A few months ago I wrote a post about an early musical mentor of mine, Thomas Manshardt. I studied piano with Tom when I first entered the University of Regina back in the mid 1970’s. (That post can be found by clicking the archive button on the left side and selecting July 2012. A second post that is germane to this time of my life – if you really have nothing better to do – is my post entitled “Brahms, Gothic Script, Shakespeare, Serendipity and Other Considerations” from January 2012.)
After studying in Germany, I came back to Regina with a renewed love of the English language, and the realization that I would never be a concert pianist. I returned to the U of R as a full-fledged English major. I wanted to be a writer. There are not many people whose decision to become an English major and beyond that, a writer, could be seen to be practical, but that was certainly the case with me. My parents were certainly relieved. A possible strategy for young people intent on pursuing an essentially impractical career path . . .
It was early on in my pursuit of a degree in English that I met my second mentor and namesake, Eugene Dawson. It’s hard now to explain the impact Gene had on my life – not just mine, but on so many others at that time. Brash, American, seven times married, prescription pill-popping, dope smoking, hard-drinking, irreverent and above all funny, Gene was unlike anyone I had ever met before or have met since. He brought true joy to the horror of human existence.
Gene taught a class in black humour which I took, and it was in his class I was introduced to the work of Mordecai Richler, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Joseph Heller, Nathaniel West and Kurt Vonnegut Jr. to name a few. In fact, like Vonnegut, Gene was a Hoosier, and they certainly shared many qualities, in particular a sardonic sense of humour and a wary way of regarding the goings on in the world. It was, as they say, “a cheerful nihilism.”
Before long Gene had me working as his teaching assistant. At that time at the U of R, a TA in English essentially taught grammar as a part of English 100. “But Gene, I know nothing about grammar,” I said. “I know,” he replied, “This is the only way you’re ever going to learn this shit, by teaching it. Just don’t let them see you sweat.”
And so in this way Gene brought me into his world. Before long, a second year student, I was a fixture at the Faculty Club on Friday afternoons which led to some legendary late night sessions with fellow students and faculty members Bernie Selinger, Dale and Barb Hauser, Ray and Ruth Mise and numerous others.
On one such legendary evening, I seem to recall I was standing atop a table in a restaurant in south Regina drinking flaming Sambucas. Certainly, my life as an English major was far different than it had been as a music major. Of course, there was no looking back and no regrets.
In the words of Bryan Adams, “Those were the best days of my life.”
We called him the old man, yet he was younger than I am now when he suddenly and sadly passed away. So full of life and laughter, he left a hole in many of our lives. At his wake, we tried to honour him through irreverence, but to no avail. Gene was gone and we all knew we would never see the likes of him again.
If Manshardt taught me about the high European tradition of art as a way of life, Gene taught me in his populist American way that it was all right to be myself, with no apologies needed. He taught me that no matter how much shit the world was flinging at me, there was always something to laugh at, even if it was an uneasy laughter. Thinking back on it, it brings to mind the lines of T.S. Eliot,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker
And in short, I was afraid . . .
Do you understand what I’m trying to say about being with Gene? There was always laughter, but it was always a little on the nervous side. But my god, how we laughed at the whole damned thing.
I fear I am doing none of these men justice, and am falling short of the mark trying to capture their greatness. Yet when I Google them, I get nothing, and so at least it’s a start.
Thanks for reading . . . Here’s a beautiful song by one of Gene’s and my favourite artists . . .