Cancer fells a great maple in the Canadian arts forest
Beloved Vinyl Café storyteller made us believe we all shape this vast land
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.