I’ve told several people over the past decade that I’d love to be Stuart McLean when (and if) I grow up.
So I hope you’ll indulge me if I divert from this blog’s usual content to honour a man whose unforgettable voice will likely reverberate around the country – and within my brain, heart and psyche – for years to come.
Stuart (I still can’t bring myself to call him by his last name) lost his battle with melanoma at the age of 68 yesterday. He originally landed at CBC Radio four decades ago as a journalist ready to take on the toughest stories imaginable. Somehow, he evolved from this persona into one of Canada’s most beloved personalities, redefining himself over the past 23 years as a master storyteller, humourist, author and travelling radio host with the remarkable franchise known as The Vinyl Cafe.
Given the national outpouring of sadness that accompanied the news of Stuart’s passing, it’s astounding to consider that the original pilot episode for The Vinyl Cafe sat unused for five years before CBC decided to try it out as a summer fill-in series. Taking up the third hour of the network’s long-running daily show Morningside, The Vinyl Cafe‘s original run introduced Canada to Stuart’s now-famous cast of characters – record-store owner Dave, his wife Morley, and their children Sam and Stephanie – and his unique skill of capturing small-town Canada with his deliberate, evocative voice.
Not surprisingly, audiences ate it up, catapulting The Vinyl Cafe into a best-selling book series, a regular weekly CBC Radio show, and a long-running concert series that saw Stuart balancing live readings of his stories with performances by locally-and-nationally-recognized musicians.
It took me awhile to make regular visits to The Vinyl Cafe (motto: “We May Not Be Big, But We’re Small”). By the early 2000’s, however, it was not only capturing my imagination but also that of my future wife and our immediate families. I have fond memories of making my uncles laugh at family Christmas parties in L’Ardoise by imitating Stuart’s distinctive voice and its almost-too-focused enunciation. My impersonation was loosely based on that of Gavin Crawford, who was regularly lampooning The Vinyl Cafe on CBC’s This Hour Has 22 Minutes at the time. (To his credit, Stuart took it all in stride and made a 22 Minutes cameo in which he crashed one of Crawford’s mock-ups, eventually ending up in a faux romantic embrace with his comedic doppelganger.)
At the same time, my wife-to-be Cathy was a regular at The Vinyl Cafe’s visits to Nova Scotia, picking up tapes, CDs and books. Her mother Bette MacKenzie was also a fan, and lovingly nicknamed the group of elderly ladies that she regularly joined for coffee at New Glasgow’s East Side Restaurant as “The Vinyl Cafe” (a tidbit that wound up in Bette’s obituary when she passed away in 2003).
Eight months after we became a couple, Cathy and I finally had the chance to see a Vinyl Cafe show together, at the Keating Millennium Centre in Antigonish. I was struck by the welcoming nature of both Stuart and the show, and the genuine affection he had for his characters, his audience, and even the musicians who joined him. (A decade later, I remain touched at his spur-of-the-moment decision to join singer Jill Barber, who was living in Nova Scotia at the time, for the final few lines of her lovely rendition of “Moon River.”)
We left that night with a copy of Stuart’s History of Canada/I Remember Wayne album. It’s an ambitious blend of his traditional storytelling skills and the musical talents of the CBC Radio Orchestra, as conducted by Cameron Wilson for a show recorded at the University of British Columbia in 2006. I won the CD by stumping Vinyl Cafe bandleader and pianist John Sheard, calling out the name of Cape Breton Celtic piano genius Dougie MacPhee when Stuart asked us, mid-show, to name a pianist whose style Sheard couldn’t play. (Given that he recognized another Antigonish audience member’s suggestion, John Morris Rankin, I figured it was worth a shot to try another Cape Bretoner, especially one who – like Stuart McLean himself – is a member of the Order of Canada.)
Little did I realize that Stuart, who has also brought The Vinyl Cafe to Port Hawkesbury’s SAERC Auditorium, Mabou’s Strathspey Place and Glace Bay’s Savoy Theatre, had Cape Breton roots of his own, with his in-laws hailing from the Sydney and Glace Bay areas. That goes a long way to explaining why his fictional Vinyl Cafe owner, Dave, grew up in Cape Breton (originally from the town of “Middle Contrition” but then, more famously, from the rural community of “Big Narrows”).
It also explains Stuart’s fondness for Atlantic Canada. I interviewed him for The Reporter in 2009, shortly before he landed in Port Hawkesbury, and he happily gushed about his East Coast encounters, saying: “There’s a certain level of comfort in one’s skin that you feel when you meet people from down east. There’s a feeling of rootedness, of connectedness to the ground, and there’s a connection to the outdoors and to simpler things in life without the false ambitions of consumer society. It’s different down there – there’s something about the values of family, of the tide of history and the past that I feel comfortable with and I feel drawn to.”
Small wonder that, during the same interview, the Montreal native told me he wished he could spend considerably more time in the Maritimes than his touring schedule often allowed: “As I was having breakfast this morning, I was looking at a picture book that a Cape Breton buddy had sent me, and I was thinking that I’d love to come down there and stay for a month and just deepen my understanding of Cape Breton so I could write about it better, and explore Dave’s past more.”
I’ll close this blog post with one of my weekly columns for The Reporter. Titled “Planet of The Vinyl Cafe,” it blends other quotes from that same interview with my personal experience of seeing Stuart for the second (and, sadly, last) time during that March 2009 appearance in Port Hawkesbury:
There’s always a certain sweetness that hangs in the air whenever Stuart McLean visits Cape Breton, a land that has coloured his Vinyl Cafe books, radio show and tours since he impulsively decided to make his record-store-owning protagonist, Dave, a former resident of the fictional island community of “Big Narrows.”
But as Cathy and I – and a sold-out house at SAERC – take in his stories, his charm and his oddly-chosen clothing (those bright tan shoes never did quite match his dark suit), I’m intrigued by what I’m not seeing or hearing.
On this particular tour, Stuart opens the second act with a whimsical review of his Montreal childhood, with black-and-white photos displayed on a large screen behind the veteran broadcaster. He talks about his parents and his early CBC Radio days, with the crowd breaking into wild applause as a picture of a smiling Peter Gzowski pops up and the Morningside theme music gaily springs forth from the house piano. But he doesn’t say anything about his award-winning work from his decade with the weekend current-affairs show Sunday Morning. (Then again, nothing brings down a pleasant evening of nostalgia-tinged storytelling like anecdotes of producing a documentary on the Reverend Jim Jones and the infamous purple Kool-Aid.)
Instead, he hits familiar themes: Well-meaning but occasionally scatterbrained Dave, his very patient wife Morley, and their kids Sam and Stephanie. Small-town wisdom that withstands an adulthood spent in the big city. Childhood moments which grow more poignant with the passage of time. And, of course, a relaxing evening spent with friends – on this night, they’re house pianist John Sheard and two Maritime musical guests, show-stopping bluesman Matt Anderson and the sweet-voiced Meaghan Smith.
Stuart seems to be enjoying himself. And he is – but not in the manner you might expect. The three-time winner of the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour is serious about the business of making people laugh, so he spends this night at SAERC teetering on the edge between friendly host and finely-tuned professional.
“I completely lose myself in it, and I’m not aware of the passage of time,” Stuart told me a couple of weeks earlier when I interviewed him for a promotional story that ran in The Reporter late in February.
“So I finish a show, and I suddenly look at the clock and think, ‘Wow, I’ve been gone for an hour, or two hours or three hours or whatever.’ I’m totally absorbed in this – I get lost on the Planet of the Vinyl Cafe. That’s not to say that I can’t enjoy the show and watch it like anyone else, but no one else can have that experience that I have, of being so taken with the show that they lose themselves.”
Mind you, Stuart doesn’t throw up a wall between himself and his audiences. He gives 10-year-old Sydney Silver a thrill when he invites the aspiring Antigonish singer to join him onstage and share her voice with the crowd. He smiles broadly when his stories’ Cape Breton references garner warm applause, barely masking his desire to spend more time on the island in the years to come. After the show, he gladly poses for pictures and signs several copies of his Vinyl Cafe books for enthusiastic audience members.
And all through the night, the Port Hawkesbury crowd enjoys and treasures their rare opportunity for a rare visit to the Planet of the Vinyl Cafe.
Thank you, Stuart McLean, for all the stories, all the laughs, and the charmingly self-deprecating approach you have brought to everything you’ve shared with us. This isn’t “Goodbye” – it’s “So long for now.”