out and about i was last night --down by the corner of Queen and Sherbourne. The grottiest bar in the world is down there. I don't go to that one, but to the Buffalo Restaurant just down the street, which runs a close second. On my way into the grog shop, I play a tune by Jimmy Buffet on the Wurlitzer jukebox, about a fellow in Paris, then sit and order a drink.
On a stool beside me at the bar, a huge man quaffs rum like it's about to be rationed. He's also singing along with the Buffet tune. Seeing an opportunity to fall into conversation with him, and given that he looks for all the world like a seafaring cutthroat, I quickly tell him my (famous) pirate joke as an icebreaker.
A pirate buys a set of earrings for two dollars. Putting them on, he walks down the street, where he meets a friend who compliments him on his new jewellery. "Yes," responds the pirate, "not bad for a buck-an-ear."
It works! (How can it not?) We fall into conversation about music; since he once worked on Gordon Lightfoot's house, I figure he must know all about music.
During the course of our conversation, we speak of East Coast singers -- the Rankin Family, Stompin' Tom -- and I happen to mention Stan Rogers.
All of a sudden, he's quiet. His face undergoes a transformation' he sits still for a moment and begins to sing:
"Oh, the year was 1775."
Here I chime in, "How I wish I was in Sherbrooke now."
Then a fellow at the back of the bar takes up:
"When letters of marque came from the king,
To the skummiest vessel I've ever seen."
And half the bar begins:
"God damn them all!
I was told we'd cruise the sea for American gold,
We'd fire no guns, shed no tears.
Now I'm a broken man on a Halifax pier,
The last of Barrett's privateers."
And the drunks begin to hum into their puddles of beer, and the immigrants, not knowing the words but recognizing a moment of shared humanity, slap the tables in time like Bobby McGee. John, the grumpy bartender, turns off the Wurlitzer, and his wife seems to sing along in Chinese.
Sing we do, of the Antelope's chase of an American sloop that was "broad, and fat and loose of stays, but to catch her took the Antelope two whole days," and of the brief sea battle.
"Our cracked 4-pounder made an awful din,
But with one fat ball the Yank stove us in."
And all joining in the chorus of "God damn them all... etc, etc."
We finish (amid tumultuous applause) and launch off into an Australian ballad by a fellow now living in Vancouver.
"...but in 1915, my country said, "Son,
It's time to stop rambling, there's work to be done.'
And they gave me a tin hat,
And they gave me a gun,
And they sent me away to the wars."
This is what it's all about! Irreverent carousing, song and beer! It don't get no better than this!
The next day, each of the habitues of that little bar might swipe the purse or cut the throat of any of the others. Maybe fights would break out and John would toss them all -- but for that brief, shinning moment, we're all brothers -- black and white, Jew and gentile, Chinese and otherwise.
We finish our concert with what we can remember of Stan Rogers' Northwest Passage, a song that could be the Canadian national anthem if O Canada were to disappear.
Our singing finished, too breathless to go on, my new friend and I retire from the field and leave the room for the rest of the night to Garth Brooks and Van Halen.