“Dreams.” The old man took a pull off his cigarette and sucked the smoke deep into his lungs. “You spend your life chasing dreams, and then one day you wake up and realize your dreams died while you were playing in some shit-dive bar for five fucking people. He emptied his glass and stared at the young man sitting across from him. “You getting all this down, kid?”
“Good. I gotta take a piss. Get me another beer.”
“That old guy your grandfather or something?” The waitress asked, her skirt too short for church but just the right cut for a hole-in-the-wall beer joint.
“Nah. I’m doing a story on him. I’m a journalism student at the U of T.”
“A journalism student, huh?” The waitress smiled. “You don’t look old enough to be in high school.”
“Need to see some I.D.?”
“Bring my friend another Coors, please.”
“Two sounds a hell-of-a-lot better than one,” the old man barked as he stumbled back toward the table.
“Hell,” the old man tipped his hat. “You can call me honey all day long, but my given name is James. My young friend here goes by the name of Kyle.”
“Pleased to meet you both; I’m Delilah.”
Kyle looked up from his note book and found James debating which beer he wanted to pour into his glass first.
“So when did you first come to Toronto?”
“Did you come alone?”
“Were you married?”
“Yep.” James settled for the beer on his right and made what turned out to be a bad attempt at pouring it into his glass.
Kyle reached over and poured the beer on the left into James’ glass. “What happened?”
“I spilled my fucking beer. What does it look like?”
“With your wife?”
“There’s plenty of beer in the cooler, don’t worry about that. They’re on me.”
“She hung around during the early years. Stuck by me like a good woman. She eventually hooked up with a professor or a lawyer or someone of that variety. Split for the good side of town.”
“I’m sorry, James.”
“Don’t be. She got everything I promised her, it just wasn’t me that gave it to her.”
“Tell me about your record deal.”
“I got a manager around ‘74. Said he’d get me a deal, and he did. Took a few years, but the slimy prick made it happen. We signed a three album contract with EMI. That was back when an album was an album, not a fucking little plastic disc or an N23, or whatever in the fuck you kids are stealing nowadays.”
“I remember hanging out down at the Horseshoe. Stompin’ Tom was in town tearing it up East-coast style. It was a few days after I’d signed my deal. My manager introduced me to Tom after the show; Tom bought me a beer and wished me luck. Told me to remember that the music business was just that, a business.”
James drained his glass. “It was an exciting time. Brenda – my wife – she was over the moon. We talked about all the things we were gonna do.”
“Nothing, that’s what happened.” Four singles.” James waved his empty glass in front of Kyle’s face. “Can you fucking believe that? Nowadays they give you one shot, and if you don’t stick right away, they take the next act off the assembly line and throw the poor fucker who didn’t hit out with the trash.”
“It’s a tough business.”
“It’s a business, period.” James slammed his glass down on the table. “Nobody gives a rat’s ass about art or creating good music. All they give a shit about is making the green stuff. Cash. Do you think Gordy Lightfoot or that pretentious prick Neil Young would make it if they were just starting out?”
“There’s still a lot of good music being made today.”
“There hasn’t been a good album since a Canadian team won the Stanley Cup.”
“I disagree.” Kyle called Delilah over, but she was already on her way with another beer.
“Name one good artist or band that’s making real, heartfelt music in this country today,” James demanded.
“How about Jann Arden? Or Blue Rodeo?”
“Industry puppets,” James scowled.
“They’re poets. Creative forces.”
James grabbed the beer before Delilah could set it down on the table and took a swig straight from the bottle. “No soul. No mileage. They don’t know shit about from-the-gut music.”
“How can you know that?”
“Because I’m heart and soul, man.” James pounded his chest. “Heart and fucking soul to the core.”
“Gypsy Wind was your first single, is that correct?”
“My research tells me…”
“I don’t care what your research tells you, son, my first single was The Road In Front Of Me.”
“Gypsy Wind was actually my second single, but the record label said it was my first. I guess since The Road In Front Of Me didn’t chart, they figured no one would know the difference. They probably still do that kind of shit. Sneaky bastards.”
“Gypsy Wind made the top forty.”
“Just barely. Peaked at forty and then dropped faster than a whore’s drawers in a brothel. Radio just didn’t take to it.” James took another slug of beer.
“Your third single.”
“It failed to chart.”
“I wrote that one with a guy named Billy Joe Reed. He put a bullet in his head about a year after the song was released as a single. Stupid son-of-a-bitch. A few months after he died, some of his songs got cut by an American artist who went on to sell a ton of records.”
“Your fourth and last single, Gone, made it all the way to number twenty-eight on the charts.”
“But you still lost your record deal?”
“Not right away.”
James pulled at the ragged beard that covered what was once a handsome, but now leathered face. “The label released the album on the heels of Gone, but it didn’t sell. I went out on tour, opened some shows for Ian Tyson and a few for Anne Murray. The crowds seemed to like me, but nobody bought the damn record. I came off the road, no one at the label would take my calls. I knew then that it was all over.”
“They cut you loose.”
“Yep. No thank you, no kiss my ass. Nothin.”
“What did you do?”
“I was broke. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. Found out my old lady had been polishing another man’s pole while I was out trying to make our dreams come true. I was devastated. My manager, he was an optimistic fucker, said he’d have me another deal before the end of the year.”
“Well, we’re not doing this interview from the comfort of my palatial mansion or record company office, are we? Order some more beer, I need to take another piss.”
“Don’t you think we should get you some food?”
“Fuck the food,” James barked as he headed for the back of the tavern, “more beer!”
“Twenty-one years. Twenty-one long years.” James stared at Kyle, but he was looking through him, watching ghosts from the past stroll by on Queen Street. “Here I am, nearly seventy years old, and I play for change on the sidewalk. So much for dreams.”
“Why didn’t you go back to Alberta?”
“Go back a loser? No thanks.”
“You got a deal. You made a record. Doesn’t sound like something a loser would do.”
James lit a cigarette. “That and a three-twenty-five will get you a beer in this dump, son.”
“Most people never get that far.”
“Don’t you understand? I had the goods, man. I had the looks, I had the passion and the songs; I had everything it took to make it, and I still got fucked.”
“By the system.”
“I have your CD. I’ve researched you inside out. You didn’t get fucked by the system, you just fell through the cracks.”
“CD? Damn plastic discs. Sound like shit. You should’ve heard it on vinyl.”
“Well brother, if that’s what shit sounds like…”
“Why the fuck are you wasting your time writing a piece on an old, washed up, never-was folk singer?”
“Because I’m a fan of great music, and I believe your story needs to be told.”
“You think my music is great, kid?” James let out sandpaper laugh.
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t. Just because an artist doesn’t sell millions of records and have number one hits doesn’t mean they’re not any good.”
“I rolled the dice, son, and I lost.”
“You did more than most people ever will.”
“Can you play that thing, or what?” Delilah interrupted the conversation and pointed at the guitar case next to James.
James reached in the case and pulled out a battered Martin D-28. “This one’s for you Ms. Delilah.” He strummed a few chords and began to sing, “I’ll be gone when you wake up in the morning…”
(Photo courtesy of http://www.loviesguitars.com)