06 February 2010

Kate McGarrigle, tu nous manqueras

Yesterday afternoon we were cooking and listening to some American music from years gone by. For some reason I started wondering how old some of the artists are now, and I looked people up on Wikipedia to find out. Linda Ronstadt, b. 1946. Emmylou Harris, b. 1947. Jackson Browne, b. 1948. All my generation.

And Kate McGarrigle, born in Montréal in 1946, and — quoi ! — died, also in Montréal, January 18, 2010. This was a shock. I can't believe we hadn't heard about it. Kate McGarrigle was 63, but when you are just about to turn 61 yourself, that also seems very young.

Did you know that Kate McGarrigle was Rufus Wainwright's mother? You must know him. He's very talented, and has become quite famous. So has his sister, Martha Wainwright.

The first time I ever heard of Kate McGarrigle and her sister Anna, I was living in Paris in the early 1980s. I was about 30 years old. They had recorded an album called Entre Lajeunesse et la sagesse (called just The French Record in English). It included two songs that were "hits" in France back then: one was the title cut, and the other was called Complainte pour Ste-Catherine. I heard them a lot on the radio.

A 1976 picture of Kate McGarrigle posted on her sister Anna's blog.
Sympathy, apologies, and thanks to Anna McGarrigle.

Both these French-language songs were clearly North American. They came out of the folk music tradition. I guess I was struck by them because I was an American living in Paris, getting to be pretty fluent in French, and the McGarrigles' songs were the evidence that there was a thriving French reality in North America. That mattered to me.

The song Entre Lajeunesse et la sagesse is about a street in Montréal called Lajeunesse and the coming of age that is caracterized by la sagesse — wisdom, or at least well-behaved adulthood. It's a play on words, because la jeunesse means "youth." It says that between Lajeunesse street (or youth) and wisdom there is « un arrêt de métro, deux dépanneurs, un bricoleur, une affiche de Brigitte Bardot ».

I learned that un dépanneur in Québec is what we call a convenience store in the U.S. The term isn't used that way in France. Une panne is a breakdown, an outage, or a mechanical failure of some kind, and the verb dépanner means both to repair or fix something and, figuratively, to help somebody out. Un bricoleur is a jack of all trades, a handyman.

And the song brought home the fact that there is a métro in Montréal, just like in Paris. I must have already known that — I had spent a week or two in Québec in 1980, around the time the songs were popular. I went to Québec again in the summer of 1984, with Walt.

It seemed so incongruous to me, in this North American folk song, to hear the name Brigitte Bardot — "a poster of Brigitte Bardot." Could that really be in North America? That was a North America I wanted to explore, to get to know.

Here's an excerpt from that concert in the bar in Rochester.
It's the song I describe a little below, with Anna at the piano.
That's Kate McGarrigle playing the squeezebox.

The other song, Complainte pour Ste-Catherine — the title means something like Lamentation for Saint Catherine — is also about a street in Montréal. It talks about how cold it is in Québec, and about the warmth of the métro. It's about walking around under Saint Catherine street — there's a whole underground city in Montreal, so people can do their shopping without having to brave the elements in winter. Again there was that subway again. I spent a lot of time riding around on the Paris subway in those years.

Montréal must be a lot like Paris, I thought. The song was about coming of age, and about living the simple life, and about how things were changing. I liked this verse in the song:
« Faut pas croire que j'suis une imbécile
Parce que j'chauffe pas une convertible
La gloire c'est pas mal inutile
Au prix du gaz c'est trop pénible »
It was French, but a different French. It used words and expressions not used in France. Chauffer, for example, meaning to drive a car, like a chauffeur. Une convertible — that's obviously the American word, but pronounced with a French Canadian accent.

And then there was the line about la gloire being inutile — glory isn't really worth much. Did gloire mean something different in Québec French? Not "glory" but "showing off." Driving a convertible might impress people, but the price of gasoline for such a fancy car is prohibitive. Driving a convertible in Québec, the frozen north? That was hard to imagine. I liked the words, the ideas, and the images.

Kate and Anna McGarrigle in the late 1980s

One day a couple of years later, Walt and I were living in Washington, D.C. We were watching a lot of public TV. One night, there was a show — a McGarrigles concert recorded in a bar in Rochester, NY — featuring Linda Ronstadt and Maria Muldauer. Kate and Anna McGarrigle, as it turned out, were the authors of songs like Heart Like a Wheel, Talk to Me of Mendocino, You Tell Me that I'm Falling Down, and others.

The McGarrigle sisters — there they were again. Kate thanked Ronstadt and Muldaur, who had recorded and made big hits out of a few of their songs, saying that if it weren't for them "we wouldn't be here today, singing in a bar in Rochester." Ha ha ha.

During that concert, the McGarrigles even sang the French songs I knew. I recorded the concert on a Betamax tape! Years later, I was able to record it onto a VHS tape, so I didn't lose it when the Beta machine died. And then years later again, I was able to get the show recorded onto a DVD. I think it was in 2008 or 2009. We watched it last night. It's a crummy recording, but a great concert, and a great memory.

After that, Walt and I moved to San Francisco. It turned out that the McGarrigle sisters did a concert out there every year. They had quite a few fans. We attended every one of their performances that we ever found out about. They sang many times at a place called The Great American Music Hall in San Francisco's Tenderloin district. It was almost an Old West saloon. We were so close to the stage some years that we almost came to feel we were friends with the McGarrigle sisters. We had such a long shared history. I listened to their songs in the car on my long commutes to and from work in Silicon Valley.

Then one year the annual concert was held at the auditorium at San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts. We were enjoying the music, and at some point I turned around and saw Linda Ronstadt sitting right behind us, in the next row. At the end of the concert, Kate called Linda up on stage to sing Heart Like a Wheel. That must have been in the mid-1990s. I was impressed that Ronstadt would be there in the audience, like we were.

Another year, Kate talked to the audience about her life and Anna's in Canada. She said that she lived in Montreal, and that back in the 1960s and '70s she had always enjoyed going to visit Anna, who lived out in the country, because the food was so fresh and good.

Now, she said, in the 1990s, all the good food is to be found in the cities. Out in the country, the only food you can get is standard, packaged, pre-cooked, factory-produced supermarket products. You have go into the city to shop for better products in farmers' markets and specialty shops. And pay the high prices. It made me realize how the world has been turned upside down in so many ways over the past 50 years.

Since we moved to France in 2003, we have kind of lost touch with the McGarrigles. The new generation — Rufus and Martha — took over. Here in France, we didn't hear a word about Kate McGarrigle's passing. Walt and I read numerous blogs and Facebook every day. We both read the New York Times faithfully, and I at least scan the headlines in the Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, and the L.A. Times nearly every day too. We watch French television news. And still, nobody told us. Maybe we just missed it.


  1. gotta tell you.... I didn't hear of Kate's passing either.
    But what a wonderful post evoking so many memories...
    of Paris
    and Toronto (yes, they have a whole underground system that lets you commute and shop without braving the elements)
    and of San Francisco... I remember you telling me about LR sitting behind you at a concert.
    Take time to be sad about Kate and also time to celebrate what she added to your life!

  2. Thanks for this heartfelt obit., Ken. Speaking of names from the past, I was at the circulation desk at the American Library, sitting across from the leaflets that are on display at near the door when I noticed one announcing a Don McLean (American Pie, http://www.don-mclean.com/) concert in Paris in April. I picked up the ad and on the other side was the announcement of Kevin Costner (yes, the actor) singing in Paris on Feb. 22! Not knowing Costner as a singer, I think I'll skip that, but I'm tempted to go see McLean.

  3. A lovely post. We heard about her death at the time, but I couldn't tell you now from what source.

  4. Hello Cheryl, Ellen, and Susan, I just added another picture and a YouTube video of the Sainte-Catherine song to the post, if you want to hear what the McGarrigles sounded like in 1984.

  5. I hope Kate's sister reads your post today, Ken. It's a perfect tribute to her. Musicians add to our lives in ways they never know.

  6. This post was a pleasant surprise for me. I am American, but lived and worked in Montreal in the late 80s and early 90s. This brought back so many memories. Rue Ste. Catherine used to be a no-man's land, but is now filled with artsy shops and cafes. The underground shopping area is downtown. So many wonderful bistros in that city, like L'Express.

    The Quebecois accent is very different - twangy, I think. I was taught the language as a kid by a French teacher from Paris and one from Brussels, so my accent was "unusual" there. Many old French words are still used there, like "stationner" for parking.

  7. Ken, this is a lovely tribute. When I saw Walt's comment on Facebook about Kate McGarrigle, I wondered what had prompted it specifically now, since the news had been out since her death in January. I assumed that the sadness was just lingering and he just mentioned it again:) I didn't realize that you hadn't heard.

    I often wonder about big news (or what seems to me like "big" news) that comes out in the US, and wonder whether or not you are aware of it. I guess that "big" news would come out in the sources you read daily, but maybe not "celebrity"-type news? I remember that I heard about Kate McGarrigle's death in a headline on AOL.com news. It's a good source for hitting headlines of popular culture topics in the news.

    I was surprised a few months ago when Walt said that he hadn't heard anything about the murder trial in Italy of the American exchange student -- I wondered then if that kind of news made much of an appearance in French news sources.

    (Nadège and anyone else interested: I put some links to some good info [in English and in French] on the process of being PACSed, in a comment on yesterday's post.)

    Today's was a lovely, heartfelt post, Ken.


  8. Ken and Cheryl,

    Sorry didn't know you were fans otherwise I would have mentioned it here. Her funeral was held last Monday

  9. Someone, I can't remember who, mentioned her death in a blog, shortly after it occurred.

  10. Judy thank you so much for the info on PACS; fascinating.
    While in France this summer, I was telling my family that gay people are allowed to adopt children. I was surprised to hear that it is not legal in France.

  11. What a nice post.

    I thank you also for introducing me to the McGarrigles so long ago.

    Did we see them at the Great American that time we went, or just Rufus and Martha? I think just the latter.

  12. Ken,

    This is Kathleen from Rochester NY. That concert took place at the Red Creek, a very popular venue back in the 70's and early 80's, long since closed but missed by many of us here. Thanks for this post, a reminder of a lovely time.

  13. Ken,
    You reminded me that in my CD collection I have one only of Kate & Anna (Matapedia from 1996).
    I think I might just put in now while I'm working.
    Rufus and Martha have both to Australia in recent years. I also enjoy Louden's whimsical lyrics.

  14. I don't know whether you listen to any UK based radio stations Ken like BBC Radio 2. Whispering Bob Harris has a couple of different shows on Thursday 18.00 (both French time) for countryand Saturday 22.00 for a folk rock and blues mix. It was from Bob that I first learned of Kate's passing when he played some tributes. You can get it over the internet live but I don't think i-player (a version to download after) works in France. We can also get it on our satellite on France, but yours may be tuned differently.
    James Taylor and Carole King are doing a joint tour this year. The timings for their European leg haven't yet been announced, but will be on the James Taylor website.
    Thank you for a thoughtful and heartfelt obituary.

  15. Hi Chrissoup, I remember a show at the Great American where Rufus, Martha, and even Louden Wainright performed with Kate and Anna. Maybe that was one that you saw too.

  16. Hello GaynorB, and thanks for all that good information. Being an American with very little experience of the U.K., I don't think of listening to BBC radio. I'll have to try it. We get our TV through CanalSat, so we have very little English-language TV besides movies and a few series in V.O.

    Do you think James T. and Carole K. will do a concert in Tours? I guess I'd be surprised if they did...

  17. NPR had a nice 20 minute segment on her passing in January. I was touched that her son was able to speak so openly so soon, tribute to a supportive family.

  18. Campbell In Montreal
    Yr words are most appreciated over here.

  19. Glad to say that the BBC1 News gave Kate a very high profile tribute, more amazing as their work almost never got the attention it deserved. You brought a tear to my eye, such a great loss to family and fans.


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