Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The Rites of John Mann

"I'm grateful for what you did for me."

John Mann of Spirit of the West is dead at age 57, after a seven-year battle with early-onset Alzheimer’s. He went public with his battle in 2014, while in remission from a bout with colorectal cancer. Much like the Tragically Hip shortly after them, Spirit of the West embarked on a final tour in 2015 while their singer faced a terminal disease. They played their final shows, at the Commodore Ballroom in their hometown of Vancouver, a month before Gord Downie announced his own diagnosis with another deadly brain disease (glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer).

John Mann was a towering presence in Canadian music, a real mensch. Broadcaster Dave Hodge wrote this week, “I’m never sure how and when to use the word ‘beloved’. Except when describing John Mann, who couldn’t be mentioned without using it.” Fellow musicians have flooded online to testify to Mann’s generosity, his sense of humour, and his talent.

I met John Mann only once: the very first day I heard his music. I was 14 years old and my family was visiting Expo 86 in Vancouver. Spirit of the West were playing some crappy side stage in front of almost no one. Their debut for Stony Plain, Tripping Up the Stairs, came out that same year; I don’t know if it was before or after this Expo 86 gig, but this certainly didn’t seem like any triumphant show in front of a hometown crowd; far from it. I was immediately smitten by this acoustic trio; I was just starting to break out of my Top 40 tastes and veering off in all directions, so the Celtic instrumentation was new and exciting to me. And they were really fucking good.

Most important was that singer: he was electric, wiry, and completely compelling. He was funny looking, too. John Mann was incredibly handsome as he aged, but at age 24 he still seemed awkwardly adolescent, with exaggerated features: his unbelievably intense eyes, his nose, his forehead, his teeth. He was somewhat devilish, impish, and you couldn’t take your eyes off him. I was still at the age when pop stars looked beautiful and glamorous and seen only from a distance. John Mann looked real. The music wasn’t punk, but I was pretty sure he was. The Expo crowd was sparse and unresponsive. I later found out the band had considerably mixed feelings about playing Expo, when I heard their 1988 song "Profiteers," about forced evictions of lower-income tenants during the build-up to the world fair. My family went up afterwards to tell the band how much we loved the show. As anyone who ever met the band will tell you, they were gracious and thoughtful and polite to total strangers. John Mann became the first (future) rock star I ever met.

I heard the record a few months later, most likely on David Wisdom’s CBC Radio overnight show Night Lines, which was appointment listening for me every weekend. I bought it at Sam the Record Man on Yonge Street. I became a huge fan, saw them whenever I could while underage (thank you, Ontario Place Forum and Concert Hall) and then as much as possible in my 20s.

I went to the University of Guelph and studied music, politics and Canadian history; I also took a lot of theatre courses. All that meant that my circle of friends were inevitably Spirit of the West fans. Music students loved their instrumental chops, especially those of muso multi-instrumentalist Hugh McMillan (Chapman stick!). Guelph is/was full of hippies and socialists and Billy Bragg fans, so naturally Spirit of the West had broad appeal there. “Political” was the soundtrack to most breakups in our social circle (allegedly written about Mecca Normal’s Jean Smith, I was once told). My own band and many others in town covered Spirit of the West songs in our infancy. The rockers and jocks had the Tragically Hip; the hippies had Spirit of the West. There was some crossover between the audiences, of course, and the two acts toured together quite a bit in the mid-’90s. Either way, these were the two most important Canadian bands on campuses coast to coast in the early ’90s. Such was our devotion to this band that when, in 1991, they added a drummer and electric guitars—a flying V, no less, on at least one song in their set—this was tantamount to Bob Dylan going electric. Spirit of the West were going pop, and they lost several diehard fans, especially when they made a “blasphemous” re-recording and rearrangement of the oh-so-sacred “Political.” I recall heated arguments in the bars of Guelph's Albion Hotel and Jimmy Jazz, no doubt replicated elsewhere in the country as well. Of course, for every acoustic ideologue lost, the band gained thousands more fans in the process. “And If Venice is Sinking” was a bonafide Top 40 pop hit, and it’s still in rotation today.

In 2019, Venice is actually sinking and now John Mann is dead.

I didn’t go see that final tour in 2015. I was too scared. Quite honestly, I hadn’t listened to the band since the turn of the century; my tastes had changed, and my memories were so good that I’d rather leave them in the past. Did I now want to see a once-great performer in a compromised position? Wouldn’t it just be sad and depressing? Would I just be lamenting my own youth?

Of course, within a year I’d be facing those exact questions again, this time about Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip. Honestly, if I wasn’t professionally compelled to witness the Hip tour, I’m not sure I would have, citing many of the same excuses. (I’m glad I did, for so many reasons.) In both cases, each man rose to the challenge and gave it their all in astonishing acts of bravery. (John Mann went to see Downie perform in 2016; Geoffrey Kelly told me about that here.) Spirit of the West were never as massively popular as the Tragically Hip; they never played arenas, not even in their hometown. Because of that, I fear their legacy is somewhat diminished, especially in the shadow of their friends in the Hip. But those who loved this band loved them deeply and with great fervour—even if they existed in a time capsule, as they did for me.

Spirit of the West had quietly faded away over the years, touring only occasionally. Mann put out a couple of solo records and had a successful career as an actor in television and theatre, returning to thespian roots he nurtured in high school. The band never broke up, but became known simply as the band who did the national drinking anthem “Home for a Rest.” (A song which, by the way, wasn’t even the lead single from 1990’s Save This House, never charted, and I don’t recall it ever being played on commercial radio in the band’s heyday. Its eventual place in the canon was achieved entirely through live shows, word of mouth—and pub DJs at closing time.)

Relegating Spirit of the West as a drinking band does them a huge disservice. Sure, “Home for a Rest” is easy to love, its appeal obvious. It’s now one of the few Canadian songs you’re likely to hear on the dance floor at a wedding. But throughout their entire discography, Mann’s sharp wit is always in full effect, and his pen is often pointed at a variety of social issues: environmentalism (“Save This House,” “Dirty Pool”), inequality (“Profiteers,” “The Hounds That Wait Outside Your Door”), and they were the only settler pop act I knew of other than Bruce Cockburn and Blue Rodeo to address Indigenous issues (“Homelands”). At times, Mann’s wordplay and puns could be overwrought (“God’s Apprentice”), downright clunky (“6th Floor”), or what would be referred to by later generations as “emo” (“Take It From the Source”). But you can’t fault a guy for trying; when you aim high, you’re bound to occasionally stumble. At their best, Mann’s lyrics brought a rare literacy and compassion to pop music, on par with his hero and peer Billy Bragg. Most important, they were one of the only Canadian pop acts of the day, like the Tragically Hip, to write explicitly about their surroundings: songs about streets in Vancouver and Halifax, videos with Mulroney effigies, and a biting, anti-patriot song called “Far Too Canadian” (“I am a sorry state”). They were ours. Maritimers loved them just as much as British Columbians, and they were steady draws in all stops in between.

More than a few Brits loved them as well:

Spirit of the West’s legacy was hurt by the decline of Celtic music’s influence, which was at an apex in the late ’80s and early ’90s (Waterboys, Sinead O'Connor, Proclaimers, etc.). I would argue that Spirit of the West, along with their British contemporaries the Pogues, were so good and singular at what they do (and very different from each other) that, for me at least, every similar band in their wake pales in comparison. The sight of flutes, whistles and accordions in rock bands was decidedly out of fashion by the mid-’90s (except for the Titanic soundtrack). Spirit of the West itself moved away from their core strengths, and by the time they turned their amps back down on 1997’s Weights and Measures, audiences—including me—had moved on. Seven years later, their next album, Star Trails, would be their last. Neither of those last two records made a commercial dent, though that’s hardly unusual for any band 20 years into their career.

In 1995, there was really only one band who took their torch and ran with it. Great Big Sea made chipper pop music from Spirit of the West’s template, devoid of the politics and darker side of life that made Mann’s lyrical world complete. It worked: Great Big Sea were far more successful commercially than Spirit of the West ever were. The Newfoundland band have multiple platinum records; the Vancouver band has two. Great Big Sea always give credit where it’s due: singer Alan Doyle always says Spirit of the West is the primary inspiration for his own band. In return, the magnanimous Mann was a big booster. In 2009, Spirit of the West was the opening act for the band they spawned (let’s call it a double bill). Doyle was one of many Canadian stars who re-recorded “Home For a Rest” in 2018 as a benefit for Alzheimer’s research, in Mann’s honour: he easily enlisted Sarah McLachlan, Jim Cuddy, Barenaked Ladies’ Ed Robertson, Colin James, the Odds’ Craig Northey and others. 

Mann fought his disease publicly for the past five years—not just with Spirit of the West, but at a series of concerts in his honour where he was content to simply dance on stage while his musical peers took the reins. He wasn't going to fade away until he was past a point of no return—which eventually came. His passing should not be greeted with sadness as much as it is relief. His condition continually worsened, as Alzheimer’s does, and Mann was finally moved into an assisted-care home in 2017, after his wife, Jill Daum, had been his primary nurse for seven years. Their struggle was beautifully portrayed in the powerful 2016 documentary Spirit Unforgettable. It’s essential viewing for any fan, naturally, but just like the Tragically Hip’s Long Time Running or the 2014 Glen Campbell film I’ll Be There—about that singer’s final tour in 2010-12, battling Alzheimer’s—it’s first and foremost a devastating story about a beloved man choosing to live the fullest life he can, in public and on stage, while afflicted with an awful disease. Yes, it’s painful, but it’s a brilliant film on every level, and it's by no means just for fans. It's a great film, period, because of the bravery and openness of both Mann and Daum. You can find it on Crave or you can rent it from iTunes. Do it. Tears be damned.

John Mann leaves a hole in many hearts. It’s our duty to fill that hole with passion, with compassion, with music, with literature, with theatre, with care for society’s outcasts and downtrodden, with care for the land and our surroundings. Yeah, that's earnest. So was he. Mann made his friends and fans want to be better, in every way. “Save this house,” he urged, in a song that is now 30 years old. 

This beautiful, talented, witty, hilarious and indefatigable Mann died in a hospital on Nov. 20, 2019. He was surrounded by friends and family, including his bandmates. His musical brother-in-arms Geoffrey Kelly told CBC’s As It Happens about how they shared a final glass of Guinness in the hours before he passed.

As his song goes, “Those spirits we drank are now ghosts in the room.” John Mann’s unforgettable spirit lives on, in the hundreds of people who were close to him, and in the tens of thousands more who experienced his music. The circle is unbroken. He christened us with wonder.

Come on and lift me up
Raise me off the floor
Let me hear the band
Play the Rites of Man


No comments: