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A Death in the Family

The CBC's David Grierson was devoted to his community. Saturday's memorial tribute in Victoria showed how grateful we were.

Charles Campbell 13 Dec 2004TheTyee.ca

Charles Campbell has worked as a writer and editor with the Georgia Straight, the Vancouver Sun and The Tyee, and teaches at Capilano University.

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For years — I can't count how many — David Grierson woke me up on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Then he introduced me to my province. North by Northwest, the CBC radio program he created and hosted, brought the literature and music of B.C. into my home.

It was an early morning kitchen party, the likes of which we'll never see again. On Nov. 20, when he died of a heart attack at the age of 49, I lost a great friend.

Charles Campbell is a contributing editor to The Tyee.

So, apparently, did many, many others. He left two parents, two longtime partners, and two young children. Weeks after his death, my sister in Victoria told me the city was still grieving for him. In the four years he'd hosted CBC Victoria's morning show, On the Island, he'd become a community institution.

Free tickets for a public memorial on Saturday at Victoria's 800-seat Alix Goolden Performance Hall were all claimed the day they became available. Musicians came from across the country to pay their respects to the person who was often the first to put them on the radio.

Gracious listener

Grierson was first because he listened well — as well as any broadcaster I can name. And folks came back to him because he was always gracious and thoughtful; he made everybody welcome, his guests, his listeners, his family.

Shelagh Rogers began Saturday's celebration of David Grierson's life by quoting from Fatboy Slim's "Praise You," a song he loved, a song she played on CBC's Sounds Like Canada not long after she first heard that he had died. "We've come a long, long way together…. We're going to praise you like we should."

And for three hours, that's what David Grierson's community did. Lieutenant Governor Iona Campagnolo, herself a veteran of CBC radio, said that as Grierson loved this province's clans, he was loved in return. "He never said 'no.' He was a star, but he never learned to be a prima donna."

'So full of light'

Poet P.K. Page read what she described as her most joyous poem, "Flowering Tree," in honour of "David's blythe spirit." "Each year it grows more outrageous, unpruned, untended."

"David was so full of light," declared poet Wendy Morton, "that whenever I was around him I wanted to lean into him." Then she read a poem written in his honour. "Today I watched 12 crows in the November maple. They were still as grief."

Yet there was also a great deal of levity.

Patrick Lane read a children's poem, "because he was a kid." Lane's partner, Lorna Crozier, read "My Last Erotic Poem" because she wanted to remember Grierson's huge and frequent laugh.

Much of the humour, like the "I Am a Folkie" parody of Molson's "I Am Canadian" ads, was provided by David himself. Rogers described their joint efforts at WeightWatchers. "He would joke that he waited while I watched."

In a clip about Grierson's grandmother's famous gelatin "love salad," David completely outmatched Vicki Gabereau. "We called it 'aspics of love,'" Grierson declared. "It's lovely," said Vicky. To which David promptly replied, "It looks like at the moment you're sitting on it."

Only radio could give us that.

Singing praises

Again and again, people talked about David's love of community. That's why David and radio were a perfect match. No other medium can reflect and build community the way good radio can — the way CBC Radio can. As we struggle with the increasing division between rural and urban British Columbia, CBC Radio bridges the divide better than any other institution I can name. David Grierson was the exemplar of that effort.

He also saw in this province's authors and musicians the voices that could bring us together, and he was devoted to showing us their work. Among the musicians who came to sing his praises were David Essig, the Bills, most of Spirit of the West, Allison Crowe, Zubot and Dawson, Shari Ulrich, and Valdy.

The Arrogant Worms flew across the country to offer a few satirical broadsides as a thank-you. "He didn't support just good culture," said one.

Victoria fiddler Daniel Lapp sang a Richard Thompson song: "She was a rare thing, fine as a bee's wing. So fine a breath of wind might blow her away."

Roy Forbes sang one of his own: "I always knew I loved you, but I never knew how much. Until you went too far away for me to hug and such."

A 12-year-old neighbour of David's sang "Amazing Grace."

Throughout the afternoon, images of David appeared on a screen behind the stage: as a stout child in a bow tie and an Argyle sweater, in the bath with a young son, feigning the role of cartoon ax murderer by a campfire, fishing on the ocean, watching

the river run.

'Bear hug'

Six months ago, David Grierson and I ate a lot of sushi over lunch during a break at the Canadian Association of Journalists conference in Vancouver. It seemed impossible to me that it was the first time we'd done such a thing, given how many times our paths had crossed. That day, I learned that he'd renovated and resided in a house I subsequently occupied for many years.

Not only did David Grierson wake me up every morning, he'd drywalled my bedroom. I never realized how much he had done for me.

At the end of the tribute, David's parents (who met in a church choir in Winnipeg, of course) took the stage. His father Charles said a few stirring words of thanks. He noted that CBC has some critics across the country. And then in stentorian tones he declared "Not today."

He urged us to be sure we express our love to those that matter to us while they're still around. The afternoon was, to borrow the words Her Honour, Iona, used to describe David, a "bearhug of generosity."

David, I hope you felt it, because everyone else sure did.

A CBC Radio Celebration: Words and Music That David Grierson Loved will be broadcast on Vancouver Island Mon., Dec. 13, at 8 p.m. on FM 90.5, across B.C. on Sun., Dec 19, at 7 a.m. on North By Northwest on CBC Radio One, and on Sun. Dec. 26, at noon on Westcoast Performance on CBC Radio Two. It was David's last program, and if you love folk as David did, you'd be a fool to miss it.

 [Tyee]

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