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.
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.).
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