Terry Fallis cracks open On a Cold Road

Like Dave Bidini, in the early 1980s I played guitar and sang in a rock band. Unlike Dave Bidini, my band never really had a future. I thought we were pretty good. But thankfully, none of us thought we were good enough for it to be anything other than a really fun, really short ride. Actually that's not quite true. Our lead singer back then, Andy Maize, went on to build his life around music, co-founding the wonderful band the Skydiggers. But that's another story. Even though it was just my hobby, it didn't stop me wondering what it would be like to hit the road in a beat-up, amp-packed van and do gigs across the country, or the province, even the municipality. Now that I've read Dave Bidini's fantastic On a Cold Road, I know -- and there could no stronger tribute to this book. I now know what I missed -- and I'm filled with equal measures of regret and relief.


Canada Reads host Jian Ghomeshi with Stacey McKenzie and Dave Bidini (Tanja-Tiziana Burdi/CBC)

On a Cold Road tells, in part, the story of Dave's band, the Rheostatics, and their 1996 cross-country tour with The Tragically Hip. I say "in part," because there's more to this thoughtful memoir than reliving the glories and the turmoil of a national tour. Dave also takes us deep inside the history of rock and roll in Canada. He pays homage to those who blazed the rock trail across the country decades earlier by giving them a voice in his story. Ken Tobias, Randy Bachman, Rik Emmett, Greg Godovitz, Ronnie Hawkins, and many others you may never have heard about, give this fascinating narrative authenticity, texture and life. Dave takes major themes, like intra-group tension, or life on the road, and after sharing his Rheostatics' perspective, he then weaves in anecdotes from those who toiled in the trenches a generation earlier. These stories from the past serve as a reminder that not much has changed for the band on the road.

Dave Bidini does a terrific job conveying what it feels like to be driven by music, to be consumed by music. He writes in a straight-ahead, unvarnished, no-holds-barred kind of style, which makes perfect sense. That's what life on the road is like. It's raw, at times emotional and often lonely. Reading his words, I felt like I was on the bus with him on that lonely stretch of the TransCanada highway that runs between Thunder Bay and Winnipeg. He captures very well the emotional roller-coaster of life in a band, the shifting alliances within the group, the isolation of driving across a gargantuan country and the momentary confusion of standing on a stage and actually forgetting what town they were in. This is just as much a story of the land, as of the band. You visit very small and isolated towns, and the bigger metropolises, too, culminating in a memorable night in Maple Leaf Gardens.

I think Canadians will connect with this book, perhaps even more easily than with some of the others. What I mean is, playing in net for the Montreal Canadiens, fighting repression and injustice in foreign countries and confronting a vengeful Siberian tiger are all far afield from the everyday lives of most Canadians. That may also be a great strength of those stories. But almost every one of us, at one point in our lives, has stood close to the stage and sung along with a favourite band. Many of us have gone on a long road trip with a group of friends, with very little cash to spare. For many of us, music is important, and plays at least a modest role in our happiness. In other words, it's not a gigantic leap for many Canadians to connect with, and perhaps even inhabit, the world Dave Bidini creates in On a Cold Road. Former supermodel Stacey McKenzie may well play this card when the debates kick off next week.

But every record has a flip side (at least they did in the vinyl era). So where's the book's vulnerability when stacked up against the other finalists? I may be splitting hairs here, but I suspect the other defenders will point to the heart-stopping moments (literally heart-stopping in some cases) in their stories as a contrast to the tale that unfolds in On a Cold Road. It may be a challenge for Stacey to compete with the sheer human drama playing out in the other books. Although I certainly found plenty of human drama splayed across the pages of On a Cold Road. You can't put a band in a van and set off to traverse a very large nation without a heaping helping of human drama. And Dave Bidini captures it well.

On a Cold Road is about so much more than music. But will that argument be enough?


Terry Fallis is the author of The Best Laid Plans, a satirical novel of Canadian politics that won the 2008 Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour and the 2011 Canada Reads title. It's currently being adapted as a six-part mini-series for CBC Television. His follow-up novel, The High Road, was a finalist for the 2011 Leacock Medal. McClelland & Stewart will publish his third novel in September 2012.

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