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In My Own Key: My Life in Love and Music

by Liona Boyd

On a Personal Note

by Rita MacNeil with Anne Simpson

On grade 2 talent day, I stood before the class in kilt and Anne Shirley puffed sleeves to sing “My Favourite Things,” which I’d memorized off a scratchy Sound of Music album. I remembered all 1,200 verses. Mrs. Pederson asked, “How did you do that?” and looked at me with suspicion, or envy. Little Keith Stansfield, who would be my first boyfriend in Grade 8, sat in the first seat, first row, and shouted “encore!” I did “Edelweiss,” and he said, “Sing forever.”

My trembling career in music began there and ended 15 years later. Maybe in the beer parlour of Quinsam Hotel when I pushed the bartender’s brother off the stage with my cowboy boot. Could have been when the woman who’d played Williams Lake the week before me was raped by a regular who promised her coffee. For me, being a professional – making a living from music – started off humiliating and got more demeaning every year. To love something that much, and to be really good – isn’t that what it takes? Nope.

Two new autobiographies from female musicians suggest it takes more than passion and talent. Rita MacNeil is no Liona Boyd, and vice versa, but both books clear up their mysterious and weird careers. Boyd and MacNeil may be easy fodder for a hip generation’s one-liners, but with more than 30 recordings between them, and careers that jump decades and trends, so what?

MacNeil’s On a Personal Note is chatty, confessional, and sad. It is a hero’s quest narrative (without the literary loft) that begins in Cape Breton poverty. MacNeil’s childhood is populated with violent alcoholic parents, a sexually abusive uncle, scads of brothers and sisters, and school brats who ridiculed her cleft palate. As a naive 19-year-old in Toronto working at Eaton’s, she took some voice lessons and got hooked on clubs: “I went with a group from work to the Colonial Tavern. They urged me to get up and sing, so I did, belting out ‘The Wild Colonial Boy’ and ‘Ramblin’ Rose.’ Not only did they give me a standing ovation, the whole crowd went wild, shouting and banging on tables. Someone even passed a hat. It was a tremendous feeling to get that kind of reaction from an audience. I wanted more of it…I couldn’t explain it to my boyfriend.”

The boyfriend did, however, convince her to try big city sex, though the Cape Breton uncle had permanently bruised her sexuality. She endured teenage pregnancy, betrayal, more poverty, a failed marriage, the tightrope of weight gain and loss.

A couple of good songs constructed Rita MacNeil’s success, her music, and persona: the anthem “Working Man,” backed by the tearjerking miners’ choir Men of the Deeps, and “Flying on Your Own,” the one where we get to be weak and strong, stumble, fall, and then fly. Her blend of inspiring lyrics and memorable melodies, which are not sleazed up with minor chords, has attracted an international and loving audience.

The autobiography reveals more about her beginnings than the complexities of her career. It’s too simple: The music industry is gross. Gigs go bad. The sound doesn’t work. Critics judge her body more than her body of work. And as in any heroic journey, the hero returns home bringing wisdom and wealth to the community.

Liona Boyd’s parents lived in Mexico, let her smoke dope, home schooled, paid for lessons, bought good books. While the family weathered many moves and distractions, there was no poverty, either economic or emotional. She had no physical flaws (okay, she repeatedly refers to flyaway hair), and Boyd’s sexuality is certainly…big. The subtitle of In My Own Key: My Life in Love and Music is kind of a fib. She only falls in love in the last 30 pages. It would take a second read and a calculator to tally the number of men she steals, beds, turns down, or dangles before us.

In other words, as autobiography Boyd’s book is great. MacNeil’s work lacks details, compelling scenes, and gossipy anecdotes; Boyd goes 300 pages because she can’t bear to leave any country, cruise ship, or world leader out. Her journey is not heroic or tragic. She learned from the best international teachers; she partied with the world’s biggest stars; she slept with mega-men. And she ends up in Glitterville, California, not home in Toronto.

Then there’s Pierre. Boyd did him for eight years, beginning when his third child was months old and Margaret was not officially toast. (Their first tryst was at the Stockman’s Hotel in Kamloops. I played there.) I am beneficent – in a bitchy and nationalistic way – when I say the passages about Liona and Pierre are repellent, pathetic, and irresistible in their awfulness: “We paddled off to a distant corner of Lac Mousseau and swam around the canoe among pale water lilies, before hauling ourselves back into the boat to lie naked in the warm sunshine.” This is the day the RCMP had beefed up security because of death threats to our then prime minister. Boyd, however, revels in how the lovers, “flout[ed] their cautions.” When a small plane buzzed them, they both realized how “vulnerable” they were to assassination. About the red-jackets Boyd says, “I hoped that if they attempted more reconnaissance maneuvers, we would at least have some clothes on!”

Other tacky samplers include: “When I was without a warm hiking jacket or boots, Pierre lent me some of Margaret’s outfits, which she had abandoned in the hall closet. I was literally filling her shoes.”
“Any feelings of guilt quickly diminished when I realized that I was not the cause of Pierre and Margaret’s marital difficulties. In some romantic sense, I believed I was helping the leader of our country unwind from his stressful political duties…”

“Luckily for us, neither Margaret nor I were very materialistic, as generosity was hardly Pierre’s forte.”
The other men who make cameos in the book, and who she believes are intrigued by her primarily for her way around a six-string, include Fidel Castro, Prince Philip, Roger Moore, Edgar Kaiser, Henry Kissinger, and several Latin American leaders seduced by her tremolo. It is hard to sustain interest for her life except in a prurient way.

Still, the woman appeared on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show five times and was a fixture on the American talk show circuit; she has sold tons of tunes and played for the G7 and virtually every other Canadian diplomatic event (Pierre got her a lot of gigs). Though she believes Canadian critics scorned her, international audiences, she says, recognized her virtuosity and rewarded her marathon tours with standing ovations and encores. For her, too, the industry is gross, gigs go bad, and the sound doesn’t work, but under her privileged circumstances, it is impossible to sympathize.

What can a has-been chick singer take from these two variations on a theme? Self-knowledge. I have the night in the stockbroker bar in downtown Vancouver when a bag lady threw me five bucks for “The Tennessee Waltz.” I have the hotel room in Lillooet in the early 1980s when a falling folk star offered to show me some licks on his lovely Larivee.

I’m just like them. We have nothing in common. That’s the point of autobiography.