We lost Norm Hacking too soon; another good songwriter gone. And now it’s been 16 years. He was a Canadian musical gem who never got to really shine.
Besides being a gentle and profoundly humourous man, and a very talented singer-songwriter who gave himself to the craft with very little reward, Norm was one of my best friends. Most of the times that I remember being with him, we were laughing. Right from our early ‘70s university days through to the end of his life, Norm loved to laugh, big full belly laughs — although this was often mixed with his chosen persona, informed by his precarious financial condition, of being the tragic, neglected, heart-on-his-sleeve artist.
My wife, Jill, and I were big fans of course. We knew all his songs, had all his albums, went to his shows whenever we could — and we still keep our collection of “Norm stuff,” vinyl record albums, cassette tapes, VHS tapes, CDs, pieces on faded torn newsprint that he wrote as “Race Track Hack” for the Taxi News, personal notes to us, press clippings, poems, photos. How many other Canadian artists have their life’s’ work stored away in dust-proof bags somewhere, in closets, on formats that can’t even be played any more?
We never could believe Norm didn’t “make it” in the Canadian music scene. Juno submissions, and applications to perform at his beloved Mariposa Festival were rebuffed year after year. His music was so heartfelt, so real, personal, and often funny or self-deprecating. His mellow, deep voice could ring like a bell, or make you cry. But luck always seemed to dodge him. He loved the racetrack and introduced me on repeat visits to terms like Exacta and Trifecta, but also to the concept of losing one’s shirt.
A friend said to me after Norm passed, at 57 in 2007 that there were now a whole lot of great songs that wouldn’t get played very much. Packed into those songs, Norm also carried with him a history specific to the beginning of his career in the seventies: coffee shops, stairwells, racetracks, and that Beat Poet pursuit of the dawn, of the howl of the burden of immoderate romantic love.
The album that Norm spent most of his money creating, “Stubborn Ghost,” came out on vinyl, just as vinyl died, with the industry moving towards digital. It was a superb, very well-reviewed package, including excellent songs, production values and artwork, but it was in yesterday’s format. This hard-luck-lag behind the advance of technology continues even today, when, except for a couple of rarities, Norm’s music cannot be found on YouTube or Spotify. Eventually several of Norm’s songs were collected on a CD called “Skysongs,” and this remains the best digital collection of his work, but distribution was run by Norm and friends. It never reached the audience that it deserved.
In 2001 a number of artists recorded 15 of Norm’s songs to produce “One Voice: A Tribute To Norm Hacking”. This album featured many alumni of Norm’s Living Room, his long-running song workshop residency at Toronto’s Tranzac Club. It proved the depth of respect held for Norm and the influence of his music on the Ontario folk “hive”, but again it received little distribution.
In 2004, Norm wrote a children’s book and song called “When Cats Go Wrong.” Jill read it to her Grade 2 class, and they loved it. The kids all wrote letters to Norm and he wrote back to each and every one of them. These letters touched him deeply, coming as they did from children not connected to the music business that had ignored him for so long.
In 2005 Norm also put out a CD of his spoken word writings, another rare and risky format for an artist to branch into.
In trips up from Toronto to see us and play gigs in Ottawa, Norm would often stay at our place and we would have great times. Sometimes the gig would put him up somewhere, seldom in the poshest of suites. Describing one place where he stayed he told me “If my motel was a gas station, my room would be the washroom.” He rarely got the kind of pay or perks his talent deserved, but he loved the music, maintained his integrity, played for the people, and kept on keeping on. And we who loved his music, loved him.
One of the last times I saw him he was busking on Queen Street in Toronto. He played for hours and made hardly any money. But he played well, as he always did. His bittersweet melancholy, magnified by the passing of his mother, was so imposing in his final club dates that I witnessed, at Winterfolk, something I have never seen before or since: half the crowd was weeping openly, and consoling one another.
There are probably hundreds of musicians and singer-songwriters in Canada who may never get the recognition their music deserves. But as Norm says in one of his songs, we’re:
“Feeling richer for the time we all spend together
Stayin’ up late ‘till the bitter end
And whatever is lost in the winter frost
Lives on in our hearts like the song of a friend.”
Cheers Norm, and Thank you,
Phil Weir, de Bones
Phil Weir is the author of two books about canoeing: End Of The Portage & Canoeing The Mountain