You don't hear many good songs on the radio about transsexuals, or transgendered individuals, or whatever the correct referent is these days.
But I'm happy to report there's a fine addition to the "cause" out now, and more than 70 Canadian radio stations have added it to their playlists. It's called Do You Mind If We Talk About Bill? by the Toronto-based duo Collins Pickell. Just released on the Popular/EMI label, it's three minutes and 45 seconds of seventies-style pop catchiness, with a vibe that owes a lot to the likes of 10cc, Al Stewart and Canada's own Marc Jordan.
Written by James Collins and Dave Pickell, the tune is a tribute of sorts to perhaps Canada's most famous transsexual, Bill Amesbury, now 54, who became Barbara Amesbury sometime in the early eighties.
As Bill, Amesbury enjoyed a measure of pop-music success in the 1970s, writing and performing such tunes as Virginia (Touch Me Like You Do), Can You Feel It, Rock My Roll and A Thrill's a Thrill. The last, with its unforgettable line, "I know a man who's growing tits," has been covered by many performers, most notably Long John Baldry, and became something of a lesbian anthem in the late seventies. As Barbara, Amesbury is a famous cultural maven, alongside her longtime co-vivant, Maclean-Hunter heir Joan Chalmers.
Collins says Bill Amesbury had a big impact on his life when he was a 10-year-old music buff living in Oshawa, Ont. Now in his late 30s, Collins still has his vinyl copy of Amesbury's 1977 LP Can You Feel It. When he moved to Toronto to pursue a career as a musician, Collins started to make enquiries about Amesbury. That was when he discovered Bill had become Barbara.
The idea for Do You Mind If We Talk About Bill? burbled in Collins's brain for several years, then finally surfaced when he and Pickell started to write material for the seven-song EP titled I Want to Write a Song for Celine Dion. A revamped version of the song recorded earlier this year is the one that's getting the airplay. Written from the perspective of an imaginary encounter with Barbara, the song's narrator asks, "In your mind, is he haunting you still?/In your mind, do you remember him still?/Do you mind if we talk about Bill?" Later, he muses, "It's been a while since I heard about the change/Did you do it because a thrill is a thrill?/ Or was it something that you had to do?"
Collins says he's "not expecting a phone call" from Amesbury. What he would like, though, is an answer to a question he poses in the song. "What an incredible talent: Does he desire to keep writing still?"
Maclean's will be giving CBC-TV and the Bill Reid Foundation a couple of advertising pages gratis in the fall to mark the airing of The Spirit Concert, a fundraiser featuring Bruce Cockburn, which Mother Corp taped last month in Vancouver. And it's not because Canada's weekly newsmagazine is feeling guilty or apologetic about a controversial article it published in October, 1999, on Reid, the famous Haida sculptor.
"Oh, that's ancient history," Maclean's publisher Paul Jones said of the piece by then-senior writer Jane O'Hara. The article described Reid as a manipulative showboater who didn't lay a hand on some of the famous works that bear his name and gave inadequate recognition, monetarily and artistically, to his assistants, many of them white. Readers took exception to this characterization, and some demanded an apology -- which never came.
Jones says his mag's support for The Spirit Concert came as the result of a phone call last fall from the Reid Foundation's executive director Herb Auerbach, who was looking for some support. "It wasn't in exchange for anything," Jones remarked, explaining that Maclean's, which has a sales office in Vancouver, "does quite a few things like this" -- namely, give pages in the weekly free to worthy, non-profit community efforts.
Auerbach concurs. Yes, "the article by O'Hara was nonsense," he said recently, and so was a follow-up piece on the contretemps by then-editor of Maclean's Robert Lewis. But "people tell me they thought Maclean's was hurt much more by what they published than Bill was." Anyhow, the Reid Foundation wants to mount a retrospective and tour of the sculptor's works and to create a permanent home for the artifacts in its collection. "Maclean's was a sensitive response to that." Mick Jagger had a chance to restore some of the edge to his life, the Rolling Stones and rock music in general last weekend, but he failed to do so.
I'm talking, of course, about the knighthood conferred upon the 58-year-old British pop star. He should have refused it. Rock hasn't been a "site of rebellion" for more than a decade and the Stones have had no teeth in their bite for at least a quarter-century. Now that the Stones are about to embark on their final tour (please), you'd think ol' Mick would have wanted to give the fans a bit of the ol' frisson by telling Tony Blair and the Queen to take their hoary honour and shove it on someone else. Like Charlie Watts or Alvin Lee (Britain doesn't have enough Sir Alvins).
But instead of aligning himself with such illustrious decliners of state honours as Leonard Cohen, Jean-Paul Sartre, Sinclair Lewis and Harold Pinter, Mick chose to get in the same bed as (yikes!) Elton John and Cliff Richard.