(I wrote a version of this essay a few years ago. I decided it was time to update it to reflect changes and new information that adds to this story.)
And when she smiled all you thought about
Was running up Suicide Hill
And nothing short of a bullet
Could have broken your will
–Ron Hawkins/The Lowest Of The Low
“For The Hand Of Magdalena”
The above lines are from the pen of Ron Hawkins, who is the main singer and songwriter for a Toronto-area band called The Lowest Of The Low. The song “For The Hand Of Magdalena” was on the band’s 1991 debut, “Shakespeare…My Butt”, which along with Joe Walsh’s “Got Any Gum?” has to be a finalist for greatest album title of all time.
The Low performed three songs on CBS Saturday Morning on April 14–“Powerlines” and “Something To Believe In”, from their new album “Do The Right Now”, and “Rosy And Grey”, which is off of “Shakespeare”— and before that performance, if you live in the United States outside of upstate New York, you might have never heard of The Lowest Of The Low. However, they are a national treasure in their native Canada. And, as an American, I can say with near-100 percent certainty that the only reason I ever found out about the band was because I had a Canadian friend and co-worker who was a fan and introduced me to the “Shakespeare” album back in 1994, when we were teaching together in Japan.
Just thinking about that boggles my brain. I, the most-American American you could meet, had to be working in Japan in order for someone from Saskatchewan to expose me to what was then a three-year-old album by a band from Toronto that had already broken up by the time I first heard one of their songs.
There has to be a joke in there somewhere.
But, “Shakespeare” quickly became, and remains to this day, one of my top five all-time favorite albums. Hawkins’ writing covers some of the standard song subjects: love, loss, regret and drinking. Lord, does it cover drinking. Two songs directly reference a Toronto pub called The Only, and if his characters aren’t downing tins of Guinness while reading Henry Miller books, then they are getting drunk to the point where they ditch their families and run off to Vancouver in the middle of the night. The people in these tales have partaken in more “last calls” than necessary
But as much as “Shakespeare” reminds me of the taste, smell and feeling of that last pint at the end of a very long night, there is something much more at work here.
These are songs about what it’s like to live in that hazy demarcation area between the reminders of what has made us what we are and the unknown that we must rise into every day and face whether we are ready for it or not. Memory can be something beautiful, but it can also hold you back. And hope can fuel inspiration, but what do you do if that hope goes unfulfilled for reasons you can’t foresee?
Those dichotomies are all over “Shakespeare” and in the 24 years I have been listening to this album, I have never failed to find something intimate in its songs that has left me looking into that haze between memory and hope.
It’s there in the testimony of “Subversives,” where Hawkins’ character tells about how “There’s a market value on love/And we’re getting something for free.” Yet, just one verse later, the protagonist implores his lover that “Sometimes when your resistance is low/Remember that I know who’s your favorite Pogue.” It’s the little things that matter. The only member of The Pogues most people can name is Shane MacGowan, but I have no doubt that the Pogue this guy’s woman prefers is the mandolin player. Knowing something like that is what I call intimacy.
“Just About “The Only” Blues” is the perfect song for anyone who has ever been 29 and realized that their life might not be turning out like they thought it would. And that means all of us. “Let’s take a walk down to “The Only”/And drink until our kidneys fail” begins the singer setting out for a long night full of confessions and reminiscing. By the evening’s end, when Hawkins sings “There’s a letter I can’t open/And there’s a song that I can’t write/There’s a book that I can’t put down/Here comes another sleepless night” you can’t help but remember your own nights like that.
And come the next day, what’s there to greet you? “Sometimes you find/Your senses all disjointed by/The lines and wires/Of salesmen, cheats and liars.” That’s quite a formidable trifecta that Hawkins puts in front of you in “Salesmen, Cheats and Liars,” but not before reminding you that “Sometimes it’s wise/To know which away the gun is pointing/Before you yell/‘I see the whites of their eyes.’”
It might sound like “Shakespeare” is steeped in depression or sadness, and there is a fair amount of that. But more so, there is a joy and defiance in these songs that can’t be denied. The young immigrants on their way to a new land and life in “St. Brendan’s Way,” the broken heart of “Bleed A Little While Tonight,” the revolutionary in Spain who may have just lost the fight of his life in “Letter From Bilbao”…They all know the odds are against them but they’ll be damned if they’ll give up the fight.
To me, the centerpiece of the album is “For The Hand Of Magdalena,” the song from which the verse at the top of this entry comes. It’s the only love song I’ve ever heard that is set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War and it radiates out from Madrid’s Puerta del Sol and into the battlefields where Republicans and Fascists tore each other apart in a brutal three-year-fight. By the time it’s over, the guy in the song is clutching his wounded arm and headed back to New York, pining for the girl he met “in an air-raid bombshell-sanctioned attraction.”
So, why have I used this space, which is supposed to be for humorous tales and insights about being a dad, to put down more than 1,100 words about an album and band that you may have never heard of? And a band that has broken up at least twice, most recently in 2007, but is back with its first new album in 13 years?
It’s because of “Magdalena”.
My wife and I put Magdalena on the short list of names for our first daughter, whom I nickname “Maddo” here. This is the song I’ve always sung at my loudest in my truck, whether I was bringing Maddo home from daycare, or heading to a baseball game or on the road to Disneyland. Because I hope that someday she might listen to this music and find what I have found in it.
Because when she smiles, nothing can break my will.