Remembering Sam Larkin
Back in the golden days of Groovy Mondays open stage, in the early 2000’s, held in the deepest dark dungeon of music in Toronto, Holy Joe’s, with its rotten old couches with broken springs- that was where I first met and heard Sam Larkin. Rarely did any of us (a small dedicated group that came together by fortuitous happenstance) miss our weekly ritual,climbing up the stairs to Holy Joe’s, as to a place of worship. It sounds hyperbolic, but to us, and particularly to Sam, it was a golden temple of music.
At the time, being only recently returned to the shores of song writing after decades at sea, I did not know Sam Larkin or his music. We (the self-selected small group gathered at Groovy Mondays) played our songs, two each per week, and I heard Sam sing many times the simple chorus “I had a dream, and I gave it a name” (repeated 2 times) and after awhile I knew that song shone like gold. (“Mirabeau Bridge”). But Sam sang many other songs, week after week. They are deceptively simple, you heard them and did not think much of them perhaps, but hear them again, and again, and you might begin to appreciate that these are great songs. Sam also cheered and hooted the loudest whenever anybody else finished a song, being a spectacular supporter of music and anybody who put their heart and soul into it, almost regardless whether it was actually good or not.
Later, when Groovy Mondays morphed into something else, as these things tend to do, Sam Larkin and I agreed in a typical Marx-ian (as in Marx Brothers) email exchange, that included Jay Linden as the third member of the troika, that this had been indeed a golden era of musical exchange. Sam was also a long-time devotee of Fat Albert’s Coffee House, which also spawned and acted as a catalyst for many song writers. The story of Fat Albert’s remains to be told – on another day.
Later for reasons that elude me, a wall went up and Sam was no longer accessible. Now that he is gone, I’m sorry I did not try harder to discover the reasons for it. While Sam Larkin was accessible and available as a song writer, in others ways he was unknowable. Many people, who knew him, did not. Many people, who were once close to him, suddenly were not. It bothered me, but I came to accept, if not understand. I remembered this passage by Bob Dylan in Chronicles, concerning Daniel Lanois: “I know that he wanted to understand me more, but you can’t do that, unless you like to do puzzles. I think in the end he gave up on that.” In “Me You Don’t Know” Sam wrote “This is the road, makes you disappear..”
Sam Larkin influenced many songwriters in myriad of ways: his devotion to music as if a religion; the beauty,simplicity and craftsmanship of his songs; his performance anchored with hypnotically rhythmic strummed guitar (usually tuned down one whole note) , jangly harmonica, both complementing passable vocals; his determination to always keep going, always create, always keep playing; his uncompromising artistic vision and dedication; his bizarre and wacky humour; his unwavering support and enthusiasm for songwriters and performers at all levels of recognition or anonymity. One personal highlight : Sam doing a unique rendition of my song “Sunflowers Light the Room” on the evening at Groovy Mondays when we all did the songs of other regular attendees; of course, quite a few of us did a Sam song that evening, myself included.
I once sheepishly asked Sam the following question, not really expecting an answer. “Sam, I noticed that there are lot of lyrics with mention of open windows and birds in your songs? Wonder if you could comment about that? Or how did that happen? ” Of course, Sam shrugged it off, saying no, he had not noticed.
Well, of course I noticed, as have his astute listeners – almost exclusively song writers – who recognize the artistry and craftsmanship of Sam’s songs. Sam rarely performed in commercial venues, and I would go so far as to state the last thing Sam wanted was the business of music to get in the way of the art of music. I would hazard a guess that Sam would not have minded being famous, would have liked other people to hear his songs, have others perform his songs. But actually going out into the world and “selling them”? No way. In this regards Sam Larkin was a pure artist, no compromise at all. I invited Sam to perform at the City Roots Festival during the years I organized it, but he declined, saying he needed to spend the time away from the city, in the solitude of his cabin in the woods (somewhere, on a river). Sam also declined when I offered to organize a CD of his songs performed by others, stating that type of thing was for those on “their last legs”.
Sam released two studio albums “Ransom” in the 1990s, and “Night Melt Chains” in 2004, plus “Plumbing and Heating” which is a live radio show broadcast plus a few solo tunes. How they came about are also stories for another time. Sam gave his albums away to song writers, but it was” 10 bucks for anybody else.”
Sam once did a gig at Hugh’s Room, splitting the bill with Kyp Harness and Bob Snider – old Fat Albert’s song writing alumnae. I don’t recall any publicity for that event, and it was moderately attended (I was there). It is fitting that the Sam Larkin tribute will be held at Hugh’s Room ( December 9, 2013). The evening is organized by Don Kerr, with a huge cast of performers. ( Would Sam feel honoured, or quietly slip away? ) I’m privileged to perform “Virginia,” a song released on “Night Melts Chains.” Here are the lyrics, and I’ll add a few personal comments afterwards.
© Sam Larkin
Oh, Virginia, all your tele-vis-ion is not going to save your life
Ah, Virginia, your daddy got drunk, and that’s how we got in this fight
Ah, Virginia, with the windows wide open you’re playing the piano all night
Ah, Virginia, you’re sorry, you’re sorry, you’re sorry, you’re asleep and you’re a wife
There’s catfish and bullfrogs and old rotten tires in the water
Your sisters are playing with their skipping ropes under a tree
Your Granddad has taken the plums and makin’ plum brandy
And I’m under the car, Virginia, don’t forget about me
Ah, Virginia, we used to go walking, lying right there in the bed
Ah, Virginia, we used to talking, never speaking the words that we said
Ah, Virginia, we’d escape in the car, and wouldn’t get home until dawn
Ah, Virginia, those nights, those nights, those nights are suddenly gone
Ah, Virginia, we started too young and everything happened so fast
Ah, Virginia, it was waiting for us like a cat for the bird in the grass
Ah, Virginia, your Mother said no, but all we could answer was “Yes !”
Ah, Virginia, it’s over, it’s over, it’s all over I guess
Oh, why do I love this song? Well it is easy to sing with a catchy waltz tempo. I like the language and feeling of the song, and the imagery, including both open windows and birds !, plus the small-screen cinematic story it tells.
“Virginia” is a song of doomed young love, a story that gradually unfolds into a picture of stagnation and failure under the weight of immaturity, and family influence. In his recording Sam never sings “Virginia”, it is always “Ginia” as soft as can be, and he stretches the word “television” into a memorable French-sounding noun. The narrator of this song tells the story from his location “under the car” – the same now broken down car he and Virginia apparently used to “escape in”. He reminds Virginia “don’t forget about me” as he fades into insignificance.
In another Sam Larkin song “Love Drives a Beautiful Car”, Sam sings “mostly we’re spoiling what we’re given; mostly we’re making a mess.” And this is the type of despoiled scene shown in “Virginia”, with the chorus describing “catfish and bullfrogs and old rotten tires in the water”. “A beautiful car” is a Sam Larkin country-pop metaphor for the illusory hope for salvation presented in the guise of love, usually grabbed out of desperation, and then ultimately spoiled by human foibles. In “Virginia”, the singer is lying on the ground under a broken car, futilely trying to fix it perhaps; the love/hope illusion now shattered; the river scene that should be idyllic is now just polluted, stagnant water, and not the “river flowing endlessly” described in “Mirabeau Bridge.”
Pan out one more level, as in a movie, and the bigger picture is of an extended family in which Virginia and the “under the car” singer are players, but too young, and never independent of the family influences. Virginia’s Mother “said No, but all we could answer was Yes.” Her “Daddy was drunk” and Granddad has “taken the plums and making plum brandy”. This is just too much weight for a young love to bear. Then there are her “sisters playing with their skipping ropes under the tree”; maybe Virginia should be playing with the sisters. Virginia was clearly not ready to be a wife. Well, as the sad sack narrator states, they “started too young,” and that maybe partly explains it.
“Birds” and “windows”, are two images that colourfully appear in this song from nowhere, straight out of the mind and vision of the writer. “The windows wide open” allows Virginia the opportunity and space to eventually reach for something else. The end of the story is foretold: “it was waiting for us like a cat for a bird in the grass”…” it” being the outside influences, the immaturity, and the natural tendency to “destroy what we’re given.” The bird – the relationship that should grow/soar meets an untimely end.
Am I over-interpreting? Maybe. Mostly I just want to sing or hear these songs, and let the mystery and artistry wash over me. There is not one weak song in this body of work. I have left my English major days far behind and do not want to try to analyze too much more. Let me just state that in my listening to Sam Larkin’s music, birds and windows are transcendent images with many meanings. Take a listen to another Fat Albert alumnae, Ron Sexsmith, performing “We Will Be Birds” (available on youtube) and not be moved. “When we will die, we will fly, we will be birds. ” And there are other haunting images and themes that recur in Sam Larkin’s songs: the ever-flowing river; Mother in her incarnations; children at play and not so innocent (listen to the disturbing “Children at Play”); identify – “Who Will We Be?;” and most of all, impossible love in all its glory and idiocy. How much flows from personal experience, childhood .family experience, influence of other artists, writers and poets, and how much is the artist’s vision and imagination? There is probably no conclusive way to tell. There is really no need to tell or disturb anything. Sam Larkin was intensely private. The songs exist. That is what a song writer can leave.
Sam Larkin’s songs, their themes and imagery, form a coherent artistic whole. Sam Larkin’s songs are as simple as Hank Williams, and as deep as Leonard Cohen. I am glad to have moved in the same arc for a while as Sam Larkin, and known him a little.