9781553654384

Cigar Box Banjo : Notes on Music and Life

by ;
  • ISBN13:

    9781553654384

  • ISBN10:

    1553654382

  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2010-10-01
  • Publisher: Greystone Books
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Summary

A musician and writer's memoir looks death in the face and reminisces about a life in song. As a kid, Paul Quarringtonhad a favourite song. In it, a boy fashions a banjo from a cigar box, pluckily sets off for a music contest in the next town, and wins with a song that weaves in the sounds he'd heard on his way to the contest: a bluebird trilling, truck tires whining, the lowing of a cow. Now, a writer and musician himself, Quarringtonstill relates to this musical tale: his sudden and recent diagnosis of stage-four lung cancer has him pondering the path his own life has taken and the music it's made along the way. The result of this personal retrospective is an eclectic, hilarious, and moving book that tracks a life lived in music and words. Quarringtonruminates on the bands of his childhood; his restless youth spent playing bass with the cult band Joe Hall and the Continental Drift; and his incarnation, in middle age, as rhythm guitarist and singer with the band Porkbelly Futures. From rock 'n' roll, to the blues, folk to country to soul, he explores how songs are made, how they work, and why they affect us so deeply. In his imitable and entertaining way, Quarringtonalso recounts the adventures and vicissitudes he and his fellow band members share as they cope with everything from broken strings to broken marriages, as they make a last stab at that elusive thing called success. Paul Quarringtonis an acclaimed nonfiction writer, novelist, and screenwriter. His most recent novel, The Ravine, was long-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Quarringtonreceived the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour for his novel King Leary, which was also the victor in "Canada Reads 2008." He sings and plays rhythm guitar with his band, Porkbelly Futures. www.paulquarrington.org/www.porkbellys.com

Excerpts

Introduction
At the beginning of 2009, I completed a draft of a book that I was calling, “The Song.” It was a slim volume that dovetailed my involvement in music (I am assiduously avoiding the word “career”) with a look at some songs that I felt were noteworthy and influential: “This Land is Your Land,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” the enigmatic “Pancho and Lefty.” The Publisher quite liked it—“Some fine writing here,” he said, “some of your best,”—but there were problems. Apparently, when I attempted musicology, things flattened out some. My attempts to explain the intricacies of chord theory were confusing. “But,” said the Publisher, “the personal stuff is all great. You learning to play the guitar, those groups with your brother, then all the song-writing stuff, the stuff about Martin, Joe Hall, Dan Hill, Dan Lanois...”

All right. It’s good that the Publisher liked the personal stuff, because…

In the early spring, as soon as the weather turned at all nice, I had my racing bike refitted and took to the streets. Actually, I took to the pathways that wend their way beside the ravines in our fair city of Toronto. I bicycled into Wilket Creek Park (past the pond that features both in my non-fiction book “The Boy on the Back of the Turtle” and my novel, “The Ravine”) and ventured up a steep hill that the year before I had been able to do with, well, not ease, but I’d been able to do it. Halfway up, I abandoned the bike, gasping for breath. Moreover, I was panicking, part of me not believing that I would ever intake the air needed for resuscitation. “I,” I told myself, “am in pretty bad shape.” So I embarked on a program of brisk walking, largely in a nearby cemetery that contained a hill that historically winded me. I would walk up the hill and then gasp for breath as I continued down the roadway, checking my progress against whichever stone marker happened to find me breathing reasonably comfortably. I tended to end up beside my favorite gravestone. It was erected for a man named “John Ivan Johnson” and there was an etching of a racehorse beside his name. Underneath were the cryptic words, “Just By a Nose.”

Sometimes I found myself beside this marker with no lessening of the gasping. “Hmm,” I told myself, “perhaps something is wrong.” I googled and came up with a long list of possibilities, including the somewhat rare “vocal cord disorder,” as I had had, over the previous months, some issues with my singing voice. (And I am a singer, you understand, I sing with the group “Porkbelly Futures,” and play the rhythm guitar, although the actual rhythm section, the lads on the battery of drums and bass, might quibble with that designation.) So I went to my doctor, suggesting this iffy self-diagnosis, and he checked my throat and nose and diagnosed “post nasal drip” which had infected my vocal cords. I liked this diagnosis, although some inner part of me cautioned that he hadn’t eliminated any of the really dire possibilities.

But things were worsening. I found myself beside the “Just By a Nose” gravestone still sucking in huge quaffs of air. “I,” I told myself, “am asthmatic. Or else allergic to something. Air, for example.”

The first weekend of May, I was scheduled to make a couple of appearances in Ottawa, Ontario. I was to speak at a symposium about film and literature on the Friday evening, and on Sunday I was giving a house concert. I drove up, checked into a rather nice hotel, but immediately noticed I was having much more trouble breathing. Even a little rise, hardly apparent in the landscape, would have me inhaling heavily. I did manage to put in some time on the stationary bike in the hotel workout room, and although I’d set the machine at a low level—two, I think, perhaps one—I managed to get through about fifty minutes without too much stress. Thus, when I walked outside only to be rendered windless once more, I came to the one conclusion an intelligent, right-thinking man could: I had an extreme allergic reaction to tulips. After all, Ottawa’s famous “International Tulip Festival” was in full swing, those fucking bulbs were opening up everywhere.

...

The next day—after an inexplicably exhausting journey to purchase some medications (“Buckley’s Cough Mixture” and lozenges for my croaking throat, a big bottle of Tums for a certain sloshing heaviness I felt about my gut)—I drove out to Chelsea to visit my brother Joel. Also in attendance was Robert Wilson, who is the manager/booking agent for Porkbelly Futures. We barbecued many meats and drank many bottles of wine, so when I lay down to sleep and found comfort an impossibility, I had no reason for undue concern. Now, I know, you people out there are finding a certain irritating disregard for reality, an ability for self-deception that would rival a three-year-old’s. For what it’s worth, over breakfast I did instruct my brother Joel to Google many ailments: the afore-mentioned “vocal cord disorder,” “pneumonia,” “pleurisy,” and, yeah, “lung cancer.” But we ruled out lung cancer because 1) I had not been coughing up blood and b) I had not experienced a “sudden and unexplained weight loss.”

I was scheduled to perform at a house concert. In case you are unfamiliar with this concept, I was, essentially, going to sing in someone’s livingroom. People were invited, they paid a small entrance fee, which was all turned over to me....had a bottle of whisky with me, I had my Buckley’s, and I hoped that the combo would loosen up the vocal cords and give me the requisite energy. And it worked out pretty well, I sang some songs, I read some poetry.

You know, I think I may append one of those poems into these very pages. After all, it does have some thematic connections. Here’s one that’s a little bit of foreshadowing:

Crossroad Blues
When I was 15
My mother died and I
Started playing the blues on
A Zenon guitar and
Drinking Four Aces wine,
Which was not really wine.

Just like Robert Johnson.
Who made a deal with the Devil
at the Crossroads.
Robert Johnson sold his Soul
To the Devil,
Which was like selling his shoes
When he knew he had to walk down
A road of horseshoe nails.

I would listen to the records
And learn the licks with
Tongue-biting concentration.

I was pale and chubby and little-dicked.
I would drink Four Aces,
Which was not really wine,
But it was alcohol.
I would play the guitar,
Drunk in my bedroom,
Hiding from my father,
Who was drunk in the den
Of our house in Don Mills, Ontario,
Canada’s first planned community.

One night the Devil
Appeared in my bedroom.
The Devil has some personal hygiene issues
Which we need not get into.

The Devil offered me the same deal
He offered Robert Johnson
at the Crossroads.

He said, “I will make you
The best guitar player ever.
You will make strong men cry
And you will make women wilt
With their desire for you.
The songs you write will haunt
Mankind forever.
It will cost you your Soul.”

I thought about it.

“Well… what would it cost
if you just showed me how to play
a F7?”



And that was the attitude with which I, accompanied by Martin Worthy, my dear friend and a founding member of Porkbelly Futures, went to attend my consult with Dr. Frazier on May 11, 2009.

“How are you feeling?” he asked.

“I feel terrific,” I said.

“Great, just great.” Dr. Frazier picked up a file. “Well, we’ve got some answers for you. It’s cancer. It’s lung cancer—”

(“Hold on, hold on!” I wanted to shout. “Didn’t you just hear me tell you I felt terrific?!”)

“It’s the non-small cell type of cancer. You have what we call a ‘sessile’ tumor. It’s not what we’d call an operable cancer it’s a you’re a and think in terms of months andjkghghjgkkljhjkghjkghghjghjlshgjhkasjhkjashdjkn…”

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