Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Love As An Open Argument: Remembering Kate McGarrigle

When I heard the news yesterday about the death of Kate McGarrigle from cancer, it really cut to the quick. “It’s like getting kicked in the gut, you know,” Sylvia Tyson remarked upon hearing the news. I know what she meant. Over the years, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, the folk singing siblings from Quebec, had written and performed a distinct body of beautiful songs that had the capacity to share wounds and open sores that their soaring voices could quickly heal. Their temperaments were radically different – Anna the hopeful romantic; Kate the skeptic – but the blending of their differences often created a harmony unique to popular song. Calling the McGarrigle sisters’ material “tart and tuneful,” J.D. Considine in Rolling Stone said their work married “the resonance of folk to the emotional immediacy of everyday life.” What Kate and Anna McGarrigle did was give the genre a different lease on everyday life. They wrote personal songs without resorting to solipsism. They wrote romantic songs without bending to sentimentality. They could be funny and sarcastic without being smug.

I first discovered the duo (like most people) through Linda Ronstadt’s 1974 cover of “Heart Like a Wheel,” a heartbreakingly beautiful tale of romantic remorse. But since Ronstadt, with her prevailing masochism, tended to enshrine a spirit of victim-hood in her musical interpretations, the song came across as a lovely, yet self-pitying lament about loss. The Canadian poet bp Nichol though told me to listen to the McGarrigle’s original take on their first album for WEA. “You’ll hear how pain can cut both ways,” he remarked to me. I wasn’t sure what he meant until I heard the song. What I found in their version was a sense of what gets lost in a relationship. If Ronstadt played out the role of the heartbroken girl who never wins at love, the McGarrigles brought out the song's core of bereavement. They addressed what it is that gets broken in the heart. In their hands, “Heart Like a Wheel” was an inconsolably beautiful song about the pain of loss, the cost of love.

But they didn’t just sing about loss. Their songs often had the carnal, yet sophisticated, air of Cole Porter – as on “Kiss and Say Goodbye” (“I don’t know where it’s coming from/But I want to kiss you until my mouth gets numb”). They could distill pure longing out of simple nostalgia on a track like “(Talk to Me of) Mendocino.” Their French-language take on Bob Seger’s “You’ll Accompany Me” outclasses his original by turning the track from a guy’s lustful boast into a woman’s desire for companionship.

Wade Hemsworth
My favourite song however was not released on a major label. Back in the late 80s, guitarist and CBC producer Danny Greenspoon did some sessions with the sisters. He drew my attention to one song (which was released, along with a few others, on a CBC Variety collection) called “My Mother is the Ocean Sea.” Written by Wade Hemsworth, the tune is one of the most exquisite laments about the desire for ecological harmony ever composed. (It was commissioned for an NFB documentary with the unlikely title of Sea Weed: An Approach to Marine Agriculture.) In the song, Kate and Anna McGarrigle layer their wistful poetic harmonies over Danny’s weeping guitar to invoke the spirit of an underwater world lost and mysterious, but fully realized by their soft cries:

Oh, my mother is the ocean sea.
My father is the sun.
Long time ago they made me
Before time had begun.

Away, haul away children.
One sun, one ocean.

(A live version of the song from the 1992 Winnipeg Folk Festival can be found on YouTube here.)

Kate and Anna McGarrigle

What I loved most in their music was their generosity of spirit that was always perfumed in a mischievous, sardonic style (something they obviously passed on to their kids). But when these ladies rendered themselves vulnerable, there were none better who could cut to the naked heart of the matter. In Kate’s lyrics for “I Cried For Us” on their album, Love Over and Over, she spares neither side in the romantic wars. Yet, as always, Kate still left you believing that - despite heartache and defeat - romance in its purest essence always remained an open argument:

I’ve tried and tried to put aside
A time to talk but without luck
So I’ll just pin this note within your coat
And leave the garden gate unlocked.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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