Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A portrait of the artist as a new man

John Mann stars in "Beyond Eden," a musical to premiere during the Cultural Olympiad next month.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
December 9, 2009


John Mann stood alone on a carpet on the wooden floor of the Cultch, guitars on stands to one side, a harmonica on a neck rack within reach, a trio of drinks arranged on the periphery.

He had water, red wine, and a syrupy herbal drink, the selection a vocalist’s nod to neuroses.

“A weird thing,” he confessed after the show. “We singers have our own voodoo for what gets us through a show.”

Mr. Mann returned to the stage on the weekend for the first time since undergoing surgery.

He was in fine form, at times pogoing like a madman, singing songs found on his solo albums, as well as tunes made familiar with the band Spirit of the West. He also treated the audience to a sneak listen to the title song to a musical to premiere next month as part of the Cultural Olympiad.

He presented an intimate, confessional set during which he teased himself for doing too much talking and not enough singing.

We learned about an ex-girlfriend and about romance in Venice, about being a boy playing around with knives and about being on the road. “I sew a maple leaf of my backpack to show the world I’m doing all right,” he sang. “I go traveling on the coattails of my grandfather’s fight.”

It felt like sitting in a living room at a house party.

If he was being familiar, perhaps it was because so many friends and relatives were in attendance. On Friday, his wife and son were joined by Mr. Mann’s parents and brother, a family on hand to celebrate a return to health.

He had a busy autumn planned with solo performances across rural Manitoba. (As a solo artist, he performs as Mister Mann, which makes him Mr. Mister Mann in this newspaper.) The Spirit of the West were also to travel to Afghanistan to play for the troops. Some 30 shows had to be jettisoned.

While performing as Thenardier in “Les Miserables” this summer, Mr. Mann felt cramping in his stomach. Figuring it might have been something he ate, he ignored the pain for a few days until blood appeared in his stool.

He now details dates and medical treatments like reciting songs from a playlist. A battery of tests — blood work, chest X-rays, CT scan, colonoscopy, endorectal ultrasound, — led to a diagnosis of rectal cancer on June 22. Part of his intestine was removed in surgery on Sept. 3. He spent eight weeks with a colostomy bag before returning for surgery on Oct. 27, “when everything got put back.”

As hard as it was, he now has insight into the lives of others with the disease.

“You’re in this club you don’t really want to be in,” he said.

Being sick gave him insight into the lives of friends also suffering from cancer, including one who has been given a year to live.

With a long, lean face and a shaved head, Mr. Mann presents a sinister visage much unlike what is expressed by the sensitive, clever dude apparent in his songwriting. When he dons a working man’s cap, as he does on the cover of his 2007 compact disk “December Looms,” he has an uncanny resemblance to Keith Carradine as Woody Guthrie.

He is almost always cast as a villain, including a reptilian turn as CSIS director James Mallaby in the CBC-TV drama “Intelligence.”

He told the audience at the Cultch a story about a bewildering incident during the filming of “Lone Hero,” a 2002 movie in which a biker gang led by Lou Diamond Phillips terrorizes the residents of a small Western town.

During a break, the actors stood in a circle, still sporting makeup tattoos and wearing leather costumes. They were chatting about their children and other mundane matters when the director interrupted, making a beeline for Mr. Mann.

“You could be the nicest guy on this set,” the director told him, “but I’m here to tell you you’re the evilest-looking motherfucker I’ve ever seen.”

Yesterday, he had a mould made of his face, an unpleasant routine of which he was already familiar, having twice had devil casts made of his entire head. (He was offered one to take home, but found it too weird to see his own noggin.) The session will help in the creation of fitted masks which he will wear in next month’s production of “Beyond Eden.”

Written by Bruce Ruddell with musical direction by Bill Henderson, formerly of Chilliwack, the musical premieres on Jan. 16 at the Vancouver Playhouse. The musical is based on a 1957 expedition to the Queen Charlotte Islands by the archeologist Wilson Duff and his Haida friend, the artist Bill Reid.

Mr. Mann portrays a character based on the archaeologist, a man who travelled to Haida Gwaii to preserve totem poles, which he bought for $50 each. These can now be seen at the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria and the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver.

“Off the top he believes his job is to keep those poles alive because you can learn from them,” Mr. Mann said. “If they rot, they’re lost, they’re gone forever. No one will be able to study them.

“In the course of those three days, his mind is changed. Then all hell breaks loose.”

John Mann performs Political at a house party in Ontario in August.

* * *

Billboard Magazine has named Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day” as the one-hit wonder of the decade. The song, which spent five weeks at No. 1 on the charts, was used as the kiss-off when a hopeful was dispatched during the fifth season of the hit television program “American Idol.” As detailed in this space three years ago, the Okanagan-born singer reworked the lyrics while riding the ferry between his home in Victoria and his producer’s West End apartment in Vancouver. Some of the vocals for the demo were recorded in the bathroom.

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