Remembering John Mann: 1962-2019
John Mann was a beautiful man. That is the overwhelming consensus of the people who have paid tribute to him since his untimely passing Wednesday at the age of 57 from early onset Alzheimer’s. Fellow musicians and industry people have taken to social media in the days since his death describing his generosity, kindness, gentleness, humility and unbridled passion for music and performing. And on Thursday, several politicians rose in the British Columbia legislature to salute his contribution to Canadian music.
John, a Jessie Award-nominated actor, an esteemed solo singer-songwriter, and a member of the Order of British Columbia, was best-known as the front man for Spirit of the West, the pioneering Celtic pop-rock band he co-founded with Geoffrey Kelly and J. Knutsen in 1983 (at the time it was called Evesdropper). The band released 13 albums, earned a Juno nod in 1991 and was inducted into the B.C Entertainment Hall of Fame in 2014.
“John, Geoffrey and Jay in their fledgling days were as good as The Pogues,” recalled Penguin Eggs magazine editor Roddy Campbell in a Facebook post (all Facebook posts are shared here with their authors’ permission). “They had the youthful energy, songs, stage presence and political acumen that kicked Canadian folk music in the arse. They paved the way for the likes of Great Big Sea. And much of that came from John’s live-wire delivery. I watched them grow from folk club gigs to headline such folk festivals as Edmonton and Calgary. They were the first band I ever saw deliberately go and engage with their fans at the end of the shows. And they never lost that common touch.”
Roddy described John as a “brilliant, charismatic front man on stage with Spirit of the West and a lovely, warm, caring and engaging human being off of it.” And many in the industry shared those sentiments.
Ian Boyd, the long-time owner of Compact Music in Ottawa, said John visited the store when he was in town and was always gracious and generous with his time.
“He always thanked us for retailing music, which I will be forever grateful for as he genuinely appreciated what retailers did for him,” Ian said on social media. “I suspect he was like this with all the indie stores across the country.”
That generosity also extended to other artists. Vancouver singer-songwriter Babe Gurr recalled working with John at a number of benefits, but she was especially moved by his willingness to sing on a song on one of her albums.
“I hadn’t met John yet, and he didn’t know me at all. Yet he graciously agreed to come in and sing this duet with me,” she said. “He was incredibly generous and surprisingly shy. He came in well prepared and killed it in one take. I was so touched that he had taken the time to do this for a stranger.”
Mike McCormick of the musical comedy trio the Arrogant Worms described himself as “just gutted” by John’s passing, saying his “high energy style of singing and guitar playing was a huge influence on me when we started our band.”
And John’s long-time SOTW bandmate Linda McRae also recalled John’s passionate performances, telling Roots Music Canada, “[he] was one hell of a front man. He prowled the stage like a wild panther, sexy, dangerous and sometimes maniacal. I recall playing the Shetland Islands Folk Festival back in 1989 or ’90, and he was banging around so much the stage collapsed! The world has lost a good human being and a great guy.”
Politicians pay tribute
Long-time roots rocker-turned-NDP politician Andrew Cash remembered John on Twitter as a “beautiful person” and a “kind brother” who “tried to find the sweet spot between politics and art.”
“That’s perilous but he was up to the challenge,” Andrew wrote, “courageous in this as he was in everything he did.”
In the British Columbia legislature on Thursday, several MLAs rose to pay tribute to John, including North Vancouver-Seymour representative Jane Thornthwaite, who recalled going to school with John in West Van, and North Vancouver-Lonsdale MLA Bowinn Ma, who sang the chorus to Spirit’s iconic drinking song “Home for a Rest.”
“I did not know John Mann personally,” she said, “But I’ve lost track of how many times as a university student studying engineering at UBC that I have sung to or listened to that amazing song by Spirit of the West after many, many long nights of … … … studying. … Following his passing yesterday, people all over the world will mourn him and remember him, knowing that his work will live on for generations to come.”
Bob D’Eith, the MLA for Maple Ridge-Mission, is also a musician and entertainment lawyer and the former executive director of Music BC. He knew John personally and was present for his final concert at the Commodore Ballroom.
“I can tell you that in my life I have never had a more emotional experience than watching John be able to forget his words and read them but remember the music,” he told the legislature. “The music stuck with him, and he was able to sing those words and to have the music. It was such a profound moment. Such an amazing man was taken away from us way too early.”