When I was a kid growing up in the stale white bread society of bureaucratic Ottawa, sucked into the vacuous musical void of "Our Pet, Juliette" and Don Messer's Jubilee, I, along with my friends, like adventurous geese, looked southward bound for escape and role models. The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison were our escape and role models.
JFK was younger, a lot more fascinating and lot better looking than that jowl-shaking old statue, “Dief the Chief,” or that funny-looking other guy with a lisp called Lester Pearson. In the good ole USA, there was Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris; Bob Gibson, Ed Sullivan, the Beach Boys; California, surfing, Sunshine 24/7 and girls! Who didn't want to be an American!
Golly, cool guys were called Hank, not Henry. In that regard, I always wanted to change my name to something more dashing and daring than 'Bob,' to something, well, like Jesse. Who didn't want to talk in a southern drawl? Even contemporary Canadian country singers still, sadly, do that.
Well fast-forward in time. Roughly 1970, I was still in Ottawa. I hadn't changed my name, or done much else except, due to those early musical influences, learn how to strum a few chords on a guitar. So it came to pass that I started singing at the Sunday night 'hoots,' The Wasteland Coffee House and, then started playing gigs at the local fern bars.
One of those bars was The Nozzle. It was down on Rideau Street, near Cumberland. Of course, at the same time, a little further afield, on Sussex Drive, Le Hibou was still in full coffee house swing. As many of you older dudes and dude-ettes know, it was the mecca to where all musicians, famous or about-to-be famous, came to kiss the red brick stone of stardom.
One night, when I was dueling away for attention with the noisy clientele at The Nozzle, during a break, I ran down the stairs of the club and raced by foot down Rideau, hooked a quick right onto Sussex, and entered Le Hibou. I cannot recall how I first heard of Jesse Winchester; maybe he'd already released his first album or maybe it was via Tom Rush, who seemed to have a knack for making relatively obscure and unknown singer-songwriters famous.
In any case, on stage, the reason for my between set dash and flash, sitting on a stool playing a red electric guitar and wearing grey tweed sports jacket was Jesse Winchester. Memory is a slippery sliding target, at my age, but my recollection is that Jesse had just crossed the border, as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, and heading for Montreal.
Well, maybe he'd crossed the border, landed in Montreal and shortly thereafter came to Ottawa, but I like the first version of my story better! That way I can claim to be one of the first Canadians to have ever seen the man play in Canada.
In my short stay, standing by the door, I did have to get back to entertain the beer drinkers after-all, I definitely heard him sing “Yankee Lady.” That has always been my favourite Jesse Winchester song. Sometimes I still sing it.
I could be 'Jesse,' again. Some say I sound like him; well, some did, when I was younger. The atonal and deaf ones said that.
Winchester was an influence. One time, traveling in the States, with Lynn Miles and Heather Houston, we went to an open stage in Charleston, South Carolina. What else could I do but speak in a southern drawl and sing “Yankee Lady.”
Jesse Winchester was born in Louisiana and raised in Mississippi. He lived, at one time, in Memphis, Tennessee. That about has it covered regarding my youthful dream-escape to the Land of Oz
I'm not sure how many times I saw seen him perform over the years. When people play those dinner party games, like name your top five musical memories, surely seeing Jesse Winchester at Hibou is one. Moreover, when it comes to 'best on stage solo artist', Jesse wins hands-down.
Then there's the "who would you want playing AT the dinner party?" final round of questioning. Again, for me, it’s no contest. Put the fire on in the fireplace, dim the lights, give him a stool, and me a rocking chair.
Mesmerizing and warm, that was his voice. His commitment to the tunes was singular. His happy way, of sharing his gift and his stories between songs is memorable.
The riveting religious silence, of the audience, split into their individuality, but galvanized as a group, listening to their lives being told. The unabashed high school romances. Will I get the girl or does she fall for the football star?
Still, never ashamed to revisit, relive his youth, even in middle-age, Winchester remained vital. The importance of place to him; his longing, as in "Mississippi You're On My Mind"; his easy-going lifestyle, as in "Gentleman of Leisure"; then, when we all got a little 'older,' we were re-baptized not in water but in a little class of wine.
Sip a glass of kindness now... and listen to a few of my favs ....
Bob Stark is a musician, poet, philosopher and couch potato. He spends his days, as did Jean-Paul Sarte and Albert Camus, pouring lattes and other adult beverages into a recycled mug, bearing a long and winding crack. He discusses, with much insight and passion, the existentialist and phenomenological ontology of the Vancouver 'Canucks,' a hockey team, "Archie" comic books and high school reunions. In other words, Bob Stark is a retired public servant living the good life on the wrong coast of Canada.
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