James Keelaghan: October 2022 Artist of the Month



Second Hand

Borealis # 276




Like most artists, the Covid lock-down kept Canadian troubadour James Keelaghan closer to home. He used his time to connect more deeply with his kids and managed to make his way into Montreal to record Second-Hand. The title does triple duty. James poses on the cover with an instrument that you might think is “used,” as it has enough wear to be a Willie Nelson upgrade. It’s a sort of visual pun, though, as it’s really a Larkin he has played since 1984. “Second Hand” is also the ironic title track, and evocative of “My Skies” from an eponymous 1993 album. I call it ironic because–as in “My Skies”–Keelaghan actually wants listeners to experience the world first-hand. “Second-Hand,” though, is shot through with deeper, more personal yearnings.  


Keelaghan has long been a quintessential folk artist who keeps audiences spellbound with story songs, alluring melodies, and a baritone voice that is, at once, sweet and robust. He generally prefers to keep things simple and doesn’t resort to sonic trickery, but he took full advantage of the Borealis studio on Second-Hand, not to mention the talents of his longtime pal, David Woodhead. Woodhead wields his bass like a lead guitar on “GatheringStorm.” It’s a song that will resonate with all of us who long ago left our hometowns and experience decidedly mixed feelings when we pay visits to changed landscapes. Instead of a sugarcoated nostalgia trip, Keelaghan offers a ledger of benefits, losses, and values that endure. That’s quite a feat in three minutes and twenty seconds.


There are other unexpected treats. He kicks off the record with the hopeful “Walk On,” but serves it as if it’s a cousin of the famed jazz/blues standard “St. James Infirmary.” Later there is a fine cover of Jesse Winchester’s “Eulalie.” Keelaghan croons his way through the “Gave It All Away,” a wistful song of loss with a lovely melody. You might detect some stylings evocative of Old Blue Eyes, which is probably not coincidental from a guy who once gave his dog the name Sinatra. Still another surprise is “La Cattiva Strada–The Road to Ruin,” his translation from the Italian of a 1975 song of those who made bad choices and seek redemption.


Longtime fans–and I’ve been one since his Larkin was shiny and new–will find plenty of “classic” Keelaghan. He personifies his native province on “Alberta” to the degree that one could easily wonder if his is a mash note to Western Canada or a lover. And what would a Keelaghan album be without a bit of righteous anger? “Just a Letter” has a waltzing wrapper, but the song takes up the cause of a friend who was sexually assaulted when she was younger and now suffers the yearly indignity of a request for her feelings on his parole request. There is no parole for the doomed man in “Before the Morning Sun,” a powerful tale of a man who takes his view of justice into his own hands and offers no apologies for it.


In all, there are ten splendid offerings and the album ends with the gorgeous “The Benefits of Surrender.” After an opening riff evocative of that of his famed weepie “Jenny Bryce,” he settles into a confessional of his need to let go of self-constructed exteriors: I’ve been building walls instead of hanging windows/Hunkered down and hidden, I’ve been living in limbo.


By my reckoning this is the first Keelaghan collection of new material in 13 years. I sincerely hope he was working on still more songs during the lockdown. I don’t want to wait so long for the next installment.


Rob Weir


Chalk and Other Ephemeral Art


I was walking downtown last week when I spied the ghost image of a piece of chalk art from a late summer display. I had forgotten that I took some pictures of this year’s chalk art fest, perhaps because most of the work wasn’t as striking as that of previous years.


Below are some shots I took, but first let’s consider ephemeral art. It has been in the news the past few years because of a stunt the street artist Banksy pulled. He produced a work titled “Girl with a Balloon” that fetched a million pounds sterling at a London auction in 2016. It had a shredder built into the frame that sliced the art work to ribbons. Amazingly, the buyer did not demand a refund. Now, we know why. It went back on the auction block in 2021 and Sotheby’s got a stunning $25.4 million for it, proving that being rich doesn’t necessarily come with ten cents’ worth of intelligence.


On another level, though, it’s not like Banksy invented ephemeral art, that which is made for its own sake and not built to last. Environmental artists like the amazing Andy Goldsworthy use organic materials such as vines, leaves, and other vegetation that have a short lifespan. Or perhaps you’ve been to the beach during one of those jaw-dropping sand sculpting contests; or just ogled the sand castles and forts built by kids.


There are other forms of ephemeral art, including carving fruits and vegetables. October, of course, is the month for creative pumpkin carving–just like early fall agricultural fairs where people get creative in making figures out of butter. Or the winter in which chainsaws will fashion magic from blocks of ice.


You name it and someone has made art from it. Corn stalk mazes have become a thing and I’ve also seen people coax patterns and figures from mowing their grass or raking their leaves. Some barbers do the same with hair. Flower arranging is ephemeral, and even shorter-lived materials such as ice cream and chocolate are creatively arranged.


Perhaps the two most creative of all have spiritual roots. Karesansui is associated with Japanese Zen Buddhism. It involves raking small pebbles into patterns and has to be tended constantly as weather alters it, but the raking itself is a form of meditation. So too is the making of mandala art, the use of colored sand among Hindus and Buddhists. These elaborate geometric figures are meant to be destroyed shortly after they are completed.


I’m rather glad I forgot about my snapshots until now. So maybe this year’s chalk art was not as uniformly remarkable as that of past years, but does it matter? It was never made to last. Both Ralph Waldo Emerson or TS Eliot have been credited with variants of the quote, “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey that counts.” It’s likely neither of them came up with it; it’s an ancient practice. Not all art has to hang on walls.






Tin Men a Capsule of a Changing America



TIN MEN (1987)

Directed by Barry Levinson

Touchstone/Buena Vista, 112 minutes, R (language, booze, drugs, infidelity)





I recently gave a talk at the Three Sisters Sanctuary, whose roadside entrance features a giant tin figure. So, naturally, I viewed the 1980s comedy Tin Men. In this case, the term tin men references a long-gone practice of door-to-door salesmen (almost always men) trying to entice homeowners to re-side their dwellings in aluminum. I recall two tin men hit my childhood neighborhood in the 1960s, which was weird given that we and everyone else in the neighborhood lived in down-market rented concrete block duplexes. No sales there!


Tin Men was the second film in director Barry Levinson’s Baltimore quadrilogy; the first, Diner (1982) is considered his masterpiece, but Tin Men is also funny and a slice of 1980s social history. Bill Babowsky (Richard Dreyfuss) drives his brand-new Cadillac off the lot ­and straight into a Caddy owned by a rival, Ernest Tilly (Danny DeVito). This touches off an escalating vendetta between the two at a time in which older it’s-a-man’s-world norms are crumbling in ways paralleling aluminum siding sales. Yet, Levinson’s Baltimore is a place where second wave feminism has just begun to send ripples across the Chesapeake Bay and there’s no sign of the tidal wave on its way. After exhausting bar confrontations and innovative ways to antagonize each other Babowsky, a confirmed playboy, ups the ante by seducing Tilly’s wife (Barbara Hershey). There’s a layered story about how this develops, though I will say that it was supposed to be settled by a pool match, but very little is settled between two guys so hardheaded we suspect their noggins are made of granite.


The domestic part of the movie now seems dated, but this is the part where I say that history is what it was, not how the squeamish would reinvent it. Levinson’s take on Baltimore’s delayed embrace of change was especially true of working-class families of the 1970s/early 80s, many of whom saw feminism as middle-class nonsense. That too was about to change; comedy aside, Levison’s film is about what is fading and emerging.


That was true of salesmanship as well. Door-to-door sales practices were rife with high-pressure tactics, dishonesty, and outright fraud. In part this was because many of those pounding the sidewalks were paid entirely or mostly on commission. You don’t have to be an economist to know that no sales = no paycheck, a condition Tilly knew firsthand. It’s no wonder that regulatory agencies investigated unfair labor practices on the part of both sales staff and the companies for which they toiled. Tin Men is, thus, the story of a “sunset industry,” the term given to work in the process of disappearing.


The history lessons aside, Tin Men is an amusing movie. Few actors play the short guy with a sharp tongue, swagger, and irreverence with the verve of Danny DeVito. In Tin Men, though, Richard Dreyfuss is a worthy adversary. He’s oily, arrogant, and stubborn, though not quite as emotionally bullet-proof as he believes. Barbara Hershey is also quite good in a tough role. On one level she has to play pawn to male games, but she deftly shows how stupid male tricks left the door open for subtle and clever manipulation. In other words, the battle of the sexes wasn't as one-sided as advertised.


If you can cruise past bad 1980s clothing, shopworn values, and the very idea that a big Cadillac once conferred status, Tin Men will both edify and make you chuckle.  For what it’s worth, the soundtrack is from Fine Young Cannibals. They too were all the rage in the early- to mid-1980s.


Pay attention to what Babowski and Tilly consider next when their tin men careers come to an inglorious end. Stagflation loomed on the horizon, Caddies were out, and adjustments were necessary. 


Rob Weir