HUGH OLIVER at The Tranzac (292 Brunswick). Friday (July 20). 7:30 p.m. pwyc. 416-923-8137. See listing.
An 82-year old poet, sculptor and regular Tranzac crooner, Hugh Oliver recently became a the star of Marco DiFelice's endearing documentary portrait The Ballad Of Hugh.
The movie premiered during NXNE and coincided with the launch of Oliver's new album, ...And All That Crap [Noodily Noodily Wow Records]. Check out a preview below.
The album was produced by DiFelice and Oliver's longtime collaborator and drummer Michael "Rosie" Rosenthal (of the Sunparlour Players) and recorded at Canturbury Music with an impressive cast of players, including Ryan Driver, Christine Bougie, Chris Coole and Emilie Mover. (The album also features songs that appeared on Oliver's previous albums with Rosenthal).
Born in Epsom, England in 1929 (shortly before the beginning of the Great Depression "I was suffering as a wee babe," he jokes), Oliver immigrated to Canada with his family in 1966 and worked as manager of publications at Alcan before becoming Editor-In-Chief at OISE Press. He did his creative writing in the evenings.
"I wanted to be a writer," he says. "I didn't have the guts to live in the garret and write the great novel, but I've always made my money with the pen." He's published many books, including the popular Canadian Limerick Book, The Art Of Aluminum Foil, and a novel in three parts. At the end of our interview at the Tranzac, Oliver handed me his most recent poetry book, A Fog Of Grey Voices.
I was hoping he would tell me that he writes songs in order to impress ladies with his wit, but, alas, that's not what he said.
How long have you been performing at the Tranzac?
We had a band that we started in the mid-80s at OISE. We played at retirement parties and various functions. Once we [played] a party at Kitchener. We upset the cook and he came up with a meat cleaver and said, "if you don't turn it down!"
We all retired about the same time in the mid-90s and a couple years later we started playing at the Regal Beagle, which is a pub opposite OISE.
We were there for about two or three years and then they had enough of us and booted us out very gently. We had a brief period at the Fox and the Firkin over the other side of the road. There it didn't work out too well so we were looking for places to play. So the leader of the band, who was probably the least talented musician, but very enthusiastic, went round to the Continental Hotel and the Duke and that sort of thing and I said, "let's try the Tranzac because my son used to play Rugby for the Nomads." I'd been here a couple times.
We barged in. They had just got a new manager in to look after the place. They were quite pleased to have us play and we got a pitcher of beer for our efforts and we played from 5 to 7 every Friday and we have now for nigh on ten years, oh, ten years, yeah. This is the Foolish Things - we were the OISE band then we became the Foolish Things. And now the Foolish Things has not too many people from OISE in it, you know, they died, retired.
When did you start writing songs and playing music?
A Canadian friend I had in the army - I was two years in National service - taught me Fur Elise, Foggy Foggy Dew. I learned about three chords and I still play those three chords.
And I got married around then and the babies started coming. We were living in London, but then we moved out to the suburbs, Epsom, in fact, where I was born.
And next door was a family we got on very well with. A boy of about fifteen lived there [Glyn Johns, who later produced the Beatles].
And then I went to university for four years. When I came back to the same place, the family was four years older and Glyn, who was the older boy, had left school and his mother was saying to me, "Glyn didn't get his basic pass certificate. What are we going to do with him?" You know, if you didn't have your pass certificate, you were regarded as a mental defective - but he'd been very good in the choir, so he went - this is about 1961 - to a recording studio in London and he was there in the beginning and then shweeeet. He had a very nice voice and he was a recording engineer but he knew the producers and was doing his own singing. Lyrics he was a bit weak on. I could write poetry. So we chatted and I said, "I'll write you some lyrics." So I used to chuck them over the fence.
We had perhaps, about a dozen records I suppose. And we did okay. Those were the days when there were 45s. I think for these 45 records that sold at 6 shillings and 8 pence that author of the lyric got a halfpenny, the songwriter got a halfpenny and the vocalist got a bit more, but it was just tuppence.
How about royalties for radio play?
We got half a crown if it got on the radio and that's the only way we did make much money. We had one called Old Deceiver Time, which went to 50th on the charts I recall, which really pleased us at the time. I occasionally sing it with the Foolish Things.
I've heard your song about Justin Bieber.
When you were young, was society as obsessed with youth in arts and culture as it is now?
No, I've been very conscious of the evolution. You respected old age. As a kid, if you were sitting on a bus, and anyone who was an adult came in, you gave them your seat. And now it's almost the other way around. The Beatles created a youth culture that has persisted the last 60 years or so.
Was ... And All This Crap the biggest production you've done so far? What was it like being at Canterbury with all those musicians and cameras?
I felt rather important. You reach a certain point in life where you "ha, ha". Looking it back if I sort of envisage it all I think really I should have been more scared about the process but I felt fairly well at ease. Sounds a bit brash but it wasn't. I was enjoying myself.
What motivates you to keep making art?
I enjoy it. I think it's a worthwhile activity. You put something that wasn't there before, you create it. There was a period where I was getting constipated with words and I did some sculpture to do something different and actually I went to teach stone carving at an art college in China. My students were a lot better than me, I discovered.
I enjoy writing. It's my pleasure in life. I will reorganize things to give the impression of working occasionally cause nothing's coming. If I have a day when my pen's flowing, that's great.
Is there something that tends to trigger a poem or a song for you?
That's a question I've thought myself. What will trigger it is if a line will come out of somewhere, who knows where? And I think boy, that's pretty good, and that kicks the thing off and off I go. Occasionally I'll say, "gee, I could do something about Facebook, " but you had to get the thought.
The last month I've been a bit barren.
Maybe because there's been so much talk and publicity about the documentary?
Ballyhoo and stuff. But I intend to repair that very quickly because I find it dissatisfying that I am not [writing]. And I say to myself "you must write a song today" and usually that would somehow generate the thing and I got quite close once or twice though ...
Would you consider yourself a romantic or a cynic or a bit of both?
Both. (laughs). I think cynicism ultimately wins the day but I enjoy the romanticism.
When you are 82 and you are singing potent, loving songs, it sounds a bit ridiculous, I sometimes think. The songs I write are quite varied but the ones that give one any kind of small reputation are the funny ones generally but if you recall the funny ones they cease to be funny when they are played for the tenth time so I like recording the songs with a poetic quality.
Marco was speculative about using the poetry [in the documentary] but once he started using it he more or less decided that that was more important, well, equally important.
Because you're more of a lyricist?
Has anything changed for you because of Marco's documentary?
Well, occasionally people nod at me in the street. And at the place where I live, which is a co-op, I have a little more stature than I had before. Yes, I don't mind. At this point in time it's all pretty new. I know Marco has for example, entered it for a film festival in Barcelona, and Bath and London - they can turn it down, and probably will - but I'm now in a position where I can mildly dream and I quite enjoy the (chuckles) ballyhoo.
What's next for you?
I'd like to get back to writing, but what's next for me - as I kept telling Marco as the film was taking a long time to produce - Mount Pleasant cemetery is next for me. I always fancied Westminster Abbey and Chaucer's there too. So if I get a place at Mount Pleasant it means I've dismissed the other possibility 100%.
I did go to the Dean of Westminster and I said, "is there any possibility of getting into the Abbey?" He said, "well, we did have a fishmonger who was buried here in 1423 or something."
Maybe I'll live to be 200, but I doubt it.