Farewell to The Pearl
Forgive me, this is off topic sort of…
There comes a moment in every life when a young person must decide how they intend to make their living and make their way in the world. In the words of Leonard Cohen, we are asked to “choose an ugly particular from the range of beautiful generalities.” It is difficult to say what influences such a momentous decision. But I’m quite certain that when I embarked on a career in journalism, it was under the influence of someone I had at that point never met, but someone I would go on to call a colleague and friend.
Most of you will have never heard of Earl McRae, who passed away Saturday from an apparent heart attack. He was 69. He was felled in the newsroom of the Ottawa Sun, and he was working on a Saturday. Earl was at an age and of a stature where he could well have ascended to a lofty management position, or retirement. Or at least he could have declined to work weekends. Part of what is so difficult to accept about his death is I had fooled myself into believing Earl had no off-switch.
Earl and I worked together for about nine years at the Ottawa Sun, where I started as a crime reporter and later became a music critic, and where Earl was a sports columnist and later a general news columnist, but was always a lover of early rock n roll — a subject he wrote about often and with great passion, knowledge and insight. Truthfully, I first met Earl a long time before then. My interest in journalism was sparked by the great reporting which appeared in the weekend color supplements in Canadian newspapers in the 1970s. Even as a kid, I was always enthralled by the in-depth, vivid feature articles which appeared in those pages, the way the great writers could take a subject of seemingly little appeal and find an interesting, humanizing, unexpected angle. Wow, I thought, someone gets to tell those stories for a living? What a great life that must be.
When I first met with Earl (or The Pearl, as he was sometimes known) in Ottawa, I had heard he had been one of the writers on those weekend magazines and I mentioned how influential that journalism had been. I told him I recalled a powerful profile of hockey enforcer Reg Fleming, and no sooner did I mention that name than Earl began reciting the final few paragraphs of the nearly 20-year-old story perfectly from memory. “You wrote that?” Earl nodded. I then mentioned a memorable profile of Arkansas-born, Toronto based rockabilly hellion Ronnie Hawkins and his battles to stay viable and relevant in a music scene that had passed him by. That was Earl’s, too. It seemed the profiles and articles that were indelibly stamped on my brain from that era all had one thing in common — Earl McRae’s byline.
As with some of the greats I’ve had the pleasure to meet during my years in journalism, Earl was entirely self-deprecating about his own abundant achievements and adventures. At the same time, he was endlessly fascinated by other people and had a soft spot for younger reporters. This is someone who managed to talk his way into a Toronto hotel meeting with the Beatles in 1964 and bluffed his way into a 1975 late-night racquetball game with his hero, Elvis Presley. When I mentioned to him that he might be one of the few people in the world to have met both the Fab Four and the King of Rock n Roll, he shrugged like it had never really occurred to him. Yet unlike so many renowned journalists I meet, who seem so much smaller and timid than what they project on the page, Earl was as loud and passionate in person as he was in his columns. When something he wrote outraged readers (a not infrequent event), he reveled in it. In the picture above, he confronts readers angry at his uncompromising coverage of Olympic sprinter Ben Johnson’s steroid scandal. Note the signs read “you make me puke” and “you bastard.” Too often these days, readers can take a known writer and a given topic and instantly conjure what their pandering take will be. That was never the case with Earl. He could be an unpredictable, thoughtful contrarian.