Blue Rodeo – On the way to everywhere
The result is a seamless blend of rock songs and acoustic-based numbers that serves the album’s moody undercurrent. The writing often projects a sense of longing shadowed by the threat of loss. But because people tend not to want their listening experiences to be solely 50-minute excerpts from dark nights of the soul, Are You Ready also offers the tempering effects of the great equalizers (or, at least, great sustainers), hope and reconciliation.
Three of Cuddy’s contributions — “Rena”, “Runaway Train” and “Finger Lakes” — deal with that emotional mix, presenting it at varied boiling points. “Those songs are based on the sense of having come a long road with somebody and realizing that you’ve created a personality together,” he explains. “‘Rena’ is obviously about my wife. ‘Runaway Train’ is this fantasy, but it still uses the same thing: Regardless of what they’re looking for, these people in the song, they’re going to come back to the fact that they’re connected.”
“And ‘Finger Lakes’ is about a strange trip I did with my dad when he drove me to New York one time when I only expected him to drive me to Buffalo. Somehow it was this reconciliation, even though it was a tacit reconciliation. There was nothing said. And he left in such a strange manner, dropping me off at my apartment having driven two days and not even getting out of the car,” Cuddy says, laughing fondly at the memory. “But it did lead to a lot of better times in my adult life.”
A father is also at the center of Keelor’s powerful, occasionally ferocious title track, which originally appeared in a radically different form on Keelor’s EP from last year, Seven Songs For Jim. “My dad was in the hospital for about six months, and every day going to the hospital I’d listen to this Ian & Sylvia record. I think it’s called Full Circle, and he does a cover of ‘Big River’ on it,” Keelor says.
“There’s also a song on it that I listened to every day that Ian Tyson had written for his father called ‘Stories That He’d Tell’. And it’s just a masterpiece of songwriting and recording, just an incredible song. It has three slowdowns in it, just really beautiful. Almost every day when I was going to see my dying father, it’d make me weep because it was such a touching remembrance of his father. So along the way I’d listen to this version of ‘Big River’, and that ended up, I think, being the subconscious root of my ‘Are You Ready…to die?'”
The song that most nakedly travels the loss/longing/hope continuum is Keelor’s “Phaedra’s Meadow”, an old-sounding ballad (haunted by tin whistle and uilleann pipes from the Chieftains’ Paddy Moloney) that he’s happy to dissect. “The first three verses are about jealousy at really its most pathetic and, you know, bleak. When you are totally fucked with that regret. And the choruses are about after you’ve been lying in the heap of regret and remorse for an extended period of time. Just when it seems like it’s absolutely pointless and useless to continue, there’s that little glimmer of the eternal that shines through and you realize that you’re going to make it through this thing.”
Despite this talk of a Cuddy contribution or a Keelor contribution, all Blue Rodeo liner notes credit the songs to Keelor/Cuddy. It’s a conceit that Keelor calls a “Beatles adolescence hangover,” and author identification is actually quite simple: “If Jim sings it, he wrote it. If I sing it, I wrote it.” He continues, “By the time we started Blue Rodeo, I think we wanted to dig a little deeper into our own psyches and try to come up with songs that had a bit more resonance for us individually and personally. But we just found it easier to stick with the Keelor/Cuddy name thing because it underlined the partnership of what we were involved in.”
The collaborations, then, are musical and not lyrical. “We do try to marry Greg’s style and mine,” Cuddy explains. “We try to marry it a lot of times by just singing with each other. I put vocals on his songs that he might not put on his songs. He puts guitars on my songs that I might not think of….Because we’ve been a band for so long, we don’t really want to not finish our ideas. So if we have an idea and we want to see it through, then the partner be damned. It’s gotta happen. And I think we’ve learned to respect that in each other.”
Friends since high school, Cuddy and Keelor definitely have had enough years together to cultivate that respect. “I finished university, and Greg picked me up with my furniture and whatever else fit in his station wagon, which wasn’t much,” laughs Cuddy. “And we’ve been partners since that day.” Adventures in the Canadian Rockies and on the Great Lakes freighters followed, with Keelor finally buying himself a maple Ibanez guitar so he could play alongside Cuddy and his black Ibanez. With the help of the Gordon Lightfoot and Everly Brothers songbooks, he made himself ready for the stage.
The pair started a new-wave/power-pop-leaning band named the Hi-Fi’s in 1978, moved to New York, moved back to Toronto, and formed Blue Rodeo in the mid ’80s. Like any 30-year relationship, musical or otherwise, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing, but they’re still at it. Says Cuddy, “We’re glad that we avoid the histrionics of so many bands: ‘I can’t be in the same room as that person!’ We’ve gone through that. We’ve burnt all that crap out.”
There’s another song on Are You Ready that addresses the creation of a joint personality, an unshakeable connectedness. “Can’t Help Wondering”, with a pop shine threatening to break through and traces of a Stax bounce, seems to be shaking off the last vestiges of Palace Of Gold. It’s one of Cuddy’s Keelor/Cuddy contributions, and it pays tribute to, well, Keelor/Cuddy. Its second verse is the most telling: “I’ve no regrets, no I couldn’t think of one/We both kept the road/The road we stumbled on/You and me walking home/Fighting the morning light.”
OK, maybe at least partial answers to some of those initial naive questions lie in the no-regrets sentiments of “Can’t Help Wondering”, as well as the remembrances of a trip through the Finger Lakes, of the drives to the hospital with Ian Tyson riding shotgun, and of Bono still needing to be loved. When all’s sung and done, it’s not how “major” you become or even so much where you end up. It’s more how you get there and with whom; the stranger the path, the better.
“Having lived a little while, you realize that you can’t change a lot of things and that you have to accept the imperfect nature of many things,” Cuddy says at one point during our conversation. As he and Greg Keelor and their Blue Rodeo bandmates sang thirteen years ago, “If we’re lost/Then we are lost together.” And there’s got to be comfort in that.