Paul Quarrington: ace writer and underappreciated musician
- January 21, 2010 12:18 PM |
- By Arts Online
Writer/musician Paul Quarrington. (Irene Duma/Strange Duck Media/Canadian Press)
Paul Quarrington, who passed away early this morning after a long struggle with lung cancer, had the soul of a rock 'n' roller. Sure, he was celebrated -- and rightly so -- for his notable contributions to our country's literary canon, winning numerous awards for his off-kilter portraits of engagingly flawed heroes, but the guy's passion for music was simply awesome.
It's no surprise that some readers (namely, the folks at Penthouse Magazine) considered Quarrington's 1989 book Whale Music (which won the Governor General's Award for English fiction) the "greatest rock 'n' roll novel ever written": the writer instinctively knew how to slip inside a mind that echoed with strings of melody and undulating beats, and those instincts brought to life the character of Desmond Howl, a reclusive rock savant inspired by Beach Boy Brian Wilson. As a novel and later as a film (Quarrington helped adapt the screenplay), Whale Music became a cult favourite amongst music lovers.
The song Claire, written by Toronto art-rock crew the Rheostatics for the film Whale Music.
Quarrington didn't just write about music -- he wrote music, and savoured it and played it with exuberance. But he was no dilettante: In the '70s, Quarrington and pal Martin Worthy performed as Quarrington Worthy; their song Baby and the Blues topped the Canadian charts "for about a week" (according to Quarrington) in 1980. Early on in Quarrington's career as a novelist, he was the bassist for the group Joe Hall and the Continental Drift, a madcap cabaret-style act that also featured brother Tony on guitar. And from the mid-2000s on, he performed in the freewheeling Toronto crew Porkbelly Futures, a band that started off as an homage to Chicago blues music and evolved into a delightful high-energy roots/country ensemble.
Last May, Quarrington learned he had stage four lung cancer. As he wrote in a remarkable piece for the National Post, "the diagnosis was as dire as they come: lung cancer, stage four. There is no stage five, at least not in cancer-speak, although I guess stage five is really the launching into the great unknown." His response? "I already had plans, plans that involved touring with my musical group, Porkbelly Futures, plans that involved a lot of travel." He considered singing and hollering and bashing out delectable rootsy riffs a form of therapy.
And so, Quarrington and his Porkbuddies booked flights and hit the road in the hopes of bringing their good news revue to fans across the country. He sang on a cruise ship and he sang in a Calgary community hall. And shortly after that Calgary community hall performance, Quarrington suffered a seizure, a heart attack and kidney failure. But the champ recovered, and he kept going, like any good rock 'n' roller worth his mettle.
Back in late 2005 or thereabouts, I had the pleasure of sitting beside Quarrington on CBC"s National Playlist, a show on Radio One in which we, the strange music-loving panelists, nominated our favourite songs and engaged in intense debates to determine which choices were essential. If memory serves, Quarrington picked a funky, organ-drenched tune called Opportunity by Mandala, the '60s-era Canadian R&B band that featured guitar ace Domenic Troiano (who lost his own fight with cancer in '05). When it came time to defend his choice, Quarrington's gloves came off. He waxed poetic about watching Troiano bust out riffs, about what it was like to grow up as a rock 'n' roll fan in the Toronto of the '60s and '70s, about the strangeness of hearing soulful Canadian music on the radio at that time, about why Opportunity just plain rocked. In the end, the tune didn't make the cut, but man, did Quarrington ever put up a good fight.
And so, in his memory, here's Opportunity:
"I will be singing, all manner of songs," Quarrington wrote in October, describing how he planned to spend the rest of his time on the planet. "I will sing in Porkbelly Futures, I will sing with fiddlers and button accordionists, I will sing in Gospel choirs and Glee Clubs." Wherever Quarrington's spirit is now, I hope he's surrounded by music and stirring up an unholy racket. Rock on.
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