Music

Bluesman David Gogo drinks deeply from life’s Silver Cup

Picture a 12-year-old kid from Nanaimo, loaded into a Westphalian van with his first “shitty acoustic guitar,” prairie sky going endlessly by through the windows on the way to a family reunion in Manitoba.

“There were a lot of Icelandic people there. My mom’s mother, she’s Icelandic. My mother’s other side is Irish and Métis, and they taught me to play House of the Rising Sun,” veteran bluesman David Gogo recalls while speaking outside The Moose, a tavern near his Christmas tree farm just outside of Nanaimo, where he’d been hoping to drink whiskey with me from the other end of the phone. Except, “Lorraine fired all the bartenders,” he explains as a woman comes out to talk to him during our interview. I mention I hope he brought a flask. “I already drank it.” Back to our story:

“A lot of the older Icelanders, I guess it’s that racist thing, ‘Ah, they’re not really part of our family.’ And I thought, ‘These guys are cool motherfuckers. I want to hang out with them.’ That was one of my initial impressions of hanging with some Métis folks.”

Those sunny pastures of yesteryear came back full circle to Gogo when his 95-year-old grandmother recently died and left him an 1800s era silver cup with the initials JM on them – no, not Jim Morrison, people, c’mon – but his great, great, great uncle James McKay. Gogo ended up reading a book about McKay.

“Even if there wasn’t a family connection I would have been fascinated with this person. A real Métis builder in Western Canada, started as a trapper and a guide, ended up brokering a lot of the initial treaties in the province of Manitoba as it was becoming a province because he could speak English, French, and several Indigenous languages. He was a real trusted guy and a real hard worker; just an amazing person. So, to have that cup in my hand, and think, ‘Wow, this guy drank from this cup!’ the song couldn’t help but write itself and ended up being the title track.”

Thus, Silver Cup, Gogo’s 16th album which will be released Oct. 8 on his longtime label Cordova Bay, features the title track and several more rollickin’ tunes, including his version of Bob Dylan’s It Takes a Lot to Laugh (It Takes a Train to Cry). 

Amongst many great, feel-good tunes, the song Top Shelf, about Frank, a friend and fan, grabs your ears and heart.

Written during the lockdown, which was a “punch in the gut” to Gogo — who’d had a ton of gigs booked and been looking forward to his best year yet – the song arose on one of the musician’s many trips down to the river with his acoustic guitar. Frank’s brother sent a private message letting Gogo know Frank was in the hospital after cardiac events, and things didn’t look good. Gogo messaged Frank immediately, and five minutes later got a message back from his brother saying Frank had passed.

“So, I’m sitting with my guitar down in paradise, and five minutes later, the guy came back and he said, ‘Well, the funny thing was as he’s lying in intensive care, he’s trying to say something,’ and they couldn’t understand him, ‘and he finally go it out — top shelf.’ They go ‘What do you mean top shelf, Frank?’ ‘When you have my party, only drink top shelf.’ ”

“I had my guitar with me and I had the chorus right away; it was almost like it was sent to me with a lightning bolt. But the verses and that, I didn’t want to fuck the song up, and that’s the thing about the pandemic: I had the time to write the song properly. It’s a bit of a left turn, but it really fits into this album, because it’s an acoustic album, and it has some realness to it.”

And, even 16 albums in, having played Europe pretty much yearly and worked with many of the greats (while cleaning out his house during lockdown, he found a handwritten paper. “Oh, there’s a piece of paper: Stevie Ray Vaughan writing down his address and phone number in his handwriting. I should maybe frame that motherfucker”), the tingle of releasing an album hasn’t dulled for Gogo.

“Well, it’s always a giddy feeling, and same when I play a show. I think if you’re not a little bit kind of nervous, and have a little bit of anticipation and shyness, then I think you don’t give a shit anymore, you know?”

True, although Gogo has never been one to fawn over things, either. His first record was released on the massive EMI label when Gogo was barely out of his teens.

“Tell you the truth, I remember when I first signed the deal, and they took me out to dinner and then they took me to some trendy pool hall on Queen Street in Toronto and they had a jukebox there. I went and I plugged $10 into the jukebox and just played The Sex Pistols’ (disparaging) song EMI over and over again.

“They didn’t find it as funny as I did. It’s a true story.”

David Gogo plays the Ironwood October 16 and 17. For more information, go to https://ironwoodstage.ca/.

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