The skies are covered in cloud. There’s a light rain. It’s the kind of day to stay home on Salt Spring Island and read a book in front of the wood stove. Instead, we’re traveling through the grey afternoon light, through the tunnel of fir trees and arbutus, past the roadside stands that have signs saying free range eggs for sale, some late season flowers in an odd assortment of jars, past trucks loaded with firewood and marked with a scrawled price on a piece of cardboard. A lot of the trees are bare.
The road is slick, has curves in it sharp enough that they need signs to warn people to slow down. By the time we reach the Fulford Hall, the light has disappeared. We thought we were early but the parking lot is full. Cars are parked along the road. We slow to a crawl because people are appearing from behind cars and sauntering across the road.
Inside the hall, we turn in our tickets, get our hands stamped with red ink. I stop to look at a guitar that is being auctioned off. It has been signed by Randy Bachman. There is a bowl of suckers for sale for a dollar apiece. They’ve very cleverly been named Lalipops instead of Lollipops. The play on words is because the evening is a benefit being put on to raise funds for Lali Formaggia, who was seriously injured in a plane crash. She was returning from a backpacking trip when the plane she was on struck a tree shortly after taking off. She survived but had a broken arm and third degree burns on her legs. Randy Bachman has generously agreed to do a one man two hour show similar to his Vinyl Café gig on the CBC. Forty-five friends of Lali have pitched in and volunteered to organize and promote the evening.
Outside the Fulford Hall there is a sign with black letters that advertise the event. Friday night and Saturday night. This is Saturday night and during a break between the two sets, we hear that we are lucky we came tonight. The Friday night crowd wasn’t as lively. This crowd is high energy. People are pouring in the door, their voices up half an octave with excitement, smiling is endemic. Waiting for the concert to begin, people are standing rather than sitting, there is a roar of conversation, people are flowing into and out of the kitchen area with pie and muffins.
A woman climbs on stage. The crowd sits down. She makes a few general comments about the show and introduces the special guest of the evening, Lali Formaggia. Lali has a strong accent, long blond hair and tells us about the plane crashing, her trying to crawl free, her legs being on fire and calling for help. Someone called John came to her rescue and pulled her away from the plane. She was two months in hospital and hasn’t been able to work and won’t be able to work for some time.
Randy Bachman comes in and the room is electric with anticipation and admiration. He has had a house on Salt Spring for a long time now. It’s made of rammed earth, cost millions to build and I know about it not because he is just down the road from JO’s place but because I saw it on a David Suzuki show. Rumour has it that his place is for sale but during the show, he said that he’ll be in Toronto for another year and a half and then he’ll be back in his garden on Salt Spring. You could feel a sense of relief. His being here makes people feel good.
There are people who are natural story tellers, who know how to engage an audience, who know where the emotional content of their narrative lies. Bachman has had a lifetime of learning to be the best of Canada’s story tellers. His stories about growing up in Winnipeg, playing locally, making repeated efforts to gain an audience, the crazy events that happen, the results of which are unplanned and unpredictable, touch an audience because they’re stories everyone can relate to. Yes, he may be more talented than any individual audience member, but he’s been subject to the crazy whims of fate and the vagaries of luck and circumstance. Like all of us in our own way. What isn’t in the stories is how he became a successful businessman in spite of being in a tough business where lying and deceit are the norm, where nearly everyone is out for himself and there is nothing bigger than the egos of the participants and yet has managed to keep a reputation for integrity. Somehow, through all the years of dealing with bar owners, concert promoters, producers, technicians, audiences, he’s managed to keep something of that enthusiastic beginner on the way to becoming The Guess Who and BTO (Bachman Turner Overdrive).
The audience is older. The average age is probably around sixty. There’s a lot of white hair and bald domes. There are some younger people and people with young children but the tickets are 55.00. It would be pretty steep for twenty somethings with two kids.
The audience is hungry to hear the stories about the songs they danced to when they were young. It is a night of entertainment and revelation. People are swept along as Bachman explains that he and the other band members had green cards that allowed them to work in the USA but that when they were going to Texas to play they were warned to turn around because those green cards also meant they could be drafted. That event resulted in the song American Woman and when Bachman explained that the song sold millions before radio stations figured out it was an anti-war song and that the American Woman wasn’t a rejected lover but the Statue of Liberty, that grey haired audience laughed with delight for they’d been around for the Vietnam War. No one had to give them a history lesson. They’d been there.
During the break between the two sets, a fellow got up and made the point of telling us that no money was being skimmed. That every cent collected would go to Lali. Then there were the draws for signed Randy Bachman posters. When we first arrived, after I’d found a seat, I’d gone back to buy three tickets on the guitar and the posters. Didn’t win so as we were leaving JO bought a poster for twenty dollars. Because she grew up in Winnipeg, Bachman has a musical place in the teenage heart of her youth.
The audience did a great ooohhhmmmm for a friend of Lali’s who spoke for a couple of minutes and thanked Bachman. It was a supreme Salt Spring moment. When the audience was asked to help out with a couple of songs, it did so with enthusiasm.
At the end, the audience stood up to applaud. That has become a meaningless, annoying habit Canadian audiences have got into. However, on this night, it was well deserved.
On the way back over the winding road, I smiled a lot. It had been a memorable night. I now knew the surprising impulse that replaced “white collar worker” with “taking care of business”. I knew about the pizza deliveryman who looked like Fidel Castro who went on to become a brilliantly successful musician. I woke up smiling the next morning. In spite of the clouds and the rain.
I’d watched a community come out to support one of its own who needed help. I’d watched a famous person who doesn’t need to help anyone, help someone who needed help. I saw some of the forty-five volunteers and the audience members who bought tickets, Lali pops and posters, who came together for a good cause. It used to be called being a community.
After my grandmother died at age thirty-two, my grandfather was bankrupt. My grandmother had been ill and needed private nursing for four years. All his savings had gone for housekeepers and nurses. He was a carpenter and, in the winter, he went fishing on Lake Winnipeg. They had four children. The community in Gimli, Manitoba, gathered together and held a fund raiser for him. Those are the community values we sometimes talk about with nostalgia. However, I felt as I sat in the audience listening to Randy Bachman, that there are places where those community values still exist.