Tom Wilson is one of my favourite musicians and songwriters. His edgy tunes, full of wit and street-wise wisdom, grace the discographies of Wilson’s bands, Junkhouse, Lee Harvey Osmond and Blackie & the Rodeo Kings, the latter one of Canada’s finest Alt-Country groups. His autobiography Beautiful Scars (Doubleday Canada), released last fall, uses, like his songs, a mix of sharpness and charm in every chapter. His economical style features great memories about his life in music. But the most revealing part of his story is when he discovers that he’s from the Mohawk Nation, specifically Kahnawake community in the province of Quebec, which was kept secret from him until 2016.
Wilson was born in 1959. He grew up in Hamilton, Ontario during its golden years as one of North America’s biggest producers of steel, dominated by the companies Dofasco and Stelco. Even today, Hamilton is occasionally referred to as “Steel town”, a gentle nickname that captures the working-class feel its industrial history. Wilson grew up in the poorer part of town, named East Mountain, “My house was the last one on our route to school” he writes, where he spent most of his time with “my own gang of inseparable misfits.” Even though he was poor, he didn’t know it until he started grade school. As he says, “Before that age I had no idea. The world has to tell you.” In a nutshell, Wilson’s world was made up of those “misfits”, his rundown house and his parents, Bunny and George. Wilson never refers to them as mother & father, because we learn that they were not his real parents, merely his guardians. The first half of Wilson’s book is fondly remembered with great stories of what his life was like with Bunny and George.
Wilson’s book is also about his search for his own identity and the long hard truth about his aboriginal roots that he did not discover until he was in his mid-fifties. Wilson always thought himself an “outsider” growing up in Hamilton, because he was never told whom his real mother and father were. It was a secret his guardian, Bunny, literally promised that she would “take to her grave”. For Wilson, who lived with this unanswered question for most of his life, the effect was like a nagging toothache that never faded. Consequently Wilson was never really grounded as a youth. He had a few friends and support from Bunny and George, but he always felt lost psychologically speaking. But music was most important in his life. One of his first records was Alice Cooper’s Love It To Death album released on Frank Zappa’s Straight label in 1971. The record, the sound and the band had great appeal for the troubled Wilson; “they [Alice Cooper] looked like a street gang from outer space. Lipstick-smeared bikers or cowboys or futuristic mobsters. Dangerous as hell. And that’s what we all wanted to be. Dangerous as hell with Gibson SGs hanging off our shoulders.”
Wilson took up the guitar and started teaching himself how to play at a local Hamilton music store called, Waddington’s. For Wilson it was an epiphany. Getting that first guitar, “felt like it was the beginning of the rest of my life.” He was right. Wilson soon hooked up with other musicians, developed his skills on the instrument and eventually started playing in as many bands that would have him; he was barely into his teens. Hamilton was a pretty rough town in the seventies, full of characters, as Wilson describes them, “like Peter Fonda’s dim-witted cousins”, referring to Fonda’s appearance in the movie, Easy Rider. Wilson not only performed in front of them, but also got to know them on first name basis. But running with that crowd wasn’t necessarily good for one’s health as Wilson admits in his memoir. Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘N’ Roll became his mantra for many years, until an intervention sent him to a special hospital in Richmond Hill, to clean up. It was a long road for Wilson to travel, but it included a musical journey that made him the composer and singer he is today. “I entered adulthood unsure of who I was, where I belonged or where I came from, so I made up my story as I went along, and in that, music was my answer to everything…the path forward wasn’t always an easy or straight one, but I was willing to do anything to find my way.”
Wilson’s steadfast determination to write and perform music while undergoing an identity crisis, speaks to his art. All of his songs feature a blend of cynicism laced with hope and his book is about that pounding desire to fit in. Recalling his early years with one of his first professional bands, The Florida Razors, “We were from Hamilton: we were nuts and our options were limited, so we played rock and roll because it was all we had and it was all that made sense to us.” Wilson’s group often played as many places as they could from Detroit to Montreal, along Highway 401. It was a grind, but Wilson loved every minute of it and the freedom it brought him as a young man.
Wilson’s book is full of the smaller moments of which we often pay no heed, which speaks to his eloquent and darkly funny memories. And since we’re about the same age, I could relate to many of Wilson’s simple pleasures, such as listening to a tiny AM radio with a single earpiece late at night. Wilson also found solace in radio, often tuning in CFRB, from Toronto, or CHML, a local Top 40 station. I can easily recall tuning into CHUM radio and listening to the Top 40 hits of the day. It was world I could enter without any conditions or foes, just me and the music and the powerful voice of the DJ.
Tom Wilson’s Beautiful Scars, (which is also the title of the 2016 release by Lee Harvey Osmond) is one of the most direct and honest memoirs by a musician I’ve ever read. For the longest time Wilson chased history and lived his life with a “question mark” over his head. I’m so glad he found the answer and shared it with us. This review was originally published on Critics At Large.