Opening Day

Here comes the King, here comes the King of all Jigs.Today is the first day of the 2008 Major League Baseball season for most fans, including those of the St. Louis Cardinals and Toronto Blue Jays. Hope springs eternal, although for some teams, like the Redbirds, it’s more on a prayer than a hope. If only I were religious.

I was watching the ESPN broadcast of the Nationals vs. Braves game, the inaugural match for the Nats’ spanking new stadium. George W. Bush threw out the ceremonial first pitch, and then spent a few innings on air with Jon Miller and Joe Morgan.

I actually like Bush when he’s not talking politics, and I understand why he was elected. He’s funny and charming. I wonder if he even enjoys being President. He seems like he’d much rather be watching baseball.

W. remarked how baseball is a game that everyone can play. You can be any almost any height or weight and still do well at it, unlike basketball, hockey, football and football, where shrimpy, thin guys are definitely rarities.

And so it goes with piping. You have your big J.B. Robertsons and huge Ronnie Lawries, and you have your wee Donald MacLeods and diminutive Gordon Walkers. There are skinny pipers and fat pipers. There are women competing directly against men. Piping takes and welcomes all kinds, and, like baseball, it often comes down to finesse and intelligence to succeed.

Oh, and, by the way: Mariners-Blue Jays and Dodgers-Mets in the playoffs. And the Mets lose to the Jays in the Fall Classic in seven.


Someone alerted me to this bit from the 2004 Madonna Re-Invention concert with Lorne Cousin. Could it be that the pipe band mid-section phenomenon really took off that year. Should we credit (or blame, depending on your point of view) Lorne, Stevie Kilbride and Madge herself for the whole thing?

Huge loss

Big Ronnie, Glasgow Police, 1968.
It’s hard to accept that Ronnie Lawrie is no longer around. But I can take comfort in knowing that he had a long, eventful and gracious life. I wish that I could get to the funeral on Friday or, even better, any memorial party for the man. It’s a good thing that it’s starting on a Friday, because the funny stories about Ronnie could undoubtedly go on all day and night all weekend. I hope they do.

Through unusual circumstances, I had the good fortune to play under Ronnie in the Polkemmet band in 1986-’87. The departure of Rab Mathieson and Jim Kilpatrick for Shotts left the band searching for a pipe-major, even though a few natural leaders (Brian Lamond and Gordon Stafford, to name two) were right there, but not quite ready or willing to take on the job.

The band’s committee was left to search for a leader, and I vividly remember the practice when the band manager announced that Ronnie would be taking over the band. The idea apparently came from the legendary Iain McLeod, who was also approached by the committee about becoming pipe-major. Ronnie would have been about 60 then, and hadn’t competed in the last 15 years. Having been doing the solo rounds over there, I knew Ronnie maybe more than most in the band, but always thought of him first as a big-time judge and master of piobaireachd, and maybe second as the former P-M of the Glasgow Police.

Ronnie didn’t have a car, it turned out, so he would generally take the train (!!) on the incredibly beautiful but slooow West Highland Line to Glasgow Queen Street, where he would get a lift in to Whitburn with someone in the band. He somehow made it work.

If you have a sense of how much has changed musically today in pipe bands since 1988, the same kinds of profound changes had occurred between 1986 and 1970. Ronnie hadn’t really been much of a band guy since he left the Glasgow Police, and he was quickly a bit overwhelmed by the task at hand. But he made that work, too, keeping everyone entertained and positive at a time when the he knew the whole band could have crumbled, leaving the most of the music and much of the tuning to others. It was leadership that the band needed, and Ronnie provided it.

Polkemmet inevitably declined a bit in quality compared with the previous year, but under Ronnie managed a few prizes and were just shy of getting in at the ’87 World’s. When we would play well, Ronnie was ecstatic and would occupy a good quarter of the bus regaling people with stories and jokes. Everyone loved him. He knew he was just holding the band down for a year or so until someone else could come in, and that happened of course in the form of Davey Barnes, who led Polkemmet to major championships.

The interview that I did with him in 1997 was one of the first that I conducted by phone. Ronnie by then wore a hearing aid, and the conversation was frequently interrupted by feedback from the phone, the TV and goodness knows what. The interuptions were a bit comical. I have it all on tape and will share it again sometime soon.

I remember also that, despite the intention of the interview to be all about Ronnie, he was very reluctant to talk about himself. He kept moving to other topics, and was continually self-effacing. He really seemed to enjoy the success and happiness of others more than he took pleasure in his own.

The last time I had a conversation with him was in 2000 when he came over to judge at Maxville. He was the same Huge Ronnie, larger than life, by that time clearly slowing down. But he had lovely stories and humour to share, and seemed, as always, to go with the flow, completely at ease, enjoying the good music he reluctantly agreed to judge. He was the kind of guy who always wanted to give everyone a prize, not to be a nice guy, but to see everyone have a nice time.

Big Ronnie: one of a kind. The definition of the Highland gentleman. Thanks for the good memories.

Something like a phenomenon

Sign here.Although the RSPBA’s decision to drop best bass-section prizes occurred several months ago, it only came to light in the last few days after people actually had the common sense to ask and seek answers. But what happened within only hours of learning the truth about the policy change is fascinating.

Bass- and tenor-drummers are the most connected people in pipe bands. They’re all over the net, communicating with Blackberrys, text messaging and over social networking sites. Not a day after the story ran on pipes|drums (a story that the RSPBA has yet to comment on, by the way), an online petition was posted and hundreds of people had enlisted their support for overturning the shift in policy.

Whether this petition will ultimately influence the RSPBA’s Music Board and National Council to act, I don’t know. But I do know that it will get their attention and at least start to understand the thinking of the constituents that they purportedly represent. To mix metaphors, it’s an online Boston Tea Party for mid-sections, and has opened a big ol’ can o’ tenor drummin’ whoop-ass.

What really amazes me, though, is that all this action is occurring over largely symbolic awards. The Best Bass-Section prize so far has no bearing on the ultimate pipe band result, after all. It’s a token, traditional acknowledgement that one aspect of a band was the best. People aren’t even sure which RSPBA judge decides who gets it. The prize is something for them to hang their glengarries on. It’s obviously important to mid-section players, but I doubt that many or even any pipe-majors obsess over carting off the Bass-Section trophy.

Meanwhile, courts of international law have determined and, after appeal, determined again that those who perform on live commercial recordings are entitled to fair compensation. That means that every piper and drummer who has played on CDs, DVDs and even vinyl LPs should be rewarded in some agreed-to manner. This fact was made clear on pipes|drums almost two years ago and, since then, what has the pipe band world done or even said? Nothing.

What is it about our pipe band world that makes some of us hell-bent on restoring a symbolic trophy, while others stand idly by when money that is rightfully theirs is pocketed elsewhere?

Some might say it’s fear. But why should a band’s bass- and tenor-drummers have less to fear from rocking a political boat than the leaders of the world’s Grade 1 bands? It’s all political and competitive hot-water. But the issue of whether there should be a best bass-section, best drum-corps or best-anything-that-is-not-the-pipe-band-overall prize is debatable. There are pros and there are cons. There is no clear right or wrong.

The issue of performers’ rights is not debatable. It is a matter of right and wrong. It’s a matter of upholding the law or not. And the fact that bands are so far unwilling to stand up for their legal rights, or even start an online petition, confounds me.

Beat it

I buried Paul!John Lennon, when asked if Ringo Starr was the best drummer in the world, famously responded, “The best drummer in the world? He’s not even the best drummer in the Beatles!”

Poor Ringo. He recently commented himself that every time he’d leave the recording studio for a cup of tea or something he’d return to find Paul McCartney (of Heather Mills fame) sitting at his kit trying out his drums.

McCartney was the Beatle Lennon was referring to, and it was Paul who allegedly played on most Beatles tracks from The White Album on, although none of the four to my knowledge ever confirmed it. There are rumours that Paul can be heard berating Ringo for his poor playing on “Hey Jude.”

I was thinking about that as American Idol contestants massacred Beatles songs for a second straight week, altering lyrics to suit their gender, cramming as many choruses as possible into one-and-a-half minutes, turning the poignant “Blackbird” into a shrieking festival.

Everyone thinks they can be a drummer. It’s easy. You don’t have to cover any holes, after all, and there’s no troublesome bag to coordinate, no reeds to finagle, no moisture to control. But comparing Ringo-esque drumming with pipe band drumming is impossible. One is keeping a minimalist beat so as not to obscure the melody; the other is adding dynamics and intricate enhancement to the tune itself.

Still, how many times at a band practice do you find pipers fiddling around with drums? There are always one or two pipers in every band who think they can take the bass at a moment’s notice. Easy!

And what piper hasn’t at least once strapped on a drum at a massed band or march-past? There’s not a band on earth that hasn’t received stick from its association for instrument-swapping monkeyshines.

Drumming: You know it don’t come easy.

Old school tie

Far out!
I was looking through some things recently and found this, my picture from my senior year of high school. The year was 1981, which makes me about 74 now.

Note the middle-parted hairstyle and the typically aloof demeanour. I recall wearing shorts when this was taken on a brutally hot Saturday afternoon, so I had on only two-thirds of the ill-fitting poly-wool-blend three-piece-suit. At 17 I had Midwestern dreams of great piping and pipe bands (still do), so note the now-vintage Shotts & Dykehead Caledonia tie.

As I’ve written about before, the tie was given to me by Alex Duthart in 1979 after I harangued him for it at a piping school. At least some things never go out of style.

Same sells

Buy me!It’s American Idol time again. I’ve written about the phony drama of the show before, but I admit that I still like it. It’s just good, good TV, if you can see past the imitation heartbreak, product placement and scripted “live” banter.

Simon Cowell is fond of saying, “This isn’t a popularity contest, it’s a singing competition.” I’m sure he doesn’t mean that, since he’s directly connected with the finalists’ contracts and careers. He’s not looking for the next different thing; he’s looking for the next popular thing. If tens of millions of viewers select the winner, then it follows that tens of millions of copies of the winner’s CD might be sold not in 10 years after people get used to his/her sound and style, but right now.

Any contestant who performs a radically different arrangement to a familiar song is simply being set up to lose. “Eight Days A Week” – one of the greatest and most familiar songs ever written – sung with a country twang over an ersatz bluegrass shuffle in double-time is idiotic. It might be a bit clever, but clever won’t win over the people who watch this show, and the producers know that. That girl was set up.

The three “judges” are not looking for the next new big sound, they’re looking for the next new big seller. The past winners of the show are singers who sound pretty much like someone else and perform in a recognizable style. They’re familiar, they’ll be successful for a time, but they’re not unique. Except for the platinum records they receive and money they make, they won’t change music history. Even a runner-up like Chris Daughtry is a predictable derivation of other things going on, sounding like a dozen other forgettable top-selling acts.

This is why pipe band judges all too often prefer the relatively familiar. It’s much easier to take a safe route to a decision, rewarding derivative medleys and arrangements, than it is to reward something that’s dramatically musically different. Bands know this, and so are reluctant to take musical risks, because it may jeopardize the blessed prize right now. A pipe band might have the equivalent musical creativity, singularity and genius of Radiohead, Beck or Bjork, but how many bands are willing to commit years of unbending effort before it is finally heard and rewarded?


Because we’re so competition-driven, true musical change is extremely slow to occur. Because pipe band judges are so often loathe to step out of safe boundaries, our top idols don’t bother. I like great-sounding pipe bands as much as the next person, but I do wish that we could find a way to break this predictable circle of predictable music.

Remembering Old Man Watson

Although he wasn’t around the piping scene as much for the past few years, the late John Watson, Sr., was one of those guys who, even after a few years, seemed to pick up right where you left off. He had a great heart just below his rough surface.

I remember what had to be among my first band practices after immigrating to Canada. I didn’t know John enough even to know that he was “Old Man” to everyone by that point, and he certainly didn’t know me. I was just standing there with my pipes at this dreadful remote outdoor location on Eglinton Avenue East in Scarborough. The glamourous reigning World Champion band was allowed to practice without harassment at the now-defunct Knob Hill Farms grocery chain’s headquarters. Just the odd car driven through the band.

“What the hell are you looking so sad about?!” he barks at me while I was, I thought, just standing there.

“Um, I don’t know. I’m just standing here,” I say, wondering if I was at the right band practice.

“Jesus! You look like someone just died!”

“Oh. Um, well, I’m fine. Sorry. What’s your name?” I ask trying to smile.

“You don’t want to know!” he says.

And it went on I think a bit more like that, until I gave up, later asking a few others what his deal was.

We got off to a rocky start, but I quickly came to like Old Man Watson, particularly when he was a solo piping steward. He preferred the Open Piobaireachd the most, he said. Old Man admitted that he didn’t understand the music, but always knew that when “that part with the guys coming over the hill waving their swords [i.e., the crunluath variation] starts, it’s – whoops – time to go get the next player.” I loved that.

He was able to identify the competitors who would try to hide when their turn was coming, and make sure that he ferreted them out and threatened to DQ them if they weren’t ready. No messing about.

A few years ago I ran into John at a Crappy Tire store near to where I work. He and a friend had on very serious dark suits and ties. He liked like Tommy Lee Jones’s stand-in in Men In Black. He told me that he was working part-time for a mortuary, “You know, haulin’ out dead guys.” He seemed to like the job a lot. I never did ask what he was shopping for.

Old Man Watson: one-of-a-kind.

Mankind is our business

Cha-ching.You hear it quite a bit these days: pipe band associations saying that they’re going to be run “like a business.” I have been to annual general meetings where leadership is determined to look at the financial statement and do everything that they can to show a monetary profit, with a healthy bottom-line seemingly the association’s principal objective.

That’s completely wrong-headed.

The first “business” of piping and pipe band associations should always be the good of piping and drumming. “Profits” should be counted in an increased membership, better standard of play and bringing that good music to more people. An association’s profits should be calculated in what it’s doing to teach more people piping and drumming. An association’s earnings should be calculated by the amount it has helped to increase members’ knowledge of music theory and history.

And with all those objectives reached while members have had fun along the way.

Pipe band associations should be run like a good not-for-profit organization: doing something for the greater good. Pretty much all the year’s revenue should be spent wisely, with just enough left over to keep the organization in good shape should a rainy day come.

I dedicated a good portion of some 18 years to producing a quarterly print publication for the PPBSO that was held up by many, I believe, as the standard against which piping and drumming publications were measured. But almost every year I had to stand up and defend the publication’s cost, as if money were the only benefit to the association. Along the way, the PPBSO’s bean-counter often liked to use the magazine as a scapegoat for financial loss, even though my interpretation of the financial numbers proved otherwise. The last years that I produced the print magazine were by a wide margin the toughest in terms of criticism I received from the organization’s leadership.

Whatever. The “profit” from that magazine I always thought was incalculably positive for the association, but that was routinely over-shadowed by a yearly spreadsheet. Most unfortunate.

The point is that associations should do things that benefit and improve piping and drumming, that increase knowledge and enlightenment for more people. If they do that and they’re smart, the money will follow with a happy and growing membership feeling that they are getting a high return for their dues.

The business of associations is good piping and drumming.


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