Back in early July I received a call from Ron Hynes’ manager Lynn Horne. She was wondering if I could play bass with Ron at the Ferryland Folk Festival on July 23. I had that date free and happily accepted the gig. I’d always enjoyed the times I played with Ron in a full-band context. Playing with Ron is always a mixture of fun and fright. His songs are so good that you can’t help being excited about playing them, yet you feel the full weight of the aura that stems from his undeniable talent.
My other gigs with Ron had been on guitar and steel, but this would be my first full show with him on bass. I had played a few songs on bass with him at the Seahorse Tavern in Halifax during the Atlantic Film Festival several years ago, but the tunes on that night were well-known favourites with no rehearsal necessary. This Ferryland show would require a good bit of practice because there were several newer Ron songs I had not played before. So Lynn emailed me the MP3’s and I went to work in my music room with bass in hand.
One of the songs that struck me while practicing was “Sawchuk” from his latest album Stealing Genius. I had heard the song several times before and admired both its wordplay and novel take on a hockey legend whom I’d never heard of before. In fact I have little clue about any aspect of hockey at all. The last full game of hockey I watched was probably in 1983 when I was a kid; this is not an exaggeration. Pretty much everything else went out the window when I starting playing music at 13 years old, including sports of any kind. I had sort of figured Ron was the same way, but my ears perked up the first time I heard his song about a hockey player. I thought it was a brave topic to tackle poetically.
After the necessary repeated listens to learn the bass part, I soon became very enamoured with the song. The lyrics would not leave my mind. I found myself humming and singing it day and night, almost obsessively. There was something rough and raw about it; I could yell the vocal and really get that Ron growl going in the kitchen while making supper or doing the dishes. I started to revel in singing it out loud, doing that semi-spoken word style in my best Ron impression. I was driving the family crazy, but I just couldn’t get enough.
As I mulled over rhymes, passages, images, and metaphors, I started to realize this song’s great poetic merit. Now I am well aware of Ron’s abilities to write as poetic a lyric as many of the greats who’ve come before him; Ron is indeed a member of that hallowed club. But this hockey song at a casual distance seemed to be more about capturing a moment in time or depicting the struggles of an athlete almost documentarily. This too has its merit, but it need not always be poetic. This, of course, was my initial take on “Sawchuk” before it took hold of my psyche and wouldn’t let go.
The Ferryland gig didn’t happen. Ron’s throat was giving him trouble so he cancelled a few dates to get a checkup at the doctor. I was disappointed that I wouldn’t get to play with him, but was also relieved that he was giving his throat the attention that it deserved. It turns out that the doctors found some Cancer, so Ron had to indefinitely postpone most of his gigs – except a WGB show at Mile One in August – to seek treatment. I missed seeing this show because I was in Europe with my wife on our honeymoon. And she can attest to the fact that all I sang on the cruise ship through Norway was “Sawchuk,” while thinking intensely of Ron and the turmoil he must have been going through in the wake of his doctor’s news.
Like many characters in classic poems, Terry Sawchuk has a unifying focal point that he carries through the work. In this case it’s his brother, an aspiring hockey player, who dies of a “mystery pain,” after which Sawchuk “brought home the bruises.” This act of bringing home bruises is metaphorical and conjures up the image of Sawchuk figuratively carrying home bruises in a box or bag as an offering to his family to help them understand his chosen path. He also starts collecting scars on his face and body. These also symbolize his inner scars – particularly stemming from the loss of his brother. He wears his brother’s pants on the train as he makes his way east from his native “Manitoba skies” to the junior training camps of Ontario. In a way he is fulfilling both his but also his brother’s goal to play professional hockey. And his brother comes to him in visions as Sawchuk climbs to high standing in the NHL, playing for two decades as one of the leagues most celebrated goalies. Only donning a mask for the latter part of his career, Sawchuk’s face became a leathery mask of disfiguration. Relentless against the puck that “feels like a brick,” Sawchuk would “foil the Rocket and frustrate Hull.” This was perhaps his crowning achievement; even the best players in the history of the league couldn’t get the puck past him.
Sawchuk’s physical appearance can be likened to a soldier in a war. And Ron depicts this dynamic by using the lines, “wave upon wave they’d attack” and “he was in his own world war.” Like Townes Van Zandt, Ron’s not afraid to use body parts in a stark manner as he states that Sawchuk takes the puck “on the chest or in the skull.” He also uses sports references such as “sudden death” to represent something deeper than a simple rule of the game. The game is bigger than hockey. The game is Sawchuk’s life, and that life was far from easy. This ties in with the line in the refrain: “so you try to see the shot before it leaves the stick.” It is not only about a hockey strategy, however. It is about wits, intuition, courage, and opportunity. However, in some ways Sawchuk was unable to use his crystal ball vision off the ice in his personal life. How Ron layers the images to reflect both hockey and life is at the core of what makes this a fantastic poetic work. The song personifies the league’s teams: Sawhuk “breaks Boston’s heart,” “cheats the Hawks,” and “leaves the Habs in disbelief.” Ron finds a way to assign these human emotions to the hockey rink, and we feel the exaggerated effect of a seemingly supernatural goalie holding sway over the concerted efforts of full teams.
One of the standout lines in “Sawchuk” occurs as the goalie’s career takes a downward slide with a decisive trade to Boston: “Olympia in slow decline, or something darker biding time.” Here the intersection of hockey and life again meet, showing that an involuntary career move can affect much more than a simple career. Sawchuk took to heavy drinking as his career dwindled, ending his days following a drunken brawl that left him in hospital with complications. He died at 40 years old of a pulmonary embolism, but Ron simply writes that Terry’s “heart caves in.”
The life of Terry Sawchuk plays itself out even in today’s hockey where tragedy and personal demons are plentiful and well-documented. But Sawchuk played hockey in a time when it was taboo to discuss addictions or depression. Even physical illness was supposed to be repressed in efforts to not be taken off the ice or otherwise relegated to the back lines. As I’ve already mentioned, the song is a metaphor for the struggles of life and how we negotiate the triumphs as well as the inevitable tragedies.
While writing this piece I came across an interview with Ron about “Sawchuk.” He mentions that he was inspired to write this song after reading Randall Magg’s collection of poems Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems, a book of poems dedicated to the famous goalie. Now, I thought to myself, it all makes sense. Ron too must have felt the allure of the poetics of hockey, and decided to express it lyrically.
I wish I had been able to play bass with Ron in Ferryland, but alas it was not to be. However, I am glad that he is getting the treatment he needs for his illness. On September 30 at the Delta Ballroom, many musicians will be gathering to celebrate Ron with a benefit called “Rally for Ron” which will provide him with the funds necessary to overcome his illness in comfort and with confidence. I will be singing “Sawchuk” as part of that celebration. I am also teaching this song in my English class at MUN this semester.