Most of us, in the grip of a morbid mood, have imagined ourselves in the very predicament suffered by novelist, screenwriter, and musician Paul Quarrington. “What would I do if I was told that I had only six months to live?” we ask ourselves, confident we’ll never discover the answer to that hypothetical question, that death will come for us unannounced late one night in the distant future.
Quarrington was confronted with an existential dilemma that was far from hypothetical when he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer last year. Just over seven months later, on January 21, 2010, he died.
So what did Quarrington do in the months following his death sentence? He embarked on a final tour with his band Porkbelly Futures, reconnected with old friends, recorded two final albums (one solo, one with the band), and somehow found the time and energy to finish a memoir he’d started before the diagnosis. That memoir is Cigar Box Banjo, and though it contains its share of reflections on mortality, illness, and taking stock, it is by and large a thoroughly affirmative and unsentimental journey through the music that brought so much meaning and joy to Quarrington’s life.
Those unfamiliar with Quarrington’s double existence as musician and writer may be surprised by the elevated stature he accorded music – especially blues, folk, and rock. Music was his first and most fiery love, and the one that most shaped his winding, at times chaotic, life path. The Beatles, Quarrington explains, had a lot to do with igniting his artistic passions and the urge to create. He was also influenced by Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and the Rolling Stones, as well as blues originals such as Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, and, most importantly, 1960s Chicago revivalist outfit the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.
So important were the blues to Quarrington’s musical development and sense of identity that he soon saw himself as a “fifteen-year-old hard-drinking, hard-smoking bluesman from Don Mills, Ontario.” Some of Cigar Box Banjo’s best passages focus on Quarrington’s nascent alcohol-fuelled attempts at blues stardom. He hailed from a musical family; he was barely a teenager when his mother died, and it was natural for Quarrington to seek solace in both music and the rootless, intense life of a professional musician.
He chronicles his various stints with such duos and combos as Quarrington Hill, Quarrington/Worthy, and Continental Drift, and friendships he developed along the way with dozens of musicians, including such notables as Daniel Lanois, Levon Helm, and Dan Hill, who tried out for (and was rejected by) Quarrington’s first teenage band.
Throughout, Quarrington treats the reader to the succinct, playful, and utterly apt turns of phrase that characterize his writing style. For example, this is how he summarizes the emotions that overcame him shortly after receiving his diagnosis: “The truest thing to say would be that it wasn’t a single emotion, it was quite a few of them stumbling into each other to get out, like drunkards in a doorway.”
His experience as a performer and screenwriter also honed his comic timing and sharp wit, as evidenced by the hilarious account of a typical gig in a typical Canadian town: “The sound guy is slender to the point of emaciation,” Quarrington writes. “He evidently needs a cigarette in his mouth to be able to breathe. If unadulterated oxygen were to enter his lungs, it might overload his system.”
Though he does not dwell on his steady physical decline during those final months, the spectre of death is always in the background. Quarrington did all he could to connect and reconnect with old friends, family members, and fellow musicians and writers, sharing his diagnosis and being consistently overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity he received in return. “It seems to me now,” he writes, “that all most human beings are doing is waiting for someone to tell them that they are in need of care and kindness, because those things are certainly forthcoming.”
In his bittersweet foreword, Irish novelist Roddy Doyle sums up Quarrington’s life with two words: “He lived.” Cigar Box Banjo proves, if anyone ever doubted it, that Quarrington not only lived, he wrote.
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"""This is a rich and life-affirming story that will please avid music fans and anyone who is interested in learning about living a life of joy in the face of death.""" (Prokop Diane Portland Book Review
died in the early days of 2010. It'll take years to fully appreciate his contribution. Start now, with this excellent memoir on his musical life first, his approaching death second.""" (Telegraph-Journal
"""A joy to read...Cigar Box Banjo
is the perfect testament to the man, and to his work. He will be missed.""" (Georgia Straight
"""A layered, rambling, deceptively casual mixture of music history, coming-of-age narrative and reflection on mortality. """ (Globe & Mail
"""It's doubtful we will see a better memoir this year than Paul Quarrington
's Cigar Box Banjo
...He doesn't shy away from exploring in detail his own dark journey toward death, but the path is illuminated with humour, courage, [and] generosity.""" (Waterloo Region Record