He gets by with a little help from his friends

Stephen Harper talks with Maclean’s Editor-in-Chief Kenneth Whyte about the Beatles, stage fright and his musical debut


He gets by with a little help from his friendsQ: I read somewhere that when you were a young musician you had a problem with your hands shaking. When you walked out on stage last Saturday at the National Arts Centre with Yo-Yo Ma and a big audience, were you a little bit unsteady?

A: Well, can I tell you the whole story? It’s true I had that problem when I was young. I took piano for 10 years. I got my Grade 9 Royal Conservatory. I had a bit of talent but never enough to think about it professionally. My big problem was that, while I didn’t appear nervous, my hands shook, which obviously was fatal for any kind of pianist. I never did that well on my exams for that reason. Indirectly, this led to where I am now because at a very early age, almost from the first time I ever gave a public speech at school, I spoke without notes so nobody would notice I was nervous.

Q: You just kept your hands at your side or in your pockets or something?

A: Yeah. Or just put them on the podium. They didn’t shake so bad that you’d notice it unless I was holding papers or something. So that was one fear. I haven’t performed music in front of a crowd since I was probably 11 years old, so I was worried, “Jeez, will this come back? Will I get this shaking?” But no. I mean, I was nervous, don’t get me wrong, but I didn’t have any hand shakes. I was just a bit stiff. Now, the band had told me—when we were rehearsing, they said, “Look, if at any point you get uneasy about the piano part, or your hands, just sing. Nobody’s going to care, just sing.” So that was the backup plan. But no, in the end my hands were okay.

Q: How often did you rehearse?

A: We did three or four band rehearsals and then I did a little bit late at night every night, but as I said to Laureen, if we’d had another week I would have been able to play without concentrating so hard on what I was doing. I could have just performed and not worried about whether I was hitting the chords or the notes right. But that’s all we had.

Q: What’s your best memory of the performance, of the evening?

A: Probably just when we ended, and the great crowd reaction, and the sense of relief. I have to say that as we played I started to get into it after a bit, and the crowd was kind of right into it from the beginning, so that all helped.

Q: Well, you’ve been a politician for decades, and one who’s always been criticized for not showing a softer or more human side—why did you wait so long to break out this talent?

A: You have to remember that after I got my Grade 9 Royal Conservatory, I didn’t play. I played the piano hardly at all for almost 30 years. I only started to get back into it a bit when my son Ben started to pick up the guitar and he wanted me to accompany him, so I’d play a few chords. And then Roger Charbonneau, our house manager and a great musician, he would play guitar and fiddle at house parties we would have, and I would sing with him. And over the last couple of years, it got bigger and bigger where we had other friends in who were singing, friends of ours who played some instruments, and then my wife brought in these professional musicians to back me up at our at-home jam sessions. And she kept saying, “Oh, you should perform some time,” and I just said, “I’m not good enough.” But then when she pushed me kind of in the lead-up to this event I thought, “Well, I’ll bring the band over, see what they think.” So I sort of fell into this thing, in the same way I fell into this whole job, with Laureen pushing me to do it and me thinking, “Well, you know, if people think we can pull it off, let’s try. Otherwise I’ll be looking back saying I wish I’d tried.”

Q: You chose a Beatles song—With a Little Help From My Friends—and you’ve been a Beatles fan all your life. What’s the attraction? Why the Beatles?

A: First of all, just on the song, we picked it for a bunch of reasons but the biggest was we only had a week, so we picked something that was catchy, fun, within my vocal range but also not a lot of complicated beats or chord changes, and obviously it fit the scenario in that it’s the classic nobody-knows-you-can-sing song. But why? I mean, I’m just a huge fan of the Beatles, I always have been since I was small.

Q: From what I know of you you’re never casual about things that you do, and I can’t imagine you’re a casual fan of the Beatles. You know quite a lot about them?

A: Yeah. I know less about pop music than a lot of people think I do, but I know the Beatles inside out.

Q: What’s your least favourite Beatles song?

A: Funny, I thought you might ask me that. Probably Revolution 9, because I don’t really consider it a song. I agree it’s an interesting piece of work. I don’t really put it in the category of a song, so that would probably be my least favourite.

Q: Favourite?

A: You know, I’ve got so many I love, but probably in the end Hey Jude is my favourite.

Q: Why?

A: It’s just a magnificent piece of work. It’s a great tune, it has great production, it’s really uplifting. I’d say it’s one of those perfect records, you know? There are a lot of great songs but there’s only a handful of records I’d say are just absolutely perfect, that could not have been better. And that’d be one of them.

Q: The age-old question, Lennon or McCartney—who do you prefer?

A: Well, if forced to choose, I would say Lennon, but my actual analysis is that it’s a combination. I think that’s what everybody who has that argument is really missing, that the Beatles were, at the core, Lennon and McCartney, not Lennon plus McCartney or vice versa, but Lennon and McCartney together. And while both are great artists and musicians in their own right, they were never as good without the collaboration and the competition that created their special symbiotic relationship.

Q: Lennon once said that if more politicians in the world were like Pierre Trudeau we’d have world peace. What’s your response to that?

A: You know, the funny thing is—most people wouldn’t believe this—in a strange way I’m a big admirer of John Lennon but obviously I don’t share his politics. Although, if you know much about John Lennon, his politics were not quite as fixed as people think, his politics shifted around a fair bit. Look, I know that when a lot of musicians are singing they’re trying to get a political message out. I’m a politician: when I’m singing I’m just singing. I got no political message.

Q: I know you like classic rock but do you like any music from the last 20 years?

A: I don’t want to say anything trashing music from the last 20 years because it’s not that I dislike it, I just probably haven’t given it much of a chance. Laureen actually listens to music a lot more than I do—I just don’t have the time. But I still tend to like stuff in the rock vein. I loved the Alanis Morissette album Jagged Little Pill, loved it. I like Blue Rodeo. I like Nickelback.

Q: You play when you’re at home, and I understand you play on the road sometimes if you can get a piano in your room. What do you play when you’re by yourself?

A: It’s almost always a series of Beatles tunes, a few other songs from classic rock, the ’50s to ’70s kind of era, the stuff that I know.

Q: How often are you able to play?

A: Laureen claims I play almost every day. That’s not true, but probably every other day I play an hour or so. I don’t do scales or any practising. I just sit down and fool around.

Q: What do you get out of it? How does it make you feel?

A: I’ve always had a kind of peculiar relationship with music. I love playing music in some ways, and I sit down, I relax, but I really get into it, I get lost in it. On the other hand, it isn’t long before I start to get perfectionist about it and, you know, start to maybe . . . well, it becomes less than relaxing.

Q: You’ve taken some heat in the political arena for speaking dismissively of fancy arts galas where artists take the stage to beg for higher subsidies. Was your performance at the National Arts Centre gala intended as some sort of gesture to the arts community? Was there a political message behind it?

A: Well, I certainly wasn’t there to complain about my salary. No, look, I’ve never had anything but respect for artists. That’s not the issue. I was just there singing a song. As I said, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so I thought, “Well, while we’re on this bandwagon, let’s ride it.”

Q: You’ve done a lot of other things over the years to show a non-political face, a more human dimension of yourself—everything from flipping pancakes to comedy skits. Why do you think this particular performance has resonated the way it has?

A: I’m not sure. I’d probably have to go watch it. I haven’t. I hate seeing myself on television and I haven’t actually gone and watched it. I just saw one 10-second clip but it did capture the electricity in the room. We were surprised at the response, at how kind of crazy it got. Obviously we thought people would notice, we’d get some coverage, but this is much, much bigger than we expected. It was just a wonderful reception.

Q: Why don’t you like seeing yourself on television?

A: I don’t know. Maybe it’s the perfectionist in me. Also, I find it like an out-of-body experience. It’s like watching somebody imitating me. It makes me very uncomfortable. Maybe it’s the shy side of my personality or something. But I don’t watch any Canadian news—I don’t want to see myself on television. But I guess I’ll watch this one.


He gets by with a little help from his friends

  1. I'm not habitually critcal of Macleans or of journalists generally, but this is too much. Whytes' fawning interviews are like the yearly visit to the dentist – you just have to suck it up. Still, when viewed in the light of the print editions over the top coverage i guess it was inevitable that a whyte shmoz with the Boss would be along in good order.

    "I was just there singing a song. As I said, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so I thought, “Well, while we're on this bandwagon, let's ride it."
    Er…you just dropped by Mr H right…or were you invited…or did you just invite yourself? No political showmanship here eh? That's what i like about Steve…even when his being honest, he can't actually manage to be honest.

    • Don't worry. Unlike in the past, Whyte won't have anywhere else to go once he's finished ruining this publication.

      • Oh, he always has the Donner Family picnic. But I suppose Mr. Coyne insists on elbowing
        him at the nosh table.

    • Your bias knowa no bounds, can't you read something without looking for a hidden agenda: What the Prime Minister did had no ulterior motives: Mrs Harper came out and explained that.

      GET A LIFE

      • Ah where did she explain this? I'd love to hear the rationlization.

    • didn't one of the commenters on here just like last week ask if it wasn't close to being time for the semi-annual Ken Whyte interview/fawning chat/butt kissing with the PM? without endorsing that position – i haven't read it yet and suspect there are more segments to be released, though this hardly looks like a edgy, hard questions or informative kick-off if it sets the tone – the timing of the comment seems to be near perfect.

    • kcm can't stop hating, no matter what.

      Cry like a schoolgirl a little more. It's music to my Conservative ears.

      • Your a fool bud. Sure i complain about Harper, sometimes i even whine about him. I don't think he's good for my country and i have a right to say so – or do you dispute that? You see i's hard to tell these days – what with conbots like you being such democrats and all. All in all i'd rather stray over the line of being too critical or cynical, rather than be a butt kissing Tory toady like you.

        • I dole out shots to the left and right of me, Bud.
          Can you say the same?
          Not that I've seen.

  2. Unlike some other commenters, I thoroughly enjoy and appreciate articles like this, with at least some depiction of the person outside of the typical adversarial role. Bring on Jack and Mike, its all good. It usually restores a lot of faith in the process when you see these people in a truer reflection, even if admittedly, it is only a reflection. It also restores some faith in the media, that they are able to see past the immediate headline.

    • Funny.. I see Whyte asking him all about his absence from Canada, the coalition signing, digging for what it will take to make him call an election, accusing him of "effectively taking the leadership through a backroom deal", and you gotta love this question:

      "Q: You've quoted Machiavelli's argument about political judgment, that to be effective you have to follow principles more ruthless than those acceptable in ordinary life, and that a politician needs to know how to do wrong. What did you mean by that?" with a follow up of "You'd be murdering rivals, for starters."

      Meanwhile, the toughest thing Whyte brings to the conversation with Harper beyond knee-pads and a bib is:
      "Q: You've taken some heat in the political arena for speaking dismissively of fancy arts galas where artists take the stage to beg for higher subsidies. Was your performance at the National Arts Centre gala intended as some sort of gesture to the arts community? Was there a political message behind it?"

      Yes, obviously Whyte is aiming to give us a truer reflection of the people involved.

  3. *BARF*

  4. If this were People magazine, it would be a great piece.

    But an Editor-in-Chief doing fluff peices like this? Ugh.

  5. "I read somewhere that when you were a young musician you had a problem with your hands shaking. "

    Oh man, that's lame. Where did you read this, Ken? In Harper's diary?

  6. "I read somewhere that when you were a young musician you had a problem with your hands shaking. "

    Oh man, that's lame. Where did you read this, Ken? In Harper's diary?

  7. Also Harper was never a young man.

  8. Excellent article : now this is what I like! – the way things are no semi-snide, semi-clever and semi-attempts at digging up some deep rooted evil meany sociapathic tendency to rule the world or some such ridiculousness .. but real questions and real answers and real knowledge – I being a frustrated musician myself and knowing all too well the fear of the public … can relate in ways with Harper now, that in no way would I have imagined before . If I wasn't voting for him now I would change my vote to him – I wonder if perhaps there a e a few otherts out there as wll with this feeling ROFL – it must really suck to be liberal right now no doubt about it! – THANK YOU Kenneth I for one would like more articles like this.

    • pSICLONE Very good comment I am not a musician, but have known how difficult it is to stand before a crowd and give a debate or recital. Comments from some people are nothing more than disgusting

    • Gag!

  9. I being a frustrated musician myself and knowing all too well the fear of the public … can relate in ways with Harper now, that in no way would I have imagined before

    Steady on there, chuck.

  10. The media sure is helping him get his majority government. They are coming out with articles like this while the Tories are breaking the law with ads and handing out government cheques with their party logos…

    • Jean Chretien, the Prime Minister, yesterday said his government had nothing to apologize for in seeking to reap maximum partisan political benefit from disbursing $1-billion worth of federal job grants across Canada each year.
      He had always made sure since taking power in October, 1993, that voters were left in no doubt that it was his Liberals who were distributing such grants, he said.

      "Listen," he added, "we are the government … I don't see why we can't try to get credit for what we do. I hope we do so. There is nothing to be ashamed in that."

      • Of course, with Chretien, they actually WERE the government. Had a majority of those MP things.

      • Of course, with Chretien, they actually WERE the government. Had a majority of those MP things.
        Harper's party is not the government. It can't pass a thing without the aid of one of the other parties.

        And even in that case, what you're arguing here is that Harper is simply a pale imitation of the Liberals.
        So given the choice of scandalous governments, I'd prefer the ones that at least don't put us into deficit while running their scams.

  11. "I like Nickelback."

    This totally cancels out the goodwill Harper got from me from his fondness for Coen bros. films.

    • srs

      all other partisan games aside, people we cannot have a PM who endorses Nickelback…. for the love of gawd!!!!

  12. This is terrible. Here we have the EIC of a major political publication with a chance to talk with the head of our government, at a time when there is political instability, a recession that is yet to be officially over and a long-term deficit facing the federal books, and he talks about music?! Look, the PM's taste in music is interesting and all, but it has little, if anything to do with his job (governing the country effectively and responsibly) and far less to do with the media's job (making sure the government is doing its job).

    At a sheer minimum, a question about WHY the Conservative government cut arts funding would seem appropriate, but no, the best we get is whether the piano playing was meant as a response to those cuts.

    Look, these pieces are interesting and for those who don't have a deep-seeding contempt for Harper, probably a bit amusing too. But at some point, this magazine (and the broader media) had better start filling their role in society, which means asking some meaningful questions from the man who may control the trajectory of our country for another 3+ years! This piece would be fine, if there were occaisionally some non-fluff interviews of Harper to go along with it, but there's not. Alone, this interview is a pure shirking of journalistic responsibility.

    • Craig O the arts program was not cut, matter of fact the funding was increased it was under the Chretien/Martin era that arts funding was cut. |What the PM did was move 45 million from one area that was not productive to a more. Matter of fact the funding had been increase to about 1 billion dollars.

      • Not according to the artists.


        From the Canadian Conference of the Arts. They list $60 million in program cuts to the arts, as of last year. A billion dollar increase would be an unprecedented boost in funding to arts programs, and I've yet to heard a word about it, so I'm very skeptical of your claim.

  13. Excuse me, but isn't this story a couple of weeks old? Oh ya, the taxpayer funds your magazine gets. Suck up kiddo.

  14. You say its a fluff piece, maybe so but I find it quite interesting. We are talking about someone who has been so wildly vilified for many years in the press, opening up to explain a life long insecurity that still can come to the fore at inopportune times. It can only be instructive that he has been able to push through beyond his doubts during those times, despite possible risk of failure, knowing that to simply not try, he would see himself a greater failure. That´s being honest, candid and very refreshing.

  15. Mr. Whyte

    An excellent article – well waddaya know, PM Harper is human after all – who would have thought! The one thing that stood out in this article is that it is an unedited (I hope), un-editorialized, un-opinionated straightforward Q&A piece that gives readers rare insight into our PM as a human being; this is extremely important and valuable knowledge of the one that leads our country. It’s refreshing to get to know our PM on a more personal level; a thoroughly enjoyable read – well done (great picture too!).


  16. You Lib partisans seriously need to lighten up. Sometimes, politics has to fun, and put aside our partisan differences.

    All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, as the saying goes.

  17. Yeah right Jarrid! Any chance Whyte's next interview with Ignatieff will centre on his life long sruggle with dyslexia and how he overcame the odds? Nooo…"Do yo intend to return to Harvard in the near future…ah that's when your stint as oppo leader is up"? There Mr Whyte. you may use that one…unatributively of course.[ oh made up the dyslexia bit Mr Whyte, wouldn't use that if i was you.]

    • I once heard that he (Iggy) reads aloud to his wife because she is legally blind, I found that to be lovely! and believe me I am not and Iggy fan, though a hardcore liberal taking a forced conservative vacation…

      So sometimes, little things like this interview, makes you look at people in a different way, get to know them a little bit more….

      • I understand the sentiment. I don't particulary enjoy being cynical. So i urge you to take a look at previous Whyte interviews with the Pm and contrast with his interview with Ignatieff. With Iggy he was tough and did his job, but with Harper….yeesh!!

        • I will check the interviews, crazy busy with work lately, It's a good thing, I guess!

  18. I liked it, loved the picture!!!

  19. total waste of time, why would care about whether or not he likes the beatles, almost everyone with ears does. I am not interested in Harpers lighter side. It's his dark side that i'm worried about.

  20. One of these days, Canadians will wake up and realize that Stephen Harper is a gift to our country: someone who is a lousy politician who is sincerely trying to do a good job as prime minister. Harper is not the usual type of phoney who strives for high office. He's genuine; he cares; he strives to do the best. He's seen as stiff and clumsy, because that is part of his real personality — but he tries to do the right thing. Unlike Jean Chretien, who was a snob in private but pretended to be the common man in public, Harper usually bares all. Canadians are not accustomed to that.

    • A genuine liar, perhaps.

  21. The usual suspects are doing their usual braying at the message because it shows PM Harper in an accurate favorable light. Their whining is just getting so tiresome—–what they are saying is—-I hate Harper, but you don`t hate Harper, therefore I hate you.

    Some of the Harper-Haters seem to want you to do an interest piece on Iggy—you should. Don`t talk about politics, just about things he likes to do for fun. I know he has a cat and he`s a smart guy so the cat is probably smart and maybe knows some tricks. And he likes books so he could do a little reading—-out loud—-spice it up—make it a travel book. Oh, and he could tell that story again about the time he visited his uncle`s farm and he could smell the manure.

    • You start off by criticising Harper haters and finish by hating Ignatieff. You're an idiot William.

      • Oh little k, settle down—-you know you have lost when you start name-calling. I could never hate Iggy and I really would like him to open up—-you know, tell us about his hopes and dreams……

        • Ok i see whre you're coming fom now – sorry bout the idiot crack. The fact that the media has done human interest stories on Ignatieff is not at issue. Obviously Iggy was trying to polish his image, define himself whatever. My objection here is the consistently sucky nature of Whyte's interviews with the PM, and to a lesser extent Harper's disingenuousness in pretending there was no political upside to his performance.

    • The objections to this article aren't that it's showing Harper in a positive light (nevermind whether or not that light is accurate). Rather, it's that it's an interview of a politician, so there should be some questions about… I dunno… politics. Even better, question about legislation, seeing as he's the head of our legislature.

      Showing Harper's personable side is the job of his public relations adviser, not that of the EIC of a major publication focused on politics. Even if Whyte wanted to pander, he could have at least done so by talking about what Harper wants to do over the next few months as head of our government and leader of the country. It's not the slant of the article that's the issue, it's the content – the media is our window into the inner workings of our government, a check against their power and by talking about music rather than policy, Kenneth Whyte is simply not doing his job.

      • Did you also object to all the past articles that falsely showed the personable side of PM Harper to be mean and angry—–didn`t think so.

        • And which one might that be?

  22. this is a nauseating suck-job of an article.

  23. Look, either side is going to do the same thing no matter what party you go with,Canada is a corporation, look us up in the GSE search Canada and the first buisness that pops up is Canada Inc. We are a buisness and Harper is just the Ceo right now,Obama and him are going to bring mexico and the states as one nation by 2012 and if its not Harper it will be whoever they trick us into believeing will make a change, either side either way, we will be set for a New World Order. Ask a Christian what that means for humanity.

    please please go on youtube watch the obama Deception and make the call for yourself, to be honest, I wish I could say I think their crazy and full of it, but deep down Im scared

  24. hello my name is francisco i live in dominican republic with my parents and i studied in tha university and i don”t have the help for study my carrea and y need if you can help me because i need a better future for help my family and my parents thank you.