I’m not one for public tears, but I was stopped at the intersection of Hunt Club and Prince of Wales, and tears were streaming down my face. I caught the eye of the woman in the car next to me, and she turned away.
I had been stuck in traffic, idly flipping between the radio stations. Alt rock. Classic Rock. Best of the 60s, 70s, and 80s! The CBC. NPR, floating in over the border. Then I hit the ‘media’ button by accident, and the voice of Stuart McLean embraced me.
Stuart McLean died of cancer in 2015. He was many things over the years, but first and foremost, he was a storyteller. His ‘Vinyl Cafe’ stories played on the radio every Saturday, funny, warm, and often poignant, insights into the life of his everyman, Dave, and Dave’s wider community. The story that was playing in my cd player is called ‘Rock of Ages’. Look it up. I do it an injustice here, but briefly, it’s a story of a woman from Dave’s home town, an old woman, who for reasons she can’t explain, passes up a chance to reconnect with an old beau. He dies; and at the funeral, she sings ‘Rock of Ages’. But of course, in the recording, it is Stuart McLean who is singing. And in that instant, I am transported back to my childhood, to our rural church, and I’m thinking of the people I will never see again.
And I cried.
I saw Stuart McLean in concert, twice, for his Christmas show in Ottawa. The National Art Centre squats in downtown Ottawa beside the Rideau Canal. Inside, despite the vast space, it feels close, intimate. On the stage there is a standup microphone, and a music stand. A wingback chair is stage-left. And that is all. Stuart walks onto the stage and, once the applause settles down, he begins to speak.
It is a masterclass in speaking. I am enthralled. It’s not just the richness of the voice, or the humour, pacing, and timing, though those are all impeccable. It’s the physicality. He holds his head perfectly still as he tells the story, reading from his script propped up on the music stand. But the rest of his body, ah, well… his arms windmill; his legs noodle forward and backward; his hands splay, and grasp, and point; he is conducting an orchestra, juggling the lives of Dave, Morely, Sam, Arthur the dog, the minor characters, the walk-ons. But throughout, he holds his head steady. His voice never betrays the maelstrom happening just underneath. And it becomes clear, after a while, that the movement, all the movement, is Stuart McLean moving through his own palace of memory. He has the script in front of him, but his eyes are closed. He can see Dave, there, about to turn on the dryer into which the pet ferret has crept; he’s there in the kitchen when Dave decides to do a spot of remodelling. He’s there, in the church, as the old lady’s voice quavers, but never breaks.
This I think was the secret – one of the secrets? – to Stuart McLean’s success. He was present in his work in a way few of us ever are. Even as I listen to other stories on the old cd, I can see him windmilling away as Dave tries to shepherd the boys onto the subway, and the subway doors closing in his face. And sometimes, I can see him holding himself very still, trying to contain that energy in his slight frame, as when he sings ‘Rock of Ages’. Stillness is so much more effective when it is unexpected. This is what I aspire to. To be present in the moment when I lecture, when I speak. To be still in the centre of that moment. To move; and be moved in turn.
Thank you, Stuart.