It’s many things including a rock book.
But it’s certainly not just a rock book.
Not a traditional one anyway. Or one that focusses solely on those early days and beginnings of a life pursuing music, the creative process behind it, the path it sets an artist down, the sordid or tragic tales that life in the biz can bring or even the name-dropping, navel-gazing or any of the other trappings that tomes like that offer.
Again, it has all of those things, but the sum of its parts is much greater and much greater than a book about rock and roll.
That, Tom Wilson says, was the furthest thing from what he wanted to accomplish when he set out to write his debut work of literary non-fiction Beautiful Scars: Steeltown Secrets, Mohawk Skywalkers and The Road Home (Doubleday Canada).
“I would never consider writing a rock ’n’ roll book,” the Hamilton native says, “because I find those really boring unless you are Keith Richards or Chuck Berry. I just find them boring.
“It’s basically if I was a plumber and I was to read about a plumber’s destiny, it would be like, ‘You know, I’m a plumber — I know all this shit. This is the same story for everybody.’
“As a matter of fact, I would find, personally, a plumber’s story much more interesting than Bruce Springsteen’s story only because I don’t know how to fucking do any plumbing. I find that way more intriguing, to tell you the truth.”
That said, the initial entry point into Beautiful Scars for many will be Wilson’s lengthy career in the Canadian music industry — be it his longtime, celebrated gritty rock act Junkhouse, his rootsier project with Stephen Fearing and Colin Linden called Blackie and the Rodeo Kings or his solo work as LeE HARVeY OsMOND.
And while they’re certainly touched upon, it’s never at the expense of spinning the larger story that Wilson is hoping to weave.
In fact, the word “Junkhouse” probably only appears in the book maybe five or six times.
“Yup,” Wilson says. “And that might be two times too many — not because I don’t love that band and don’t respect that, am not appreciative about that band and proud of my work. But it’s actually the story of growing up in a home with two really old people — one of them blinded in the Second World War — it’s that journey.
“It’s also the journey of finding out who my real family is. It’s finding out that after 53, 54, 55 years that growing up thinking I was a puffy, sweaty Irish guy all my life, I’m actually a puffy, sweaty Mohawk guy. And that the woman who acted as my cousin is actually my mother and I grew up an only child and met six of my apparently maybe 11 brothers and sisters two summers ago.
“There’s the story. The story isn’t about snorting coke in biker clubhouses. That’s not very interesting and it’s actually not very healthy, either.”
That’s a fairly good Coles Notes version of the book and one that should spark the interest in literature and music lovers who want to further explore an extraordinary story told in an expertly entertaining, remarkably sure, vivid and matter-of-fact manner.
Beautiful Scars takes its time unfolding the tale: Wilson’s impoverished childhood in one of Canada’s toughest towns with a mother and father much older than all those of his friends, and to whom he bore little or no resemblance to, but who gave him all they could, including love; his discovery of music and the nurturing of that passion; his falling down the path of drink and drug; the artist’s struggles with his own parenting and personal relationships; and finally the unravelling of all of those lies and family secrets, and his discovery of his Indigenous heritage
It’s far-reaching but stunningly personal and, despite its many “side roads” — including that to sobriety, which includes, for local content, his first completely sober show ever on the stage of the Calgary Folk Music Festival with Blackie — it never loses sight of the through-line.
Wilson credits his “brilliant editor, who was able to keep me on track with the story,” noting that once he started the process he just wanted to keep writing even after it had wrapped that story up, and the reason he began work on it in the first place had been satisfied.
“The book fits in as part of the process of this discovery that I’d been adopted. Being in my 50s, the book fell a couple of years after I found out, and after I actually started talking about it. It’s amazing when you start speaking with your heart what comes your way,” he says.
“I also joke that writing the book saved me hundreds of thousands of dollars in therapy.”
Which brings up the question of whether Beautiful Scars was a necessary step in being at peace with his life, the lies he grew up with and where he’s headed now.
“I’m pretty at peace,” he says when asked. “And the book is actually a bonus.”
He thinks for a moment. “Let’s just say peace, I’ve got to find that on my own. The same as I’ve got to find my way to my culture as a Mohawk — I have to find that on my own. No book is going to do that, nobody’s going to do that for me and the process of the book, like I say, is part of this journey that I’m on.”
And despite the fact that the book, itself, has been completed and published, that doesn’t mean the journey has ended and the story is over.
In fact, Wilson admits that after a story about the book was printed in his hometown newspaper, he was contacted by the daughter of a woman with whom Wilson spent a few months in foster care before he was taken into the home and raised by the two people he considered his parents for most of his life.
He’s planning on meeting up with that foster-mother when he returns from his book tour, which hits Calgary Wednesday night for a Wordfest reading at the Memorial Park Library, and is hoping to learn even more about the life he never knew he had.
Actually, on this day that we chat, Wilson reveals that the daughter of that foster-mother just texted a photo from when he was about six months old that he had never seen — the home he grew up in was entirely devoid of any baby pictures of him.
“It’s kind of mind-blowing for me,” Wilson says, before explaining that it’s one more chapter in his journey that, despite all of the side roads, ups and downs, and rock music memories, is one that he’s quite comfortable embracing and relating.
“The bottom line is that I feel so blessed and so surrounded by love and I hope that this book never comes off as some kind of fucking sob story or something, because it’s not.
“I’ve been calling it a 70,000-word love letter to all of the people that gave me a fighting chance.”
(Photo courtesy Jen Squires.)
Tom Wilson will give a reading of Beautiful Scars: Steeltown Secrets, Mohawk Skywalkers and The Road Home Wednesday at 7 p.m. on the second floor of the Memorial Park Library (1221 2 St. S.W.). For tickets to this Wordfest presented event please click here.