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Bookends: Robbie Robertson and the story of The Band February 16, 2018

Posted by klondykewriter in autobiography, Bookends, personal, Whitehorse Star.
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Bookends: Robbie Robertson and the story of The Band

By Dan Davidson

August 9, 2017

– 860 words –

 

Testimony: A Memoir 

Testimony

By Robbie Robertson

Vintage Canada

512 pages

$21.15

Kindle: $16.99

“I was introduced to serious storytelling at a young age, on the Six Nations Reserve. The oral history, the legends, the fables, and the great holy mystery of life. My mother, who was Mohawk and Cayuga, was born and raised there.

“At the age of nine I told my mother that I wanted to be a storyteller when I grew up. She smiled and said, ‘I think you will.’”

Robbie Robertson is another one of those mixed race persons who have decided that their primary identity is to be found in the First Nation side of their genetic heritage.

One wonders what might have happened if Robertson’s biological father, a Jewish professional gambler named Alexander David Klegerman, had lived. But Robertson was still an infant when his father died in a hit and run accident, and he was adopted by his mother’s second husband, James Patrick Robertson. It was only many years later, when that marriage was in trouble, that Robbie learned the truth about his background.

We get clues as to how that night have gone later in the book, when he meets some of his shadier relatives, but this book really begins with 16 year old Robertson heading south from Toronto to Fayetteville, Arkansas, about to try out as a bass player for the Hawks, the backing group for the legendary Rockin’ Ronnie Hawkins. By then, Robertson had been playing in bands since the age of 14, and had worked in a travelling carny circuit for parts of two summers, as well as at the Canadian National Exhibition.

It was the years with the Hawks, though, that would be his major training ground, and the changing composition of that band woiuld move him from the bass to lead guitar, and surround him with most of the individuals that would later become the Band.

We meet them all, one by one, and though the late Levon Helm painted a nasty picture of Robertson in his book about The Band, Robertson can’t say enough positive things about his former band mate. In a touching CBC interview that was recently rebroadcast, Robertson regretted never having been able to patch things up with Helm.

The years with Hawkins were followed by the years with Bob Dylan, for when Dylan decided to go electric, he picked the Hawks as his backing band. Initially the first half of the shows on the tour were vintage Dylan acoustic, and then he would bring out the Hawks. Some people were delighted, but Robertson remembers it as a hard three year (1965-68) tour, and being on the receiving end of a lot of anger.

In 1967, the members of the band relocated to Woodstock, living in the house that would come to known as Big Pink, and that’s where they merged the rockabilly blues of their Hawks years with the folk-rock of the tour and developed the unique sound that would make them into The Band.

First, though, there were the Basement Tapes, which is an interesting section. Imagine Bob Dylan, recovering from his motorcycle accident, upstairs in the house, pounding out lyrics of a typewriter, handing the pages off the group and saying something like lets’ see what we can do with this. The Basement tapes CDs have a lot of minor stuff on them, but they also have “This Wheel’s on Fire”, “You Ain’t Going’ Nowhere”, and “Tears of Rage”, some classic stuff often covered by other people. There were eventually 138 songs.

The story moves on to the group’s first solo album, Music from Big Pink, and the rather offhand way they ended up with that name and the name The Band.

Robertson takes us through the recording of subsequent albums, but it becomes clear in the narrative that some of the guys aren’t having as much fun as they used to without chemical assistance. Not that Robertson abstained; there are numerous tales of this type in the book, though not as many as in Mick Fleetwood’s memoir, which I reviewed here a few months back.

What the two books have in common is that both Robertson and Fleetwood came to feel that they were responsible for keeping their groups together, and that put a strain on the kind of communal energy that had created the Band in the first place.

There’s quite a bit of space devoted to the creation of The Last Waltz, the Martin Scorsese film and 3-LP (you do remember records, right?) that actually became their swan song. Getting the record together was a near thing. The day they were supposed to start working on it at their Shangri-la studio, Robertson got there early, expecting to get to work, By 3:30 that day no one else had shown up.

“Waiting there as the sun went down, it finally hit me – what I had been in denial about: this train we’d been riding so long was pulling into the station, not just for touring, not just for recording, but for everything.”

 

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Bookends: Two Weeks in the High Arctic February 16, 2018

Posted by klondykewriter in autobiography, Bookends, current events, Whitehorse Star.
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Bookends: Two Weeks in the High Arctic

By Dan Davidson

August 16, 2017

– 815 words –

 

Boundless: Tracing Land and Dream in a New Northwest

Boundless

By Kathleen Winter

Anansi

280 pages

$22.48

Kindle e-Book

$4.49

In 2010 Kathleen Winter was able to take what turned out to be an epic voyage through the Northwest Passage. Her friend, Noah Richler, had had to bow out of a two week cruise on a Russian icebreaker, for which he was to have been the writer in residence. Would she like to take his place on the Clipper Adventurer?

As it happened, she had been thinking lately about taking chances when they were offered and, on the advice of a friend, had prepared a “go bag”. Not that this particular bag was in no way adequate to a fortnight’s journey to the Arctic Ocean, but it was an indication of her mindset. She said yes.

Just from that introduction, you have probably picked up the idea that this book will not entirely be about the ocean voyage. There’s a lot of self-reflection in the book, memories of her immigrant childhood in Newfoundland; thoughts about her first marriage and how the death of her first husband affected her.

A reviewer in the Guardian newspaper felt that such tidbits of information made this a less than successful travel book, as if there is only one way to do this sort of thing. This is an attitude with which authors like V.S. Naipaul and Paul Theroux would probably take issue. I certainly do.

When I met Winter back in the spring, one of the things she told me was that she felt the need to move around. She’d sat still so long writing her novel, Annabel, that she had actually lost some function in her legs for a while. That explains why, during some of the shore excursions that took place on this trip, she tended to chose the longer walks, and I think it also explains why she was prepared to leave her husband to look after their two daughters for a two week excursion that as it turned out, was not entirely a cakewalk.

It was an assorted group of people on this voyage. Historian Ken McGoogan was there, with his wife, Sheena; anthropologist Kenneth Lister; marine mammal biologist Pierre Richard, with his sister, Elizabeth; geologist Marc St, Onge; ornithologist Richard Knapton; and musician Nathan Rogers, son of Stan, whose best known song (aside from “The Mary Ellen Carter” and “Barrett’s Privateers”) is probably “The Northwest Passage”.

Winter would come to be close to Rogers, would actually overcome her indifference to rocks and pay attention to Knapton, and would learn something from many of the 100 members of the expedition. She seems to remains largely unaffected by the enthusiastic birders, but tries her best to respond to what she can learn from the indigenous people who are part of the voyage. What she learned would often send her back down her memory hole, to tie in to some part of her past.

The trip took them from Greenland, past Baffin Island, and across the passage into territory that was perhaps not quite as well mapped as people had thought. The Clipper Adventurer runs onto some rocks on what was to have been the last night of the trip. Everyone was in the lounge, looking at the map that showed the journey they had taken, the ship being bound for the place where they would disembark.

“The ship lurched.

“It crunched on something big, not like one of the small pieces of ice we’d scraped in Karrat Fjord. This sound kept going: a dreadful, deep displacement of our vessel out of the water, out of her gliding movement, nowhere close to any of the rocking, all smooth and rolling, we’d known before.”

They did the whole abandon ship drill before they decided they weren’t going to sink, but they could not get off that rock, even at high tide.

There had been hints in various chapters that there might be a problem later on, but this was a surprise. They were rescued by the geological mapping vessel, the Amundsen, and taken to Kugluktuk, from whence they were flown south. Their ship was not rescued until three weeks later and had to be towed to a shipyard in Gdansk for repairs.

Winter says she was changed by her experience in the high North, but just how is something she’s doesn’t seem that anxious to share. There are a few things that remain mysterious in this book. For instance, that actual name of their ship is not to be found in the text. I ran a search in my KOBO copy to see, after I finally found it in the photo section at the back of the book.

Boundless was shortlisted for the 2014 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction.

 

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Bookends: Uncommon Tales from an Uncommon Life February 14, 2018

Posted by klondykewriter in autobiography, Bookends, Whitehorse Star.
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Bookends: Uncommon Tales from an Uncommon Life

By Dan Davidson

May 24, 2017

– 807 words –

Common Man, Uncommon Life

By Stan Walchuk Jr.

Vista PublishersCommon Man

678 pages

$26.95

Stan Walchuk Jr. was born in Edmonton. By the age of 13 it was clear that he wanted to spend a much of his life as possible in the wilderness. You can read all about that adventure in chapter 8. By age 16 he had abandoned his first try at finishing his formal education and spent a year working for a Yukon outfitter, headquartered on a piece of land not far from where his younger brother, Len, now operates LeBarge Ranch Ltd. with his wife, Karla DesRosiers.

Stan did end up going back to school, finishing his grade 12, getting a couple of university degrees, and teaching for about ten years. Len, like me, is a retired teacher, having spent a couple of years in Haines Junction and also in Dawson City, leaving the same year I arrived here, and concluding his career as an administrator in a couple of Whitehorse schools.

These days Stan and his wife, Marlene, operate Blue Creek Outfitting, near McBride, B.C. For somewhat longer than 20 years they have been offering self-guided pack trips, trail riding and packing clinics and archery training. They also breed, raise, and train trail horses, having trained over eighty trail horses in the past twenty years.

While there are some sidelong references to Mr. Walchuk being in a classroom and dealing with students, most of this book is about his adventures in the wild, some of which seem to be more like misadventures. He was in and out of enough scrapes before his 16th birthday, that he had me wondering if he was going to live to grow up.

The structure of the book is eccentric in a number of ways. It all works, but you have to get used to it. Most of the 33 chapters begin with a reflection, sometimes no more than a paragraph, sometimes a page or more. These touch on some aspect of the story that will make up the chapter that follows. The chapters are all narrated in the first person voice, but in the present tense. Stan doesn’t seem to like quotation marks, so you do have to adjust to the way he handles dialog, of which there is a great deal.

 

When in the wilderness alone he talks to himself, to the land, to the animals he is hunting. His writing is very descriptive, whether he is looking at a particular view, or taking you along a trail, whether on foot or on horseback.

Chapters 11 and 12 are specifically about his early adventures in the NWT and the Yukon. The first ten chapters are about school days, how he fell in love with horses, and some early adventure/almost disasters that do suggest, to some extent, what some of the later chapters will be like.

It’s not quite clear in the books when he makes the transition to full time outfitting and guiding. Most of the stories seem to be more of a personal than professional nature. I’m also guessing that most of his actual forays into the mountains, whether hunting with rifle or bow, don’t have quite as much drama as the stories he has chosen to tell here.

Sure, drama and an element of danger make for a more exciting story, but there are enough of those moments in this book to make you wonder why the man is still alive. However, the book is subtitled “The Wild, Wacky and Adventurous Life of Stan Walchuk Jr.” so that should tell you a lot about the kinds of stories he would chose to set in print. It should also suggest to you the amount of humour that Walchuk brings to the page.

This is a long book, and it’s been years since the Star paid me anything for doing this column. The books I receive are worth the time. Stan wrote that I could probably just read some sample chapters and he’d be happy, but I don’t review anything I don’t finish, and some paid assignments that actually required me to read three other non-fiction books took me away from this one a number of times, so I’ve just completed it this week, having begun it on February 27. For several weeks Stan’s face looked at me accusingly from beside my reading chair while I was in the middle of those other books.

I tell you all this so you will understand that the book kept pulling me back in spite of all the interruptions. I’m not an outdoorsy sort of person, so there were times when I was overloaded on mountainous trails and treacherous rivers, but I stayed with it to the end and enjoyed it.

 

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