Thursday, December 17, 2009

Brilliant songs about the forgotten

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
December 17, 2009


It was New Year’s Eve. Paul Hyde spent the final hours of 2004 performing at a CBC Songwriter’s Cafe with Shari Ulrich and Linda McRae.

The evening had gone well. The event, part of First Night festivities in downtown Vancouver, was dry. The audience included many families.

After the fireworks, he made his way back to the car, only to discover a shattered window. The interior had been rifled. Four bottles of fine wine hidden beneath a seat were gone.

Happy fricking new year.

No stranger to life in the urban jungle, he blamed himself for parking on a dodgy street.

On the drive home to eastside Vancouver, he saw prostitutes plying their trade on street corners near the waterfront, a common enough sight but one on this night that struck him as particularly horrible.

“I thought that was the worst thing I’d ever seen,” he said. “They don’t even get New Year’s Eve off. Of course.”

The image stuck with him.

This is a time of year when passersby drop a few more coins into the outstretched cap of a stranger, when donations are made to food banks and clothing charities, when the nuisance of being accosted in the streets is tempered by a spirit of seasonal goodwill.

Otherwise, sympathy to society’s abandoned can run thin on the hard streets of the big city.

Mr. Hyde, 54, who was born at Harrogate, Yorkshire, has long been attracted to gritty storytelling in songs, from Ralph McTell’s “Streets of London” to “Fairytale of New York” by Shane MacGowan and Jem Finer of the Pogues.

“I’m not very good at over-the-top love songs. Or doo-doo-DOO-da-da-DA,” he said.

He is not wanting for material, living as he does on a street north of the Pacific National Exhibition near a trysting place favoured by johns and prostitutes.

“It’s all around me,” he said.

His own sardonic style of songwriting led to hits and mass sales, as well as Juno Awards, during his years with the Payola$. He reunited with boyhood friend Bob Rock to create a new Payola$ album two years ago.

Far less well known are the wonderful songs crafted by Mr. Hyde on his solo albums, which have had a limited circulation. A shot at a breakthrough ended in circumstances so bizarre they are (almost) comical.

The actor Russell Crowe had picked up on a Hyde song and covered it for his own debut album. Mr. Crowe was scheduled to appear on Oprah to discuss his new record, including the Hyde song “I Miss My Mind the Most,” but instead wound up handcuffed in policy custody after throwing a telephone in the face of a Manhattan hotel concierge at 4 a.m. No Oprah, no album promotion, no invitation to write movie soundtracks for Russell Crowe vehicles.

More recently, Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones recorded two Hyde-Rock compositions for a solo project of his own. In an echo of the Crowe incident, Mr. Wood has been in the tabloids for a complicated and messy personal life.

Seven weeks ago, Bongo Beat records of Montreal released Mr. Hyde’s “Peace Sign,” a 12-song compact disk featuring on the cover the Vancouver Special in which Mr. Hyde lives. In the front yard is a peace sign made of Christmas lights strung through a large square of pegboard. He lives on a “streets of lights.” The peace sign and a decorated Charlie Brown tree are his acquiescence to his neighbours’ obsession.

The album is filled with brilliant songs, from an description of life in an Ontario industrial city (Hamilton as “Greaseball Town”) to a folksy ode to a seaman’s life (“Sailors Song”). He even has included a love song.

It is Mr. Hyde’s great talent to write sharp-eyed character studies of the rejected, the forgotten, the unloved. He imagines the lives of the down and out with sympathy and without mawkish sentiment.

He is not unfamiliar with being in a state of penury.

As a young man, he and Mr. Rock abandoned suburban Victoria to go to England to become rock stars. That didn’t happen, so they hit the road, depending on the generosity of strangers and their own wiles. They spent one frigid January night sleeping in a railway workers shed along an isolated stretch of track in Alsace-Lorraine.

Though penniless, Mr. Hyde shunned begging, or even busking. Not his style.

The cold shed gave him the setting for “Strangers Hands,” a song about life as a panhandler. “Pray for charity, that someone understands,” he writes, “pray that money falls from strangers’ hands.”

Not that he’s always an easy touch himself on the street.

“There’s a lot of assholes out there who bum because it’s easier to do that and go drinking than it is to go to work and go drinking,” he said.

“If someone’s mentally ill, or schizophrenic, I don’t mind helping them out, because the government’s not helping them out, that’s for sure.”

The image of prostitutes staggering into Powell Street in the opening minutes of a new year inform the song “Quick, Before It’s Too Late,” a haunting recognition of a sad fate.

“Who didn’t love you baby,

“Who doesn’t love you now.

“There you go crossing the street on the wrong coloured light,

“I hope you’re not run over on a rainy Vancouver night.”

It is harder to imagine a song better capturing our conflicted relationship with society’s castoffs, whose unhappy fate seems all the more painful at this time of year.

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