If You’re Leaving Montreal, Take the 401: Reflections on a Friendship with Gareth Rees

Regular readers of S&C will be aware that our much-loved Contributing Editor Gareth Rees sadly passed away in April of last year. Portsmouth-based poet Richard Peirce has written this poignant tribute in verse to Gareth.

September 1963
We were fifteen.
You were the new boy,
standing in a notice board lay-by
of the long corridor from the hall
to the Home Economics classrooms.
Every Indian summer’s day break-time,
a parade of lithe creatures
bursting with newfound power
to turn a gawping head.
We had all come through.
Still standing, unvapourised,
after the ships had turned back,
the nukes were returned to sender
and JFK had saved us all.
We did not know of a Dallas Book Depository
or a grassy knoll on Dealey Plaza.
The Memphis Motel balcony was just a motel balcony,
the Los Angeles Ambassador Hotel kitchen hallway,
just a hotel kitchen hallway.
The young Arthurians were in their New World Camelot
and life was simple.
Electric guitars were playing the blues,
stirring the life force within us –
and we were fifteen.

Summer 1973
We were twenty-five,
roughened by secret bruises,
love and loss,
tenderness and cold-heartedness.
Tanks on a Middle East skyline,
Jimi’s last performance under island stars,
hitching on a frozen highway.
Our dreams of leaving had taken us
and we were returned.
Laying down tracks with harmony
on your Sony four-track reel-to-reel.
Rhythm and lead from your red semi-acoustic Hofner.
Plaintive strains of ‘Highway 401’ and ‘Wounded Knee’.
Nights of intoxication.
Colour pallets pouring from the stereogram.
‘A Salty Dog’ and ‘Sympathy for the Devil’.
Searching for the best jukebox in town –
or out of it.
Car stereo pouring sounds over a golden field
falling away and up to the horizon.
and we were twenty-five.

Middle passage
We were tested.
Disowned shadows served up a main course
of treacle and wormwood,
pogroms and soul purges.
There always seemed some summit out of sight and,
looking back at the verdant valley floor,
our trodden paths were lost
at the raising of each heel –
but the music carried us on.
The fret-worn Hofner still sang beneath your fingers
and new songs soothed our dark.

Moving on
The last time,
you were no longer the new boy,
though some glint of wonder remained in your grey eyes
at the heady night scents of tobacco flowers and jasmine,
a moon mercury vault of sky
through the branches of a tree in Museum Road,
a Keith Richards riff,
a new song to sing –
a wonder, muted by the witness
of a little too much living – though,

could there ever be too much?

Photograph by Alexander Sebley.