Pic: Ottawa photographer Randy MacNeil
Pic: Ottawa photographer Randy MacNeil

The Town That Songs Come From by Corin Raymond

Juno-nominated Corin Raymond lives in East Hamilton where he's currently enacting the contents of this article. Please visit Corin's website here if you'd like to receive his "Raymo Reports" or hear his new songs by joining his email list, or investigate his music store which includes the 10-song, 264-page Dirty Mansions (2019), along with other "coffee table CDs" and digital records.

 

The Town That Songs Come From

by Corin Raymond

 

“I alone am neither sad, nor shelterless, nor grey. Wrapped round with thought, content to watch and dream.”

From 19th-century Canadian poet Archibald Lampman’s sonnet ‘In November.’

Above: Hamilton performed by Corin Raymond (written by David Ross Macdonald). from Corin Raymond's album Dirty Mansions (Local Rascal Records, 2019).

 

I’m listening to Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. I’ve played nothing else for two weeks. Turning the record over is my sole ticket price for what Davis’ legendary septet does to reality: the way it subdues the ear with its recurring, sidewinding refrains, leaving us tracing further shapes with our imaginations. It occurs to me that so much of Kind of Blue happens in the listener’s mind; after 50-plus listens, it certainly continues to happen in mine. When art’s this good, even the empty air is a place of dreams.

I’ve also been walking with Oscar Wilde, learning his poem ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ (Wilde’s final gift to the world written when he had nothing but time) as a pace-keeper while climbing the 498 iron steps of the Wentworth escarpment (before the pandemic closed the stairs which are a ten-minute stroll from my East Hamilton home). I could feel my mind getting stronger alongside my legs. I began leaving my phone at home (Wilde being the more inspiring company) and my brain rejoiced further. I’ve learned 70 of the ballad’s 109 stanzas and last night, in the nighthawk afternoon, I recited them all –– it took an hour and a half –– while rigorously cleaning my kitchen (I washed, Wilde dried).

What’s more, I’m on a Charles Dickens jag: my bookmark’s two-thirds through Nicholas Nickleby, my eighth book of  'Corintine'. I’m revelling in how funny he is –– and as with Davis or Wilde (it pleases me to get these three together without any of the finicky need for them to tolerate each other), I can feel myself being recharged –– like a video game hero powering up –– with precious linguistic and musical fuel. Not long before this, I’d wondered if I’d ever finish a book again.

Befittingly, this week I signed off on my sixth new song –– each the first in nearly two years. I’ve begun considering a sequel to my (non-musical) one-man show Bookworm; I’m becoming better friends with my guitar; and I’m engaged in a soul-satisfying purging of my stuff, something I’ve been intending since 2016. As Henry Bemis, the Burgess Meredith character of the Twilight Zone episode ‘Time Enough at Last’ (which I relate in Bookworm) revelates: “And the best thing, the very best thing of all, is there’s time now.”

Months back I was invited to share some thoughts about surviving as an artist in today’s consumer climate. I have passionate ideas on this subject, as anyone who’s witnessed my other one-man monologue, The Great Canadian Tire Money Caper, or who’s read the 264-page liner note that supplements my 2019 album release Dirty Mansions will testify. Well, dang. I’m a little late to the party and it’s a different fricking planet.

I read an FYI piece from the darkling mists of Feb 19, 2020, BC –– “Before Coronavirus” –– titled “Surviving As A Musician… with Big Rude Jake.” Jake offered sterling advice: “Shake some hands at every show.” Jake also acknowledged the deep fatigue that constant hustling puts on a working artist when he predicted, “One of these days, I will be forced to back off from the hamster wheel that sets the pace of my hectic life.” (Jake, you gonna add “prophet” to your resume?) I need not say that every “hamster wheel” in the land is presently as quiet as a schoolyard swing set at the end of June, or that “shake some hands” sounds ominous. The very phrase “surviving as a musician” has sudden literal heft.

My pandemic predicament is softened by my 3,000-plus volume library, curated over my lifetime, and I’ve never felt more happily sheltered in my forest of books than over these past six weeks. But –– despite that half my bread-and-butter this previous decade has come from performing the above-mentioned monologue Bookworm (a non-musical, hour-long love letter to my father as well as to the power of reading), my “hamster wheel” exertions have long prevented me from having either the space or the energy to actually read. I’ve been an out-of-breath hamster the entire sixteen years I’ve been a full-time singer/songwriter. A bitter paradox considering that most of my songwriting is directly fueled by my absorption of literature (“The Lord’s sense of irony,” Jesse Winchester liked to say, “is razor fine”).

My initial experience of our current lockdown (40 shows on ice) was that I had all the time, but no motivation to use it. I was hit with that old, deflated joe-job feeling of having the entire day off but being too beat to even do laundry. What broke my "COVID inertia" was a reading challenge, proposed in March, between myself and Cosmo Ferraro (manager/booker of Toronto’s Cameron House, where my band the Sundowners and I would normally be playing Thursdays from 6-8 pm). Our commitment was to read 50 pages a day –– and if we didn’t get our quota on a particular day, we’d be back the next (it’s a “challenge” after all, not a “sentence”). This reading-time quickly became my daily anchor, something I knew I’d get done despite anything else. I went to bed looking forward to it and I often read my 50 pages before getting back up (as I did today). In addition, this inward activity restored my joy in solitude and green-lighted the fertile creative time I find myself in now.

I’m engaged in two other challenges: one with musician/songwriter Tamlyn Magee in New South Wales, Australia (we’ve each committed to a bare three-hours-a-week on an unfinished song) and the other with Toronto-guitarist Mike T. Kerr –– my side of the bargain is five-hours-a-week devoted to a specific guitar practice, while his is five hours of writing (this week he sent me a vignette about a Toronto meatpacker, a first-crack at the liner notes of his upcoming guitar album –– yep, Mike made a fricking record this past month –– as well as “a simple-but-playable DnD campaign for beginners”). Each of us shares videos and/or weekly files of the work we’re developing, and –– as I learned from my challenge with Cosmo –– starting is the only hard part. Once I’m rolling, I exceed my quota every week. If you’re looking for artistic focus across this crater of months, I heartily propose taking on a “creative dare” with a friend or peer. Iron sharpens iron; left to myself, I rust.

Ray Davies wrote: “Art is time / Time is money / Money’s scarce / And that ain’t funny” (The Kinks, "Low Budget"). There’s no question that art is time. Creating art is in direct defiance of a culture that would happily see us barter our time away to the lowest bidder. I love Davies’ twist of the cliché, but time is more precious than this banality would have us believe. In my view, our time is something that originates in our souls and our hours on earth aren’t simply a birthright, but the currency of our spirits.

Buoyant loyalty on the part of my fans has been buying me time. I awoke today to another $40 donation sent by a listener who simply believes in and benefits by what I do. Without the faithful who’ve found the donation-tab on my website music store of their own accord, or placed online orders for my books and music, I wouldn’t have the creative leverage that I do right now. Even gig-less and socially-distanced, I feel my audience and community, and I surf on their hands.

“Art is time,” and time is having my morning coffee (with a cigarette, if I like) while catching the daytime-drama of the backyard squirrels. It’s taking a moment to follow the paths of overhead seagulls cross-towning it between shores, or watching a hawk silently rotating East Hamilton under its ruthless eye. Time is allowing the ideas which belong to this day and no other to rise, like the steam off my coffee, and to welcome their rejoinders, unspooling like the blue thread of my smoke, and knowing that I have the hours necessary to knit these ribbons into something others might find useful, even essential. Time is a state of mind. It’s a quiet space. It’s that “magic other day” we were always planning to do that thing. Time is the Nighthawk Afternoon: the dark hours jazz is so suited to because, like the nighttime itself, jazz offers no judgement to disrupt our dreams.

Time is the town songs come from, and I finally have my ticket to stay awhile. Mark my isolated words: for those whose creativity requires solitude, this pandemic is the best thing that could’ve happened. A cache of COVID-generated art is being stored up presently that will keep us healthier and happier, not only during this crisis, but for the remainder of our lives. This is our time not just to read a poem, but to walk with it and ingest it. This is our time not just to put on an album, but to listen more deeply, in ways which weren’t possible when our “hamster wheels” were still worrying away.

In Grade One, our class was asked for a sentence to describe how we liked to spend our spare time. I still have mine: “Corin likes his desk to be clear so that he can write.” A clear desk (or clear calendar, for that matter) isn’t just a clear mind: it’s the place where new ideas have the license to land.

Friends, don’t let the turkeys get you down. Keep making stuff, keep doing shit. Remember that crickets sing using only their knees! You’ve got everything you need, right where you are. When will we be gifted this opportunity again? Perhaps never. Or perhaps, this is our time to rethink every chance we’ve been given, from now until we die.

People say “Stay safe” but for this songster, “Stay creative” is more useful.

Corin Raymond

East Hamilton, May 2020.

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