Skip to main content

Stuart McLean has a wonky eye. It's his right eye. He's had the problem since childhood. He even had surgery on it. Still, it remains wonky. He can't quite articulate the precise nature of its wonkiness -- it has something to do with the right eye's not being able to send messages to his brain as fast as the left eye, which means he apprehends reality in two different time zones simultaneously. But whatever its clinical explanation, he knows this without doubt, that he literally doesn't see the world the way everyone else does. Well, no kidding, Pancho.

Because anyone who knows McLean's work -- 10 years of storytelling on CBC Radio's popular weekly show The Vinyl Cafe, annual concert tours to regions of the Canadian hinterland, his books (his sixth, Vinyl Cafe Diaries, was just released), his students in Ryerson University's broadcast journalism program, where he's taught for almost 20 years -- anyone who knows anything at all about Stuart McLean already knows that his optical take on almost everything is more than slightly bent.

Bent in enlightening and often delicious ways, but bent nonetheless. McLean, after all, is the man who once took a CBC camera crew to a country fair, set up a table and chairs, and sold interviews to passersby for 5 cents. Sit down, stranger, make yourself comfortable and tell me about your life.

He's the guy who once brought a cricket into Peter Gzowski's Morningside studio, inducing both of them into a 10-minute fit of absolute, uncontrollable hysterics. Ten minutes of air time with only the sound of two grown men laughing.

Even when he was doing traditional broadcast journalism on CBC Radio's Sunday Morning, McLean resisted the temptation to do things the conventional way. During election campaigns, he never rode the candidate's bus with other reporters, preferring to wander off with a tape recorder and talk to voters. As a 16-year-old kid attending rock concerts in Montreal, he was determined to get backstage, and managed by subterfuge to meet Paul McCartney and gain entry (for about 30 seconds) to the Rolling Stones' dressing room.

Bent and wonky worked then -- and it definitely works now, especially when it's wrapped around sincere blue eyes, a boyish, dimpled smile and that "aw shucks," Jimmy Stewart demeanour.

Indeed, McLean has parlayed bent and wonky into a thriving niche as Canada's premier storyteller -- our very own Garrison Keillor, if nowhere near as dark.

His Vinyl Cafe books, chronicling the fictional lives of Dave and Morley, their two children (Stephanie and Sam), their household pets, their quotidian trials and tribulations, have made him Penguin Canada's best-selling author, fiction or non-fiction (and won him the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour).

His Vinyl Cafe show, which took over the time-slot vacated by the retired Clyde Gilmour, now claims one of Radio One's largest and most loyal audiences -- about half a million listeners a week, says McLean's veteran producer David Amer.

And his touring concerts -- a combination of McLean storytelling and the snazzy musical stylings of Lisa Lindo and the John Sheard combo -- are routinely sold out.

In a country with few stay-at-home stars, Andrew Stuart McLean, 55, his once-golden locks now fading to grey, has managed to become an authentic Canadian celebrity -- reluctant and self-effacing, as all Canadian celebrities must be, and a national radio star, for heaven's sake, if that isn't oxymoronic.

There are other contradictions. For example, the small-town persona that McLean projects? Hogswaddle. Of course, he does love small towns -- that part is true -- and he once wrote an entire book about seven of them. But the guy himself is as big city as it gets, a savvy sophisticate with his ear pressed constantly against a cellphone, his eyes scanning the urban horizon for any omen of the journalistically exotic.

The cozy, traditional family values, preached in The Vinyl Cafe stories? That wholesome message of domestic bliss implied in his farewell line at concerts -- "go home to your families?" Well, sure. Except that McLean's own marriage to potter Linda Read had long since ceased to be a storybook romance, and finally ruptured last year. He won't talk about it -- period. Nor will he talk about their three sons or about his current relationship. "I never have," he says. "It's a matter of privacy, theirs and mine."

He's not in the least concerned, he says, about whether people perceive a disconnect between the homespun idyll of Dave and Morley and McLean's personal life. "I'm concerned about my family."

And the laid-back, absent-minded, self-deprecating, Andy Griffith manner -- his ability to beam that good left eye on you and make you think that absolutely nothing could be more important at this moment than what you have to say? Just show biz, folks. Like everyone else's, McLean's charm tends to work on a dimmer switch, burning bright only when it needs to.

"If you want to believe that Huck Finn image, well, he's sure not that," says his friend and long-time Ryerson mentor Don Obe. "Of course, there's an act going on. But so what?" Or as his friend Danny Finkleman says: "Stuart is a showman, a fabulous showman with fabulous timing and an excellent storyteller. That's all. He's the crown jewel of the CBC, but I'm not sure they understand it."

Not surprisingly, the demographics for The Vinyl Cafe reflect the demographics for CBC Radio more broadly -- utterly white, largely Anglo-Saxon and, most pertinently, old. Old as in over 55 -- an audience profile that should chill any programming director's heart.

And yet there were exceptions. In Truro, N.S., for example, Sandy Johnston, a thirtysomething policewoman, with her niece had taken the train from her home in Halifax because she was going to be on duty the nights of McLean's three scheduled concerts in the capital. Johnston said she listens to The Vinyl Cafe every Sunday, often during her shift. "I love his voice," she said, "I love the way he writes." Another woman said she instructs her parents and friends not to call or drop in when McLean's show is on the air. "He's easy listening," she explains. "And the stories resonate. I don't want to be interrupted."

McLean, wearing a suit and tie, appeared on stage to a gush of applause, and in no time at all had the audiences guffawing heartily. Reading from a script, constantly peering over glasses to make eye contact, he invoked that sonorous and comforting Jimmy Stewart vocal cadence.

There was a story about his deciding to get healthy and drink eight bottles of water a day and then being trapped in traffic on Ontario's Highway 401, in urgent need of bladder relief. There was another about Morley getting ready for her book-club meeting when the phone rang: It was for Sam and it was a girl and, as McLean told it, even before Sam spoke, Morley was aware of a great whoosh of air sweeping through the kitchen -- "the sound of his childhood being sucked out of him" in one horrifying moment.

Finding the comic seam of these universal moments is precisely what McLean does well and it's what his audiences connect to. They recognize Dave and Morley as versions of their ordinary selves, Sam and Stephanie as versions of their own, ordinary children, at core decent and caring, but fallible and occasionally overwhelmed by the obstacles that life presents.

McLean says he has no idea where his humour comes from. "I have great confidence in my ability to teach," he said over lunch. "To show kids how to take a documentary and make it better. But I couldn't say a sentence about humour. I couldn't give a five-minute workshop about it. E. B. White compares it to a sneeze. You know what it is when it happens and it feels good, but you can't explain it. And I don't want to know either. I don't want to be self-conscious about it."

It may help you to understand Stuart McLean if you know that in his 20s, he spent five summers as a counsellor at the YMCA's Camp Kanawana, in St-Saveur, north of Montreal. He calls these years at once magical and developmentally critical.

The eldest of three children born to Australian immigrants, McLean attended Montreal's elite Lower Canada College where only jocks earned true social acceptance. Athletically challenged, he perpetually felt "too inadequate, too tall, too clumsy, too skinny, too awkward. . . . I wasn't happy. I didn't know I wasn't happy, but I wasn't. I was lonely."

His social dislocation was more acute with girls -- he was too shy even to muster the courage to attend school dances. "So I headed into university with not a lot of self-assurance, naive and pretty well lost. I guess I had a kind of identity crisis. I didn't know who I was."

Two synergistic events helped propel him from this cocoon. The first was an applied social science course at Montreal's Concordia University (then Sir George Williams). "We studied group behaviour by studying our own group, so it was therapeutic," McLean recalls. "And I had a moment in one of those sessions where I expressed my fear about something and the leader said: 'Yeah, that must have been scary for you'. And in that moment, I felt I had finally been heard. And it was like the sky had cleared. Everything became better. Because it's our insecurities that connect us and if you talk about them, you connect."

To some extent, McLean tends to act on that observation, particularly with his writing, welcoming ideas and suggestions from radio producer Amer, book editor Meg Masters, even from members of the Sheard trio for his concert scripts.

The second epiphany was Camp Kanawana, "the first place I ever felt I truly belonged," he says. "I loved working with kids, being around kids, and I was good at it. I was a valued part of something." Indeed, his attachment to the place was so strong that one summer he passed up a chance to study journalism at Carleton University to return to camp as assistant director.

Not long ago, out of the blue, McLean received an e-mail from an old camper. It was a kind of cyber-paean. The woman went on at some length about how important McLean had been to her then, in the summer of 1974 -- a plain, overweight, otherwise unremarkable young girl who liked to sing. She remembered singing along to McLean's guitar and, when camp ended, going to concerts in Montreal with him. She didn't know he had been important then -- it was only now, peering through the prism of time, that she could see it, and she just wanted to thank him for having treated her like a real person.

Without much effort, it is still possible to see the sensitive camp counsellor in much of what McLean does today. It is not just that he now makes a very good living telling stories, his audience gathered around the campfire radio. At Ryerson, he devotes the first half-hour of every lecture to a kind of bull session in which students are invited to air grievances or anecdotes about their weekend.

McLean has no interest in the traditional professorial model -- the distant voice of experience, speaking from on high about the abstract precepts of broadcast journalism, disconnected from his students. Drawn from his own lonely adolescence, the McLean model is based on the assumption that the first duty of the teacher is to build confidence, no matter how deep you may have to dig.

"If there's something good in the assignment turned in, praise that," he said during a break in his three-hour class. "If the writing's bad but the broadcast quality is good, praise that. If the broadcast quality is poor, but they've organized it well, praise that. And if everything is bad, but their posture is good, well, dammit, praise that." As much as anything, his classes are exercises in group development.

In general, McLean's approach wins positive reviews from students. "He tells us to give him our best story and not worry about marks," says Cheryl Sebastien. "He can be a little distracted at times, but in his class we're people more than we are journalists." Or Andrew Sardonni: "I loved him. The other teachers I had were cynical and didn't relate a passion for journalism. Stewart seemed to open up the eyes and minds of students. He taught us about storytelling."

Another McLean student was briefly hospitalized this year. "Stuart was the only professor who called," she remembers. "He gave me his home number and his cell number and he told me about the crisis of confidence he had in university. It was really helpful."

But there are other students who clearly resent McLean's touchy-feely, I'm-okay-if-you're-okay style, who complain that administering shoulder massages in the class crosses a line.

Opinion is equally divided among his Ryerson journalism faculty colleagues. Although all acknowledge McLean's dedication to students, he's considered, in the words of one professor who declined to be identified, "irresponsible and unreliable" for failing to attend staff meetings.

These days, with his CBC, concert and writing commitments, McLean is only a part-time presence at the university, a source of much of the friction. Some criticism, he allows, is valid -- his focus at Ryerson is on his students; everything else is a kind of distraction.

And what of his future? The Vinyl Cafe is less a franchise than a money-spinning monopoly; he will be in no hurry to relinquish it. The radio show has built an audience that feeds his concerts, CD and book sales; they, in symbiotic turn, help feed the CBC following. He could, of course, take the act to television -- McLean has dabbled in the medium before -- but he's far more comfortable on radio, a medium better suited to both his writing skills and his voice.

Alternatively, since Garrison Keillor must eventually retire, he could take the show to the United States, sacrificing its essential Canadianness, but gaining a much larger profile and, presumably, bigger bucks. He doesn't rule that out, but for now seems content with his big fish-smaller pond status. Stuart McLean's right eye may be wonky, but don't let him fool you: He sees just fine.

An excerpt from Vinyl Cafe Diaries

Meg Masters, Editor, Penguin Group (Canada)

Dear Ms. Masters,

Just a quick note to confirm what I am sure you already know. Stuart talked to me about the possibility of writing a brief note for his upcoming Vinyl Cafe book. Although the project sounds like fun and I am flattered by the invitation, I'm afraid I don't really have the time to do this. Best of luck with the book.

Cheers, Morley

Dear Ms. Masters,

Thank you for your thoughtful note.

I understand how you might feel that we are "almost friends" and why it seems that you know me better than you know your own mother. (Although I would have preferred it if you had said "sister"!) And I am glad you enjoy my "frenetic wisdom." However, I haven't changed my mind about the introduction. Given that, I don't want to waste your time meeting for lunch.

I appreciate the invitation.

All the best, Morley

Dear Ms. Masters,

Thank you for your lengthy letter. I sympathize with your desire to achieve some "symmetry" in the design of your book and understand that the other members of my family are participating in the project.

To be perfectly honest, however, I don't feel I have anything of substance that I could possibly say about Stuart or about his radio show.

I don't tend to listen to his program much these days.

Sincerely, Morley

Dear Ms. Masters,

In reply to your fax, I appreciate your offer to send me the book in galley form, but, as I have tried to explain, I haven't read Stuart's previous books and I don't want to change that now -- in galleys, or final pages or whatever you call them.

Nor do I want to say anything about Stuart himself. He is a friend of my husband's and is over here more often than you would imagine. He's a nice enough fellow, if a bit absent-minded. In fact I am looking at a pair of his reading glasses right now, which he left on the kitchen counter last night -- leaving me once again with the dilemma of deciding: do I walk them over to his house or wait for him to call? If I do wait, you can bet he will call my cellphone in a panic when I am miles from home. Sometimes I think his glasses are more a hobby than a tool.

But why am I telling you this? You work with him -- which I imagine is not without its challenges.

At any rate, that's a long way of saying no, I haven't had a change of heart about the essay. But thanks for checking.

Respectfully, Morley

Dear Ms. Masters,

In reply to your e-mail. I understand that "this little blurb" needn't be "a thesis," but I still haven't changed my mind.

Stuart swung by yesterday to pick up his glasses, but I suspect that was a pretext for bending my ear a bit more about this book. Even if I weren't so busy, I have heard enough about The Vinyl Cafe and this book to keep me going until next spring.

I remain, Morley

Dear Ms. Masters,

Thank you for the flowers. Most unexpected. So, too, your offer to have someone in your department write my "little essay thing" for me. As the "essay thing" is supposed to reflect what I think about the show, I find it hard to imagine how someone in your department could do a "preliminary draft" for me. Did Stuart put you up to this?

Puzzled, Morley

Dear Ms. Masters,

I spoke to your publisher today. I told her that you have been making every effort to convince me to participate in the project. I explained my position to her. I don't think she will be bothering you anymore. Dare I expect the same from you?

Hopefully, Morley

Dear Ms. Masters,

In response to your phone message -- in a word, no.

With absolute certainty, Morley

Excerpted from Vinyl Cafe Diaries, published by Penguin Canada.