Reasons to be Cheerful
by Séan McCann with Andrea Aragon
Séan McCann is a founding member of Great Big Sea, the acclaimed, legendary and multi-million-album–selling band. In this exclusive extract from his explosive memoir of addiction, recovery, music and love, published by Nimbus, he shares unique insights into his upbringing and the evolution of the band that would help change the face of Canadian music.
INTRODUCTION BY ANDREA ARAGON, SÉAN’S WIFE
November 9, 2011, is the anniversary of my husband Séan’s sobriety. It’s an amazing accomplishment and one that helped save our marriage and our family, but it was also the beginning of a world of hurt I tried not to see coming. On this day, when my husband celebrates, I’m reminded why I had to give him an ultimatum to sober up, to choose us over booze. I’m reminded of the worst day of my life. I’m reminded of the words that literally brought me to my knees. But a lot happened to us — two broken people — before we found each other. Things that could have torn us apart or crushed us. While it certainly battered us, we ended up here, in a place of truth, compassion, loyalty and, most of all, love. Together. This is our story.
SÉAN TAKES UP THE STORY
Iwas bornin the very small town of Carbonear, Conception Bay, Newfoundland, on May 22, 1967. The first child of recently wed Anita March of Northern Bay and Ed McCann of neighbouring Gull Island. The two outports sit “side by each” on the Bay de Verde Peninsula and have supported their minor populations (approximately 500 combined) for almost three centuries exclusively with the inshore cod fishery. Settled by Irish immigrants fleeing famine and religious persecution, the inhabitants were also exclusively Catholic. My mother’s labour was difficult and long, a foreshadowing of our future relationship. My father, who was generally not a drinking man, had time to get drunk twice during the 18-hour ordeal. I was a very big baby, and I cried loud and often.
I still do.
On my father’s side, the McCanns were a hardy fishing family of 16 that managed to somehow scrape a living off the rocks in “the Gulch,” where they lived in exile due to a mixed marriage in a previous generation. While Catholics and Protestants worked side by side out of necessity, they were strictly forbidden from falling in love, and the social penalty from both sides was high.
Jeremiah, my grandfather, was a well-respected jack-of-all-trades and did whatever it took to keep his large hungry family fed in the modest four-bedroom saltbox house they called a home. He fished, farmed, hunted and cut wood. Generally a quiet man, he was known to be good with his fists when it was called for. On several occasions he used this skill to secure his berth on treacherous sealing vessels, putting himself at great risk copying (essentially running) over the ice floes in the dangerous pursuit of pelts. This bloody and perilous work provided a desperate infusion of cash and fresh meat in early spring when household larders were at their lowest. “Daddy Jerry,” as he was affectionately known by his lawless gang of grandchildren, was a gentle man with giant hands and a glass eye, the result of an accident while playing with dynamite blasting caps as a child. The injury quite likely saved his life, as it prevented him from passing the physical exam when he tried to enlist in the First World War at the age of 15. A pipe smoker from the age of 10, he had another close brush with death in his sixties when he developed cancer in his throat and lower lip. There was no real form of treatment at the time, so Jerry sought the help of a spiritual healer on the mainland in the small town of Sydney, Cape Breton, where he had sometimes worked as a coal miner. He credited the application of a special bread poultice and the endless repetition of the rosary with saving his life. After a month the malignancy literally fell from his face, leaving him with nothing but a bad facial scar. He was cancer-free. (He would only quit smoking when he was 72 because tobacco went up to two dollars a package.) Before he finally left this world, he told me that when he was my age (21at the time) his life looked like a very long road ahead but now that he was at the end and looking back, he felt like it had all happened in a single blink. He was 98 years old when he died.
Hard as nails.
Jeremiah McCann married Agnes McCarthy of Red Head Cove on December 26, 1917, and the couple proceeded to spend the next 62years together. Agnes, or “Ma” as everyone called her, was known for her fiery temper and sharp tongue — and who could blame her? She gave birth to 16 children and outlived almost half.
Ma was a woman of selective beliefs. She considered Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon to be an elaborate U.S. government hoax but never missed an episode of her favourite TV show, Maple Leaf Wrestling, which aired every Saturday on one of our two available channels. She was particularly fond of the “Macho Man,” Randy Savage. Ma was a very proud teetotaller her entire life but took great comfort in her daily medicinal “tonic,” which she ordered from the Gerald S. Doyle catalogue and consumed every evening after supper. Its effect was always to make her much more approachable and docile; my inner addict would love to know exactly what that over-the-counter cure was really made of.
When I was just eight years old, I fainted on Ma’s front porch after badly cutting my left index finger with a splitting axe. This was back in the days before safety helmets and seat belts, when small boys still played with sharp things. I remember her slapping me hard across the face to wake me and wrapping my mangled finger up with some black electric tape to stop the bleeding. When I questioned her rather rough and rudimentary form of treatment, her simple response was: “If you scalds your arse, you gotta learn to sit on the blisters.”
Salt of the earth.
St. John’s is the party capital of Canada.With more bars per capita than any other city in North America and live music available in most of them, St. John’s is our nation’s own New Orleans. There are no social taboos against overconsumption, and drinking to excess is an accepted and deliberate pastime. Whenever I went downtown from the ages of 16 (which was technically illegal, but really not a problem) to 46 (when I finally stopped), it was always with the sole intention of getting completely loaded — and I was not alone. There was always a phalanx of like-minded imbibers to have fun with when you entered the George Street “liquor zone.” Before the oil boom of the early 2000s and the subsequent influx of cocaine and crime, St. John’s was a much safer place to stumble the streets late at night completely bombed — a state I often found myself in.
I quickly became an expert in where to get the best deals on drinks and where all the good bands were playing. I’ve always been drawn to music, and singing in particular (I could sing “Paddy Murphy” at the age of two). Beyond that, my hometown spoiled me with an enviable surplus of excellent talent for seldom more than a five-dollar cover fee. I got to regularly see some amazing musical groups in intimate venues like Bridgett’s Pub and The Ship Inn. I was never sober at these shows, but the music always managed to cut through all the crap in my head and work its way into my badly damaged heart. Music connected and somehow always made me feel better even without a liquor buzz. It was with this in mind that while studying for my theatre degree — and with no musical training whatsoever — I made the decision to become a professional singer.
St. John’s is a city full of sleeveen show-offs and it didn’t take me long to find some like-minded and willing onstage wannabes.
Bob Hallett sat behind me in Dr. Everard King’s English Romantic Poetry class at MUN (Memorial University of Newfoundland), and in between Shelley and Keats we found ourselves discussing the lyrics of Joe Strummer and Shane MacGowan. Folk music had always been popular in Newfoundland, but it was enjoying a resurgence worldwide in the late ’80s and we wanted to be a part of this new, old and exciting scene.
Our first band was called NRA. Not the “take this rifle from my cold dead hands” crowd but the Newfoundland Republican Army. Because of our province’s suspicious induction into Confederation, many of us Newfoundlanders (or at least townies) carried a considerable cultural chip around on our shoulders. Weary of remaining a have-not province, we dreamed of an independent, self-sufficient Newfoundland and felt that writing new songs of rebellion would be a sure recipe for revolutionary success. Take, for instance, NRA’s only original song, “Nothing Out of Nothing”:
The band consisted of an unwieldy seven people and practised for three months before our first show: a MUN talent contest, which we somehow managed to win. But the group quickly imploded under its own weight. After our second performance at The Grad House — a well-known unofficial fraternity house that hired bands for parties and sold booze without a licence — we had a huge row and broke up due to political and sexual differences.
Undeterred by our first failed foray into the world of folk rock, Bob and I quickly picked up the pieces and formed a new band. Rankin Street was named for the address of the tiny basement apartment where we held our rehearsals. After some early shuffling of personnel, the band settled into a four-piece, including Jackie St. Croix on bass and Darrell Power on guitar. I had first seen Darrell perform at the very small but highly influential Rose & Thistle Pub on Water Street. He had a large repertoire that encompassed everything from James Taylor to Pink Floyd. He never cut the ends of his guitar strings, preferring instead to let the wires flail about, often to the detriment of whoever shared his stage. He wore thick John Lennon glasses and had an easy and affable way with the audience. Recently he had gained some local notoriety by writing a parody song about our famous campus bar, “The Breezeway,” a bluesy ode to student drinking, joint-smoking, and general time-wasting.
Darrell was a human jukebox and I was impressed by the number of requests he was able to oblige for the small but demanding audience. After his set I introduced myself, and we stepped outside to smoke a joint of black hash, a ritual we would repeat at least a thousand times over the next 15 years.
Rankin Street was not very good.
We could all sing, but the only member who could actually play his instrument well was Darrell. What we lacked in talent, however, we made up for in determination, and by carefully choosing a repertoire of popular Celtic cover songs, I was able to keep the little group gainfully employed four to five nights a week on the ever-expanding George Street circuit. We got paid 100 dollars each per show on average, which was just enough to pay the rent and buy enough hash to keep me well sedated. (Thirty years later, the same gig still pays 100 dollars, which does not say much for the financial future of the modern-day “music industry.”) For the most part, we drank for free, and I partied through this haze for the better part of four years until I graduated with a degree in philosophy and dramatic arts and realized that my employment prospects were absolutely dreadful. Rankin Street had grown into a good pub band and had developed a loyal following, but I knew we had already gone as far as we were ever going to and decided to cut the cord and look for a real job.
Unfortunately, real jobs were very hard to find in Newfoundland back in the early ’90s, especially jobs that allowed you to smoke hash all day and drink free booze all night, so I quickly found myself back in school pursuing a master’s degree in folklore (like that would increase my employment potential). While the courses did keep me in contact with the music I loved, I found the academics of it all incredibly boring. I became restless, so I bought a guitar and taught myself how to play it. By the end of my first semester, I was bored right out of my mind and desperately wanted to start making music again. I knew that all these old books were never going to make me happy, so I began writing new songs. What I really needed now was a new band.
The early ’90s was a time of great upheaval in Newfoundland. The northern-cod fishery we all took for granted, and which had sustained us for 500years, was in free fall, triggering a new wave of outmigration. The lucrative oil jobs we were all promised in high school were still a decade away from reality, and even the most well trained and highly educated were not immune to the severe employment drought. Once again, we watched our brightest and best leave for work and the promise of a better future.
Hard times have a long history of inspiring great music. The blues, country, reggae and folk were all created to help soothe our pain and inspire our hearts on dark days, and Newfoundland music proved no exception to this healing tradition. The economy may have been in the toilet but the tunes kept rolling and the rum kept flowing. It really was a great scene to grow up in and I consider myself fortunate to have been a part of it.
After I had spent the better part of the previous four years slogging it out on a road to nowhere in the bars of St. John’s, all of a sudden Toronto began to take a serious interest in our province’s bright little music scene. The East Coast Music Awards, established in the 1980s to celebrate and recognize Atlantic artists, quickly became the best vehicle to showcase your work to the real music industry. Local songwriter and former Wonderful Grand Band front man Ron Hynes was the first to ink a deal with EMI in 1992. He was followed soon after by local pub favourites The Irish Descendants, who were signed by Warner Music Canada. I began to feel a bit like I was missing the boat. I led myself to believe that real success might actually be achievable if I could just bring together the right combination of talents. With renewed hope, I decided to give the music thing one last try and set off again in search of collaborators.
Darrell was in even before I got to ask the question. Graduating with a degree in religious studies had left him as functionally unemployable as me, and he now found himself languishing through an obligatory education degree. He, too, felt underwhelmed by the way Rankin Street had ultimately underachieved and was willing to give it one more chance. I could play a mean bodhrán (Irish goat-skinned hand drum) and carry a tune, but as much as I enjoyed making music I never actually craved the attention of the spotlight and preferred to focus more on song writing and show promotion. I had a reputation for being one of the hardest “grinders” (a behind-the-scenes multitasking agent/manager/promoter/pest) in St. John’s, and my bands always made money. Rankin Street had become a tight little group by the end of its run, but it lacked a charismatic leader to focus our audience’s eyes. Determined to learn from my past mistakes, I set about seeking a shameless self-promoter who was willing to do just about anything to get people’s attention.
Alan Doyle was performing in a duo called Staggering Home when I first laid eyes on him at the Rose & Thistle Pub. The act was rough and very “blue” in the style of other comedic gross-out acts, MacLean & MacLean and, more locally, Lambert & James. The schtick was mostly vulgar musical parody, which went over really well with the local pubsters. Their biggest “hit” was arguably a parody of the Sesame Streetclassic “In Your Neighborhood,” in which they tried to humourously subvert the educational children’s song by populating it with dangerous neighbours like “child molesters” and “parish priests.”
While this song did bring back some very disturbing personal memories, I was attracted to the fearless irreverence with which the new verses were delivered and by the incredible ball of raw energy from whence they came. There were fewer than a dozen people in the pub that night and half of those were Alan’s family, but he played the room like it was Wembley Stadium. He even went so far as to set up his own spotlight so we could all see him that much better through the blue haze of tobacco smoke that filled the room. Alan Doyle demanded the audience’s attention and was relentless in its pursuit. I knew straight away that he was the right man for the job.
Darrell, Alan and I played our first and only show together as a trio under the unfortunate moniker and local slang term Best Kind (Newfoundland English for “all is well”) at the Rose & Thistle in the early spring of 1993. I don’t remember a single thing about the gig other than it was jammed full (about 50people). Since then I’ve had at least 500people tell me they were at that pivotal performance, and by all accounts we were absolutely fantastic. Our reputation as a new “St. John’s supergroup” spread fast, and the following month we were invited to open for our recently signed friends, The Irish Descendants, at the MUN Gym (capacity 1,000). It was “a buck a beer,” and our new band was going over really well with the extremely inebriated young crowd when Bob Hallett surprised us all by showing up at the gig and jumping onstage with his mandolin for the last two songs. He’d been away on the mainland looking for work but had flown home when he caught wind of what we were up to. As the crowd screamed for more, he told us he wanted in too, provided we agreed to abandon our “stupid f***ing name.”
Things started to happen really fast for us after that.
One Good Reason: A Memoir of Addiction and Recovery, Music and Love by Séan McCann is available now published by Nimbus
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