February 16, 2008
Music has a power over me that I’m not sure I could accurately describe. I’ve always been a bit of a loner and keep very few close friends. I’m accustomed to spending great amounts of time by myself. Some people are able to find a constant friend in religion. I’ve got faith, but the thought of someone, somewhere, far away never really comforted me as much as I’d like. Music is the only magical force that’s been able to soothe my soul and keep me going through the darkest places.
I grew up on music like many others, but that was the pop music of the day and whatever cool stuff my parents happened to have around. I had some pretty rough patches in my childhood when I wasn’t sure what was going to happen to me or why things had to be the way they were. My only retreat from that sometimes was going into my room and playing my records. I’d started to seek out some good music thanks to a few very knowledgeable people in my life, and the little bits on the radio that were new and interesting. I started to sit in my room and pretend that I was on the radio, playing sets of music that I wanted to share. I’d put together upbeat sets when I was going out or having a good day. I’d put together strange sets when I was bored. But all too often, I put together sad, melancholy sets when things seemed bleak. No matter how sad the set, I’d find comfort in the music.
I had favourite artists that really connected with me for one reason or another. Looking back, I’m not sure what it was about some that really drew me in. One of the artists that I obsessed over for a long time was Stevie Ray Vaughan. His music was rough and rockin’ and somehow different than the other stuff out there. Since then, and through him, I’ve learned what the blues is all about. For a few years of my youth, he was the greatest musician alive, to me.
And then he died.
I remember when I first heard that there’d been an accident. It was exactly two months after my 16th birthday. Initially I was told that it was Eric Clapton’s band that died. Being a big follower of Clapton and Stevie Ray, I knew that they were playing together and I wished I could have been there. Sad, I thought, because I loved Clapton’s band. I didn’t know who it was that died, but I went home and tried to find out if it was anyone that I knew of. It was only then that I found out that Stevie was on board. I remember feeling like someone had punched me in the stomach. I remember being so stunned that I couldn’t really feel any kind of sadness or loss. Until I started to hear his music on the reports, and I had time to think about what it meant. He was without a doubt the artist that I most wanted to see live in concert, and when I thought about the fact that I’d never get my chance, I cried. There were many tears that day and in the days that followed. I didn’t really talk about how sad I was. I just listened to a lot of his music. The songs and that voice and his guitar touched me. I knew that they always would, but it saddened me that I’d never hear what he could do next.
I guess I’ve been lucky, because in the past 18 years, I haven’t felt that way when a musician died. Sure, there have been some losses, but nothing like that day.
I wasn’t having a good day as it was. Lots of stuff going on in my world is making things kind of stressful. But none of that matters now, because the news came today that the man whom I believe to be the greatest Canadian songwriter of all time, Willie P Bennett, has died. It hurts me to write that, because for me, Willie is a larger than life icon who will never truly die.
In the early 90s, I found out what real music was when I attended my first Winnipeg Folk Festival. The first full day I was there, I first heard a guy named Stephen Fearing. He was brilliant and amazing, and I could not believe that I’d never heard of him before. I became an instant fan, and immediately started to seek out other great artists that I was missing out on. Fearing has remained one of my favourites, and he’s also become a trusted source of musical advice. He’s quick to point out people who have inspired and amazed him, and every time I’ve heard him mention a name, I’ve become a fan of that artist. I’m pretty sure the first one, however, was the most important.
I remember seeing Stephen in concert at the West End Cultural Centre, in I guess 1996 or so, and he did a song called “The Lucky Ones.” He said it was by a guy named Willie P Bennett, and that he and a couple of friends had recently recorded an album in his honour, and they were calling themselves Blackie & The Rodeo Kings. Well, I set out to find two albums immediately after that, the Blackie record, and something by Willie P Bennett. Blackie came out a while later, so it wasn’t hard to find. Willie’s music turned out to be somewhat more elusive. I couldn’t find an album by him in any store, and in that pre-internet age, there wasn’t really another option but to keep searching. Imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon a copy of “The Lucky Ones” in the bargain bin at Sam the Record Man for $6.99 a little while later. It’s still one of the greatest finds and bargains I’ve ever found, because the album is impossible to find, and it’s brilliant.
Some further digging netted me another couple of amazing finds after that. At Music Trader, I managed to get used copies of “Take My Own Advice” and a brilliant compilation called Collectibles (both of which, to this day, I’ve never seen anywhere else, even on Willie’s discography page). The latter is what I’d consider one of the finest collections of songs on the planet. Every single one of the 15 songs on it is powerful and amazing. I admit that it took me a bit of time to really grasp what it was about Willie’s songs that meant so much to me.
At first glance, Willie’s songs seem rather simplistic. They’re easy to understand and follow and the melodies are all instantly accessible. At first what dazzled me was the playing and singing more than the lyrics, because they seemed so simple, and somehow, we’re taught that the great works of art aren’t “easy” they take some interpretation. Rubbish. There are very few songwriters on the planet who can get straight to the heart with simple words and stories like Willie P.
The only other songwriter that I can really compare Willie to is Townes Van Zandt. He’s another one whose loss hit me hard, but I didn’t know of him until after he was gone. It was only after seeing a movie about him and really digesting his songs that the loss of his talent and power hit me. So it wasn’t the same.
Shortly after I discovered Willie, I discovered Fred Eaglesmith. I had no idea that there was any connection between the two at first, so imagine my surprise when I learned that the leader of Fred’s band was none other than Willie P. I was indeed shocked, because I figured Willie must be dead or hiding out crafting beautiful songs somewhere, not slugging it out in someone else’s band night after night. But there he was, adding mandolin, harmonica, and those powerful vocals to Fred’s songs, night after night. I started religiously going to Fred shows almost entirely out of devotion to the legend of Willie P Bennett. I always tried to sit on Willie’s side of the stage, and I always cheered my head off when Willie was introduced. It was at Fred’s shows that I first picked up Willie’s classic albums from the 70s, “Hobo’s Taunt,” “Tryin’ to Start out Clean,” and “Blackie and the Rodeo King.” I picked up “Heartstrings,” his superstar collaboration album when it first came out in 1998.
I always dreamed that someday, Fred would let Willie sing a song at one of those shows. Still to this day I can’t figure out how you can have Canada’s greatest songwriter on stage with you every night and not want to hear at least one of his songs. It boggles my mind. I’ve had trouble respecting Fred for a variety of reasons, but letting Willie be in the background for so many years is perhaps his greatest crime. Fred’s shows have become somewhat formulaic for me. They’re always good, but not a whole lot ever changes.
Except for a brief period in 2005, that is. Fred started doing this thing called “The Flying Squirrel Revue” where he showcased three amazing guys in his band, Dan Walsh, Roger Marin, and Willie P Bennett as an opening act of sorts. They came out and played together without Fred and each guy got to do about 3 of his own songs. I traveled all the way to Grand Forks to see that show. That was the first time I ever saw Willie live, and I could have listened to his three songs and drove all the way home a happy man. I wished that I could have heard much more, but the fact that I finally got to see and hear Willie live was a dream come true.
For years I didn’t have the nerve to talk to Willie. I’d ask people what he was like, but I didn’t believe that he was as approachable as they said. I actually asked someone to get one of my records signed for me, because I was too intimidated to ask him myself. I guess that’s why it says “To Geff.” Eventually I worked up the nerve, but it was only because I’d become so frustrated with the fact that he never put out new albums, and never toured on his own. I had to ask him when he was going to step out of the shadows and show the world how brilliant he really was. I remember timidly walking up to him and talking to him a bit, before asking if he’d considered putting out a new album or doing some shows on his own. He laughed and said that he had plenty of plans. He was working on putting together a live album, and writing new songs, and planning some shows, one of which might take place in Winnipeg. I was over the moon with excitement. Sadly, none of those things ever came to be.
I’m a huge fan of the guys in Blackie & The Rodeo Kings for many reasons, but their greatest accomplishment is introducing the world to Willie P Bennett once again. Whenever Stephen or Colin has appeared on my radio show, the conversation always drifts over to Willie. What’s he up to? Is he ever going to put out another album? What’s the deal with him, anyway? He’s a guiding light for Stephen, Colin, Tom, me, and so many others.
That radio show exists for the purpose of allowing people to hear great songwriters like Willie P Bennett who just don’t get heard often enough. Tomorrow, I’ll be playing two hours of Willie P. Somehow, it just won’t seem like enough. I just don’t want it to be true. I want to still believe that someday I’ll get to see Willie in concert, and he’ll release the long awaited album that will win him many awards and get his name back out there. Some day, he’ll get the attention he deserves. I guess now I can only hope that his songs will get the same respect and attention posthumously that folks like Townes Van Zandt and Hank Williams get. They were sadly under-appreciated during their own time as well. Willie ranks right up there with those true greats. True giants whose songs touch hearts and minds. They’ll live forever. I’ll be playing Willie P Bennett songs for anyone who will listen for as long as I’m alive.
I didn’t know you well, and I only heard you sing your powerful songs in person a couple of times, but Willie, you are a true friend. You help me through tough times, and very few of those are tougher, or sadder, than today, when I heard that you’d died. Thank goodness I have your songs to help me make it through.