I’ve never laughed with anyone like I laughed with my cousin Ned and now he’s dying.
It’s years before MP3s and digital downloads and I’m making tapes of his favourite music, stuffing them into padded envelopes as fast as I can dub them, mailing them from Salt Spring Island to Toronto, Special Express. We’re close to a continent apart but music still bonds us. If I spend the extra money, Canada Post promises the tapes will get there before Ned dies.
Dylan, of course. Lots of Dylan. The 1966 “Royal Albert Hall” live concert has just come out, the official bootleg, but it’s only on compact disc. I’ve bought a CD player so I can tape it. Ned’s not going shopping, not dragging that clunky oxygen tank behind.
1966. Dylan’s touring England, defiantly electric, and Ned’s just had his first breakdown. The Royal Albert Hall concert was really recorded in Manchester, a place called the Free Trade Hall. In a lull between songs, you can hear a fan scream, “Judas!” Ned’s gone for his first year of university to Sir George Williams in Montreal. The first sign things are falling apart is the postcard with a picture of Leonard Cohen that arrives at the end of fall. The scribbled message tells of long nights spent smoking and drinking with “Lennie,” sharing their poems. No one else understands him like Ned. A month or so later, Ned will be home, disheveled, disoriented, incapable of taking care of himself, and his father will have him committed.
So a little Leonard, maybe Sisters of Mercy, to see if Ned appreciates the joke.
But mostly Dylan. I may have discovered him first, but Ned was the one who made him his own. It was Ned’s idea to hitchhike from Toronto to the Newport Folk Festival. That was 1963, Bob was still singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “God on Our Side,” still strumming his acoustic guitar. When a US Customs guard turned us back at the Buffalo border I was ready to give up and head back home but Ned insisted. We made it through on our second try and there he was, yards away, sitting backstage with Joan Baez, a huge, coiled bullwhip between them, at his feet.
Two years later, Dylan’s a little schizophrenic himself, his concerts half acoustic, half blistering rock with the Hawks, Ronnie Hawkins’ band from the Yonge Street bars, and the one tape I can’t send Ned is Massey Hall, 1965, the first time they played Toronto. It was never recorded but we were there. Thanks to Ned, we almost missed it.
I’m sharing a flat in the Annex with two classmates. In honour of the occasion we’ve smoked up early and Highway 61 Revisited is playing over and over. We’re lost in Juarez. Is it Easter time too?
It’s time to leave for Massey Hall, but Ned’s wandered off. He’s on Desolation Row. He’s spoon-feeding Casanova. Why go anywhere else? Why go through the hassle of figuring out how to get to his feet, then stagger down the stairs, stumble out the door, climb into a box with windows and wheels, outwit downtown traffic all the way to Massey Hall to hear Dylan when he’s not just hearing him, he pretty much is him, right now? We try to explain the difference: Bob’s playing live at Massey Hall. With the Hawks. Ned demurs: He’s here right now, alive as you or me.
Ned’s father didn’t know what to do and who could blame him. The only place he could find was a psych ward from a bad fifties’ movie, an open ward filled with old men in grey pajamas smoking forlornly on the edges of their cots, everyone fuzzy, docile and dull from the constant drugs. When I walk in I can’t even find him. A few days there and Ned’s already blended in.
So not just Desolation Row, Ned needs beauty too. Joan Baez—early Joan singing the old English ballads, just Joan and her guitar—for the pure, aching beauty of her voice. For years we wouldn’t look at a girl who didn’t have Joanie’s long straight black hair.
And Pete Seeger, the Weavers, the Almanac Singers. My father owned a dress store, Ned’s built malls and apartments, but we loved the old union songs. Middle-class kids, we knew which side we should be on, worked on perfecting our hokey Ontario version of Woody Guthrie’s Okie drawl, but we never made it to a sit-in or demo together.
When I sat down in front of the Bomarc missile base in Quebec’s Laurentian Mountains, Ned was in Hartford, Connecticut, at the Institute of Living where even electroshocks made no difference. I don’t know where he was when I sat by the tracks outside the Trident missile base in Washington State. That was one of those years when we weren’t speaking. When he’d hang up at the sound of my voice on the phone.
And jazz. John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman for how fiercely they held to their outsider visions. Somewhere between the Lakeshore Psychiatric Ward and the Therafields group home, between the Institute of Living and the houses his father bought for him to live in as best he could, Ned started painting. Trane and Ornette were as much his muse as Picasso and Matisse; their explosive solos fueled his all-night sessions as much as the endless cigarettes and cups of coffee.
And not just music: helpless laughter. The Goon Show, Tom Lehrer, Lenny Bruce. Because I’ve never laughed with anyone the way I laughed with my cousin Ned.
It bubbled through my parched childhood like water from an artesian well. It had to last me months, fill those empty stretches between Christmas and Easter, Easter and summer vacation. It didn’t matter who set it off—once we got started we couldn’t stop. It drove our parents crazy but most likely saved my life.
And nothing could make us laugh like Mad magazine. It snickered at everything teachers and parents insisted we should respect. So not just music. And not just tapes.
Before I slide my cherished copy of Issue #18, December, 1955, still in its plastic sleeve, into what will be the last envelope, I open it to “Howdy Dooit,” Mad‘s savage takedown of the popular TV kids’ show Howdy Doody, and we’re ten years old, scrunched down in the backseat of my father’s new DeSoto, the whitewalled tires churning down the 401, plowing through sleet and snow, my father proud of his prowess behind the wheel. We’re driving Ned home after Christmas vacation, my mother staring straight ahead at the dull familiar miles, the latest issue open on our laps. As usual, one word is all it takes to send us rolling around on the seat in helpless hysterics and this time that word is BupGup.
Howdy Dooit—nobody’s puppet now, eyes leering, voice sneering, a five-day stubble bristling on his wooden cheeks—harangues the mangy moppets hanging over the Peanut Gallery railing. “Kids!” he goads them, stroking a stubby bottle, “Aren’t you tired of drinking milk? Isn’t it time you had a real drink? Then get BupGup! BupGup turns that insipid milk they put on the table into beer. Tell your mom: ‘I want BupGup! If you don’t get me BupGup I’ll hold my breath till I’m blue in the face!'”
Which he demonstrates, no small feat for a marionette, and then pours some thick brown liquid from the bottle into a glass of milk and sure enough, in a stroke of pure alchemy, the milk turns into beer. The brown stuff sinks to the bottom, the white milk rises to the top like a head of foam, and we want Bupgup too, we’ll hold our breath, turn all the deathly shades of blue—
if we can only stop laughing long enough to carry out our threat, or even make it.
The luscious taste of the word itself is all we need for now. We roll it around our tongues, swallow slowly, savour each subversive syllable, shiver as the sounds slide down our throats, and we snort on the bup and choke on the gup and the giggles that burp back up.
We want our BupGup.
And for this ride to never end.
I’ve taped all Ned’s favourite music. I’ve mailed my last copy of Mad. They’ll pull us apart when the ride is over and the laughter I ride like a lifeboat will escape from collapsing lungs with a long, defeated hiss.
I’ll hold my breath till I’m blue in the face if they don’t keep driving. We’ll only stop to pee,
buy more milk and gas, and a great big bottle of BupGup for Ned to pour in the tank that squats by the side of his bed, its tubes snaking into his gasping nostrils. More oxygen won’t revive him if it doesn’t make him laugh.
Music can hold enormous power in memories and experiences, transporting us instantly to an age, location, or person. What sonic joys, mysteries, disbelief, and clarity have you experienced? Identify songs of influence in your life and explore them like variations on a theme, melding syntax and song structure, recalling the seriousness or levity that accompanies. Whether it’s an account of when a specific song first entered your life, the process of learning to play a song, teaching someone a song, experiencing the same song in different places as it weaves through your life, unbelievable radio timing, sharing songs with those in need, tracking the passing down of songs, creative song analysis etc, I am interested in those ineffable moments and welcoming submissions of your own variations on a theme, as drawn from your life’s soundtrack. Please email submissions to email@example.com and keep an eye out for others’ Variations.
**(“song” is a broad phrase: could be a pop song, a traditional tune, a symphony, commercial jingles, a hummed lullaby, 2nd grade recorder class horror stories, etc)**
Murray Reiss lives on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia. His poetry and prose have been published in literary magazines and anthologies in Canada and the United States, and short-listed for a number of prizes and awards. His first book, The Survival Rate of Butterflies in the Wild (Hagios Press), was awarded the League of Canadian Poets’ Gerald Lampert Memorial Award for the best first book of poetry published in Canada in 2013. He has one foot in the world of print publication and one foot in the world of spoken word, as a Climate Action Performance Poet and founding member of the Only Planet Cabaret.