Remembering Kate McGarrigle
I’ve been thinking a lot about Kate McGarrigle since waking up Tuesday morning to the sad news that my old friend and colleague passed away Monday night after fighting cancer so bravely over the past three-and-a-half years.
I was just a little too young to have heard Kate and Anna McGarrigle during their Mountain City Four days in the 1960s. I came into the Montreal folk scene just after the Mountain City Four had wound down (although I was involved in getting them back on stage together once or twice in the 1970s).
Anna was the first of the McGarrigle sisters that I got to know. I started producing folk music concerts in Montreal in 1972 and Anna used to come to some of them with Dane Lanken (who she later married). At some point around then, Loudon Wainwright III played in Montreal and I met him and Kate, who were then married.
By this time, Kate and Anna were (quite independently) writing songs and making demos but not performing. In fact, it had been years since Kate and Anna had been on stage together.
“However,” as I wrote in a Sing Out! Magazine cover story about Kate and Anna in 1997, “other artists were beginning to pick up on the songs that Kate and Anna had been writing. The rock group McKendree Spring recorded Anna’s ‘Heart Like a Wheel’ in 1972 and Kate’s ‘We’ve Come a Long Way’ and ‘The Work Song’ were recorded by Loudon Wainwright III and Maria Muldaur respectively in 1973. ‘Heart Like a Wheel’ also became the title song on Linda Ronstadt‘s breakthrough album in 1974.
“Also in 1974, still before the release of Ronstadt’s record, Maria Muldaur was doing some tracks for her next album. Kate was asked to be one of the harmony singers on an a cappella gospel song that Muldaur was recording. Meanwhile, Muldaur had pulled ‘Cool River’ from the McGarrigle songwriting demos as a choice for the album. Producer Joe Boyd asked Kate to play piano on the track. Kate didn’t know the piano part to it and remembers Boyd demanding ‘what do you mean you don’t know it? You wrote it.’ She explained to him that it was one of her sister Anna’s songs; there was not yet a realization that there were two distinct McGarrigle sisters writing songs. Boyd’s response was to get Anna on plane to Los Angeles.
“Anna was working at an office job in Montreal when she got the call to come and work on Muldaur’s record. She remembers saying to her co-workers at the end of the day, ‘I’m leaving now and I probably won’t be seeing you again.’
“With both Kate and Anna in Los Angeles, they went into the studio and made a demo tape for Warner Bros. Anna recalls that when they made that demo, they didn’t even know each other’s songs because they hadn’t been singing together since the days of the Mountain City Four. In the studio, they each quickly made up harmonies to the other’s songs. ‘It was in the demo studio that afternoon,’ in April of 1974 ‘that we became Kate and Anna McGarrigle,’ adds Kate.” (Mike Regenstreif, Sing Out! Magazine Vol. 4, #4, 1997).
A few weeks after Kate and Anna “became Kate and Anna McGarrigle,” I took over the Golem Coffee House on Stanley Street in Montreal, an 80-seat (up to 120 SRO) folk club near the McGill campus and invited Kate and Anna to come and play. They did three nights at the Golem as a trio with Roma Baran. The Golem concerts were jam-packed with people getting their first tastes of Kate and Anna’s exceptional songwriting. The Golem was one of a select number of gigs that launched Kate and Anna’s performing career in the summer of 1974. The others were the Mariposa Folk Festival in Toronto, Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs and The Ark in Ann Arbor.
It was during that summer that Kate and I became good friends.
Kate and Anna came back to the Golem in the summer of ’75, this time with back-up from Peter Weldon, Chaim Tannenbaum and Dane Lanken, all of whom had been part of the Mountain City Four. By this time, they’d been recording Kate and Anna McGarrigle, their remarkable debut LP.
Kate was pregnant with Martha when the album was released in 1976 and virtually all of their planned touring was cancelled. One gig that went on, though, was the concert that I produced at Pollack Hall in Montreal. It was a wonderful, sold-out show.
Sometime not long after that concert, Kate said to me that Gaby – Gaby was Kate and Anna’s mother – thought I should be their agent. So I started agenting for Kate and Anna. There was never a contract. Just an understanding that they’d pay me a commission for the concerts I arranged for them. We worked together on that basis for about four years, a period marked by two more albums, Dancer with Bruised Knees and Pronto Monto.
Kate had her two small children – Rufus and Martha – and during that period Anna and Dane had Sylvan and Lily. Raising kids was their priority so they never toured a lot, but there were some incredible shows we did in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, out to Western Canada, and down into the U.S., including their Carnegie Hall debut in 1980.
It was also during that time – 1977 or so – that Kate’s marriage to Loudon broke up and Kate moved back to Montreal. I spent a lot of time with Kate in those years and remember many great times – in Montreal and on jaunts to and from the occasional gigs that Kate and Anna did.
Although I never spent nearly as much time with Kate after 1980 as I did in the ‘70s, the friendship endured. We hung out occasionally and Kate and Anna were regular guests on Folk Roots/Folk Branches, my weekly radio show on CKUT from 1994 to 2007. In 1997, I did the Sing Out! Magazine cover story, a 4,000-word look back at their lives, music and careers.
I was at home one night in 1998 when Kate called. “We’re in the studio tonight with Emmylou and Loudon and we really want to record ‘Green Green Rocky Road’ but nobody knows the words,” she said. So I took out a Dave Van Ronk CD, transcribed the lyrics – this was years before you could just Google them – and faxed them to Kate in the studio. A few months later, Kate and Anna were on Folk Roots/Folk Branches with me launching The McGarrigle Hour CD.
I only had a few visits with Kate over these last years as she battled cancer and I’ve been working in Ottawa during the week and spending quick weekends in Montreal. Kate came over one day in the summer of 2007. We had talked on the phone a few times and exchanged occasional e-mails, but it was the first time I’d seen her since the cancer fight had begun. It was heartbreaking to see how frail and thin she looked. But it was just a month or so before Martha’s wedding and she looked so radiant and beautiful as she looked forward to that big day.
The last time we spent time together was a little over a year later. As Rufus performed his main stage concert at the Ottawa Folk Festivala, Kate and I sat talking quietly backstage.
A phone conversation last spring was the last time we talked.
Fare thee well, Kate, fare thee well.
I wrote about Kate’s musical legacy in Wednesday’s Montreal Gazette. The article is linked here.
Donations in Kate’s memory may be made to the Kate McGarrigle Fund by clicking here or by calling 514-931-5656. “The Kate McGarrigle Fund supports cancer care and research at the McGill University Cancer Centre and the renowned teaching hospitals of McGill University in Montreal, including the McGill University Health Centre and the Jewish General Hospital.”