Spirit of the West frontman died Wednesday from complications related to early-onset Alzheimer’s
CBC Radio · Posted: Nov 21, 2019 6:15 PM ET | Last Updated: November 21
John Mann died as he lived — surrounded by music and the people he loved.
The frontman of the Canadian folk-rock band Spirit of the West died Wednesday in Vancouver from complications related to early-onset Alzheimer’s. He was 57.
His friends and family were by his side in his final moments, including bandmate Geoffrey Kelly.
Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off.
Geoffrey, first of all, I’m so sorry for the loss of your friend.
Aw, thank you, Carol. It was a long struggle, a tough journey, especially for John’s family, John’s immediate family, but for all of us. We all felt the pain.
Did you have a chance to say goodbye?
We sure did. I happened to be there yesterday.
There was about eight of us there. There was always … it seemed, at least eight of us around him there in the last few days.
The most lovely moment came when his wonderful daughter Hattie … decided to swab his lips with Guinness, which was one of Johnny’s favourite drinks. So we cracked a can of Guinness, she had a pull on the Guinness, swabbed Johnny’s lips with Guinness, then we passed the can around and we finished it.
And shortly after, he sailed off into the mystic.
That was your goodbye. Can you tell us about your first hello. What are your first memories of John?
My wife was the one who sort of brought John into my life. They were together in theater school, and I was playing a little bit of music with the other original band member, J. Knutson. We were just playing a little bit of guitar and flute type of stuff, and she said, “Boy, you ought to hear this guy John Mann who’s in my one of my classes. He’s an amazing singer.”
Suddenly we were three, and got a little gig up at Whistler playing outside in the square, and that was kind of how it very innocently began. But right from the word go, John brought a certain kind of energy that we recognized as being something that would really make us unique.
He was like a folk singer, but a punk rocker at the same time, if you can kind of imagine that combination.
No one can forget that when you see how he moves. And to say it’s energy is to understate what a force he was on stage.
I just overheard Grant Lawrence on the CBC saying that John seemed to embrace that notion of, “Dance like no one’s watching.” And he did.
The song, of course, that people associate so much with him and with you, with Spirit of the West is, of course, Home For A Rest, which is regarded as a Canadian national anthem, not just here, but abroad. How did that song come about?
I wrote the words as a poem. The whole thing was just one big, long poem and I kind of didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t really play much guitar back then, so I gave it to John and eventually he put the chords to the poem.
When we were making the Save This House record with with Danny Greenspoon, we played him all the songs that we thought we had that were worthy of maybe being on a record, and we didn’t even play him Home For A Rest. And he was the one who said, “Have you got anything else that you think I should hear before we go into the studio and do this for real?”
And we said, “Well, we’ve got this one song. It’s not really finished.”
And so we kind of hacked our way through the very rough version of Home for A Rest, and he immediately recognized that there was something there, for sure. And he goes, “You guys gotta finish that.”
In 2014, John and the band went public with his diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s. How difficult was it to go public with that, for him and for all of you?
We felt at a certain point we needed to tell people because we didn’t want John to feel embarrassed about maybe messing up a song.
Our bass player Tobin [Frank] … came up with this ingenious system of using an iPad that Tobin would turn the pages with a foot pedal, so that all John had to do was kind of sing what was in front of him as he got deeper and deeper into the Alzheimer’s.
That prolonged our playing lives for probably another year. Then eventually it got to the point where Johnny was having a hard time keeping in the groove of the song. He would fall behind the tempo and it just became too much for him. So we realized, OK, we have to call an end to this now.
We wrapped it up with a few great shows, one of which was Massey Hall [in Toronto], where John was just at his absolute best. For some reason, for that show, he rallied and I think he seemed to know the importance of it.
That was probably one of the best final shows we did. I was so proud of him because it must have taken so much courage to walk out on stage just kind of not knowing how your mind would let you down or not.
He was courageous right ’til the very end of his performing career, for sure.
Is there a moment or a particular story that speaks to who John was for you, that you hold dear?
Oh boy, there’s so many.
One of the more humorous moments was at a certain point in the ’90s, I think we realized that, you know, bands have ebbs and flows and it really felt like we were having to play way too much to continue making a living.
And I remember being on a ferry with John talking about this and saying, “I think we should really all find some different things to do and have Spirit play way less.”
And I said to Johnny, you know, “What do you think you would do, if we kind of back off of the band?”
And he goes, “I’m not really sure, but I’d be fine as long as it involves applause.”
[That] was his line, and he did exactly that.
He went back into theater and he went back into starring in musicals and movies and television shows. He had an amazing second career as an actor.
But I always loved that line about the applause. I thought that was very John and very funny.
When he lost his ability to perform or to connect with singing, he didn’t lose his connection to music, did he?
No, he did not.
He seemed to find some way of expressing himself as he got deeper into the disease, and for a long time that was through snapping his fingers. He snapped fingers so much that he actually got blisters because that was his way of kind of showing that he was listening to the music, or his way of enjoying the music.
Music was a massive part of his life right until yesterday. In his room, we had his kind of playlists playing all the time very softly in the background, just in case he should have a moment of coming back to us and we just wanted him to be surrounded by all of us, and all of his family photos, and music that he loved.