Alex Colville Could’ve Been a Friend of Mine
Does it seem strange to describe a musician as visionary? Ornette Coleman died in June. Yeah, he could be discordant, but like all great jazzmen he was searching for that one note, seeking the connective magic in the ether, striving for the transcendental grace that may yet peacefully unite every living thing on this filthy, infected planet. Ornette’s obit hit me hard. We’re losing the greats with increasing frequency and nobody else is stepping up to fill the gaping gaps.
I sat outside on an aluminum framed strap lawn chair underneath the Ohio buckeye. I methodically cleaned and oiled my weapons, just for something to do. I smoked. I sipped from a bottle of single malt, a decade old and peaty. I was in a deep blue funk.
I heard the telephone ring inside the house. Ann Fatale, my gorgeous buxom moll, sashayed outside with the handset. ‘A call for you, big fella,’ she breathed huskily. ‘Are you here?’ I pondered over a mouthful of Scotch and then I nodded, sure. A man whom I’ll call ‘Steve’ was on the line from Ottawa. He had a couple of problems codenamed ‘Nigel’ and ‘Duffy’ that required permanent solutions. Though I knew I would refuse the wet work – I simply was too mood indigo for bloodshed, I agreed to meet with him; the capital is nice this time of year. My name’s Danger, Geoff Danger. I’m a freelance fixer. If you need my services, you’re in big trouble and if I’m coming after you, you’re in bigger trouble; sometimes I maim, but mostly I just kill. Some days I even enjoy my work.
Ann’s Vuitton luggage set was pre-packed. I threw a change of clothes into a battered leather overnight bag. Outside the National Arts Centre is a statue of Oscar Peterson. I sat down beside the great man as there’s room for two on the bronze piano bench. Ann Fatale snapped Oscar and me with a Kodak Instamatic 124. I then beckoned our indiscreet tails over to join me for a confab. Both the Mountie and the CSIS agent looked sheepish. I said, ‘You boys should talk to each other, you’re doubling up and wasting resources. You can shadow us all you want, but I’ll tell you straight up: I’m not here on business.’ I gazed at the new copper roofing on Parliament; in a few more years it would ripen into a Reardon metal green. ‘I could shake you both in the Byward Market, but I’m not going to do that. My baby and me are going to stroll along Sussex Drive to the National Gallery. You can walk with us or meet us there, I don’t care.’
The four of us paused at the guarded cenotaph to bow our heads and then continued on our away. We passed the American embassy and its ornamental car bomb barricades. I wasn’t surprised by the lack of razor wire; Uncle Sam can’t seem to get anything done internally or externally these days. A good friend has lost her way in a partisan maze and anyway, making nice with a Third World shithole like Cuba ain’t exactly détente with China or winning the Cold War, a baby step by a retarded titan. I will tell you in confidence that I’ve had more than a few beers and cigarettes with a senior American official whom I’ll call ‘Barry.’ He is frustrated because his country has lost its unifying sense of self. I offered my services gratis, neighbour to neighbor as it were, maybe I could crush some nuts for him? Seems he’s too decent a man to employ my kind. So it goes.
The National Gallery’s feature exhibition was an extensive retrospective of the works of Alex Colville, a realist whose art I find somewhat unsettling, as if Norman Bates attempted to emulate Norman Rockwell. For too many years this country has celebrated mediocrity simply because it was Canadian and that was the best we could do inside our borders at the time. Colville, like Peterson, was a giant in his field who happened to be Canadian; they were that good. The distinction is important.
Colville began his career as a war artist and then evolved, heightening his view of reality, producing precise geometric noir Hitchcock stills that suggest something bad will happen in the next moment or two. These are portraits of us, the mundane and the hanging threat, our faces obscured, or worse, turned away. I was particularly entranced by his images of naked women holding revolvers; they struck me kind of funny as that’s just my average Friday night with Ann Fatale.
Outside the gallery on the plaza beneath the giant spider sculpture Ann Fatale and I lit cigarettes. Our minders kept their distance. I said, ‘A man can never truly know himself until he examines the darkness in his soul, the pain that came from the cradle. I don’t know how Alex Colville managed to look into mine. I would’ve liked to have met him. We might’ve been friends.’
‘Oh, baby,’ Ann sighed. She rubbed my left forearm. ‘Hey,’ she chirped grinning, ‘how many surrealists does it take to change a light bulb?’
‘Don’t know,’ I grunted.
“Fish!’ she giggled.