Illustration by Kyra Kendall/Torontoist.
Torontoist is ending the year by naming our Heroes and Villains—Toronto’s very best and very worst people, places, and things over the past twelve months. From December 13–17: the Villains! From December 20–24, the Heroes! And, from December 27–30, you can vote for Toronto’s Superhero and Supervillain of the year.
Paul Quarrington, who passed away in January at the age of fifty-six, almost certainly wrote the only Governor General’s Award–winning book to employ a jacket blurb from Penthouse. “The best novel written about rock ‘n’ roll,” they declared of Whale Music, and even if that’s a bit of hyperbole, it’s a reminder that Quarrington wasn’t your average purveyor of CanLit.
As the Don Mills–born author wryly noted in the National Post of being told he had cancer, “the diagnosis was as dire as they come: lung cancer, stage four. There is no stage five, at least not in cancer-speak, although I guess stage five is really the launching into the great unknown.”
Throughout his fight, Quarrington was beyond candid, writing columns (funny columns!) and filming video blogs for the Post; touring with his band, Porkbelly Futures; and writing a final book, his memoir, Cigar Box Banjo.
It might seem peculiar given the relative success of his two careers, but Cigar Box Banjo, which focused most on his love of music, showed that no matter how celebrated an author and screenwriter he was, Quarrington considered himself a musician first and foremost. It’s also a reminder that his work affected Toronto’s music scene as much as its literary one.
Whale Music inspired both the Rheostatics album of the same name and the Barenaked Ladies song “Brian Wilson.” When a movie was made of Whale Music, the Rheostatics were drafted to do the soundtrack, resulting in their biggest hit, “Claire,” using Quarrington’s lyrics. (Yes, this means the Rheos have two albums called Whale Music. And the film is fine—if, as so often happens, not in the same league as the novel.)
Dave Bidini returned the favour, nominating Quarrington’s hockey-epic-slash-meditation-on-mortality King Leary for Canada Reads in 2008. It went on to win, putting the out-of-print book back on shelves and, more importantly, back in front of readers.
When Blue Rodeo celebrated their twentieth anniversary, they put out In Stereovision, a DVD that contains “Sweet Soul Music.” A monologue by Quarrington, “Sweet Soul Music” is about Blue Rodeo and the Toronto sound embodied by it, a stirring and humorous bit of civic, musical, and personal history.
That Quarrington received video tributes from everyone from Alistair MacLeod and Michael Ondaatje to Robert Lantos and Jim Cuddy gives you some sense of his reach. He even got a special tribute on Hockey Night in Canada.
At his best, Quarrington filled his pages with whimsy, and then pulled out the rug at the last minute, revealing the dramatic, even tragic, story he’d been building underneath all along. It’s fitting that he handled his own mortality with the same brilliant humour.
The Quarrington Arts Society now helps young artists make their mark, ensuring his name and work live on. But all you have to do is crack open one of his books.