Al Mader – For Crying Out Loud

Al Mader performs with the Minimalist Jug Band. Photo by Heather Watts.

The corner of Hastings and Main in east Vancouver is an open wound on the Canadian body politic. It is a place of concentrated misery, where those of us who have only their blood and orifices left to sell in the flesh markets mill about, waiting for the next hit, the next trick, the next whack, the next disappearance.  It’s from this place that over 60 women vanished from 1980 to 2002

Al Mader’s persona knows this place. He knows the dealers, the junkies, the pimps, the crazies and the crack whores. He knows the cops, the park benches, the Sally Ann, and the bus depot lockers where he keeps his last valuable things. He doesn’t live there anymore. He somehow managed to scrabble out of the vortex that consumes Canada’s repressed populations.

One thing his persona took away from that place was rage; an overwhelming anger at the system, which extrudes human misery like pulp from a sausage grinder. A lot of pain lodged deep inside, and in his 2003 CD For Crying Out Loud, Mader provides us a glimpse of what it’s like to carry the weight of witness to that suffering. 

The rest of us turn away, throw down fifty cents and quicken our step. Mader takes it all in and ruminates, asking all the wrong questions; those we don’t have answers for. He takes us on a scenic tour of certain tiny hells he has seen, each with their small unbearable misery that has cut him to the quick.

Mader’s persona is the court jester in our kingdom of privilege. He is washed-up and ridiculous, standing in the shadows accompanying his verses with his washtub bass. The constant tremolo in his voice and the whacky images in his poems are almost funny, but we can’t laugh at his stories.

Like that of Lenora who works cleaning the stands at the Maple Leaf Gardens, the arena in Toronto owned by the deceased scrooge, Harold Ballard. She has cancer. She is in pain, but she continues to clean up the garbage and puke that remains after the concerts and the hockey games. 

Mader tells her story in a talking blues style, asking why the fuck she continues and who will mourn her passing. We don’t get responses. The driving rhythm of the washtub bass and his forceful delivery push the piece out of the purely sentimental and into a realm more disturbing, more unsettling. We are entertained by this story, as we are by all of Mader’s performances.

In a poem about the first day of the year, Mader describes the newspaper reports on New Year’s Day, which announce both the first birth and the first murder of the year. A former acquaintance is cut open on Pender and Main. Someone’s stolen the shoes off the bleeding corpse. This story is juxtaposed with the rosy news of a new baby sister for some happy family. 

As Mader tell it, one gets the feeling these two stories are not mere coincidences.  On the contrary, they are the same story. Birth is tied to death with an iron chain. Like it or not, in twenty short years, someone’s baby sister will be on that street corner selling what she can to get through the next couple of hours.

Somewhere under the rain in East Vancouver, Al Mader is setting up his washtub bass. He is thumping out oracles, they are vaguely funny but mostly they are inexpressibly sad. The message seeps through our indifference. It lodges and percolates.

Like all the great jesters who live in the courts of mad kings,  in this disc,  Mader is trying to save some lives. His own for sure, but also our own. He’s trying to distract the great and privileged and in a moment of inattention maybe a few of the underlings can flee to safety. Though it is unclear where flight may take them, they’ll live to fight (or flee) another day.

Also check out his latest discs Thrift Stories (2007) and Naïve Ville (2010), both independently produced.