The ‘Spirit’ of change

When The Tragically Hip’s frontman Gord Downie lost his cancer battle two years ago, it was hard to ignore the accompanying national outpouring of grief.

And yet, as I reflect on last week’s passing of John Mann, the long-time lead singer of Spirit of the West, I find myself having a more personal and emotional connection with this group and the man who was arguably its heart and soul.

Spirit of the West coloured my college years in Halifax in the early ‘90s. Their lively folk-Celtic-rock sound seemed to be everywhere – in campus pubs, university dances, dorm-room stereos, college coffee houses, and pubs spread around the city. Having already carved out a niche for themselves in Western and Central Canada in the back half of the ‘80s, the Vancouver group seemed ready-made for both Atlantic Canadian audiences and the worldwide Celtic revival that kick-started at the decade’s end.

And yet, Mann’s distinctive voice and the driving energy brought to songs like “Political,” “D For Democracy (Scour The House)” and “Putting Up With The Joneses” wasn’t square-dance stuff. These folks had something to say, and their voice became that of a generation reconnecting with its roots while aiming to change the world.

Not surprisingly, that generation embraced “Home For A Rest,” the platinum-selling tale of a drunken spree through England that was inspired by Spirit of the West’s first tour of the country. A frosh-week favourite at campuses across Canada, it’s still a beloved classic and has been covered by dozens of North American bands. (I’ll take this opportunity to give a shout-out to my friends in Jug In Hand, who delivered a stellar and faithful arrangement of the song on their third album, Delirium.)

How big was Spirit of the West? Nearly a decade after I graduated from King’s College, I was asked to provide canned music for the Richmond Academy High School Hockey Tournament, a gig that I thoroughly enjoyed for five years. Early on a Sunday morning, as we awaited the arrival of the first two teams to compete that day, I decided to let “Home For A Rest” run in its entirety.

Not only did the folks in the stands get into it, but two of the officials for that game did a little dance on the edge of the ice. In their skates. At the risk of venturing into cliché territory, it doesn’t get much more Canadian than that.

Spirit of the West often defied description and found fans well outside what many would have described as their signature style. In 1990, I became friends with a true headbanger, a heavy metal fan throughout her teenage and young adult years who sent me several mixtapes of her hard-rockin’ favourites. Imagine my surprise when the fifth of these collections slipped in two Spirit of the West songs, which stood out amongst louder, grittier tracks from the likes of Megadeth, Metallica, Anthrax, Alice Cooper, Nirvana and Faith No More.

The Spirit of the West song that truly brings me hurtling back to the ‘90s, however, is an up-tempo tribute to expatriate Scots, “The Old Sod” – but not for the reason you might expect.

In my third year at the King’s School of Journalism, I prepared a report for my radio class that involved a public display by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance of Dalhousie (GLAD). Fed up with alleged harassment from patrons at licensed events and venues, GLAD held a “Gay-In” at Dal’s campus pub, The Grawood, to take a stand against the prejudice they had experienced during their years in Halifax. With their permission, I trotted along, microphone in hand, to what was a largely (and mercifully) quiet evening despite the raucous chattering of a typical university watering hole.

At one point, I turned on my recorder and captured some ambient “pub sound” to run underneath my interview clips and narration. When I got home, it somehow felt right to go with “The Old Sod,” since the song – and Spirit of the West itself – seemed so intrinsic to the Atlantic Canadian campus experience in that day and age.

I suspect that John Mann and his bandmates could possibly be heartbroken that I used one of their most beloved songs to help depict a scene that was uneasy at best and downright terrifying and oppressive at its worst. (For the record, I have never seen any derogatory treatment of the LGBTQ1 community at The Grawood or any Halifax pub I have ever visited.)

But as we say goodbye to Mann after his lengthy and brave battle with Alzheimer’s, I hope we’ll remember Spirit of the West for their own musical search for justice, and for a body of work that has interwoven itself into our Canadian experience, in good times and bad.