Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Hometowner: Tom Wilson’s Beautiful Scars

Tom Wilson on stage in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, in 2017, performing as part of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings. (Photo: Donna Harper)

Tom Wilson is one of my favourite musicians and songwriters. His edgy tunes, full of wit and street-wise wisdom, grace the discographies of Wilson’s bands – Junkhouse, Lee Harvey Osmond and Blackie & the Rodeo Kings, the latter one of Canada’s finest alt-country groups. His autobiography Beautiful Scars (Doubleday Canada), released last fall, uses, like his songs, a mix of sharpness and charm in every chapter. In his economical style he offers great memories about his life in music. But the most revealing part of his story is when he discovers that he’s from the Mohawk Nation, specifically the Kahnawake community in the province of Quebec, which was kept secret from him until 2016.

Wilson was born in 1959. He grew up in Hamilton, Ontario during its golden years as one of North America’s biggest producers of steel, dominated by the companies Dofasco and Stelco. Even today, Hamilton is occasionally referred to as “Steeltown” – a gentle nickname that captures the working-class feel of its industrial history. Wilson grew up in the poorer part of town, named East Mountain. “My house was the last one on our route to school,” he writes, where he spent most of his time with “my own gang of inseparable misfits.” Even though he was poor, he didn’t know it until he started grade school. As he says, “Before that age I had no idea. The world has to tell you.” In a nutshell, Wilson’s world was made up of those “misfits," his rundown house and his parents, Bunny and George. Wilson never refers to them as mother & father, because, we learn, they were not his real parents, merely his guardians. The first half of Wilson’s book is fondly remembered, with great stories of what his life was like with Bunny and George.

Wilson’s book is also about his search for his own identity and the long hard truth about his aboriginal roots that he did not discover until he was in his mid-fifties. Wilson always thought himself an outsider growing up in Hamilton, because he was never told who his real mother and father were. It was a secret his guardian, Bunny, literally promised that she would “take to her grave.” For Wilson, who lived with this unanswered question for most of his life, the effect was like a nagging toothache that never faded. Consequently he was never really grounded as a youth. He had a few friends and support from Bunny and George, but he always felt lost, psychologically speaking. But music was most important in his life. One of his first records was Alice Cooper’s Love It To Death album released on Frank Zappa’s Straight label in 1971. The record, the sound and the band had great appeal for the troubled Wilson: “[Alice Cooper and his band] looked like a street gang from outer space. Lipstick-smeared bikers or cowboys or futuristic mobsters. Dangerous as hell. And that’s what we all wanted to be. Dangerous as hell with Gibson SGs hanging off our shoulders.”

Wilson took up the guitar and started teaching himself how to play at a local Hamilton music store called Waddington’s. For him it was an epiphany. Getting that first guitar “felt like it was the beginning of the rest of my life.” He was right. Wilson soon hooked up with other musicians, developed his skills on the instrument and eventually started playing in as many bands that would have him; he was barely into his teens. Hamilton was a pretty rough town in the seventies, full of characters, as he describes them, “like Peter Fonda’s dim-witted cousins,” referring to Easy Rider. Wilson not only performed in front of them, but got to know them on first-name basis. But running with that crowd wasn’t necessarily good for one’s health, as he admits in his memoir. "Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll" became his mantra for many years, until an intervention sent him to a special hospital in Richmond Hill to clean up. It was a long road for him to travel, but it included a musical journey that made him the composer and singer he is today: “I entered adulthood unsure of who I was, where I belonged or where I came from, so I made up my story as I went along, and in that, music was my answer to everything . . . The path forward wasn’t always an easy or straight one, but I was willing to do anything to find my way.”

Wilson’s steadfast determination to write and perform music while undergoing an identity crisis speaks to his art. All of his songs feature a blend of cynicism laced with hope and his book is about that pounding desire to fit in. Recalling his early years with one of his first professional bands, The Florida Razors, he writes, “We were from Hamilton: we were nuts and our options were limited, so we played rock and roll because it was all we had and it was all that made sense to us.” His group often played as many places as they could from Detroit to Montreal, along Highway 401. It was a grind, but he loved every minute of it and the freedom it brought him as a young man.

Wilson’s book is full of the smaller moments to which we often pay no heed, which speaks to his often eloquent and darkly funny memories. And since we’re about the same age, I could relate to many of his simple pleasures, such as listening to a tiny AM radio with a single earpiece late at night. Wilson also found solace in radio, often tuning in CFRB, from Toronto, or CHML, a local Top 40 station. I can easily recall tuning into CHUM radio and listening to the Top 40 hits of the day. It was a world I could enter without any conditions or foes, just me and the music and the DJ’s powerful voice.

Beautiful Scars is one of the most direct and honest memoirs by a musician I’ve ever read. For the longest time Tom Wilson chased history and lived his life with a question mark over his head. I’m so glad he found the answer and shared it with us.

– John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, and musician. He’s the author of Frank Zappa FAQ: All That’s Left To Know About The Father of Invention (Backbeat Books).

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