In the terrible year of 1968, with war raging in Vietnam, with MLK and RFK being assassinated, a sound emerged from a funky pink house in the Catskill mountains that some of us had been awaiting, whether we knew it or not.
“It’s like you’d never heard them before and like they’d always been there,” Bruce Springsteen would say, several decades later.
This is true. I can attest to the feeling of desperation in the late ‘60s, and how it was tempered by the music from five troubadours – one from Arkansas and four from Canada. (Toronto was a melting pot for music that would be heard around the world.)
The five musicians brought their separate gifts, in a visual mishmash of floppy country thrift-shop clothes, indistinguishable in their very white slouches.
But gradually we sorted out Richard Manuel from Rick Danko from Levon Helm – the token southerner -- from Garth Hudson – now the last survivor, with his weird beard and instrumental sounds – and from Robbie Robertson, who died Aug. 9 at the age of 80.
Robertson’s life is captured in the excellent NY Times obituary by Jim Farber:
Robertson came off as the dominant Band member in the documentary, “The Last Waltz,” by Martin Scorsese, which was made as the Band broke up, with a glorious final concert cast, in San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom on Nov. 25, 1976.
Scorsese was obviously taken by Robbie Robertson’s charisma and intelligence and ambition, which helps explain why the boys were breaking up the band.
When the movie was released in 1978, Marianne and I took our youngest, David, to see it in The Village (Dave clarifies all in his comment, below) -- the start of a family tradition. Every year at Thanksgiving, David pops in a DVD of “The Last Waltz,” as we give thanks for life and also the music and point of view of the Band, including Jaime Royal "Robbie" Robertson.
I had a few glimpses of The Band. In 1974, as a news reporter, I was assigned to cover the Long Island and Manhattan stops of a national tour by Bob Dylan, and the five musicians who had melded as members of Dylan’s band.
The only Band member I actually met was Levon Helm, when he was cast by Michael Apted to portray Loretta Lynn’s father in the movie, “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”
Another time, I saw Danko and a haggard Manuel perform at a Pete Fornatale fund-raiser for a food charity, in the Village, not long before Manuel committed suicide.
In 1980, there was a “grand opening” for the movie “Coal Miner’s Daughter” in Nashville. Maybe a bit sloshed, Levon played backup to Loretta and Sissy Spacek as they sang some of Loretta’s greatest hits. He was so modest, did not need attention.
I never did meet or eyeball Robbie Robertson, but his mystique grew in his post-Band years. People came to know that his mother, Rosemary Dolly Chrysler, was a Mohawk, raised on the Six Nations Reserve near Toronto. His actual father (who died young in a car accident) was not named Robertson but rather was a gambler who was Jewish.
“You could say I’m an expert when it comes to persecution,” Robbie Robertson wrote in his memoir, “Testimony,” issued in 2016.
One of my favorite Robbie Robertson songs is “Stage Fright,” about a singer – maybe Bob Dylan himself, who comes off very nicely in Robertson’s book, offering a functional car to the young guitarist coming to play backup in Dylan’s band.
Others think the song is about young Robbie Robertson himself.
Still coalescing as a band, the five musicians made a pilgrimage to a soul-music center in Arkansas, and invited Sonny Boy Williamson for some soul-food in a Black neighborhood. Home-boy Levon tried speaking polite Arkansan to a couple of white cops, only to have the five run out of town.
Another of my favorite Robbie songs is “Acadian Driftwood,” about French settlers on the Canadian coast, some of whom later migrated southward to join relatives in Louisiana, only to realize they were still outsiders:
“Set my compass north, I’ve got winter in my blood.”
As the settler prepares to go “home” to Canada, the language shifts into French:
“Sais tu, Acadie j'ai le mal du pays”
(Do you know, Acadia, I'm homesick.)
In later decades, Robertson performed and wrote music that reflected his Mohawk genes:
In his later years, Robertson gravitated to Los Angeles, but he continued to write and perform songs that spoke for outsiders, including himself -- part shtetl, part rez.
When Kim Ng, of Chinese descent, was appointed general manager of the Miami Marlins on Friday, she became the first female to hold that role in top American sports.
Americans like to congratulate ourselves on being the land of opportunity, which it has been, although under duress from our child-kidnapper-in-chief in the past four nasty years.
When voters elected Kamala Harris, part Jamaican, part Indian, and female, as the vice president nearly two weeks ago, this was cause for celebration in the U.S. -- although not by militia-type worthies with rifles on their hips who came out of the woods to help "supervise" the polling.
As for the rifles -- only in America.
Oddly enough, this opportunity stuff goes on in other countries, too.
Currently in London, under the leadership of Mayor Sadiq Khan, of Pakistani ancestry, large-scale celebrations of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, are being held in public places. This is not new. Two decades ago, my wife and I were in London (for a Giants football game!) when we ran into a modest Diwali celebration, some music, some dancing -- and we saw four female police officers, in classic bobby uniform, dancing along with the celebrants. Only in London.
Canada has its own share of vibrant minorities. I was reminded of this in the Saturday NYT in a touching profile of an orphan, from India, who lobbied his way to adoption in Toronto and now runs a high-end restaurant there.
When he was 8, Sashi was a street kid, abandoned, taken into a home in Tamil Nadu, operated by a small Canadian outfit, Families for Children. There are places like that all over India. My wife, Marianne, used to escort children from Pune to the U.S. for pre-arranged meetings with their adoptive families. ("I am the stork," was her motto. I think her total of kids was 24.) The U.S. was not the only country involved in adoptions. Canada was, and Norway had a large presence in India.
Children in these orphanages know what is going on: they are on display. They are not shy about asking foreign visitors: "Take me with you." (My wife still talks about the sadness of a girl, heading to her teen years, who had realized she was not being adopted.)
But as Catherine Porter writes in her poignant story in the NYT, young Sashi, with the desperation of a survivor, spotted Sandra Simpson of Canada, a return visitor to the orphanage, and he persuaded her to take him to Toronto and adopt him into her large brood.
How Sash Simpson became a top chef, four decades later, is a tribute to his drive to get in the back door of a restaurant, and do any job, and keep learning. He made his own luck, with the help of the Simpson pipeline, and others. His restaurant -- Sash -- is hurting during the pandemic, but he gives the impression that he forced his way this far, and will survive.
Only in Canada.
Then there is Ireland, where Hazel Chu, of Chinese heritage, has become mayor of Dublin, replacing Leo Varadkar, of Indian heritage, the first gay mayor of Dublin.
With my Irish passport (courtesy of my grandmother), may I say: "Only in Ireland."
Cardboard spectators stared vapidly from behind home plate, their expressions never changing as the Mets and Yankees committed something akin to baseball.
This was the ambiance at New Shea Saturday night as Major League Baseball introduced Covid-Ball, a makeshift version of the great American pastime, or what used to be.
Cruel boss that I am, I assigned myself to stick it out as a preview, or warning, of what this truncated season will be, if it lasts its threatened 60 games. (Some wary big names have already dropped out for this season; others are trying to come back from a Covid attack. To be continued.)
This was only an exhibition, spring training in mid-July, and there was to be another one at Yankee Stadium Sunday evening before the “season” opens late in the week.
I will tell you up front that my biggest thrill of the night was seeing the aerial view of Queens, my home borough – the globe in the park, a glimpse of the wonderful Queens Museum, the No. 7 elevated train gliding through the neighborhood, as sweet as a gondola through Venice.
Oh, my! I am so homesick for Queens!
I thought of the joys within a mile or two of this sweet spot – my friends and the heroes at Mama’s deli on 104th St., other friends at the New York Times plant, just to the east, the food and the crowds in downtown Flushing, the Indian food in Jackson Heights, and so on. I miss all these at least as much as baseball.
There was a strange hybrid form of baseball taking place in New Shea. Yankee manager Aaron Boone was moving his jaws inside his soft gray mask, either chewing something or talking a lot.
The first home-plate ump (they mysteriously rotated during the game) had some kind of plexiglass shield inside his mask, to ward off virulent Trumpian microbes.
I was mostly watching the Mets’ broadcast, with good old Ron and good old Keith two yards apart in one booth and good old Gary in a separate booth, but their familiarity and friendship came through. Welcome to this strange new world.
Later I switched to the Yankee broadcast and realized Michael Kay and the others were not in Queens but were commenting off the same video we were seeing. Not sure how that will work out during the season.
Early in the game I learned that the Toronto Blue Jays will not be able to play in that lovely city this “season,” for fear of being contaminated by the virus the viciously bumbling Trump “government” and block-headed Sunbelt Republican governors have allowed to rage.
I don’t blame the more enlightened Canadian government – but a few days before the season opener? The Jays will apparently play in Buffalo, creating all kinds of logistical horrors for anybody in Ontario with Blue Jay business.
The highlight of Saturday’s exhibition was Clint Frazier, the strong-minded Yankee outfielder who plans to wear a kerchief-type mask during games, including at bat. Does a mask impede a batter’s reaction to a fastball, up and in? Maybe. But Frazier unloaded a 450-foot homer into the empty upper deck – (Sound of summer: Michael Kay: “SEE-ya!”) -- and some teammates in the dugout flashed masks in tribute to Frazier.
I obsessed about those cardboard fans behind home plate. The absence of real people takes away one of the peripheral joys of watching a game – demonstrative or even annoying fans, the occasional celebrity, and, yes, I admit, women in summer garb. Will these faux fans become part of lore? Will they be rotated, replaced by new faces during the “season?” Just asking.
Finally, there was the recorded crowd noise, an apparently steady hum. No pro-Met chants, no anti-Yankee jibes, just background, like the roar of the sea,
I caught the last inning on the Mets’ radio broadcast, where good old Howie was speculating that the home-team genies in the control room were raising the sound a bit when the Mets were rallying.
I stuck it out because I had assigned myself to “cover” the event.
But I wondered about the reaction of my pal, Jerry Rosenthal, one-time all-conference shortstop at Hofstra, two-year Milwaukee Brave farmhand, and now lifetime baseball purist and authority.
How did Jerry like the ersatz game? He texted:
“Watched one inning of the game. I am now watching ‘The Maltese Falcon” for about the 25th time. That should tell you something!”
Yes, it does.
NB: Please save your best stuff about resumption of BB/Soccer, seasons, etc.. I am planning a piece on this by midweek when the plot thickens some more. Best, GV
* * *
Last week I wrote about missing the Kentucky Derby – the place, the season, the event itself.
Some readers mentioned other grand sports sites and events – Jim Nabors singing at the Indy 500, walking into Yankee Stadium (or almost any other ball park) and seeing the green grass, a day trip to Saratoga during “the season.”
I wracked my brains about sports places I have visited:
--Ebbets Field in 1944, when I was 5 and my dad took me to an off-season bond drive event.
--My first assignment to Notre Dame football in 1964, remembering a nice man up the block when I was a kid, who took me to see a few live Notre Dame games in a movie house in Flushing, and told me proudly about having been on a great Notre Dame team and never, ever, getting into a game.
--Azteca Stadium in Mexico City in 1986, feeling the place physically rock when El Tri was on the move – the appeal of any home team during the World Cup, but particularly for our neighbors to the south.
That was just three off the top of my head. Last night I remembered going to the Montreal Forum in 1984 and getting a tour from Camil DesRoches, the grand old publicist of Les Habs. Camil was old school – suave, bilingual, mustached, loved the cultures of Canada plus the U.S. He implanted the lore of Les Habs in my brain, so I wrote about it.
I kept up with Camil for many years after. He would send me cassettes, particularly of Montreal’s chanteuse, Danielle Oddera, and her duets and interpretations of Jacques Brel. Nowadays, the Forum is a cineplex; my friend Camil DesRoches passed at 88 in 2003; I still treasure my visit to this home to a great team, a great culture.
Please write about a sports shrine in your life:
* * *
My column from 1984:
SPORTS OF THE TIMES; FIRST VISIT TO THE FORUM
By George Vecsey
He pointed to a color photograph on his office wall, a picture of the Montreal Canadiens who won their fifth straight Stanley Cup 24 springs ago. His total impartiality was tempered not in the slightest by his being employed by the Canadiens for the past 46 years.
Camil DesRoches spent yesterday morning escorting a greenhorn on his first visit to the Forum, a pilgrimmage somewhat akin to the first visit to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, or St. Peter's in Rome or Westminster Abbey in London: the feeling of closeness to the soul of a people.
''I always say that hockey is like a religion here in Quebec,'' Camil DesRoches was saying. ''We are perhaps 90 percent Catholic, but we are all hockey fans.''
Camil DesRoches is a classic Gallic gentleman, nearly 70 years old, with a thin mustache and a large heart. He loves his wife, he loves Broadway musicals (he saw ''Oklahoma'' 26 times), he loves wine (''We have never had a bottle of milk in my house, and I still have all my teeth''). But just as strongly, he loves the Canadiens, and he loves the Forum, for which he is now the publicity director.
He was conducting the tour on a day of both sadness and anticipation. Yesterday morning, there was a funeral for Claude Provost, a member of the five-time Stanley Cup champions, who died on a tennis court in Florida last week. Later in the evening, the current Canadiens would work on stopping the Islanders from winning a fifth straight Stanley Cup.
The Islanders were taking a brief workout as Camil DesRoches led the visitor into the stands. Outside, on a perfect spring morning, the Forum seemed an ordinary brick building, surrounded by traditional Montreal tenements with their dark fire escapes. But inside, the Forum seemed a holy place, where one lowered his voice.
On the morning a Canadien was being buried, it was not hard to remember that in this building in 1937 the body of the great Howie Morenz was put on public display after his death from complications following a broken leg (suffered, as the history books always say, when he crashed into the boards on the St. Catherine Street side of the Forum). The Forum was filled with 15,000 people, yet it was as silent as a cathedral.
Yesterday the Forum's lower red seats glistened, as if painted five minutes earlier, and so did the middle white and upper blue sections, forming a classic tricolor. The stands of the Forum are oval-shaped, following the shape of the rink itself, just as the best bull rings and soccer stadiums of Europe are tailored for one sport, rather than multi-purpose arenas not quite right for any sport.
''There used to be eight columns,'' Camil DesRoches was saying. ''So in 1968, we rebuilt the Forum completely in five and a half months months, leaving only the seats. Look how narrow they are. But nobody complains, because we get more people in that way, 16,400 seats in all.''
From the rafters hang 22 banners, signifying
the club's Stanley Cups, 20 of them won since
the Forum opened in 1924.
''The best game I ever saw here?'' he said. ''Maybe in 1936, when the Maroons beat Detroit in six overtimes when Mud Bruneteau scored. I got home at 2:25 AM. Or maybe it was Dec. 14, 1965, when our so-called amateur club beat the Russians using Jacques Plante, who had just left the Rangers a few months earlier.
''Or maybe it was March 23, 1944, when Maurice Richard scored all five goals to beat Toronto, 5-1, and they named him all the top three stars of the game. Or what about the game in 1979, when Boston got a penalty in the last minute and Lafleur and Lambert scored to win it?''
The pucks from the Islanders' target practice started slamming into the shining red seats, so Camil DesRoches continued the tour. He pointed out Le Salon des Anciens - the Old Timers' Room - where former Canadiens are welcome.
The Canadiens are noted for their propriety, including a private room for the wives of the players. Only recently have patrons been allowed to carry beer to their seats, an experiment that would end at the first abuse.
In the lobby, two escalators form the pattern of crossed hockey sticks, a sight Ken Dryden, the retired goalie, always found compelling. Nearby, is the Pantheon of Montreal hockey, the plaques of 30 players and coaches from Quebec who had their best years wearing the bleu, blanc, rouge.
Near the entrance is Le Club de Bronze, 11 bronze busts of journalists and broadcasters considered to be friends of Montreal hockey. The 12th bust is of Camil DesRoches.
''I feel funny every time I see that,'' he said with a shrug.
The next stop was the Canadiens' dressing room. On one wall are plaques containing the names of every player since 1917. Above the lockers is a line from Dr. John McCrea's poem, ''In Flanders Fields.''
In English it says: ''To You, From Fallen Hands We Throw the
Torch, Be Yours to Hold It High.''
On the other side of the room, Camil DesRoches has translated it into French:
'' Nos Bras Meurtris Vous Tendent Le Flambeau, A Vous Toujours de le Porter Bien Haut.''
Camil DesRoches said: ''I have been told I did a good job of translating but also making it rhyme in French.''
Over a glass of vin rouge, Camil DesRoches talked of being the youngest of 19 children, of being taken to the cellar when he was 6 years old and being shown the barrel of beer and the bottles of wine.
''My father said: 'You are almost grown up now. You can drink what you want - but never get drunk.' I got drunk once, when I was 17, and my father made me stand almost naked in front of my family, in that condition. I never got drunk again in my life.'' Sipping his wine, he compared three of the great Canadiens of his 46 years: ''Maurice Richard was the Michelangelo of hockey - such dedication, he would work on his back painting the Sistine Chapel, never give up. Jean Beliveau, complete finesse, what style, he was the Da Vinci of hockey. And Guy Lafleur is like Raphael, whose career was not long, but he was an artist and he had a great time.''
When lunch was over, Camil DesRoches concluded: ''I hope you enjoyed the visit to the Forum. Also, I hope you see what it means to our French environment here in Quebec, just like the language, part of our life.''
We were upstate, visiting our daughter. Laura had three tickets for a concert in the park in Saratoga Springs – a group from Chad, now living in Montréal.
It was the last night in a Monday summer series -- called On Stage, because the chairs were on the stage of the large outdoor theater, an intimate setting for a few hundred people.
Four musicians, known as H’Sao-* -- three Rimtobaye brothers, Caleb (guitar), Mossbass (bass) and Izra L (keyboard), and their childhood friend, Dono Bei Ledjebgue (percussion) -- blended in intricate harmony, went off on solo riffs.
We caught bits of French, bits of English, and a lot of their tribal language.
The longer they played, the more we realized we were hearing a cri de coeur, a call from the heart – the life of the immigrant, trying to stay alive, seeking less dangerous corners of the world.
They have been in Montreal since the turn of the century, but have never left home.
One song, “For My Family,” began with drummer Dono Bei, rapping about waiting for a bus in Montreal, at 5 in the morning, reading a postcard from home, a cousin asking him to send him a car. The audience chuckled, but Bei’s piercing voice let us know this was serious business:
“You wanna make it happen so badly for your family,
“You keep digging, you keep digging.”
“I got ten brothers left behind,
“Their scholarships are all on me.”
The music was beautiful; it came from deep. One of the brothers explained why they had left home – childhood friends were having to choose between Christianity and Islam, with apparently ominous results. Their voices blended:
“I do this prayer to whoever’s up there,
“Jehova, Jesus, Allah, we need an answer.”
At times the group reminded me of the tight, intuitive “Buena Vista Social Club” from Cuba and at times it reminded me of the plaintive voice of Bob Marley cutting through the ozone. I thought I heard some of the South African chords Paul Simon incorporated into “Graceland” and at times I heard Sam Cooke on “A Change Is Gonna Come.” But mostly I heard these four brothers from Chad and Montréal, trying to work it out.
The musicians teased us: How do you know you are alive? Somebody in the audience said, “Because we are moving.” Exactly, the musician said. Prove you are alive. Get up and dance. Many people did; Laura stood up, made eye contact with Caleb, the closest to us, letting him know she was very into their music.
They wailed, they rapped, they talked about love. They told a tale about a rite of manhood, going into the wilderness to confront a lion.
(The band used to be bigger, or so they claimed.)
They prodded us to sing a chorus, in their tribal language. One band member chided us: we didn’t know what the words meant, did we. Something not very nice, he suggested.
After 90 minutes, on this balmy upstate evening, we were part of the rhythm, part of the harmony, part of the sadness, part of the joy, the front pages of the papers and the news on the television, immigrants drowning, Rohingya being slaughtered, children being ripped from their parents on the U.S. border.
After the show, the musicians stayed around, chatting softly, giving hugs. Dono Bei said the band was heading to Montreal in the morning; my wife and I would return to New York a day later.
“Bonne retour,” he said. Good return.
We bought all three of their CDs and rocked with them all the way down the Northway.
When I got back to my laptop, I looked up their site:
The group has been discovered by the Canada Council for the Arts, has performed in Canada, the U.S., Europe, Australia and also New Zealand with its rich cultural programs. But they have not been in New York since a visit to Lincoln Center in 2017.
I went poking around for a video: the first one that popped up showed them in choir robes, in a cathedral (see below.)
Exactly, my wife said. They are immensely spiritual.
Messieurs: quand allez-vous jouer à New York?
* -- H'Sao means the Swallow of the Sao, the people who were the ancestors of present-day Chadians. The group's origin is presented in its name: the musicians in H'Sao come from N'Djamena, the Chadian capital, a vast country located between the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa. -- www.festivalnuitsdafrique.com/en/artist/h’sao
Whenever I hear the Canadian national anthem, the first thing I think about is skaters, moving in place near center ice, fidgeting until the puck is dropped.
I think of the heart, the core, of a country, a sport, a way of life. I think of great nights in Montreal and Vancouver and Edmonton, the Stanley Cup waiting in the wings.
I hope this does not seem condescending. There are a lot worse things that could pop into mind for a country.
Saturday was Canada’s 150th birthday. I did not realize this version only became official in 1980.
The second thing I think about is music. Again, this a high compliment. I think of k.d. lang’s album “Hymns of the 49th Parallel” – she aces Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” – and Neil Young and The Band and Joni Mitchell and all the other musicians known around the world.
Really, that’s enough right there.
As the birthday approached, I thought about Dave Semenko, the enforcer on the great Oilers teams, who passed the other day at 59. And I thought about Kate McGarrigle, of the McGarrigle Sisters, who passed in 2010 at the age of 63.
In tribute, I put on “The McGarrigle Hour,” a collection of folk and pop with Kate and Anna and also the talented extended family, which became our family.
I thought about my friend’s mom from Montreal who always reminded me who Lady Byng was (on hockey’s sportsmanship trophy) and I thought about the family in Victoria with the garden and lawn bowling and music, and I thought about my e-pal Bruce from near Hamilton, who sends me bird photos from his window, and reminds me about the good medical care up there in the deprived wilds of the frozen north.
I thought about the grand old gent, Camil Des Roches, publicist extraordinaire of the Canadiens, who gave me my first tour of the Forum in 1984, and sent me cassettes of Danielle Oddera, singing Jacques Brel.
I thought about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, wading into a gay parade in Toronto recently, practicing inclusivity.
(I admit, my mind also wandered to Emmanuel Macron of France and Angela Merkel of Germany, but I could not afford to go down that melancholy path.)
Mostly, I thought about the good neighbors to the north, going their own way, doing fine.
Joyeux anniversaire. Happy anniversary.