It was minus 40C as I lay in the back of a white Chevy cargo van watching my breath turn to frost on the bare metal roof. My friend Ian snored next to me on our makeshift bunk, while Steve G. slept on the passenger bench. Zac got the floor between the two front seats; he lost that round of negotiations.
We were parked behind a Walmart in Dryden, Ont., and the orange glow from the massive lights that rose above our van did little to warm our mood. We had made a pact never to sleep in the van below minus 20C, but no one brought a thermometer. Fortunately, we had heavy winter sleeping bags and Zac kept the van running for short periods before he jolted awake at 6 a.m. to ensure we made it to our destination on time.
My brother Chris, who never cared for convention, was so proud of me. I had recently turned 30 and graduated with a Masters degree in business; but while my classmates moved on to various jobs in finance and marketing, I was touring the country with a band Steve G. had put together.
Chris probably thought I was living the dream, but it sure didn’t feel that way. The night before our stay in Dryden, we played a show at the Bovine Sex Club in Toronto. It was a welcome respite to perform to a hometown crowd.
Chris’s band opened. On stage he wore an old, leather, Russian tank helmet our eldest brother Dave had picked out for him; somehow it just worked. Part way through the set, when things got cooking, Chris lowered a pair of goggles that rested on his forehead in advance of his next song, The Howler.
The intent was not lost on the crowd as whoops and hollers erupted. We left the venue at 2 a.m. that night. Five hours later, we started our drive to Saskatoon for a Monday-night gig at Bud’s Blues Bar. They offered us $250, a few drink tickets, and a couple of dirty rooms in exchange for three 40-minute sets of our hybrid of indie rock. I know this because I kept a detailed journal using my newly acquired accounting skills.
We were ecstatic about what a great deal it was for a Monday-night show. More than the whopping wad of cash, we were tickled not only to avoid another night in the van, but have our own beds too.
In reminiscing about those days, just a few short years ago, I wonder what drove me to wander off the conventional career path, why music impacted most of my major life decisions? Maybe it was listening to my dad’s collection of Motown Records while growing up, or Dave’s British ska from the early eighties.
Whatever the reason, I’m hooked on the way it makes me feel. I want to create my own story, and I love being part of a musical scene.
From the first jams in my parents’ North Toronto basement, music became more than an escape; it was an awakening, a way to connect with people on another level.
This connection became even more apparent when Chris lost the ability to speak in the year after that Bovine show. It would be the last show we played together.
Chris had become very ill with mononucleosis, which affected his heart. One day, his wonderful heart stopped beating long enough to cause severe brain damage. He was in a coma for several weeks and the prognosis was not good.
When he first opened his eyes, we weren’t sure if he would recognize us. When his mouth made the first glint of a smile at one of Dad’s terrible jokes, we knew he was there.
But I really felt him when I played him a song I was working on. He had a breathing tube in his throat, so even if he was able to talk, he couldn’t access his vocal chords. He could, however, mouth a few words. In time we figured out a system of mouthing a few essentials: sure, good, great, nope, yup and okay. When I asked him what he thought of the song, he mouthed okay. If he had said the song was good or great, I would have known his brain was damaged beyond repair.
When the breathing tube finally came out, we attempted to sing to the random playlists on his iPod. It wasn’t pretty. When I tested his memory, we’d play Name That Tune. And when Chris passed away last year, he sang at his own funeral.
It wasn’t the type of gig we ever wanted him to play, but when his song started pouring through the speakers, his pokey guitar crept in and his lyrics met my ears, not only did I weep, but I once more felt connected.
I knew he would always be with us.
Despite the challenges I have experienced since I stepped off the conventional career path, watching my brother’s daily struggle to do the things many of us take for granted, not to mention his untimely death, has made me even more committed to a life of music and art. Not in the Win one for the Gipper sort of way, for that was not Chris’s style. Rather, I am filled with gratitude that I can still pursue the dream and overwhelmed with a feeling that Chris would be extremely pissed if I squandered an opportunity he never had the chance to realize.
Steve Reble lives in Toronto.