John Bottomley’s difficult legacy

There was an ominous silence in the music community last week around the news that veteran singer-songwriter John Bottomley had died. While friends and family wrote brief Facebook updates referring to his sudden death at the early age of 50, there were no details. Emails flew, and everyone was asking everyone else in hushed tones if they knew anything more. Frankly, we all feared the worst.

Yesterday, a press release from the Bottomley family confirmed what the silence had suggested: that Bottomley took his own life. And now we must make sense of the mixed messages of his difficult legacy.

I didn’t know John Bottomley, but I loved his work. I once walked into a hat shop in Victoria, B.C. and was immediately so taken by his voice on the stereo, I had to ask who, and what, I was listening to. It was Bottomley’s masterful album, Songpoet, and that happened to be the day of the CD release. I couldn’t make the concert, so I cajoled the staff into selling me the store play copy. John and I later shared a laugh over that at the Shelter Valley Folk Festival – apparently the hat store girls had passed on the story.

Bottomley’s unique voice, his gift for lyrics, and his extraordinary imagery made him a formidable talent. He was a recognized success in a world where recognition is hard to come by. He’d won a Juno, for Most Promising Male Vocalist in 1992, and had a top 10 hit with “You Lose, You Gain” from Blackberry (produced by John Whynot & Colin Linden) in 1995. His output was sporadic, but frequently brilliant. He was known and loved for the greatness of his art. To outside eyes, it must have appeared John Bottomley was living the dream.

Indeed, his latest album was The Healing Dream, and the lyrics of the title track are now haunting:

I still feel the thorn
I still feel the sting
Help me now I need the healing dream

A dream, of course, can be a nightmare for the dreamer. And what we now know, tragically, and too late, is that Bottomley’s dream had a nightmare side. The demon of depression dogged his heels, it seems, and we are all left to try to make sense of the outcome.

In our community, depression is almost an occupational hazard. Of course depression can strike anyone, in any profession – but the arts offer the possibility of gleaning something from the gift of sensitivity, so perhaps the sensitive spirits among us gravitate to creative work.

Whatever the case, we must all deal with our demons. At Roots Music Canada, depression is part of our lives and we have to work constantly to manage its effects, on ourselves and each other and our loved ones. We deeply admire and support the work of our friend and guiding light, Shelagh Rogers, who’s made public her own struggles with depression and has advocated tirelessly for mental health.

It’s not for us to say what anyone else’s legacy will, or should be. John Bottomley leaves an amazing body of work, superb songs that would be the envy of any aspiring artist. We fervently hope that he also leaves a message to his fellow travelers, those for whom sensitivity of spirit has become more burden than gift.

As artists we strive to be honest in our work; we must be equally honest in our lives.

We must speak our truth. We must share our pain and the pain in the world.

And we must get the help we need when we need it.

John Bottomley – The Healing Dream from Jeff Bonner on Vimeo.

John Bottomley’s funeral will take place Wednesday at 11 a.m. at Church of Our Lady in Guelph.

Photo credit: johnbottomley.net


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  1. avatar
    Andy Frank 12 April, 2011 at 13:24

    Sometimes, I wish they called depression something else, like “Jane Smith disease”, something that wasn’t so easily confused with a common term for occasional sadness, something that might make our society recognize it as an “urgent” condition. Thanks to people like Shelagh, Mike Wallace and hundreds of other brave souls who have risked their significant reputations by confessing to having the mood disorder, I am nevertheless confident we are moving in the right direction. But it’s not moving fast enough.

  2. avatar
    Will Matthews 12 April, 2011 at 13:40

    Sad to hear about this. The man had talent. Really like that new song/video posted above. I remember some of his early stuff and really enjoyed it too. Easy to get perpetually down in this business despite talent and critical acclaim.

  3. avatar
    Beverly Kreller 12 April, 2011 at 15:11

    I was very saddened to hear of the circumstances of John’s passing. I loved his music and was a a big fan in the early days of Tulpa too. He was so very talented and a beautiful man. Having touched so many with his music his spirit will surely live on.

  4. avatar
    Amanda Lynn Stubley 12 April, 2011 at 15:36

    This is is a very tender and meaningful post, about such a tragic story. Thank you for your honest,
    Amanda Lynn, London, ON

  5. avatar
    Larra Daley 12 April, 2011 at 19:30

    I am the hat shop girl who parted with my coveted copy of Songpoet. I did so feeling confident that I could acquire another copy when John next came to Victoria, and of course because great music needs to be shared. John received an immense amount of air time at the busy little hat shop, as he did also on my home stereo, just as he does now.

    I first met John when we were both living on Bowen Island. It was some time before I knew such a lyrical magician was living among us. I knew John as the quiet customer at the cafe who would roll in at the close of the day for a coffee to go. Then I came to know John as the woodland wanderer. It was a rarity to walk the trails and not see John out on a quiet stroll.

    Finally I came to know John for his music; beautiful, mythical, otherworldly music. And how fortunate were we on this small Isle of Bowen to have him serenade us frequently.

    When the sad news of his passing reached me last night, I was stunned. I sought out my Star in the Singing Grove collection and let his sound fill the room. I took a long stroll in the woods, all the while wondering why.

    John, though many may still be Trying to Get to You, you cannot Be Here Now; I Pity the World Without You. I hope that in this Homecoming, in this Time of the Shining Angels, you find Deep Peace in This Light of your Golden Age and may The River Carry Carry Carry your Beauty and Odyssey For Everyone forever. Your Friendship will be missed.

    A star shines upon our meeting.

  6. avatar
    Nancy Hedberg 12 April, 2011 at 22:02

    …such a beautiful soul, too much for this world… RIP john… you’ll live on in your music free from shadows ans darkness…. free from fireworks that appeared to you only in black and white…

  7. avatar
    ernie sunndwn shergold 14 April, 2011 at 00:01

    I met John at the Vancouver Art Gallery, performing a free concert, such a gracious fellow whom I admire greatly.. the anquish and the light of artist Emily Carr in his song Klee Wyek transcends….

  8. avatar
    Nancy Nash/Sazacha Red Sky 29 June, 2011 at 03:11

    For 8 years I have lived solitary… a top a mountain, off grid … the trees and children of Monalah are my friends and the wind my allie… On April 2, 08 my treasure suddenly left this world, my son Robin Nash. One of the first things he emphasized, “the memories and muse are for all of you and my loved ones but they are not all there is, get to know me NOW beyond the confines of mortality”. That is a tall order … John Bottomly is like my dear son, a Buddha, a realized master… sometimes the veil of their life known also as tragedy is like a disguise a reflection for all of us to see the temporal… this world is a melancholy place… even the bears grieve and all the wild things that are so perfect… John came to remind us… this isn’t all there is… just a stop on the train… love this earth and take care of her but know that even she has a spirit body, actually many, called heaven… often John comes to all of you who love him … flickering lights… music that reminds you of him or even his muse…. dreams…. listen… he has something to tell you and perhaps it is just to say… I love you. Keep John more than a memory… get to know him NOW… Nam myoho renge kyo…my son’s middle name is John…

  9. avatar
    Jeff E 4 May, 2012 at 10:56

    Mid January, 1995 cold as hell in Canada , freshly unemployed , down on my luck, a bit depressed and feeling… well not so good emotionally or physically. I tried to go south for employment ,a guaranteed job beckoned , the border turned me back ( free trade my ass).
    With my passenger, unemployed like myself, we decided to sojourn out , and west, I dropped him off in Saskatoon , he wanted to turn back, as home beckoned. I felt a need to continue , there was no work back home. And so I did go further, west through alberta, up the jasper parkway and into northern B.C. my trusty yet rusty toyota supra, slipping and sliding, not so safe in the snows that fell that year. Yet , its sound system was good!
    Now alone , I had company , and among some of my tapes was the newly aquired “blackberry” . John and a select group of other artists kept me company on that long dark road.
    You lose you gain ..It hit a personal chord within me, and I played that song many times, i had left my family and girl back home, and searched for something else. But I Missed them terribly.
    I made it to northern B.C., a small town called Burns lake to visit my sister. My spirits were lifted , but something dark remained , i wasnt feeling all that good about anything.
    I came home a month later, feeling worse, another month later I was diagnosed with cancer.
    Here many years later, I am a survivor, that dark winter is past, and so with all dark roads we travel eventually… they have a end.
    I heard the news, and felt compelled to tell this story all true and all heart felt.
    At the end of Johns road perhaps there is an Inn, warm light spilling out its windows , a door opens beckoning . Its humid and warm inside, the people gather for drink and hot food…….and the stage is set….

  10. avatar
    Regis Palmer 1 June, 2012 at 23:44

    As a friend of mine once said ” As a Torontonian I and others like myself have often experienced unfair treatment, especially in smaller towns…in contrast to the (small town friendly) common idiom. We are often thought of as arrogant, unfriendly or know-it-all’s which is the farthest from the truth.” He also stated this opinion is more often expressed in western Canada.. My friend passed a few years ago at his own hand….that’s where I got his writings..peace and love to all Canadians..and the sweet spirit of John Bottomley…may it live FOREVER.

  11. avatar
    Rick 21 October, 2012 at 13:11

    I just heard of John’s passing and I’m shocked and saddened to hear he left this world. I was searching you tube videos when I came across a memorial video. When I first heard ” You lose You Gain” I was trying to to overcome a loss in my own life and felt as though the song and words were speaking directly to me. I have experienced many up & downs in life and have tried to take my own life. I often wonder why I survived, I’m constantly looking for something deeper and more meaningful to explain why I’m still here. When a man like John leaves us with so much more to give I just shake my head and ask why. His words have touched me and will continue to do so I as I continue this Journey called life. I’m so sorry John gave up the fight I would have loved to have met him and Thanked him.

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