gregarious Greg McConnell.
12 September 1964 - 4 April 1999.
The other day I fixed my bicycle all by myself, for the first time. Before, I always had Greg McConnell to help me. He was always there to lend me the tools and show me what to do. He was always ready to help any one of his many, many friends.
Greg loved cycling and camping. It was Greg who got me started cycling - he did that for a lot of people. I got my bicycle in May 1996, and started riding to work every day. By Labour day, we were riding to Niagara Falls, each of us loaded down with twenty kilos of camping gear. I had my doubts about whether I would survive the trip, but he had enough confidence in me to override my fears. Our key word was memorable, and memorable it was.
Greg was camping with a good friend, musician Doug Queen, at Tobermory on Easter weekend. He did not wake up on Sunday morning. He was thirty-four.
It may have been a short life, but it was certainly memorable. About a year ago, I remember him saying how happy he was that he had gotten to do so many things in his life that other people only dreamed about. Greg was a professional musician and made his living doing what he loved. He toured Canada half a dozen times with his cow-fur-trimmed bass (which Steve Earle once said "looked like Dwight Yoakam threw up on it"), most notably with the Lost Dakotas, the first Canadian indie band to stay on the college charts for one hundred weeks running with their first full length album, "Last Train to Kipling" (1992). They started out as buskers at a time when Toronto's busking community was thriving: he and Paul Dakota worked the sidewalks and subways alongside groups like the Leslie Spit Treeo and the Barenaked Ladies. The Dakotas' first recording, a cassette called "Love to Play," sold out over the course of a single weekend. That's when they decided it was time to go pro - to go indoors. Two years ago, when I was helping Greg move into his Kensington loft, a garbageman, leaning out of his truck as it passed by called out to us. We were carrying the old Lost Dakotas trunk, with their "clown and crossbones" logo spraypainted on the side. The garbageman mimed playing an upright bass, smiling, and called out "Love to Play!" Greg was floored. "Did you see what I just saw?" He was stunned that someone would remember him from that long ago. But Greg was unforgettable.
I tried to make a list of all of the bands that Greg played in or worked with (after his stint with the Dakotas, where he also served as agent/manager/publicist as well as bassist, he worked as and agent and manager), but when I hit two dozen and knew I was still forgetting people, I gave up. Suffice it to say he was busy. His freind Julia Selinger remembers when he first moved to Toronto and started working at the Hotel Isabella. He had just moved to Toronto with a group of friends from his hometown of Simcoe. They had a band called Bat, and had come to the big city to become rock stars. "I adopted him as my little brother," Julia said, "even though he was two years older than me." Bat disbanded and Greg went on to join the Absolute Whores (whom his mother, Fran, always referred to as simply "the Absolutes"), a group known for their wild stage antics and stage names (Greg was Ugly Dick Adonis). No one who saw one of their shows is likely to have forgotten them. After that came the Winslow Brothers (Waylon and Willie), which eventually led to the Lost Dakotas, his most commercailly successful band. Known for happy twangy music and a stage covered in sunflowers, they toured the length of Canada from St. Johns to Salmon Arm and everywhere in between. He had a lot of adventures with that band: they rolled their tour van once in the prairies due to lack of sleep, they got stuck for thirty hours on a ferry to Newfoundland (thus learning the hard way why most bands don't tour the maritimes in February). Once Greg was trapped on a burning bridge for hours on the way to a gig in Quebec after the car in front of him exploded during the biker wars.
But he always lived to tell the tale. He was indestrucible, or so we thought.
The demise of the Lost Dakotas began during a difficult time in Greg's life. There were artisitc differences, Paul Dakota and Erella Vent had just had a child (the lovely Celeste), and Greg's father died. He was very close to his father and was affected deeply; he never really got over it. When I met Greg, the Dakotas were pretty much finished, and Greg had stopped playing music. I remember the first party I ever went to at Greg's old place on Queen Street. It was during Canadian Music Week, and everyone went to Greg's after their gigs. Great Big Sea was there, and Maria Del Mar, and Hugh Dillon from the Headstones, among the hundreds that passed through that night. Everyone was jamming and making music; one fellow lead a singalong on a guitar with only one string left. But Greg didn't play his bass.
I probably knew Greg for over a year before I got to see him perform, but it was worth the wait. Greg was a showman par excellence. His last band, Stratochief, was always a treat to see: always dressed up in snappy suits (Greg insisted that everyone wear a tie), playing everything from Tennessee Ernie Ford to a twangy version of "Nights in White Satin."
Jughead played "Nights in White Satin" for Greg at their Black Bull matinee show the Saturday after Greg's death. They also played "East Winds," a beautiful song (one Greg always wanted to learn) that Doug Queen wrote with his brother Andrew. It's about a camping accident on Georgian Bay. The similarities give me the shivers. In the song, the campers are saved by the ghost of Tom Thompson.
Unfortunately, there were no friendly ghosts to help on Greg's last camping trip with Doug.
At his funeral in Simcoe, attended by two hundred(?) mourners, was a school project Greg had done in grade eight about his life. The mimeographed questions at the top (What is most important to you? Who do you admire most?) were barely visible, but the handwriting was the same handwriting I remember. There was a kindergarten class photo with his closest friends labelled, friends he was still close with. There was alist of his hobbies and dreams: bicycling, building models (which he taught me how to do), music. In answer to the proverbial question "What do you want to be when you grow up?" the thirteen-year-old Greg said he wanted to be a bass player in a band. Not many people have the chance or the talent to make their dreams happen, but Greg stayed true to his to the end, and he died doing something he loved.
I could write a book on Greg and still not manage to fit in everything about his short but full, full life.
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