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It was early March 2009 when the ring of the phone shook me from my daydream. I’d been staring out the window of our little library at the farm my wife and I had bought in Prince Edward County a few hours east of Toronto, deep in Ontario’s newest wine district.
I’d been watching the birds hopping around on the ground and eating at the feeders I’d put up. Grosbeaks, blue jays, and the occasional brilliant red cardinal. They were strikingly beautiful against the snow. It was easy to get lost in watching them, and why not? I’d sold True North about eighteen months earlier and had gone from being involved in twenty-one acts to only working hands-on with one, Bruce Cockburn.
Luckily for me, Bruce had decided to take off some time just around the period I had made the sale. So I had time on my hands, and I was spending a whole lot of it looking out this window, and a few others in the County, and I was loving it. I knew it was just a matter of time till things started to happen again, but I also knew it would never be the same.
When I picked up the phone, it was Michael Cohl on the other line. Michael Cohl. If I could be considered successful at all then Michael was Croesus himself.
Was it really forty years ago that we had casually smoked a joint together in Yorkville? Things were different then. We both were getting started in Toronto’s Yorkville district. While I had already been managing two bands, the Paupers and Kensington Market, there was no question that Michael was going to become someone special. And he certainly did. In 1989, he bought the rights to, and produced, the Rolling Stones’ Silver Wheels tour, which went on to become the world’s most successful tour to that date.
Receiving Michael’s call startled me. As much as I’d liked him, we hadn’t stayed in touch. He told me he was going to produce a show at New York’s Madison Square Garden to celebrate Pete Seeger’s ninetieth birthday on May 3 and wanted to know if Bruce would like to participate. The only other act he’d booked at the time of the call was the other Bruce – Springsteen – but he was now working on the lineup and it promised to be a good one. After a quick call to Cockburn, who was more than happy to do the show, I called Michael back and confirmed.
Of course we would do the show. It was a no-brainer. What a great way to start things rolling again, and the concert was a natural fit. This would not be the first show we had done to celebrate the great Peter Seeger. Bruce had done a concert in Philadelphia on May15, 2005, to acknowledge Pete’s fifty years of writing the “Appleseeds” column in the venerable folk magazine Sing Out! That concert, at the 1,400-seat Keswick Theatre, included Judy Collins, Natalie Merchant, Janis Ian, and Pete himself. But now that Michael had become involved, the event had moved to the 18,000-seat Madison Square Garden. When I mentioned this to Michael his modest response was, “That’s what happens when you have Bruce Springsteen involved.”
The show ended up with more than fifty artists on the bill, including Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp, Joan Baez, Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, and Ani DiFranco, just to name a few. PBS signed on to broadcast the concert across the United States and then to release it on DVD. Because of the number of acts on the show, various artist pairings and ensemble numbers were going to be set up.
Everyone was to do one or two Pete Seeger numbers, or at least songs associated with Pete over the years. We had requested that Bruce do “Turn, Turn, Turn,” a song he had recorded on a Pete Seeger tribute album, Where Have All the Flowers Gone, in 1998. But when Roger McGuinn from the Byrds was added to the show, naturally he was given the song that the group had taken all the way to number 1 in 1965.
But all’s well that ends well. Bruce was paired up with his friend Ani DiFranco to do the old union working song, “Which Side Are You On?” His other number would be done with the only other Canadians on the show, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, and Kate’s children, Rufus and Martha Wainwright. They chose to perform “Dink’s Song,” which is also known as “Fare Thee Well.” In fact, Fred Neil’s version of “Fare Thee Well” is one of my all-time favourite records. Check it out if you can. Sadly, the performance at Madison Square Garden would be one of Kate’s last public performances before she passed away from a rare form of cancer.
It was an amazing evening. Both of Bruce’s “duets” were remarkable and extremely well received. The tickets had sold out in a matter of minutes and the love and respect for Pete Seeger throughout the backstage area and the entire audience was palpable. At ninety years of age, his performance and energy were enough to give you hope for the aging process.
Every inch of the backstage area was crawling with people I’d met and worked with over the past forty-five years, from Steve Earle to Taj Mahal to Billy Bragg to Joan Baez. The music director for the evening was Torontonian Bob Ezrin, whose production credits included Pink Floyd, Alice Cooper, and Peter Gabriel. I had worked with Bob back in the eighties on a Murray McLauchlan album. I spent some time talking to Danny Goldberg, former president of Warner Records and currently Steve Earle’s manager. I had first met Danny when he owned Gold Castle Records, the American record company that had released Cockburn’s Stealing Fire with the hits “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” and “Lovers in a Dangerous Time.”
It was a bit like an old-fashioned school reunion. The neat thing was that just about every conversation had something to do with music and songs, which was a refreshing change from the current ongoing dialogue that seems to always revolve around bandwidth, piracy, or some other tech issue. Important stuff no doubt, but in my life there was nothing more important than a good song, and it was good to be somewhere where that was the main topic. Everywhere I turned there was an artist whom I had either toured with or presented in concert at one time or another. And with them came their managers, agents, and others, many who’d become my friends over the years. Lots of great – and occasionally not so great – memories.
The show was a signal to me that although I had left the record business, I hadn’t left the music business, and it represented a fine re-entry into the hustle and frenzied world of management, something I had seemed to have a knack for and hadn’t yet lost.
One quiet Sunday afternoon in June 1946 a truck delivered my mother, brother, two sisters, and me together with rucksacks and an assortment of pots and pans to a tent near the village dump in the small Muskoka village of Port Carling. Bob was eight, I was six, Janet was four, and Mary just two months. My father was white and my mother Indian, a distinction we children never noticed. Always having had a roof over our heads and plenty to eat, we didn’t know our family was dirt-poor and at the bottom of the social scale. All of this would change when school started in the fall.
My father greeted us with a large welcoming smile. He had come to Port Carling a month earlier to visit his Indian father-in-law, who lived at the small Indian reserve known locally as the Indian Camp, and had decided to stay — at least for a while. His ambition was to go north to look for work near an Ojibwa reserve on Georgian Bay where my mother had relatives. In the interim he had found work shovelling gravel and loading rock on trucks by hand for a local trucker for 60 cents an hour. Not being Indian, he wasn’t allowed to remain with his father-in-law at the Indian Camp, so he constructed a rough shelter from rusty pieces of corrugated iron at the village dump and saved his money until he could buy a tent and send for his wife and children.
My family had spent the war years in a tough, multi-ethnic area of Welland, Ontario, where my father was a steelworker. Our neighbours included Canadians of French, Hungarian, Jewish, Polish, and Italian origin, a mix that Aboriginal kids fitted into easily. Everyone was working-class and described themselves as such. Literally on the other side of the tracks, the quarter was boxed in by railway spur lines. The sound of locomotives shunting boxcars was part of our lives as were the shouts and laughter of drunks on Saturday nights. Bob and I revelled in this classless rough-and-tumble world. We regularly skipped school to play with our friends along the railway tracks. We engaged in petty vandalism, slipping into the sheds of neighbours to open cans of paint and splatter their contents on the walls or simply mix them together for malicious pleasure. When our parents weren’t looking, we even helped ourselves to my father’s homebrew; it tasted terrible.
My father enjoyed life. He prepared enormous quantities of homemade raisin wine and invited his steelworker buddies over to drink. A natural storyteller, he held court in the living room, recounting the dramatic events of his life. Bob and I shared his pride in dropping out of school at the age of 14 and dodging the truant officer who wanted to send him to the reformatory for delinquent boys. He would also describe his adventures as a hobo during the Great Depression, riding the rails across Canada, hiding from the railway police, knocking on doors to ask for food in exchange for doing chores, working as a lumberjack and farm labourer, and begging on street corners.
Inevitably, he would produce well-worn newspaper clippings describing an incident some years earlier that had provided his 15 minutes of fame. My white grandmother had obtained a job as cook, and one of my aunts as maid, for Stephen Leacock, whose summer home was in Orillia, my father’s hometown. My father had taken his canoe out on Lake Couchiching just as an enormous storm blew up. When my grandmother appealed to Leacock to save him, Canada’s best-known humorist rode his motorboat to the rescue and hauled father from the water against his will. The story was picked up by the wire services and carried in the international press. What follows are the New York Times and Toronto Daily Star versions of the story.
New York Times, Orillia, Ontario, July 9, 1939
Dr. Stephen Leacock, noted Canadian author and lecturer at McGill University, played a prominent part in the rescue of Percy Bartleman, 21, of Orillia, whose sailing canoe capsized on Lake Couchiching. A sudden squall upset the canoe along with several other small craft. Residents say they never had seen higher waves on the lake. Dr. Leacock, whose summer home is on Brewer’s Bay, was about to set out on a fishing trip in his motor launch with the caretaker of his place, Jack Kelly, and Mrs. Kelly when the storm broke. They had not lifted anchor and were about to make for a dock when they saw Bartleman clinging to his overturned canoe a half mile from shore.
As the Leacock boat headed into the high waves, Mrs. Kelly fainted. The motor launch headed back for shore, but when Mrs. Kelly recovered momentarily, it headed out to the youth’s aid again. Mrs. Kelly was overcome again and the launch took her ashore, where she was put in a doctor’s care. Dr. Leacock and Kelly headed into the lake again. After almost turning back within 100 yards of the canoe, as waves broke over them, they reached Bartleman’s side. Kelly lassoed Bartleman with a rope as Dr. Leacock manned the wheel. Bartleman was taken in to a motor camp, where other persons, blown across the bay in boats, were receiving shelter. The camp was littered with fallen limbs and broken branches ripped from the surrounding trees by the wind. William K. Bartlett, Orillia newspaper man, was one of those caught in the squall.
“The force of the waves knocked the rudder off my sailboat,” he said. “I let down my sail immediately, but just the same I went scudding across the lake before the wind. I passed not far from Bartleman’s boat and threw a life-buoy toward him. It didn’t get near him.”
Toronto Daily Star, July 10, 1939
Stephen Leacock, famous Canadian humorist and economist, played the leading role Sunday in a dramatic rescue. To Prof. Leacock’s knowledge of the boats and Lake Couchiching’s waves, Percy Bartleman, 21, of Orillia, owes his life. It was a rope tossed to him by Prof. Leacock that saved him as he clung to his overturned canoe.
Mostly disclaiming any heroism today, Prof. Leacock spoke of the storm and Bartleman. “I really didn’t have any part in the rescue: the young man really saved his life,” he said. “I don’t know how he managed to stick to that canoe,” said Prof. Leacock. “A couple of times he went under while we were coming towards him, but he held on.”
As for his part in the rescue, Prof. Leacock said, “I’m used to boats. We weren’t in any danger, but Bartleman was. The waves were tremendous.
“All we did was take him off the canoe, put him in the motor boat, and eventually ensconce him in a chair in my living room. So far as our saving him from drowning goes, this is twaddle. If he hadn’t been cool he would have drowned long before we got to him. But he was cool. As we approached him we could see him sitting calmly on the bottom of his canoe. First above water, and then under water. He was as cool as a cucumber. I never saw anything like it. When we took him off his dripping perch he grinned. The boy has a sense of humour, too.”
“The storm was a terrible one,” Mr. Leacock said. “It was like a sudden cyclone.”
Prof. Leacock, his caretaker, Jack Kelly, and Mrs. Kelly were prepared to set out in their motor launch for an afternoon’s fishing when the storm broke. They decided to remain in the safety of Brewer’s Bay, in front of Mr. Leacock’s home just outside Orillia, till the storm passed over. A little while after the onset they saw Bartleman’s overturned canoe with its small sail.
At the time, Kelly, six-foot Irishman, was steering the 26-foot launch, Prof. Leacock told him to make for Bartleman. Mrs. Kelly, who had been in bed all week under the doctor’s care, fainted as the launch struck the huge waves and the full force of the cyclonic wind.
“When I left the wheel to pick her up off the floor of the boat the waves and wind turned us round and almost capsized us,” Kelly related. “When she recovered we went back for another try and she fainted again. We took her to shore, tied a rowboat on behind and picked up some extra rope, and, then, Prof. Leacock took the wheel and we went out again into the teeth of it.”
Kelly stated, “once the engine began to stall, and I figured we would have to take to the rowboat, but, somehow, we made it. I don’t know how.”
When the engine began to sputter, Prof. Leacock shouted at Kelly, “We can’t turn back now. We’ll have to go on.”
“If Prof. Leacock had not got in so close to the canoe as he did, there is no telling what would have happened, because it would have taken us about an hour to come about and to have come up to him again,” said Kelly, “and we would have been lucky to keep upright ourselves.”
“It was one of those terrible storms that come up suddenly with the wind, “Prof. Leacock said, adding that he feels none the worse for his experience.
Bartleman had been out paddling with his wife and baby in the morning. At the time of the accident he had fitted a small sail to the craft. The terrible squall caught him unawares.
My father’s version of the “rescue” is different. He claimed he had been in greater danger from being run over by Leacock’s launch than from drowning. He also said the New York Times was wrong in saying he had been taken to a motor camp afterward. Leacock had taken him to his Brewer’s Bay home where to my father’s satisfaction the famous author poured two water glasses full of whiskey and they toasted their adventure. Then, as my father dried himself off, he heard Leacock on the telephone telling his story to the press. But then again, my father would likely have tried to make the story sound better each time he told it.
But these are just quibbling details. What counts, as far as I’m concerned, is that I was born a few months later on December 24, 1939, in a house on the shore of Lake Couchiching not far from where Leacock hauled my father into his launch. And I would like to believe I wouldn’t have had a father to raise me if Leacock hadn’t persevered in his rescue attempts. When I told this story in June 2003 at a McGill University convocation ceremony awarding me an honorary doctorate, I think the crowd thought I was quoting from Leacock’s famous book Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town — but I don’t care.
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