On the Sunday before he died, Paul Quarrington.
On the Sunday before he died, Paul Quarrington was doing what he’d spent the last seven months doing: as much as possible.[rssbreak]
Whether it was writing, performing, recording, travelling, fishing, watching his beloved Leafs or partying with family and friends, Paul was packing it in, squeezing the juice out of everything before taking his leave.
On this particular Sunday, Paul was in the studio laying down one more track for his solo album, in this case a part for his brother Joel, an accomplished classical double bassist. I wanted to witness this session featuring two talented individuals who’d been in my life since childhood.
Back then, I was best friends with Joel and knew Paul as his shy and inscrutable older brother. Growing up in Don Mills in the 1960s, we consumed the same music, comics and TV shows and played in the valley that figured so prominently in Paul’s last novel, The Ravine. The Don Valley Parkway divided our two neighbourhoods, so visiting each other involved walking through a giant storm sewer that ran beneath the six-lane highway and into the ravine.
The Quarrington household was not your average suburban home, filled as it was with pipe smoke and esoterica, from obscure academic tomes (their parents were psychologists) and butterfly collections to a pet duck and some of the era’s weirdest songs.
In particular, I remember hearing early recordings of the Fugs and the Holy Modal Rounders.
An outsider at school, Paul had a fractured sense of humour and was attracted to the foibles and mishaps of local oddballs. His knack for creating sympathetic portraits of these characters was already apparent in his early short stories, which he was illustrating himself. When I needed some drawings for an English assignment, Paul gladly whipped up some wonderfully quirky cartoons.
By the time Paul came back into my life some years later, I barely recognized him. No longer shy, he’d transformed himself into a supremely self-confident guy. Already a successful songwriter and prolific author, he’d also become a keen angler, an adept magician and was regularly winning trivia tournaments in local pubs with Tony. That confidence just grew until it seemed that Paul, in his quiet way, could triumph at just about anything.
He won the Governor General’s Award for his rock ‘n’ roll novel Whale Music, the Stephen Leacock Medal for his hockey book King Leary, and made the Giller short list with Galveston. He also co-founded the band Porkbelly Futures and lived his life as a musical and literary ringleader.
That last Sunday, we watched in awe as Joel finished recording a sweet bass solo for Paul’s heartbreaking song This Old Body. Then, just as we were about to start packing up, Paul asked, “Do we have time for one more?” With that, he pulled out some lyrics and started playing his latest composition, Hello Jim, a whimsical talking blues number about meeting one’s maker. “I want everyone to play on this with me,” Paul said, “just loosely, like a skiffle group.”
We happily obliged. For a guy who was always so generous with his creative gifts, right up to the very end, it was the least we could do.
Nicholas Jennings is a music journalist and author of Before The Gold Rush (Penguin), a history of the Yorkville era of Canadian music in the 1960s.
Watch a tribute from to Paul Quarrington by his band, Porkbelly Futures.