#298 Three tributes to Al Neil
First published May 4, 2018.
An obituary on this site has already recorded the life and times — and books — of Al Neil.
But there’s nothing like a personal reminiscence–or three–to reveal how extraordinary and perplexing and difficult and odd he could be.
1. In Walked Al
by Annie Siegel
The first time I played music with Al was June 1972. I was twenty-three, freshly arrived to North Vancouver, and Al took me to a “jam” at a studio/warehouse space on Second Ave. A couple of weeks later I found myself playing flute with the newly formed seven-piece Al Neil Orchestra at the Vancouver Art Gallery for Al’s West Coast Lokas exhibit. There were seven of us: Al, Gregg Simpson, Rick Ansty, Phil Morgan, Bob Burns, Nelson Lepine and myself.
Since I lived across the road from his cabin in Deep Cove, I was given the job of attempting to keep Al nourished and sober for at least two days before any concert or recording. I brought him split pea soup, bread and rose hips tea. Lawrence, his next-door boathouse neighbour, helped me check in on him numerous times during the day and evening. He was actually totally sober for the Art Gallery concert until one of his dedicated fans slipped him a mickey in the men’s room just before we were scheduled to play. We were all on stage when Al finally strutted out with a peashooter masquerading as a Colt 45. He signalled for us to start playing on the note “A” and spent the entire number crawling around underneath the piano and shooting peas into the harp strings.
I guess word must have gotten around about the various gadgets Al employed in his piano performances, because a day after I made arrangements for a concert at the Simon Fraser University theatre, I received a panic phone call from the theatre manager.
“There’s no way I am going to allow Al Neil within a hundred feet of our brand new Bechstein Grand! I heard he took a ball pein hammer and a water pistol to the one at the Art Gallery!” she screamed at me over the phone.
“Well that’s not true,” I said in my calmest, most reassuring voice. “It was a pea shooter and he didn’t cause any damage to the piano.”
“Then it was another performance. I definitely heard he used a ball pein hammer!”
The conversation looped around like this for another ten minutes. Finally, I had to promise to sign a notarized waver declaring that I, Annie Siegel, as band representative, would be liable for any damage to the aforementioned musical instrument, the stage, the audience, etc. etc. etc.
The concert was at 12 noon. I woke Al up at nine, had him dress in a black suit and tie that we dug up from his former bebopper days, and did not let him out of my sight all morning. He knew the stakes. I stressed the importance of gentlemanly behaviour. We let no one near him and Rick followed him into the theatre’s men’s room.
The concert was amazing. Al waltzed onto the stage as if he were wearing tux and tails, sat down at the padded piano bench with a flourish worthy of Liberace, and commenced to produce the most sophisticated music I have ever heard him play: classical and bebop roots morphing into brilliant bursts of uncharted territory. We received a standing ovation and a check with nothing deducted.
|2. Knowing How To Fall
by Barry Landeen
Al Neil passed away on Nov. 16 of last year after a long life of following the creative muse, making music, art, and writing books. He was 93. His range of endeavour on the frontiers of art are impressive; bebop jazz piano, improvised collaged music, performance art, assemblage, collage on paper, novels, stories. He had a long span of creativity from the late 40’s to the early 2000’s before making the decision to “retire” first from music, then from making art.
My first memory of meeting Al is from around 1976. I was visiting my friend Gordon at the old house he rented in a corner of the West End in Vancouver near Lost Lagoon that we later called the Ghetto, when late at night Al came through the door. He was quite drunk and dishevelled looking. But the sort of drunk one occasionally meets who somehow intermittently is focused and sharp, keeping up with the conversation and at times a few steps ahead even after appearing to be near to passing out.
By that time Al was living at his squatter’s cabin (he eventually paid a very minimum rent to McKenzie Barge after it was determined that the cabin appeared to be on their property) by the beach at Dollarton in North Vancouver, and it wasn’t much later that Gordon moved into the second last beach cabin at Dollarton. These were the last two of a community of a few dozen squatters’ shacks along that shoreline that dated back to the 1930’s. Malcolm Lowry had a cabin there (Al and others would beachcomb for Lowery’s gin bottles), the poet Earle Birney, and over the years various loggers, fishermen, artists and drifters.
I would occasionally visit Gordon and we would drop in on Al. His cabin sat on pilings so at high tide the water would lap under the cabin. The forest next to the cabin was festooned with assemblage built from the flotsam and jetsam collected from the beach as well as from the streets, mostly colourful manmade objects, fishing gear, building material, toys, and household goods. And the cabin itself had the objects on it and around it. Inside the one room I remember Al usually sitting in his armchair next to the window near the kitchen area where he could almost reach out and spin the old school globe that hung from the ceiling just below eye level. Across the room was an old piano with a few dead keys and a bit out of tune. Al preferred it that way. It meant it was more of a challenge to work around that condition, as well as opening up opportunities to incorporate that uniqueness. The piano was also a favourite place for his cat Spandini to spend time walking the keys. Al always said that Spandini played better than he did.
Al’s place on the beach was probably a hundred metres downhill through the forest from Dollarton Highway (really a two-lane road not a highway) and the path down that slope could be a bit treacherous for the distracted even during the day let alone drunk at midnight. Al’s nearest chosen place to have a beer was the Big O (Olympic Hotel) near Lonsdale Ave. in North Vancouver eight kilometres away. At night after getting a ride or hitch-hiking back to Dollarton, the trail could be a challenge. Gordon tells the story of one episode when Al tripped one night going downhill and rolled some distance, ending up against a big fir. He was fairly adept at this roll as he knew how to fall, being low to the ground and an avid tumbler as a teenager. But this time he lost his glasses in the fall. Sometime later, once again coming back from the Big O, he again tripped, maybe on the same root, and rolled down winding up against the same tree. There in the salal, glinting in the moonlight inches from the end of his nose were his glasses. Al did in some ways lead a charmed life, even though there was poverty and hard work. Being open to the energy of the universe seemed to help.
I eventually ended up living next door to Al and his partner, assemblage artist Carole Itter, in the Strathcona neighbourhood, in fact on the other side of the wall, it being an old English working class two story side by side duplex. Gordon had already moved into the duplex on the other side through his connection to Al and Carole and when the one I ended up in came up for rent Carole contacted me. Neighbours you know are better than ones you don’t and our tastes in music, being similar, could be appreciated through the wall. We ended up living beside each other for ten years, 1989 to 1999.
By this time Al was 65 and had transposed his art practice from assemblage to more wall friendly saleable collage. I remember at times dropping by for a visit and finding Al on the living room floor “deep in the glue” as he would say, arranging material on a 24” by 30” sheet of high quality paper. Altered photos, torn bits of coloured construction paper, personal medical records, war records, and various other mementos arranged in the form of a mask or portrait. Another layer would be black ink markings, and handwritten text, at times in coloured pen. He created probably at least a dozen series of collage works shown at roughly yearly exhibitions mostly at the Cobourg Gallery and the Atelier Gallery. The subjects of the collage series were people, Al himself or artists or writers he was interested in; Antonin Artaud, Rene Daumal, Gertrude Stein, Madame Blavatsky, Samuel Beckett, Mao and Confucious, Emily Carr, Toronto Blue Jays baseball players and Euclid. Really, all of Al’s art, music and writing was autobiographical. And yes, during the 90’s Al was an avid Blue Jays fan and listened to or watched most of their games. He loved the geometry of baseball. About this time Gordon and I had gone over to the cabin to level up the old structure because it was beginning to list perilously toward the salt chuck. After the jacking and shimming was done Al offered us the pick of unsold collages from recent shows, so Euclid and the Jays continue to keep an eye on the list of my own house.
Al’s history with the piano goes back a long ways. As a child in the 30’s Al studied piano with a number of teachers, one of whom was Jean Coulthard, a composer of classical music and opera. Music even followed him to war in Europe after Al joined the Canadian Army in 1942. Apparently, his mother sent him Downbeat magazine, allowing him to keep up with the jazz scene while ducking bullets in foxholes on the way to liberating Holland. After the war, returning to Vancouver he got involved in the jazz scene and with other players started the Cellar Jazz Club in the basement of a building near Main and Broadway. It was also during the 50’s that he discovered other artists that were doing things that resonated with his own emerging ideas about art and music. Robert Motherwell’s book on Dada introduced him to that circle of artists and writers who were subsequently highly influential in all aspects of his art, music, and writing. From the jazz piano tradition, Al has always said Bud Powell was his biggest inspiration with a good dose of Monk in there as well.
The Cellar brought in various musicians from the States during the late 50’s and early 60’s, and Al’s quartet, being the house band, often backed up the solo acts. By this time, like far too many players, Al was using heroin, so a lot of the week Art Pepper was in town was spent scoring junk for the visitor. Also, at this time Folkways Records recorded the American poet Kenneth Patchen reciting his poetry backed up by the Al Neil Quartet. But probably more exciting gigs for audiences were when full bands were booked into the Cellar for a week. The pivotal one for Al was the Ornette Coleman Quartet in 1958, with Cherry, Haden, and Higgins before they had recorded and before they went to New York and caused such an uproar. Ornette’s “harmolodics” blew Al away and he says that the intensity of that quartet live was way beyond the recorded version released the next year. Gradually Al’s interest in bebop and the jazz idiom waned and by 1963 he had quit playing publicly.
Two years later he returned, but with a very different approach. Working with younger players Gregg Simpson and Richard Anstey his music now depended on improvisation and sound collage. Spoken word, pre-recorded records and tapes, small toys and instruments, as well as piano, bass, and drums went into the mostly improvised mix. In 1966 the trio even played the Trips Festival at the Pacific National Exhibition Gardens opening for Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother, and the Grateful Dead. The creative gates were open and Al’s art evolved into performance art where costume, assemblage, improvisation, and provocation all became part of the occasion. The links to Dada became more and more apparent. I never saw Al perform during these years and only heard him much later when most performances were solo piano or perhaps an all acoustic piano trio. The stress of organizing and performing more ambitious events eventually pared things down.
Al out of the limelight at home was a fairly shy quiet guy, an intellectual really, reading probably five hours a day. But in public, in performance (official or not), opinionated unpredictable provocation (a la Dada) could be the order of the day. One friend tells of first meeting Al and punching him in the face when Al hurled some insult. At performances heckling was expected, whether it was the audience heckling Al or Al in the audience heckling someone playing on stage. Stories abound of Al being taken out of the Western Front for both positive and negative feedback from his position in the audience while attending someone else’s performance. A couple of times in later years Gordon and I were pressed into escort duty, taking Al home when things began to deteriorate.
Drugs and alcohol played not a small part in performances on and off the stage (in later years principally alcohol). Al would attempt to carefully calibrate the beer intake before a performance in order to be at the correct point of the high to maximize openness and creativity and to minimize the negative of impaired motor skills. Pushing the limits of inspiration and creativity was an important aspect of having access to as many pieces as possible in order to layer and collage them into a performance. And if drugs and alcohol could aid in that search so be it. Most creators who have gone down that path have spent a shorter time on earth than most of us. But due to Al’s somewhat careful calibrations and the luck of a strong constitution he lived to 93, much to many people’s surprise, perhaps including his own.
Al was rooted in Vancouver. He had no need or desire to go to New York or other centres of the art or music world. Instead he listened to or read about all of that from the comfort of his own chair in Strathcona or looking out on Burrard Inlet at Dollarton, connecting the bigger world to the local. He didn’t even want to go to Roberts Creek an hour away where Carole had a rural cabin. The war and being part of a show at the Pompidou Centre in Paris were the only times he was across the Atlantic or possibly even out of Canada. Instead Al stayed put, connecting his personal experiences in the place where he lived with the creative currents from afar, to leave the West Coast cultural scene richer and to be an inspiration to younger artists and musicians.
by Barry Landeen
(in memoriam, Al Neil, 1924-2017)
by Ron Sakolsky
|For Al Neil, jazz and collage were improvisational art forms capable of ”fusing imminent possibilities” while acting as aesthetic launching pads for his artistic forays into the unknown. Al called this process “collaging at the piano.” His primary accomplice in such sound collage endeavours, drummer Gregg Simpson, was engaged in “scratching,” “turntablism,” and “sampling” before there was even a name for these kinds of pre-computerized sonic interventions. At the height of such urgent adventures in sound exploration, Neil and his musical co-conspirators would playfully layer in everything but the proverbial kitchen sink. Toy instruments were mixed with monastic chanting and earnestly patriotic radio speeches by then-US president, Lyndon Johnson on the Viet Nam war effort. Random moments snatched from vinyl recordings would find themselves embedded in an array of mind-blowing sound effects. The squarely saccharine tunes of Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians would be juxtaposed to the hilarious fireworks ignited by Spike Jones and his City Slickers. Then, to top it all off, Al would unleash a salacious verbal send-up of that notorious killjoy, Abe Snedenko, of the Vancouver City Police’s Drug Squad. The resulting soundscape was Al-chemy at its finest!
I never met Al in person or saw him perform. By the time I got to BC in 2002, he had already called it quits. But long before I heard recordings of his musical soundscapes or saw his visual collages and totemic assemblages, we had met in his words as a writer. Some of those words which I avidly read were about his music, and when I actually got to hear it, everything fell into place spontaneously on its own terms. As I got to know more about him through his visual art, what confirmed my resonance with his anarchic approach to creative endeavours was his affinity with dada and surrealism and his participation in collective shows put on by West Coast Surrealist Group and the shorter-lived Vancouver School of Collage.
So, it was with great pleasure that I was able to read my poem for Al, entitled “Surreal Bloos”, (which had first appeared in Oystercatcher #4 back in 2007) as part of a public event held in his honour at the Western Front in January of 2018 to celebrate a man who had unpretentiously lived a poetic life of legendary proportions.
by Ron Sakolsky
[All three selections from Oystercatcher #15, 2018]