Dispatches from the desk of John MacMillan

Mr. Vickers


Back when the dinosaurs ruled the earth, I became friends with a young woman named Wendy Vickers. She and I met at university, though I’d known her siblings Bill and Alison while I was in high school. Even in their teens the Vickers kids exuded popularity and gravitas, starring in school plays and musicals, as well as leading the student council. I counted myself lucky to have won the attention of a Vickers-kid, enough to have warranted her invitation to an Ottawa concert in the early 80s.

It was only after we arrived at the National Arts Centre that I realized it wasn’t just a concert; rather it was a recital by her dad, Jon Vickers. I confess that, to that point, I hadn’t really developed a love of opera. I knew that Bugs Bunny liked The Barber of Seville, and that Wilhelminia Wiggins Fernandez could really belt out a tune in Diva, but that was where opera ended for me. I certainly didn’t know that her dad was one of the world’s great opera singers (he was a “helden-tenor” to be exact, the kind of deep, bracing voice suited to singing heroic roles). That night Mr. Vickers sang arias from his “greatest hits”, so to speak: Samson, Tristan, Florestan in Beethoven’s “Fidelio”, and most memorably as the title role in Benjamin Britten’s powerful “Peter Grimes”.

Wendy told me a story about a time when she had accompanied her dad on a mid-summer US tour. For whatever reason Mr. Vickers chose a Winnebago over air travel, motoring through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Illinois. It being a land-yacht they often docked at campgrounds along the way. Her dad was a man of talent and habit, and enjoyed a daily, lengthy morning shower. One day, after he’d retired to the bathroom, Wendy heard something outside the Winnebago. It was the noise of a dozen or so neighbouring campers, planting rings of lawnchairs around the Vickers’ vehicle, each prepared to enjoy a prelude to that night’s performance as Mr. Vickers moistened and limbered his voice.

I only met him once, backstage at the NAC, as he removed his makeup. He was dubbed “God’s Tenor”, as much for his fierce Christian faith as for his dominant stage presence, and I felt all of that power and glory as he surveyed this uncultured wretch who accompanied his daughter. I babbled something fawning and inconsequential, and he humoured me with a smile and handshake. He said virtually nothing to either of us, so enervated was he from that night’s performance, but I could feel his love for Wendy as he kissed her forehead.

I thought fondly of him, and of Wendy, as I read the New York Times’ announcement of the death of a remarkable Canadian artist, who raised an equally remarkable family. Requiescat in pace, Mr. V.


Dave. Gone.

110613-N-TT977-230 Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff shares a laugh with David Letterman during an interview on the Late Show in New York City on June 13, 2011. DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley/Released)

I’ve attended a number of retirements lately, including those of my wife and many friends. They’re all a mix of sentiment and bathos, salted with optimism and gratitude. But the one retirement that’s proven the most poignant to me is the pending departure of David Letterman from The Late Show on CBS.

My relationship with Dave dates from his first NBC show in the summer of 1980. After hosting the Tonight Show a few times in the 70’s, NBC gave him a daily live show that ran from 10:00 a.m. until 11:30 a.m. (I think). It featured a live New York audience, a jazz quartet, a cast of regulars (including the brilliant Rich Hall, Will Shriner and Edie McClurg) and even a daily newscast from NBC veteran newscaster, Edwin Newman. From the start a morning show seemed a stilted playground for someone as novel and improvisational as Letterman, but to me it was Nirvana – a comedian who could slide effortlessly between serious interviews and mad-cap ‘bits’. I remember vividly a studio fire while Judy Collins sang “Where are the clowns”, which Letterman saluted with a fire extinguisher, as well as busting the fourth wall of tv with a live remote broadcast of “Floyd R. Styles Day” at the eponymous home of a middle-American rube. During the course of the morning show, Dave’s humour slid from zany to arch and, after some 90 episodes, the show was axed in the fall. But NBC saw that guys like me – college students in their 20s, who worked the afternoon shift at Canadian Tire – ate up his smart, edgy brand of humour, and slotted him after Johnny Carson as “Late Night with David Letterman”. That ran for the better part of 12 years, followed by his jump to CBS in 1994.

I won’t go more into Dave’s history because others have done it so well. Let me just say, if every joke is a tiny revolution, then Dave was my Lenin, my Castro and my Rosa Luxemburg; and if good writers borrow and great writers steal, then every performance I’ve given deserves a charge of theft. Dave inspired me with his intellect and extemporaneity. He timed a joke brilliantly, and made irony glorious. His ingenious Top Ten List made me howl; concise, brilliant witticisms, concocted decades before the economy of Twitter. He also possessed a luscious mean-streak, with which he devoured vacuity; whether he was mocking Madonna’s lasciviousness or decimating Bill O’Reilly, Dave was always way more fun grouchier than goofier. True to his midwestern reserve he eschewed sentiment, but when things needed to be said, he would. Jon Stewart said Dave Letterman was the only guy who could have gone on first after 9/11, and that he did, on September 17, 2001, with a moving elegy for his wounded city. He also refused to be blackmailed, even to the point of airing–rending, really–his dirty laundry, with his confession of sexual infidelity. He was funny, smart, cranky, fallible and had guts.

I went to the Late Show at the Ed Sullivan Theatre twice. The first time was just after Dave returned from his quadruple heart-bypass operation, and even though I had just crossed an item from my bucket-list, Dave seemed wan and uninterested (also Kathie-Lee Gifford was the guest and she stank). The second time was better – Sandra Bullock and Emmy-Lou Harris – but, even though the talent had improved, I found that I could not avoid ‘the man behind the curtain’; the mechanics of a large theatre and throngs of production staff had stripped the aura from my hero.

Dave’s last show is on Wednesday night, May 20. I chide myself on using the past tense to describe him, when he is simply retiring and will likely go on to make more funny, insightful tv. But, regardless of what he may do in his retirement, I know that the part of me that loves Dave will ache a little on Thursday morning. He’s been my muse and comedic big brother for over three decades, and I’ll miss him.


I attended my wife, Gabriella’s, retirement party recently. I’ve attended many such events in the past decade, and expected it would mirror the others — a brief sojourn in a packed meeting room, earnest soliloquies, inside jokes, tepid applause, and then over-iced slab-cake served on paper towels.

Suffice it to say, I was surprised.

I arrived late for the afternoon event, the victim of bad traffic and (my) poor planning, and sneaked into the back of the lunch room where several dozen people had assembled. I could see my wife at the centre of the room, steadying herself against a table, like Caesar contemplating a forum. Her boss was in mid-speech, citing examples of my wife’s excellence, noting her consistent good work (in both English and French) and the fact that clients had dubbed her “their favourite”. This I knew, but I enjoyed hearing the words from someone else.

Then several of her co-workers began their elegies, tearfully, haltingly. They related how my wife had changed their working lives, how she offered selfless assistance to younger workers and brought her tremendous sense of humour to the workplace. Many people nodded and smiled. I caught the eyes of my step-son, Dan, and we both expressed surprise; his mom is a lovely woman, bright, sensitive and gorgeous — but you wouldn’t call her a jokester. What had we missed?

Then Gabriella spoke. She said how much she loved her team and applauded the value of the work. She described the difficult decision she had made to retire, noting that it had been hastened by her health (she is a cancer survivor of five years +) but mainly by her belief in the need to create room for another generation. “We Baby Boomers have hung around for too long,” she said. “It’s time for us to move out of the way.” Again, more nods in the room, though mainly from the heads that had not yet been tinged with grey. She thanked everyone to many hugs and much applause.

It’s a truism to say that we share as much time with our colleagues as we do with our spouses. We are blessed to share meals and a bed with someone, but seeing them in the mirror of their “work families” — the people who share as much or more time in your spouse’s life — is a special grace. Those we love, fettered with daily travails and boots of clay, make us proud when seen through the eyes of their colleagues. I am so glad I went.

beer-canThe other morning I walked down a path that abutted a ravine, and ahead of me saw two men peeing against a tree. Both looked like they had spent the night in the ravine. They finished their watering and stumbled up the bank to the path. One dug into a tattered athletic bag and produced two cans of Laker beer. They stopped, popped the cans, and took long sips.

“This is a shitty way to start the day,” said one of the guys, spitting a fountain onto the grass.

The other tipped his neck back and drained the beer can with relish. “Yeah,” he said scanning the heavens, “But it’s a good way to see the sky.”

Labour Day

When I was a kid today was the day our family travelled to the CNE to see my brother, Peter, drum in the Huronia Regional Centre marching band. The band enjoyed a perennial spot in the Labour Day parade, and I remember watching and hearing Peter’s sticks knitting a loud and proud rhythm on his snare drum, leading his fellow mentally-disabled musicians under the Princes’ Gates.

It’s now a sad irony that some of the marchers he played for – both union members, and the managers who let it happen – were abusing and extorting him and his fellow “trainees” at the infamous HRC. We, like the other families of course, were unaware of the perfidy occurring in Orillia, so great was our trust in ethical public or so great was our relief in having a place for our son, daughter, brother or sister to reside.

The lawsuit against the Government of Ontario has now been settled out of court and beyond the public’s gaze. Peter is now dead and so are some of those who perpetrated evil upon him; the rest will bear their own just reward. As for me, suffice it to say that Labour Day always bears a bitter-sweetness: the end of summer and the beginning of a new year, plus to a large extent the advent of wariness and cynicism.

My neologisms for 2013

neologism-definitionIn my stoical universe, what was is past and what lies ahead is life’s adventure [good Gawd, what rubbish. ed.], but I bust that ethos near the end of each year, and gobble up the best (and worst) films, books, music, events and other folderol. Call it a guilty pleasure.

Sometimes I create my own best-of list, and this is one of those:  new words that I have crafted in 2013. Some I’ve scribbled into my omnipresent Moleskine notebook; some are just lodged into my mind after frequent use. Here they are:

“fauxpology” (noun): 1) an insincere apology that loses its meaning and verges into annoyance, after being heard for the umpteenth time; 2) the “we apologize for the inconvenience” coda in the hourly stoppage announcements from the Toronto Transit Commission; 3) most press conferences in 2013 from Mayor Rob Ford.

“boshawa” (noun): 1) incorrect assumptions about life (and work…) in a certain city in the Greater Toronto Area [see “blississauga”]

“nonsultation” (noun; adjective): 1) the practice of seeming to consult the public or customers on a decision that has already been made; [see “insultation”].

Rodgering” (tr. verb): 1) vigorous copulation, often anally; 2) the vigorous purchase of all media rights in a national sport for a period of 12 years, often anally.

“clouded” (adjective): 1) a visible collection of particles of water or ice suspended in the air, usually at an elevation above the earth’s surface; 2) befuddled, confused, a mind filled with worry; 3) an invisible collection of all of my music and writing, suspended in the Internet, that fills my mind with worry.


That’s all for now. I’m off to buy a new Moleskine.

Pizzarelli and piracy

Guitarist John Pizzarelli

John Pizzarelli with his trusty 7-string guitar, spends roughly a third of the year on the road.

I and my WP² (which, as regular readers know, means my “wife-partner-person” Gabriella…) recently heard jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli play at Toronto’s Koerner Hall. I write “heard”, but really “enjoyed” would be a better verb. Pizzarelli is a fabulous entertainer: charming, funny, gracious and a master guitarist and singer. (He’s also way taller than I expected, and has hands the size of canned hams, but I digress….)

Pizzarelli’s show made me ponder the modern travails of musicians. A friend who co-owns Toronto’s Pilot Tavern (where I perform comedy on occasion, and habituate more often) told me recently that these days his is one of few jazz venues in the city that actually pays entertainers to perform; in The Pilot’s case, different groups play every Saturday afternoon and there’s no cover charge. Others, notably the (in)famous Rex Hotel on Queen St. West, simply charge a cover that gets paid to the talent, or the entertainers pass the hat to patrons.

The bigger challenge, however, is the unintended effect of illegal downloads. In the days before digital, musicians could earn royalties from songwriting or record sales. Those sales were limited by the numbers of outlets — record stores, mail order or the Columbia Music Club (of which some people are probably still members, given the pernicious ‘fine print’…) — but if you were any good and developed a following you could make a living from your creative work.

The Internet changed that. True, it allowed for a broader dissemination of music, and stole power from the A&R guys who served as gatekeepers to success and fame. But it played into the venal human impulse to steal; to commit ‘victim-less’ crimes that enriched peoples’ ears while robbing creators’ wallets. And it forced musicians to hit the road like latter-day lemmings. When the best way to ensure payment from your work is to contract with concert promoters, you jettison your family and health and hit the road.

Don’t get me wrong: performing live gives a greater high than any narcotic. It’s effervescent and immediate and, in a world filled with electronic fascia, there is nothing more engaging than the authentic. Maybe that’s why entertainers like John Pizzarelli spend roughly a third of the year on tour. But the cliché is true: the road wears people out. Sinéad O’Connor writes about it on her blog; the fatigue of travel, the enervating slog from hotel to stage to van to hotel. A lot of that activity is a direct, if unintended, effect of music piracy.

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