Paul Quarrington and I are driving to Kingston to do readings at a prestigious book event. Close friends since 1965, we are an odd pair on this brilliantly sunny morning in the spring of 2008. Paul has this nagging cough, and a hoarse voice, which I assume to be singer’s anxiety, as we were both slated to buttress our book readings with a handful of original songs. While I am physically healthy, I’m an emotional train wreck: going through what can kindly be described as an intensely manic period, talking faster than Howard Stern on speed. Leaving Toronto, Paul asks me a question about a certain bestselling female author’s sexual proclivities. I enthusiastically venture an opinion. Or rather a soliloquy. I’m still talking, three hours later, as Kingston looms ahead. And no closer to answering.
“You feeling okay?” Paul finally asks.
“My shrink says I suffer from cognitive dissonance.”
“Oh, you have a shrink!”
“Yeah, he said if I keep carrying on in lunatic fashion he’s going to shut me down.”
Paul squints back at me, impressed. Something about power struggles between creative maniacs and shrinks resonates with him. As per usual, he one-ups my shrink story with one of his own.
“Well, Danny boy, I wrote the longest erotic scene in the history of Canadian fiction and my two female editors marked up my pages with two complaints. ‘Too much ball cupping. And the couples change positions too many times.’ They pissed me off so much I ended up seeing a shrink. He told me, ‘It’s your book, with your name as the sole author, so write whatever you want.’ ” (Paul, a Governor General’s Award-winning author, was smart and tough enough to keep his erotic passage intact, and went on to secure a Giller Prize nomination for this novel, Galveston.)
Once we get to city hall, Paul, weakened by three hours of coughing and listening to me prattle on, can’t quite muster the strength to carry his gear. So I toss the two guitar straps over my shoulders and we make our way in. Because my real job is singing my songs to a paying audience, the notion of reading from my newly released book about my father and me and our complex relationship, while sharing the company of three esteemed authors, has me rattled. Fortunately, it’s been arranged that we will sing in between readings. This calms me. Somewhat.
But my anxiety rockets when we hear the new plan. The reading and the singing will happen at separate times. In the music world, concerts unfold strictly according to plan. But, as I’d been finding out, in the book world things keep changing by the second.
“Damn Paul, that’s not what was on the program. I can’t read without the comfort of a guitar in my lap. I’m outta here.”
“Don’t worry, Danny, I’ll take care of it.”
No question Paul is the seasoned pro here. Book readings have played a big part in his life for 30 years. Minutes later, Paul strolls back. Problem solved. The reading and singing can go down during the same 20-minute performance.
After our sound check, Paul and I walk up to the anteroom. While I stand about awkwardly, and Adrienne Clarkson goes on to novelist Gil Adamson about how much Michael Ondaatje likes Gil’s book, Paul disappears into the washroom. Fifteen minutes later, still no sign of him. Tapping gently on the door I ask, “You feeling okay?”
Minutes later Paul is on stage, riveting all of us with his opening scene from his latest novel, The Ravine.
“God, he’s amazing!” Clarkson whispers, reaching out for my hand, while I shudder, recalling our boyhood in the Toronto suburb of Don Mills, where unspeakable traumas down by the creek and culvert were a rite of passage. Once Paul scares the bejesus out of me with his reading, I scramble onstage, still shaken, and we sing a duet version of Cat Stevens’s Father and Son. The last time we’d performed it was in 1970, in a bar on Toronto’s Jarvis Street, after we’d lied about our ages in order to get hired.
“You see that old lady throwing back the beers in the corner?” Paul asks.
“Notice how she groans in agony whenever you hit your high notes?”
“You’re just jealous ’cause you can’t sing as high as I can.”
Our folksinging duo is called Quarrington/Hill. Paul is 16, a year older and with a lot more guitar tricks under his belt. But I can sing my ass off, and, like Paul, have a natural flair for lyric writing and chord slinging. So the two of us really click as a songwriting team. Alas, competitive as only teenage boys can be, we never miss an opportunity to take the piss out of each other: Paul needling me over my histrionic vocals while my brother Larry and I gang up to tell him rhyming to someone’s name is cheating. “What about ‘Michelle, ma belle’?” comes Paul’s snappish comeback.
“Tell you what, Paul, when you’ve written as many hits as McCartney then you’re allowed to cheat rhyme,” my brother and I taunt, our words in such perfect sync that you’d think we’d rehearsed our cheap shot.
My brother and Paul could argue like this for hours. Outclassed, out-articulated, out everything, I’d just strum my guitar and watch these two precocious brainiacs go at it, throwing in the odd insult to keep things humming along. In Don Mills in the sixties, nothing comes close to the humiliation of losing an argument. In our weird little creative circle, no one cares who has faster fists, but to lose an argument suggests inferior intelligence. When Paul wins the coveted CBC-sponsored Canada Reads novel of the year in ’08 (with King Leary) and Larry wins with The Book of Negroes the following year, I don’t see two writing geniuses, I see two stubborn kids whose idea of fun on a Friday night was to argue ad nauseam.
Paul and I, the cocky 1969-70 songwriting team, are bursting with creativity crossed with raging (read testy) testosterone. Every vocal, every collaborated lyric line and chord progression we squabble over as though the world could end. Our insult skills—Don Rickles has nothing on us—are more evolved than our songwriting. Part of me still smarts from Paul rejecting me, five years earlier, when I’d auditioned to be the lead singer in his band.
“We’re a funk band,” Paul had stated incredulously, baffled as to how a 10-year-old kid could sing an entire catalogue of Frank Sinatra.
“You should see if Robert Goulet needs a backup singer, that’s more your style.”
I remind Paul that I sang lead in his younger brother Joel’s band (called the Hi-fi Tweeters), and can rock out the Beatles and the Dave Clark Five catalogue better than any other kid in Don Mills.
“Come back when you’ve learned some Wilson Pickett,” Paul advises, ushering me out his front door.
Two weeks after Kingston, he calls. “Hey Danny, guess where I am?”
Paul’s voice, always brimming with a sly mischief, sounds different, almost hollow with the hint of an echo, as though he’s talking from some deep cave.
“I dunno. Celebrating the completion of your book on songwriting with Bob Dylan?”
“I’m in East York hospital. I’ve got eight litres of fluid in my lungs.”
“Yeah, I kinda . . .” cough, cough . . .“well, I couldn’t breathe so I checked myself into emergency.”
“Sounds like pneumonia or pleurisy. Have they drained the fluid? Do you want me to swing by? I’m only a couple miles away.”
“Naaa. They’re about to run a battery of tests. They say there’s a small chance I may have cancer.”
“Trust me Paul, you don’t have cancer. My dad had the same thing. Pleurisy or some such. You just need to rest. Like, for a year.”
The thing about Paul is that he’s one strong son of a bitch. A couple of years ago I literally crossed paths with him on a humid August day while cycling on the Don Valley bike trail, which winds and undulates beautifully from Lake Ontario for 30 km, before it concludes just beyond the regal Sunnybrook horse stables.
Paul glares at me as I streak by him on the downslope of a dangerously narrow and rickety bridge, my left shoulder brushing his right at 30 km an hour. Paul, maturely, is walking his bike up the bridge.
“Hot dog!” I hear him murmur, not recognizing him (we are both wearing helmets) until I pick up his Don Mills accent.
“You cycle like an asshole,” Paul says, cheerfully, as we buckle back toward each other, wipe the sweat off our foreheads and decide to ride together.
We reminisce about the time Paul lived at my house when, already a published author, he was working as a security guard to support his writing habit. I remind Paul of how blindingly red and perfectly pressed and white-buttoned his security uniform was—presumably to scare away potential robbers—and how my wife, Bev, convinced one of her friends that I’d hired Paul to be her bodyguard when I was touring, as well as keeping an eye on her, should she decide to get too friendly with any of the local Toronto Beaches studs.
Paul is fit and agile, taking swooping turns around posts and gates at close angles while I have to hop off my bike and walk the turns, for fear I hit something and fly ass over tea kettle. (I’d knocked out two front teeth and had been ambulanced to hospital earlier that summer, courtesy of speed-cycling into a car, and had since dropped my kamikaze Lance Armstrong pose. Except on bridges.)
As we start back Paul looks like he could cycle for another 12 hours. I, on the other hand, am feeling weak and shaky, and consider asking him to double-ride me home. Don Mills pride gets the best of me and, feeling a stab of envy that Paul is so much stronger than me, we cycle off on our routes home.
“It’s lung cancer.” Paul’s voice, usually animated and cheery, sounds unusually flat, like he’s giving me the latest weather report. Two weeks have passed since Paul checked himself into East York General. Though we’d stayed in constant touch, I had thought it best not to badger him about his health.
“Get a second opinion.”
“This is the second opinion, or third, I’ve lost count.”
“How far has your cancer progressed?”
A month or so later, I’m in Nashville, recording a new album with my old childhood friend, Matt McCauley, and Fred Mollin. Matt, Paul and I grew up together in Don Mills. In fact, the three of us, along with my brother, were seen as weird, freakish nerds: lost in our world of music and books and writing. The Don Mills cool kids regarded us warily, like some alien species. Matt was a downright prodigy; scoring music for movies and TV shows when he was 14; later (with Fred) he produced my first four hit albums in the ’70s.
Now, 30 years later, we are reuniting to make a new album, and I fill Matt in on Paul’s health situation.
“Damn, we gotta get him to Nashville,” Matt mutters, already thinking ahead.
And so, in August of ’09, Paul, his brother Joel and I are camped out at the Nashville Marriott at Vanderbilt University. Paul and Joel are filming everything for a movie special Bravo! will air on Paul. The brothers are sucking in the entire Nashville experience: southern restaurants, Country Music Hall of Fame, songwriter-in-the-round sets at the Bluebird café. Paul knows this will be his only chance to see Nashville; later Joel will tell me it was the highlight of his brother’s last year. Paul’s infectious enthusiasm is matched by his increasingly macabre humour. He jokes about how James Brown had been “treated to” three wardrobe changes in his coffin, and makes it clear to me he wants the same treatment.
“Let’s write a gospel song,” Paul says, coming into my room and spying my two guitars in the corner. “You know, a song about dying.” I look over at him, not sure if this is another of his morbid jokes. But no, Paul has that faraway look, as though he’s already hearing the song in his head. I am in the midst of juggling three new songs with various hotshot Nashville writers and the thought of plunging into a fourth doesn’t thrill me. And a song about Paul dying of lung cancer? With me, Mr. Love Song, über-romantic writer for the world’s mainstream pop stars? But Paul, my closest friend, will likely not see the summer of 2010 and he’s bent on writing a song about his terminal cancer, sounding curiously excited about such a left-field creative endeavour.
“Sure, Paul, whatever,” I murmur, flicking my tape recorder on so as to catch the entire writing process. Living with Paul in Nashville, I can see how deeply his cancer has spread. He can’t walk five steps without stopping to catch his breath, and stairs are anathema. But now he’s already lost in a gorgeous chord progression. I watch Paul’s hands glide across the guitar neck, and his suspended ninths and diminished fourths take me back to my childhood, when I would be transfixed by his musical precocity, eagerly lapping up every musical trick he had tucked up his sleeve.
Night is coming, creeping oh so close / Trying to hold it off, but still I know / It’s like trying to hold back that old freight train / Barrelling down on me, still I’m not afraid / Got this feeling that I can’t explain / Like I’m falling through the evening rain / Washing me clean, before I make my stand / Are you ready, am I ready / I believe I am.
Bam. That first verse springs out of us in about 15 minutes. Damned if I can remember who wrote what; I only remember trying my hardest not to cry. We finish the song a few months later, at Paul’s home in Toronto. Marty Worthy, Paul’s long-time musical collaborator and dear friend, contributes a middle section, and then I’m called in to finish it with Paul. The film crew is catching our every chord, the five phrases we bat around for every one we eventually settle on. I was bossy, pushy, because I’m hurting so much over Paul’s deteriorating health. Rather than own up to my pain, I simply turn hyper-opinionated. Still, the writing is flowing.
Ocean’s rising, as the sun goes down / What isn’t water, will surely drown / But I can’t hold the tide at bay, the moon will rise, gonna light my way / No one can tell me where I’m gonna be, as I sail into this mystery / I know I’m falling, don’t know where I’m gonna land / Are you ready, am I ready / I believe I am.
“You sing the first are you ready and then I sing the am I ready, I believe I am,” Paul instructs, happily, seeming to forget that this is more than a song, this is a story about his life, and his death.
When I first learn Paul has terminal lung cancer, I book an appointment with my shrink and bawl my eyes out for the entire hour.
“You have issues with abandonment,” my shrink notes, handing me not one Kleenex but the entire box. “Stems from childhood issues with your parents . . . ”
“F–k that. This ain’t about my parents. Abandonment has nothing to do with it. I’m just f–king torn up. I can’t bear to lose Paul. He’s just so damned lovable, so f–king funny and vulnerable, and so bloody curious. He notices every little thing around him, he’s got the eye, the curiosity of a little boy, I’m like a jaded old man compared to Paul. And I can’t stand the thought of him not being around. First my dad dies and now Paul . . . I can’t imagine a world without him.”
A month before Nashville, I call him up.
“What do you feel like doing, Paul? You name it, I’m game.”
“Let’s just get in a car and drive.”
We spend the drive listening to each other’s songs. It is a Friday night and there is a lightning storm flashing in the distance.
“That’s where I’m going, Danny, into the light. We should write a song about going into the light.”
How about “through the light”? I offer.
“Nope, where I’m headed, there’s no going ‘through the light.’ Once I’m there, I’m not getting out.”
With half of one lung left, Paul cuts his vocal to Are You Ready. Always a great baritone singer, with an authentic, lived-in voice, Paul makes his vocal on Are You Ready a thing of wonder. How the hell can he sing like that, with such purity of tone and bang-on phrasing, while affixed to an oxygen machine, with two tubes going up his nostrils? In Nashville, Matt and Fred—with Matt covering every cent of the cost—overdub a plangent acoustic guitar, accordion, and pedal steel, giving Paul’s voice, and the chords, more poignancy than I can bear to listen to. I sing harmonies, for one version; in another I swap lead vocals with Paul, turning Are You Ready into a duet. Paul, the greatest contributor to this song, turns it into something universal. We all have to be ready at some point, ready to cross to the other side.
And we all have to be ready to lose loved ones. Throughout my vocal session in Nashville, I approach singing Are You Ready the same way I approached co-writing it. Professionally. As a craftsman. If I think too hard about what I am writing and singing about, I will never make it through the song. And when you cry, your vocal chords swell up, you sound like a foghorn, you can’t do any serious singing. Paul is the gutsiest guy I’ve ever known. The least I can do is save my sobbing for when I’m out of the studio, out of Nashville, in the safety of my shrink’s office, as he waxes supreme about my so-called abandonment issues.
I don’t feel abandoned by Paul, as he grows weaker. Nor do I feel abandoned by Paul now that he has died. I just feel crushed and heartbroken and utterly alone.
Paul Quarrington died Jan. 21, 10 days after he overdubbed his final vocals on Are You Ready. Like the song, this article, too, was meant to be a collaboration between two old friends. Are You Ready will be featured in the documentary Bravo! film, Paul Quarrington: Life in Music. Readers can stream both versions of the song below. Donations can be made to the Quarrington Art Society, a charitable organization that will provide scholarships to children showing talent in the arts.
Solo: Paul Quarrington