Murphy’s Ghost

I was not surprised at the shuffling of feet beyond the high wooden fence. It was Halloween night and I was working my first shift as night watchman in the old lumber company where my grandfather had worked for thirty years. They say, at the end, the owner would send a car for old Tom to take him, in comfort, the two miles each way he had walked for so long.
There were children and parents walking the streets outside the yard, sometimes explosions of firecrackers in the distance.
It was an old lumber yard, a throwback to the glory days of Bytown when timber was king. I walked around the perimeter wooden fence, checked that the big doors to the yard and garage were locked, wandered into the little kitchen for a cup of tea. I knew that drinking too much caffeine on graveyard shifts could have disastrous consequences when the lack of sleep eventually caught up to you, but this was my first shift, Halloween night and tea didn’t seem as dangerous as coffee.
I wasn’t one to be superstitious and all the leprechauns and little people and faeries of Irish folklore weren’t foremost in my thoughts except when I remembered my mother who was born in Galway and believed in it all. I had bad dreams about the freezecat but that’s another story.
There were three mugs set out in the kitchen at the back of the office. I dropped a teabag into one, plugged in the kettle and checked that day’s Sun girl.
The knocking at the office door sounded normal. Maybe some of the trick or treaters outside had seen the kitchen light. I walked through the dark office.
As I reached for the doorknob I heard the words
“No need for that”
I couldn’t believe my eyes when a man walked right through the door and shook my outstretched hand.
“Tom, Tom Wheeler, your grandfather, and you’ll know Murphy”
To my astonishment another figure stepped through the closed door and shook the hand which my grandfather had just squeezed. I felt it. I know they both squeezed my hand.
I recognized my grandfather by pictures I’d seen. He had a large head, a bald pate and a perpetual smile. My irreverent friends would have called him “wingnut” because of his large ears, but not to his face.
Murphy’s theory was the reason I was here in the first place. His theory of gambling on sporting events hit a few rough spots when I tried it after his death. Or maybe I didn’t get the full gist of it. Whatever happened, I lost my shirt over those bets and was forced to take this job. The last time I’d seen Murphy he was sitting up in his casket with my coffee cup in his hands and a brawl going on all around him.
They made their way through the office to the kitchen where my grandfather refilled the kettle and washed out an old teapot. He made tea while Murphy and I sat down at the table.
I wasn’t sure what to do about it and the manners of these two ghosts, for that is what they must be, were impeccable.
“I thought we came here to decide” said Murphy, filling his pipe.
“Yes, we can decide tonight, all right. Tonight’ll be the night we’ll decide” Tom said as he set the pot down on the table to steep and pulled up a chair. He too filled his pipe.
“You didn’t follow through on the system I told you about just before I died” Murphy said to me.
“What do you mean?” I piped up.
“A team usually loses at home the first game after a road trip. That’s part of it. There were a few more tricks of the trade which you failed to employ when you made those bets. You would have bet the opposite and cleaned up if you had”
Murphy lined up the sugar and milk near his cup just behind the spoon.
“Hm” I grunted.
Tom poured tea into our cups and spoke to Murphy as he added his sugar.
“I think three”
Murphy took his time, measured his sugar carefully with his spoon, added milk and stirred the combination vigorously.
“After a lot of thought, I have to conclude that the answer is two”
A long silence broken only by the sounds of tea drinking and the unwrapping of a package of biscuits Tom had produced. Peak Freans.
“Maybe, if they were doing a proper Irish jig. But even then, with the footwork, you’d have to hope they were once Irish in order not to step on each other’s toes.”
“See, three is the superior number” Tom answered,” being half again what your number two is It could be easily done by three angels dancing a Highland fling on the head of a pin”
My grandfather’s father was a stonemason from Putney but his wife was a Ross from the Highlands and he defended the northern clan at every opportunity.
“We’re not talking about a needle here” Murphy proclaimed.
“The thick end with the eye in it. Only Irish angels could dance on the head of a pin and there’d only be room for two of them”
Tom disappeared for a moment behind a cloud of grey smoke from his pipe. Anger showed on his countenance when he reappeared.
“Three Scottish angels could do it”
Before I knew what was happening they had jumped up and were circling the table, Murphy with a large shillelagh, Tom with a battle axe.
I sat still and watched.
Murphy swung a vicious two hander which caught Tom in the neck. His head was clearly separated from his shoulders but just popped up and landed back in its spot. It was facing the wrong way, but Tom adjusted it and caught Murphy on the side at hip level thereby cutting him in two with the axe.
Murphy separated in the middle but his upper body, after popping up, returned to the bottom half at the waist.
I could hear laboured breathing as they sparred and clashed but no more than the sounds of two old men exerting themselves.
Finally, they put aside their weapons, drank tea, smoked their pipes and resumed the debate.
“Two is a balanced number, equal on both sides of its duality” Murphy declared out loud.
“Well, we could add them together to equal five or put them side by side and come up with thirty two” offered agreeable Tom. One of his brothers had been an accountant.
“Ihirty two would be a little crowded on the head of a pin” Murphy observed.
Both disappeared behind clouds of grey smoke as they contemplated the problem with newly fired pipes.
“The angels would have to step lively all right” Tom observed.
“Thirty two Scottish angels could do a Highland Reel on the head of a pin” he declared.
“Mind you, they’d need eight circles for the teams of four”
“Hm” responded Murphy.
I could see putting them side by side and coming up with twenty three”
I was wondering if they would again arise to resume hostilities but all they did was wash and dry the cups together like an old married couple. I could hear them mumbling to each other as they stood at the sink with their backs to me.
My disbelief was in a suspended state. Except that it wasn’t a trick in my head.
They sat down at the table again and looked across the office to the front door.
The knock on the front door came after a long minute of waiting.
I made to rise but Tom put up his hand to stop me and Murphy said
“Shh”
The door never opened but four little men carried a log fire with a bubbling pot slung above it through the office to where we were sitting in the kitchen. Behind them a mad cackle blended with the whooshing sound of a wild wind and a dark figure flew through the wall, did two circuits of the office and landed deftly behind the pot.
My mouth was hanging open when I looked at my grandfather and Murphy.
Both nodded and smiled at the woman in front of us.
“Hello, Zelda” they said.
“Boys” the woman spoke while her appearance changed like fluid before my eyes. First she was an old hag, then a beautiful maiden, then an ancient crone with a wart on her nose and finally she settled on a plump milkmaid who peered curiously into the pot.
“This is Steve, Tom’s grandson and an old friend of mine” Murphy spoke up.
“He’s on the other side, is he?” she stirred the bubbling broth with great concentration.
“Yes, he’s still there” Murphy nodded agreeably
“But not for much longer”
This conversation troubled me.
“And how’s tricks and treats tonight then, Zelda?” Tom inquired.
Zelda turned into a smartly dressed businesswoman while she surveyed the pot and the four little men. Were they elves or goblins or gnomes? I didn’t know and no one was telling.
“It used to be better in the old days” she said
“You can’t scare anybody any more. Then there’s all the white witches. Dogooders I call them. I mean you can be spooky without being evil”
She joined Murphy and Tom in puffing on a pipe. With all four of the little men smoking their pipes as well, we disappeared for a moment until the cloud moved on. There was no smoke from the fire under the pot though, I will say that.
As if on a prearranged signal, the little men picked up the fire and pot, waited till Zelda stepped out of the way, carried it through the office and the closed front door.
Zelda watched them go, an ever changing expression on her ever changing face.
“Goodbye, boys. I sensed you were in the neighbourhood and thought I’d drop by to say hello. See you round”
She did a high speed circuit of the darkened office, one second mounting her broom, the next a black blur, the next gone through the wall.
After this display my grandfather produced a pint of single malt Highland whiskey and Murphy found a pint of Black Bush in his pocket.
The tea mugs were used to share the shots.
“Tell you what” said Murphy “We’ll meet next Halloween night here and decide for good”
“Agreed” said Tom “Next Halloween night. That long enough for you?”
“Oh yes. By that time there won’t be any doubt. I’ll know by then”
“Same here” said Tom.
They stood and proferred their hands.
Each squeezed my outstretched one.
As I followed them across the office, Tom said
“Halloween night is over here now. But it’s just starting west of here”
They waved goodbye and walked through the door.
I opened it and watched them walk to the outer fence. They turned to me.
“I’ll say hello to your Dad” Tom spoke in a loud voice.
“And don’t bet on anything more than five to one” Murphy shouted
They turned west and walked through the fence.
Up in the sky, silhouetted against the full moon, Zelda flew by on her broomstick.
I walked back to the kitchen to turn out the lights.
I felt that glorious buzz which just the right amount of good whiskey produces.
It was time to do my rounds and make sure nothing strange was happening in the yard that Halloween night.

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The Good Provider

I clean the cream from my whiskers with my paw. I sit watching the delicious little birds hop from seed to seed on the dying thistles in the garden outside the window. This window seat is made for these lazy autumn afternoons. Red’ll be home soon. I love to watch his change of expression when he approaches the house to greet his latest wife. She’s Lola this year. It was Linda back in those days, Bennie’s sister. It’s getting harder to remember that I used to live with Bennie.
The boys came up with the idea, in a poker game, at Bennie’s. There was Mutt, Jeff, Bennie and Slocum. I watched from the back of the couch, cleaning my paws with my tongue. There were clouds of smoke and interesting smells emanating from the table that night. The boys were flying high. Bennie figured his ship had finally come in.
The next morning, as we drove to work, Bennie talked about the score. He talked to me, but he was really talking to himself. He was a good provider though, so I went along with it.
Bennie was my owner, a cat worshipper, who also owned Brutus, a watchdog. Bennie took me to work with him most days. I was an excuse for Bennie to talk to himself, a warm body to have around.
Bennie was the only employee left in Red Smith’s auto parts warehouse. Red didn’t make much wholesaling used auto parts, but he had a famous safe which made him a tidy profit. He held payrolls for a lot of companies which didn’t have the facilities to handle large amounts of cash. They couldn’t fit into bank schedules. The safe also held such items as receipts, estates and some money from questionable sources which Red labelled, ‘Other’.
On the way to work the next morning, Bennnie dreamed along with the sports show on the radio.
“With my cut, I could buy an island, like Brando. Down in Tahiti. So what if he’s fat? Women still love him. I’d have a party for the boys, but not for a couple of years. This is Slocum’s chance too. He can escape from his old lady, finally. The guy’s not well. She’s a bad influence. Don’t you think he’s shrunk and turned grey since he’s been with her?”
I sat in the back seat watching some dogs on the sidewalk. Gross.
Brutus ran out when Bennie opened the front door of the warehouse. There are dogs and there are dirty dogs. Brutus was dirty and aggressive with everyone except Bennie and me. Bennie had trained him, I had shown him my claws when we first met. He almost lost an eye that time, always respected me since. I wouldn’t turn my back on him, though.
Brutus is big. He’s a big, dirty watchdog who would tear anything apart just for fun. Unless someone killed Brutus or otherwise incapacitated him, they’d never be able to steal from this warehouse. Unless they had an in and knew how the safe worked, that is.
Bennie was counting on this as part of his plan. He could control Brutus and retirement was approaching. If he ripped the place off, he could sit tight for a few years and let things cool down. If everyone kept their mouths shut and they paid a lawyer Mutt knew, they would all end up rich. Even Red had some kind of insurance for a robbery, Bennie figured, but it wasn’t an urgent consideration. Red could afford it, no doubt.

There would be questions. There would be all kinds of cops. They would insist on a lie detector test, but he didn’t have to take it, they couldn’t use it in court.
Brando never backed down from a role. This was one for which Bennie had been preparing all of his life. That was the way Bennie saw it, anyway. I always thought he was a little crazy, but who could have known?
The safe only opened once a day. If robbers did get past Brutus and the other alarms, unless they came at exactly the right time, they would have to blow the door off of it. It would take a big explosion to blow the door, neighbouring alarms would go off all over the place. There wasn’t much paper around, but there might be a fire. The other thing, which only Red knew about the safe, but no one else knew, was that it expelled all of the oxygen, slowly, after the door closed. Red got it from an art museum when the government closed it down.
One of the perks of having a foolproof safe was that big companies were advised, by word of mouth, to use Red’s, in emergencies. Red made a pretty penny helping out big companies.
When the boys thought up the plan at the poker game, it was after Bennie had told them all about the “special job” Red was doing that weekend. A big company was moving millions of dollars from city to city. They were leaving it in Red’s safe overnight on the weekend. Bennie and the boys planned to rip it off.
I stretched and tasted the fresh cat food Bennie had left in my dish by the office door. I settled in the comfortable window, watched Bennie strike poses in front of the mirror. Every time I cleaned the outside of my ears, I remembered the ticks. Getting rid of them was a painful process.
Bennie thought he looked like Brando when he practised a sneer. I thought he looked like an overweight Elvis impersonator. There was an inventory to keep, some paperwork to do, but Bennie mostly listened to a redneck on the radio and talked to me during his work day. When we were at the warehouse, Bennie kept Brutus in his run outside in the back.
Red dropped in on Friday afternoon for a few minutes. He ruffled my fur, scratched my ears. Red was just getting to like me in those days. He went over the delivery of the money on Saturday morning, told Bennie that he had Sunday off, that he, Red, would be there to make sure of the pick up on Sunday morning.
Red sat in Bennie’s chair, feet up, smoking a cigar, called Linda. He put Bennie on with his sister, enjoyed their fraternal banter. Red glowed with love for Linda. His face changed when he talked to her on the phone. When he spoke about her with Bennie, the latter thought he was kidding. Bennie looked at Red, quizzically, behind his back, after these conversations about his older sister.
The boys planned to pull into the warehouse as soon as the delivery was made on Saturday morning. They would load the money and take it away. They would leave Bennie in the safe to be released by Red the next day. The story would be that the robbers showed up right after the security company delivered the cash, pushed Bennie into the safe, left with the loot and the security film. The key to getting away with it was for everyone to behave normally. These guys thought they could pull it off.
It sounded good, that night, when the boys met for poker at our place. Mutt had all the papers and powers of attorney for them to sign. It would give their lawyer, who wasn’t above a bit of graft himself, the right to move their money around. No one could quit their jobs or do anything out of the ordinary for at least two years. They were all thinking about retirement. The boys were closer to old than young.
The delivery Saturday morning went smoothly, the security company guards moved the cash into the safe. They had just pulled out of the parking lot when Mutt, Jeff and Slocum pulled up, at the front door, in Slocum’s black van.
Bennie had already taken the film out of all the security cameras when they walked into the office. They wore gloves, but no masks or disguises. Bennie showed them the millions of dollars they were stealing by opening a package. They got lost in a delirious minute of congratulations while they admired the bills.
After a short debate, they figured that I should keep Bennie company in the safe. There was nothing soft and warm inside the safe. I never did like it. They threw me in with Bennie after they put my dish and some water inside the door. I circled the safe quickly, ran out, just as they slammed the door shut.
They left him some chocolate bars and water, but they couldn’t do anything about the light. There was no light, but Bennie planned to sleep and rehearse his shock and anger until Red arrived. They didn’t even notice me until it was too late. No one had time to worry about me, so they left.
The three of them giggled as they got into Slocum’s van. In a few years, they would be on easy street. Margaritas all around at Bennie’s place in Tahiti, one island over from Brando’s. All they had to do now was to drop off the money at the lawyer’s.
At the time, I didn’t know, nobody did, except Red, about the slow leak of oxygen from the safe. Bennie must have realized that something was wrong because he made a lot of noise in the safe around the same time that Red arrived, the next morning.
Red’s Cadillac pulled up beside Bennie’s Celebrity in the empty parking lot. I watched from the front window as Red got out of his car and walked toward the building. He looked back once at Bennie’s car. He was about half way between his parking space and the warehouse when his cell phone went off. He dug it out of his jacket pocket and answered it. I could tell that he was talking to a woman he loved by the change of expression on his face. It lit up. He stopped, looked at the sky as he talked. He had a big smile on his face when he turned back to the car. He listened to the phone, smiled at his shoes.
Red got back into his Caddy, talking on the phone, his eyes on Bennie’s Celebrity. He was talking to Lola that day. He thought Bennie had his days off mixed up, so that he was taking care of the pick up. He was partially right, Bennie was there, but he was in the safe.
The noises from the safe got fewer and further between, quieter, then stopped all together. Brutus started howling and whining from the back of the warehouse. Brando’s death scene in The Godfather always was one of Bennie’s favourites, but I think he would rather have played it in a tomato patch.
When the security guys from the pick up company arrived, there was no one around. They called Red and told him that they could see the cat in the office window and that Bennie’s car was there, but no Bennie.
By this time I was hungry, the litter box was filling up. I knew, from Brutus’s mournful howl, that Bennie had somehow died in the safe.
Red drove over from Lola’s the next morning. He took a long time calling long distance, pushing digital codes to open the safe before its special time.
Red’s reputation was on the line. The reputation of his service to the big companies. The security company had to have the money.
Red breathed through his nose a lot, walked around the office with a serious expression followed by the security guards talking into their cell phones. If they had arrived earlier, if Red hadn’t taken so long to open the safe, they could have seen Bennie gasping for his last breath.
The police were called as soon as Red opened the door and found Bennie dead in the safe, the money gone.
Red seemed surprised and a little hurt by the discovery of Bennie’s body. When he saw the cat dishes of water and food inside the safe door he adopted me on the spot. He took me home to his very comfortable estate. It was as if he was protecting me.
He switched from Linda to Lola just after Bennie’s funeral. Linda accused him of holding out on her, but Red paid her off. It wasn’t the payment she wanted but she had to settle for it.
The police questioned all of Bennie’s friends. Nobody talked and no one was caught for the theft.
Lola’s a real cat lover so I’m pampered and lazy here. There are no poker games with smoke and interesting smells, but the food is great. Yesterday she got some cat treats and served them to me on a pillow. It gets harder and harder to remember life at Bennie’s.
Red suffered his loss manfully, in public. Bennie’s death was so shocking that Red’s compensation from the insurance company went unnoticed.
Red doesn’t know Mutt or Jeff or Slocum. They don’t move in the same circles. They were all there at Bennie’s funeral which was also attended by a large number of undercover cops. I watched from the passenger seat of Red’s Caddy.
When it was over they filed past the Cadillac on their way to the cars. Red argued with Linda over Bennie’s grave. Slocum looked me right in the eye and winked as he passed the windshield. He knew that I had seen it all and that Red was a good provider.
Tontopress.com

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Murphy’s Wake

It was the last time I would go to Finn, I swore to myself as I searched for him in the Elmdale Tavern. He was around one of the regular spots. I needed to see him fast.
At the Carleton Tavern I found Finn with a quart and money coming out of every pocket. I sat down with him, ordered a pint. It was still early in the day.
I hit Finn up for fifty bucks to pay Murphy. Finn charged a fee for even handing you the loan. It cost sixty to borrow fifty for a week, but it would be worth it.
Finn copied phone numbers and odds as he readied himself for a busy day ahead. Sunday, of course, was his big day because of the NFL betting. This was Saturday when college football and pro baseball took most gamblers’ attention.
I finished my pint, said goodbye to Finn, caught Murphy at the Prescott Tavern, gave him a lift to Mary’s.
Murphy and Mary had been engaged for twenty years. He still visited her little flower shop every morning. We stopped so he could pick a bouquet of flowers for her in a city park.
Murphy didn’t believe in paying for flowers. When they were in season, he helped himself.
It was a bone of contention between them.
Murphy believed that flowers were given to man by the good Lord, shouldn’t be bought and sold.
Mary believed that people gladly paid for the little ray of sunshine they purchased with a nice bouquet of flowers.
Murphy had a friend named Calhoun in Montreal who could, for a price, buy a block of tickets in a provincial lottery which would produce winners.
All I had to do was give fifty dollars to Murphy. I didn’t follow the whole scam back to the actual score, but I questioned Murphy enough to know that it felt like a winner.
He assured me that fifty dollars would produce five thousand for me. Added to some others and passed through the right hands, it would yield twice as much, for him.
This guy, Calhoun, had an in, was sharing the wealth.
Murphy did it for me out of the kindness of his heart and good business sense. He didn’t have to include me, but he saw me as a good luck charm.
I dropped Murphy off, went home to a weekend of sports on t.v. and too much beer. It didn’t cheer me up, to hear, on Monday morning, that Murphy had died on the weekend from a heart attack.
I drove to Mary’s which was above her flower shop. It isn’t decent and polite to speak ill of the deceased, but getting lottery tickets was another matter.
He always wore the same suit, his best, for giving and taking payments, more taking than giving, it always seemed with Murphy as he did his weekend rounds, careful not to exceed his booze limit.
The lottery tickets had to be in his suit.
Mary was in her shop with a short, dark, Scottish lawyer named Jack Scullion. She introduced us without mentioning if the man even knew Murphy. I listened with polite sadness, shook my head regretfully. Mary described Murphy’s last moments.
It seemed that he died in her arms. Just after they had named a date. They had been engaged now for twenty years, so they were celebrating the twentieth year by marriage. She was as good as his wife anyway, Mary said.
I agreed and inquired about Murphy’s “effects” as diplomatically as possible. Perhaps it was a little too vaguely phrased. Mary didn’t respond.
Jack Scullion walked around the shop like he was looking for something suspicious. He kept an ear cocked in our direction though. He was trying to figure out who I was, where I fit in.
Margaret, Murphy’s sister, appeared with her husband, Ralph, a used car lot owner. It was safe to say that the vultures were circling.
I managed to find out that Murphy would be dressed in his best suit tomorrow at Ralph’s showroom.
They were having the wake there. Ralph told me, in confidence, that it was his idea. It seemed a bit greedy for Ralph to take advantage of the crowd of potential customers which would gather to send Murphy off, but I wasn’t one to judge.
There didn’t seem to be much of a chance of getting at Murphy’s suit pockets until the next day so I drove home and waited.
I joined the line of people entering Ralph’s showroom.
The place had a western theme, the staff were dressed as cowboys and cowgirls. They wore black armbands while Ralph himself was resplendent in a black western suit with tie and boots to match. He had probably considered wearing his black, ten gallon Stetson, but decided against it in case of misinterpretation by the mourners.
There was a good mixture at Murphy’s wake. A crowd of children were the offspring of Murphy’s family. The older ones were Murphy’s cousins, uncles and aunts. When Murphy had mentioned his family at poker games or at the end of late night pub crawls, he gave the impression that he was the black sheep. His own opinion was that the family disliked him because they were jealous of his money and freedom.
The people grew noisier as the booze flowed freely. Their presence was welcome. I needed as much attention diverted as possible while I sought the tickets.
Most of the sniffling and crying came from Mary and Margaret.
As I shuffled along toward them in the line, I could hear Margaret declaring that Murphy looked like himself.
Mary’s voice rose over Margaret’s, in grief stricken tones, to tell someone that her brother had called to extend his condolences. He added that it was nice to think about old Murphy finally laying quiet with his big yap shut.
People in the line who heard it at first looked puzzled, then made clucking noises. They agreed that it was a down to earth, honest assessment of the deceased, rest his soul.
I eyed the coffin, snuck a peek at Murphy within.
He did look like himself, I will say that.
The dark, pinstriped suit, Murphy’s best, with the vest done up, decorated his body. His face was pinker than normal, but I only saw him in bars or restaurants so maybe this was what he really looked like. He had his hands folded peacefully over his pot belly and, all in all, looked like he had just exhaled and forgotten to inhale.
There was no doubt about it, the life had gone out of Murphy.
I could smell the gin on Margaret when she hugged me and the rye on Mary’s breath as she looked at me with red rimmed eyes and running mascara
I managed to nod sadly and escape her while giving Murphy another quick, visual once over.
Jack Scullion hovered in the background, watching everyone, especially me.
There was plenty of drink and some sandwiches which the ladies had made. I helped myself to the food, found the coffee. It would take a clear head, whatever I did.
Ralph was giving a sales pitch to a couple beside a beat up old clunker which looked like it had recently been retired from delivering pizza. He made the mistake of leaning a little too hard on the front bumper when he pushed it to demonstrate the shocks. The bumper fell off, barely missing his cowboy boots. Ralph never lost a beat. He made a note to see the mechanic about “bodywork problems”, kicked the offending bumper under the car. The pile of sawdust beneath it was turning black, absorbing oil.
Jack Scullion approached me with a beer in one hand and a smoke in the other. He had jet black hair, scars on his nose and around his eyes. He bore all the signs of a fighter feeling no pain. He stood spread legged in front of me and asked if I was in Murphy’s will. When I told him I didn’t think so, he seemed to relax. As much as a short, Glaswegian lawyer can relax. His shifty eyes wondered how I could benefit from Murphy’s death. He turned and stood by my side with a wide stance. He gestured alternately with the beer and the smoke while he surveyed the room.
“Ach, it’s a right shower here, just noo, Jimmy”
I nodded, but I didn’t really know what he meant. He didn’t notice, went on with his monologue, sometimes addressing the room, sometimes confiding to me.
“Aye, they’re aw here noo. The vultures’re here. Look at em circlin, look at yersels, ach. See em? They’re after his money. The poor old boy isn’t even cauld yet. See em? They’re a right shower a bastards”
No doubt, like most of his race, the Scottish lawyer was a little crazy and extremely violent. Rather than point out that he, too, was in attendance for strictly financial reasons, I managed to escape back to Margaret and Mary.
I was getting desperate.
Mary and Margaret had been absorbing the alcohol at a rapid rate. They had run out of tears. Their mutual hostility emerged with each drink.
I addressed them with an eye on the coffin.
“Well, ladies, it must be tense waiting for the will to be read. To see who gets what of Murphy’s. I understand that Mary here was just about to tie the knot with poor Murphy”
Margaret frowned and produced many heretofore unseen lines in her face.
“Hah” She blurted out with a laugh.
“Tie the knot. He’s been engaged to her for twenty years”
Mary reacted with bug eyed indignation. Her truthfulness about Murphy’s last moments was being questioned.
“We were like man and wife. He didn’t spend time with his other family” she said before she found another glass of rye.
Ralph had finished his pitch, but had no takers. He threw regretful glances at the bumper as he approached us, beer in hand.
“Anyone got a few words to say?” he asked with a kindly smile.
“Ha. Family’s family. It’s his blood in my veins” Margaret asserted.
Jack Scullion had joined us. He had a fresh beer, stood spread legged with shoulders back. It was as though he was bracing himself on a heaving deck.
“The will overrides everything” said Mary pugnaciously in Margaret’s direction.
This hostility caught Jack’s attention, it was right up his alley. He looked around for an opponent, saw Ralph about to speak.
I sidled toward the casket as Ralph began what he thought was sort of a eulogy for Murphy, but which he never finished. He never really got it started.
Mary took offence at the look which Margaret gave her, hit the dead man’s sister with her purse. Jack saw his opportunity, gave Ralph a Glaswegian handshake which could be heard all over the showroom.
There was evidence of Jack’s nutting ability the next day in the taverns; quite a few black eyes and bandaids sported by the mourners who clashed with him
He made up for his lack of height by jumping straight at the other man’s face, applying the head, around the hairline, into whatever features were available.
With Ralph sitting in a pool of the blood which was spouting from his nose, the women shrieking as they rolled around in front of him, I made it to the casket.
Jack was taking on all comers. He seemed to be enjoying himself.
I searched Murphy’s vest and trouser pockets with one hand, the other still holding my coffee cup. I was about to try his jacket when the lights went out.
It wasn’t dark, but it turned everything in the showroom shadowy. The struggling figures in the brawl were being joined by others, the children shooed to the office. Maybe it was one of them who was responsible for the half light.
I checked one side of Murphy’s jacket pockets and found nothing. The noise of fighting and breaking glass became louder. I tried the other pocket, felt cardboard.
I pulled the lottery tickets out of Murphy’s pocket, squinted at them. They were the right ones.
I was saying a prayer of thanks to my dead chum and the good Lord when I dropped the tickets. They slid down on the other side of Murphy.
I panicked for a moment. Placing my cup between Murphy’s folded hands, I used one of my hands to shift his weight, the other to feel for the tickets. I grasped them just as a bottle crashed against the casket and a sliding body took my feet out from under me.
Ralph had provided a fold out table from the lunch room upon which to place Murphy’s casket. As my weight shifted, the casket slid off the table.
Murphy sat up with my coffee cup in his hands.
Crawling toward the door, tickets in my hand, I glanced back.
Murphy’s sudden rise from the prone to the sitting position, had caused a pause in the fighting.
I heard various opinions of this phenomenon.
“It’s a sign”
The words “miracle” and “resurrection”were mentioned several times..
When I joined Finn, the next day, at the Carleton Tavern and paid him back, cheerfully, he gave me a curious look.
He was totalling up the weekend’s action over a quart, asked me if I’d been to Murphy’s funeral after the donnybrook at his wake.
I confirmed that I’d attended the burial. It was a sad and solemn affair for all involved including Murphy’s family and everyone’s legal representatives.
We drank a memorial toast to Murphy that day before I bought everyone a round and placed a few bets.

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Henry and Me

I first heard of Henry Miller, perhaps fittingly, when I lived with two other guys in East Vancouver. One of the guys had a friend who was a postman, the other guy was having an affair with the postman’s wife. There were a few awkward moments when he snuck her in for a night or an afternoon quickie, but, all in all, things went well and I saw a book which the postman had lent to his buddy, my housemate. It was a compilation of the letters between Henry and Lawrence Durrell.
I became interested and then obsessed with Miller’s writing, read everything of his I could get my hands on.
I still have a worn copy of Tropic of Cancer by my bedside along with Flann O’Brien’s, The Poor Mouth. For some reason which I don’t want to analyze, both books are places of refuge for me when I just want to relax and enjoy the language. At times like that I don’t think as much about the content of what I’m reading as much as how the words are strung together.
Finding Henry’s writing was like the moment when Shakespeare made sense to me in high school: a light bulb shone.
In all my travels after that I kept a sharp eye open when books by Henry were displayed. Krishnamurti, Durrell, Arthur Rimbaud, Anais Nin and others were introduced to me by Henry’s writing and their books were ones I watched for too. Of course, I was watching for cheap versions of their works.
When my friend, Robin, arrived to visit me in Crete he brought a copy of The Colossus of Maroussi, written when Henry visited Lawrence Durrell and his wife in Corfu.
Surviving in a tiny room in Paris on croque monsieurs, cheese, baguettes and red wine, I planned a novel using the Paris metro map as structure. Needless to say, the novel became as confusing and mixed up as my understanding of the Paris subway system and was abandoned.
I made a pilgrimage to the street where Anais Nin lived when she and Henry were having their affair. Their conviction that analysis was necessary and their visits to Otto Rank, a student of Freud, revealed the notion that psychoses are the products of frustrated or blocked creativity. Frustrated writers can take comfort in the idea that writing is at least healthy if not profitable.
By the time I was there, the bars mentioned in his books were too expensive for me to patronise but I lingered outside the Coupole and the Dome.
I walked endlessly around Paris, imagined what it was like then, wondered why Henry was never mentioned in the list of writers who lived in the city in the 30’s. There was irony in the thought of him existing from meal to meal as he worked on Tropic in the arts capital of the Western world, poor, reviled and rejected.
I didn’t know then that he and Anais Nin wrote pornography for the money of their rich patrons but I knew there had been an overwhelming rejection of him in the States and that he was involved in the debate about pornography and obscenity.
It looks like the descendants of those moral Americans who banned his books for so long have, seventy or eighty years later, taken over the government of the USA.
He described his trip across the states in The Air Conditioned Nightmare. The title pretty well demonstrated Henry’s attitude toward the system.
It gave me hope.
Here was a man with great curiosity about the world and other people and sex who ignored all the warnings and temptations which were placed before him and followed a singular path of his own. It led him to another continent, through years of poverty and piles of rejection slips. But he kept going and kept laughing.
“Always cheery and bright” was his motto and the most depressing situations could be changed for the better just by reading his books.
I know that a generation who thinks the 60’s is ancient history has a hard time understanding his relevance now, but then he was like a beacon. He personified the rebelliousness and questioning which was rumbling underground.
I often wonder what he would have made of this internet, instant world. I like to think he’d revel in it. It would be so much easier to spread his subversive ideas and plead for sanity. A literary website reminded me of him when they put out a call for submissions on “money”. He had written Money and How It Got That Way years ago though I don’t know where I saw it.
He would enjoy, as Kurt Vonnegutt Jr put it, “Poisoning them with a little humanity”.
Henry believed that the best education it was possible to get was available to anyone with a library card at the same time as he relished the quote ,“When I hear the word Kultur, I pick up my pistol”.
Henry wasn’t published until he was almost forty and that was always a prod for me when I started feeling sorry for myself.
He’s been called racist and misogynist but, in my opinion, almost always by someone with an axe to grind. After all, Anais Nin’s lover must have been more than just a male chauvinist pig.
The worst was online when a critic (critics are paid to criticize, we shouldn’t forget that) said he was boring. Of course, the critic, who seems to be trying to make a name for himself by attacking famous writers, used much of the language which Henry and others like him forced into literary acceptability. He couldn’t express himself without those words but he seemed to have no idea that the very words he used were allowed in the English writing world because of legal battles fought over Henry’s books.
I don’t know what the penalty was for getting caught with a Tropic or a Rosy Crucifixion book in the 60’s but that there was a penalty at all seems ridiculous. As ridiculous as excoriating Elvis, The Beatles and The Dixie Chicks.
Sex was the same then. It hasn’t and hadn’t changed. He had the audacity to describe the act itself and men and women’s bodies without apology and, many times, with great humour. He didn’t gloss over the sweaty, intimate details which weren’t supposed to be mentioned in polite society.
It’s not just that Henry wrote about sex like no one else. He described it in the first person often and didn’t avoid branching off into other personal thoughts which occurred to him while he was engaged.
His style of using his own personal experiences for the creation of fiction and nonfiction became the roots of my travel writing. Henry seemed to be painfully honest even when he was making things up.
I was working on the rigs in Alberta, living in Edmonton, when Henry died. I happened to be in town and not in the bush on that occasion and made my way to the nearest hotel.
The bars in Alberta are huge and busy. Others at the table had no idea who Henry was and why I should be there to drink a farewell toast to him on the occasion of his death. I did the same at the same bar when John Lennon was shot. They didn’t know, any more than I did, that I would carry around his books and lean on his inspiration for many years.
Here is Henry’s description of one of the many jobs he took to survive in France.
“Here was I, supposedly to spread the gospel of Franco-American amity- the emissary of a corpse who, after he had plundered right and left, after he had caused untold suffering and misery, dreamed of establishing universal peace. Ffui! What did they expect me to talk about, I wonder? About LEAVES OF GRASS, about the tariff walls, about the Declaration of Independence, about the latest gang war? What? Just what, I’d like to know. Well, I’ll tell you-I never mentioned these things. I started right off the bat with a lesson on the physiology of love. How the elephants make love-that was it! It caught like wildfire. After the first day there were no more empty benches. After that first lesson in English they were standing at the door waiting for me. We got along swell together. They asked all sorts of questions, as though they had never learned a damned thing. I let them fire away. I taught them to ask more ticklish questions. Ask anything!- that was my motto. I’m here as a plenipotentiary from the realm of free spirits. I’m here to create a fever and a ferment. ‘In some ways’ says an eminent astronomer, ‘the universe appears to be passing away like a tale that is told, dissolving into nothingness like a vision’. That seems to be the general feeling underlying the empty breadbasket of learning. Myself, I don’t believe it. I don’t believe a fucking thing these bastards try to shove down our throats.”
Tropic of Cancer

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Piper at the Gates of Dawn Considered

Back when Syd Barrett led Pink Floyd , the band recorded its first album at Abbey Road Studio
at the same time as The Beatles recorded Sergeant Pepper’s there and The Pretty Things were
recording S F Sorrow. They called it, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.
Flash forward to this century and a habit I picked up in Amsterdam and can’t seem to shake. The habit is listening to the World Service on the radio all night. It’s the CBC All Night Radio here, the BBC World Service there (I think). A lot of countries contribute reports to the World Service. I don’t really understand how it works but there’s nothing quite like laying snug in your bed, free to fall asleep or listen to Holland, Sweden, Korea or Poland talk about their news. For instance, the other night there was a report from somewhere near Alice Springs, Australia about a race they held between honey bees and homing pigeons. The bees won.
Of course, it you’re tired and working and need to get up early in the morning, it’s unwise to indulge this habit. You lose too much sleep. At the moment, though, I am indulging this habit and the other night I must have dozed off and awoke to a female voice with an English accent declaring that the seventh chapter of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows proved his hidden but genuine pantheism.
Kenneth Grahame was born in Scotland and spent all of his working life in a bank in London. According to Wikipedia he died in 1932 and The Wind in the Willows was published in 1908.
As I rolled around in the dark, it occurred to me that Van Morrison had included a song on The Healing Game cd called The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. The chorus is “The wind in the willows and the piper at the gates of dawn”.
And Fred Armstrong out in Newfoundland actually talked on CBC radio about The Wind in the Willows. It was his opinion that the book was not a children’s book at all, that it was really written for adults. There was no script for the show but he said he went over the top a little when he called it, “Shakespeare with fur”.
It’s probably the combination of poetry and music in Van Morrison’s song that appeals to me so much. When I actually read chapter seven which is called The Piper at the Gates of Dawn in Grahame’s book, I discovered poetic language there too. In fact, Van used several phrases verbatim from the book or almost verbatim. When Grahame uses “the daybreak not so very far off”, Morrison uses “the daybreak not so very far away” and when Grahame writes “the light grew steadily stronger”, Morrison sings “grew steadily strong”.
And Fred, an old friend and veteran reporter (30 years) just published his first fictional novel, Happiness of Fish (Jesperson Publishing., 2007) in St John’s. He’s a creative soul, one who never gives up on his dreams. If he was interested in the book, there must be something to it.
So I asked him and here’s what he said, “Wind in the Willows is a deep little book about a rather Taoist bunch of beasties sitting around writing poems and banqueting between adventures….”
“Opinion seems to be split on the Pan chapter of WIW. People love it or hate it…. I think WIW is a comfortably sentimental look at nature as deity.
I think anyone who has been scared at sea or lost in the woods and come home can handle the balance between a nature that creates us and takes us away or maybe doesn’t. There’s also something appealing about a deity that performs a Men in Black mind wipe after you trip over him. Ratty and Mole don’t remember him when it’s all over. They take the little otter off to breakfast rather than sitting down and writing the Book of Revelation.”
The words in Van’s writing which are taken straight out of chapter seven are:” heavenly music” and “song-dream” though one doesn’t have a dash connecting them and the other does.
Graham writes “when the vision had vanished” and Morrison writes “vision vanished” a difference in tense only.
Here is the description of Pan in Wikipedia:
‘Pan: in Greek religion and mythology, is the god of shepherds and flocks, of mountain wilds, hunting and rustic music. His name originates from the word paein, meaning to pasture. He has the hindquarters, legs, and horns of a goat, in the same manner as a faun or satyr. He is recognized as the god of fields, groves, and wooded glens; because of this, Pan is connected to fertility and the season of Spring.
The wikipedia article goes on to say that “accounts of Pan’s geneology are so varied that it must lie buried deep in mythic time.” and that “panic” is derived from his name.
The story recounted in Chapter seven of Wind in the Willows is a simple one: Mole and Ratty search for the lost Portly, son of Otter, and find him safe and saved by Pan after they are led there in their rowboat by his magical piping.
Van Morrison uses words like “awe”, “wonder”, enchanted” and “spellbound” to describe the characters’ state as they follow Pan’s music to find little Portly.
Grahame emphasizes Pan’s insistence that the wild creatures’ experience with him will be forgotten when it’s over. Like hypnotism, “You will awake and remember nothing”
Wikipedia includes all kinds of interesting facts like, “Pan is famous for his sexual powers and is often depicted with an erect phallus.” and “Pan’s greatest conquest was that of the moon goddess, Selene.” along with references to the symbolism of Satan, Romanticism and Neopaganism and “A modern account of several purported meetings with Pan is given by R. Ogilvie Crombie in the books, The Findhorn Garden (Harper and Rowe, 1975) and The Magic of Findhorn (Harper and Rowe, 1975).”
Pan is not named in the book, just described, but in the song Morrison calls him “the great god, Pan” when he echoes Grahame’s insistence that the animals were not afraid of him despite his reputation.
It is the only song on The Healing Game (1997) which has no percussion in it. Just Van’s vocals as he plays acoustic guitar with a dobro (which I can’t hear probably because of the quality of my sound system), and a piano with Brian Kennedy’s vocal backings and Paddy Maloney on Uilleann pipes and whistle.
The Uilleann Pipes, a type of Irish bagpipe, aren’t apparently related to the Pan Pipes but their effect in the song is an ethereal, delicate one.
When you see the innocent willow leaves on the cover and the cartoon characters with which it’s illustrated, the same impression is left by the book as when you see Van Morrison’s black and white picture on the cover of the cd with a black fedora and shades, a black over coat and white shirt buttoned up to the neck. Neither give any hint of Pan’s magic. They bring to mind an old Willie Dixon song, You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover.

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Scorsese Then and Now

It’s a deceptive title, really, because I’m not a film critic nor a fan of any director.
But Martin Scorsese was the one who had the smarts, the interest and the resources to make two concert films 30 years apart, THE LAST WALTZ (1978) and SHINE A LIGHT (2008).
In 1976, the post Vietnam era in the States, Martin Scorsese and Robbie Robertson managed to record on film (the first concert movie shot in 35mm) the farewell concert of the Band in the venue where they first appeared as The Band, the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel were leaving the road after sixteen years. In an interview Robbie says he couldn’t imagine doing it for twenty years. The Last Waltz was called “the end of an era”.
At the time Scorsese was directing New York, New York, a big expensive production, but he had cut his edting teeth in the Woodstock film and learned what not to do there. He took some time off from the New York, New York project and filmed The Last Waltz in a weekend, put it almost all together in a week and a few months later, filmed three songs on a Hollywood sound stage. It grew from Robbie Robertson’s idea, a not for profit enterprise with no budget to an important cultural event, done by the seat of its pants, almost an afterthought, and ultimately, the concert movie by which all others are judged.
Thirty years later, after Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and Goodfellas and all the awards for No DIRECTION HOME (2005), a documentary on Dylan’s early career, Scorsese filmed a Rolling Stones concert.
Shine A Light presents the best of the Stones’ Beacon Theatre concerts on their A Bigger Bang Tour on Oct 29 and Nov 1, 2006 in New York city mixed with interviews of the band from long ago (mostly in black and white) and in present time The backstage segments were the first time Scorsese used digital cinematography.
Ronnie Wood appears in both films; in out takes of a jam in The Last Waltz, more prominently in Shine a Light.
THIS MOVIE SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD! appears on the screen before The Last Waltz starts. A sign of the times in 1978.
The movie begins with Rick Danko telling Scorsese that the game is “Cutthroat” and a loud cracking of the pool balls as he breaks. Shine a Light nods to that opening as it starts with Ronnie Wood taking a pool shot in a game with Keith Richards.
The Band returns to the stage for an encore. They play “Don’t Do It” and Robbie Robertson’s lead guitar places the viewer in a beat up neighborhood of San Francisco on the way to the Winterland Ballroom where crowds are lining up and the huge vertical sign above the entrance has half of its lights burnt out.
‘The Rolling Stones’ appears on a marquee between two rows of lights above the entrance of The Beacon Theatre. Scorsese appreciates the balconies and huge space he has to work with and organizes the tracked moving cameras. Shine a Light will be filmed in a beautifully appointed theatre.
A young couple waltzes gracefully across the screen against the backdrop of the The Last Waltz logo to the music of The Last Waltz theme song, written by Robbie Robertson, as the names of the guest performers appear: Dr John, Ronnie Hawkins, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Emmy Lou Harris, Muddy Waters, The Staples, Van Morrison, Neil Diamond, Paul Butterfield, Ringo Starr, Ronnie Wood.
The huge variety of styles to which The Band adapted and the energy they injected into the songs made for a memorable performance. They were a perfect backup band as well as the stars of the show.
The concert itself is a mixture of Band originals beginning with Cripple Creek interwoven with guests who play one song each and interviews of all the members of the Band and some friends. Ronnie Hawkins tells the story of each band member as he was brought into The Hawks, Ronnie’s backup band which became Dylan’s backup band and then The Band.
The commentaries of the director, musicians and others who were involved in the project which is played over the concert performances in the Special Features section is fascinating. As each person appears, someone talks about them. There is a hilarious description of Van Morrison’s sequined outfit as he steals the show with a striking performance of Caravan and an equally funny description of Dylan’s preparations for the show.
The actual filming was done for free by world renowned cinematographers who did it as a favour to Scorsese using seven cameras. Ideas like Boris Leven’s of filling the Winterland Ballroom with chandeliers had to be cut back because they could only afford three.

Boris Leven, a personal friend of Scorsese and his set designer on New York, New York as well as The Sound of Music and West Side Story, thought of renting the set of La Traviata from the San Francisco opera company to spruce up the old Winterland. He designed the sets upon which Scorsese shot The Weight, Evangeline and The Last Waltz theme song on a Hollywood sound stage. The songs featured the Band, the Staples and Emmy Lou Harris.
One of the great contrasts of the films is the reference to lighting. An assistant tells Scorsese in Shine a Light that one of the lighting effects will literally cause Mick to burst into flames if he stands near it for more than 18 seconds. Scorsese says firmly “We can’t burn Mick Jagger. Very simply. We want the effect but we can’t burn Mick”
When Paul Butterfield does his solo in The Last Waltz, there is a general panic among the crew when they lose all power to the lights except the one spot on Butterfield and Levon. The problem is fixed in time for the next song and Robbie comments that it turned out to be a perfect shot for the harp player and the drummer.
Camera shots preoccupy directors obviously but Scorsese didn’t seem any more relaxed while discussing them with Mick thirty years after his assistant in The Last Waltz had to negotiate every camera movement with Bill Graham who held the rights to the Winterland stage and insisted that nothing impair the sight lines of the live audience. When Mick mentions the audience inconvenience to Scorsese, the director opts for the swooping in motion cameras anyway. He knows the value of a historical document. He did it thirty years ago.
The Special Features section of The Last Waltz dvd contains a Last Waltz Revisited segment in which Scorsese and others talk about the experience 25 years later,
Perhaps the biggest contrast between the two films is that a connection to the Beats plays prominently in the Last Waltz when Michael McClure, the poet, appears on stage in a spotlight, recites a short piece of The Canterbury Tales in Olde English, smiles and walks off. Lawrence Ferlinghetti appears at the end of the show, just before Dylan, recites a quick, cool poem and exits.
Thirty years later the subjects of Scorsese’s concert film are meeting the President of the USA and the ex president of Poland backstage. In fact, as Clinton announces in his brief introduction, he’s opening for them.
The Stones concerts benefitted the Clinton Foundation and the band received a visit from The President himself as well as his wife and their entourage. One of the funny parts of Shine a Light is Charlie’s response to an assistant reminding him that the meet’n greet is at 6:00. He says “I thought we just done it.” To which the assistant replies, “No, you just met the president, he’s got thirty guests coming”.
The Stones play Jumpin Jack Flash, Shattered, She Was Hot, All Down the Line, Loving Cup with Jack White111, As Tears Go By, Some Girls, Just My Imagination, Far Away Eyes, Champagne and Reefer with Buddy Guy, Tumbling Dice, You Got the Silver, Connection, Sympathy for the Devil, Live With Me with Christina Aguilera, Start Me Up, Brown Sugar. I Can’t Get No Satisfaction and Shine a Light. Undercover of the Night, Paint It Black, Little T&A and I’m Free are included as a bonus special.
At first I liked The Last Waltz more because of the in depth interviews and the commentaries and its good natured, humourous attitude. But with a budget of one million dollars and the high pressure atmosphere of recording a Stones concert, it makes you wonder what else could Scorsese do? There was really no room for long interviews with the musicians so he threw in clips of past press conferences and interviews where the early days of scandal and infamy were covered and the question which seemed to obsess everyone was “How long are you going to do this?” A young Mick Jagger says he thinks the Stones will last at least another year when they are two years old and then without hesitation says “Yeah” when Dick Cavett asks him if he could see himself doing it in his sixties.
An old Keith Richard attributes his longevity to coming from good stock and a younger one tells an interviewer his luck hasn’t run out when he’s questioned about surviving for so long. In The Last Waltz Robbie Robertson contemplates recent deaths of musicians like Janis and Jimi and the high risk lifestyle. He says simply, “You can push your luck”.
As Robertson talks over Muddy Water’s performance in the commentaries expressing how honoured The Band was to have him in the show, he names some of the musicians influenced by Muddy and mentions The Rolling Stones being named after a Muddy Song.
Scorsese looks like the older, respectable director he is in Shine a Light compared to the hungry young man in The Last Waltz.
In Shine a Light when a lighting effect test stops the group he is in from talking, shocked at the flash, Scorsese remarks “Hmm. That cleared my sinuses” and smiles with the same mischievous sense of fun the viewer sees in The Last Waltz as he follows Rick Danko on a tour of Shangrila, the ex bordello which has been turned into a clubhouse and studio.
It’s just the difference in times, part of the 60’s and 70’s vs the first decade of the new century. But there can only be a difference, a comparison, a contrast, because Martin Scorsese had the vision to see rock music in a historical context.
At the risk of sounding too Canadian, I think that both concert movies are well worth watching.

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The Last Waltz Considered

The Last Waltz was a revolutionary documentary. It was the first concert movie shot in 35 mm, the record of a celebration of the Band’s last concert on the site of their first show as The Band. It is the visual evidence that more than thirty years ago Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel had the good sense to go out on top. There are many examples of actors, politicians, athletes and rock stars who didn’t.
The movie itself, I hour, 37 minutes, was directed by Martin Scorsese. No matter what you think of Hollywood, his credentials as a director are undisputed. His list of credits, accomplishments and awards means that Scorsese is a serious director, not one to waste energy.
At the time, 1976, a time when the underground half of the 60’s generation was realizing that the other half was following in the footsteps of their parents, embracing the values that their governments, their elders and betters, praised and promoted, Scorsese was in the middle of directing NEW YORK, NEW YORK, a huge, expensive Hollywood project. Unbeknownst to the New York, New York producer who would have had a heart attack if he’d known, Marty (as he is referred to by almost everyone in the movie) took a weekend off, filmed the concert at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, put together the rest of it in a week and filmed three more songs on a Hollywood sound stage a few months later. It was edited and released in 1978. The sets, lighting, photography, sound and all the myriad details that go into movie creation were taken care of by hook or by crook, often improvised by world renowned experts in their fields. The project took on a life of its own. It was not made for profit and grew into an important cultural event.
Before Scorsese made The Last Waltz, there was WOODSTOCK (where he worked as an assistant director and editor and learned what not to do), GIMME SHELTER, SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL and an Elvis film, but no other single concert had been as carefully choreographed, as meticulously set and photographed as this. There were seven cameras shooting at times, each run by a professional and, in many cases, a world famous cinematographer. Bill Graham’s lawyers forced Scorsese’s assistant to negotiate each camera movement because he controlled the stage and insisted that nothing impair the sight lines of the live audience.
It is best to mention here that the DVD of The Last Waltz is available cheap at your local DVD purveyor. This one only cost ten Canadian dollars to buy, a great bargain for musicians, writers and anyone else interested in rock ‘n roll and the making of movies. The “Special Features” additions on the DVD contain a lot of comical and serious comments by the movie makers, Mac Rebenak, Ronnie Hawkins, Mavis Staples and the band members which can be listened to as the movie plays. As each band member, song and guest performer appears, someone talks about them.
The story of The Band’s creation and growth through sixteen years of living on the road unfolds through a series of interviews with band members interspersed among the songs, mostly answers to questions posed by Scorsese himself, questions provided by a professional screenwriter. Many of the answers are funny, some ironic, some poignant, but one feeling permeates the whole movie, a sort of good natured humour, an amused observation of the world at large and a sincere appreciation of the music.
The Band were aware that the odds of survival for such a long time in such a high risk lifestyle, were against them. Robbie Robertson says, at the end of the movie, “The road has taken some of the great ones” and “You can push your luck”.
Three of the Band’s songs were filmed on an MGM sound stage where Scorsese could control everything and was free to use a crane and a camera as in normal movies. The Weight, in which Pop and Mavis Staples sing verses and all four harmonize on the choruses with members of the band, Evangeline, which is filmed in stunning colour with Emmy Lou Harris doing an achingly sweet call and response with Levon, and The Last Waltz theme song which is a waltz written by Robertson who is playing a double necked acoustic guitar as he performs it with the Band, were all filmed on sets designed by Boris Leven, a friend of Scorcese and the production designer on The Sound of Music and New York, New York. It was Leven who was responsible for renting the San Francisco Opera’s set for La Traviata and setting it up in the beat up, spruced up, old Winterland Ballroom for the concert. His original idea was to fill the place with chandeliers but they couldn’t afford more than three.
It’s fitting that while the rest of their generation was trying to deal with the post Vietnam world, the plan for The Last Waltz was hatching and growing between Robbie Robertson and Martin Scorsese in a couple of months of creativity and hard work. At first, there was no budget, just an idea. It was cobbled together by the seat of its pants, almost an afterthought. The Last Waltz began, in a way, underground, and became the standard by which all concert movies are measured.
When the concert was over, Scorsese and Robertson agreed that through all the craziness and frenetic activity, through the power of the music and the personalities, maybe, just maybe, they might have produced a gem.
The movie begins with Rick Danko telling Martin Scorsese that the game is “Cutthroat” and breaking the balls on a pool table.
Then, in a way which makes sense only when you’ve watched the whole thing and listened to the commentary, The Band returns to the stage for an unplanned encore after the concert’s over.
They play Don’t Do It and Robbie Robertson’s lead guitar places the viewer in a car travelling through a beat up neighbourhood of San Francisco to the Winterland Ballroom where crowds are lined up and the huge vertical sign above the entrance has half of its lights burnt out.
A young couple waltzes gracefully across the screen against the backdrop of The Last Waltz logo as the names of the guest performers appear: Dr John, Ronnie Hawkins, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Emmy Lou Harris, Muddy Waters, The Staples, Van Morrison, Neil Diamond, Paul Butterfield, Ringo Starr, Ronnie Wood.
In the first interview Marty asks Robbie if they’re really “just friends” who showed up. Robbie tells him that no, the musical guests aren’t just friends, they’re probably the biggest influences in music to a whole generation.
Michael McClure, the poet, appears on stage in a spotlight where he recites a short piece of Canterbury Tales in olde English, smiles and walks off. Lawrence Ferlinghetti appears at the end of the show, just before Dylan, with a quick, cool poem. They are the connection to the Beats, their presence welcomed. Kerouac’s spirit.
As Robbie says, it isn’t about the audience so they don’t appear except for a few reverse shots which Scorsese loved.
The concert itself is a mixture of Band originals beginning with Cripple Creek, interwoven with guests who play only one song each.
Dr John displays that New Orleans piano style, slow drawl and dazzling smile on What a Night.
Joni Mitchell’s strumming and phrasing make the room feel like everything’s in motion as she stands golden haired and innocent singing the naughty lyrics of Coyote.
The floor shakes to the beat of everyone stomping to Muddy’s Mannish Boy.
In the Special Features section there is a hilarious commentary on Van Morrison’s sequined outfit as he steals the show with his tour de force performance of Caravan and almost cracks a smile. He had lived in Woodstock when The Band lived there and was an old friend.
Scorsese manages to get Joni’s profile in shadow when she sings an ethereal harmony to Neil Young’s Helpless.
Garth Hudson’s head is suddenly illuminated as he stands to play a sax, trading solos with Robbie’s guitar in It Makes No Difference.
Clapton trades licks with Robertson on Further On Up The Road after his guitar strap comes undone and Robbie picks up the solo without missing a beat.
Neil Diamond, a companion from their Tin Pan Alley days, sings a song looking like he’s ready for Vegas.
Paul Butterfield pulls off an amazing physical feat when he plays along with Muddy.
Ronnie Hawkins, Muddy and Van the Man all exit the stage the same way, deliberately, with a flourish.
In the commentaries Ronnie Hawkins tells the story of each band member as he was brought into The Hawks, Ronnie’s backup band which later became Dylan’s backup band, then The Band. He says he hired Robbie Robertson, the kid, to be a roadie as a favour to the boy’s mother. Robbie was hanging out with some guys who might end up in the penitentiary.
Richard Manuel, quiet and gentle, always reminding me of The Furry Freak Brother comics in the interviews, roars the lyrics to The Shape I’m In with a strong singing voice made for the blues and slow dancing, rough and smooth at the same time.
Levon Helm’s performance vocally and on the drums is hypnotizing . The physical energy required to play and sing that long and that hard is clear in the movie.
Rick Danko’s voice is “mournful and strange with off the wall harmonies” as Mac Rebenak put it. It is sweet and harsh with power and feeling.
Dylan (another funny commentary in the Special Features section) sings Forever Young and leads his former band into Baby, Let Me Follow You Down.
The finale, with everyone onstage, is Dylan’s, I Shall Be Released.
Robbie Robertson’s guitar playing is unique. He can play like a lot of people but no one ever plays like him, no one’s got his style , it’s really unique.
Ringo and Ronnie Wood appear playing in an out take of a jam until, after 6 hours of filming, the cameras and people take a break.
There may be better bands at some things but only these musicians could have pulled this off. A concert which requires a backup band for a variety of performers can be accomplished technically, but the life which The Band injected into the songs, the huge variety of styles they had to adapt to, could only have been done by them. They were a perfect backup band as well as the stars of the show.
The sex is in the music. Understated and hinted at, never openly mentioned, the sex is in the music. In the interviews Scorsese asks about women on the road. The answers are, for the most part, as vague and euphemistic as the references to “fun” and other bad habits.
Garth Hudson states with certainty that the greatest priests on 52nd street in New York were the musicians. Songwriters were the low men and women on the totem pole but the street musicians were the greatest healers.
Thirty years after the movie was made, Martin Scorsese has done another concert film with The Rolling Stones called Shine a Light.
Waiting to borrow my copy of The Last Waltz are a twenty year old drummer and a seventeen year old bass player. It means that Martin Scorsese and Robbie Robertson and everyone involved in the movie did produce a gem.
And it means that all is not lost.

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