The impact of four life-changing Canadian songwriters -- Neil Young, Bruce Cockburn, the group Beau Dommage, and Stéphane Venne -- was the common thread at the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame (CSHF) induction ceremony over the weekend at Toronto's Massey Hall, where professional musicians of all ages -- and one former astronaut -- expressed their respect and gratitude for their music.
"I'm getting an award for writing songs. How crazy is that?" said Young.
This was the first induction ceremony in six years. The CSHF was created by music publisher Frank Davies in 1998; the inaugural gala was held in 2003 with six more to follow. The Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers (SOCAN) purchased it in December 2011 and has been working to update the brand and educate the public about its inductees and mandate.
The historic Massey Hall, which opened in 1894, was the perfect setting for such esteemed honorees. Both Young and Cockburn have recorded live albums there and the late Jonathan Demme's final doc on the folk-rocker, 2011's Neil YoungJourneys, culminates in two performances at Massey. It's a venue many Toronto artists dream of headlining -- our Carnegie Hall.
The four-hour show, which ran an hour over schedule, was a bilingual affair, giving equal time to the two Quebecois legends, even if, truth be told, many of the Anglophones in the audience found their own grade-school French studies proved absolutely useless. Each artist was feted with covers of their songs and stories about their influence, plus the customary tribute video.
The evening began with an cappella group Eh440 singing and beat-boxing Cockburn's "Lovers In A Dangerous Time" from the back of the hall, down the aisle to the stage, right past the songwriter himself, as well as Neil Young with "true love" Daryl Hannah; Buffy Sainte-Marie sitting next to Randy Bachman; Venne, and members of Beau Dommage.
It must've been a bit of a sweaty-palm, heart-palpitating experience for Jessica Mitchell, Hawksley Workman, Whitehorse (who headline Massey, again, in December), Don Ross, Damien Robitaille, Eh440, Elisapie Lisa LeBlanc, Ruth B, William Prince, France D'Amour, Élage Diouf, Yann Perreau, Florence K, Elisapie, and others who took the stage to cover the inductees' songs -- in front of the inductees themselves.
As CBC radio host Tom Power and banjo player said of Young from the stage, "I'm doing everything I can not to look at him."
Not so for k.d. lang though, an old pro whose interpretation of "Hallelujah" to a front-row Leonard Cohen at the 2006's CSHF is still one of the most moving and mind-blowing of "covered classics" (as CSHF calls them in their new CBC series). She did a similar "wow" job on Young's "Helpless." No stories were needed to show her respect; the song is a staple of her live set.
Even perceived "veterans," such as Blackie and the Rodeo Kings and Daniel Lavoie, told stories of their profound influence.
Lavoie, 68, was a discouraged singer-songwriter in his early 20 thinking of packing it in and returning to Winnipeg when Venne, now 76, invited him round. He jokes it was his "first encounter with real power." He got some advice and "I'm still here 45 years later."
Venne, who hugged Lavoie upon receiving his award, paid his own tribute: "I tip my hand to them because I read the news today, oh, boy; we really need people like Beau Dommage, like Neil, like Bruce."
He said he started writing 60 years ago and had no desire to be onstage. "I say that to all the songwriters -- the youngsters: if you have no voice, no charisma, no nothing, except this, you can have fun. You can make a living. It can leave a mark." [a point Young comically picked up on in his own speech].
Blackie & The Rodeo Kings' Tom Wilson, 58, reading from his forthcoming autobiography, Beautiful Scars, told the 71-year-old Young his parents couldn't afford to buy him a guitar when he was 14 "and I couldn't embarrass them by asking them for something that was impossible for them to get for me, so …I stole a guitar.
"And I took the bus to go do it because desperate music inspires desperate kids like me to be called into action – this time by Neil Young and I was ready to take action and take my chances."
Julie Payette, famed astronaut, Canada's new Governor General and a musician herself (she's sung with the Montreal Symphony and Tafelmusik Chamber Choir), had the honor of inducting Beau Dommage. She told of taking music on the space shuttle, waking every morning to songs "beamed up" from mission control centre and selecting songs to exercise to on the stationary bike. She brought classical, some Edith Piaf "and a whole lot of Beau Dommage." On her second flight in 2009, one of the group's CDs orbited the early 246 times, 10 million kilometres, and was presented to the band upon her return.
"What songwriters do -- they uplift our spirit. They make us think higher and fly higher and without them this beautiful planet would not be the same," she said.
The band's acceptance speech was mostly in French with a brief "English message to follow," a thank you to SOCAN and "this truly great and magical moment in the life of Beau Dommage" and "thank you Toronto for your appreciation of Montreal."
After an intermission -- which included the video announcement that Jessie Reyez and Charlotte Cardin won the inaugural Slaight Music Emerging Songwriter Award -- Sainte-Marie joined Eh440 on an a cappella version of her Oscar-winning hit "Up Where We Belong," again down the aisle and to the stage to induct her friend and fellow activist, Cockburn. Earlier this year, at the Juno Awards, he had presented her with the Allan Waters Humanitarian Award.
Of Cockburn, she said it would be easy to just fall back on his career achievements, such as gold and platinum records, hit singles and awards show hardware, "but if you take a deeper look into his body of work, you'll see an astute observer, an investigative composer, a wise man who asks tough questions, who conjures words that show us who we are, words that move the needle of public option, that shine the light on injustices, that comfort in kindness and in love. Sometimes words like, ‘You need to wake the fuck up. This isn't right.'"
Cockburn, who just released a new album, Bone On Bone, kept his comments short:
"I spent so much time playing and singing my own songs; it's very interesting, very moving, to hear them performed by others and on an occasion of this to be so honored in the company of these wonderful artists. I've been at my craft for a long time, long enough that the beginning seems like yesterday.
"I came to realize that art, including he art of songwriting, is about sharing the human experience. Music is a spiritual bonding agent, a means of sharing deep feelings of all times. When you add words, the sharing becomes pointed, specific. A song can offer inspiration, distraction, solace, solidarity, a sense that we are not alone in our feelings."
"The human's ability to create songs is precious and vital. We have always done it and I think we always will," he concluded, sure to add a thank you to Bernie Finkelstein, his longtime manager who has enabled him to "make a living at it."
Bachman was designated to induct Young. A peer of his from Winnipeg, the Guess Who and BTO legend did a medley of Young's classics on acoustic guitar -- "Sugar Mountain," "Southern Man," "Harvest Moon" -- interspersed with stories "probably no one has ever heard before." One includes how Young's mother "Rassy" used to call into a CJOB radio show Beefs & Bouquets to offer praise anonymously for Neil Young & The Squires. Bachman and Cummings then got their moms to do the same.
Young seemed genuinely touched and happy to be at the gala. People did wonder if he would actually show up for it. He's not known to be a regular at such things. "I'm very proud to be Canadian," he said during his acceptance speech. "I know I've travelled a lot and I've had a lot of chances to stay places and I have stayed in some places for a long time but I have always been a Canadian citizen. I've never been another citizen of anywhere else. I love the United States but my message is they're already great.
"I just want to thank you so much. I don't know what to say because I'm still doing this. I was scared to come here in case it ended," he said to laughter. "But then I realized, ‘Oh shit, I waited so long, now my mom and dad aren't going to see this and that's too bad.' I hope you're getting together up there," he said waving his hands to the sky and adding, "For those of us who have parents who split up, you always think they're going to get back together.
"I'm still writing songs all the time. It's funny. Some people see me and ‘what are you doing now? I love writing songs. I started writing one the other day and I was saying to my true love, I was saying, 'they're still coming.'
"I don't know really what to say, except if you write songs then good for you. That's good. If you like yourself and you like writing songs but you're scared shitless to get in front of people because you can't sing and you have no charisma [laughs], I don't know if I have charisma or not. I just keep changing but I know I can't sing," he said to laughter again and quipping that he's "round the note somewhere."
He reminisced a little about his dad buying him a ukulele in Pickering and then moved to Toronto for a while and started going to dances and following the band The Sultans in the 60s and hang outside the gate but having to leave because the fights started in the parking lot, digressing. "Anyway, all of these things add up to this wonderful experience being here with you and getting a chance to thank the Canadian Songwriters Hall of fame and all of the people who have kept it alive and are realizing that it's important to keep it going."
With that, members of the Arkells and its frontman Max Kerman had the task of capping the night by leading an all-star jam that included Rush's Alex Lifeson for "Cinnamon Girl" and many of the honorers on the grand finale of "Rockin' In The Free World," including Bachman, Whitehorse and Blackie & The Rodeo Kings.