ARGOSY, November 28, 1996
Mount Allison's Independent Student Journal Online
by Don Murray
I've taken a week off from the usual Scene to bring you a report on a little field trip my associates and I undertook a couple of weeks back. It was Remembrance Day, to be exact, and we were off to Oxford, N.S., to see Garnet Rogers.
I know many of you haven't the slightest clue who the man is, and it is unfortunate to have to introduce him in the following manner, but here goes: have you ever heard of Stan Rogers? You know, Barrett's Privateers and all that good Maritime stuff? Well, Garnet is his brother.
Garnet Rogers played alongside his brother for the ten or so years that Stan was making albums and touring, until his tragic death in a plane crash in 1983. After that, Garnet decided to strike out on his own. He is touring with his new CD, Night Drive, and my associates and I could not pass up the chance to see him.
He played at Oxford's Capitol Theatre, and we got there plenty early to ensure good seats. Little did we know that the place only seats 160, so there's not a bad seat in the house. Before the show started, Garnet was out in the lobby mingling with fans, an odd sight at most concerts. The theatre is a grand old place with lush ornamentation, buckets of charm, and seats that are actually comfy. The stage is small, but Garnet's show fit right in. No big fancy sound system or light; just the simple stage (mostly taken up by his eight guitars), a few lights, and the same sound system they've got at Ducky's.
Although on his albums he often has an entire band, most of the time he tours solo. He's got a tremendous presence on the stage and makes you feel at home the moment he steps up to the microphone. The show consisted of songs from the new disc, a smattering of older songs, both original and his own versions of songs by artists such as Bruce Cockburn and Eric Bogle, as well as one of Stan's songs. One might be tempted to suppose that he would sound like a bit of a Stan clone, but nothing could be further from the truth. He plays a variety of styles on a variety of guitars, from soft and sweet acoustic folk ballads, to loud raunchy distorted electric blues and rock'n'roll - with a voice to match. A fair part of his charm is his gift of story telling; in between songs, he could have the audience reeling in boisterous laughter, or motionless in a still silence. The show was strong from start to finish. His encore was astounding. He picked up his resophonic guitar (think: cover of Dire Straits' Brother in Arms), stepped up to the front of the stage, away from the mike, and sang a beautifully sweet rendition of Dire Straits' Romeo and Juliet. His jubilant baritone filled the Theatre and brought one of my associates to tears.
After the show, I had the extreme good fortune to speak with Garnet as he packed up his gear.
So, I guess the first question is, why the heck Oxford?
If you go straight out the door there you'll look at my grandfather's house, where... grandma and grandpa spent about thirty years... until, actually, she died and he moved to the Camp Hill Hospital in Halifax.
Is this Rogers?
Rogers, yeah. The gentleman I just talked to is my cousin. I've got two uncles living right, just as you come off the highway. I can remember vividly sitting in that fourth row from the back [of the Capitol Theatre] and watching couples ah...
Making out. This room is an astonishing part of my childhood.
So, this is a real family place for you.
Very, very much so, yeah. It's such a kind of enduring, ah... [thoughtful pause] mystery to me that I actually get to do this... actually play this room and be in this town. After the show, I'll be able to go over and say hi to my uncles and aunts, you know, and have a cup of tea with them, and it's the same as it always is; they've got their little wood stove there, and their big Bouvier dog, and it's just kind of a continuum... I've always appreciated that, but it's even more so now, you know, as everyone get older and grows dearer. Of the many regrets I have, I wish my brother, Stan, could have played here, because this was our dream, to go to Nova Scotia and actually play some of the little towns where our family actually lived.
We used to play all through Nova Scotia, and they hated us. He's wildly popular now, but... it's interesting how many times we went through Nova Scotia and people just - just literally thought we sucked; just hated us - told us to go away, play something decent.
Are You Touring Across The Whole County?
No, This has been a pretty limited tour. I really kind of broke down my health about a year and a half ago, and I'm just not as strong as I used to be. I was touring with, like, pneumonia, which kinda cramps your style. So I've had to cut back on touring a little bit... Not as long and arduous tours anymore.
How much time did you spend on the road before?
It used to be 175 to 200 shows a year, now it's down to about 150.
Is a lot of that in the States?
About sixty percent of it, actually. You know, it's really nice to play down there because they've got a zillion time the population that we do, and they're all clustered in one area. Within an area the size of PEI, you know, you've got 45 million people. And there's commercial radio stations down there that play my music - not just college radio, but commercial AM radio, and it's a whole different vibe. You can actually get radio support down there. And that helps.
Do you get record sales down there?
Oh yeah, tons, it's good. It's not like I'm abandoning the country or anything, it's just that it's a market that you'd be a fool to ignore.
Do you find that people do think you're abandoning the country? Do you get shit on for that?
Well, I think people kinda say, `Oh, what are you doing in the States all the time?' Well I'm not in the States all the time. It's just that I do like it down there, you know? The money's decent, and it's American dollars. I've got a lot of friends down there; a lot of musicians, a lot of peers - people who I love to hang out with.
You're pretty down to earth up here [on the stage] - you know - you're walking around the crowd... Do you ever get nervous anymore?
That's why I'm walking around the crowd. If I sit down there [at the back of the stage], I get sick with nerves, you know; I get barfing, throwing up with nerves.
The mingling helps you?
Yeah. I'll tell you, I'm playing at the Imperial Theatre in St. John this week, and, you know, it's a very formal place - big beautiful theatre with candelabra and chandeliers everywhere, and the last time I played there people were saying, `What are you doing out here?' because I was in the lobby, you know? My whole involvement in folk music... grew out of a sense of it being a community thing. It was something you could do with friends, and it wasn't based on market or age or youth groups or target groups or demographic or anything like that. It was just simply - you get a guitar, you learn a bunch of songs. You know, you hear a Bob Dylan song on the radio... and you say, `I could play that', and it was like Prometheus hands you the fire suddenly... and you can play those songs, and it's so intensely exciting.
So that's got a large part to do with it. There is a real community involvement with it. And what's really making me happy now, is I see people like Ani DiFranco - we're friends, we have the same agent and we do shows together - she's...
She's amazing! But she's got the same vibe. She doesn't hold back anything from the audience, you know, she just walks around... And although she doesn't particularly like the really, sort of... sucky folk music, like, you know, the old Peter, Paul and Mary stuff, she really likes the community aspect of it. She just did an amazing project with an old friend of mine; a guy named Utah Phillips, who back in the thirties was an agitator, a `Wobbly' - you know, an `[Industrial] Worker of the World', and a communist, playing protest songs in bread lines during the thirties and forties. [He] got sent over to Korea; was horrified by the whole thing, went AWOL from the army; came back, spend five years riding the rails, drunk as a fart; but he is a complete, exact connection back to a time that goes back to the beginning of the industrial revolution in America. His sense of personal history, his ideas and his songs and stories and stuff, they go back there - just a continuum of social history and social values and activism against, you know, the bosses; the haves and the have-nots. And he basically just blew out his health doing this stuff and he had a heart attack. And Ani, bless her little heart, she saw this guy - saw what he was worth; saw the kind of value that he had to offer to a community - particularly a younger community who had never heard of him and never would because he can't tour anymore. [She] said, `Okay pal, were just gonna do it [make a recording].' He does these incredibly funny in-between song stories. So she just did all these drum samples and guitar music behind him, and did samples of his voice and stuff - so it's kind of like this old guy rapping. He's just phenomenal. You know, I've known him for almost thirty years, since I started going to folk festivals in the late sixties... and he was a crazed old geezer then. And now he's just like Moses, and they're actually doing gigs together - Ani and Utah sitting on stage. He just sits there and tells these stories; she accompanies him with that amazing guitar style of hers. And it's great! She's 25 years old. She's made the connection between what he does, what she does, and the importance of the continuum.
Did you find it tough starting a solo career?
Well, obviously, yeah. It had to be tough. Mostly because I was... dealing with what should have been a very personal and private grief in the public eye. And there was no way I could get around it. The most frustrating part of it, particularly in the Maritimes, is ironic, as I say, because Stan and I played here for so many years without any success at all - without anyone wanting to see us. Then suddenly he died, and it was kind of like, you know, `Wow! What a great career he had!'
There's a whole cottage industry devoted to Stan's music, and people either want me to play his music...
That's what I figured must be the big thing; people must just come up and say, `Oh, play Stan's songs!' They want you to be Stan.
Yeah. People who never saw Stan play, they want to hear those songs, they want to hear the last remaining, you know, yaddada, yaddada... and I'm not going to pander to that... Every situation's different, but you're dealing with a very real grief - publicly, and it wasn't one bit of fun. The ironic part to me was just watching people's reactions because [it was like] I was invisible, or something, you know? I played with Stan for ten years - every gig, 200 gigs a year, and it's like, `Ooh, he can sing! Ooh, he can play guitar! Ooh, look! He can tell jokes!' Well, where were you, you know? I have so many people come up to me and say `did you guys ever play together?' [hearty laughter] Mind you, I was forty pounds lighter and had a lot of hair, so I guess they can be forgiven on one level! I was the young, thin, whirling dervish.
You played mostly fiddle.
Yeah, fiddle and flute and guitar.
I'm just wondering about the transition to guitar now - did you play as much back then?
Not on stage, no. Privately, I did a lot of playing. And figuring that during the 70's, when the Sex Pistols hit and stuff, you know, I was really big into punk. I thought, `Great! Folk Music!' Punk Music was, `Oh Boy! Folk revival!'
Yeah, people singing about what they're pissed off about.
Yeah. Suddenly it was lyrics, and it had relevance, and there was a lot of anger, and a lot of righteous indignation... Every once in a while someone comes down the pike, you know, like Billy Bragg. I see what he does as a direct outgrowth of Woody Guthrie, Utah Phillips, you know, the Sex Pistols, The Clash, and his own brand of whatever stuff he's coming up with. You hear stuff and you immediately know it's the real thing. First time I ever heard Nirvana on the radio, you know, that Teen Spirit song, I thought, `this is the real thing, the real deal. This is someone who can speak the truth, and he's not afraid to speak the truth.' It doesn't matter what setting the amp is on, you know, or what distortion pedal you're using, it's whether you're speaking the truth.
I'd like to invite you out for a beer and carry this on all night, but I'm sure you've got other things to do.
Actually, I want to go over and see my uncle. Aside from that, my beer drinking days are over.
I think you mentioned that the last time you played - you're on to Sleepytime Tea now, or something.
Yeah, it's all in the pacing. I didn't pace myself. I drank my share, my lifetime's share of beer and whisky between the ages of eighteen and thirty-three. The unfortunate part is I drank your share, too. And all the starving kids in Europe - all their share. There's people in China who've never had a drop of alcohol because I drank their share as well.
So those days are behind you.
Yeah, you just have to learn how to take care of the machinery. Bran cereal - someday you'll have forty year old bowels, too. If you're lucky.
Well, my tape's just about out.
Better than having your tapeworm just about out....