Jim Byrnes’s Last Stand

In the Social Services Seminar Room at the G.F. Strong Rehabilitation Centre on Laurel Street, there are motorcyclists and cancer survivors, and a hale fellow with a white beard whose story this week is that he was gored in Pamplona at the running of the bulls, after he stopped to tie his shoelace. It’s an amputee support group, and they’re talking about their shared hatred of lingering snow and phantom pain. Do those who decide to amputate have less pain than those who lose their legs unexpectedly?

Jim Byrnes, the guest of the group, tells them that his “foot” sometimes feels like it’s been set on fire and someone’s come with a broken bottle to put it out. One woman says she hadn’t realized Byrnes had lost his legs. “I suppose it’s because, 37 years on, I’m still in denial,” he says. “I’m still the same self-centred, venal sonofabitch I’ve always been. That can serve you well when you’re an amputee.”

He wasn’t always so philosophical. On a February night in 1972, Byrnes and two friends were on a closing-time run to get more beer for their farmhouse party. Sheets of rain were whipping in the wind when they stopped just north of Parksville to push an old stalled Ford pickup off the road. A pal who thought the beer run was taking too long came looking for them, approaching from behind in the storm. “He found me,” Byrnes says. “My legs were pretty much torn off at the scene.”

Byrnes tells the others about the visit he got a few weeks later, as he lay in bed at Nanaimo Regional Hospital. Sir Douglas Bader, the British pilot who lost both legs doing low-level aerobatics in 1931, showed up at Byrnes’s bedside, adorned with an ascot and a waxed mustache. Bader went on to become commander of the largely Canadian Squadron 242 of the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. He twice escaped from German prison camps before his captors took away his artificial legs. He assured Byrnes there was nothing he could not do in life.

Byrnes was not convinced: “I thought it was over.” Today, however, no one thinks of him first as a disabled person. He’s a versatile singer and actor with an incidental cane, a beloved Vancouverite with an open heart beneath an occasionally crusty exterior. And nothing brings his crustiness out quite like people who become witless in the face of disability.

The amputee group’s stock-in-trade is survival stories, usually darkly comic. Airports provide their share. Once, in St. Louis, a security employee asked Byrnes if he could walk through the metal detector. “Yeah, but I’m going to set all the bells off, so why don’t we go straight to step two,” Byrnes said.

“You can’t tell me my job,” the man retorted. After the bells had been duly alarmed, the whooping wand came out. “How far up does it go?” the guard asked, as he ran his annoying sensor along Byrnes’s leg. Byrnes pointed at the top of the sleeve that surrounds his stump.

“Well, how far down does it go?”

Byrnes laughed.

“What are you laughing at?” said the guard.

“I’m laughing at you, you…” Byrnes began.

Several hours and a missed flight later, the authorities finally let him go on his way.

The amiable hour of conversation at G.F. Strong ranges widely. Byrnes talks about auditions. He doesn’t advertise his disability. “Sometimes they say, ‘When do you lose the cane?’ And I say, ‘I don’t.’ ” He talks about getting old, and how your hips start to hurt. “And you go, ‘Jesus Christ, I’m crippled.’ ”

Toward the end of the visit, Byrnes pulls out his Gibson L5, which came out of the factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan, a couple of months either side of his own birthday, September 22, 1948. He first heard the Irving Berlin song he’s about to play when he was nine or 10 years old. It was a Mills Brothers recording with Louis Armstrong, and he had no idea what the words would come to mean to him.

“Without my walking stick, I’d go insaaane,” Byrnes sings in his growly, gravelly rasp, his fingers sharply striking the strings. “Can’t look my best, I’d feel undressed without my cane.”

Byrnes has a few canes, but the only one he uses is an Irish hickory stick he bought at Yost’s in St. Louis in 1976, after he threw his old one into the Mississippi off the Eads Bridge. (Sometimes, denial can get the better of you.) His legs are standard-issue German Otto Bocks. He’d prefer a pair of computerized C-Legs, which were developed by Kelvin James, a biomechanical engineer at the University of Alberta. James once touted the legs to Byrnes at the Edmonton Folk Festival, and C-Legs do have their advantages. “You don’t fall down.” However, at $45,000 each, they’re triple the cost of regular prosthetic legs.

Falling down, unfortunately, remains a regular occurrence. “I’ve broken both shoulders, my wrist, my ribs.” There are more persistent indignities as well, like cuts on his stumps that don’t heal. One resulted in a nasty infection a couple of years ago. “It’s only now that I realize how close to dying I was.” He’s not complaining, though. All these things are just facts. “J’en suis désolé means you’ve got a problem,” he tells the group. “The bell rings in the morning, and you either get up or you don’t.”

IT’S THE NIGHT when November turns into December, before the snows begin. Byrnes is onstage at the Capilano University Performing Arts Theatre, as part of a sold-out concert with wunderkind Vancouver guitarist and producer Steve Dawson, slide player Doug Cox, and the legendary “master of the Telecaster,” Amos Garrett. They’re trading songs and stories. Byrnes plays “Stardust,” “You Don’t Know Me,” and an old Mel Tillis song: “There ain’t nobody in this whole wide world who’s going to help you carry your load. Walk on, boy.”

Garrett says that whenever a young musician asks him for advice, he sings a song to the tune of “Swingin’ on a Star.” “Would you like to play the guitar, and bring your wages home in a jar, from a coffeehouse or a bar, or would you rather get a job?” Byrnes was never one for a straight job. In 1986, the year of our Expo, he played 300 gigs but still couldn’t afford a mortgage.

His alternative career choice was acting, but there wasn’t much of a market for an amputee musician 20 years removed from his Boston University Shakespeare roles. Still, Vancouver’s film industry was beginning to boom, and in August of ’86 a friend’s agent agreed to take him on. Six months and a smattering of auditions later, there was a promising message on his answering machine. Some American TV producers were looking for a legless guy in a wheelchair. Byrnes thought “I can act like that.” He auditioned the next day, and on February 26, 1987, exactly 15 years after his accident, he was cast on the CBS drama Wiseguy. He played a clandestine communications guru known as Lifeguard in the Emmy-nominated organized-crime drama.

The paycheques bought him the sparely furnished Kerrisdale house he still lives in, across the street from the train tracks where East Boulevard reaches down toward the Fraser. And the celebrity bought him a ticket to bigger parts. In the TV science-fiction drama Highlander, he was Joe Dawson, a “Watcher” responsible for documenting the lives of immortals, in his case the swashbuckling star swordsman. Highlander creative director David Abramowitz said of Byrnes: “He’s a human guy, a real mensch. There are no illusions. There is strength but not a tremendous amount of vanity.” Those qualities were a good fit for Joe Dawson. Byrnes cared about his character and Highlander, which smartly explored moral dilemmas between its frequent beheadings. Byrnes recalls someone describing it as “Talmudic dialogues, but with ass-kicking.”

There were also various Cancon versions of himself–he was a bar owner on the short-lived variety program The Jim Byrnes Show, and a bandleader in Sandy Wilson’s Harmony Cats (which garnered him a Genie nomination). Big-ticket foreign-production work has thinned out of late, though he’s still got a small recurring role in Sanctuary, a cable sci-fi drama with a decidedly twisted Dickensian edge. And he remains busy with voice-over work, no surprise for a guy noted since childhood as a mimic, a fellow who observes that in reading the poetry of Robert Burns it’s important to understand that the Scottish dialect is a lot like Yiddish.

AT THE PHNOM PENH on Georgia Street, Byrnes is having a bowl of Cambodian hot-and-sour soup. He’s just finished a trip to a North Vancouver studio in his PT Cruiser to read the narration for a commercial-fishing safety video. The half-hour session (with lines like “Gary clearly explained how they deal with single crossbow manhole covers”) was precise and efficient. When a studio assistant introduced his musician girlfriend as a would-be Jimi Hendrix, Byrnes told her about the Labour Day weekend in 1966 when he met Hendrix at the Café au Go Go in Greenwich Village.

Over the din at a shared table at the Phnom Penh, Byrnes recounts his circuitous route to Vancouver. Born James Thomas Kevin Byrnes, he grew up between two sisters in north St. Louis’s working-class Baden neighbourhood. His dad, Tom, was the only child in his family to graduate from high school. Tom paid for 14 years of night school by working as an insurance collector and oil-rig hand, eventually becoming an accountant with the City of St. Louis. At Tom Byrnes’s funeral, in 2002, the priest used few words to describe him: “Irish Catholic, Democrat.”

When Byrnes sings “Stardust,” it’s for his mother, Fran, who always had a song on her lips. Young Jim got his first piano lesson from the kindergarten nuns when he was five. As a 10-year-old choirboy, he went with his mother to see the Greater Bethlehem
Baptist Church Choir at a Christmas concert. As they left, Jim told his mom, “That god is alive.” He might have become a priest, but nightclub posters advertised a more seductive parallel universe. At 15, he was going to black roadhouses outside St. Louis, places like Slick’s Lakeside and the Fireworks Station, to see Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Muddy once showed him
a couple of guitar licks, and they became passing friends.

Byrnes also imagined himself as the St. Louis Cardinals’ third baseman, but he broke his arm playing football and ended up biding his time in theatre class. In 1966, he went to Boston University to study theatre, drawn partly by the idiosyncratic folk scene. The nightclubs of Montreal and New York were only a weekend train trip away. After BU (which included a part in Richard III opposite future Starsky & Hutch star Paul Michael Glaser), he returned home to St. Louis University.

In the winter of 1968, Byrnes found himself on the steps of the Federal Building at 12th and Clark, not far from his dad’s office, draft letter in hand. The words to “Danny Boy” (“ ’Tis you, ’tis you must go and I must bide”) suddenly made sense to him. The train to Canada was tempting, but he didn’t take it. Two months later, he shipped out with the 196th Light Infantry.

Byrnes so dislikes talking about Vietnam that few of his friends know much about his experience. “War stories,” he says with a shake of his head. He spent most of his time in Saigon. When Ho Chi Minh died, none of Byrnes’s fellow grunts knew who he was. After one particularly troubling experience, he saluted his way onto a homeward-bound plane he wasn’t supposed to board. He won’t discuss what happened. Back in St. Louis, he stayed with a friend while the authorities kept an eye on his parents’ house looking for their deserter. All of his choices during that time were the wrenching, uncertain choices of a 20-year-old. They marked him and those around him–his family, his girlfriend Annette–just as the war marked countless others. How can he talk about the war and not name those who paid more dearly? When he finally chose to cross the border, he took the tunnel from Detroit to Windsor, and made his way to Toronto. He wouldn’t see his daughter Serene until she was nearly three.

Byrnes spent some time at Rochdale College, the short-lived “free university,” but neither Rochdale nor Toronto really agreed with him, and a fellow Vietnam vet eventually drew him as far west as he could go, to Ucluelet and Tofino, when they were still tiny hamlets at the end of a long gravel logging road. His first gig in Vancouver was at Gastown’s Le Chat Noir. Back then the B.C. coast was a good place to just get by. He was living in the Vancouver Island village of Errington in early ’72, when he went on that late-night beer run and his hippie idyll took that fateful turn.

After the accident, Byrnes made a couple of forays back to St. Louis. It went well enough. He got his discharge letter without much event, and was driving women wild at places like Duff’s and the Exit. But if you worked the St. Louis bar scene you were expected to carry a gun, and Byrnes didn’t much like his. Things were falling into place in B.C., and St. Louis wasn’t the home it used to be. He headed back to B.C. for good.

Byrnes’s family, however, always remained important to him. He wakes each day to an old photograph of his parents, taken just before they were married in 1940. He can tell you that his first date with his wife, Robyn, who works for the provincial health authority, was on December 8, 1983. Their daughter Caitlin, a student in UBC’s film program, still lives at home.

As Byrnes leaves the Phnom Penh, he stops on the doorstep. Through all his wild misadventures, he says, his dad always supported him, always told him to keep his chin up. As a man with a shopping cart shambles down the sidewalk across the street, Byrnes squares his angular frame, both hands on his cane in front of him, and a little emotion catches in his throat. “After all that, it’s really mattered to me to come through for him.”

IN STEVE DAWSON’S East Vancouver garage studio, a dozen guitars hang high on the oxblood walls, and a Persian carpet covers the floor. There’s a Hammond M3 and an Aerophone pump organ, and an old piano with a thumbtack on every hammer to give it that honky-tonk rinky-tink.

Byrnes is here to record vocals for My Walking Stick. Dawson helped Byrnes make Fresh Horses (2004) and House of Refuge (2006), the best recordings of his career. The country soul of Walking Stick, released in May, just might be better. First up today is a song by 1920s Texas gospel singer Washington Phillips. They work quickly. Byrnes, who’s usually very much in charge, defers to Dawson, although they’re usually thinking the same thing. After one take, Dawson asks Byrnes to keep the first chorus simpler.

“What are they doing in heaven today,” Byrnes rasps, “where sin and sorrow are all done away?”

“That’s the shit,” Dawson says. “Wicked.”

Next is a reworking of the Billy the Kid legend written by local performer Suzie Ungerleider. Dawson cues up the music, marked by the staccato percussion of Stephen Hodges. Again they focus on simplicity, pace, and execution. It’s a desolate, menacing song: “Three shots, and you are going down.”

For all his acting success, Byrnes takes his greatest pleasure from music’s elemental force. “When I’m singing,” he says, “nothing hurts.” And he’s never been happier with that singing. “I’ve been playing professionally for 44 years, but I feel now I’m really finding my own voice.” He’s always been a great live performer, blessed with crackerjack bands, but what becomes second nature on the blues bar circuit can be limiting in the studio. Now he feels closer to the music that first inspired him. “Having turned 12 times 5, I feel like I’ve come full circle.”

Byrnes will also soon become the host of a local Saturday-evening radio show on Shore FM, the new wide-ranging music station scheduled to debut this summer. Byrnes has long wished for the kind of radio he grew up on in St. Louis, with hosts like Lou “Fatha” Thimes, Brother Columbus Gregory, and the legendary Gabriel: “The DJs were people you wanted to know.” For years, he’s mined those memories for his onstage patter: Don’t be a square, don’t go anywhere, we want to see your fine face right here in this place. “I stole their act,” he says. With the radio show, he hopes to extend the compliment.

Of course, new radio stations often promise imaginative, eclectic local programming and then devolve into formula and frat-boy humour. Station partner Sam Feldman and smart producers might make a difference this time. If Byrnes gets his way, as the sun goes down over English Bay you might hear a little Schubert between an Al Green song and some Arab music on
a show called Slippin’ Into Darkness.

BYRNES IS AT THE PLUSH Vancity Theatre on Seymour Street. He’s a guest of Melanie Friesen’s Cinema Salon, invited to talk about a favourite film. It’s election night in the U.S., so the crowd is thin, but his daughter Caitlin is here. John McQuade, a firefighter from North Delta, has come as well. Byrnes celebrated his 60th birthday in Scotland in September with half a dozen Vancouver firefighters. They went to Celtic/Hibernia soccer matches and backstreet pubs, but the story that sticks with them involves Byrnes and McQuade taking a Glasgow bus to visit McQuade’s aunt Annie in East Kilbride.

For his talk tonight, Byrnes has picked Shane, a 1953 film about a drifter (Alan Ladd) at the end of the age of gunslingers. Shane stands up for the homesteading Starrett family when cattle barons try to force them off their land at the foot of Wyoming’s Grand Tetons. The story is told through the eyes of a young boy, Joey Starrett, who’s enraptured by Shane but struggling to make sense of all that’s going on around him. “I first saw this film when I was five years old, and I feel like I’m five again seeing it on the big screen,” he says. “I’m still that little kid chasing after that thing you don’t quite understand…that thing you can’t quite touch…that sense of loss and longing.”

Byrnes has done almost everything he wanted to do as a kid. “I invented this character who’s a lot cooler than me, and I’ve sort of grown into him over the years,” he told his fellow amputees at G.F. Strong. That character has a pretty clear sense of where he came from, but he’s still more interested in the future. After all, if you turn something you already possess over and over in your hand, it becomes ordinary. Maybe that’s why Byrnes keeps coming back to music, that thing you can never really hold.

And maybe that’s why, at 12 times 5, it’s an awfully good time to be Jim Byrnes.