Down and Out in Upalong - An Essay By Greg Keelor
On a cold day back in March 2010, filmmaker Mike Bolland phoned Travis Good out of the blue to ask him if he’d like to meet Gordon Pinsent. Strange, yes, but even more so because Travis did not know Mike Bolland. had never heard of him. Bolland had been the cameraman on Gordon’s bio-pic Still Rowdy After All These Years and they had traveled all over Newfoundland filming Gordon as he went about the business being Gordon. Up in the hotel rooms, after long days of shooting and a couple of single malts, Gordon would be encouraged to read his poetry. Bolland loved it. Gordon suggested to Bolland that if he knew any musicians he’d love to see these poems set to song. So Mike Bolland’s partner Ann Margetts is a friend of Travis’ wife Joanne and by the bye Joanne tells Ann about Travis. Ann tells Mike. Mike calls Travis. Travis meets Gordon and leaves with about 20 poems under his arm. The next day Travis calls me with this great tale of going to Gordon’s, having a couple of beers, Gordon reciting poetry and then asking if he’d help turn these lyrics into songs. Well, I like all of this and volunteer my services as co-writer. It would be a while before we could actually get together - Travis had tours with The Sadies and I had commitments with Blue Rodeo. So a few months later I’m driving over to Travis’ not really expecting very much. When I arrive, Travis is already a little drunk. He’s sitting in the dining room at the table, scattered with wine glasses, ashtrays and a stack of lyrics. Across the room is a piano that Travis will visit many times during the night. The first lyric we did was “Night Light” and I’m just sort of blown away. It’s not easy to make another man’s words sound like your own, but I know this place, I know these people. It was like the song was writing itself. Gordon had told us we could edit his poems as we pleased and this one changed a bit, but for the most part the metre and the mood of his words inspired the melody and the feel of our songs.
The next lyric was “Let Go”:
“Let go of music
So I can sleep
It was as if he was speaking right to me. Over the last few years my ears have been a problem. A lifetime of “too loud” had taken its toll and by the end of the last Blue Rodeo tour my ears were pretty much toasted. The white noise was painful and distracting. It was so bad that I thought I might have to quit music. But that seemed insane and I had to figure out a way to continue. So the lyric made perfect sense to me. It was describing what I was being forced to consider.
“Shadows in the Sun” was the next lyric we picked up. It was a little spooky. This song was written on the first pass. What you hear on the record is basically how we played it the first time through, reading the lyrics off the page. At the time we thought the song was in honour of all the Newfoundland soldiers who had lost their lives in the Great Wars. Gordon later explained to us that he was writing about Joey Smallwood closing all the coastal fishing villages and outports. The great relocation. Either way, the song is about people who leave, never to return. We were so pleased with ourselves at this point that we toasted each other, but our glasses missed and Travis’ wine spilled onto the lyric sheet, leaving a blood-red stain on the page. We liked that too.
The last lyric of that first night was “Old Part of Town”, a weary drunk chorus sung at the end of a long night.
“I can’t see the sun from here
When did they take it down.”
Over the next couple of weeks Travis and I wrote seven more songs. Each just as compelling in their own way. Now we had eleven songs and Bolland arranged to take us to Gordon’s for his approval. Gordon has this great, downtown apartment - penthouse, two floors, spiral staircase. Nice pad. We go into his den, all bookshelves and deep red walls. A toast to our collaboration, a little chat, and then we sing our songs to him. What can I say? It’s such a treat. We love the man. It’s a very intimate moment to be singing Gordon’s own words back to him. Later Gordon told us stories about the poems and recited a few. I preferred his versions to ours, I still do. It’s such a voice.
So now, with his blessing, we think about recording. I knew that we had to keep it simple. My ears were too burnt. I couldn’t wear headphones, so overdubbing wouldn’t work for me. We asked James McKenty to come in and engineer (nice work James) and we set up facing each other, a few feet apart. We recorded all the songs, doing a couple of takes of each song and that’s basically what you hear on this record. We thought at first of just doing a duo thing and we liked that but we couldn’t resist putting other instruments on. So Travis added bass, Mike Belitsky came out to the farm and played drums for us (thank you Mike). Then Michael Boguski came out and recorded all the keyboards (thank you Michael). But our favourite day was when Gordon came out to do his spoken word. We had no plan at first. We thought he would come out and recite a couple of his poems and we’d put them on the cd like bonus tracks. But they were so good we decided to do them all and then it just sort of snowballed into a double record with us doing our versions and Gordon doing his versions with us backing him up or with the lovely arrangements provided by Bryden Baird (thank you Bryden).
One last quick story. Bob Young got a bunch of tickets for us to see his brother’s show at Massey Hall - Le Noise. A group of us went out before the show. A little food, a little wine and as we headed back to Massey Hall we stopped to smoke a joint. To our surprise, Gordon takes a toke and says “the last time I did this I saw Lightfoot at the Riverboat”. God bless the Gords.
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