John Mann dances on stage as his microphone and iPad are seen in the background during the Spirit of the West performance at the PNE in Vancouver, on Aug. 24, 2014.
Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail
John Mann, who as lead singer of Spirit of the West helped create the soundtrack to countless Canadian parties and celebrations, has died. Diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s Disease when he was 50, Mr. Mann died Wednesday in Vancouver. He was 57.
A clever lyricist and charismatic showman, Mr. Mann is no doubt best known for his band’s anthem Home for a Rest. The song, from its slow, signature start (“You’ll have to excuse me, I’m not at my best”) to its rollicking chorus (“I’m so sick from the drink; I need home for a rest”) has been sparking singalongs and bringing down the house at frosh parties, New Year’s Eve celebrations and weddings since its release in 1990.
But when Mr. Mann revealed his Alzheimer’s diagnosis in 2014 and continued to perform with the support of his band, he became as beloved for his bravery as he was for his musical brilliance.
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“Everybody was tremendously moved,” band mate Vince Ditrich says. “He got a hero’s welcome everywhere he went.”
John Fraser Mann was born in Calgary on Sept. 18, 1962, spent some of his youth in Calgary and moved to Vancouver as a teenager. He attended Studio 58 at Langara College to study acting, but left in 1983 to start his band.
Spirit of the West combined folk and Celtic elements; band mate Geoffrey Kelly calls it “aggressive folk.” Mr. Mann was strongly influenced by British pop; bands such as the Cure and the Waterboys. Paul Hyde was also an influence – and a close friend.
Onstage, he was mesmerizing, full of energy. “He was very hard to take your eyes off,” says Mr. Kelly, Mr. Mann’s co-writer and co-frontman. “His stage presence seeped into all of us [and] definitely affected the trajectory of the band.”
His lyrics, says Mr. Ditrich, “were idealistic, socially aware and filled with romance and emotion. He had a great knack for combining the very personal with the universal.
“And, in life,” he added, “he balanced as gracefully as he could between buddy and icon.”
Mr. Kelly and Mr. Mann would often collaborate over a pot of tea, both writing lyrics and music. It was an easy, harmonious partnership and the band produced hits such as Save This House, Political and And if Venice is Sinking – a song Mr. Mann wrote about his honeymoon. He married actor Jill Daum on July 1, 1989. They had two children, Harlan, who was born in 1991 and Hattie, in 1992.
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Mr. Mann was also a busy and well-regarded actor. Onstage, he had roles in Miss Saigon, Les Misérables and a new Canadian work, Beyond Eden. He also acted in films and television. He had a recurring role in the TV series Intelligence.
When the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company abruptly announced it would shut down, Mr. Mann showed up at an impromptu vigil, stood on top of a car and performed an acoustic version of Save This House.
It was his difficulty learning lines for an audition that helped lead to the shocking Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Initially he and Ms. Daum thought his memory problems might have been connected to the treatment he had received for colorectal cancer.
“Nobody, nobody, thought John had Alzheimer’s,” Ms. Daum told The Globe and Mail in a 2018 interview.
Despite the diagnosis, Mr. Mann wanted to continue performing and the band toured as long as he could manage it, with Mr. Mann reading lyrics from an iPad. Bass and accordion player Tobin Frank rigged up a system so he could change the pages on Mr. Mann’s iPad with a pedal.
“Boy he had some amazing performances toward the end and I was just so proud of him to have the courage to go out there,” Mr. Kelly says. “He had enough wherewithal to know … he might just screw things up terribly.”
The band performed a series of farewell concerts in 2016. “I want to go out with a bang, not a whimper,” Mr. Mann says in the documentary Spirit Unforgettable.
“Even toward the end when he was declining, we still managed to find some magic there,” Mr. Kelly says. “I think it was as beautiful an ending as it could have been, bowing out of the music scene with our heads held high.”
Mr. Mann and Ms. Daum also marked their first artistic collaboration: he wrote two songs for her play, Forget About Tomorrow, about a woman dealing with her husband’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. They would be the last songs he would write.
He was initially able to participate in some capacity (a lot of dancing onstage) in the “Spirit of John” fundraising concerts that brought out big names to perform with the band, including Jim Cuddy and Royal Wood. The Alzheimer Society Music Project raises money to provide MP3 players loaded with personalized music for people who have dementia.
This is a cause close to Mr. Mann’s heart. As his cognitive abilities declined, he would still be moved by music: trying to sing along, snapping his fingers, clearly engaged.
But more recently the finger snapping disappeared, along with other physical abilities. Receiving palliative care at his residential care home in Vancouver, Mr. Mann has been surrounded these past few weeks by friends and family. There were candles lit, stories told, a lot of laughs, a lot of tears. And of course, always, there was music playing.