A lot of times I feel like a freak, but people pay to see freaks – Gene MacLellan
In the spring of 1972, on the occasion of his first cross-Canada tour, the 34-year-old Gene MacLellan spoke of the nature and burden of a singer-songwriter. “I’ve got to become completely naked sometimes,” he told The Canadian Press. “I’ve got to bare myself and let people see exactly what I am. And if they don’t like what they see, then maybe I’m in the wrong business.”
Maybe he was. By the summer of 1972, at the top of his game but uncomfortable in the spotlight, MacLellan announced he was leaving the music business because he "wanted to be poor again.” Then, in 1995, having been troubled by bouts of depression his whole life, MacLellan took his own life at age 56.
He was known for composing two of the most memorable songs of his generation: The unlikely singalong gospel hit Put Your Hand in the Hand and Snowbird, made famous by Anne Murray. The latter song had a cheery, rolling melody that belied its darker sentiments; a first verse about flowers that bloomed in spring distracted listeners from the melancholia of the second:
"But now I feel such emptiness within/ For the thing that I want most in life’s the thing that I can’t win.”
Longtime Prince Edward Island resident MacLellan is the subject of The Song and the Sorrow, a passion project of P.E.I.’s Millefiore Clarkes that won best Atlantic short documentary at the Atlantic International Film Festival in Halifax last month. The film will open the Rendezvous with Madness Festival in Toronto on Wednesday, two days before doing the same at Charlottetown Film Festival.
Rendezvous with Madness is a long-running event focusing on mental health, a subject dealt with in The Song and the Sorrow. In its thrifty 42 minutes, the film considers MacLellan’s life and legacy, with particular emphasis paid to the effects of his suicide on daughter Catherine MacLellan, herself a Juno-winning musician. Speaking to The Globe and Mail recently, MacLellan opened up about her relationship with her father and how the making of the film and a touring concert show she developed – If It’s Alright With You: The Songs of My Father, Gene MacLellan – changed it.
“In the past, the more I looked for him, the farther away he seemed, and the personal attachment I had with him as a father disappeared,” says MacLellan, who was a teenager when she discovered her father’s body in their bungalow home just outside Summerside. "I had been scared to look at it too closely, for fear it was gone But, ultimately, with this show that I have and in finishing this film, I feel closer to him.”
Deeply spiritual and wracked by feelings of unworthiness, her father is portrayed in the The Song and the Sorrow as a shy, sensitive soul who felt he would never be completely happy. Born in Val d’Or, Que., and raised in Toronto, he suffered polio as a child. As an adult he wore dark sunglasses or a patch over his left eye, to cover the effects of a car accident in 1963.
In the film, radio host Eric MacEwan tells a story about he and MacLellan hearing Don McLean’s Vincent on the radio for the first time. When the song was over, MacLellan remarked that Vincent van Gogh, the subject of the song, was able to see the world’s beauty but was troubled by his inability to communicate it to an audience. It is not a theme that is fully explored in the film, but the link between artistry and mental illness is at least suggested.
Catherine MacLellan, who suffers from occasional depression herself, isn’t sure about the question of artists suffering for their art. "There’s something in there that keeps that stereotype going, but I haven’t found an answer to it yet.”
A music critic wrote that Neil Young came on stage “wearing his private rain cloud like a halo.” Kris Kristofferson had warned Joni Mitchell early on that she gave too much of herself away in her songs. And McLean, as mentioned above, sang about artists suffering for sanity and audience: "They would not listen; they did not know how/ Perhaps they’ll listen now.”
There is listening, and then there is truly taking in what is heard. The troubadour with a patch on his eye sang on Biding My Time that he was drowning in tears and growing constantly near to his misery. His Thorn in My Shoe was sad, autobiographical fate set to melody.
"That he never felt good enough was a big shadow on his life,” says his daughter. "But when it comes to my own life and my own career, I don’t have to buy into the notion that I’m not worthy of what I achieve. Artists try very hard at their craft, and try very hard to have a modicum of success. And what we achieve should be enough.”
It should be. And, in his way, MacLellan’s father was possibly trying to say the same thing. Perhaps we’ll listen to him now.
Rendezvous With Madness runs Oct. 10 to 21 at various Toronto venues (workmanarts.com/rendezvouswithmadness/rwm2018/).