Tom Wilson Shares a Stirring Story of Family Secrets Mixed With Songs

by Bill Monahan
Feature Photo by Donna Harper

On Tuesday, Feb. 20th, CROW Bar and Variety in Collingwood is presenting the first of “The Crow Sessions” dinner shows, where they bring an artist who combines story with song and encourage the audience to, as Steven Vipond puts it, “Shut up and listen.”  These shows are special enough for the audience to set aside their chatter and do just that.

And the kickoff in the series is very special by any measure.  Tom Wilson of Blackie and The Rodeo Kings, will talk about his memoir, “Beautiful Scars” and sing songs related to the story.

“I’m kind of out for the next year-and-a-half or so concentrating on doing  what I call literary recitals, consisting of either what I’ll be doing in Collingwood which is piano accompaniment and myself, all the way up to a 21-piece orchestra which I did last month in Hamilton and will be doing in Ottawa and Calgary, etc.  This is me being able to combine the story of my book along with the music that I’ve been writing for the last year around the book.”

And what a compelling story that book contains.  Since its release last year by Doubleday, “Beautiful Scars” (the book, not to be confused with the song or the album of the same name that Tom has recorded) has impressed critics.

Diane Schoemperlen, in the Hamilton Review of Books echoed many other reviewers, calling the book “much more than yet another retelling of the sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll story that many other musicians before him have told. All of that is in the book — addiction, demons, destruction, and the toll it took on Tom and those he loved —and all of it is told very well — but beneath and behind this, always there lurks Wilson’s search for truth and his place in the world.”

photo courtesy Toronto Star

When Doubleday approached him to write a memoir his first response was “that sounds like way too much work,” but now he says “It was a lot of work and it’s worth the work that went into it.”  It was also painful but cathartic.

“When I sat down to write, I wrote with a lot of anger. I was really quite angry, maybe out of my mind, and as the process started to unfold, all that anger started to leave and I was able to actually write in a pure light of love and respect.  My joke about it was that I saved hundreds of thousands of dollars in therapy by writing this book.  It is a joke but at the same time being able to have all of that lift off you is very important.”

The weight he was able to lift from his shoulders was a lifelong family secret that he discovered just a few years ago.

“They were interested in my adoption story,” he says of the publishers, “I was interested in talking about my adoption story.  I was interested in talking about, you know, when you’ve got real live things happening in your life, like finding out that the woman who’s acted as your cousin all your life was actually your mother.  When you find out that your parents, who you always suspected were not your parents because they were much older (my father, George Wilson was blinded in the Second World War.  He was a tail-gunner in a Lancaster bomber, the suicide seat in the Second World War)…you know when you find out that those two people who loved you so deeply really aren’t your parents, there’s a bit of a story.   When you find out that you’re not a big sweaty Irish guy but you are actually a Mohawk man, when you’ve grown up as an only child and you’ve met six of your possibly eleven brothers and sisters over the last couple of years, that’s more interesting than a rock star bio any day.”

When he learned the truth his parents had already passed away, his mother Bunny keeping her vow to take the secrets to the grave.  Only when his birth mother came forward, the woman he had known all his life as his cousin, did he discover the truth about his birth and heritage.

“I was not completely blindsided by this” he says, “In the back of my mind I suspected a lot of the things that came to the surface.  Living with those suspicions and living knowing that things are not adding up has a lot more impact on you than the relief of finding out your true origins.

“My joke has always been that I didn’t look like the other kids in the school; I looked like an Indian kid.  You know schoolyards are the first place that you find out what you look like.  If your nose is too big, or you’re fat or your ears stick out, or if you’re black or if you’re Asian, or if you’re native, those are the places that kids don’t hold back.  When the schoolyard world is telling you that, those were the first times that I thought, Wow, maybe I really am different.

“I never thought I‘d find out the truth because I was shut down.  I started asking when I was four years old and I stopped asking when I was about fourteen because I got shut down the same way.  It was considered that I was being disrespectful to my father who lost his eyesight fighting for me in the Second World War.  There’s a lot of French Catholic guilt that went on. Along with being loved like no person has ever been  – I feel that I was loved as much as anybody can be loved by Bunny Wilson, but at the same time there was a lot of the church guilt, man.  There’s ways to beat people down with guilt and it seems that, uh, being a catholic I know.”

It’s easy to imagine the turmoil that these revelations would stir up in anyone.  But Tom Wilson is not just anyone.  He is a creative artist driven, as artists are, by a search for the truth.  A restless and prolific creator, he has exhibited his original paintings around the world and spent his life on stages small and large as a singer-songwriter.  Even though his band Junkhouse had what writers called “a shaggy image reminiscent of a motorcycle gang” in a history of Canadian rock called “Have Not Been The Same”, they noted that “Wilson’s songwriting had taken a dramatic turn from recycled blues to being an accurate depiction of his surroundings, often dealing with scenes of alcoholism and domestic abuse.”  Since his Junkhouse days, his collaboration with Stephen Fearing and Colin Linden in Blackie and The Rodeo Kings has worked out well enough to make them internationally respected roots artists, and in that setting as well as his own project Lee Harvey Osmond, his songs have continued to explore the truth of the world in which he lives.  His memoir expands on that depiction of life as it is, and moves him toward a whole new exploration in his art.

Tom Wilson is an artist who continues to grow.  This new revelation in his life will continue to inspire new explorations in his art and give the world the unique perspective of a boy raised French Catholic who finds his true culture is something else entirely.

“It’s not like I became a Mohawk man overnight and that I feel that I can speak for my culture,” he says, but he adds, “I can feel my culture embracing me and I don’t know when it’s going to tell me to step forward and start working for the cause.”

Doors open at 5:30 on Tuesday and the show starts at 7:00 to give you time to eat, and then sit back and listen to a great storyteller with a unique story to tell.

For tickets, go to https://www.ticketscene.ca/events/20265/

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