Paul Quarrington and I are driving to Kingston to do readings at a prestigious book event. Close friends since 1965, we are an odd pair on this brilliantly sunny morning in the spring of 2008. Paul has this nagging cough, and a hoarse voice, which I assume to be singer’s anxiety, as we were both slated to buttress our book readings with a handful of original songs. While I am physically healthy, I’m an emotional train wreck: going through what can kindly be described as an intensely manic period, talking faster than Howard Stern on speed. Leaving Toronto, Paul asks me a question about a certain bestselling female author’s sexual proclivities. I enthusiastically venture an opinion. Or rather a soliloquy. I’m still talking, three hours later, as Kingston looms ahead. And no closer to answering.
“You feeling okay?” Paul finally asks.
“My shrink says I suffer from cognitive dissonance.”
“Oh, you have a shrink!”
“Yeah, he said if I keep carrying on in lunatic fashion he’s going to shut me down.”
Paul squints back at me, impressed. Something about power struggles between creative maniacs and shrinks resonates with him. As per usual, he one-ups my shrink story with one of his own.
“Well, Danny boy, I wrote the longest erotic scene in the history of Canadian fiction and my two female editors marked up my pages with two complaints. ‘Too much ball cupping. And the couples change positions too many times.’ They pissed me off so much I ended up seeing a shrink. He told me, ‘It’s your book, with your name as the sole author, so write whatever you want.’ ” (Paul, a Governor General’s Award-winning author, was smart and tough enough to keep his erotic passage intact, and went on to secure a Giller Prize nomination for this novel, Galveston.)
Once we get to city hall, Paul, weakened by three hours of coughing and listening to me prattle on, can’t quite muster the strength to carry his gear. So I toss the two guitar straps over my shoulders and we make our way in. Because my real job is singing my songs to a paying audience, the notion of reading from my newly released book about my father and me and our complex relationship, while sharing the company of three esteemed authors, has me rattled. Fortunately, it’s been arranged that we will sing in between readings. This calms me. Somewhat.
But my anxiety rockets when we hear the new plan. The reading and the singing will happen at separate times. In the music world, concerts unfold strictly according to plan. But, as I’d been finding out, in the book world things keep changing by the second.
“Damn Paul, that’s not what was on the program. I can’t read without the comfort of a guitar in my lap. I’m outta here.”
“Don’t worry, Danny, I’ll take care of it.”
No question Paul is the seasoned pro here. Book readings have played a big part in his life for 30 years. Minutes later, Paul strolls back. Problem solved. The reading and singing can go down during the same 20-minute performance.
After our sound check, Paul and I walk up to the anteroom. While I stand about awkwardly, and Adrienne Clarkson goes on to novelist Gil Adamson about how much Michael Ondaatje likes Gil’s book, Paul disappears into the washroom. Fifteen minutes later, still no sign of him. Tapping gently on the door I ask, “You feeling okay?”
Minutes later Paul is on stage, riveting all of us with his opening scene from his latest novel, The Ravine.
“God, he’s amazing!” Clarkson whispers, reaching out for my hand, while I shudder, recalling our boyhood in the Toronto suburb of Don Mills, where unspeakable traumas down by the creek and culvert were a rite of passage. Once Paul scares the bejesus out of me with his reading, I scramble onstage, still shaken, and we sing a duet version of Cat Stevens’s Father and Son. The last time we’d performed it was in 1970, in a bar on Toronto’s Jarvis Street, after we’d lied about our ages in order to get hired.
“You see that old lady throwing back the beers in the corner?” Paul asks.
“Notice how she groans in agony whenever you hit your high notes?”
“You’re just jealous ’cause you can’t sing as high as I can.”
Our folksinging duo is called Quarrington/Hill. Paul is 16, a year older and with a lot more guitar tricks under his belt. But I can sing my ass off, and, like Paul, have a natural flair for lyric writing and chord slinging. So the two of us really click as a songwriting team. Alas, competitive as only teenage boys can be, we never miss an opportunity to take the piss out of each other: Paul needling me over my histrionic vocals while my brother Larry and I gang up to tell him rhyming to someone’s name is cheating. “What about ‘Michelle, ma belle’?” comes Paul’s snappish comeback.