Can­cer fells a great maple in the Cana­dian arts for­est

Beloved Vinyl Café sto­ry­teller made us be­lieve we all shape this vast land

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - STEVE MIL­TON The Hamil­ton Spec­ta­tor

In thou­sands of thou­sands of col­umns, writ­ten across four decades, I have used the first per­son in, at most, a dozen.

And it has al­ways been in ref­er­ence to a mem­ber of my im­me­di­ate fam­ily or to the death of a good friend. In this sad case, it’s both. Stuart McLean left us Wed­nes­day at the age of 68, still in his evoca­tive sto­ry­telling prime, a great maple in the Cana­dian arts for­est felled by the repet­i­tive, ran­dom axe of can­cer.

My daugh­ter Jess, one of his clos­est friends and his pro­ducer for the past 13 years, was among the few priv­i­leged to spend the past few hard months at his side.

With Stuart’s strong en­cour­age­ment, she had brought me and her brother Toby and his fam­ily into the “Vinyl Café” fam­ily and Stuart deeply into ours. This coun­try has lost so much in his un­timely pass­ing, but not as much as Jess has.

Only she can ever know the depth

and breadth of that loss.

A small cir­cle had been aware for a cou­ple of weeks that this was com­ing soon, but it still came too soon, and the col­lat­eral dam­age will be con­sid­er­able across the vast land that he some­how made smaller.

More than 1.5 mil­lion peo­ple lis­tened to Stuart’s “Vinyl Café” broad­casts on var­i­ous plat­forms ev­ery week and the ma­joriHe ty of them were diehard fans. They tuned in re­li­giously, in­haled his books and mer­chan­dise, an­nu­ally at­tended at least one of the dozens of live pro­duc­tions of the “Vinyl Café” when the com­pact car­a­van of en­ter­tain­ers wound its way across and around this coun­try, time and time again.

For hun­dreds of thou­sands of us, his Christ­mas tour and al­bums were yule­tide bea­cons, and his Cana­dian clas­sic on the well-in­ten­tioned but bum­bling Every­man in all of us — “Dave Cooks The Turkey” — will for­ever stand as a sea­sonal must.

One of Stuart’s core val­ues, in the “Vinyl Café” and his per­sonal life, was in­clu­sion. He helped us be­lieve that we all mat­ter, that we all be­long, that Canada em­braces us all, that we all shape Canada. And as Jess put it, that Dave and Mor­ley would wel­come ev­ery­one one of us as next-door neigh­bours. The great­est com­pli­ment of all.

Stuart be­lieved in love and he be­lieved in good. And he knew, that on some level, they were the same thing and that one fos­tered the other. He shed light on both, es­pe­cially in the small­est de­tails, where he knew life al­ways lives largest. And he showed us in his sto­ries and his mono­logues, and es­pe­cially through the Arthur Awards and “Vinyl Café Story Ex­change,” how of­ten it hap­pens in this coun­try.

He was a uni­fy­ing force for Canada, the best of what the CBC has al­ways had to of­fer. Stuart was a con­sis­tently acute ob­server of the Cana­dian iden­tity, of its com­mon­al­i­ties and stark, but en­rich­ing, dif­fer­ences. But he was not aca­demic about it. Rather, he was in­volved.

He was, at heart, a builder. He con­structed bridges be­tween our is­lands through sto­ries and es­says and great Cana­dian mu­sic. And by im­mers­ing him­self in ev­ery town, vil­lage and great big city the “Vinyl Café” vis­ited. He swam in our oceans, dropped deep into our mines, rode our trains, picked our fruit, skated our ice. And told sto­ries about it all.

made us less iso­lated: help­ing lis­ten­ers in steel and glass tow­ers feel the in­ti­macy of small town Main Street, and ru­ral Canada un­der­stand that ur­ban liv­ing too had its joys. He in­tro­duced one world to the other and blurred their edges. As my daugh­ter says, in a time of un­prece­dented change he gave us in­her­ited mem­ory.

I am eter­nally thank­ful, as is she, for what Stuart gave Jess. And I know the re­verse was true be­cause he told me many times. The re­la­tion­ship be­tween Stuart and Jess was theirs and theirs alone, but he of­ten re­vealed big chunks of it to his ra­dio and con­cert au­di­ences. They were best friends, they bick­ered good-na­turedly, they bush­whacked their way to­gether through the mun­dane de­tails and the Great Ideas, they ob­served Canada to­gether through both mi­cro and macro lenses.

And they laughed and laughed and laughed.

Stuart’s sto­ries and mono­logues will re­main gate­ways to some­thing larger: un­der­stand­ing, ac­cep­tance, love and the heal­ing gift of hu­mour.

Stuart un­der­stood that well-crafted story-telling is a far bet­ter tool than straight facts to com­mu­ni­cate the real truths in life. The telling of a story might be or­ganic but it has essence, a core, which no del­uge of “fact” can change.

Life is made up of sto­ries and bits of sto­ries, and one per­son’s life is, af­ter all, a story played out in three di­men­sions.

And while one story may end, sto­ry­telling does not.

And must not.

McLean made us feel less iso­lated.

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