That question that people ask – what was your favourite show, or concert? It’s a stupid question, but I invariably say it was the late 80s, early 90s, at Last Temptation in Kensington Market before they filled their back space with warped pool tables. And that it was Sam Larkin, with I swear, 6 to 11 others – all of them managing to play upon that tiny “stage” without turning into human dominoes and simply collapsing each other into a pile of instruments and limbs. It was a beautiful exuberance of horns and strings and fiddle and keys, and Sam Larkin songs. I’m not sure, but I think this may have been the first time that I’d heard of Sam Larkin. I wonder now if it was the Yellow Cat Tape release show.
The Yellow Cat Tape: “Close”, “Marie”, “Future Troubles”, “Sally On”, “Belladonna”, and my personal favourite – “Murmurings” – a song that evokes for me, in one fell swoop, both: the elemental spring fever joy of the early english song poem “Sumer Is Icumen In”, and improbably enough – Plato’s “Symposium” – the transformative and generative power of love together with that shimmery choir of a chorus: “love is just a million murmurings/ joined in a ringing choir/ love is just a million yearnings/ lost in a midnight fire”. Love that song.
That Yellow Cat Tape followed me from place to place for two decades, on an equal footing with, say, something like a favourite Leonard Cohen, Dylan, or Lennon recording – a classic, the kind of thing you know off by heart, and still you put it on on when you need a lift, or when feeling celebratory, or just because once again it is time.
You spend that much time loving someone’s music and it distills a certain degree of gratitude, especially when it’s someone who isn’t famous. With famous people it seems it would be rude to pester them with praise, in fact if I met a famous person whom I admired I think I’d studiously ignore them, I might even be outright rude – in fact, I often think that might be the nicest thing one could ever do for them. But with Sam Larkin, when that gratitude would wash over me – I just thought, not being famous, coupled with the fact that he supposedly lived in Toronto, made the expression possible – which brings me to my two Sam Larkin quests. Okay, sort-of-quests.
Sort-of-quest number one was somewhere in the vicinity of the late 90s. I’d been on a Yellow Cat Tape jag for about a week, and remembering that it was rumoured that Larkin played Fat Alberts on a regular basis, decided that I’d go there that Wednesday, cover one of his songs and hope someone would point him out for me afterwards so that I could corner him and lavish praise. I remember I peered out into that lone spotlight they had there, said “this is a Sam Larkin song”, heard a muffled but surprised response from somewhere out there, but afterwards, although people told me they knew him, no location of Larkin was forthcoming. Either Larkin had threatened those there with severe repercussions regarding the revealing of his identity to a rabid fan, or he was truly not there.
And so, being I suppose a pretty useless fan when it comes to persistence, it was back to The Yellow Cat Tape for 15 years. I played that thing until stretching and whatever other natural shocks that tape is heir to, had taken their toll in the form of unintentional pitch and time changes, and had rendered it unlistenable.
It took the death of The Yellow Cat tape to send me on my second Larkin sort-of-quest. This time I simply googled “Sam Larkin”, pretty sure that it would be in vain; but, instead, almost immediately discovered he was playing on Parliament Street. I hoped for another Yellow Cat Tape (or CD), but if not that – then at least I would finally repay my self imposed psychological debt for the years of musical gratitude with some sort of a thank you.
The place was a two story kind of bar, and Sam was playing on the first “floor” in the midsts of a raucous crowd of beer drinkers. I remember actually being shocked at the lack of reverence, which is hilarious, being that I was fairly well acquainted with Parliament street, and had played in enough bars myself to know that Bach could wander in with a well tempered clavier and in some places they’d still keep shouting. So I ignored the impulse of wanting to tell them all to shut the fuck up and listen, and instead yelled down requests from The Yellow Cat Tape, all of which Sam played, and all of which were virtually drowned out by the beer drinkers. Finally, at the end of the night I went down to where Sam Larkin’s table was and fulfilled my quest towards a spectacled man with a beard by telling him that he was to me one of Canada’s greatest song-writers. I then told the tragic story of The Yellow Cat Tape and asked if he had a recording he could sell me, and he tried to GIVE me Ransom, which is just bizarre – when a person to whom you already feel an unfair amount of indebtedness towards, unintentionally offers to make you feel more indebted. Luckily for me: money, being a poor signifier of value and not value itself, may be cavalierly dropped anywhere by anyone, and we may all pretend that there was some sort of even exchange, when nothing could be further from the truth.