I have a large collection of Blues music, but it came to me mostly by accident and from only one source.
At the beginning of my College journalism program we were assigned a local celebrity. We had three months to research and write about their life. The 2500 word final product would count for some ridiculously high percentage of our final, first semester grade.
I was assigned Brian “The Source” Murphy, a local FM DJ. Brian had been working for Ottawa FM radio stations for as long as I had been alive. He was also just months removed from having been fired from his job of fifteen years. He had built the record library of the most successful FM station in Ottawa, “Chez 106”, then built a huge and loyal following as host of a six hour blues show every Sunday.
He had the stereotypical blues-man’s deep, gravel filled, voice and a methodical and slow manner of speaking; he was constantly broke; he dressed in the same clothes pretty much everyday — blue jeans, cutoff jean vest, poor boy cap, various buttons; he had the long, thinning ponytail held together with a plain elastic, long sideburns, and the scraggly goatee; he had a wonky eye and wore large glasses.
According to everyone I spoke with, he also knew more about rock, pop, blues, jazz and ragtime music than most people know about their own genitals.
But the station decided it cost too much money to have experienced employees. So, four months after receiving a plaque for his many years of service to the station, and without letting him say goodbye to his fans, they axed him.
I only conducted one interview with Brian, but it lasted eight hours. We sat in the basement of his small home and, surrounded by thousands of records, thousands of CD’s, thousands of reel-to-reel’s, thousands of cassettes, he basically schooled me in blues culture.
I only brought three hours worth of tape for the interview, but every time we filled one, he’d pull out another fresh tape so we could keep talking.
Brian was obviously depressed from having been dumped by the station he helped start. I was the first ‘reporter’ he had spoken to about what had happened. Brian was 53 when I interviewed him, he had been working in music since he was 16.
After being dumped by CHEZ he had tried to get in with a new FM station called “The Bear”, but management decided Brian’s voice was too associated with his former employers.
So when I met Brian he was putting together mix-tapes of blues music for downtown restaurants to play in the background while people ate. Brian’s mixed tapes are legendary in Ottawa. During his years as a DJ he attracted hundreds of fans, to whom he would regularly send out tapes. Each one was a history lesson, all of the songs related to each other somehow.
I found someone in my village who had been on the mailing list almost since the beginning. He loaned me some, including some recordings of Brian’s show, but only if I put up my lungs as collateral.
I didn’t get on the list, mostly because Brian didn’t really like how I portrayed him in my article, but when the interview was nearing its end Brian started handing me copies of his mixed tapes. Blues, to me, at that time, meant George Thorogood & The Destroyers, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Led Zeppelin. I remember, when I told Brian this, he looked like he wanted to cry or hit me.
So he started handing me tapes, and trying to teach me what Blues music meant. Brian wasn’t a ‘music fascist’, but he understood — and wanted everyone to understand — the history of what we listened to. He was a teacher who, when he overhears a student say something equally retarded, like how the 2008 Ford Mustang is the coolest muscle car ever, will sit the student down and tell him stories about the 1971 Plymouth “Hemi” Cuda convertible.
One of the last questions I asked Brian was, “why haven’t you left?”. Why are you still living in a city where no one will hire you? Why haven’t you gotten the fuck out of here?
But he couldn’t leave. He was trapped. He rambled for a few minutes about keeping in touch with his fans. I can’t remember if he had any family. I think there was a failed marriage, and there may have been a kid, but I doubt my memory on both. He wasn’t lying about wanting to stay where people knew him, but the truth was moving away from Ottawa scared the shit out of him.
Brian didn’t get much of a severance from CHEZ. His only source of income when I met him was making those ambiance tapes for a few small restaurants. For a few years there was a small Blues club downtown, I think he made tapes for them for a little while. I know he started selling off his incredible record collection. From floor to ceiling, from wall to wall to wall, he had more than seven thousand records in his basement, including hundreds of rare and unique blues and jazz LP’s.
It feels a little cruel, but looking back he reminds me, just a little, of Steve Buscemi’s character in Ghost World. Cruel because, while “Seymour” could tell you everything there ever was to know about the song you were listening to, he never sold or traded his treasured records for food and rent.
The feature article I wrote about Brian was published six weeks after the interview, almost in its entirety, and with a large photo of him in his living room with a huge cardboard display cutout of Elvis Costello. I never called or visited Brian again. I heard from someone he wasn’t happy with my take on his life, and I have difficulties approaching people on the best of terms. So having my first serious published feature critiqued by the person featured was more than enough road block.
While I’ve never been sure he didn’t like it, the idea he didn’t has always bothered me. But I do believe I captured what he was going through, and what he had done, fairly.
‘In the vacuum created by the whims of public demand for generic sound-alike radio stations, and money conscious radio management, Murphy searches for meaning in his life. When he finds a piece and is forced to give it up, it’s a piece of himself that is lost. The only things left to him are his name, voice, reputation, his incredible collection of records and CD’s and a lot of bills.’
The article I wrote on Brian was my saving grace. My teachers, before I submitted the piece, were ready to kick me out of school when the semester was over. I had no income, I was untreated, I was self-medicating with Lithium, I was living in a room at the YMCA, my girlfriend of three years had just broken up with me.
I was showing up an hour late for school, everyday. I was a mess. I wasn’t suicidal everyday. But often enough that the remnants of one bout bled over into the next. I think Brian and I had a lot in common when we met.
But after submitting my piece on Brian everything changed. I was given a second chance. Inevitably I graduated, and was able to start a career.
‘Murphy’s voice never floated across the airwaves like the helium inspired voices today, rather it punched its way through the static and brought with it the message of; this is the music, this is how it started, it’s quite a ride so hang on and I’ll pull you through and show you what I can see. It’s big, it’s blue, but baby it’s beautiful, and it’ll suck the helium straight out of you.’
I still have eight of the twelve mix-tapes Brian pushed into my hands, and I’ve been listening to them almost non-stop for the past two weeks.
Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Aretha Franklin, Albert King, Ben Webster, Duke Ellington, Moe Koffman, John Lee Hooker — even Clapton and Offenbach, every cassette Brian sent out included carefully typed out liner notes, and a request that you include a photocopy of them if you made a copy for a friend. As much as it was the songs Brian loved, their history, and the history or the artist, was just as important.
Brian and I didn’t talk during our time together. By the end of the eight hours he had no more of an idea as to who I was then he did three days before I had called about the interview. There was no back and forth. It was an interview. It was my job to get him to talk about himself. And for the most part he told me stories about himself, about the people he had met, and most of them were practised from years of retelling.
But I had a heavy heart when I found out, in 2005, he had died. The only obituary I can find — written by Chris Cobb, my college ethics teacher, and a close friend of Brian’s — doesn’t mention a specific cause, but Chris did link Brian’s death to his slow deterioration after his dismissal from CHEZ.
I was searching for something non-pregnancy related to write about, and Brian kept popping into my head.