Over the weekend, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the Harbord Street Jazz Festival! Basically, a number of Torontonian jazz musicians who frequented Harbord Street congregated here and performed live. Several of them were world-class—notably Mark Crawford, an awesome jazz guitarist, and his daughter Kerri, an alto sax.
One of the coolest moments was an outdoor concert by the oddly-named Shuffle Demons, a jazz-funk conglomerate with three saxophones, a bassist, and a stellar drummer. During the last portion of their forty-five-minute set, they played their most famous song, “Spadina Bus.” During this joyous explosion of jazz-inflected happiness, we—about twenty of the fifty or so people lining Harbord—formed an impromptu conga line and danced blithely through the nearby Middle Eastern restaurant. The concert was wonderfully liberating!
Of course, after the festival, I’ve had a bit of opportunity to reflect on the restorative powers of music. I love music, because it engages a different part of my brain: music nourishes creativity, allows rationality and emotion to blend without confusion or conflict, and—without puttin’ too fine a point on it—allows me to get my groove on. I said it thus in a poem I wrote a while ago:
I’m thankful for the beat of rock and roll,
For crashing drums and searing, thunderous bass,
Because its simple chords restore my soul
And give me glimpses of His smiling face.
That’s more or less it. When I hear Adam Clayton’s bass or John Bonham’s drums, I feel the presence and the pleasure of God. Allow me to illustrate this in a few different ways.
First…when I was a teenager, I was bursting at the seams, and really, desperately needed to discover my identity. Oddly—but, in the end, happily—one way I discovered it was through music! I wanted to relate to a world that was larger than the one that I knew at that time…and Bono’s cries for El Salvador on “Bullet the Blue Sky,” Michael Hutchence’s soft croons throughout his work with INXS, and Pete Townshend’s pulsing and potent power-chords—particularly on “Pinball Wizard,” “Who are You?”, and “Won’t Get Fooled Again”—freed me to discover myself. On this voyage of discovery, I was helped by a good friend who enjoyed ’60s and ’70s rock and roll with great passion.
“Who are you? Who, who, who, who?” I asked myself that question continuously through the tense and confusing world that was high-school, through the immense and exhilarating experiences of undergrad, and into perplexing and poignant graduate work. In third year at Mount Allison, I wrote an essay about U2’s song “One,” exploring the postmodern implications of Bono and the Edge’s foray into heartache; I attended Christian rock concerts where well-meaning Monctonians echoed, but couldn’t quite approach, Tom Petty’s ardent simplicity…
and finally, a year later, at twenty-one, I learned to drink alcohol without feeling like it was evil…which introduced me to the beauty of the summertime campfire, and drinking at the cottage. We—there were about twelve of us—spent some weekends together on P.E.I. for two or three years, and covered 54-40 on guitar (before we saw them live), listened to Gordon Lightfoot on vinyl, and talked about language, love, and life as we waited for Aerosmith in the rain. Paradoxically, music—which had earlier helped me to retreat from myself—brought me the resuscitating power of friendship.
And second, after music brought me friendship, my friends taught me to dance.
After I moved into a ramshackle house in downtown Toronto in 2009, I got to know a wonderful guy named Andre. Over a couple years, he and I became best friends and brothers in spirit. Andre taught a marvellous dance class: the form is called Modern Jive. You can find out more here. It’s a simple dance-form that allows one to dance to any song that has a four-four beat (although some are easier than others!).
In our longest-lasting incarnation, we—again, about a dozen, but a different dozen—congregated at a lovely Irish pub (that, alas, no longer exists!) at St. George and College for about fifteen months. Every Monday night, we’d gather, and learn three to five dance moves. After we busted a move to Lady Gaga and the Stones, and Deep Purple—“Breakthrough! Octopus! Half-nelson!”—we’d go downstairs, and drink a pint (or a pitcher, or two…) of Keith’s Red, and some of us would sing karaoke. I enjoyed U2, the Stones, and Springsteen the most.
After the unfortunate demise of that part of our dance class, I found myself at an Anglican church one spring night with friends, listening to a lovely band playing Springsteen’s “Promised Land” after the Eucharist. After the first chorus, the preacher and his daughter jumped into the aisle and danced. Whereupon I moved into the aisle alongside them…and one of my best friends took my hand, and let me spin her around the floor for thirty seconds. It was a blissfully ecstatic experience!
So: music taught me that I can dance and sing (though I can do neither quite as well as I’d like). It also gave me an easy way to meet new people—sometimes, anyway—and forced me to acknowledge both my spatial disability and my sexuality. Those things deserve posts of their own.
And it taught me an indelible part of who I am: I’m a singer and a dancer. I’m also far more patient with my body than I ever thought I could be, and I’m loyal to those who are loyal to me.
“Do you really think I care / what you read, or what you wear? / I want you to join together with the band.” Thanks, Pete. Yeah: music helps me, and us, to join together. And like Neil said a little later, “Rock and roll is here to stay.” I hope so! Plus, partly because of the healing and freeing powers of music—and the friendships I made through that music—so am I.