A tribute to Stuart McLean – Canada’s cheerleader

Gosh. Where to start? I was so heartbroken this week to hear that CBC radio host and author Stuart McLean had passed away.

I knew something was up when they decided to take a break and stop airing episodes on Sunday afternoons. To be honest, while there hadn’t been new material posted for a while, I hadn’t been missing it. Let me explain – it wasn’t that I didn’t like new material or didn’t want new material, but rather that I felt as long as there was Stuart and the Vinyl Café on at 12 p.m. EST, then I was fine. It was a staple in my Sunday mornings for as long as I can remember. Truth is I can’t remember when my family or I as an adult didn’t list to the Vinyl Café on a Sunday. So while I knew they were playing repeats, and knew something must be up, I was comforted by the fact that I could still listen to stories and music as selected by Stuart and his band of merry-men (or in this case, ladies).

But when it was announced that they would take a break as, as I remember Stuart saying something about us deserving more than repeats; I thought to myself that he must clearly be sicker than we’ve been led to believe. The last few months however didn’t feel right. While I enjoy so many shows on CBC Radio, I really felt like something was missing without hearing Stuart’s voice.

And now, as I have listened to the tributes on Q, As It Happens and the one-hour Tribute special with Michael Enright, I feel the gravity of Stuart’s passing. I’m not ready for this!

As soon as I heard the news that he had passed, I posted on Facebook and Twitter the following:

 

Never was there a truer statement. He was a city boy with a small town heart. Not often do city folk (especially those born and raised in cities) have a true appreciation for what happens in small towns and villages. Stuart got this. And he understood that a show about Canadians for Canadians needed to include these stories and people. The CBC (of which I am a diehard fan…but also a friendly critic) often presents a view that is very city-centric and has been known to lose itself in the excitement and spark of cities like Toronto and Vancouver. But Canada is so much more than just it’s incredibly diverse and rich cities – we are a large country with roots in the back-woods and small towns that line our lakes and rail stations (or…used-to-be-rail stations).

I lived in one of these small towns for seven years. The birth place of the Canada’s nuclear science program and the home of some of the most talented trades’ people and academics and down-right quirky buggers I’ve ever met. I always thought Stuart should visit Deep River (and Chalk River), Ontario as he’d have had a hay day learning about the eccentric towns folks and the wacky and important science that came out of that town that in fact has shaped so much of Canada’s contributions to the scientific world.

I can’t even begin to recount the times I’ve stayed in the car just a little bit longer to hear the end of a story. Or the music I’ve bought after hearing a great concert on the show.

I was lucky to see the Vinyl Café live three times and in three different cities. The first time I saw him was in University in Fredericton at the Playhouse. My parents bought me tickets to see him for me and one of my best university pals. I can’t remember exactly our seats…but if they weren’t front row, they were somewhere very close. I was mesmerized. Having grown up listening to Stuart and the Vinyl Café all of my life, I was riveted with seeing the show live.

My second trip to the Vinyl Café was in North Bay. There I went with a new friend to see the show at the Capitol Centre. I remember this friend telling me that he had fond memories of hearing me laugh so hard and out loud. It’s very true – being in the theatre in the dark, I felt like I was at a show just for me and my pal and could just embrace the moment fully.

The last time I saw Stuart and the Vinyl Café – and gosh, now it will always be the last time – was in Ottawa at the National Arts Centre. This show was very special though as my husband surprised me with tickets for the Christmas show in 2011. The show was special for two reasons. The first was that it was a surprise! The second was that my husband, who at this stage had not yet grown to really love the Vinyl Café, had bought the tickets to the show. You know how Stuart opens his show and welcomes the three types of people in the crowd – the fans, the people who sorta might know about it and the people who have no idea what the show is about? Well, I’d add that night there was also a fourth type – the husband there under duress.

See, at this point in our relationship, my husband and I had a love/hate relationship with the Vinyl Café. I loved it. He hated it. LOL Well, maybe hate was a strong word. He couldn’t believe all of the stories Stuart wrote about meeting garbage men and gardeners and people at the café were true. I would argue they were all true. He thought it was the cheesiest thing he had ever heard in his life. And well, he wasn’t necessarily wrong about that. The Vinyl Café and Stuart McLean could be incredibly cheesy. But it was Canadian cheese. It was heartwarming. And it was wonderful.

Since that time, my husband grew to also enjoy the stories and music and it became part of our married family’s Sunday routines. This week after learning of Stuart’s passing, he said to me that “while I still don’t believe any of those stories are true, I’m sad about Stuart’s passing and I’m going to miss him.” Me too sweetpete, me too.

dd72-vinyl-cafe-christmas-tour1rs

Lastly, I’ll leave you with one story that will never leave me and will always be the essence of why Stuart McLean and his show were just so very special. It was October and I was at our family’s cottage in St. George New Brunswick. We had lots of family visiting as we were celebrating Thanksgiving.  I was in the car with my younger cousin (of about 10 years) and we were driving to St. Andrews. That episode was when Stuart was making calls for the Arthur awards. But when he called one person he had the wrong number and ended up speaking to a teenage boy. Stuart asked him about what was happening in his life and this boy talked about how his parents were separating and going through a divorce. Clearly not what Stuart was expecting to hear. Neither was it what we were expecting. See, my cousin’s parents were also going through the very same thing at that time and I knew that it was a hard time for him and his siblings, and heck for his parents too. In that moment, as Stuart spoke to this young man about what was happening, I truly felt that this story was placed here for my cousin and me. It was real, honest, a bit sad, but mostly comforting. Like all Dave and Morley stories, Stuart reassured the boy on the phone, as well as us, that it would work out and be ok. I’ll never forget that moment in my life.

It has been so nice to see that all of Canada is mourning the loss of Stuart McLean. It has really demonstrated that he was someone who understood our country including its issues and the people who live here. Whether you were from Moose Jaw, Toronto, Saint John (I’ll remember that the Imperial Theatre was one of his all-time favs) or Big Narrows, we could all relate to the stories and music from the Vinyl Café and how it made us feel  – like however big or small we were we could be kind and make an impact.

 

*Photo credits:

  1. Photo of Stuart from https://www.vinylcafe.com/
  2. Photo from 2011 Christmas Concert from the vinyl cafe facebook page, taken by James Dean Photography
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