There was lots more he wanted to know, too. What was it like to grow up in Etobicoke in the 1970s, when Bidini was growing up there, and how were you supposed to figure out what kind of person you were going to be? What was up with the hellacious Flyers of Philadelphia, menacing their way to Stanley Cups? And what about, at school, the bully Roscoe: what was his problem?
Part memoir, part quest, part hockey picaresque, the book that Bidini has crafted to contain his inquiries is Keon and Me: My Search for the Lost Soul of the Leafs (Viking Canada). It’s his eleventh, and it’s lovely: heartfelt and honest, funny and poignant. It’s as compelling in its portrait of a Canadian childhood as it is in examining how hockey shapes and sharpens and — all too often — confuses us. For instance: if Bidini’s favourite Leaf was indeed the greatest ever to have worn the blue and the white, why has the team so doggedly failed to recognize his stature, and what does that have to do with Toronto’s lingering case of not winning Stanley Cups?
Bidini has, of course, long been in the business of chronicling the country, with a particular emphasis on what we do when we find ourselves with hockey sticks and/or guitars in hand. He is, it has been pointed out, the only of us to be nominated for Juno, Gemini, and Genie awards, and the CBC’s national these-are-our-necessary-books contest, Canada Reads.
As a founding member of the great, late Rheostatics, Bidini journeyed around the country singing its history and legends and praises for more than 20 years, yielding eleven albums along the way. He’s in front of BidiniBand these days, with a new album, In The Rock Hall, that he’ll be taking out on the road early in the new year. As a writer he continues to contribute a weekly column to The National Post. He’s also working with Olympic cyclist and speedskater Clara Hughes on a memoir of hers.
Fifty now, he lives with his family in midtown Toronto. There was wind blowing through the neighbourhood one afternoon back in the fall, and in the sky it looked like weather was coming. Bidini arrived on his bike, wearing his hat, and over a lunch of Greek salads and vegan bacon cheeseburgers with fries, submitted to questions.
Maybe more than your other books, is this the one you’ve been writing all your life?
Yeah, probably. And waiting for a long time to write. Waiting for the right moment. And waiting for the right angle into it. I started it — the idea was almost to write a fictionalized version of my life as a Leafs fan. I invented all these characters. And I got 10,000 words into it when I just decided it was either going to take too much work or it wasn’t going to be personal enough, that way. It was kind of a comedy. And I abandoned it. I went straight back to it being more of a personal thing.
And so the structure, with your childhood paralleling Dave Keon’s remarkable career and refusal to be provoked, how did you come to that?
That was late. I’ll give you a bit of the anatomy. The book started out, I was originally going to go to northern India, to this tournament they have in the Himalayas, played by … monks …. The IHF were going to have, I believe they were going to have their first sanctioned hockey game at a rink they’d built at the foot of the Himalayas. But I could never really get confirmation that the rink was working, that the players were going to show up …. It was going to be called Eat, Pray, Leafs.
So that was going to be the original thing. It was going to be an inner journey, it was going to parallel Indian mysticism … didn’t happen. And then I was going to write Diary of A Loser, which was going to be that comedic fictionalized look at my life, and that ended up becoming the Keon thing.
The way it goes down in the book, the Keon figure emerged over this series of incidents in which his name appeared, it sort of rose, and I realized, that’s the guy.
This might be your most personal book. Was it difficult to reach back to uncover what it was like being 11 in Toronto in the 1970s?
You start trying to get that, the chrysalis of memory, the true impression of what it was like, and then ultimately you start wondering whether that’s the way it actually felt like. That’s where it really dances between fact and fiction. Non-fiction, you’re sitting in a room, it’s all very austere, trying to do it very properly, and then fiction comes in a fucking checkered suit and a loud hat, right, and starts the party. Especially when I was reconstructing stuff like my cousin’s room, or hanging out with my parents, parties at my uncle’s place. It’s like, okay, I sort of have a sense of how this was, but I can sort of colour the edges. Which is how I kind of did it.
Is there ever a worry about writing about the people close to you, especially family? Does that ever hold you back?
Usually it does, but with this one I realized I had to just …. My dad read the book, and it was good. There was a lot of stuff that he had forgotten. He was glad that he was able to revisit it through that. I did tell him this was my impression, it wasn’t going to be totally accurate.
My wife actually told me a couple of books ago, I want you to totally take me out of anything you write in the future. She was like, you’ve gone down that road enough.
Although she does have a great line in this book about Mark Messier, that he looks like Agamemnon.
You talk in the book about the joys of just simply talking hockey, whether it’s with kids on the street or, in fact, when you finally track down Keon. Is that also one of the pleasures in writing a book like this: the jawing about last night’s game that we do as Canadians?
Yeah. And I do say in the book how, I think that used to be a lot more common in our society. And I think that’s what’s kind of nice about the book, in a way, it has kind of recharged it in our time. The Leafs playing well helps, obviously. Continue reading