‘Cigar Box Banjo’ Is a Nice Parting Gift From One of Canada’s Most Talented Writers

In his recent National Post review of the late Paul Quarrington’s new, posthumous memoir, Cigar Box Banjo, Philip Marchand states that the Canadian author was “very well liked personally — in 19 years as a books columnist I never heard a bad word spoken about him.” I can assert that he was seemingly a good guy from personal experience. I only got to meet the Toronto author once back in 2004 in the VIP area of the Ottawa International Writers Festival, but he seemed to be an affable fellow. (I had some friends with literary connections and got invited “backstage” — my first and only time I’ve set foot into the champagne room at a writing event.)

I remember Quarrington being in the kitchen of this massive hotel penthouse suite drinking a beer — it may have been a Keith’s — answering questions from then-Ottawa writer Melanie Little, who is now a senior fiction editor with Toronto’s House of Anansi Press, about what’s probably his most famous novel, Whale Music. (With that book, Quarrington won a Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, one of the most coveted prizes in Canadian letters.) Despite the fact that he was promoting a new novel at that time, Galveston, and that Whale Music was then 15-years-old, he answered the questions with which I can only describe as fawning affection.

He seemed happy that someone had simply read his work, which, alas, far too many Canadians to this day haven’t. In fact, just as an aside, I walked into an Ottawa coffee shop the day before sitting down to pen this review with Cigar Box Banjo in hand, to be questioned about it by a barista, who was curious to know what I was reading. Upon revealing whose book I had, the coffee slinger simply said, “Never heard of him.” This is, alas, probably an all-too common response when Canadians are posed with the question of knowing Quarrington’s work.

Of course, I wasn’t familiar with Quarrington’s oeuvre myself when I met him — just an essay that he wrote tucked at the back of a Canadian edition of Leonard Cohen’s novel The Favourite Game, in which he compared Cohen’s 1977 album of songs, Death of a Ladies’ Man, to the emotional heft of a novel. I simply stayed in the background and didn’t approach the hulking author who had a tendency to describe himself as somewhere between “husky” and all out “fat”.

These days, I not only regret not going up to him but also for being so late to the game of reading Quarrington’s fiction, which I didn’t get around to until a couple of years ago.You see, Quarrington died on 21 January 2010, at the too-young age of 56, taken from us by the ravages of inoperable lung cancer.

What Quarrington left behind was an impressive multi-faceted body of work: he was the author of ten novels, seven non-fiction books (including the one up for review here), various film and TV screenplays, and, surprising, a number of songs: the most famous being his co-writing credit for “Claire” by the Rheostatics, a Canadian cult indie rock band, which was on the soundtrack to the film adaptation of Whale Music. As it turns out, Quarrington seemingly wanted to be remembered most as a songwriter, for the subtitle of this memoir is “Notes on Music and Life”. Emphasis on “music”.

Indeed, if you happen to be familiar with Quarrington’s novels (and there’s apparently not a dud in the bunch), Cigar Box Banjo — which takes its name from a folk tale about a boy who wins a music competition playing nothing more than a home-fashioned banjo, only to ironically receive a real version of the instrument as his prize — might be a bit of a head-scratcher. While Quarrington was far from a household name as a writer, he was even less so as a musician: probably most notably in the blues genre. Yet, his last testament to his fans on this planet is a book about his life as a singer and rhythm guitarist, and the influences other musicians had on shaping his little-heard songs.

There’s very little here about his life as a writer, and even less so about his family, except when it comes to his music-making. Cigar Box Banjo, then, is less a memoir than it is an epitaph: Paul Quarrington wanted to be taken seriously as a bluesman. Or so his tombstone would read.

This book is, thus, a little hard to review with any state of objectivity, and a book that’s hard to assign a rating to. The book had a very tight timeline in which it was produced — Quarrington was given less than a year to live as a result of his cancer diagnosis — and, with whatever time he had left on the planet, he chose to spend most of it living a life of music by going on tour with his band Porkbelly Futures, which probably compressed the time it took to write these 244 pages even further.

It is also a very personal book, a project very near and dear to the heart of the author, which makes it a sad, bittersweet and also heart-wrenching read at times, knowing Quarrington’s ultimate fate. It vacillates between Quarrington’s state of affairs post-diagnosis, and his love of music, as it covers wide ranging topics from his love of The Beatles and Bob Dylan to being inspired to write songs by learning Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” on the guitar at an early age.

In fact, the memoir reads as a series of digressions on a number of topics — Quarrington occasionally breaks from his main narrative to venture asides like meeting hockey legend Gordie Howe for little reason, other than the fact that he knows he’ll have no other opportunity to have the story told in print after this — and seems cobbled together at points. (Quarrington himself acknowledges that Cigar Box Banjo is a second draft of a failed book of music theory called The Song, and, to some degree, it reads like a draft — again, given the tight timeline writing this book required vis-à-vis the author’s own mortality.)

It also just stops, with only a tantalizing promise that Quarrington might become famous for co-writing a song with frequent musical collaborator Martin Worthy and his friend Dan Hill. Yes, that Dan Hill of the maudlin “Sometimes When We Touch” fame from the ‘70s. (More on that in a moment.)

The book also has a tendency sometimes to get dry and academic when the author decides to demonstrate his music theory and deconstruct how certain songs are played on the guitar, particularly in the first section. Quarrington is (or was) really not talking to fans of his novels with Cigar Box Banjo but rather to other musicians. This audience might be, in a way, the most receptive to this work.

However, the book does get a little more straight-ahead in the latter chapters, with Quarrington showing readers the inner workings of the recording studio and the spotlight of being on tour. Along the way, our author meets some pretty famous people — not only Hill, but a very young Daniel Lanois, before the producer streaked to fame as a hotshot working for the likes of U2 and Bob Dylan.

Despite the fact that Quarrington’s last work of non-fiction is unfocused and oscillates wildly between personal observations and reminiscences, theoretical concepts of music, and even bits and snatches of music history, it is a pleasant enough read. Ever so self-deprecating, Quarrington notes at one point his tendency to go on about various surgical procedures he was facing to remove his tumor, but he could have been talking about his various music-related asides — “Listen, if I’m being dreadfully boring about all this, please just toss the book in a corner.”

As for those digressions into music theory and history early on, Quarrington at least has a defense: “It’s hard to say how this all [historical information] connects to a chubby little eleven-year-old kid playing ‘This Land Is Your Land’ with cross-eyed, tongue-biting concentration… All I know was that Woody Guthrie’s song was fun to play and sing. Without realizing it, I suspect I was also absorbing the idea that songs should mean something, that they should make a point, and that the point should be beneficial.” In music and in the last year of his life, Quarrington was hooked on finding meaning out of the flotsam and jetsam of things.

As a means of augmentation and a way to further solidify the assertion that Quarrington should have been as renowned as a singer-songwriter as a novelist, the book comes with an enhanced CD of three original songs — including that aforementioned collaboration with Worthy and Hill entitled “Are You Ready” — as well as a video and a trailer for a cable TV documentary on his life in music. In fact, the earnest “Are You Ready” and the spoken-sung “Hello Jim” were among the very last of Quarrington’s musical contributions to this planet.

“Hello Jim” was, if the afterword gives any indication, recorded just days before Quarrington’s death. Naturally, both have something to say about pushing off into the beyond, but “Hello Jim” shows a little flair of Quarrington’s humour as it is about a street sign that changes over the years with the ominous message: “The end is near / Call Jim”. However, when the narrator does indeed call Jim, it’s to proclaim “I like little trouts and big-assed bass!”

These songs show that Quarrington was a serviceable singer and a workman-like songwriter mining a sometimes country-ish, sometimes bluesy sound. They’re not brilliant songs, but one could see “Are You Ready” in the hands of some Nu-Country performer, which would give it a new lease on life, at least from a commercial sense. This is also probably its destiny, as hinted by the end of the book, but time will tell. As for the videos, they’re short and nothing really remarkable, though it’s good to see some moving footage of Quarrington and the song “Hey Hollywood”, featured as a music video, is kind of hummable in a folksy kind of way.

All in all, Cigar Box Banjo is the work of passion, of a writer trying to defy the odds of time to make one last trip to the well. While it’s not one for the ages, it’s a nice parting gift from one of Canada’s most talented and consistent writers. It’s a rollicking ride across musical genres and time, one that shows its author trying to squeeze every ounce of life onto its pages. One couldn’t have asked for a nicer ending, even with all of its various side-trips that threaten to derail it at times, for a guy who was seemingly as nice as Paul Quarrington. God rest his soul.

RATING 7 / 10