dawud wharnsby

Summer 2016 Blog Series: Out of Hibernation with Memorial to a Mentor

Paul MacLeod (1970 – 2016)

photo by Stephen Edgar circa. 1996.

Alongside the arrival of warm summer weather in recent weeks, came the tragic loss of a friend and musical mentor who inspired me heavily in my early twenties.   Summer always reminds me of youth ~ those days when school was closed, air was heavy with humidity, and long days were packed with outdoor play.  As a teenager, summer meant: newfound independence ~ epic bike rides on trails and through city subdivisions where there were always adventures to be had and profound ideas to be discussed with friends.

In June 1990 I graduated from grade 12 on my 18th birthday ~ legally “adult” but with no mature plan for further school studies and only a part-time job as a puppeteer to provide me with spending money.   My most important possession at the time was an acoustic guitar I had picked up from a pawn shop for $50.00.   All summer I strummed and sang on that old Kay guitar in the blue bedroom of my parent’s home.  Practicing chords, picking out melodies and singing at the top of my lungs, I would gaze out of my window to the suburban summer heat, musing to myself about how wonderful it would be to share songs with others.

A year later I was part of a folk quartet named Crackenthorpe’s Teapot, commissioned to perform on street corners of our hometown in Kitchener.  Having picked up the banjo, mandolin and 12 string guitar, my second summer of song was burned into my memory with the same sizzling intensity of the sun, which burned my face and forearms bright red during those July and August out-door gigs.  We busked songs by The Weavers, Woody Guthrie, Donovan, The Waterboys, R.E.M. and 10,000 Maniacs, until my fingers literally bled with pleasurable pain, strumming the heck out of my sun-stroked instruments, happy just to be singing for others.

Though music continued to underscore all the seasons of each year from those days onward, that summer of 1991, and the formative ones that followed, were somehow more colourful, vibrant and romantic than autumn, winter or spring singing endeavours.   To this day, a mid June evening walk, enhanced by the smell of lilacs, takes me back to days of vanilla tea on a front porch ~ harmonizing with friends near a flowering tree.

July drives through the countryside remind me of road-trips to summer folk festivals in my old 1989 Plymouth Horizon, packed with sun-hats, sun-screen, instruments, sandwiches and songs.   During late-afternoon, long-shadowed visits to my father’s house, the shady street echoes of my old quartet rehearsing in his back yard ~ mandolins, guitars, bongos and tin-whistles… like a hidden orchestra of elves among the trees.   When August heat is broken by evening rain, the rhythms remind me of nights in smokey cafes or restaurants listening to live music.  Oh, how refreshing it felt stepping out into cold rain, washing away the smells of cigarette smoke or stale beers…the ringing of the evening’s music still reverberating between my ears.

This June, those sweet old memories of my early days as a musician came back to me, spurred on earlier than usual by a local back-yard folk festival I attended on June 4th.     The pot-luck table was still ripe with watermelon and oodles of lovingly prepared noodle salads, when I arrived from another afternoon gig for my 7 pm spot.  As I was about to take the stage before a hundred or so people of all ages ~ strewn about the yard on blankets, lawn chairs and picnic tables ~ I heard that an old mentor of mine named Paul MacLeod was schedule to play shortly after me to close the event.

Following my musical offerings, as I packed up my guitar, there he was near the stage with a bear hug for me, and that bright familiar smile beneath those big sad eyes.

“Hey Dave, I am so sorry I missed your set.” he said.   We were never very close, but one thing I had learned about him over the years of our limited interaction was that he was gracious with friends and fellow musicians ~ always turning conversation toward them and deflecting it from himself.   I knew he’d had a rough couple of years (small town newspapers never miss a trick when it comes to capitalizing on the private struggles of local celebrities and their weaknesses) and I had been so worried about how he was doing.  With no contact number for him, all I could do was hope and pray that he was staying strong.   As we caught up on years of distance, I reminded him of how wonderful it was to see him again, how honoured I was to play the same stage with him after so long, how much I was looking forward to his set and how eager I was to introduce him to my family.

We discussed the special feeling of being part of a local community ~ singing at family friendly events, putting down roots and trying to catch our breath after over 20 years “on the road” as wandering minstrels.

Paul was already a local legend when I met him in 1991.   A teenage musical prodigy, self-taught at several diverse instruments, he was also intelligent, articulate, athletic, funny, gracious and drop-dead-handsome.  He was the sort of fellow you hear about second-hand from swooning young ladies who would smile uncontrollably as they discussed how “talented” he was, how “incredible his voice was” and how “nice” he was.  The entire time their gooey words made you feel second fiddle to his mythical status  ~ and as much as your jealously of his impact on them turned you a monstrous green ~ you secretly wanted to seek him out to see what all the fuss was about.

Well, eventually, thanks to mutual friends and an incredibly incestuous small-town music scene, I met the legendary Paul MacLeod at a pub down the street from house where he regularly played…and within minutes of the meeting, I too swooned.  He was all he had been built up to be and quickly I was swept away by his handsome style, musical passion and introspective, self-penned music.    As time passed, whenever I would catch him playing live someplace, I would watch his hands for the entire show ~ trying to understand the delicate respect he seemed to have of his guitar, even when he pounded on it like a youthful Pete Townshend.   How did he manage to make it sound so clear?  So bright?  Like an orchestra of six strings beneath his large hands.  Back at home, I would try to replicate the clarity of his sound on my own guitar, singing his original songs to myself from memory.    His writing was so profoundly simple that I would hear one of his tunes only one time and it would immediately be etched into my mind.

Over the months and summers that passed, we became better acquainted with each other through another mutual friend, also named David.  We shared a stage several times and rehearsed off-and-on during the summer of 1993 with a side project band called The Lakes.  Paul and David mentored me in my playing, songwriting and even guided me toward my first “real” guitar ~ the Yamaha LD-10E.   Man, what a machine and oh how Paul made his 10E ring!   I’ve been a Yamaha player since.

Gradually I came to learn however, that like many people of great emotion, empathy and beauty, Paul struggled with some deeper demons and discontentment in his life.  It was difficult to understand sometimes, but one could never dismiss his talent or good-hearted nature.  He was always most flattering to me about my singing.  He’d command a stage with his height, talent and humour, while I’d just stand there and sing like a nervous choir-boy, or just sit on a chair between my vocal parts to watch the other musicians on stage around me “do their thing”.  But Paul would tell me, “Don’t worry man.  You don’t have to do anything but sing.   That’s enough.”    His words were such a great boost to my self-esteem, feeding my comfort with live shows and helping me learn how to just “be myself” on stage.

When I embraced the Qur’an in 1993 Paul was also most supportive and intrigued.   While other so-called friends said, “WTF?”, “Or why the hell…?” or “Aren’t you taking this `Cat Stevens’ thing a little too far?”, Paul wanted to know more about why I felt so drawn to the Qur’an.  When, after a pilgrimage to Makkah in 1995, I decided to work on a percussion based collection of spiritual songs for children, Paul was encouraging and even happily bought my LD-10E guitar to help me secure the funds for basic recording equipment that would help me produce an album called “A Whisper of Peace” ~ something that would change my life forever.

Skip ahead 21 years and we were at a back-yard folk festival in the same town where we first met in our early twenties.   My daughters, wife and I were tickled pink as Paul finished his set with Henry Mancini’s “Moon River”, one of our family’s most loved songs.

“That was beautiful.” I told him.

“Yeah, some songs just speak to you, you know?  They take you somewhere.” he said.  And I agreed wholeheartedly.  “That one really speaks to me.” he concluded.

One more hug and we parted.

Two weeks later, as my garden’s seeds started to break the surface of earth to see the sky, a friend dropped me an email to tell me that Paul had died.

Since then things have been very somber.  Paul’s songs have been playing in my mind and in my car on jaunts to the hardware store, with the reality of his sudden passing pretty hard to accept.  As I mentioned, we weren’t very close ~ acquaintances at best.  To him I was probably just “that guy”, that “friend of a friend”, a couple of years younger than him who sang with the choir-boy voice.  But what he meant to my life as a mentor and an influential figure of my past, was very substantial.

During this past year, I have pondered over purpose and stood at the diverging paths of my life in this middle aged “yellow wood” Robert Frost so eloquently wrote about.  I will admit here that ~ packing up my guitar and pen for a more “routine” lifestyle has been a prominent prospect in my mind.    It has been tempting to envy a roll in the green grass of another’s yard ~ wonder how it would feel to be home more, have a stable income from a stable “job”, enjoy less career related anxiety, more privacy, more “normalcy”.   Live life on solid ground for a change and not swinging from a soapbox of song.  It is strange feeling allergic to the very lifestyle one has planted around themselves for over twenty years ~ itchy and blurry-eyed with discontentment by the very flowers of one’s own perceived achievements.   In truth, however, such discomfort has admittedly made me ungrateful, bitter and even resentful  at times.

Paul’s death, however, was a stark slap to me…a reminder that I must keep going, for the sake of those who’s time ends early.  For the sake of those who have no voice or lose their voice too soon.

Even if I have no songs of my own to sing, Paul’s songs must continue to be sung.  He may not have been able to keep singing them himself, but I am still here and I have the skills he helped me hone ~ so how could I not sing?

Today, as summer humidity weighs heavily on the leaves and I hear faint melodies in the trees ~ I will weed my garden, paint my tool shed and still consider more appealing career options of carpentry or lawn care, but you can bet I will be singing the whole time.  And you, as those who have shared my songs with me over the years, can rest assured that:  once I have put away my hoe and brushes, washed up and come inside out of the afternoon sun (with my lobster-red face and forearms) I will meander down to my basement studio, pick up my musical tools and put in a few hours recording.   For myself, for others…and for Paul.

Next week ~ a special blog for budding songwriters:  10 Tips For Filling Your Summer With Song

Remembering Paul MacLeod

Dawud and Paul performing together in 1993