I've run into both Brian Mulroney and the late Stompin Tom Connors in bathrooms but was much more impressed meeting Tom.
I bumped into then-PM Mulroney, literally, at one of the last Junos ever held in Toronto, an event that Connors famously had little use for. RCMP officers hurried me away when I began to berate the PM for the Free Trade deal he was turtling on. There were no state cops when I met Tom.
I met Connors in November 1999 when another Canadian icon, Wayne Gretzky, was ushered into the Hockey Hall of Fame. I had already managed to slip in with the Gretzky family for a red carpet walk into the hall and, seeking a respite, happened upon a somewhat stumbling Tom in a backstage bathroom. He was wearing a beaded leather vest, big black cowboy hat, a bigger smile and boots with heels bigger still. As two strangers, we were typically Canadian in our courteousness in the white tiled room's over lit light.
He sucked on a smoke through a cigarette holder that seemed to steady him the way a kangaroo's tail might balance its bouncing.
"You with a band?" he asked with a warm smile.
"Nope, just a fan," I said reaching out to shake.
"I'll shake your hand if you don't mind it being covered in piss."
I'd just seen him rinse so I accepted the offer.
"I've had a few beers but I'm only singing one song so it shouldn't be a problem," he said smiling, delighted with the cleverness of his plan. On stage an hour later he sang The Hockey Song on Gretzky's behalf. He forgot the words a few times, but nobody cared.
Connors was a mirror reflected back on Canada - warts, dirty field potatoes, hockey fights and all - with an authenticity many have aspired to but few have achieved. As bureaucrats and broadcasters sought ways to make Canada cool, Connors just sought to make it real.
Was he our Woody Guthrie? Kind of. He didn't just sing "novelty" songs but tunes about the working class, truck drivers, TTC operators, farmers and more. He name checked every town he could, not just to sell records but to keep a record, so every little community that heard themselves immortalized in his songs didn't need to be mentioned on Entertainment Tonight.
Compromise was one of the few words he could never find a rhyme for, and his cranky efforts to promote Canadian music and musicians must have made other easy accommodators think twice. Connors was a cornerstone on Toronto's Queen West before it was cool, and coolness was something he never worried about being. He just was.
Connors pointed the way for true Canadian expression, one without compromise, one that didn't need to be reconfigured for an international audience. He was Canadian all the way and if the sadness that greets his passing inspires a few up-and-comers to tell their stories and not re-configure them for an international audience, then somewhere the Cowboy is smiling.