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NORM at TRANZAC (ended June 2001)











A Songwriter's Journey
by Norm Hacking

Special to the Star - © Norm Hacking 1999

As published in The Toronto Star
Sunday, December 19, 1999, pages F1 and F4
(Cover article in the Body and Soul Section)

A man walks into a doughnut shop with a duck. He appears weary of spirit, with the weight of the world on his shoulders.

"What'll it be, pal?" asks the lady behind the counter.

"I'm weary of spirit," replies the man, "and it would cheer my soul greatly if you would sing for me a simple Christmas carol."

"Sorry, Mac, we don't do stuff like that -- this is a doughnut shop!"

"That is precisely why I came here," says the man, sadly shaking his head, "for I was told this was a hole-y place..."

"What about the duck?" the woman queries after a moment's hesitation.

"Oh, him," replies the man. "He just wants a coffee"


In my ongoing journey as a songwriter, I often remind myself to look for Christmas -- in every age and every season. For its spirit often appears in unlikely places and, like the wonderfully universal language of music and song, it has the rare ability to unite and define us all.

After reviewing nearly 30 years of my work as a songwriter, I seem to somehow have avoided ever writing an actual, honest-to-goodness Christmas carol. And yet, I'm amazed to note how often images of Christmas are entwined with my musical snapshots, my songs, my passage.

Offered here are a few reminiscences -- like old snapshots in a photo album. They are accompanied by some song lyrics that parallel or were born from thses glimpses of Christmas.


SNAPSHOT #1: The House Where Christmas Lived

I went looking for Christmas
A long time ago
At my Grandmother's house
I would play in the snow
Making bells and snow angels
In the afternoon sun
And a snowman whose name I've forgotten

Then my Grandmother's face
Would appear at the door
And she'd ask if I wasn't
Getting too cold
And I'd run to her arms
Full of questions and secrets
We'd share as I piled my wet clothess
By the door...  *

My Grandmother's house was a good place to begin looking for Christmas, for it was everywhere, there. It was there in the delicious all-day cooking smells, and the warm, aproned hugs. It whispered from the dog-eared volumes of Dickens and Steinbeck and O. Henry, standing ready, on high, dusty bookshelves -- encouraging me to grow to their height.

Christmas felt like cold, barefoot, 7 a.m. linoleum floors, and it sounded like the swish and pounce of cats play-tunnelling through a sea of torn wrapping paper, ribbons and empty boxes.

The winters were cold
And I still can recall
How my Grandmother shared
All my wonder and awe
As I lay in my bed
On my fourth Christmas Eve
Waiting for Santa to come...

"Is he here yet" I'd ask her
"Can you see his sleigh?"
And wide-eyed she looked out
My window both ways
"He's just up the street,"
She whispered in the moonlight
And her voice was as kind
As a caroller's song

Grandma, nothing feels better
Than waiting for Christmas
I hear them sing "Jingle Bells"
Out on the lawn
And will Santa Claus come
With his sleigh and his reindeer?
Oh when, oh when, oh when
Will Christmas time come?  *

Christmas in that house was celebrated in the European way -- presents being opened Christmas Eve, at midnight.

While my parents wrapped last-minute gifts, my grandmother's job was to keep me busy, supposedly napping, although even she could not work that miracle.

Yet my lasting image of Christmas in that house is one of lying in my darkened bedroom, my Grandmother sitting on the edge of my bed, looking out the window and doing a "play-by-play" of Santa's sleigh.

"Is he here yet?"

(Grandma leans forward, searching the rooftops.)

"Five doors down at the Wilsons' house" she whispers.

"Is he here yet?"

(Grandma leans forward again, squinting.)

"Just leaving the Wilsons' house -- oh! -- nice take-off! Good landing! Four door's down at the O'Briens'..."

I continue to measure my sense of joy and wonder in this life against that which a starlit Christmas Eve could once elicit in the wide eyes of a 4-year-old boy who began his journey in the house where Christmas lived...

Some 40 years later
I'm grown and mature
But my Grandmother's smile
Was the only sure cure
For forgetting the magic
That lives in your heart
Waiting for Christmas to come.

It's a soft silent night
Starlight on snow
Christmas tree angels
That sparkle and glow
While kittens chase ribbons
And steeple bells chime...  *


SNAPSHOT #2: The Silence of My Father

One day we moved away
Mom and Dad and me
To a new house in the suburbs
In the middle of a muddy sea
There were whispers in the kitchen
Tears behind the doors
My Dad left shortly after
I never did know what for...  **

It was hard to be six and to move away from the house where Christmas lived. I remember a last hug from my Grandmother, tight, and with no words. I remember straining to watch her from the back window of the car, waving hard 'til she could no longer see me.

Then, I turned to look out the front window, to see where we were going. Everything was new -- nothing had been there before.

Wooden planks were nailed together and sunk into the mud as makeshift sidewalks.

There were almost no trees and when you walked throught the front door into the new house, it did not echo of laughter and bustle and stories and voices singing "Jingle Bells" or "Happy Birthday." It was, instead, an empty echo.

The silence of my Father
Was the loudest sound I heard
Growing up in Scarborough
On the edge of the world.  **

My mother and I travelled back and forth on Christmas Eve to my Grandmother's house that first year, after my Father left. But now, some presents were saved, to be opened Christmas morning in our new house.

That first Christmas morning there, with my Mom slow to rise, I hurried downstairs alone, to begin tearing at the ribboned coloured paper that stood in teasing shapes and sizes beneath a bejewelled blue spruce.

At first he sent joke postcards
Of chickens, cats and ducks
When you squeezed them in the middle
They would meow and quack and cluck
And he dropped off gifts at Christmas
With tags that bore his name
I opened Mom's, I opened his
Some presents were the same.  **

I opened a gift with a tag, from Mom. It was the incredible dinosaur book I'd so badly wanted. My heart leapt. Then I opened a gift with a tag that read, "Merry Christmas -- Love, Dad." It was the same incredible dinosaur book I'd so badly wanted.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor, at the foot of that glorious tree, I held a dinosaur book in each hand. I might have sat there like that forever.

The silence of my Father
Lingered by the door
It curled up on the sofa
And it moved across the floor
The silence of my Father
Was frost on window glass
The spring rains finally came
But the silence did not pass...  **


SNAPSHOT #3: A Dream in the Garden

My road led to a Festival
There was magic from the start
Music filled the Garden
Glenn Maguire stole our hearts
We played his tape, while an empty chair
Stood bathed in a lone spotlight
You never know when a song
Will have to last a long, long time...  ***

I've never been to a folk festival that did not have a little Christmas in it. Music of all kinds, generously shared over the course of a weekend of workshops and concerts and spontaneous jams -- a sure recipe for the bonding of spirits.

The Caledon Folk Festival, for which I served as artistic director, was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to bring together heroes and musical friends in a four-day celebration.

At night, under an indigo August sky filled with a snowstorm of stars, the outdoor stage and surrounding parklands took on a surreal, timeless, almost primeval quality.

Tonight in the Garden
The summer sky is clear
And when I scan the heavens
I almost disappear...
The moon and starsconfound me
They're much too far away
And if that's where my God lives
How can he hear me pray?

But there's music in these hills
Ancient drums become guitars
And a lone voice singing
A thousand years ago
Tonight becomes a choir
Whose songs can touch the stars... ****

But while the energy of the music grew by the hour, the absence of the brilliant Scottish songsmith, Glenn Maguire, remained a nagging void. I'd received a cancellation call from his wife Diann, three days before the Festival.

When I called his hospital room, Glenn's voice was strong and cheerful.

"I hate like hell to miss this," he said. "Worst-case scenario, for me, is I might need a liver transplant, mate."

I told him I'd see him after the Festival. On Sunday morning, Diann left a message on the machine that it was a little after 5 a.m. and that Glenn had just passed away, encircled by his family.

At 1 p.m., Diann arrived at the Festival site. As the word spread, she was surrounded by performers going to and coming from their shows.

They all stopped to hug and weep and speak their tributes. Well past exhaustion, Diann's simple grace was astonishing.

"I came straight here," she said with a proud smile, "because all Glenn's friends, his fellow songwriters, the people he loved, they're all here."

That night, the Festival's founder, the late Michael Tobin, stood centre stage and announced Glenn's passing. There were gasps and shrieks from the audience. People held each other crying. "We could never get a replacement for Glenn Maguire," said Tobin, his voice on the edge of breaking.

"And I'll be damned if he's going to miss playing at my festival. So, ladies and gentlemen, we give you Glenn Maguire."

As Tobin left the stage, the sound crew began playing a song from Maguire's album through the big mainstage speakers, while a lone empty chair stood centrestage, lit by a single spotlight.

In that moment, that snapshot, a crowd of strangers joined spiritual hands and focussed on a small, rustic, illuminated stage, which, in some way, had the feeling of a simple Nativity scene, without the figures.

There was consensus, unspoken, that the park had become a cathedral and together we joined in celebration of all that can be found in the human heart, that is true and pure and fine.

And if it's all a dream
May it be a dream of peace
May we dream here, together
In each other's arms
Cradled by the music
Swayed by the breeze... ****


SNAPSHOT #4: The Returning

It's partly religion
Part passion, part smoke
It's songs penned by poets
Who can't take a joke
It's laughing together
When you're weary and broke
And you still find
A reason to love...  +

O'Hara could talk the wart off a witch's nose. His beverage of choice was whiskey, his game of chance, backgammon. And, when his boney fingers danced up and down the fingerboard of his guitar, like frightened fairy spiders, his voice would rise up from somewhere deep beneath the floorboards, its earth-shaking timbre easily silencing any bartender's feeble "last call."

He was a lean, bearded, scarecrow of a man, stubborn as a toothache, eccentric and exasperating. And, he was the owner of a sense of individualism and integrity that came from another time, another world.

The long-time companionship of a fiery redhead named Louise added to this mix ensured that O'Hara's life constantly crashed and banged about him on all sides.

Such was the situation, on a night just before Christmas, when, to my surprise, Louise arrived at the club at which I was performing. She took a corner table and waved tentatively at the stage. Her presence, with no sign of O'Hara, was puzzling, since I'd always imagined that Louise considered me a bad influence on O'Hara's goings and comings.

I joined her on the break, noticing her eyes were red and puffed. A few seconds into standard small talk, Louise dissolved into more tears.

"We had an awful fight," she sobbed, staring down at her placemat. "He stormed out; and I don't know if he's coming back this time."

"I couldn't stand being home alone and, for some reason, I decided to come here."

I was busy reassuring her that O'Hara would be back, when Louise blurted out, "I don't know why you're being nice to me. I always say terrible things about you to O'Hara."

The admission made me feel oddly closer to her than we'd ever been before. At the end of the night, I called my wife.

"Looks like coffee with Louise at their place; O'Hara's gone AWOL and she needs a good listener," I said.

"It's the night before Christmas Eve and I've run out of Scotch tape," replied my wife, putting everything in perspective.

Halfway through the second pot of coffee, Louise and I were starting to become improbable best friends, taking turns laughing and telling increasingly hilarious and exaggerated O'Hara stories.

Suddenly, a thunderous bang and clatter arose outside, sending us scurrying to the side door to investigate. It was a foul night, swirling winds sending mini snow tornados up and down the narrow driveway. And there stood O'Hara, next to a pair of toppled trash cans -- a benevolent, if somewhat inebriated, spectre of Christmas Present.

O'Hara's face was a thing to see, all rag-tag tufts of thin hair, askew in all directions. He'd lost his cap and strands of hair were stuck to his forehead, made slick by a combination of melted snow and sweat from lugging home his Christmas triumph.

Judging by the number of broken branches, the balsam spruce he was holding had been dragged for a considerable distance.

"It's a Christmas tree," slurred O'Hara, "I love you."

Louise leapt at O'Hara, throwing her arms around his neck and sending the tree toppling on its side.

"I'm so sorry about the things I said," she mumbled between kisses.

Slipping through the doorway and past O'Hara and Louise, who were now locked in a bone-crushing embrace, I whispered an unheard, "Merry Christmas," turned up my collar and headed home. It was time to give "the great Scotch tape crisis" my full and undivided attention.

If you open up your heart
You'll find Love's not a prize
That you win cause you're right
It's the act of polishing a stone
'Til it catches the light
Only fools do it right...  ++

To look for Christmas is to find it everywhere. And sometimes, when the road seems longer than miles, when the sky is empty of stars and when you open your heart to sing, and there is no sound...

Then, I remind myself to look for Christmas, for it is found often enough to make this journey a little less lonely.

There's an oriental proverb
Written in the Long Ago
It says 'The answer that you find
At the end of the line
Is whispered on the wind that blows
It's a guiding star, that lights the way
On a midnight road... "    +++

Sadly, the man departs the donut shop. Had he waited for the duck, he might have heard the soft voice of the old man, sitting alone at the corner table, begin to sing the first hesitant lines of "Silent Night."


All song lyrics appearing here are from songs copyrighted by Norm Hacking, SOCAN:

   * from "Waiting for Christmas"
  ** from "The Silence of My Father"
 *** from "Crazy for Love"
**** from "Tonight in the Garden"
   + from "Reason to Love"
  ++ from "Open Up Your Heart"
 +++ from "Midnight Road"

For more of Norm's prose:

Click here for the September 2000 Taxi News column Norm wrote about his good friend the late Lloyd Landa.

Click here for the 1988 Stubborn Ghost album dedication letter to his young son Ben and a photo from the album. (Most of the tracks are included on the recently reissued CD Skysongs... A Writer's Collection and six of the songs were recorded by other artists for One Voice, A Tribute to Norm Hacking, Volume 1, now available.)

Click here for the index for Norm's lyrics, poems and prose on this website.

Norm's prose files restored December 3, 2001