The other night, after Stompin' Tom Connors had died, many evening news programs opened with that news. The emphasis was on The Hockey Song because that was, presumably, what instantly came to mind for the producers and reporters in the TV news racket.
Hockey, that ubiquitous song, Tom Connors. The connections made and delivered.
The next day, with more time to contemplate, coverage was a bit more thoughtful. On CBC's The National, Rex Murphy rhapsodized about Tom's old-fashioned patriotism. Romeo Dallaire talked about Tom inspiring Canada's peacekeepers.
In another brief bit on The National, somebody interviewed my old friend Dave Bidini about his personal plea to Stompin' Tom to come out of retirement, back in the day. Bidini had mere seconds to tell the story.
And there, right there, was the story that matters. The story of how the culture can shift, slightly, and then profoundly, through small acts by people, some famous and some not. These are the stories that never really get told, certainly not on the TV news.
I'll tell you about it. Some of the details are hazy, thanks to the fog of time. Some of those involved will argue about the details. Who said what. Or when exactly it happened. This is memory, this is memoir. And a memoir is not what happened, precisely in order and in logical fashion; it is how you remember things.
It was the mid-1980s. The first thing to know is that few people cared much about Stompin' Tom then. He'd retired. He was not recording or performing. If his name came up at all, it was in the context of nostalgia for a time in the 1970s when he was popular, his songs celebrated. Some people remembered that Tom had been angry at the Juno Awards, packed up his trophies and returned them, and then disappeared, in bitterness they presumed. Some people thought he had died.
At that time I was a student at York University, as was Dave Bidini. We were both involved in an attempt to set up a campus radio station, then called Radio York. We spent a lot of time hanging out at the Radio York office and another stalwart in the adventure was Alan Round who, along with Dave, is one of my oldest friends. We spent long days in that dilapidated space. Alan was and is obsessed with a certain kind of Canadiana. He has, for instance, taken many long train trips and could tell you about obscure towns in Northern Ontario and where to drink there.
He was mainly obsessed with Stompin' Tom Connors. He played Tom's albums all day, every day in that Radio York space. There was a summer when a few of us got funding to make applications to the CRTC to set up a real station. I was there, Alan was there every day and Dave was often around. I learned the words to a lot of Stompin' Tom songs. I'd only been in Canada a few years and the songs were a penetrating revelation. The celebration of ordinariness. The telling of Canadian stories, big and small. The wit and humour. It helped make me truly Canadian.
Dave Bidini absorbed it all, too. He was a musician, part of the Rheostatics, a band, still kids then, really, who were a bit punk and New Wave and at that point in their development where they either found a direction or withered away. Maybe it was during that summer that Dave went to Ireland for a while. There, he became friends with my parents and absorbed some of Ireland too, especially the music, traditional and pop, that struck him as unabashedly Irish and local. He had some Stompin' Tom songs on a tape and played them for people who asked about music in Canada. He also met our mutual friend Tess Hurson, and her friend Belinda, who at that time was dating a nice school teacher named Roddy Doyle, but that's another story.
When he was back, he became dogged about making Stompin' Tom's music matter again. At that time Canadian music was awful – Platinum Blonde, Corey Hart, Luba, that kind of synthetic pop. Dave tracked down Tom in a small Ontario town. Then he crashed Tom's 50th birthday party and presented him with a petition, asking him to come back, for the sake of young Canadian musicians who wanted Canada back in Canadian music. Tom, wary at first, took it to heart. He did come back, out of the wilderness. It was only then, after the comeback, that The Hockey Song became an anthem and Tom's ferociously Canadian songs reached a new, younger and bigger audience.
The Rheostatics became the ultra-Canadian band, singing songs about hockey, and all manner of Canadian stories. They became famous for that. The Tragically Hip admired them for it and took them on tour. Dave Bidini became a distinguished author, publishing many great books about hockey, music and, really, about Canada. I became who I am, a columnist and author, a nationalist, and I still know the words to a lot of Stompin' Tom songs.
Alan Round left York University and took a job driving a truck for Canada Post. He's not a musician or media figure. He's still driving a truck for Canada Post. But it was his obsession with Stompin' Tom, his insistence that Dave Bidini and I be as familiar with Tom's songs as he was, that sparked everything, at a time when Tom was almost forgotten. He made Dave Bidini listen and eventually Stompin' Tom listened to Dave and came back, out of his retirement, to truly shape Canadian music and culture.
Some of the details are hazy. Some of those involved will argue about them. But two things are absolutely true. Alan, unknown and uncelebrated, except by his friends, helped shape a shift in Canadian culture and Alan, driving a truck for a living, was and is Stompin' Tom's kind of people.