My grandmother often said to me, “La ignorancia es atrevida,” or “ignorance is daring.” Another of her favourites (related to a 19thcentury Spanish rejection of Darwin), “Asomó el rabo.” This translates to something like, “That person is so ignorant that his tail (a monkey’s) is showing.”
I can remember very well two of my personal showing of my monkey’s tail.
In the early 60s a friend of mine who knew a lot about music (he liked Ella Fitzgerald a lot and had all her records) asked me, “Have you heard Carmina Burana?” I answered, “No, who is she?”
In the early 70s while teaching high school in Mexico City my students asked me if I had ever heard Alice Cooper. My answer was identical to the one above.
My students were mature for their age and did not laugh at me. I was told that we would trade. I would introduce them to my music and they to theirs. I was invited to a party. The put on record and told me it was one of their favourite bands. The band was Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. While I thought they were good I forgot all about them. I had no idea who any of them were much less that Young, was Neil Young and that he was Canadian.
Two months ago I decided to end all these years of my Neil Young ignorance. Perhaps I was stirred into action by a CBC Radio This is That segment on an American producing a Neil Young film biography.
I went to London Drugs and in their very good CD rack I went to the Ys and found Neil Young’s Greatest Hits. I immediately played it when I got home and fell in love with Ohio.
I have never met Neil Young and I have never heard him perform live but there is something about his singing, his songs, his guitar playing, his harmonica that I find unique.
Since I am not a musician I took Les Wiseman’s double advice, “Write about that which you know and if you don’t consult experts.” But the fact is that I asked four people, one at a time, if they would write something for my blog in which they would explain the special significance in the scheme of things Canadian of Neil Young. They prevaricated and they they turned me down.
Neil Young is three years younger than I am. But perhaps he might die and when he does I am sure that everybody will be contributing their brief moments of contact with greatness in social media. These are the same people getting ready their social media, ambulance chasing little obituaries for the any day, now, demise of Keith Richards.
But until Young dies and if I am still around will it only be then that I will find out what makes this man unique?
This is why I will attempt in this little essay to see if I can find my own answers.
It wasn’t until the year 2000 that I discovered (what should have been obvious) that to feel nostalgia for a place you have to be somewhere else. It was in that year that the two Argentine painters Juan Manuel Sánchez, his wife Nora Patrich and I explored our personal nostalgia for Argentina and in particular Buenos Aires.
If you have served your country (and I did as a conscript), fell in love with two women while there in Argentina, swore allegiance to a flag and constitution you would have thought that I feel deeply as an Argentine. But that was not the case. For years I have felt Mexican because I lived there for many years and American because I spent the formative teen years of my life in Austin. My sense of nationality is a tad confused. My former mentor and friend, Raul Guerrero Montemayor considered himself “híbrido” because of his mixed origins, education and the fact he spoke more than 10 languages.
So I can safely state that I feel Argentine, Mexican and American because I am in Canada.
I married my Canadian wife Rosemary in Mexico City in 1968 and it was only then when she taught me about Canada. I knew nothing until then.
When we moved with our two daughters to Vancouver in 1975 my first hint of belonging to this country happened because of the CBC. The CBC was the first entity to employ me as a photographer. It was while listening to the CBC that I found out that Newfoundland was pronounced New- found- land. It felt good to pronounce it the way they did.
My further venture into feeling Canadian was learning to dance the Argentine tango in Vancouver and having people observe me and ask me about my native Buenos Aires. Somehow there was an inkling of being Canadian when explained.
But here is where I go out on a limb. Argentine tango is music of a city, Buenos Aires. Few foreigners will know that outside of Buenos Aires the music heard is called folklore. It has no connection with the tango. And yet many say that the tango was imported from Uruguay.
Listening to any tango transports me to Buenos Aires, to my youth and to my two girlfriends. Listening to Piazzolla is even more direct to my brain. Is there any other music in any other part of the world that is of one city?
Reading Jorge Luís Borges (all of it) and Julio Cortázar (most of it) is to be in Buenos Aires, to recognize the street names and the places in the stories. Are there any other writers anywhere else that wrote about only one city? Argentines call that “costumbrismo.”
This brings me to the fact that while I met and photographed Leonard Cohen (but none of the famous female Canadian singers) I find him less Canadian and much more part of the world. We Canadians (and I am one sometimes!) should understand that Cohen is not only ours.
But what is it about the sound of Young, his harmonica, his voice can be derivative of his friend Dylan and yet?
There is something about his sound (and Ohio is a good example of that) that can only be understood deep in the heart and mind by someone from here — someone who is Canadian.
And yes, because of Neil Young I can truly say that I am Canadian and I can easily make believe I am somewhere else and that I experience nostalgia for my country.
Originally published at blog.alexwaterhousehayward.com.