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Lightfoot
Excerpt

On a hard-backed chair in the upstairs study of his Toronto home, Gordon Lightfoot sat smoking and playing guitar.

On what he called his Quebec wicker table were his usual writing tools: a pencil, a pad of yellow lined paper, a cup of coffee and a bottle of whiskey. There was little else in the sparsely furnished room, aside from a telephone, a desk lamp and a large map of Canada on the wall. It wasn’t that Lightfoot lacked possessions or was short of money. His house was, in fact, a mansion. “Sundown” had made him rich. In June 1974, the sultry song and album of the same name had simultaneously topped the charts, bumping Paul McCartney out of the coveted number 1 position and taking Lightfoot to the biggest stages in North America. Things had kept rolling with “Cold on the Shoulder” and “Rainy Day People” hitting the Top 10. The momentum carried him across the Atlantic for his first European concerts, followed by a return engagement at London’s prestigious Royal Albert Hall. By late November 1975, after two triumphant final dates at New York’s Avery Fisher Hall, Lightfoot was back home. But there was no time to rest. With another album due, he had to come up with a new batch of songs.

Lightfoot was deep into his writing session when the phone rang. It was Bob Dylan. Lightfoot and Dylan went back a long way. They’d both come up during the folk boom, shared a manager in Albert Grossman, had hung out together and respected each other as song-writers. “What are you doing for the next two nights?” Dylan asked. He was in town with his Rolling Thunder Revue. Would Lightfoot like to join the two shows at Maple Leaf Gardens? Although his writing and recording usually took precedence, Lightfoot couldn’t resist.

Rolling Thunder was an entirely different way of touring. It began with the idea of Dylan, his buddy Bobby Neuwirth and mentor Ramblin’ Jack Elliott playing small venues while traveling around in a station wagon, then accumulated a larger, illustrious cast of characters that included Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Ronee Blakley, who’d just appeared in Robert Altman’s Nashville, and a stellar band featuring gypsy violinist Scarlet Rivera, future Americana star T Bone Burnett and ex–David Bowie sideman Mick Ronson.

Dylan’s tour had opened on October 30, 1975, in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and rolled through New England in two buses: one called Phydeaux, for the musicians, and the other nicknamed Ghetto, for friends. Dylan, his wife, Sara, and their kids traveled in a lime-green camper called Palm Beach. It was a wild, theatrical affair, with Dylan performing in white greasepaint, Allen Ginsberg along for the ride as resident poet and actor-playwright Sam Shepard documenting the antics, impressionistically, in a journal. Cameras shooting footage for a planned film called Renaldo and Clara captured the giddy spirit of the tour. It was as if a bunch of kids had run away and joined the circus. Spontaneity was the order of the day. During one stop, Dylan and Ginsberg visited Beat writer Jack Kerouac’s grave to sing a tribute to their On the Road hero. At another, John Prine and Bruce Springsteen showed up just to be in the audience.

Like a traveling Woodstock, Rolling Thunder was shaping up to be a major pop event. Who could resist a psychedelic musical caravan?

The tour’s destinations were being kept quiet, with handbills like advertisements for an old-timey roadshow getting distributed only at the last minute. But word quickly spread. Lightfoot knew all about it. Fans were thrilled to learn that Dylan had new songs and that he and Baez were performing together for the first time in a decade. Then there were all the famous musicians onstage at once. Additional guests were hopping on and off like passengers on a train. Joni Mitchell was supposed to appear only at Niagara Falls, but she enjoyed the tour’s communal feeling so much she stayed on for several dates. Now Dylan was inviting Lightfoot to take part in the crazy, star-packed shows scheduled for Toronto.

Dylan and his entourage dropped by Lightfoot’s house the night of November 30 to discuss it. Things got a little testy with Baez, Lightfoot recalls. “Bob and I had to negotiate with Joan right there on the second floor of my house, because she was worried about the running time. She kept saying, ‘There isn’t enough time, Bob. There isn’t enough time.’ Joan was kind of uptight but a great lady. In the end, Bob just said to me, ‘You’re booked anyway.’” Lightfoot was officially on board. As he casually told a newspaper reporter the next day, “They gave me a buzz when they got to town, to come down and do a few tunes, and that’s just what we’re gonna do.” Like it was no big deal.

Maple Leaf Gardens, home of Lightfoot’s favorite team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, was Canada’s most storied hockey shrine. But the arena also hosted plenty of concerts, including Dylan’s last Toronto appearance, when he shared the stage with the Band. The fifteen-thousand-seat venue quickly began filling up for the first Rolling Thunder show. Backstage was buzzing. The scene was a who’s who of rock nobility. Elton John was there. So too were David Clayton-Thomas, of Blood, Sweat & Tears fame, and Ronnie Hawkins, the man who’d groomed the Band for stardom.

Up to this point, the concerts had been running close to four hours. Dylan was in charge, orchestrating everything. He was clearly pleased to have Lightfoot along. On the first night, before singing a stark duet of “Dark as a Dungeon” with Baez, Dylan dedicated the traditional ballad to Lightfoot, who’d first sung it while still a member of the Two Tones. “We’re gonna do this one for Gordon tonight,” Dylan announced. “Gordon Lightfoot, is he still here?” Then, looking around, he whimsically added, “Thought I saw him walking toward the door—stop him!” During his next set, before a mesmerizing solo performance of “Love Minus Zero / No Limit,” Dylan called Lightfoot “one of my favorite songwriters in the world.”

Rolling Thunder’s cast shone brilliantly as well. Mitchell delivered a riveting version of her song “Coyote.” Elliott paid warm homage to Woody Guthrie with “Muleskinner Blues.” And Baez sang the haunting “Joe Hill” and two moving songs in tribute to the Band, “Long Black Veil” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Then she joined McGuinn for a soaring rendition of the Byrds’ epic “Eight Miles High.”

Dylan had given Lightfoot an important slot in the show, right before his own final set. It took a long time for Lightfoot to come out; he was backstage tuning guitars, his usual pre-concert ritual. Baez, acting as emcee, entertained the crowd with her impressions of comedian Lily Tomlin’s best-known characters. Then, when it finally came time, Baez introduced Lightfoot. As he walked onstage, Lightfoot looked every inch the handsome hometown hero, clad in denim with sleeves rolled up, ready to work, the spotlight illuminating his blond curls. He’d started out a decade earlier, playing a small room at Steele’s Tavern, a few blocks away on Yonge Street. Now he had the prime spot at the hottest concert of the decade.

Backed by his usual sidemen, bassist Rick Haynes, guitarist Terry Clements and pedal steel player Pee Wee Charles, Lightfoot launched right into a brand-new song: “Race Among the Ruins.” It was his latest poetic take on a tumultuous romantic life. “The road to love is littered by the bones of other ones,” he sang, “who by the magic of the moment were mysteriously undone.” The audience loved it. Lightfoot’s songs always took listeners on a journey, drawing them into stories rich in emotion and without a trace of artifice. Next up, he sang “The Watchman’s Gone,” one of his many songs steeped in railway imagery. By the time he closed with “Sundown,” his taut tale of sexual jealousy, Lightfoot had everyone cheering wildly. The following night, he added “Cherokee Bend,” about injustices suffered by First Nations people, and finished with “High and Dry,” an upbeat number he liked to call a “toe-tapper.” Meticulously crafted, the songs were nonetheless instantly accessible and sounded entirely natural. With the audience screaming for more, Neuwirth stepped to the mike and urged Lightfoot back. Once again, a simmering “Sundown” enthralled the crowd. Both shows ended with Lightfoot and Mitchell joining tour regulars, friends and family, including Dylan’s mother, Beatty, for a jubilant round of Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”

The December 1 show broke the four-hour mark. Everyone was ecstatic. Swept up in the euphoria, Lightfoot invited Dylan and the entire cast of more than seventy people back to his place for a party. The Rolling Thunder circus pulled onto Beaumont Road, a quiet cul-de-sac by a ravine in Rosedale. What took place in Lightfoot’s mansion was a rock-and-roll bacchanal. His blue-and-silver Seeburg jukebox was working overtime, pumping out a steady stream of Cream, Zeppelin, Doobies and Flying Burritos. Everyone was either drinking, snorting or inhaling something, and smoke floated freely about the sprawling house—past the grand piano, the slate billiard table and the Tiffany lamps all the way up to the master bedroom, with its Frank Lloyd Wright stained-glass window. The heavy consumption may explain why memories of the event are so fuzzy. Most people think there was one big noisy party; others believe there were two. Some recall one of Lightfoot’s friends, a six-foot-ten banjo player named Tiny,  acting as security and greeting Mitchell, McGuinn, Rivera, Ronson and all the others as they arrived.

But almost everyone remembers Dylan’s buddy Neuwirth throwing his leather jacket into Lightfoot’s fireplace and filling the house with thick black clouds. Says Ramblin’ Jack, “Bobby was a very enthusiastic partier. I don’t remember all that transpired at Gord’s, because we drank to excess. But we were told we had quite a lot of fun.” Ronnie Hawkins, another Rolling Thunder addition, certainly recalls the fireplace incident. “Dylan was into drinking carrot juice at the time, and he and Neuwirth got into an argument. . . . Neuwirth just lost it and threw his jacket into the fire. It was like a smoke bomb going off.”

While revelry raged on the main floor, Lightfoot and Dylan were alone upstairs with their guitars, in a parlor room with a leaded bay window and floral wallpaper. Lightfoot had stripped down to a singlet, jeans and sandals. Dylan was still wearing his leather coat and fur hat. They seemed a mismatched couple, a study in contrasts. Here were two songwriters at the top of their games. But neither was comfortable in conversation, despite their friendship and mutual respect. Too guarded, or maybe too competitive. They did, though, share the common language of music. As others partied wildly below, Lightfoot and Dylan quietly traded songs. A recording made that night of Lightfoot playing Dylan’s “Ballad in Plain D” can be heard on the Renaldo and Clara soundtrack. A few photographs captured the historic exchange.

Each of them had started out the same way—alone in a room with a guitar, pencil and pad of paper. The discipline of that hard, solitary work created timeless songs that reached millions. Dylan had become the greatest songwriter of his era. Lightfoot was close behind. Although more workmanlike and straightforward, Lightfoot’s songs had an artful structure and poetic resonance that made them accessible in ways that Dylan’s weren’t. Both were highly prolific and idiosyncratic. After selling out the largest venue in the city, attracting a constellation of music’s brightest stars and hosting a fabulously decadent party, all these two artists wanted to do was retreat to a room and trade songs over acoustic guitars. For Lightfoot, as for Dylan, it was always about the song.

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The Kids in the Hall

The Kids in the Hall

One Dumb Guy
by Paul Myers
foreword by Seth Meyers
edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
More Info
Excerpt

[Introduction to The Kids in the Hall: One Dumb Guy (uncorrected)]

On a spring-like Sunday evening in May of 2015, I entered San Francisco’s prestigious Warfield Theater to catch up with my old friends, the legendary comedy troupe known as the Kids In The Hall. As longtime stage director Jim Millan ushered me into the backstage domain, I found them distractedly immersed in their various pre-show rituals, and as usual, it fell to Kevin McDonald to be the first to greet me, offering drinks and snacks before walking me over to a large round table where Mark McKinney nodded hello from behind a newspaper and Bruce McCulloch broke briefly from a conversation with his wife Tracy to raise an eyebrow in lieu of a verbal greeting. A jittery Scott Thompson darted in and out of the room, seeming to have misplaced something important, while Dave Foley offered me a warm handshake with one hand while nursing a soft drink in the other, having recently gone on the wagon. By this point, I had known the troupe for over thirty years, but while these five middle-aged men had long since outgrown their childlike name, very little else seemed to have changed about them since the day we met. While a sense of imminent fun hung over the backstage area, this was not a party; these men were about to go to work at the job they had created for themselves back on the streets of Toronto in the early 80s. As curtain time approached, Millan politely asked all visitors to clear the room and take their seats, affording me my first opportunity to get an unscientific read on the age demographics of the 2300 fans in the sold-out house. Surprisingly, it wasn’t all silver foxes like myself and it seemed to me that roughly half the house was comprised of millennials or younger, a large cross-section of these people hadn’t even been born when The Kids In The Hall TV series was still on network television in the early 1990s, and it was entirely possible that, for many, this was their first time at a Kids In The Hall live show. As the house lights dimmed, a recording of Shadowy Men on A Shadowy Planet’s “Having An Average Weekend,” the official theme for the Kids’ TV series, echoed through the auditorium to cheers of instant recognition. The air was as electric as I was nostalgic.

Taking in the moment I realized that the Kids and I had come a long way, some 30 years and 2,634 miles (4239 km) to be precise, to get here. My mind raced back to Toronto in the winter of 1985, at the very show where I had first realized that maybe, just maybe, these guys had something special. As in all the best stories, it opens on a dark and stormy night, when an especially nasty blizzard was heaping obscene amounts of snow upon the city. TTC streetcars were backed up all along Queen Street and most major surface routes, and you couldn’t get a cab to save your life. Frankly, if you had nothing better to do, you were best advised to stay home under a blanket, preferably near a space heater.

Yet some of us brave comedy aficionados did have something better to do, we who had bravely trudged through six-foot snowdrifts, past cars that wouldn’t be dug out until morning, just to get to a tiny cabaret bar called The Rivoli, where a photocopied poster on a telephone pole out front beckoned, “Man The Laff Boats, it’s The Kids In The Hall.”

Once safely inside the warm confines of the Riv, we bought our drinks from the bartender and talent booker, Carson, and took our seats just as Dave, Kevin, Bruce, Mark, and Scott commandeered two cramped but functional stages and went about the hilarious business of fulfilling their weekly residency. Besides the dreadful weather, the news that day had been dominated by a horrific Air India plane crash, and a kind of black cloud seemed to hang in the air above the city. Earlier that afternoon, the five Kids had huddled backstage to mull over whether they should even play the show at all, operating on the assumption that nobody would make it through the storm, or feel much like laughing if they did. Instead, they opted do the show anyway, for themselves, audience or not.

“The show went on,” says McDonald, “and for some reason, this became the first night that we had a lineup around the block and even had to turn people away. After that night, we always had a great audience at the Rivoli.”

The troupe had been honing their act for months, and I had been laughing along with their uniquely suburban takes on social justice, big city life, and institutional hypocrisy. Week after week, I had witnessed them creating fresh new material out of the ether, creating new characters and forging a unique comedy aesthetic, right before our eyes. While clearly informed by Monty Python’s Flying Circus, SCTV, and Saturday Night Live, their highly disruptive comedy that was as anarchic as any punk rock show playing in the neighbouring bars of the Queen Street strip. Sure they were all white males, but in the early 80s just having one of those white males be openly gay, and not always playing it for laughs, seemed revolutionary. While they played all the female roles themselves, it never seemed like a campy drag act, and their “ladies” were frequently the heroes of their scenes. While the name was already age inappropriate – even then, they were all in their early to mid-twenties -- it also announced them as perennial outsiders, the punks in the corridor, ready to break into the big room by any means necessary.

I had discovered them early on, and organically. After my younger brother, the sketch comedian and writer Mike Myers, had flourished at the Second City Theatre’s comedy workshops, I found myself following him to class and soon I too was learning the ways and history of improv comedy alongside my fellow students, Kevin and Dave. They said they had been doing shows and that I should come to see them. As fate would have it, my girlfriend at the time mentioned a comedy troupe she’d heard about that featured a fellow student from York University named Scott. Of course, all roads were leading us to The Rivoli, and as Toronto thawed out and warmed up, so too did the buzz around The Kids In The Hall.

Eventually that buzz translated into a career in television and I became a regular member of the studio audience for their live tapings. Soon, our secret was out, and their name spread across the country and beyond. Just as SCTV had put Canadian comedy on the map, The Kids In The Hall updated it and made it even cooler.

As they moved into film and theatre tours, various tensions within the troupe would at times threaten their fragile union, but like any thirty-year marriage, they have somehow made it work for three decades and as the curtain opened at Warfield in 2015, the marriage analogy is underlined by the sight of all five Kids in bridal gowns, symbolically re-affirming their vows via classic sketches, while offering new material, just as they had back in those chilly Rivoli days.

After the show, Kevin made it clear to me that while these five strong willed individuals would probably always find something to fight over, but that this same tension was probably also the secret to their longevity. As with their fictional garage rock band in their beloved sketch, Rod Torfulson’s Armada featuring Herman Menderchuck, there were times in the Kids’ career when they questioned if they were going to make it, but judging by the heroes welcome they received in San Francisco, it was clear they had finally arrived (having eaten).

It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t always fun. As a troupe, they’ve often made risky artistic choices, and probably shot themselves in the foot more than once, all in the name of reaching a consensus, according to McDonald, the state of their union was as strong as ever.

“I always say that, individually, we’re five smart guys, but together we add up to one dumb guy,” McDonald would later tell me during one of our many conversations for this book. “We create most of our own problems, then we're sad about it, but later on, we can see the humour in them. I think it helps us write better sketches.”

These pages constitute the inside story of how that One Dumb Guy would go on to write some of the funniest sketch comedy ever performed and inspire their peers and subsequent generations of sketch comedians to create programs such as Mr. Show with Bob & David, The State, The Ben Stiller Show, Portlandia, Key & Peele, and most recently, The Baroness Von Sketch Show.

Today, the Kids In The Hall can still make me laugh whenever I see them or their work, and despite cheating death and worse, they’re still here.

The story of just how they got here begins in earnest in the province of Alberta, when a young drunk punk named Bruce McCulloch met a well-traveled diplomat’s son named Mark McKinney.

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