Life can be capricious and cruel. I was thinking this not too long ago when my iPhone randomly played ‘Home For A Rest,’ by the legendary Canadian band, Spirit of the West. This is their song, their big one, ubiquitous during Frosh Weeks across the continent and around St. Patrick’s Day. The band goes to London, gets pished for a month and eventually staggers home to Vancouver for a rest. The frontman of Spirit of the West was John Mann, a brilliant songwriter and a genuinely good guy. When my phone played this song, he was dying of Early On-Set Alzheimer’s disease. Yesterday, he died of it.
I first discovered Sprit of the West in the late 80s, growing up in Vancouver, it was hard to miss them. They were staples on CiTR, the campus radio station of the University of British Columbia. They got play on Muchmusic, but especially on the daily West coast representation, MuchWest, hosted by local big man about town, Terry David Mulligan. Their song, ‘Political,’ from their 1988 album, Labour Day, was their first hit of sorts. In those days, SOTW were a Celtic-ified acoustic trio of Geoff Kelly, J. Knutson and John Mann.
‘Political’ was remade for their 1991 hard-rocking, but still Celtic, album, Go Figure. It was after a SOTW gig in Ottawa, Toronto, or Montréal, I can’t remember which, that Kelley told me that song was about Mann’s relationship with Mecca Normal frontwoman Jean Smith. The lyrics were cringe-worthy, not because they were bad, but because they were so familiar for an insecure young man trying to get his head out of his arse:
I was feeling a little underwhelmed
About hanging around with you and
Feeling over cautious
Every word, every little look, every little sigh
Every little phrase
Put me deeper in your doghouse
Too busy tripping on my tongue
To try and stand my ground
And I can still see myself crying in your lap
Asking you, are you happy with the man you have found?
I’m grateful for what you did for me
I can see things now I never would have seen
And today I thought about what could have been
But could never be for you and me.
Spirit of the West went very far from their beginnings in a third tier provincial city barricaded in the rain and fog beyond the Rocky Mountains from the rest of Canada. People forget, but prior to Expo ’86, Vancouver really was a third-rate provincial city. It maintained some of its frontier swagger, and it festered in its irrelevance to the rest of Canada, must as Seattle did a few hundred kilometres to the South in relation to the United States. Vancouver was a no place. And, sure, artists made it out of Vancouver in those days, but they didn’t get far.
Spirit of the West changed that. They became big in Canada, they made an imprint in the United States (which is very hard for a Canadian band to do for any number of reasons). And they made it big in England due to the friendship struck up between SOTW and The Wonderstuff. By the early 90, Spirit of the West had plugged in their guitars, turned up the amps, and expanded the lineup. Knutson had left after Labour Day, and the band had expanded to include Vince Dittrich on drums, Linda McRae on pretty much anything, and Hugh McMillan on everything else. They toured with the Wonderstuff in the UK on the back of their 1990 platinum (in Canada) release, Save This House. The title track emerged out of Earth Day 1989, and was a viscerally environmental song. Nothing has changed, has it?
I met both Mann and Kelly any number of times around Vancouver in the 90s, in bars, in Stanley Park, in record stores, and around. They were both very approachable and really nice guys. Mann always seemed to remember me, too. He was genuine. He was nice. Just nice. I found myself sitting next to him at a bar one night in 1994 or 1995. I was drinking beer, he was drinking whiskey. I don’t remember what we talked about, but he laughed a lot. The Canucks were on TV. They were losing. And then I had to go to meet my girlfriend.
I must have seen the Spirit of the West upwards of 20 or 30 times live between 1990 and 1998 or so. I saw them in big concert halls, in small holes in the wall. I saw them once in the US, playing some godawful Celtic band. I don’t remember which city. Maybe New York (probably), but maybe Boston or Seattle.
Alzheimer’s is a vicious, uncompromising son of a bitch. My father-in-law is dying of it. John Mann died of it. He was only 57 years old. I hadn’t seen him in over 20 years. And it’s not like we were friends. I was just one of those faces around town. But as I saw the news yesterday, I thought of all the outpouring of love Mann received in Canada since he revealed his diagnosis in 2014. He had just beaten colon cancer.
But the Canadian music scene had his back. In Toronto, musicians put on an annual benefit for him and for Alzheimer’s research. Vancouver’s music scene did similar things. He kept playing until 2016.
And now he’s gone. And so I’m back to listening to ‘Home For a Rest’, and thinking of how we don’t know what kind of bullshit life is going to throw at us as we get older. I think of all the people I knew in those days who are gone, who didn’t see what was coming. Or those who are still standing, suffering through disease, divorce, the death of children. Or the simple fact that nothing turns out the way we thought it would.
In 1992, the Wonderstuff and Spirit of the West cut a towering version of ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken?’ I’ll leave off with that.
Matthew Barlow is a recovering academic. A Montrealer by birth, he has lived all over Canada and the United States. His natural affinities are with his hometown of Montreal, Vancouver, and his current home in rural Western Massachusetts. His first book, Griffintown: Identity & Memory in an Irish Diaspora Neighbourhood (he did not come up with that subtitle) was published in June 2017 by UBC Press. He is currently working on a new book that examines childhood, memory, and trauma. His real passion, though, is music. He is also an avid fan of the Montreal Canadiens and Liverpool FC. When not screaming at the TV, he can be found running, playing with his dogs, or hiking through the hills of Western Mass.