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Billy Houlihan, a great friend and mentor of mine passed away last year. I left to go on tour with Youngtree & The Blooms two days later and I asked my uncle to read this out at the wake. Today is his birthday. #HeavenAintALonelyRoad

Hello to everyone that has come to share in this moment of Billy’s passing. I write this as my band drives across Newfoundland to the first show of our Atlantic Canadian tour. It’s fair to say I might not be on this path as a performer and musician if not for Billy Houlihan. Many of you probably know that Billy was a powerful musical mentor to me. He took me under his wing when I was in high school and we got together every Thursday to drink tea and play tunes. He coached me through my first public performance. Truly, my whole style of playing has been shaped by Billy.

What is perhaps less obvious to some is that Billy was also a great life mentor to me, and a teacher in the purest sense of the word. A little language lesson, now, which Billy would appreciate. The word “educate” comes from the Latin “educere” which means “to draw out” or “to uncover.” In this way, Billy was a natural educator, an uncover-er. He lived in such a way that he would naturally draw out people’s innate talents and potential, no matter where he was — and he seemed to derive a quiet pleasure from doing so. I witnessed his special way-of-being help the brightest students in our school as well as the slowest; I witnessed it help me many times through the years; I saw it help my father expand musically and mentally later in life. Billy taught me that my ideas were worthy of respect and contemplation simply by paying attention to what I had to say, being gentle, and never turning down a conversation. And while he never once mentioned religion or spirituality to me, he exemplified better than almost anyone I knew what it was to live a virtuous and noble life. Those who truly knew Billy will know exactly what I’m speaking of, though it is difficult to put into words.

I’ll stop trying to fit Billy’s essence into words now, because it can’t be done anyway. I regret that I can’t be there to have a good cry with you all. I’ll say, though, that if I grow to become anything resembling the human Billy was, then I’ll feel content that I’ve done something right. At moments like this, I reflect on the fact that life is fleeting. It is important to learn how not to become too stressed out over life’s ever-changing circumstances, and to look upon the world and the people in our lives with great appreciation. Thank you all for listening and for coming to pay respect to a great man.


'Heaven Ain't a Lonely Road' is a song that had its beginnings in a dream. Perhaps I'll write more about that at another time. But it really came into being the day Billy was getting a stem cell transplant as a treatment for his cancer, and I chatted to him on the phone in his hospital bed. The song hasn't been recorded yet but I reckon it'll be on the next Youngtree & The Blooms record. The lyrics are below.

I was speaking with my friend

in his hospital bed,

Waiting for a cure to fly in on a plane

And he told me this:

"Half this battle is

having friends that love and help you on the way.

We're not here to do this alone,

We've got people pushing us along;

If Heaven's a path, then all I know

All I know is that

Heaven ain't a lonely road."

He said, "It's times like these

when the real power shows

in all the friendships that you've made

Now all the love I feel,

more than I could've known,

I think that now I could face any type of weather

And I've had time to reflect

on all the friends I've had a choices that I've made

And I do not regret

a thing because I gave them all I had.

Heaven ain't a lonely road."

He said,

"I know you've got something you're waiting to become

And it belongs to you alone

But don't forget about the friends by your side,

You'll never reach that place

if you try to do it on your own

Now, you and me, we always rode together

And you know it's made each of us better,

I want you to remember

the people you can lean on,

You've got potential, man,

So just dream on. Dream on."

"And don't dwell too long or think too much

On all the loneliness you'll feel along the way.

I will give you my touch.

Heaven ain't a lonely road."

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The man in the suit there is named Peter Willie, too. And Two. As in “The Second.” Peter Willie II. I am not the third, by the way, though we are named after the same person: his father, my maternal grandfather. A quick bit of logic will tell you that this makes him my uncle and you’ll understand why everyone in the family called him “Junior.”

Junior was also my Godfather. He looks not unlike the other, Ford Coppola-type of Godfather in this picture which, incidentally, was taken the day he officially became my Godfather; that is, the day I was baptized as a #Catholic. I really appreciate the Godparent-Godchild relationship and lament its disappearance in this generation of young ones. I always felt a closeness with Junior and my aunt Pep (his sister, my Godmother) because of their Godparent status, and my brothers and cousins would always have some special relationship with whomever their godparents were, even if it was just getting an extra gift on birthdays or at Christmas. Junior gave me my first Lego set, for instance, taught me to ride an ATV, and took me on fishing trips in the country with Pep and others: ice fishing in winter and reel-fishing in summer. We cooked beans on campfires, made tea, roasted trout, the whole deal. One time he wanted to take me river fishing for a full day in the fall, but my mother and father insisted that I not miss any school, so we had to go around 3:30pm in failing light and I fell into the river and we cut the trip short. (I’m certain I would have learnt far more that day if I had spent it in the country fishing instead of at school. Or maybe I would have slipped on some rock and died – who can ever know?).

I was told at some point that if my parents died, my Godparents would become my new parents, so I figured it would be good to get to know them, just in case. Through spending time with them, they instilled a good degree of fight in me. Neither Junior nor Pep took crap from anyone – they’re both fiery people with little tolerance for nonsense – and they passed on some of that take-no-crap attitude to me. It’s interesting, now that I give it some thought, that my parents chose people so different from themselves to be my Godparents. My own parents had this meekness and high-minded reasonableness, preferring to talk out disputes and avoid conflicts, especially physical violence; while my Godparents wouldn’t shy away from duking it out if someone offended them. I really appreciated this counterbalance. When some kid was giving me a hard time at school, Junior instructed me to just punch him in the face, and if he didn’t stop, to keep punching until he did. Simple. Straight-forward. I like it.

Junior himself had been pretty tiny and he was picked on throughout grade school. But he had a growth spurt between Grades 10 and 11 and then started lifting weights, so that he was about 6'2" and 260 pounds in his senior year. This probably caused some panic in his former aggressors. He developed a soft spot for the little guys getting picked on and would use his new-found stature to intervene and more-or-less beat the piss out of the bullies, to hear him tell it. I think he must have had a bit of a lasting chip on his shoulder, though, for when he was in his early twenties and I was an even Younger Tree, I recall that he would sometimes go out to bars seemingly looking for a reason to get into a brawl.

Junior always kept some fight in him, but he stopped such youthful shenanigans once he started a family of his own. He gave me a bit of insight into his life and his way of being one night during a Christmas party at my parents' house, telling me a story about when he started his family. He told me that when he and his future wife, Kelly, were expecting their first child, he had never had anything resembling a career, preferring instead to find work here and there, make hay while the sun was shining, and enjoy his leisure time in the country. Some of his peers and family doubted his ability to hold a job and provide properly, and they told him so, coaching him to find steady employment and settle down. But Junior didn’t care to fit into any sort of mold, and he told these folks that he was going to go into the woods and cut enough trees to build a house. They all laughed at him, he told me, as he had never built a house in his life. But he went into the woods, by himself, cut logs and dried them in his mother’s yard, bought more cheap lumber from old buildings being demolished on the American naval base, and checked out a book from the library with the illustrative title “How to Build a House.” With the help of some friends and family, he built a beautiful A-frame and he and Kelly made their family in it. It remains a warm and beautiful home to this day.

That story contains the crux of Junior’s life philosophy, I think: decide what you want to do, follow through with it, and for the most part, don’t listen to anybody else. It’s quite straightforward and it seeped into me over the years – and quite poignantly on the very night he told me that story. I was 23 at the time, and had just returned home after spending seven months traveling in the U.S. and Canada, and working building mountain biking trails in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Junior appreciated that I was spending my early twenties traveling around the country, working here and there, and acquiring new skills; he said I had the same spirit as him in that way. He told me about his own departure from his parents’ home when he was a teenager. He was 16, just finished high school, and his mother said “I don’t know where you’re going to live now, but it’s not here.” So he got on the ferry in Argentia and hitch-hiked to Toronto to find work. He talked about running out of money and sleeping on the sides of roads, but loving the sense of freedom such spontaneity gave him: the mystery of not knowing what was coming next and the sense of personal power in deciding everything for himself.

He was speaking my language. In the previous seven months, I had travelled about 20,000 kilometres on my own and had lived in Calgary, working in the mountains west of there, for three of those months. I had learned to read people and trust my intuitions, rely on the kindness of others, and go with the flow of things (I ran into the trail-building job by chance, after getting stuck outside of Calgary trying to hitch-hike to the Okanagan Valley). I was also developing a sense of agency that I hadn’t really possessed before, and was experiencing that my own attitude had real-life consequences. Though our circumstances were different, Junior and I had had some similar experiences, and he looked at me with perfect understanding and nodded his head as I told him that I was starting to realize that the biggest barrier for me in everything I had ever tried and failed to do was myself; that every time I was defeated it was because I had made a choice to be so. Junior then said, “Well, if you realizes that, then you can do whatever you wants.”

I paused. “What do you mean?”

“You can do whatever you wants,” he said again, more emphatically this time. “If you’ve only got yourself to answer to, then you’re the only one who’s going to decide what you can and can’t do. No one else. You don’t ever have to listen to what anyone else says you can or should do.” And, pushing his index finger into my chest, “You do whatever you wants to do.” I don’t know if it was at that exact moment, but sometime around then I remember having this strange sensation that my insides were made of wax, and that they were heating up, bubbling and shifting about, and then they hardened into some new and unexpected shape. I was entering into a new era of my life where my own sense of agency would be the guiding force. It was exhilarating.

Talking more about this, Junior told me that he really tries to instill this sense of self-direction into his own children, and that he doesn’t care what they do in their lives, so long as they are their own masters. I think his greatest desire was that his children grow up to be independent, free-thinking people who live on their own terms, and never have to answer to anyone they don’t respect. He told me that he wasn’t too concerned about it all, because he believed both of his children to be hard-headed individuals who were never going to be told what to do by anyone, including himself, which he was mostly okay with. He also wanted them to have practical skills – to be able to catch their own food, build their own shelters, and fix their own machines – which he taught them at every opportunity. He did fear for their future, though, as he told me at a different gathering a few years later, when only he and I remained, talking into the early morning. “It poisons me, Peter, to see my children with these phones and TVs and toys that are all being made by children like themselves. They don’t even realize that they only have them because other youngsters are working like slaves to make them. It’s not right.” He went on to lament our disposable society. “If something breaks, you should fix it. But these days if something breaks we just throw it into the garbage and don’t think twice about it. If my son's or daughter’s phone stops working, they’ll toss it away and buy a new one, because it’s easier to do that than to fix it.” (Junior had the same cell phone for about 15 years). “It sickens me to think of the plastics and electronics and other pollution in the forests and oceans and rivers. The young people don’t even realize that the way they live their lives causes it – my children might not even be able to fish in the same places as we do now. It poisons me. Poisons me.

A few years after that, in the summer of 2016, Junior came to see myself and The Blooms play at The Ship Pub, but he wasn’t feeling well and made a trip to the hospital shortly after, where he found out that a misdiagnosed hernia he had been dealing with for some time was actually cancer. He went through all of the usual treatments, and some experimental ones, over the next year or so. We'd visit now and then. In September 2017, my mother called me to come home because Junior was in the hospital. About a dozen of us gathered around his bed there, saying our respective goodbyes. His wife and children were there, as were many of his siblings. I didn’t say much except “thank you,” as I held his hand and moved my face close to his, so he would hear and see me. Some people who lived elsewhere sent messages to be read out to him. The television was on in the room and advertisements played surreally in the background: Jim “The Hammer” Shapiro, personal injury lawyer, bleating out a sales pitch that seemed to become intermittently muffled and amplified by the thickness of emotion in the room. Everyone was crying.

It was known that Junior did not want to take his last breaths in front of his wife and children. A nurse came in to check on him and everyone left the room except his eldest sister, and it was in that moment that he died. His body was cremated and his ashes spread on Castle Hill, where he grew up. We raised glasses of liquor and threw all of the dust and bone into the wind, overlooking Placentia Bay. Some of those ashes sailed out into the bay, some went to the trees and ground around Castle Hill, some blew back onto us. Some went up my nose and, standing by myself later in the afternoon, I sneezed out small pieces of my godfather’s earthly body. Another brief union, another departure. “Thanks for the fishing trips,” I said to the dust.


Both man and master, in the night are one

Some things are equal when the day is done

The prince and the ploughman,

The slave and the free man

All find their comfort in old John o' Dreams.

- From "John O' Dreams" by Bill Caddick, a favourite song of Junior's, which I sang at his funeral service


Musical Chairs by Youngtree & The Blooms is available on CD and vinyl at Fred's Records and through the store on this website. You can also stream, download and follow on all streaming services.

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The man you see here, staring handsomely ahead with confidence and panache, is Raymond Wakeham. This photo was taken at my parents’ wedding in 1978.

Ray was the original writer of the song Musical Chairs. I suppose he felt compelled to make a comment on life’s impermanence, and he found a rather simple and clear metaphor in the children’s game of Musical Chairs: all those children dancing around, with a little adrenaline pumping for fear of losing their seat, knowing they’re eventually going to have to quit, but choosing to play anyway. From the moment I heard of the song’s existence, I was compelled by the metaphor’s elegance and simplicity and, in truth, I was kind of surprised that there were not well-known songs or poems that had already used it.

Let me give you a short biography, here. Ray was the fourteenth child born of sixteen, and my mother’s third-youngest brother. By the time he was being raised, there were enough of his older siblings sending money home that he escaped some of the more dire poverty that those siblings themselves endured. But the family was never well-to-do and Ray paid for his first guitar by cutting out cod’s tongues on the Jerseyside wharf and selling them. None of the children lingered long around the house they were raised in – they moved out right after high school, if they finished it, and earlier if they didn’t. Ray was no exception. He spent most of his adult life fairly transient, following work where it took him. He went to Toronto in the ‘80s to make hay while the construction-boom sun was shining, and helped build the famous roof of the SkyDome in the process (that building is now known by another name that shall not be written here). He eventually got a ticket as a journeyman welder and got into the oil and gas industry, working in Alberta, Ghana, Louisiana, the North Sea, the Grand Banks, and a slew of other places. But he always ended up back in Newfoundland. It was in Southeast Placentia that he and my dad took a drive one Sunday afternoon and saw a house on four acres for sale at the edge of town. My dad convinced him to buy it and Ray set up his nest there.

Ray's first guitar, taking centre stage at the Musical Chairs album release.

There are a few of Ray’s traits that really stand out for me, but none more than his intensity as a performer. His quasi-improvisational style and tendency to become possessed by a song drew people in. This stood out to me even as a young child; and even among the crew of very fine singers and musicians that were the Smith and Wakeham families, Ray had a unique ability in performance. I can conjure an image in my chest of Ray with a guitar on his thigh, leg lifting off the ground, brow furrowed, eyes rolling up towards the ceiling, arm swinging in a reckless arc, mouth exploding open to bellow out the lyrics, the gap between his two front teeth boasting its existence, and the eyes of everyone in the room on him. My eyes were on him, too, and I was as pulled in as anyone by what I witnessed. I had no shortage of role models musically, but Ray possessed something entirely separate from musical ability. It’s like the music was just a vehicle for this other thing to come out, and when it did, Ray went away. Something else moved through him and he either disappeared completely or was taken somewhere else. And I recognized that back when I was a young child, and I wanted to go wherever he was going, or become whatever he was becoming. It was a mysterious secret and I wanted to be in on it.

That mysterious secret, these days, I call the Performer. As it was with Ray, music has been the vehicle through which I can let the Performer come to the surface. When I write about the Performer I am not talking about myself, or even something within myself; rather, I am speaking about a separate entity – a kind-of singular, universal spirit that expresses itself through human beings (maybe animals and plants, too – how can I really know?). I believe some people are called by it and aren’t satisfied until they commune with it in some way. Ray was called by it, and so am I. These days, every time I get on stage, I’m opening myself up and inviting the Performer to come out. If I let myself disappear from the scene, it comes out freely; if I can’t disappear, it doesn’t come and I’m forced to deliver the whole performance by myself, without the aid of this mysterious friend. In my view of things, the truest performance contains no ego whatsoever, only the flowing out of the Performer to the audience. I think I could probably spend my whole life endeavouring to fully become the Performer and never achieve that goal; perhaps that’s why it’s so alluring in the first place. Somehow, watching Ray inadvertently sowed some of the seeds for all of this in me. (By the way, did you know that the word ‘vocation’ comes from the Latin vocare, meaning ‘to be called,’ in a spiritual sense?).

As an aside to this story, regarding the aforementioned gap between Ray’s front teeth: I’m just now remembering that when I was younger I noticed a correlation between front-tooth gaps and singing ability. I think I based this primarily on Madonna and Uncle Ray, and a few others I can’t recall right now. Going on the assumption that the gap caused the singing ability, I began a regular practice of wedging guitar picks between my teeth, trying to create a gap that would make me a better singer.

In 2009, I was 22 and Ray was 45. After months of traveling solo in the U.S. and Canada, including a week in Nashville that galvanized me to take up songwriting in the first place, I returned home to rural Newfoundland. Many a party was had that summer, as is normal in my family, and we often played music all night long, as is also normal in my family. One such party was at Ray’s house. I had recently learned A Pair of Brown Eyes by Shane MacGowan and sang it for Ray. He loved The Pogues and loved to hear me sing it (I recall also singing China Girl by Iggy Pop that night and he was really not impressed at all by that one). Eventually I got some courage and tried out the first song I had written while in Nashville. It was called Spring Mountain and it went over well at the party. I didn’t tell anyone I had written it at first, in order to reduce my feeling of vulnerability, but Ray yelled out, “You wrote that one! I know you wrote it!” and I was forced to admit it to everyone. This led to the conversation in the room shifting to Ray’s own songwriting. It was news to me that Ray had ever written songs, though not at all surprising; he had the spirit of a poet, if not the practice. People kept talking about Musical Chairs, a song he had written about 20 years earlier. They asked him to play it at that party but he refused. I decided I would ask him about it again down the road when we were alone. I did just that several times over the next few years, but he still wouldn’t play it for me. I’d share new songs I was writing with him to try and coax him along, but he only relented enough to agree to dig up his old lyric book for me sometime. In 2014 he made good on his promise and gave me his lyric book; in 2015 he made good on his impermanence and dropped dead. Yup. A heart attack over a cup of coffee on an April morning. I had the lyric book in my desk at the time, with about five versions of Musical Chairs written in Ray’s hand inside. I took Ray’s first verse and set it to music. Then I wrote a chorus and two more verses: one about my aunt #Margie and one about Ray. (Actually I wrote three more verses, but in album pre-production the producer, Chris Kirby, thought the third verse didn’t fit as well and that the song could use a bridge instead, so I dropped the third verse and wrote a bridge and that’s the song now. It was a good insight.).

An early version of Musical Chairs, written in Ray's hand. Circa 1990.

Ray died happy. I have no doubt about that. I don’t doubt it because he lived contentedly. I think the quality of death is proportional to the quality of life. Depending on your belief system, that may make zero sense to you or it may seem self-evident. In my own belief system, the quality of one's life is not measured in accolades or successes or wealth amassment or the admiration of others, but in a person's state of mind; and having a good state of mind requires treating others well, letting go of past hurts and old grudges, having some flexibility with ambitions, and acceptance of unexpected outcomes. I believe that Ray understood this. And I believe that when he fell on to his floor that morning his mind did not become agitated, but rested in the contentment he had cultivated in his life. That may be no consolation for his wife who was there with him, preparing to embark on a life together that was suddenly cut short, or for his brothers and sisters who planned to go out on the bay and fish and sing and drink and eat with him, or his nephews and nieces and step-children who loved him greatly; but it makes me smile as I feel assured that he reached a place of peace before his death. I think in the end that’s really the best any of us can do. We are all, after all, headed for that Dirt Party. So I say: Good job, Ray. Well done.

I heard you died in the morning, drinking your coffee

Your wife in the bedroom, there was no way to stop it

Your chair got taken but I won't complain

For you always understood and you so loved the game...

You gave a flawless performance and when curtain call came

You bowed out gracefully and danced off the stage

It was Musical Chairs, Musical Chairs

Get up and dance, there's no need for fear.

Our seats will be taken, so a fuss don't be makin'

We're all playing Musical Chairs


Musical Chairs by Youngtree & The Blooms is available on CD and vinyl at Fred's Records and through the store on this website. You can also stream, download and follow on all streaming services.

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