I wasn’t living in Canada when Stuart McLean came onto the national scene with his Vinyl Cafe programme on CBC radio. As with the Tragically Hip, it was a bit of Canadiana that passed me by until many years later.
I was visiting northern New Brunswick one December about fifteen years ago. I had gone to Campbellton (the city where I was born) on an errand for my parents and I distinctly remember stumbling across the CBC radio station during my return trip. I was on the highway, that beautiful elevated section of road that lets you look out across the Restigouche river toward Quebec, when this mellifluous voice started recounting a Christmastime story that involved newcomers to a neighborhood. The Chudary family wasn’t familiar with Canadian gift-giving traditions, and their misunderstanding sets off a massive neighborhood gift exchange as everyone struggles to make sure they don’t offend anyone else. It’s light and funny and endearing, full of warmth and heart, and it was a wonderful introduction to a terrific storyteller.
On my way back to Texas, I found a Vinyl Cafe book in the airport bookstore in Toronto, and I subsequently regaled my wife with the stories therein. Eventually we collected all of his books, and the story about Dave’s efforts to cook the turkey one Christmas never fail to crack me up. At the same time, we were impressed by McLean’s deep dive into the story after receiving complaints from animal rights supporters that the turkey in question had been abused. He reported, in all due seriousness, on their deliberations about whether the story should be dropped from rotation or perhaps edited to remove the passages that caused offense. Ultimately, they decided to air the piece unaltered, arguing that it was only Dave’s opinion that the B-grade turkey he acquired at the last moment looked like it had been abused.
Though he told stories about other people, McLean is best known for his tales of Dave and Morley, their two children, Dave’s record store, their colorful neighbors and the disagreements that often ensued from Dave’s misguided efforts at something he attempted with the best of intentions. The tales are set mostly in Ontario, but there are frequent trips back to the Maritimes to visit Dave’s home. The stories tug on my nostalgia strings, because so much of Dave’s upbringing resonates with my own.
I read his stories aloud, because that was how they were received by most of McLean’s audience. At heart, he was a storyteller, and he had a wonderful voice and dramatic aspect that brought it all to life. When we learned over a year ago that he had cancer, everyone hoped that before too long he would once again sit on the stool in front of the microphone and a studio audience and tell us another tale about Dave and Morley, their two kids and the dog.
Alas, the Vinyl Cafe has closed.