Deep Cut

I’m on vacation this week, and one of my goals is sorting through various writing projects – all in various stages of completion – and refocusing my efforts as I head into summer and getting my first novel ready for an editor’s eyes.
The piece I’m sharing here was written four years ago tomorrow, which is an interesting bit of synchronicity. I forgot this work was hanging around in my files. Heck, I’d nearly forgotten that it existed.
Anyway, I re-read it just now, and I thought it was worth sharing. It touches on themes that are central to my first novel, which was interesting to realize, and it brings this bit of mid-afternoon effort full circle.
I hope you enjoy it.

I don’t know if The Northern Pikes have ever been a cool band in their home country of Canada. They’ve been around for a while, I guess, and it looks as though they’ve gone through the requisite number of hairstyle phases to be considered a band that has endured. Down here in the States, I don’t think most people have heard of The Northern Pikes. They’re definitely no The Tragically Hip in terms of having a south-of-the-border fanbase. 

But 22 years ago, they were one of biggest land masses in my little world.

Back in 1993, I spent most days working on the farm that my dad managed, more likely than not doing field work in dad’s big, blue, Ford TW-10 tractor. Plowing, harrowing, mowing … I logged several weeks’ worth of hours in that roaring monster’s stuffy cab. The only thing I had to keep me company was a built-in factory model stereo that got terrible reception. Save for conservative talk radio, which I learned to grow a strong distaste for quickly, the only other option I had was MIX 96, a Canadian top 40 station out of Montreal.

“Terry and Ted in the morning! Montreal’s biggest hits all day long!” Or something like that.

MIX 96 was the first time I had my ears opened to a music scene beyond whatever was being churned out on mainstream U.S. stations. Looking back on it, there wasn’t a ton of stuff that was super-revolutionary, but I got to experience bands like Blue Rodeo, Tom Cochrane, and Daniel Lanois for the first time. As well as the previously mentioned The Tragically Hip and The Northern Pikes. 

Of course, no recollection of Canadian rock/pop in 1993 would be complete without mentioning Ontario’s very own Darrin Kenneth O’Brien. Otherwise known as Snow, this fledgling reggae musician/Cyndi Lauper collaborator made it big that summer with his first single, “Informer.” And now that he’s been mentioned, let us not speak of him again.

The Northern Pikes have been together for nearly four decades. And they’ve got the albums and the hairstyles to prove it.

The Northern Pikes were in the midst of promoting the album, “Neptune,” back in ‘93. I didn’t know them from elevator music, though, until I heard the single “World’s Away.” Released in the spring of that year, it’s a bit of a deep cut these days, as far as I can tell. But it’s the song that carried me through the summer before my failed sophomore year of college.

The first time I heard “World’s Away,” I was in the early stages of trying to figure a lot of things out. Big Things.

I was the first member of my family to go to college, and I wasn’t very good at it, despite my best efforts. After working full time every summer on the farm since sixth grade, this would be my last summer doing so. And I was in love with the woman who would become my first wife and the mother of our three children. It’s a bit on the nose, but that song hit at exactly the time I was feeling worlds away from the people I’d spent most of my time with until then. My family. 

You and I are worlds away/There’s nothing we can do or say/To change the way that all things are/Except to wonder from afar/And contemplate the things we see/We’re worlds away now, you and me.

I would wait and wait and wait for “Worlds Away” to come on the radio. It wasn’t the biggest hit in the world, so it didn’t get played that often. The worst was to climb into the tractor cab, push in the clutch, and turn the key, only to hear the song fading into some other tune. That would mean maybe going the entire day without those words, and I needed those words. I needed to hear someone besides me say them, to know that someone else understood, that another person could feel how I felt. 

I was growing up. I was changing. I was making big decisions. And everything else, everyone else, was staying the same. Well, that’s the way it felt at the time. There’s no way I could have known that my mother’s days working at the barn were numbered as her nervous system began to slowly turn against her, taking away the strength and coordination to even walk properly. I couldn’t have realized that my father would be faced with challenges as a husband that most men wouldn’t care to even imagine. And there’s no possibility that I might realize my parents were wracked with the same fears, doubts, and hopes as me, the same because my changes were also their changes. We didn’t talk about stuff like that as a family. It just wasn’t something we did back then. Not even if we wanted to. 

We were worlds away from each other.

We can talk about Montana/We can talk about the moon/We can talk about each other/We can fly away to Neptune.

One of my favorite parts of that summer was doing the morning milkings every other Sunday with my father. We’d have to get up around 4 a.m. to start chores. A mere five hours later, the herd would be milked, the calves would be fed, and the milking machines would be cleaned. Then it was a few hours of weekend downtime before doing it all over again in the afternoon. 

The two or three hours right before sunrise are a special time. There’s a quiet that is unlike any other quiet you will hear during the day. What sounds there are take on a clarity all their own. And your thoughts, no matter how big, are equally sluggish and penetrating. Walking to the barn on those mornings, I’d turn the lyrics of “Worlds Away” over in my head, staring up at the early morning stars and processing my life in a way that I really haven’t since. My situation wouldn’t feel so big, and things would make a little more sense. 

Then, after heading out on the ATV to round up the cows with only a 24-square-inch headlight to lead the way, I’d spend the next two hours in the milking parlor with my dad, slinging the teat cups (pronounced ticcups, from the Latin tit cups) onto the udders and shooting the shit about whatever we felt like. It was free and easy conversation, and it was the first time I felt like a grown-up in any sort of self-confident way. But we never talked about the big stuff. We just didn’t.

We’ll never have to leave/We’ll never have to leave/We’ll never have to leave.

Twenty-two years have passed. I hadn’t thought of “Worlds Away” or The Northern Pikes or a lot of what I’ve written here until just a few hours ago. I certainly hadn’t thought of “Informer.” But I’ve been listening to a lot of (too much?) Stop Podcasting Yourself (SPY), the Vancouver-based comedy podcast hosted by Dave Shumka and Graham Clark. In turn, this led me to plumb the depths of my Canadian knowledge, which brought up a song that wasn’t there.

What was it? Something sort of ballady? Fish are involved somehow, maybe? Isn’t there something ethereal about it all? And why does it feel so big and important? 

The Northern Pikes. The name came forth from nothing. But that’s it. What was the song? I don’t know why, but instead of putting it in the omni-present hands of Google, I went to the SPY Facebook page and asked the folks there for help. In minutes, I had the answer, and I was listening to the song again.

From a critical perspective, it’s nothing special, but it holds up ok. Hearing the lyrics and music again, though, for the first time in more than two decades, it brought up everything I’ve been writing about here, and then some. It compelled me to think of the worlds I’ve orbited over the years, the worlds that have orbited my own. 

Some worlds, the one inhabited by my parents, for example, have remained in a fairly constant, tight, circular orbit with mine. And it turns out that really, our worlds were never really that far apart. Others – I’m thinking here of the two satellites involved in my first marriage – saw their gravitational pull get disrupted by forces of human nature. Now, our orbits are extremely elliptical, and when they do come into close contact, it coincides with an eclipse. It’s hard to make eye contact.

The thing I realized, as I played the Northern Pikes over and over again … well, I learned a couple of things.

First, I learned that nostalgia is a hell of a drug, best consumed in small doses and infrequently.

The other thing is this: we are each at least one world away from each other. We all orbit one another. The closer the orbit, the more painful and meaningful the distance when that path takes us from one another. Sometimes, the orbit is nothing more than a quick, brushing glance. Someone reminds you of the name of a song you haven’t heard in a while. And then you’re sent spinning. Most times, many billions of times, we orbit in our own universes, never knowing the other one is there. 

And every once in a great while, a Canadian pop band will write a song that enters a young man’s field of gravity, stirring up the atmosphere before continuing on its way, only to return 22 years later to do it all over again.

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