Monday, 3 June 2019

St. Louis Blues of the 1980s: Ever so close

This is is the logo of the St. Louis Blues, who made
the Stanley Cup playoffs every year of the 1980s.
(may be subject to copyright)
Much has been made about the St. Louis Blues making their first Stanley Cup final since 1970, but in the 1980s it wasn’t for a lack of trying.

They made it to the Stanley Cup playoffs every years and once to the semi-finals in dramatic fashion, coming ever so close.

Johnny on the spot
Throughout their history, the St. Louis Blues benefitted from the way the National Hockey League was aligned.

It started in 1968, the year they entered the league. When the NHL expanded from six to 12 teams in 1967, it decided to put the original six teams in one conference and the six expansion teams in the other conference. Since the conference champions met for the Stanley Cup, the expansion teams had a decidedly easier road to the Stanley Cup final. So, in those first three years – 1968, 1969, 1970 – the Blues made it to the final by beating weaker opponents to get there. That’s why, when they got there, they were swept four straight games all three years. That is the reason they were 0-12 lifetime coming in to this year’s final.

They benefitted in the 1980s from a similar situation. Now, starting in 1981, the league, which had expanded to 21 teams, was divided into four divisions. The top four teams in each division made the playoffs. First place played fourth and second played third. The winners played for the division championship. The division champions played for the conference championships and the two conference champions played for the Stanley Cup.

The worst division, by far, was the Norris Division, also called the “Snorris”, because the hockey was boring and the teams were mediocre at best. Routinely, fifth place teams from other divisions would finish with better records then the top four in the Norris, but were on the outside looking in. Worse, a Norris Division team was guaranteed a spot in the Stanley Cup semi-finals when, often, two or three Smythe Division teams were better. Not once in the 1980s, did the Norris champion make it to the Stanley Cup final.

So, a fair part of the St. Louis Blues’ playoff success was because they were Johnny on the spot.

Nevertheless, they still had to win the games.

In the beginning
The decade opened with the Blues making the playoffs for the first time in three years. They would go on to make the playoffs every season in the 1980s, and for 25 consecutive seasons overall.

They were swept in three straight games in 1980, but were back again in 1981 after winning the Smythe Division for the first time in four seasons with 45 wins, 18 losses, and 17 ties. They beat Pittsburgh 3-2 in the best-of-three opening round series, before falling 4-2 to the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup quarter-finals.

Before the 1981-1982 season began, the National Hockey League realigned. The Blues moved into the Norris Division with the Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Black Hawks, Minnesota North Stars, Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets. The Smythe Division was the other half of the Campbell Conference, with the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Vancouver Canucks, Los Angeles Kings, and Colorado Rockies (who would move to New Jersey the next season to become the Devils).

The Blues finished third in the Norris, setting up a divisional semi-final against Winnipeg which they won 3-1. They lost the division final 4-2 to Chicago, who would lose the conference final to Vancouver, who in turn lost the final to the New York Islanders.

More realignment occurred prior to the 1982-1983 season, as the New Jersey Devils, formally the Colorado Rockies, were moved to the Patrick Division. Winnipeg then moved from the Norris Division to the Smythe to replace Colorado/New Jersey. Now, four of the five teams in the Norris would make the playoffs.

The Blues finished fourth in the division with just 25 wins, earning a first-round date with Chicago, who won the series in four games.

The Blues finished second in the Norris Division in the 1983-1984 season. They defeated Detroit 3-1 in the first round, before losing in the second round 4-3 to Minnesota. The North Stars were swept by Edmonton who then defeated the New York Islanders for their first Stanley Cup.

The Blues finally finished first in the Norris in 1984-1985 with 37 wins, 31 losses and 12 ties. They would have finished fourth in the Smythe Division behind Edmonton, Winnipeg and Calgary, and just four points ahead of Los Angeles. However, things came crashing down as the Blues were swept 3-0 in the first round by the North Stars.

The next season, 1985-1986, became one of their most successful in the post-season since expansion. Although they finished third in the Norris, they exacted revenge over Minnesota by defeating them 3-2 in the first round, then outlasted Toronto 4-3 in the second round, winning their first playoff division championship. Awaiting them in the Campbell Conference final were the Calgary Flames who jumped out to a 3-2 lead. The Blues mounted a massive comeback, including a stirring come-from-behind, overtime win in Game 6, to take the Flames to the brink. Calgary would win, but the Blues took so much out of them, they had little left for the Stanley Cup final, which Montreal won in five games.

The Blues won the Norris again in the 1986-1987 season with a losing record, at 32 wins, 33 losses and 15 ties. It was their last division championship until the 1999-2000 season. They again would have finished fourth in the Smythe behind Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg. St. Louis again bowed out of the playoffs early, losing in the first round 4-2 to Toronto.

St. Louis finished second in the Norris in 1987-1988, defeating Chicago in the first round in five games, before losing in five games to Detroit in the division final.

The Blues rounded out the decade by finishing second in the Norris in 1988-1989 with 33 wins, 35 losses, and 12 ties. That set up a first-round date with Minnesota, which St. Louis won in five games. They in turn lost the division final in five games to Chicago.

Parting thoughts
The success of the St. Louis Blues in the 1980s mirrored the rest of the teams in their division. They would be competitive in their own division, making the playoffs every year, and occasionally winning one series. In one year, they did win two rounds, but suffered the same fate as Chicago, Detroit and Minnesota – losing, often badly, to the Smythe Division champion.

The conference never had competitive balance. From the time of realignment, the Smythe Division won every conference title in the 1980s and won five Stanley Cups in eight seasons. This situation was one of the main reasons the league would change the playoff format in the early 1990s.

It really would have been a miracle for the Blues to make the Stanley Cup Final, and they came within one goal of engineering that miracle in 1986. But that was as close as they would come for a very long time.

Yet, it still is a major accomplishment to make the playoffs all 10 years of the decade.

Now, they have a chance to put all that history behind them. They are currently tied 2-2 in the 2019 Stanley Cup final.

Friday, 31 May 2019

Why I like the Boston Bruins

This is the first edition of the Boston Bruins I ever cheered for, the 1977-1978 team that advanced all the way to the Stanley Cup final before losing to the defending champion Montreal Canadiens.
(may be subject to copyright)
As my beloved Boston Bruins are playing the St. Louis Blues for the Stanley Cup, someone asked me the other day, “Why do you like the Bruins?”

It is a good question, given I live in the heart of Calgary Flames country and spent another 11 years of my life living in the heart of Edmonton Oilers country.

My loyalty to the Bruins pre-dates the merger that brought the Oilers into the NHL in 1979, and the re-location of the Atlanta Flames to Calgary a year later.

It goes back to a family gathering and is rooted, in part by sibling rivalry.

In the beginning
My interest in the Bruins was first peaked in the 1978 Stanley Cup final where they faced the Montreal Canadiens, defending Stanley Cup champions. In fact, I soon discovered the Bruins had been swept by Montreal in the previous Stanley Cup final in 1977 as well.

To be honest, the main reason I cheered for Boston was that everyone else cheered for Montreal, led by my brother George. We were all at a family gathering, crowded in my Uncle Ed’s basement. It was the first hockey game I remember watching. Everyone was cheering for Montreal, and I wondered what the big deal was. They did seem better, stronger, faster. So, I resolved to take up the cause of the under dog – I was rooting for the Bruins.

They lost the first two games of the series in Montreal, including the one we watched at Uncle Ed’s, but managed to win Game 3 at home in the Boston Gardens. Game 4 was crucial, but I was unable to see it. I was in Grade 2 and we had a field trip to Drumheller. It kind of slipped my mind until I heard some of the adults talking about it. Our bus driver was a fellow named Abe Ens, so when we were filing onto the bus I asked him if I knew who won the hockey game. I was pretty sure I had heard one of the teachers say Boston had won the game 2-0, and Mr. Ens confirmed that. I was thrilled. Not only had Boston won, but goaltender Gerry Cheevers, one of my more favourite Bruins, got a shut out. He blanked the mighty Montreal Canadiens!

What I really liked was Cheevers’ mask. It was white with a bunch of stitches painted all over it. The team trainer painted a stitch in the spot a puck hit every time that happened, demonstrating how many times it saved Cheevers’ face. I even recall trying to make my own Gerry Cheevers’ goalie mask out of a magazine. I used white water colour to paint the front all white then tried to paint on some stitches. Then, I cut some holes in the side and laced some baler twine through. When I tried to put it on it was really stiff. Only later did I discover that masks were custom made and form-fitted to the shape of the goalie’s face.

Sadly, we returned from the Badlands, and things went bad for Boston too. Montreal won Game 5 at the Forum, and wrapped up their third straight Stanley Cup shortly thereafter in Boston.

Parting thoughts
Quite simply, I was hooked. That first series 41 years ago began an association that has gone through heartbreak, and triumph, and led to this point.

There have been other teams I have rooted for when the Bruins either were not playing, or had already been eliminated from the playoffs, but through it all I was, and remain, a Bruins fan.

Gooooo Bruins!

Friday, 22 February 2019

“That was then, This is Now”: Remembering The Monkees in the ‘80s

Davy Jones, Peter Tork and Micky Dolenz of The Monkees
in 1986 amid their 20th anniversary tour.
(may be subject to copyright)
They are best remembered for their TV show and hit singles such as “Daydream Believer”, “I’m a Believer”, and “Last Train to Clarksville” in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, but The Monkees experienced a bit of a revival in the 1980s.

That's where I first picked up their trail.

When Peter Tork, who played keyboards and bass for The Monkees, passed away earlier this week, it reminded me of when I first heard them, and of that comeback they made mid-decade.

The Monkees consisted of Americans Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork, and British singer and actor Davy Jones. They were formed specifically for a TV show that aired from 1966 to 1968, but they continued recording and performing until 1971. Through that period they would have a string of hit singles that included “Daydream Believer”, “Pleasant Valley Sunday”, “I’m a Believer”, and “Last Train to Clarksville”

Every day after school I used to watch “Entertainment Tonight” hosted by Mary Hart and a variety of male co-hosts, most notably Robb Weller and John Tesh. They did a lot of stories on current TV shows and movies, played some music videos and profiled a lot of celebrities.

They also did some interesting features. One that I recall very well was a look back at old comedies, partly because I not only looked forward to it every day, but I actually wrote them down each day.  There was “Hogan’s Heroes”, “The Real McCoys”, and…”The Monkees”.

I had never really heard of The Monkees to that point, but this piece on “Entertainment Tonight” showed old clips, interviewed the band members, and described it as a show that tried to capitalize on the popularity of The Beatles. I remember thinking these guys even looked like The Beatles.

It was not until I started listening to music on the radio that I actually heard some of their hit singles.

That all changed in 1986.

It was another one of those odd moments. I was listening to the radio while I was working at Gergeley’s Greenhouse, in late June of 1986, when I heard the announcer say the previous song was by The Monkees. I had not paid much attention, but it struck me as kind of odd because I did not recall hearing one of their songs.

It was not until I heard a countdown show shortly thereafter that I discovered in fact The Monkees had released a new single.

It was called “That was then, This is Now”, and it went all the way to number 20 on the Billboard Hot 100, the band’s first top 40 hit in almost 20 years.

It capitalized on a revival led by MTV and Nickolodeon, two TV channels that reran the old Monkees TV series.

"That was then, This is now," would be the last single the Monkees would chart.

Parting thoughts
The Monkees had experienced their greatest success before I was even born, which included three singles that went to number one, one that went to number two, and two that went to number three. I came to know their music strictly from whatever the radio played. The Monkes broke up in 1971, a year after I was born, and seemed to live on only on the radio.

Although it is quite common now, The Monkees may have been the first band I saw who experienced a revival more than a decade after they disbanded.

Now, revivals can be fuelled by the Internet and social media where people have access to virtually any old TV show or music they want.

In the 1980s, it was not as easy. Revivals were fuelled by conventional TV with shows such as “Entertainment Tonight”, and specialty channels such as MTV and Nickolodeon, who were always looking for content for their 24-hour cycle. They tried to capitalize on viewers’ sense of nostalgia.

That is what happened to The Monkees. The segment on “Entertainment Tonight” actually promoted the show being aired on the specialty channels. Then, all those episodes were aired and suddenly there was an appetite for something new from The Monkees. Not only was it new, but it proved popular enough to go all the way to the top 20 – 18 years after their last top 40 single.

The Monkees would continue to record and tour, and even celebrated their 50th anniversary in 2016. Davy Jones died in 2012, and Peter Tork died yesterday, on Feb. 21, 2019.

It was a reminder that everything old can be new again, something we see an awful lot these days.

Thursday, 17 January 2019

The fall and rise of Burton Cummings

Burton Cummings on the cover of his 1981 album "Sweet, Sweet"
(may be subject to copyright)
I was sitting in Row 2 at the Enmax Centre in Lethbridge waiting for Burton Cummings to take the stage when all these memories came rushing back, especially from the 1980s.

He is a Canadian musical icon, a man with a golden voice and a talent to tickle the ivories.

When the 1980s opened, Burton Cummings had already had his biggest success. By the time the decade drew to a close, he had plummeted out of sight only to return with a surprising and stirring comeback that put him back on the charts.

This is the fall and rise of Burton Cummings.

Burton Cummings’ rise to stardom is well documented. Growing up in Winnipeg, he rose to prominence after joining Randy Bachman and the Guess Who when he was still just a teenager.

They would have a storied career with hits such as “These Eyes”, “Laughing”, “Undun”, “No Time”, and their biggest hit of all – the iconoclastic “American Woman”.

Then the band came apart at the seams.

Both Cummings and Bachman left, and not on the best of terms with each other. Bachman would go on to team up with brothers Robin and Tim and friend Fred Turner to form Bachman-Turner Overdrive, while Cummings struck out on his own.

He would ride through the 1970s  with a string of hit albums and singles, including, “Stand Tall”, “Break it to Them Gently”, “I Will Play a Rhapsody”, “My Own Way to Rock”, “Dream of a Child”, and, “I’m Scared.” His 1978 album “Dream of a Child” went triple platinum and was the best-selling album in Canada ever to that date.

Yet, by the end of the 1970s, his career began to tail off a bit.

Dawn of the decade

The decade opened for Burton Cummings with the 1981 release of the album, “Sweet, Sweet”, which would produce singles such as “Saved My Soul” and “Something Old, Something New”.

I first came in contact with this when I was at my sister’s place one night and we saw the trailer for this movie called “Melanie” on CTV, Channel 13. It caught my attention because they kept referring to it as starring Miami Vice’s Don Johnson, as well as Glynnis O’Connor, and – Burton Cummings. It was the story of a woman, O’Connor as the title character Melanie, in an abusive relationship with her husband played by Johnson. She eventually leaves him and takes up with a musician, trying to make a comeback, played by Cummings.

His actual songs are featured in the movie, which had been released in 1982, a year after the album came out.

I discovered that when I found a copy of “Sweet, Sweet” at a comic book shop at the Park Meadows mall in Lethbridge in 1986.

My sister always was willing to record vinyl onto tape and she did with this one too. I ended up listening to it for close to a month before school every morning while I waited for the bus. But the first time I ever heard “Saved My Soul” was when Cummings performed it on a live broadcast of the Genies.

“Saved My Soul” would go on to win the Genie for best original song in 1983. It also had moderate chart success in Canada, rising to number 31 on the charts, and number 12 on the adult contemporary chart.

I was disappointed “Something Old, Something New”, which went all the way to number one in the movie, did not duplicate the success its fictional counterpart had. It rose to number 26 on the adult contemporary chart.

The fall
“Sweet Sweet” seemed to be the beginning of the end for Burton Cummings. He put out an album called “Heart” in 1984, but it attracted little attention.

I only heard about it in passing when it was mentioned in a profile of Burton Cummings I heard one night on LA-107 FM. There was nothing notable about that album, and Burton Cummings seemed to be fading away like so many of his contemporaries.

Then something happened at the end of 1989 and the beginning of 1990.

The rise
It was strange. I was cruising through the lounge on Main Kelsey, the floor I lived on in res at the University of Alberta. Muchmusic always seemed to be playing on the TV. This day, I heard a voice that sounded familiar, but the song did not. Moreover, I liked what I heard.

I stopped and watched. I saw a picture of none other than Burton Cummings on he screen. But what was he singing?

It turned out to be, “Take One Away”, the first single off his new album, “Plus Signs.”

So, I started looking for the song. It began to climb up the charts on Much. And, it wasn’t just old fans like me who took notice. Young people, like my friend Jim Lake on our floor, also liked the song and indicated he was going to buy the tape. He had never really heard, or at least paid attention to, Burton Cummings before that.

The song went all the way to number 16 on the charts, and number six on the adult contemporary chart. It was his last top 20 single to date.

More importantly, Burton Cummings was back. It was not the same smash he had enjoyed more than a decade earlier, but he had made a comeback and was relevant again.

The years after
The album “Plus Signs” spawned a tour, and I was able to see Burton Cummings live at the Jubilee Auditorium in Edmonton right after my third year of university ended. I want to say it was May or maybe June. I went with my good friend Kevan Farrell, and it was awesome. I still have the concert shirt kicking around somewhere.

He would keep touring and performing, get back together with Randy Bachman, and with the Guess Who to perform. He was named an officer in the Order of Canada in 2009, received a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame in 2011, was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 2016, and was awarded a lifetime achievement award in 2018 from the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada (SOCAN) for his songwriting.

So, even at the age of 71, he continues to write, record, perform and tour.

Parting thoughts
I have been listening to Burton Cummings as long as I can remember. When he sings one of his ballads such as “Break it to Them Gently” or “I Will Play a Rhapsody” it just touches me deeply, even after all these years. His voice just has that magical quality.

But, there are several things that cemented my love for Burton Cummings.

One was seeing “Melanie” on TV and subsequently discovering the album “Sweet, Sweet” that was a sort of  de facto soundtrack for it. Cummings essentially played a version of himself in the movie. He was a washed up rock star who made a big comeback, but only after he helped someone else overcome her own challenges. I listened to that tape over and over because those two songs, “Saved My Soul” and “Something Old, Something New” just resonated with me. They remain two of my favourites.  

Another thing was going to see him live in 1990. There, he was the perfect host, explaining the history of the songs he played, whether with the Guess Who or his solo efforts.

In particular, he talked about “I’m Scared”, where he visited a cathedral in New York City, and said he felt the very presence of God. I had not really heard that song before, but now it had new meaning for me.

Then, in 1996, he released “Up Close and Alone”, a solo album that stripped away all the processing and sound engineering. It was just Cummings and his piano, and it was amazing. It showcased his two greatest talents – his voice and his ability to play piano. He also shared some history of the songs once again, which was almost identical to the stories he told back in 1990. It was then, after hearing that version with just voice and piano, that “I’m Scared” became one of my favourite Burton Cummings’ songs of all time. I still regularly listen to that album, and enjoy that song immensely.

Finally, he showed his resilience and some depth when he released “Take One Away”. It showed me that he seemed to have conquered some of the demons and excesses that can consume the careers of performers. Better yet, the song was about some adult themes and was cleverly written and arranged. It is another one of my favourites because it is so much different from all the songs that came before it.

So, when I went to see Burton Cummings at the Enmax Centre in Lethbridge on October 19, 2017, I pretty much knew what to expect. It was just him and his piano, telling the same stories and playing the same songs he had the previous time I saw him and heard him on tape.

And it was just perfect. It reinforced the reasons I enjoy his music so much. It reminded me of the long journey he took in the 1980s, and the trip I took right along with him as a fan.

(You can hear for yourself below. At is concert on Oct. 19, 2017, Burton Cummings encouraged everyone to shoot video and post it online, so I am with this live, unplugged version of "Saved My Soul")

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

"Something So Strong" on a date

It’s funny how hearing a song can take you back to a moment in your life when you heard that song. All the feelings, sights and sounds come right back like it happened yesterday.

“Something so Strong” by Crowded House is such a song for me

One last summer date
It was a strange time. Grade 12 had just ended and I was kind of in a holding pattern until it was time to head off to university in Edmonton.

My luck with women had changed marginally by then. After some humming and hawing, I had gone on a few dates with a girl named Gina.

By the end of school, we had gone on two dates and she had been my escort to grad.

I’d seen an ad  in the Lethbridge Herald, or maybe on TV, for a play going on at the University of Lethbridge. I was still working at the greenhouse. I recall phoning the university box office to get the time – and price. Then I called Gina and she was in.

The whole experience with her had been weird to say the least. When I first met her, she was outgoing, kind of loud, and boisterous. I used to see her before she started social studies class with my old teacher Mr. Vuch. She kind of flirted with me and even made me a “pumpkin” out of a piece of loose-leaf paper. I also told her about this play I wrote, and she said she wanted to read it.

Well, that was my entrĂ©e. I left a note for her in it – a poem actually. It was just in time for her to go off on a band trip. I did not expect a response for days. But the next day, a mutual friend said Gina had left a note for me. It was a response with a poem of her own. It was the go ahead to go out.

When she got back, I went to Coaldale where I called her from my best friend Chris Vining’s room.

She would go out – likely her first date too. When she asked what we should do, I said, “The world is our oyster.” Vining rolled his eyes. I suggested a movie and would pick her up. She gave me her address and I repeated it for Vining to write down.

When Saturday came, I got dressed in my best, got the car ready and drove to Coaldale. I pulled up in front of Gina’s house and an old man answered. I said I was there to see Gina. He had no idea who I was talking about. I cursed out Vining – only to return to the car to discover I had read the address wrong.

Her house was actually across the street, right across from the water tower.

She answered the door and told me I had to meet her parents. That was okay with me. Her dad told me I could do whatever I wanted with her because she was crazier than he was. Her sister Lori, who I had taken Accounting 10-20 with when I was in Grade 10, was going out the back door with another guy.

“One out the front, one out the back,” her mom said.

So I escorted Gina to the car, opened the door for her, and closed it behind her. I got in, and suggested we go to a movie. That was fine, she said, but she did not say much more.

I stopped at Mac’s for a newspaper, and we agreed on, “The Secret of My Success”. In an effort to try to b funny, I crumpled up the newspaper and tossed it in the back seat. That came back to haunt me, because I forgot which theatre the movie was in.

The most striking thing was that the outgoing, kind-of-loud, and boisterous Gina just stopped talking. She said nothing. All through the movie and after.

The same thing repeated the next week.

Grad followed and then it was summer.

This play at the University of Lethbridge would be my last date with Gina.

I recall finishing up at the greenhouse and driving through Coaldale wondering what the night would bring. I went home, bathed and changed. I still remember the shirt I put on – it had white and pink vertical stripes, and was one of my favourites.

I picked up Gina and again a dearth of conversation followed. I still remember what she wore – long white blouse, leggings under a skirt and granny boots.

I had no idea how to get to the university. Gina had been to a drama camp there so she kind of knew. I caught the turn late and sped like a race car driver around the clover leaf to West Lethbridge.

The song playing on the radio was “Something so Strong” by Crowded House, and I belted it out as the G-force kicked in. I was trying to impress Gina any way I could – or at least get her to talk. I think she was just kind of scared.

After that, things were pretty uneventful.

The show was “The Mousetrap” by Agatha Christie, and it was a two-person show. The performances were riveting and Gina even said so.

After the first act ended, she got up to leave. I told her there was still another act. She said the show looked done, and it did seem to wrap up. But there was another act, and it was even better.

That was something we both agreed on.

And that was the end of the Saga of Gina. I don’t think I ever saw her again after that.

Parting thoughts
Looking back, I think we were both just nervous and inexperienced about dating. And quite frankly, really not made for each other. It still amazes me though, 30 years later, how a person could be so different in private and public. But that is how teenagers can act.

It is funny how songs can be associated with events in life.

I heard “Something So Strong” just the other day, and it took me back to the drive in West Lethbridge the summer of 1987 that took me at break-neck speed around a clover leaf.

And it reminded me of the minefield of teenage dating and how lucky I am to be through it.

*From the vault

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

“Oh my god!”: Remembering John Hillerman

John Hillerman played Jonathan Quayle Higgins, the foil for
private investigator Thomas Magnum, for eight seasons on "Magnum P.I."

(may be subject to copywright)

“Magnum PI” was one of the most popular detective shows of the 1980s, and a big part of that was Jonathan Quayle Higgins, the major domo of the estate private investigator Thomas Magnum lived on.

Higgins was not so much Magnum’s boss, as his overseer, foil, babysitter, and eventually – friend.

One of his trademarks was the three-word phrase he exclaimed when Magnum vexed him: “Oh – my – god!”

Last year, John Hillerman passed away. His death, and the re-boot of “Magnum P.I.” in September, have brought back great memories of the actor, who may have played a British role, but was actually a Texan with a long career.

The years before
The first time I saw John Hillerman was when he played Betty White’s husband on her short-lived series “The Betty White Show”. He appeared as her one-time husband for 14 episodes. I don’t remember much, other than he did not have an English accent. He also played Mr. Conners, one of two of Ann Romano’s bosses at the ad agency she worked at on “One Day at a Time”, from 1976 to 1980. Again, I recalled no English accent.

Major domo
The first time I ever saw anything about “Magnum PI” was a commercial in the summer of 1980 on Channel 13 CFCN. There was this guy in a Hawaiian shirt, struggling to get his key to open a locked Ferrari with two Dobermans bearing down on him. Of course that guy was Thomas Sullivan Magnum.

The premise was simple. He was a private investigator who lived on the estate of Robin Masters, an internationally renowned author with holdings all over the world. Magnum served as Robin’s head of security on the estate, and lived in the estate’s guesthouse. The estate was overseen by Jonathan Quayle Higgins, Robin’s major domo, played by John Hillerman.

The Ferrari belonged to Robin Masters, but Magnum could use it, under Higgins’ watchful eye. Higgins was also the master of those two Dobermans, Zeus and Apollo, and he delighted in watching them torment Magnum. In fact, he did not seem that thrilled at having Magnum around at all.

That would change.

It’s complicated
The relationship between Higgins and Magnum evolved over time. As the seasons wore on, the usual comedic moments that would earn an “Oh my god!” were supplemented. There were episodes where Magnum, or one of his friends, was in trouble and Higgins helped out. There were episodes where Higgins was in trouble, and Magnum helped him.

They had a lot more in common than it first appeared. Magnum had served in special forces in Vietnam, while Higgins had served in a similar role for MI-5 in the Second World War.

One of the enduring mysteries, that was never really laid to rest, was the possibility that Higgins was Robin Masters. That would have put things in a different light.

Memorable moments
As the years wore on, there were episodes that focused on Higgins. None were more interesting, or funny, as the ones featuring his half brothers. You see Higgins’ father, also a military man, had dalliances all over the world. The first by-product of one of those affairs was Elmo Ziller, Higgins’ half brother from Texas. It was the only time in the series we got to hear what John Hillerman actually sounded like. Later, we met Father Paddy McGuinness, a half brother who was an Irish priest, and even a Spanish half-brother named Don Luis Mongueo. There is also reference to another brother, Soo Ling, but he is never seen.

There was also a cross-over episode with “Murder, She Wrote”, where Higgins tried to romance mystery writer Jessica Fletcher, a cross-over episode with “Simon and Simon”, that guest starred Morgan Fairchild, and much more.

For his efforts, Hillerman was nominated for an Emmy for best supporting actor in a drama series for the role in 1984, 1985, 1986, and finally winning in 1987. He won a Golden Globe for the role in 1982, and was nominated again in 1983, 1985, 1987, and 1988.

Not good English
It is simply amazing that John Hillerman is not English. He spent a lot of time and effort learning that particular brand of British accent, and for that he should be commended. It was quite the performance he turned in as retired British military when he was actually a kid from Texas.

The years after
Hillerman would also do the standard turn in a variety of guest roles on weekly TV shows, most notably as the villain Monocle in the pilot for “Tales of the Gold Monkey” in 1982. He would later on play the grandfather on the sitcom “The Hogan Family” in 1990 for a season.

Parting thoughts
When “Magnum PI” re-booted a few months ago, it is perhaps fitting that one major change was made.

Thomas Magnum is back, along with his friends Rick and TC, and Lieutenant Tanaka, his some-time nemesis on the Honolulu PD. He is still getting into trouble, and still sticking up for the under dog.

However, now, Higgins is a female, Juliet Higgins played by Perdita Weeks.

Whether intentional or not, no one really could re-create or update the role of Jonathan Quayle Higgins. He was one of a kind.

I am glad they didn’t even try.

Monday, 14 January 2019

The Tragically Hip: A near miss

The debut album for the Canadian band the Tragically Hip,
an EP fittingly titled, "The Tragically Hip" released in 1987.
(may be subject to copyright)
They were an iconic band that told unique stories about Canada. There is not a person of a certain age who does not look on the music of the Tragically Hip with fondness.

Unlike, contemporaries such as Blue Rodeo, who keep on performing, the Tragically Hip’s musical journey came to an end last year when Gord Downey, their lead singer, passed away.

He had made his struggle with brain cancer very public, and his journey was one we were all invited to observe. He said his goodbyes, and was lucky enough to live until he died.

When the band gave their farewell concert, which was televised nationally to millions a few months ago, it made me think of my own memories of the Tragically Hip.

Someone asked me if I ever saw the ‘Hip in concert.

“No,” I responded. “But almost.”

A near miss
It was the fall of 1987 and I had just started my first year of university in Edmonton. There seemed to be parties every day and activities all the time. It was just awesome, and all so new.

We heard this band was playing on campus, and I had heard the name, but none of their music really came to mind. There were handbills advertising the concert all over campus. I grabbed one sitting on one of the tables at the Student Union Building.

Me and my roommate Chris Vining talked about going, and I think I had every intention of going. However, we had a few beers on our floor in res and a few more, and ended up going to sleep.

I woke up the next day, and saw one of the handbills for that band. The concert had been the day before, and we had missed it.

So I just missed seeing the Tragically Hip.

The years after
The band would really begin to take off in 1989 with their album "Up to Here" and the singles, "Blow at High Dough" and "New Orleans is Sinking". From there, their popularity would explode, and they would produce some of the most iconic music of the 1990s.

The Hip would be back in Edmonton several times, in bigger venues then that first time back in 1987, but I never did manage to see them.

I really did not start listening to them until the 1990s anyway, with songs such as “Little Bones”,  “Fifty Mission Camp” and “Scared”.

By then, they were firmly planted as one of the nation’s best bands.

Parting thoughts
Everyone has a Tragically Hip story.

Mine is pretty simple. I had a chance to get in on the ground floor and see them before they became the sensation they were. That would have been a great story. Instead, I just missed them in a haze of teenage exuberance. Missed them by that much.

Not all stories have to be funny.

*This is from the vault