Listen to this track by Vancouver folk-pop institution Spirit Of The West. It’s “Home For A Rest”, their signature song and musical highlight as taken from their 1990 album Save This House. This record was their breakthrough, having been together since 1984, and finally signed to a major label in Warner Music Canada by 1989. It was practically a government issue release across our country, gracing the record collections of many in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Unlike many new bands signed onto a major, the band didn’t make too many changes to their initial sound; the skin of traditional Celtic folk music as fused upon the bones and muscle of pop/rock musical structure. In the early nineties and in scenes all across Canada, a lot of bands were attempting to strike this very same balance. But few of them had the same impact as this band, full as they are of punk energy and musicianly chops that place them into Pogues territory. There wasn’t any need for them to do anything other than what they had been doing all along, which was to write songs full of thematic gravity and wit, touching on issues of social justice, sure, but not forgetting to infuse their work with humour as well.
This song is a travelogue and drinking song all rolled into one, certainly a reflection of where the band were at during that time, touring with British pop band The Wonder Stuff. This took them to London, to the pubs, and presumably to the bottom of a lot of glasses. In an important and very Canadian way though, this song is less about over indulgence and more about a sense of identity, which if you know anything about our country, makes a whole lot of sense.
As I’ve probably mentioned elsewhere, Canadians don’t have a dream like our American cousins do. We have a quest; to find ourselves and what it means to be Canadian. This filters down into a lot of our art to varying degrees. You can even find it here, with a narrator far from home with his compatriots, firmly ensconced in a Charing Cross Road pub, the shine on the bar maintained by the sleeves of their coats. For the most part, the “take me home!” is notable for its humour, and for how well it is to relate to. We’ve all been there; feeling disconnected, and finding temporary solace in a pint or ten with our friends. In this song, which was such a mainstay tune during a time when I was personally on a search for identity of my very own as a young man away from home, I always thought this was more than just the joyous drinking song that it seems to be.
Beneath that undeniable joy found in this song is that feeling of disconnection, of feeling adrift. It’s the contrast between these forces that makes this song work so well. To me it was always this that connected this song to our national identity, finding ourselves far from home, longing to get back there, while at the same time not really knowing what home actually is. And yet in the singing of this song over the years, it’s slowly transformed itself for many of my generation, becoming something of a binding anthem to what it is to be Canadian in the world; all in this together on a quest to find what home means for all of us.
“Home For A Rest” became a signature tune for Spirit Of The West as their stature grew in the 1990s. I think it was because this song captured something important. Its value is as ineffable as the search for Canadian identity itself. Despite being a song about feeling disconnected, in the end it has the exact opposite effect whenever it is heard. It unifies us somehow, a song about longing for home, and in the singing of it, it helps us get there, at least for a while.
In recent years, Spirit Of The West lead singer John Mann has been on something of a personal journey himself. After an impressive career as a singer, songwriter, band member, and as a second career as a stage actor, Mann is currently undergoing treatment for Alzheimer’s Disease, a condition that has cut his career short as he’s known it. The Spirit Of The West played its last shows at Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom in April of this year, starring a multitude of high-profile guest musicians to help see them off. This was more than just a bunch of farewell shows. To me, there is a certain element of gratitude in place on the part of our nation when it comes to what Mann and what Spirit Of The West have contributed to our culture.
They came home in the end, and their audience was there to greet them.
For more about The Spirit Of The West, check out sotw.ca.
And for more about the band, a new documentary made about them called Spirit Unforgettable, and singer John Mann’s current battle with Alzheimer’s Disease, check out this article from the CBC.