Pictures of the City
Tour season is upon me once again.
I became a historical tour guide in January of 2020 and as my training progressed through the winter and into March of that fateful year the parallels between Then and Now became ever clearer: governmental hubris, ignorance, pestilence, death... So much so that my debut as a guide was delayed from March 2020 until the end of July 2020 as Covid 19 rolled across the globe and everything shut down.
Now I'm entering my third season (and hopefully my first full-length one, if Covid variants can be kept at bay), and how has it changed me? Well, somewhere between a lot and a little, of course, depending on the day. I swore I'd start reading everything there was to read about Vancouver history, but... I didn't. Mostly I am an entertainer, and as a historical guide I play a role which my guests get to enjoy, and which hopefully piques their interest in Gastown's early colonial settlers and Indigenous history. Some nights I am on fire, and I can feel Vancouver's ghosts breathing down my neck and my guests hanging on every word as I speak, and other nights are a slog, with unwanted interruptions (rats, rain, randos) and weary guests. Vancouver is not a city that holds on to its past. Our buildings get torn down. Our streets are re-paved. Our buses are sleek and new. But every so often I remember to look up... and I'll see a date engraved into a building. Or I'll look down... and see wood poking through where asphalt has worn away, evidence of some of the city's first, wood-paved streets. Or-as happened recently in Gastown- a statue will be toppled during a march, proof that there is still an uneasy divide between settlers and first nations communities; between the mostly white male "founding fathers" of the city, and the many people and cultures they violently and carelessly displaced. Old concepts of history have never been more hotly debated than they are being right now. Tour season is upon me, and it's an exciting time to be a storyteller.
SONG STORIES: Rainy Town & Forgotten City
There was a train, right through the centre of town
People said you could wait for hours and hours before the barriers went down
You could make new friends in the time that it took
It's been gone now for years and years but I saw it in a book...
That book was by local author and Vancouver history blogger Eve Lazarus, and as I was reading it a few months ago the first lines of "Forgotten City" popped into my head, followed shortly after by the upbeat melody and chord progression. I've already said that Vancouver doesn't hold on to its past, and as someone from elsewhere (I was born and raised in Toronto), I didn't grow up with the city's stories in my blood. Joe Forte, the Babes in the Wood (whose identities have only just been finally discovered!), $1.49 Days at Woodwards... I am learning more every year, especially now I'm a tour guide. Every time a guest asks me a question I don't know the answer to, I look it up and I learn more. "Forgotten City' is my tribute to my adopted hometown...
...but it's not the first song I've written about Vancouver. Over ten years ago, freshly back from a season in the gold rush ghost town of Barkerville, where we lived and breathed history all day every day, I looked out the window of my tumbledown, temporary east van apartment as rain clouds once again obscured the majestic mountains, and I wrote "Rainy Town" on a Stella tenor guitar a friend had given me. I was dating someone at the time who was that rare thing in Vancouver: a person born and bred here. This person took me to a showing of Fred Herzog's photographs and I was captivated by his shots of east Vancouver: raggedy kids and wooden houses; neon lights and rain, always rain. My date's love of his neighbourhood mixed with Herzog's understated talent for capturing Vancouver's rough, vibrant past helped me through a tough time in my life when everything shifted under me; helped me feel grounded and a little more at home.
Pictures of the city, we gaze at each one
They strip back the years, disillusionment, age, and decay...
You can watch the video for "Forgotten City" here.
And "Rainy Town"? The relationship that partially inspired it is long over, but my current partner in love and art has beautifully animated the song and it has travelled around the globe as an entry in film festivals worldwide. The me who wrote the words over ten years ago would be gobsmacked.