I landed on Taiwan just a week ago, after an unexpected turn of events. I left the van at my friends Scotty and Jen’s place on Vancouver Island, reasoning that it’d be better left there than in Vancouver, and I could just take the ferry back to the city for my flight. Misfortune struck, though, in the form of a storm at sea, so big that the ferries couldn’t safely sail. So I was stuck ’til the following morning, when I made it to the airport to beg my way onto the next flight.
The change meant an overnight in Shanghai, which I thought would make for a good opportunity to catch up on email, and maybe even finish this Travelogue, totally forgetting about the Great Firewall of China. Neither Gmail nor Facebook work there, so instead I settled for wandering the streets of that town of twenty-four million, taking a few pictures and fending off the advances of sex-sellers and would-be tour guides. Later back at the hotel, fiddling around a little more, I found that while searches for stuff like “VPN proxy” (whereby you could use the web through a back door) and “Falung Gong” (where the Chinese government supposedly harvests the organs of folks for meditating a certain way) returned no results, Wikipedia was still fully functional, at least in English, so I spent a couple hours reading about the various ways the Party has crushed dissent through the years. It made me ever more grateful for Taiwan’s tenuous existence, as the first flush of freedom in Chinese history.
Just the smell when we got out of the plane in Taiwan made me unbelievably happy, as did the bus ride into Taipei, the broccoli-covered look of the hillsides, the old brick farmhouses, the phoenix-crested temples, the rooftop pigeon houses and water tanks, and the sound of Taiwan’s particularly slurry brand of Mandarin. That evening I played a feature set at Bobwundaye’s weekly jam, and got predictably inebriated. The following day I got my host and Taiwan bassman Tom’s bike working, and reunited with the Anglers to rehearse and re-learn our tunes, which we hadn’t played in a year and a half. On Friday I started the bike trip, out to Jungli to play our old family home-away-from-home, the River. Both of my bands used to jam there every Thursday, and I’ve had many a late night at that bar, so it actually felt kinda overwhelming to be starting the tour there. But the folks were kind, and the owner Kimmy was in great spirits. Several of the old crew that I hadn’t seen in ten years or more appeared, including Andy from Japan, Zach from Idaho, and Matt from NYC. An amazing reunion as always at River, and a late one as always too.
The next day I got up early to haul down to Taichung for an afternoon mini-festival that Paul throws whenever I come, called Hobo Happiness. This was the fourth time around, and it went off without a hitch. The cops didn’t even come. My only complaint is that it felt way too short, to be reunited with so many good people at once, for a mere few hours.
The next day was another afternoon show, at a really cool new venue called Thinkers’ Corner, run by a Taiwanese professor, writer, singer, MC and activist named Jui-chuan Chang. The fabulous Mojo and Sons (made up of members of the great Muddy Basin Ramblers) opened up the show with an exciting set of old tunes that warmed up the room something fierce, and joined me on a few numbers later. It felt incredible to play for an audience of silent, open-eared and open-hearted people, a real rarity in my experience here. Some folks cried. That’s when you know it’s working.
The next morning I was up early again, anxious to take advantage of the abundant sunshine and get up into the mountains. I rode out towards Alishan, Taiwan’s second-highest peak, and followed winding ridgelines through the high mountain tea plantations and sun-dappled pine and cypress forests. The views were even more beautiful than I remembered them.
I stopped for the night in Fenchihu (奮起湖), a tiny town nestled on a mountainside that sprung up as a stop along the Alishan railway. The Japanese built the narrow-gauge line when they occupied Taiwan, to haul trees out from Alishan down to the coastal plain, but now it’s just for tourist traffic. I asked some locals who directed me to a Catholic hostel. I’ve stayed in the one in Taroko Gorge before, and it was cheap, so I went to check it out. When I pulled in it was dusky already, and there were three women having an animated discussion in Chinese. I walked up and asked about a room, and the tiny, stooped nun asked “你從哪裡來?” (where are you from?), to which I replied “我是加拿大人” (I’m Canadian), but as I was replying, I noticed her blue eyes fixing on me. It genuinely tripped me out at first. “I am from Switzerland”, she replied.
After I got over my initial surprise, I inquired more, and found out that she’d been there for over fifty years. The thought of it made my head spin. Taiwan was under martial law ’til 1987, and I don’t know many foreigners who were here before then. 50 years ago the streets of Kaohsiung and Taipei were full of bicycles, and there was no road to Fenchihu, only the train. There weren’t Taiwanese living there then, only Tsou aboriginal people. I tried to pick her brain for more, but she didn’t offer more than was asked. She had been back to Switzerland a few times, and remarked that they didn’t have Taiwanese-style 3-in-1 instant coffee there. That’s because they like good coffee in Switzerland, I said, but realized it wasn’t the right thing to say. There’s doubtless lots about the world that I know that she doesn’t. But she knows plenty I don’t, including one amazing secret, the secret to staying in place, staying where you think you’re needed.
The next day was another breathtaking drive south through the mountains to Cha Shan, a tiny town at the end of one of the most beautiful valleys I’ve ever seen, where my friend Tea Andy directed me years ago. On my way out of town, I stopped to ask an old fella directions, and he invited me up on his porch to have some tea. It turned out that he knew Andy, and asked after him. After more talking, it turned out that he remembered me, from when I’d come by years ago. He remembered that I’d come with a tent and a guitar and camped by the spot where fire and water meet (a methane bog that’s constantly on fire). I ended up deciding to stay at his guesthouse around back, which he rented to me for a friend rate of 500nt (about $20 Canadian), and he took me for a tour around town, pointing out the distinctive decorating and dress styles of the Tsou and Bunun tribes who live here, and saying hi to his friends. His wife cooked us dinner, and we retired to the porch, where we drank tea and coffee grown right in Cha Shan, and ate a fruit jelly that his wife made while we watched, from the seeds of a local fruit, ground together inside a tea bag in water and left to sit for about twenty minutes. He also gave me a “mystery fruit” (synsepalum dulcificum) to try, a red berry that once eaten, changes the taste of other things eaten afterward from sour to sweet, by the means of a glycoprotein named miraculin that binds to sweet receptors on the tongue. He showed me pictures of local bird species he’d taken himself, and I sang them a couple songs, much to their delight, even though they couldn’t understand the words.
Today’s drive was incredibly beautiful too, and it was graced by more different kinds of bird than I think I’ve ever seen along a drive in Taiwan, darting this way and that across the road. I even followed a bird of prey flying directly in front of me for quite a while with the motorbike. For parts of the drive the mist was spilling out of the valley and over the road so thick I could barely see the turns ahead. And later the sun shone beautifully on the aboriginal villages tucked in the valleys, with their colourfully-painted houses and profusion of flowers.
I took some pictures along the way, and will hopefully caption them sometime soon:https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10156371313235650.1073741851.755910649&type=1&l=1a82da0d3c
I rolled out of the wilderness today, grateful for the sweet reminder of the beauty of this island, the importance of alone time now and then, the interwovenness of the world, and the amazing generosity of Taiwanese people, like the mechanic who took my bike for a spin to see what was wrong, brought it back and fixed it, and took it for another spin to make sure it was fixed, and flatly refused payment. What a place. I’ve got just a few more days left on this lovely island, and even fewer dates:
Wed Dec 16 – Kaohsiung – ROCKS with Jack Conqueroo and The Smokes
Thu Dec 17 – Hengchun – Goat’s Reggae Bar
Fri Dec 18 – Dulan – Tin Pan Roadhouse with Mister Green
Sat Dec 19 – Hualien – house concert with Paul Lawrence and Mister Green
Sun Dec 20 – Taipei – Sappho Live with the Anglers and Mojo and Sons, 8:30pm
All the details, as always, are on http://www.scottcook.net/news.php.
Next Wednesday I’m flying to Australia to move into my other summer home, Skippy the Bush Kangaroo. I’ll be landing in Sydney on Christmas Day, and heading straight up to Queensland for the Woodford Folk Festival, a legendary fest in its 30th year. The next three months’ll be spent around Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia, doing the usual gigging in addition to a fair bit of bush camping and writing. I think I’m finally learning to slow down and play less shows, as the shows themselves get better. The tour dates so far are:
Sun-Fri Dec 27-Jan 1 – Woodford, QLD – Woodford Folk Festival
Sat Jan 2 – Maleny, QLD – Upfront Club
Sun Jan 3 – Brisbane, QLD – Triffid Roots with Irish Mythen, 2:30pm
Wed Jan 6 – Hervey Bay, QLD – school workshop and house concert
Fri Jan 8 – Guanaba, QLD – house concert
Sat Jan 9 – Sandgate, QLD – Sandgate Music by the Sea Festival
Wed Jan 13 – Wauchope, NSW – house concert
Thu Jan 14 – Gymea, NSW – Sutherland Acoustic
Fri Jan 15 – Sydney, NSW – The Acoustic Picnic
Wed Jan 20 – Canberra, ACT – Canberra Musicians’ Club
Thu Jan 21 – Bendigo, VIC – Billy Roy’s Blues Bar
Fri-Mon Jan 22-25 – Newstead, VIC – Newstead Live! Music Festival
Thu Feb 4 – Port Noarlunga, SA – South Coast Folk Club with Liz Stringer
Fri Feb 5 – Adelaide, SA – Wheatsheaf Hotel with Liz Stringer
Sun Feb 7 – McLaren Vale, SA – Red Poles Cafe, 12:30pm
Sun Feb 7 – McLaren Vale, SA – The Groove Garden
Fri Feb 12 – Melbourne, VIC – Eaglemont house concert
Sat Feb 13 – Beechworth, VIC – Tanswells Commercial Hotel
Sun Feb 14 – Wadiligong, VIC – Wandi Pub
Fri Feb 19 – Candelo, NSW – Acoustic night at Kameruka Hall
Sat Feb 20 – Nowra, NSW – house concert
Sat Feb 27 – Woy Woy, NSW – Troubadour Acoustic Club
Fri Mar 4 – Sydney, NSW – house concert
Sat Mar 5 – Collaroy, NSW – The Shack
Sun Mar 6 – Katoomba, NSW – Live in the Attic at Hotel Blue
Fri-Mon Mar 11-14 – Mia Mia, VIC – Burke & Wills Folk Festival
Thu Mar 17 – Melbourne, VIC – writers’ round at Lomond Hotel
For the month of April, it looks like I’ll be heading to New Zealand, though I’m not entirely sure yet. I had considered South Africa, but since nothing’s coming together, I think it’s best saved for another time, likely December of 2016. Part of playing better shows means not rushing into things, or trying to force them when they don’t want to happen.
I’ve been busy since I last wrote you, friends, but the shows have been great, and I’ve learned a lot about the way forward. About how saying no can oftentimes open up better opportunities. And about how most of the obstacles I face now are my own.
In Ontario I got to play with some of my favourite songwriting comrades, David Newberry, David Ross MacDonald, and Winona Wilde, and got to play the third show in a very well-paid series that had so far hosted Jonathan Byrd, Steve Poltz and Irish Mythen, all powerhouse writers at the top of their game. Then in Saratoga Springs, New York, I got to open for my friend and mentor David Francey at the oldest continuously-running coffeehouse in America, Caffe Lena. There are pictures on the wall from when Dylan played there. All of that, together with other shows over the past year, seemed to coalesce into some kind of long-elusive validation for me. You see, I’ve always struggled with feeling like I’m an imposter, like I can’t play with the big boys and girls, like I’ll choke when the big chance finally comes, like I’m bound to go on slumming it and scraping by forever, like I’m not really worthy of my lofty dreams. But this past year has proven to me over and over that those things I’ve been telling myself aren’t true. I’m a slow learner, but I think I’ve finally gotten the point.
Lurking in the shadows of that realization was a familiar part of me, the part that’s afraid to step forward, that’s attached to all those old stories, that wants to play small, and throws obstacles in my own path to keep myself where I am, to keep itself alive. In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield names that force Resistance. I haven’t beaten Resistance, and one probably never can, but at least I’ve gotten to know it better.
When I started out in this business, most of the doors I knocked on didn’t open. Most people I emailed or called didn’t get back to me; most of the “gatekeepers” I met wrote me off as an amateur. And I was. I hadn’t walked far enough through my own lonesome valley of self-doubt. I hadn’t put enough work into my craft. And I sabotaged my own efforts, by telling myself defeatist stories, by shrinking from the real tests, and by overindulging rather than facing my challenges with sober determination. As time’s gone on, more and more of those doors that were closed have opened up to me. I’ve been given opportunities that other people dream of. And now it’s amply clear that the majority of the obstacles I face are internal. I know how to succeed at this business by now. And I also know all too well how I routinely let myself fail.
After the Caffe Lena show I had four days off, and I managed to find the perfect cabin in the Adirondacks to hole up in, with the Hudson River running by out front, the fall colours all ablaze, no neighbours, a woodstove, a firepit, a hatchet, a woodpile, two oil lamps, and no power for the computer. At last I had the space to mull over those lessons, to learn a couple fiddle tunes on the banjo, to get back into my yoga practice, and to write a song for the first time since spring. I resolved to carve out more time for stillness, silence, and routine along the road ahead.
One small step toward that will be making my home in Vancouver for the month of May, and in Toronto for a month in late August through early September. I know, it’s a far cry from actually settling down, but it’s a step in that direction. And incremental progress is the only kind of progress worth aiming at.
Before I left Ontario I went back to the Folk Music Ontario conference, reunited with a lot of folks I’ve missed, made some new friends, and played a couple very satisfying sets in hotel rooms. From there it was a straight shot home for the Alberta Showcase conference in Fort Saskatchewan. The Second Chances came along, we did our best, and we managed to get a bunch of cushy gigs for 2017. Both conferences served to further drive all the above points home.
After a few more shows around Alberta, including an amazing night at the Bailey Theatre in Camrose with the Long Weekends, I was off to the wilds of northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba for two weeks, playing living rooms, basements, community centres, and even one bar, in a whole bunch of towns I’d never been to, and several I’d never even heard of. The tour was organized by Home Routes, a group based out of Winnipeg that has developed fourteen different tour circuits of mostly private houses in mostly rural communities all across Canada. My last run with them took me up to the Yukon. If hosting concerts in your living room sounds like something you might be interested in, have a look at http://www.homeroutes.ca.
A few days into the tour, I hit a crazy storm on the road up to The Pas, Manitoba, white-knuckled it through what was surely one of the gnarliest drives of my life, and admittedly wondered why in God’s name anyway in their right mind would live up there. But I found a lovely community there, as I did in Flin Flon, further north. There’s an admirable ruggedness and also a ridiculousness to northern life, no better exemplified than in their onetime winter pastime: dragging an old car out onto the frozen lake and taking bets on when it’d fall through the ice in the spring.
Flin Flon’s got a vibrant music scene, and a hospitable community that opened its arms not just to me, but also to the Syrian refugees who will soon be arriving. They had just gotten the news, and they had already raised thousands of dollars and organized a sold-out fundraising dinner.
Touring through tiny towns in the prairies in the wake of the tourist attacks, I actually expected to hear more xenophobic talk than I did. I can’t say I didn’t hear any, but for the most part, I was hearing the tolerance, hospitality, and generosity that make Canada great.
Not so with the country of my birth. Over half of the States’ governors said they wouldn’t take refugees, and Republican frontrunner Donald Trump even proposed banning immigration by Muslims. The irony of closing our doors to the people caught between our bombs and a campaign of terror by a group we helped to create was lost in a chorus of fear-mongering by the folks on TV.
In case any of you dear readers are unaware of how rightly the West can take credit for ISIS (and Al-Qaeda too), please do have a read:
For an additional dose of irony, consider that our biggest Arab ally in the region, Saudi Arabia, is pretty much the Mecca (no pun intended) of Wahhabi extremism. In a recent poll, 92% of respondents agreed that ISIS “conforms to the values of Islam and Islamic law.” The Saudi judicial system is based on Sharia law, dealing out beheadings for crimes like blasphemy and apostasy. And these are the people we arm and support.
I was only back in Edmonton for three days after the Home Routes tour, but did have the opportunity to watch our Edmonton Eskimos win the Grey Cup with my parents, and to play a lovely farewell show at the Mercury Room with Bram on banjo, Shari Rae sitting in on bass, and Jacquie B joining us on vocals. My one-time wrestling opponent Nadine Kellman, my Aussie buddy Benjamin James Caldwell, and a mind-blowingly good new-to-me local gal called Lucette all played amazing sets that warmed up the night and filled up my heart.
From there I braved the icy roads to Salmon Arm to play my buddy Mike’s house alongside old friend Trina Nestibo, and to Vancouver to play Skinny Fat Jack’s with my friends Dennis Bouwman, Michael Rush, and Marin Patenaude. It was a huge helping of soul food, as was the whole visit to the coast. As Winnie the Pooh says:
“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying good-bye so hard.”
Just two more orders of business in the propaganda department, dear readers, and then I’ll let you go. Some of you will already be familiar with my longtime friend and UK tourmate Jez Hellard, but you may not know that he’s about to drop a new album on the world, and it’s his best work yet. In the interest of full disclosure, I should let you know that he covers two of my tunes (“Pass It Along” and “The Lord Giveth (and the Landlord Taketh Away)”) on this project. He’s also got songs by Cahalen Morrison, Tucker Zimmerman, and a bunch of other folks you may or may not know, along with mighty sets of traditional tunes from the British Isles. Twin fiddles, flatpicked guitar, double bass, harmonica, uilleann pipes and accordion blend together into something terrifyingly huge. It’s an amazing record, and as of this writing, you’ve still got a little time to pre-order it! You’ll be glad you did.
Secondly, as I said earlier, the TV’s no place to get your information about the world. For example, it seems those unlucky enough to be benighted by the nightly news barely know who Bernie Sanders is. He’s received 1/30th the network TV coverage of that asshat, Donald Trump. And yet he’s consistently drawing bigger crowds on the campaign trail than Trump or Clinton, and fares better in polls against both of them. Time Magazine just chose him as Person of the Year, and he was on the cover of Rolling Stone. Could it be his willingness to take on Wall Street and the corporocracy that the TV news doesn’t like? For whatever reason, they’ve chosen to pretend that Clinton’s already the chosen Democratic candidate. Now, I don’t agree with Bernie on everything, and I’m not saying he can be our saviour. If we’re to be saved at all, we’ll have to save ourselves. But it would be incredible to have somebody in the White House pulling for us. If you don’t know about him, please check out http://www.berniesanders.com, and throw some money his way if you can!
Alright, that’s all the news that’s fit to print for now. I’ve got a gig to get to. Sending you all the love from here,
prairie balladeer, hi-tech hobo
prairie balladeer, hi-tech hobo