Photo by MLHS
It was an eclectic round of rehearsals in those years: orchestra, marching band, musicals and Gilbert and Sullivan shows all clustered around the central activity of “goin’ to university, b’y,” except no one did. “Goin’ to university” was a cover or alibi, rather than a statement of fact, providing the indolent and the imaginative with richer lives than simply having a job. At Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN) there were “students” on campus for years who had never taken a course. (I think one of them later became premier.) And of those who did sign up, some descended into the tunnels and were never seen again, or at least not for a good long time. The tunnels were an underground system of campus walkways, like an early mall without the shops. Because they housed the student lockers, the tunnels were the first stop of the day, and they might be the last, too: if there was a stash of comfort food in your locker, say a nickel of grass, you might lose a week down in that concrete warren. By midday it was like an obstacle course, trying to negotiate the tunnels without tripping over the stiffs, bodies half propped up against the walls of lockers like stuffed straw “guys” on the streets of London leading up to Guy Fawkes Day. Saying you were “up to MUN” didn’t necessarily mean you ever set foot on campus. “Up to MUN” was often a state of mind, meaning you were free and had yet to take on the shackles of a job.
So in this period of “goin’ to MUN” there was ample opportunity to sit around the house feeding the stereo, stopping it only long enough to bang out the music ourselves at the keyboard. The canon was Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, the Beatles, Janis Joplin. I knew these songs, or thought I did until a few years ago at a party when I realized I couldn’t sing a single word. My nieces and nephews, of a generation to be enamoured with Phish, they know all the lyrics from the 1960s and ’70s. Words connect the listener with the song, but I can’t reproduce one word from the hundreds of songs I heard and sang and played, again and again. Yet it was the age of poetry, campus literary journals, coffee houses; everyone and her brothers braved the stage. (Yes, and we called ourselves Cheap Tea and Molasses, from a line in the fierce Newfoundland ballad of the 1860s, the “Anti-Confederation Song.”) If at any moment you didn’t have a sheaf of obtuse poems in your back pocket, you were shit, or at least uncool.
When I listen to Bob Dylan now, he is so agitated, so earnest, trying to get me to hear his message. There is a sense of immediacy and urgency: You gotta serve somebody, I said you gotta SERVE somebody. Yeah, I hear you now, man, but I didn’t hear you then. I lay around the floor of the Thompson Student Centre listening to local bands do covers of you, I bopped, tapped, rolled to you, I appreciated you, I loved you, but I didn’t hear a damn word you sang! Go figure. My head was lost in some post-convent fog not yet dispersed. I was holding myself back from full participation in my life, the delayed entry some fallout from a childhood and youth of warily picking my way through the banshee chorus wailing: not allowed, not allowed, not allowed. A distance grew up between me and—everything.
I was afraid of the consequences of any move. I might go out with a guy who’d get drunk, poke me in the back of his car and get me pregnant, or get drunk, prop me in the front and accidentally drive us over a cliff. There was the possibility of divine retribution for missing Mass on Sunday: whatever you were doing when you weren’t at Mass, you might be killed doing it. In the early days of skipping Sunday Mass, I’d just sit still on a chair in the living room. What could happen there? I had a friend who’d dress for church, tell her parents she was off to Mass, and then spend the hour driving around in her boyfriend’s Jeep. I didn’t admire her insouciance, I shook my head at her folly. There was the fear that my mother would figure out that the photos from the camping trip didn’t show one tent for boys and one for girls, just the same tent from different angles. Fear my mother would find out I was on the pill, fear that I’d be the one in a million for whom the pill didn’t work, that the dime of hash I’d bought came from some seedy sadist in “Tronto” who’d cut it with heroin and I’d be hooked for life. The winds of caution swirling around me since birth had an unspoken tag: if you do, then . . . I wasn’t able to disassociate myself from life completely because I wanted too badly to live it, but I could keep back a step or two, and watch.
Maybe, maybe that’s why I was always the one around the action, not in it. The role of accompanist suited me well; while others sang passionately, I sat at the keyboard and vamped, chorded, tinkled, improvised. The words swirled around me but never quite made it all the way to my brain.