Van Chronicles – Chapter 20

A Town Called Paradise

It’s September 21, 1998, and I’m sitting in my seat at the Halifax Metro Centre; Van’s getting close to wrapping up the show and is singing “Send in the Clowns.” He interrupts himself to shout out, “If you’ve been watching the news today (which I hadn’t), you know, don’t bother, they’re here,” and though I’d missed today’s breaking news, one imagined the reference was to the Bill Clinton having sex while on duty headline of the day. There are clowns all over, and Van had been dealing with a few of them himself the last few days.

Who knows all what it entailed, but the part that was out there for public consumption had been the botch-up job that had been done by the promoter at the show the day before, over in Newfoundland. The local promoter simply couldn’t get it done, not really his fault, his hands were tied, but the thing is, he is the promoter, and that’s probably the first line in his contract: Get it done.

But that was yesterday’s news. Left behind in Newfoundland. We’d moved on to Nova Scotia, for the second night of his mini, two-night tour of Eastern Canada, before Van headed out to Oregon, California, and Nevada for five shows while we got in our car and headed home to Massachusetts. We had a few more days left to our vacation, but this was our seventh night on a whirlwind tour of Canada’s Atlantic Provinces, and I think all four of us were looking forward to getting back to our own beds. This touring is grueling.

About a month earlier, after a long weekend away, we got home, and true to form I went looking for my inbox to see what was going on in the Van world. Well, not the Van world, more the Van fan world. Dharma Bum, the pride and joy of Newfoundland, had sent in a joyous message to the list – Van was coming to play an outdoor concert in the town of Paradise, just up the road from the capital, St. John’s. And on top of it, there was a second show in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the next night. As soon as I read it, I knew it was a joke. Dharma Bum, King Bhumi, Hank Bumkowski, Barack Obuma, always the Bum, was a merry prankster, and this had the smell of a prank in progress. But it was true, tickets were going on sale.
It seemed like a good thing to do. A trip to Canada’s four Atlantic Provinces – Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island – it would be a terrific holiday. The kids and I had never been. On the strength of Dennis having been there once, we elected him tour guide.

We’d left home on September 15, with four days to get from Massachusetts to the Halifax airport in time to catch a late-morning flight over to Newfoundland, and we had the provinces of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island to cross off our list before that could happen. It took us longer to jam everything into the car than we anticipated, so we got a late start, but we made it to Lubec, Maine, the easternmost town in the United States, by late afternoon and were over the bridge to Campobello Island, FDR’s summer residence. Timing is everything. At the height of the season, this would be the most beautiful place to get lost in on a sunny day – paths and gardens galore. As luck would have it, we arrived mid-September on an overcast day. I think we woke the custodian from his afternoon nap. Which was getting close to closing time, but he gave us the five-cent tour. And it really is a gorgeous place.

If it’s September, it’s the height of the baseball season. The Toronto Blue Jays and about three other teams were hot in the race with the Boston Red Sox for the coveted wild card spot in the American League’s East Division, the Yankees being so far ahead of the rest of us, they were a given to win the division. Every game counted, so our most important job now was to find a motel with a television set, so we could catch the Blue Jays–Cleveland game. We were a long stone’s throw from the border, with Calais on the U.S. side and St. Stephen on the Canadian side, and the St. Croix River dividing the two. Spotting a Tim Horton’s on the Canadian side, we aimed in that direction for a good cup of coffee and a motel with a TV set.

After unloading our stuff, we headed over to the diner for a fashionably late dinner. While we waited to order our hamburgers and French fries, Bridget discovered that the juke box at our table was free – what a find! What a girl! Bridget pressed G4 and there was Van singing about his Brown Eyed Girl. Hey Rodrigo.

We were raring to go in the morning, coffee at the diner and on the road hugging the New Brunswick coast, on our way to St. John, which is not to be confused with St. John’s, Newfoundland, in hopes of seeing the Reversing Falls. St. John sits at the mouth of the St. John River, which empties into the Bay of Fundy, an inlet on the Atlantic Ocean. When the tides come in, they are so strong that the ocean water forces the river water to reverse, creating a reversing falls and a most spectacular event. On the way, we were going to stop at Ganong’s Chocolate Factory, just outside of St. Stephen, which we did, but they were closed for tours in September, so that didn’t take long, then we were off to the Algonquin Hotel in St. Andrews. It’s straight out of Gatsby – one of Canada’s opulent railroad hotels, built in the 1880s along the tracks of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Canada had become a country in 1867, consisting of four provinces huddled in the east, and one of the first promises of the new prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, was to build a railroad from “sea to shining sea.” The railroad would create an east-west tie and theoretically prevent the United States from coming north and claiming land that Macdonald wanted as his. Unfortunately, he was caught with his hands in the railway’s pockets, or they in his, and he was ousted from office, with a lot of bills unpaid, namely the railroad. But Canadians are quick to forgive and he was back in office by the late 1870s. By this time the whole idea of a train connecting the vast country from east to west looked like one big sorry mess. But in 1882, William Cornelius Van Horne took over the reins of the Canadian Pacific and set to work getting that railroad built. He had a vision of multitudes of Gatsbys traveling the breadth of the country, and they’d want to do it in style, and thus, Canada’s railroad hotels were built in cities along the tracks. The railroad got built, at great cost in terms of money and people, mirroring the great railway projects during the same time period in the United States. And along with it, a grand parade of hotels of grandeur. Each one is better than the next, and St. Andrews was holding up its end of the bargain.

We made it to St. John either too late or too early for high tide, but just in time for lunch, before heading farther along the coast to Hopewell Cape and the Flower Pots. Scattered along the shore are free-standing four-story high rock sculptures, created by the Fundy Tides. We got there during low tide, so we could walk among the formations, which looked, as you might have guessed, like flower pots, with plants growing out of the tops of the rocks. During high tide, the pots disappear and you’re left with little islands of green floating in the ocean. Then we were off inland to Moncton, found ourselves an inn, and after a bite to eat, settled in for the Blue Jays–Detroit game.

Moncton is famous, in my eyes at least, for its magnetic hill. Grown large in my imagination since I was a little girl, when my parents had come back from a trip down east and had been to Magnetic Hill, where cars magically could drive up a hill backward. This I had to see for myself. And so we did the next morning. I even made Dennis do it twice, but there’s such a thing as too much fun, and we had miles to go before the day was through, so we were back on the road, over to the coast, heading south toward Confederation Bridge that would get us over to Prince Edward Island.

We couldn’t have timed our visit to PEI better. We had landed on the island in the middle of their storytelling festival. Each town hosted a different set of storytellers each night, so you could follow your favorite artist from town to town or stay in one spot and eventually they’d all come to you. PEI is made famous for two things, its red soil that is perfect for growing potatoes and being the birthplace of Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables. In a fit of speed touring, we covered it all – three Montgomery-related homes and farms, the Anne of Green Gables gift shop, not once but twice, a walk among the dunes, a night of storytelling and singing – before heading off to the capital, Charlottetown, for lunch at the Olde Dublin Pub and a walk around the Province House, where back in 1864, the Fathers of Confederation met for the first time to discuss the merging of Britain’s North American colonies into one nation. Not enough time to do much more than take a couple of photographs and we were off to the Charlottetown docks to catch the 4:30 ferry to Pictou, Nova Scotia. The two-hour ferry ride, followed by the hundred-mile drive to Halifax once we landed, got us to our hotel near the airport with a serious hunger on. Dinner downstairs at the hotel, followed by a swim in their pool, and we were ready to crash. The trip odometer was showing 982 miles. We were tired of driving.

Tomorrow’s flight would take us into St. John’s, Newfoundland, and best of all, two nights at the same hotel, a luxury we hadn’t managed so far, and weren’t about to again. In the morning, we repacked out “stuff,” into what George Carlin would call a tinier version of our stuff, stored the rest of it in the car trunk, and we were off to the plane.

Our St. John’s welcoming committee of one, Bum, was there to meet us with open arms and a sou’wester for everybody as we stepped off the plane. I don’t know if the St. John’s airport has a policy that all flights must arrive within fifteen minutes of each other, but all of a sudden there was a confluence of people wearing yellow sou’westers, looking for all the world like they’d been let out for the day, apparently without supervision. Nadeira and Bruce, who had flown in from Toronto, and Robert Snell, who arrived from California, and our quartet headed out to the Bum limo and the start of one hellacious weekend on the Rock.

But first a trip to Cabot Tower atop Signal Hill, where Marconi received the first transatlantic wire in 1901, sent from Poldhu in Cornwall. In the early 1700s, the British military had established the hill as a lookout and had planted a mast at its top. It was the job of the signalman to alert the townsfolk below of the impending arrival of ships spotted on the horizon and heading this way. First he’d set off a cannon, a signal for the men in town to look up at the hill, then depending on which flag he hoisted up the mast, they could tell what type of ship and what country it was from. By the 1800s, the British must have won the war, because although the signaling continued, the emphasis had shifted from shooting at the enemy to commercial use.

South of St. John’s it is wide open country, and if I’d ever been to Norway, I’d say it was reminiscent of the Norwegian terrain, but the closest I’ve ever been to Norway was in my grade 5 geography book with its pictures of the fjords. They looked like they could have been taken in Newfoundland. South of St. John’s the island juts out at a spot called Cape Spear, the easternmost point of North America. As we approached it, we could see the lighthouse out on the tip, while below the waves crashed against the cliffs in a spectacular force of nature. The Anne of Green Gables house was nice, Confederation Bridge was a magnificent structure, the Flower Pots were kind of neat, Magnetic Hill had kitsch, and the ferry ride was kind of cool too, but they had nothing on the pounding of ocean against rock. We were reluctant to leave, but we had to get back to our hotel and grab a bite to eat before heading up to the one swanky hotel in town, Hotel Newfoundland, to meet up with the rest of the Van clan, including Linda and Paul Mack and their two girls, Caitlin and Morgan.

Bum’s daughters, Louise and Margot, who were acting as babysitters for the night, whisked the four kids off into the night, while the rest of us hovered in the hotel bar, waiting for the stragglers to arrive. Willie Richardson was also in the bar and was filling in Bum about some of the logistics problems that had developed here in St. John’s, news that became public the next day. We did catch a glimpse of Van as he was leaving the hotel; well, I say we, meaning everyone else but me, who had taken that moment to use the hotel bathroom. It was a trend that would continue for the remainder of the weekend – I always seemed to be somewhere else just when Van walked by. But it was good to know he was in town – if for no other reason than it means there’s going to be a show.

The group of us headed downtown to Fat Cat, a blues bar on George Street, where we proceeded to get introduced to Screech, which’ll rip your insides out, if you’re not careful. Newfie screech goes down smooth, but it’ll have your innards burning before you can get your mouth off the glass. There’s a story that goes with its name…

The drink with a bite had been a mainstay on the island for centuries, but nobody had bothered to give the dark Jamaican rum a name. When the government took control of the alcohol business in the early 1900s, no name meant no label. Until World War II, when Americans were stationed on the island.

As the story goes, the commanding officer of the American regiment was finishing up dinner when his host offered him a wee bit of the rum. Taking his lead from his host, he downed the shot in one gulp, and then let out a howl to wake the dead. And half the battalion, who, along with half the population, rushed over to find out the cause of the noise. The first to arrive on the scene was an American sergeant, who pounded on the door and asked, “What the cripes was that ungodly screech?”

The Newfoundlander who had answered the door replied, “The screech? ’Tis the rum, me son.”

And thus a name is born. Boy, it’s wicked.

We did our best to sleep that one off. And somehow managed to succeed. By one in the afternoon the next day, we were heading up to Bum’s house, where he and his lovely wife, Marian, treated us to a huge meal that included another island specialty, fried cod tongues and salted beef. What with the screech last night, we’d pretty much covered all the Newfie bases.

Tonight’s show had originally been billed and sold as an outdoor event to be held in a town called Paradise, with enough seating to hold half the population of Newfoundland. However, as of five days ago, only 4,000 tickets had been sold. The decision was made to move the show indoors to the Memorial Stadium, which could accommodate just over 5,000. Somebody screwed up the numbers, though. By late yesterday the buzz on the local radio station was that the concert was oversold, and the 600 comps handed out by the promoter would have to be cancelled. Van’s offer to put on a second concert in the afternoon, before the evening show, didn’t fall so much on deaf ears as it did fall on the ears of people who just couldn’t get it done – too many key players were out playing golf or coaching their kids’ baseball games – and that idea came to naught.

By this morning, it was official. The radio station was announcing, in fifteen-minute intervals, that anyone holding a comp ticket would not be allowed in the venue, that all tickets would be checked, if you have COMP stamped on the back of your ticket, you’re not getting in.

With it being general admission, the party at the Dawe’s began to break up around four, with the stalwarts heading over to get in the front of the line waiting outside the venue. As the hours until the doors opened rolled by, people with comps, who hadn’t heard the news, began showing up and being told to go home. It wasn’t pretty, and on a segment filmed for the national news that aired later in the week, there were a number of irate people turned back at the turnstiles.

When the doors opened at seven, we had no trouble getting a spot front row center, up against the barricade. Local songstress Kim Stockwood and her band opened the show, as they would the next night, with a one-hour set. Van’s set began shortly after nine, and for ninety perfunctory minutes we were treated to a run-through of standards. In a bit of a twist, perhaps the best song on the night was a rousing version of “I’m Not Feeling It Anymore.” We kind of got the picture. Truly, the highlight of the night was the new guitarist, Johnny Scott, replacing the erstwhile Ronnie Johnson. Very intent on the music, with a broad range in styles, but tonight, it was how he handled “Georgia” that mostly had me paying attention.

We opted for a screechless night in favor of waking up intact and in time to catch our flight out. There are two flights a day to Halifax from St. John’s and we were on the early one, which, to be honest, wasn’t all that early at noon.

But it turned out to be plenty early enough, as we were one of the last to get to the gate waiting area. Already there was Kim Stockwood and her band, so Bridget and I immediately headed over to get her autograph for Bridget. If nothing else had gone right in Bridget’s day, it still would have been perfect for getting that autograph. But it got better in a hurry. Sean and I had seats together in Row 13, and Dennis and Bridget sat further back, one row ahead of Ms. Stockwood. Her plane ride was heaven sent. It ended up that Dennis was sitting next to a pal of Geoff Dunn’s, so he was getting an earful of behind-the-scenes gossip throughout the flight. Completely unaware of the brush up against the stars going on in the back of the plane, Sean and I were simply content to find ourselves not in a car for a change. Sean could care less that Van’s band was up in first class and the opening act was in the back, he had a mission during this trip: to create a series of drawings of The City on Planet Kornock.

He’d built up quite a collection of them over the week – all those endless hours driving to get to the next place. You’ve seen one covered bridge, you’ve seen them all, and there weren’t any covered bridges on Kornock. He and his buddy Nate had some idea hatching, perhaps for a video game, but whatever it was, Sean’s assignment was to draw the pictures; I don’t know what Nate’s was. Maybe to cut the deal with Sony.

It was my turn to collect the luggage while Dennis entertained the kids and I found myself standing next to Johnny Scott and Liam Bradley at the baggage carousel. They were a bit surprised that someone would come up from America to go to the shows, but I think were a little chuffed to hear that so many of the fans had much good to say about the both of them. Johnny offered us his comps for the show tonight in Halifax, and we were glad to take one, for our friend John, who had driven his daughter, Emma, into town, so she could watch the kids while we went to the show. John would grab the chance to see the show.

A couple of hours later, having got ourselves to our hotel downtown and unloaded our stuff, we were sitting at a table at Boomers, having a beer with our new friends Kate, Denise, Steve, and Pamps. For one night, Halifax, which most definitely is at the edge of the planet, felt like the center of the universe. Dennis left to pick up Bum at the airport and by the time they got back there was nothing to do but have one for the road and head across Caledonia Street to the venue.

Bum had the seat in front of me and Dennis had the one behind; tonight’s arena was about twice the size of last night’s, but our seats were near the stage up on the left, so I didn’t have any complaints. And at 10,000 seats, it was an intimate venue compared to the Fleet Center in January.

Whatever Van had been holding back last night he let loose with tonight. The first real pleasure of the night was “Wonderful Remark,” one of those songs you don’t miss when it’s not played but is ever so welcome when it does. And that seems to do the trick for him. He asks the band to pick up the tempo a bit from the previous night for “Bright Side of the Road,” and we were into “Vanlose > Trans Euro Train, and who knows what station he was at tonight, but wherever he was, the writing was on the wall, Kilroy was here.

I admit, it gave me a bit of a chill to have Kilroy around tonight…the night before, at the spot in “Trans Euro” where he sings sign on the wall, there was a pregnant pause on stage, and I yelled out from my front and center spot, “What does the sign say, Van?” and immediately the song ended. I admit, for a second or two, I thought it was entirely my fault that Van had cut the song short. I felt like a real heel. But, of course, it had nothing to do with me.

. . .

November 3, 2014
And that, dear reader, is as far as I got in writing Van Chronicles. I wrote this last installment on November 6, 2008, just before closing up my laptop and packing it to take with me the next morning on my flight to Los Angeles that would take me to two glorious shows at the Hollywood Bowl and the beginning of the year of Astral Weeks Live. A year that became the fodder for a book I did complete and publish – Astral Weeks Live: A Fan’s Notes. If you’d like to order a copy of that book, just look to the top right of your screen and there it is – for your reading pleasure.

As an addendum … that Halifax show was brilliant – Van went on to perform “In The Afternoon” and a stunning “Summertime In England” and the audience just ate it all up. 1998 was the start of my years of upping the number of Van shows I attended – I enlarged the scope of my travels – not just the U.S. and Canada, but also to Europe, meeting fans from all over, who just like me, loved to travel to see Van. And as I write this postscript to Van Chronicles, I look forward to closing up my laptop once again, this time getting ready for my trip to Ireland and my next two Van shows, this time in Downpatrick. A girl should be so lucky!

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