It’s often said an actor is an empty vessel. That doesn’t seem to apply to Gordon Pinsent. Take his charred cask of a voice. As enveloping as single malt, it sounds like it’s been steeped in more stories than the Ancient Mariner. It still bears echoes of Newfoundland, although Pinsent sanded the edges off his accent when he left the Rock at 17 to seek his fortune as an actor, hitchhiking across the mainland—the place islanders call upalong. By now, his legacy as one of the great Canadian actors of his generation, along with his pal Christopher Plummer, is safe. But he’s never been content to be just an actor. Pinsent has written two novels, a memoir and half a dozen movies for film and TV, most memorably The Rowdyman (1972), a lost Canadian classic. And next month, at the unlikely age of 81, he makes his songwriting debut with Down and Out in Upalong, a CD of his poetry set to music by Greg Keelor of Blue Rodeo and Travis Good of the Sadies.
Like a ghost ship emerging from the shadows of a life, Pinsent’s verse sails a tide of memory that stretches from his wayward youth in backstreet bars to a widower’s enduring love—his wife of 44 years, actress Charmion King, died in 2007. As he wrote poems over the years, he always thought of them as “lyrics” and would nudge them into music with a guitar. “Charm used to love the fact that I would sit in the kitchen and play and sing while she was cooking,” he recalls.
The genesis of the album came when Pinsent was shooting a TV biography, Still Rowdy After All These Years, with cameraman Mike Bolland. During a break, the actor read some of his poems, musing that he’d like to see them turned into songs. Long story short: Bolland contacted Travis Good, and Good visited Pinsent at his condo in downtown Toronto. Over a few beers, the actor treated him to a reading then sent him off with a batch of 20 poems. The musician then recruited Keelor, who recalls showing up to find Good “already a little drunk, sitting in the dining room at the table, scattered with wine glasses, ashtrays and a stack of lyrics.”
They banged out four songs in one night, as if the music were writing itself, and spilled wine over the lyric sheets as they toasted their success. Two weeks later they had 11 songs, which they sang to the astonished actor. “It was wild,” he says. “It proves I guess that there are still surprises in this business.”
Many of the songs, which range from fast-picking bluegrass to gentle ballads, conjure elegiac images of Newfoundland. In Old Part of Town, where they’re “dancin’ all night,” the singer asks to lay me down / I’ve seen what I wanted to see / I’ve been around. In a dirge called On the Seagrass, the narrator says, On the way to the Cod / I saw an old skeleton praying to God. And Some Leave Shadows laments the flight of young people from the outports—Leaving half a cord of firewood / Closing doors upon their childhood—though Good and Keelor wrote the music thinking it was about boys lost to the First World War.
Some songs evoke Pinsent’s early days in Toronto, such as Night Light, which talks of “my night flings and forays.” He calls it “a sneaking-around song, about creaky stairs going up, when the whole world turns to amber and you find yourself kissing a woman with cracked lips.” But most moving are his odes to his wife, breakfasting with my emotion / mindful of the tune she plays upon my heart. As King slowly died of emphysema, Pinsent recalls, “I didn’t want to deal. I was taking anxiety pills, trying to block the emotions.” Six months after her death, he found himself co-starring with Julie Christie in Away From Her, as a man losing his wife to Alzheimer’s.
The double CD also has versions of the lyrics voiced by Pinsent as spoken word, scored with cinematic backdrops of strings and keyboards. “I prefer his versions,” Keelor admits. “It’s such a voice.” The three men have already begun performing Upalong, sung and spoken, in small clubs. There’s even talk of a play. Onstage, Pinsent’s intros can be longer than the songs—a ditty like I Spent a Day on Easy Ridge takes on another dimension when you hear it’s about taking a walk in the Hollywood hills with Marlon Brando.