Thoughts on life, music and Spirit of the West’s last show (with videos)


Spirit of the West holds a lot of real estate in my heart.

Though the cloudy mists of memory might obscure the details I think I got the vinyl LP of Tripping Up The Stairs about 29 years ago when my buddy Tim owed me some money and chose to pay it back with records. It, along with early exposure to The Pogues, introduced me to traditional Irish music and prompted me to find the Vancouver chapter of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, where the late Michael Muldoon taught me to play the whistle. I wanted to play the tunes Geoffrey Kelly played on the album—The Kesh Jig, The Blackthorn Stick, Pigeon on the Gate—but at the time they were beyond my grasp, and I didn’t have music for them. Now I understand that one learns traditional tunes best by ear, but the internet of today gives access to almost any tune ever played or recorded.


I continued to follow the band as their music progressed and evolved. Sometimes there was more rock, sometimes more folk, sometimes John Mann’s clear, melodic voice, sometimes Geoffrey Kelly’s growl. I saw them live whenever I could: The Commodore, The PNE, the Stein Valley Festival, whatever venue 86th Street turned into. They were always great, even when Geoff Kelly grew his hair out and wore Chip and Pepper pants on stage, and their music was powerful, moving and fun. Their song The Crawl was the basis for my (and many others) bachelor party. I still have absolutely no memory of Deep Cove’s Raven Pub, the final destination of the crawl. Not proud of that, but it is what it is.


FullSizeRender-4The Commodore Ballroom is another touchstone of my life. The venue has been around since 1929, but I became well acquainted with it 60 years later when I realized that I was one bus from downtown with student loan money in my pocket. I’d been there before, coming into town with friends to see Shriekback or the Mr.T Experience, but this was something different. As a student journalist I often got tickets to gigs if I wrote a preview article or did an interview. It was almost a scam, really, but it meant that as a student and afterward I walked up those carpeted stairs to see The Pixies, Sugar, the Jazz Butcher Conspiracy, The Cramps, Voivod, the Beat Farmers, Dave Alvin and his Pleasure Barons, The The, DOA, Billy Bragg and more, often with the same gang of ne’er-do-wells. I know people who were there more frequently, but I was there enough to have a pretty fierce connection with the place. Now, as a grown-up living in the suburbs with little kids I don’t have as many opportunities to maintain that connection.



Last Saturday night, April 16, 2016, brought these things together again as (thanks to a Christmas gift from my lovely and intelligent wife) I joined the same aging youth gang of the past thirty years (plus a couple I haven’t known quite as long, but might as well have) for Spirit of the West’s final show. Lead singer John Mann is battling early onset Alzheimer’s and drummer Vince Ditrich desperately needs a kidney transplant, and the band planned to end their 32 year run with a bang. We were there to celebrate, bear witness, and say good-bye to a band that we loved, and which had no small hand in shaping us into the eclectic, weird-ass middle-aged farts we’ve become.



They didn’t disappoint. Mann, despite his current challenges, was a dervish, so full of the joy of music that he danced around the stage whenever given half a chance. He now reads lyrics from an iPad, but that doesn’t detract from the unutterable beauty of If Venice is Sinking. The band was tight, the guests were fun and it was a classic SOTW gig, except that at any chosen point about half of the sold out crowd had tears in their eyes. That was the thing: this was a full house of people with an emotional investment in this band, and we wanted to give them a proper farewell as much as they wanted to give us one. I think everyone got what they needed from that night, and now that the night is well over I hope John Mann and his wife Jill Daum find some peace in their struggle, I hope Vince Ditrich gets a kidney, I hope Geoffrey Kelly, Hugh McMillan and Tobin Frank keep making music somewhere, and I hope you enjoy these videos. There’s other ones I would have like to have recorded, but I was either dancing too hard, or other people were dancing too hard around me.






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Nanowrimo Challenge/ A Snippet of Work

Like 99 per cent of the posts on this blog, this comes as a request/challenge/prod from Chuck Wendig. The idea was to post 1,000 words of one’s Nanowrimo project, or if not doing Nanowrimo post 1,000 words of a work in progress. I intended to take part this month, but technical issues and teething issues mean this hasn’t happened. Here, however, is 883 words of something that, having reread what I’ve done, I want to get back to.

Rachel sat by the fire in Hawthorn’s house. She held her knees to her chest, shivering and crying as the adrenaline left her system. The killer had just appeared and she had reacted. She had no idea that she was capable of killing another human being, but she had done just that. She hadn’t even realized what had happened until the man was on the ground, strangled eyes bugging out of his head while the garrote dangled from her right hand. He had been trying to kill her, she reasoned, or at least hurt her, or take her to someone else who would kill her or hurt her. She knew it was something she had to do, but she kept thinking that he was alive, and now he’s dead, and he might have a family, or kids, or a dog, or—

“Snap out of it,” said Hawthorn. “Drink this, it will make you feel a bit better.” He handed her a steaming mug of tea, and when she lifted it to her face the heady vapour of whisky drifted up her nose. She took a long sip and felt the heat course through her muscles. Hawthorn pulled a chair near her and sat down. He had something on his lap, wrapped in a soft cloth.

“Let me tell you a story about two people,” he said. “The first was a young man, not much older than you are right now. He wasn’t a fighter, by any means, but planned to study the law, and spend a life surrounded by books. Such was not to be his fate. He was pulled from his schooling and roughly trained to go and fight for his king against some other king. In his first battle he was so afraid to die that he fought like a demon, killing all who came near him. When the battle was done he got sick on the field, threw his armour off where he stood, and swore never to take up arms. The trouble was that he was extremely good at the taking up of arms, and they came looking for him often enough that they became his career. He became a leader of warriors and a name to be feared. Many weapons adorned his walls, some gifted to him by superlative craftsmen.” He nodded down at the package across his knees.

“One such is this, but I’ll get to that in a moment. He lived a life of arms until circumstance and necessity forced him to give it up, and that was not, indeed, an unwelcome turn. That man, of course, was me. The second man was my student. Unlike me, he was drawn to martial life from a young age. He studied and trained in the arts of war, of battle, and of command, and he also was extremely skilled. He did not draw his first blood in battle, though. He had learned his skills in a time of peace and had not put them to the test until two men attacked a friend. One was about to cut the boy’s throat and the other was on the watch for authorities. This man disarmed and killed the first man efficiently and instinctually, and held the other man, unharmed but for the broken arm he was given, until authorities arrived. Then he, too, went into a corner and was sick on the ground and questioned his actions, his training and his life. I let him know that he had acted as a good person would. He had saved his friend, and had not needlessly killed the accomplice. He had felt remorse, but still did what needed to be done.” He unwrapped the package, which contained a fine, narrow sword, its blade damascened and its unassuming hilt tightly wrapped in red leather.

“That second man was your father. I gave him this sword as a token of my esteem. It is not a pretty sword, but it was made by a master, and is perfectly balanced.” He looked her in the eye.

“Tonight you acted without thought for yourself and did what needed to be done. You did something you didn’t want to do, and wouldn’t have done if given a choice, but because of you, I am able to stand here and tell you this story.” He held the sword in the palms of both hands and extended his arms toward Rachel.

“I gave this sword to your father, and when he needed to begin living a life of peace he gave it back to me to hold. It is an outstanding weapon, light enough that a small person can wield it easily, but crafted so that it floats through the air as if its user was controlling it with their mind. For what you did tonight, and for who you have become, I would like you to have this weapon.” Rachel held out her hands and Hawthorn gave her the sword. She gingerly accepted it, taking pains not to touch the blade with her fingertips.

“Thank you,” she said.

“No, Rachel,” Hawthorn replied. “Thank you.” Rachel stood up, moved away from him, and tried some slow, tentative moves with the blade.

“We shall work on subtleties,” he said dryly, “but for now I am confident you are not a danger to yourself.”



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Flash Fiction Challenge: The Four-Part Story

This is my submission for Chuck Wendig’s latest flash fiction challenge, the Four-Part Story. It seems like a somewhat complete story, but of course it leaves several big options for continuation. I like this world, and might do something with it, you know, if I finish all the other things I started.

The hunt would be successful, Birdkin thought, and all because of him. None of the River tribe had caught any meat this time, and it had seemed like they would dine on nuts and greens because of it. But now he, Birdkin Riverson, was poised to fill the larders of his people. He had spotted a vole sniffing and scratching its way through the forest and he was poised to fall upon it. He was stretched taut on a branch above, camouflaged. His skin was already as brown as the bark, and his long hunting coat—brown with hints of green—hid the rest of him. Once the rodent approached his blind he would drop on its back and cut its throat with the his knife. He would claim the heart as his warrior prize and mount the teeth as a necklace, or on a war club, or maybe a war club necklace, he wasn’t sure.

The animal came nearer, twitching its whiskers as it scrabbled in the dirt for seeds. Birdkin started to loosen his grip, then froze. Across the feeding trail the vole was using, past Big Cedar, but definitely in River Tribe territory, was a Village Tribe scouting party. Three that he could see, crouched in a thicket chewing on trail rations. They weren’t making any effort to hide, but he wouldn’t have seen them if he wasn’t up on the branch. He let out a birdlike chirp, which alerted Blackwhisker and her sister Greywhisker, perched in a crook of Gnarled Oak. They looked toward him and he pointed toward the hostile patrol. More subtle chittering and chirping alerted the entire hunting party, which began converging on the three Village people.

Birdkin watched his vole trundle through the brush past him and sighed. No meat for now, but this was more important. If the Village Tribe was bold enough to break an age-old truce something had to be done about it.

This had been a wide-ranging hunt, and riverfolk spanned the area around the enemy patrol. Now with a few well-timed signals they moved silently over the forest floor, weapons drawn, and before the villagefolk saw what was happening they were surrounded by surly, growling River people brandishing bows, swords, pikes and knives. Shinetooth Eightfingers stepped forward and addressed them.

“You are in the land of the River People, which is ours by ancient truce, and in which the presence of People of the Village is proscribed.” The three Village people seemed unperturbed.

“State your business, and explain why we should not make you a fine meal for ravens.” A lanky, green-skinned warrior of middle years stepped forward.

“Our business? We wanted to take an afternoon stroll to a part of the forest we’ve never seen. You have pretty lands here. I can’t tell you why you shouldn’t kill us, except that we made it onto your lands undetected and more of our people may decide to take afternoon strolls. They would not take kindly to our deaths.” A squat, heavily-muscled nutbrown thug piped up.

“And we killed your sentries without you noticing so we—“ A green woman in an acorn helm swatted him in the back of the head.

“Shut your seed-hole, Dirteater.” Two River Tribe scouts ran up to the group.

“We found Thistle and Mossbeard! They’re dead! Garrotted with spider silk!” A collective growl rose from the assembled River people.. The green patrol leader grinned slyly, but his satisfaction was cut short by fierce whistles from Blackwhisker and Greywhisker.

“Cat!” Everyone yelled in unison, and scattered as the animal, a striped tom, landed in the clearing. It swatted its massive paw toward the three Villagers, knocking Dirteater unconscious several feet away. The animal leapt to him and held him down with a paw, not noticing that Dirteater’s two companions were now attacking it. They first threw pikes at its flanks, then before it wheeled around began hacking at the back of its legs with their swords. The River folk were stunned. No-one they knew had tried to take on one of the cats in battle. It was unheard of, until now.

The Whisker Sisters drew their bows and let fly volleys of arrows at the beast, while the rest of them surrounded it and aimed arrows and spears. The bravest and most foolish closed with the creature and tried to stab it with their small weapons. Birdkin was one of these, climbing tufts of fur on its leg and hacking tendons before he was thrown off again and again. The cat was not used to its prey fighting back and attempted to flee, but it could not shake off its attackers. The green woman in the acorn helm spun a weighted length of woven silk above her head, then released it to spin around the cat’s front legs. She pulled it taut and the animal began to topple, yowling in fear. Most of the warriors who had been climbing its flanks jumped clear, but Birdkin, who had made his way almost to a shoulder, kept hacking away, unaware that he was about to be crushed. The green woman, seeing this, leapt forward and into the air, tackled him around his midsection, and propelled him out of danger. He looked up at her, and tried to thank her, but hitting the ground had knocked the breath out of him. He mouthed the words just as his own people surrounded her and dragged her away.

Once the cat was down and they had access to its throat the crowd made quick, if messy, work of the beast, then took inventory of the situation. Three River warriors lost their lives, as did Dirteater and the Village patrol leader. With the work of the rest of the tribe they would have meat to last for many moons, which was fortunate, as they didn’t know when the Village Tribe would make its attack. They withdrew for the night, and Birdkin, snug on his moss bed, dreamed of a green woman in an acorn helm.

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Holy Crap!

I just went through stuff on the blog (and consequently on my flash drive at home) and figured out that I have 18,000 words, or 59 double-spaced pages, of completed flash fiction. I wonder if it would be worth my time to do something with this, maybe print up a little chapbook just so I have one on my shelf? I’ll have to think about that.

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Must contain three things

It’s been a while since I completed something for Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge. This one’s late, but I mouthed off about finishing something the previous week, so I figured I needed to do this.

The challenge was to include three things chosen randomly from three lists. I chose an assassin, a magician and a sword.

A fishmonger! Yes, Ned thought. That’s what he could be. He could sell fish, or cheese or be a farmer or, hell, he could muck the byres for yet another farmer. Anything other than what he was doing right now, which was picking his way, more or less silently, up a rocky hill. At the top of this hill was a stone keep, and within this keep lived a magician. That’s what the guy had said, when he hired Ned at the tavern last night, but Ned was pretty sure magician meant wizard, and wizard meant that by sunrise he might be living his life as a sugar glider, or something similarly small, cute, harmless and stompable.

Edges on the rocks tore at his Assassin gloves and poked holes in the soles of his soft leather Assassin boots. His Assassin cape flapped in the stiff wind, occasionally whipping around his face and blinding him. They had been a package deal, along with a menacing Assassin hood and matched Assassin knives, one of which had snapped at the tang the first time he’d thrown it at a tree. Ned had seen them on a merchant cart in the Lion’s Quarter, and they had called out to the coins he had earned mucking byres, as well as to his need for a change of career. It didn’t matter that he had no experience as an assassin, or as anything, really. He had drive, he had confidence, and he considered himself a man who could fulfill a task and keep a secret. He also considered himself a man who would look sharp in Assassin clothes while quaffing ale at the tavern. Thus, when the odd-looking man approached his table at the Randy Hound and offered him a contract to kill a magician with a specific sword Ned had accepted, promising secrecy and discretion.

Now Ned sat on the rocks, not twenty feet from the foot of the tower, and wondered how he could go on. His hands and feet were tender, bloody and exposed. With every step he took, the sword banged on the rocks. He wrapped the cape around himself and considered just going back to town. Working on farms wasn’t all bad, he thought. Perhaps adventure was overrated. But he had taken the job and accepted the sword. If he couldn’t walk how was he supposed to fight a magician? He looked down at the cape he was absently stroking then pulled out his remaining Assassin knife. He took off the cape and cut it into strips, wrapping the soles of his boots and the palms of his hands. He took the sword off its hip belt and slung it over his shoulders so it wouldn’t drag, and he continued up the hill.

Newly invigoured, he arrived at the base within minutes and began looking for an entrance. There wasn’t one, at least not one that he could see. He realized that a keep of this size would have both stables and some sort of drainage, and searched around the edge of the stone broch until he found a culvert, hidden by a bush, with a trickle of dirty water. The culvert was big enough for him to crawl into, but it was tight. He got on his hands and knees and began creeping up the tiled tunnel until it opened into a midden sorely in need of cleaning. He didn’t see or hear anyone in the open centre of the keep, so he ducked into a nearby doorway. He wiped muck off his hands and drew the sword over his shoulders. He crept silently until he came to a flight of stairs, then stepped slowly and carefully up them until at the top he came to a well-lit and cozy room where an old man read in an enormous chair. Ned brought the sword into a high guard, and prepared to strike at the old man when, without looking up from his book, the man made a quick hand gesture and Ned was frozen in place.

“Another one sent to kill me?” he asked, looking up. “Well, at least you’ve made it further than the rest. I’ll relieve you of the sword, then.” His outstretched hand clenched into a fist and the sword tugged itself from Ned’s hand and flew across the room, where he caught it and leaned it against a wall.

“So, why do you want to end my life?” Ned didn’t answer.

“Of course, one moment.” Another hand gesture and Ned had control of his body once more.

“I don’t want to kill you,” he blurted. “I mean, I was hired to kill you, but I don’t even know who you are. I just thought it would be better than shoveling cow shit for the rest of my life.”

“My boy, shoveling cow shit is honest work, and nothing to be ashamed of. Still, I see your point.” He stroked his beard. “What was your name?”


“Well, Ned, my name is Waldric, Master Waldric to my apprentices. How would you like to become my apprentice?”

“But…” Ned looked around. “But I came here to kill you!”

“Yes, but you didn’t succeed, did you? What you did was to perservere, make creative use of what you had on hand, and find a way in which was difficult and less than pleasant. These things make me think you could handle learning from me.” He picked up the sword and absent-mindedly fingered the designs etched into the sheath.

“You should know, of course, that if you don’t accept I shall have to kill you.” Ned gulped.

“I think being your apprentice would be more of an adventure than being an assassin,” he said. “I accept. Can I sit down now?”

“Not so fast, my young friend,” Waldric said, flicking the sword out of the sheath and directly under Ned’s chin. “This is a sword of judgement, and I have one final question. Who hired you to kill me?” His eyes bored into Ned’s.

“Um…well…it was…” the sword moved a little tighter to Ned’s chin, but he let out a sigh and relaxed onto the blade.

“I can’t tell you,” he said. “So I guess you’ll have to kill me.”

“You can’t tell me? And why not?” At this Ned stood straighter.

“Because I gave my word that I wouldn’t. I may not be any kind of assassin, and honestly, I’m fine with that. It was a really bad choice on my part. But I don’t go back on my word, so please kill me and be done with it.” After a pause, Waldric moved the sword away and resheathed it.

“Correct answer, Ned. Finster chose well.”

“What do you mean chose well?” He patted his neck to make sure it hadn’t been cut as Waldric leaned the sword against a wall and sat down on a bench.

“I grow old, and I have not had an apprentice for some years. I sent Finster to look for someone of character, someone who looked interesting. When he saw you, a stable boy who would be seen publicly in that ridiculous garb, he thought you might be cut from a different cloth than many who pursue my arts.”

“But I know nothing of magic!” Ned protested. “I barely went to school!”

“That is no matter,” Waldric replied. “Given enough instruction a monkey could learn to cast a simple spell. I can teach you the magic. You, however, are tenacious, creative and honourable, and those are qualities which cannot be taught, and are necessary for the responsible use of magic.” Ned beamed.

“So what shall be my first task, Master Waldric?” The magician stroked his beard.

“Well, the byres haven’t been mucked out in a while. Start with that.”


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Superheroes Plus

Yes, this is yet another Chuck Wendig flash fiction challenge. 🙂

The challenge was to mash-up a superhero story with a different genre. I picked noir.


It had been so long since she’d seen daylight that Drea sometimes thought she was part bat. She trained and fought in the darkness, slept during the day, and stalked the city streets like that night creature. The comparison didn’t continue, though. Bats hung together, flew together and occasionally communicated with one another.

Drea worked alone.

She double-checked the motocross armour under her leathers, wrapped her hands, pulled sap gloves over them, and donned a full-face leather mask, its IR goggles adjusting to the dimness in her warehouse space. Eschewing the brightly lit front gate she slipped onto the fire escape and in two quiet leaps and one flip she reached the alley. No-one had heard her, and her matte leathers blended in with the late evening shadows. Now all that remained was roaming through the night and stomping all the cockroaches that came out when the sun went down.

She pulled a hood over her face and left the alley, striding with confidence, but in no particular direction. This neighbourhood of warehouses, seedy clubs and bodegas came to life at night in a way it never did in the daytime. Urgency, for drugs, sex, money or a combination of those, was endemic. It pumped a nervous energy onto the streets that belied the leisurely strolling and leaning against walls. This wasn’t where Drea would choose to spend her nights if she could take off the mask and rub shoulders with society, but she sometimes wished she could join this melee rather than ghosting through it and culling its bad seeds.

She slipped from shadow to shadow, listening to conversations, absorbing the goings on. The nights were longer, so there was more time for the street’s sordid business, but it was colder, so fewer people were out just for the sake of being seen.

Drea heard rumblings as she passed an alley. She couldn’t see the situation clearly, but it looked like a couple of thugs had a woman cornered behind a dumpster. She crept into the alley and hopped silently onto the dumpster. Two guys, medium size, looked like they hadn’t slept inside for a few weeks, had cornered a woman who looked a few steps higher on the social ladder. One of the guys brandished something that looked like a knife, the other kept looking around as if he expected someone to show up. Drea decided to be that person.

Without warning she leapt from the dumpster, cranking her body around so that she kicked both of the thugs in the head before she landed on the ground. She watched the woman squeak and run deeper into the alley, and so missed the three monstrous goons who came in behind her, followed by a tall, slim man in a grey mohair overcoat. She turned around just as the tall man gave his thugs a nod and they came at her. Drea backflipped back onto the dumpster to get some height advantage, then chose the stupidest looking dude in the bunch and launched herself feet first at his chest. The impact jolted him backward and she used the momentum to drive her fists into his nose a couple times. She wasn’t big, but body mechanics and weighted gloves kept her on par with most opponents. This one was no exception. His hands went up to protect his shattered nose, and Drea was off to the next man. She was just levering off the first guy to put a boot in the second guy’s teeth when she was slammed to the ground with a blow like a sledgehammer from the third guy, who she had forgotten.

He had, in fact, hit her with a sledgehammer. Her body armour distributed some of the force, but the blow still drove her directly into the cement, knocking the wind out of her. The tall man took the hammer.

“You lads should leave,” he said. “I don’t need you to see this.” They nodded and filed out of the alley.

Drea lay on the ground, sucking in breath and trying to get her wind back. The tall guy loomed over her, a quizzical grin on his face.

“Why, you’re not even really a superhero, are you? You’re just a little thing that knows how to fight.” He reached down, grabbed her by the collar, and hoisted her up so she was leaning against the wall. Holding her collar with one hand, he used the other to rip the mask over her head. He examined her face and gave his head a little shake.

“Not even a single superpower,” he said. “I’m disappointed.” He ran his index finger down her cheek. He shivered and his eyes narrowed, but he still grabbed her uncovered chin. He didn’t notice his hand turning blue.

“Give us a kiss, normal girl,” he said, his hand now shaking. Instead she spat in his face. His eyes widened and he froze so quickly she had to reach up and take his icy hand off her chin. He fell rigid to the ground and broke into four large pieces. She looked down at the pieces, wishing she didn’t have to touch them again, but she picked each one up and tossed it into the dumpster before it started to thaw.

“No superpowers I like using, anyway,” she said, pulling the mask back on and the hood over her head. She stood for a minute, reveling in the heat she had taken from the dead man. Her whole body was warm, so warm. She headed out of the alley to resume her patrol.

It was always good to be warm on such a cold night.


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Tales from Black Friday

Chuck Wendig challenged readers of his blog to write a story in tweets using the hashtag #talesofblackfriday. It was an interesting exercise. Not sure if it’s a decent story, but it was fun to do something fast, with a 140 character limit to each bit. Apparently I can’t embed Storify directly, so here’s a link, or you can check out the story on Twitter, @dangerd3an.

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