One boy’s defence of the greatest Canadian song of all time
By Dave Bidini June 29, 2012
The boy came home from school, 1974. He plunked his gym bag on the landing at the bottom of the stairs. The boy felt tired after sitting all day, being talked at by his long-haired teacher in the brown corduroy skirt in the yellow light of the dry classroom, but at the same time his mind was curious and alive, having spent most of the day surrounded by the strange new faces of the strange new boys and girls in Grade 6. Hopping down the hallway to his room at the back of the house, he stopped for a moment in front of his bed before doing that which adults only did while drunk on holidays or after being apprehended in a hotel room by villains wanting to extract a confession: leaving his feet then landing — bwoaff! — in a starfish across his blue and white comforter. The feet of the bed scraped across the hardwood floor and the round coils of the box springs wheezed like an old asthmatic man rolling home a cartful of groceries on a hot summer day. His mother called to him from the brightness of the kitchen: “So how was your day?” Feeding his words into the fat of his pillow, the boy answered
Shruuummppph” before raising his head to be understood: “Fine. Good. OK.” From the kitchen, he heard plates clanking in the cupboard, chairs moving about. Stretching an arm out of his starfish, he reached for the bedside table.
He found his transistor radio, then gathered it into his body. The radio was bulbous and silver, with two dials on the side and a small speaker grille on the front below a narrow windowpane with a red arrow that glided across the stations: both FM and AM. In the evening, he’d secret the radio under his chin like a small, still alien protecting his planet’s sacred bauble and set the volume to barely nothing while tuning in to Maple Leaf broadcasts on CKFH. The quiet of the broadcast — the announcers’ voices, the sound of the crowd, the faint rumour of action — made the boy feel as if he were listening to the game from a distance farther away than space, maybe through one of those parabolic microphones he’d read about in Scientific International or The Martian Chronicles. At the same time, because the rest of the world was so quiet — his room, his house, his street, his city — the faintness of the sounds was somehow loud, and because he had to listen so hard, he heard things he wouldn’t have heard at full volume: a fat popcorned fan in a peewee coach’s jacket yelling at Dave Dunn on defence; Errol Thompson pushing out a gush of air — “DFFFTTT!” — after taking a puck to the stomach; or the last trailing notes of the Gardens’ organist ending something from Fiddler on the Roof. In these moments, silence grew loud and small sounds grew big. This made the boy felt big, too.
Since it was only the afternoon and not the evening — and since the only sports on the radio came every six hours in three-minute segments between the news and weather — the boy flipped on his back, rolled the bauble on to his stomach and tuned the dial to his favourite station, 680 CFTR. Everyone else in the neighbourhood listened to the city’s other station, CHUM — sometimes the boy did, too — but he listened mostly to CFTR because it was new, and because it was new, it was better. Even though the boy would grow up to be a man who was distrustful of most new things, back then, old and traditional and established meant something that was stale, dry and boring while new was bright, shining and fabulously charging into the glowing chasm of a galactic future. New was something that was happening now and next and later, and since that’s how the boy’s brain and body worked, CFTR was a better station, even though they played more or less the same songs as CHUM, although one thing they did that the other station did not do was play The Streak every hour at the top of the hour. The Streak — a comedy number by country-joke singer Ray Stevens about people who take off their clothes and run around sporting events and awards shows — was probably the boy’s favourite song, which is not to say it was the song he’d remember most from his boyhood. Instead, it was the songs that scared him and made him sad that he carried into his life. They were also the ones he dreaded hearing, but listened to closer than others. Back then, strong music was unsettling, like the effects of a strange potion or the first sign of a sudden terrifying storm. In a book the boy had once read about cowboys, an old codger said, “Sometimes, you’ve just got to take your medicine and move on.” The boy thought that maybe that’s what listening to those songs was like.
He turned on the radio. CFTR was playing I Shot the Sheriff, which the boy thought was a good song, even though, because he was only 11, he couldn’t really tell. In the song, a deputy got killed, which the boy thought was cool because killing and death was cool, at least in this case, where a killer had been wrongfully accused. The story in the song was like a TV cop show — maybe Mannix or Cannon or The Streets of San Francisco — and the keyboards went brap brap brap; at least the boy thought they were keyboards. The song was by a guy from Britain named Eric Clapton and it came from an album called 461 Ocean Boulevard, which the boy had been given by his cousins who lived in the basement of his uncle’s house behind the hedge. He’d found a picture of Clapton in Circus magazine with long, greasy, seaweed hair wearing a purple shirt with a big collar, and he’d clipped it for his wall. He’d taped it up beside a poster of the Rolling Stones, and another one of Aerosmith. Beside that was Frank Mahovlich wearing the red and white of Detroit, and beside that was Dave Keon, his tongue curving around his lip as he reached out his stick trying to get to the loose puck.
I Shot the Sheriff ended and a sad, terrifying song started. The song was called Seasons in the Sun, but the boy couldn’t understand why it was called that because there was nothing happy or sunny about the song. It was performed by a singer named Terry Jacks, who was a Canadian musician from Vancouver, which concerned the boy even more: This sad, terrifying song had been written by someone who came from where he did. While it was probably the first serious or “heavy” song he’d ever heard, it was also impossible to measure the true weight of darkness that absorbed him while it played, more so considering that, up until this point, most of the music he’d heard or books he’d read or movies he’d seen had been dusted with the icing sugar of fantasy, the caramel of adventure, the sweet chocolate of folly. Death came in the form of lasers slicing open villains or flaming car wrecks shooting over a craggy and collapsing precipice. Like I Shot the Sheriff or The Night Chicago Died or Michael Murphy’s horse ballad, Wildfire, death was set to jumping drums and excited pianos and stinging guitars. Death in most pop music was rarely mournful or funereal, a word the boy didn’t know yet, but still.
The song started with a few guitar chords played with a wobbly sound, a sound the boy would later find out was called “tremelo,” a word that made him think of a kind of delicious ice cream not yet invented. The words went “Goodbye to you my trusted friend/We’ve known each other since we were nine or 10.” The boy had listened to other kids’ music, where the people in the song were also kids, but none of them had words like, “Goodbye my friend/It’s hard to die,” which Terry Jacks sang just as the drums kicked in. The song made the boy sad because the singer sounded sad. His voice was also a little like his — young and mewling, weak-sounding — and because the subject of the song had a mom and a dad and a family, and because he was being taken away from them — the reason was probably death, although he couldn’t be sure — the boy became vacuumed into the words, even though he resisted, something he always tried to do whenever CFTR played the song.
The boy felt his body against the loam of the bed; the mattress, sheets and pillows were trying comfort to him and make the world soft and forgiving through the harshness of the song, which continued: “Goodbye papa, please pray for me. I was the black sheep of the family.” The image of the black sheep terrified the boy — sheep were supposed to be white, but this one wasn’t; that’s how you could tell something was wrong, he thought — and there was another line: “Goodbye papa, it’s hard to die.” It was the first time a song had ever talked about dying in this way: as something real and terrible and hard. It sounded as if the singer knew he was going to die, and this made the boy feel cold and sick. He’d seen this sort of thing a few times on TV, in cancer movies like Brian’s Song, but it was never like this, never this bad. Nobody had ever seemed so helpless. Death had never seemed so real. The third verse started: “Goodbye Michelle, my little one.” The boy was dying. The end was near.
But then something happened that always happened whenever he heard the song. Just as he was about to force himself to turn off the radio and read one of his Hockey Pictorials that laid on the carpet beside his bed (“Could Chico Be The Man For This Years’ Isles Run?”), the song started to rise up, lifting itself through the sorrow and out of the darkness. The singer sang higher and an orchestra started playing and the sound of girls like angels began oooohhhing in the background. The drums thumped and the guitar tremelo’ed and the singer repeated words about joy and fun and starfish and beaches. The boy wondered if Terry Jacks was trying to say that maybe death wasn’t so bad, that maybe it all works out in the end. The boy didn’t know, but there was lots he didn’t know. Lots and lots and lots. Seasons in the Sun faded out — it soundest brightest, most positive, as it was ending, thought the boy — and the next song was called You’re Having My Baby by some guy named Paul Anka. The boy liked that one, too.