 700,000 people were butchered in their Civil War deciding whether dominant power should rest with the federal or state governments. But Canadians are different. We reached not for guns but gavels. We debated in public meetings. We argued at kitchen tables, and over backyard fences. It got ugly.

Jowi Taylor reacted differently. The CBC writer and radio host met with luthier George Ritzsanyi and suggested that they make a guitar. They would call it Voyageur. Ritzsany was a first-generation Hungarian immigrant who had worked as an auto worker but had become renowned among guitar lovers for his unique and fine work. But this would not be just any guitar.

Taylor would assemble this guitar from fragments of the nation to which it would be dedicated. David Suzuki, the well-known environmentalist and TV host, was instrumental in pointing Taylor to the Golden Spruce. It was the rare, 300-year-old albino tree on Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands) that was sacred to the Haida people. It became a symbol of resistance to broken treaties and land rights encroachments when, in the middle of the night, an angry logging scout chainsawed the sacred tree to the ground. Suzuki introduced Taylor to Haida elders and, after great debate, they agreed that the guitar would be an honoured place for part of the felled tree to live on. Voyageur would be made from a piece of the sacred Golden Spruce.

The tree was an important and inspiring first step but Taylor needed more items to embed in the guitar and money to support their collection. He called his project The Six String Nation. He set up a website and wrote emails and snail mails and made countless phone calls. He traveled. He begged for funding and was disappointed more often than pleased. The Globe and Mail published a front page story about the project but even that brought frustratingly little funding. The CBC offered to make a film but that fell apart.

But Canadians came through. Individual sponsors stepped up and big and small donations were made. Many people logged on and bought guitar straps to help finance the project. (Full disclosure, one of them was me. The black strap holds my Gretsch at every gig I play.)

Taylor’s persistence began paying dividends and more precious objects were collected. There was a piece from Rocket Richard’s Stanley Cup ring, a fragment from Wayne Gretzky’s hockey stick and another Paul Henderson’s stick. There was an antler from a moose and another from a mastodon. There was a piece of steel rail from a CPR track, one from Sir John A. Macdonald’s sideboard, and a chunk of copper from the roof of the parliamentary library, Canada’s most beautiful room. There was a chunk of a seat from Massey Hall and another from the old Montreal Forum. There was a piece of Nancy Green’s ski and one from Pierre Trudeau’s canoe paddle.

Finally, on June 14, 2006, the fragments had been collected and incorporated and the guitar was done. It was beautiful. It played beautifully. A week later it was in Ottawa where preparations were being made for the Canada Day celebration. Renowned bluesman Colin James strummed it for gathered reporters and said it was a fine guitar that he was proud to play. Colin Linden played it at a press event the next day. Then, on the big stage, on July 1, the guitar’s story was told and the enormous crowd thundered its approval with applause that echoed off parliament’s centre block. Stephen Fearing took Voyageur in hand and kicked off his set with the Longest Road. It had indeed been a long road but it was not over.

The Guitar and the Nation

Jowi Taylor and Voyageur (Photo: Doug Nicholson)

The guitar toured the country. Professionals and amateurs held it and played it. As guitarists know, playing a guitar is an intimate act. It is the only instrument the player cradles when playing like a child, like a lover. And Canadians loved the guitar.

Canadians are a nation by choice. We are a nation not of blood but of laws. We build bridges not walls and we extend our hands to those in need whether suffering the aftermath of World War Two, or the Vietnam War, or the Syrian War. We all know, and most of us recall, that we are nearly all from away and at one point we were the aliens on the boats, risking all to seek a better life and contribute to nation worthy of our dreams. Canada, after all, is less an entity than a conversation. Jowi Taylor’s Voyageur guitar has become an important part of that conversation by inviting us to consider the fragments within it that are fragments of ourselves.

Please visit http://www.sixstringnation.com/ where you can scan the guitar and see all the amazing fragments  embedded it in. Please consider sending this column to others.

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Most Important Rock Groups Ever

Rock is art. Rock songs toy with time. Decades after first hearing it, a song will find its way to your radio and instantly transport you to a place and people. They are three-minute symphonies. They are novels with plot, theme, and character. Because rock songs matter, the groups that create them matter and so let us ponder our most important groups.

Most Important Rock Groups EverPhoto: www.picsfair.com

  1. Crickets and the Beatles

Sex spawned Rock ‘n’ Roll. Even the name was an African-American slang for sex. The early songs were blatantly sexual. Consider Good Rockin’ Tonight, Great Balls of Fire, and anything by Little Richard including his transvestite tale in Long Tall Sally. The Crickets and then the Beatles turned rock from sex to fun. The Crickets sang Oh Boy at the thought of merely seeing a girl and the Beatles just wanted to hold her hand.

More important was that they killed the old music industry. For decades, songwriters punched the clock each morning in small offices on Nashville’s Music Row and New York’s Brill building. They wrote the songs that A & R men pitched. The Crickets and Beatles proclaimed that from that point on, groups would write their own material.

  1. The Byrds and the Band

The Byrds married the rhythms and harmonies of the Beatles with the lyrical maturity of Bob Dylan. Many of their early songs were Dylan covers. Kids were surprised to learn that with Turn! Turn! Turn! they were dancing to the Bible’s Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. They certainly knew that Eight Miles High was about drugs.

Like the Byrds, the Band taught listeners that rock songs could move beyond girl-boy angst. They focussed on deeper matters. With The Weight, they wrote of the American Civil War’s pain and the century-long yearning for redemption. With Cripple Creek and many others, they sang of the joy in anti-establishment and anti-consumerist attitudes and behaviours.

  1. The Monkees and the Eagles

That’s right, the Monkees. Of course they were a made up band but they’re on this list because of Mike Nesmith. To quell his protests, he was allowed to produce two of his compositions for the first Monkees album. Papa Jean’s Blues and Sweet Young Thing were rock but also country. Unlike today’s country, which Tom Petty has said is bad pop with a fiddle, Nesmith’s songs were outlaw country before Waylon and Willie coined the phrase. Each Monkees album contained Nesmith country-rock songs and lots of kids were hearing the new genre because, in 1967, the Monkees outsold the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Before winning his casting call, Nesmith had been an MC at an L. A. club where he sang and introduced local talent. Among them was Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys. Their first hit was a Nesmith country-rock song: Different Drum. After touring with Ronstadt, her band left and renamed itself the Eagles. They took country-rock to new levels. Marvel at their harmonies and stellar musicianship as you hear country and rock fusing seamlessly in Already Gone, Take It Easy, and Heartache Tonight. A string of hits and sold-out concerts taught folks that the line between rock and country is as illusory as that between the beer and wine of Saturday night and Sunday morning.

  1. The Beatles and the Beach Boys

After enjoying a string of hits, Beach Boys muse Brian Wilson surrendered the road for the studio. Although deaf in one ear from a beating his father inflicted in childhood, he meticulously coached LA’s Wrecking Crew through layers of overdubs until the music on the tape matched the vision in his head. The quirky arrangements and odd instruments, such as the theremin, were like no one had ever imagined. The result was God Only Knows, Good Vibrations, Wouldn’t It Be Nice and the album Pet Sounds.

I know the Beatles are on this list twice. So what, they earned it. When Paul McCartney heard Pet Sounds he drove to Lennon’s house and they accepted the challenge. The Beatles and their genius producer George Martin locked themselves in Abbey Road for months until their masterpiece was complete – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. There wasn’t a single single. That was the point.

FM radio was invented to allow rock music to graduate from commercial AM formats where songs were almost incidental to ads and DJ patter, to a place where albums could be played in their entirety. The Beach Boys and Beatles and their two albums raised rock music from disposable to art.

  1. Rolling Stones and Led Zepplin

Rock ‘n’ Roll was born in the delta blues of the American south and electric blues of Chicago. A teenaged Keith Richard was at a train station when he noticed a skinny kid with an armful of American blues records. Intrigued, he introduced himself to Mick Jagger. The group they created was named after a blues song and dedicated to bringing American blues to British and then back to American kids. When in America, they insisted on meeting not movie stars but Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf and their blues idols. Listen to Honky Tonk Woman or any number of others and try not to hear the blues.

Led Zepplin was more outrageous in their clothes, behaviour, attitude, and concerts than any group before and their music more ragged, innovative, and loud. All of that distracted from the fact that they were playing little more than operatic variations of the blues. Listen to Muddy Water’s Hoochie Coochie Man then consider the direct line to Whole Lot of Love. As Elvis had, the Rolling Stones and Led Zepplin reminded listeners of rock’s black roots.

  1. The Heartbreakers and the Clash

Rock survived the early ‘60s folk music scare but was nearly defeated by ‘70s disco. It was music untouched by human hands that appealed to neither head nor heart but rather the spinal chord. Some groups manned the cultural barricades and burned the white flag. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers played music that reminded listeners of the best of the ‘60s but brought a power either not imagined or too long forgotten. Refugee, American Girl and many others pulsed with catchy hooks but just beneath the surface lurked desperate rage.

The Clash employed classic ‘60s models in musicians and song structures. Their songs bespoke the simple beauty wrought from three chords and the truth. They were based on the notion, as Heartbreaker guitarist Mike Campbell once said: “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus.” Their lyrics decried the phoniness of celebrity culture and the pain of Thatcherism. The Heartbreakers and the Clash saved rock music from disco’s circling of the cultural sink and reminded people of rock’s potency and potential.

  1. Pearl Jam and Nirvana

Every decade asks rock music to save itself from the industry of which it’s a part. Grunge did the deed in the ‘90s. Pearl Jam’s music harkened back to classic rock writing structures but it was rougher and more adventurous. Their lyrics were decidedly dark in addressing suicide, sexual abuse, and depression. They sacrificed untold millions to fight Ticketmaster and its greedy, gouging fees. It played stadiums and forced advertising banners to be covered and even tape to be placed over the beer logos on concession workers’ shirts.

Due to the suicide of its leader and lead singer, Nirvana recorded only three albums but that was enough to contribute to the move toward songs that jumped from one rhythm to another, from quiet, gentle sections to screaming raves, and yet stuck to the verse-chorus-bridge structure. Their unplugged concert proved that while bad songs can make fun records, only quality songs stand with credibility when stripped to acoustic instrumentation. Talent always trumps show.

Picasso once took a child’s sparkler and dashed a swirl that instantly vanished. A photographer caught it. There, slashing the darkness, was art. Most rock music is equally fleeting. Some groups, though, are like Picasso. Their concerts are the artist’s sparklers creating moments immediately gone. Recordings, though, are canvasses. They speak to artistic intention, society’s gaps, and a listener’s yearnings. Songs by any of the groups on the list are exactly the same as the day they were recorded but our world has changed, we have changed, and so the songs have changed with our evolving perception of their meaning. That we can visit as old friends is the beauty of art, of all art, but perhaps especially music.

Please consider sharing this with others on Facebook or elsewhere and leaving a comment as to groups I missed and which should not have made this list. You might also be a brute for punishment and check my previous columns where, perhaps as foolishly as above, I tackled:

6 Singers Who Matter Most https://johnboyko.com/2016/01/04/popular-important-6-singers-that-matter-most/

Most Important Bands of All Time https://johnboyko.com/2016/01/18/most-important-bands-of-all-time/

Top Concerts of the Last 5 Decades https://johnboyko.com/tag/concert/

Five Things I Know About Music

I blame Mike Nesmith. Also at fault are John Lennon, my Godmother, my cousin, and I suppose my grandmother. You see, my grandmother was the glue that kept our large, extended Ukrainian family together. Among my fondest childhood memories are Christmas parties in the big room downstairs that she had built for such occasions. After a meal set for three times the large number assembled, the tables and chairs were pushed aside for everyone to dance. But it was not records for us for my cousin had a band. And that’s where it began.

My cousin played a big red Guild guitar and it was about the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Like every year, I sat close and watched his every move. When I was eight I was intently watching like usual when my Godmother, resting briefly from the dance floor she loved so much, sat beside me and said she had a special gift. If I loved music so much, she said, then I should study the best. She handed me a copy of Elvis Presley’s first album. Blue Suede Shoes was good but Trying to Get to You was art. I had no idea a singer was allowed to do things like that. The notes and words were putty; they were toys.

album_Elvis-Presley-Elvis-Presley

Just as I was wearing the album to dust, The Monkees debuted on television. Yes, they were a made-up band but there they were alongside the TV fluff of the day with their long hair and music and living on their own in a funky beach house and there was Mike Nesmith playing, and looking a lot like my cousin’s Guild, a great big Gretsch. That did it.

I told my father that I had to have a guitar. He promised to pay half if I saved the rest – a good Dad. I stopped buying Hardy Boys books and salted paper route earnings and cut lawns to make more and soon had what I needed. It was not a Gretsch. It was not even close. It was a cheap, guaranteed-not-to-crack Harmony acoustic. I still have it. I walked eight blocks for lessons every Saturday morning but grew frustrated that the teacher had me plunking away at the Mel Bay Guitar Method when all I wanted was to learn Beatle songs. Yes, I had graduated from Monkees to Beatles and from Mike to John. After three months, I quit and set out to learn on my own.

Harmony guitar The Harmony Guitar

My first gig was in Grade 8 when another skinny boy and I stood stiffly on the big school stage and nervously plucked out Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer. In high school I partnered with a friend and we played coffee houses and pubs. While dangerously under age we did a month-long gig at a scruffy bar that was a motorcycle gang hang out. Arguments and fights regularly interrupted our country-rock tunes and earnest originals.

Later, an independent record label heard me in a little bar where I was making some extra cash to support my young family and signed to me a contract. We recorded three 45s (Google it if you have to) and they did OK. The second one did best and even made it to #2 in Sweden – damn Willie Nelson and Always on My Mind!

I still play every day. I still play Nesmith, Lennon, and Presley songs and still write new ones that few ever hear. I now even sing and play in a little band with two friends. We enjoy a gig a month at a local pub – music by neighbours for neighbours for nothing at stake but the fun old tunes provide for all.

From my grandmother’s Burlington party room to Lakefield’s Canoe and Paddle Pub I have learned five things about music:

  1. Genres are junk. There is so much commonality between what critics, radio stations, music companies, I-Tunes, and the rest say are categories of music that the categories are meaningless. There is good music and bad music. Which is which? It’s up to you – enjoy the power to decide for yourself.
  2. The Best is Not Opinion but Math – Nearly every kind of music was available in every era. Which era was best is a mathematics question. Do the math and determine the years in which you were thirteen to seventeen years old. That era produced the best music ever made.
  3. Commitment Matters – Chickens are involved in breakfast but pigs are committed. It’s the same sliding scale with music. To be involved is to listen and to deepen your involvement is to see music played live. To be committed is to play music yourself and to be fully committed is to play with others where you need to not only play but listen. Watch any band that hits a groove and see the endorphins flow. You will know when it happens by their eye contact and at the end they will laugh. Playing music is fun. That’s why they call it playing.
  4. It’s in the Wires – Our brains are wired to learn, remember, and enjoy. Neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin, has done extensive research and found that music hits all three. Music literally re-wires our neural pathways, enabling us to learn more, remember more, and enjoy more in our lives than if music were absent.
  5. It Never Goes – Those studying Alzheimer’s patients have found that long after sufferers forget everything, they remember music. Know that right now there are old people who cannot recall their names but can still play the piano and sing Sinatra songs. I shudder to think that someday there may be an addled old man in a home somewhere strumming a guitar and warbling I’m a Believer.

With this now written I will turn from my desk, pick up my Martin and we’ll enjoy an hour or so together. Maybe I’ll sing that old Elvis song and remember my Godmother. She’s doing the best she can these days but I bet that despite all that’s been forgotten, she remembers the words better than I do.

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