Every day we get the blues
By Rose Simpson
When Scott and I first got together, we were both working. I had accepted a job as a communications policy advisor in the field of hospice-palliative care, working as an advocate to help people get better end of life care. Scott was working as head of communications for the Progressive Conservative Party on Parliament Hill.
Life was sweet with two decent incomes and the future looked bright. But it wasn’t long before both of us were out of work – again.
Just three months after I started my job, I developed an upper respiratory infection, the result, no doubt, of working in a hospital filled with sick and dying folks, where infection is rampant. This was also the time of SARS, and employees were being screened at the door.
I didn’t have SARS, but it was still risky for me to be in this working environment. I tried to convince my boss to let me work at home, but she refused.
“Just don’t let on you’re sick,” came the enlightened reply of the woman in charge who was more concerned about what was on her daily menu from her Dr. Bernstein diet than she was about her employees’ welfare.
I was on contract, not full time. So I had no rights, no benefits, nothing. I had to quit my job to save my life. (I still have problems to this day working in a closed office environment, which has hampered my ability to work full time.)
Scott had been working for six months for the Tories at a time when Caucus was made up of a tiny assortment of PCs left over from Mulroney days. All was going well for him, until Elsie Wayne decided to get into a pissing match with the rest of the caucus.
Now Scott has always been a bit of a Boy Scout, so it should have been no surprise that he took Elsie’s side of things. Heck, he spent most of his time on the Hill holding her purse and coat. He also was a bit of a neophyte when it came to down and dirty politics, and I don’t think he understood the machinations of Caucus politics where politicians have no trouble eating up their colleagues and spitting them out.
Because Scott took the side of Elsie who was eccentric, loud and completely powerless, he got the sack. Simple as that.
So there we were, both unemployed, with no prospects. By the summer, I had wrestled myself away from death’s door and I was ready for the next challenge. We were sitting in our backyard one day, when Scott said: “Let’s do a documentary of the Bluesfest.”
And that is how we became documentary filmmakers.
It wasn’t an easy task getting access. Everyone wanted to get up close and personal with Elvis Costello, Ben Harper and the Blues Brothers, but we successfully convinced the Ottawa Bluesfest big shot Mark Monahan to give us a chance.
I think Mark thought our doc would make him lots of money. He obviously knew nothing about documentary filmmaking. Unless you’re Martin Scorsese and you have access to the Stones, you’re not going to make enough money to buy a used car with your profits. He didn’t know that and we didn’t tell him that. So he let us in with full access.
I was so excited; I would finally have my shot at being Oprah.
I didn’t know anything about the television business other than what I learned about in J School, and that wasn’t much. But I knew how to ask questions, and I’d spent years working as a print reporter covering music. How hard could it be?
Being an entertainment news reporter is kind of like going fishing. You sit and sit for hours without a bite. You swat away sycophants and losers like mosquitos because you don’t want to talk to them, but they want to talk to you. And you drink a lot of beer.
We spent 10 days in the sweltering heat in downtown Ottawa sitting, waiting, often six to eight hours in the same spot to get permission to talk to the artists. We managed to nab most of them: Elvis, Dan Aykroyd, Kool from Kool and the Gang, Gord Downie and so on.
But the most interesting interviews we got were with the old blues and rock guys like Pinetop Perkins, who was in his 90s and still hitting on all the young girls. There he was in his wheelchair, smoking his Benson and Hedges with a rider than included bananas and McDonalds. I was in love.
We also met a cool guy named Farmer, a guitar wrangler for the Allman Brothers who gave us the low down on Gregg and his battle with the bottle.
“Gregg can’t be near any booze at all,” he explained. “He has to travel in a separate bus. Otherwise, the guys would get nothing to drink at all.”
Farmer gave us the Allman Brother recipe for the best drink on the planet: “Take a frying pan – it has to be caste iron — heat up a bunch of Wild Turkey and throw in some Dr. Pepper. It’s really great. You drink it but you fall down a lot. I don’t drink anymore cause I used to fall down a lot.”
We also met a brilliant young guitarist named Jimmy Bowskill, a 12 year old who played with the heart of an old blues man. Jimmy started making guitars when he was little kid and his mom eventually found him one at a garage sale. He got his first break hanging out in front of Jeff Healey’s club. He was invited in to play, and Jimmy hasn’t looked back. Today, he is playing Japan and Europe and all around, and he’s still not yet 20.
What struck us over the 10 days, was the number of hardworking local musicians we saw, like Tony D, Drew Nelson and Guy del Villano who were still honing their craft in the local market. It’s a hard life, the blues life. You don’t get to be a real bluesman unless you know suffering and hardship first hand.
And from what I saw, lots of these guys were living the old adage, “I’ve been down so long it looks like up to me.”
But they keep on going, God love ‘em.
Curtis Delgado, the real life inspiration for the Blues Brothers Band, talked to us about how great it was for the old timers to play a festival.
“They work for years in these smokey old blues clubs, with guns and knives and cue balls,” he explained as he watched Pinetop play. “And then they get to play at a festival like this, and it’s luxury – flat out.”
We made our documentary, Carnival of the Blues, and we won a Gold award for it at the Park City Film Music Festival. Pretty good for first timers.
But true to blues tradition, we never made any money from it. It took us five years to pay off the bills.