Rodney DeCroo leaves his past behind

Rodney DeCroo would rather talk about his music than his life, and that’s a conversation worth having

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      It wasn’t the first time Rodney DeCroo had blown it all to smithereens. Sitting in a van a half- decade ago, about a million miles from home, after seven years and five albums together, the local singer-songwriter abruptly dumped his band moments before a sold-out show in Winnipeg. Somewhat inconveniently, they still had two weeks of dates left, which subsequently needed to be filled by four emotionally devastated men no longer capable of talking to one another. Five years later, DeCroo chuckles sadly as he recalls the words of tour opener Carolyn Mark. “You break up with the band after the tour is over, you idiot,” she told him.

      His beleaguered bandmates had already endured too many of DeCroo’s unpredictable dramatics, while Mark brought her years of patient support, compassion, and encouragement to an exasperated (if temporary) close. As for his fans, they were simply inured to DeCroo’s street-fighter tactics, hair-trigger moods, and constant battles with anyone who looked like the enemy. Nothing was shocking anymore. Back home, DeCroo surveyed the wreckage and realized the jig was finally up.

      “I was sitting in my apartment thinking about all the different people that have been so generous with me as players, producers, bookers,” he tells the Straight, pacing back and forth in his spartan, East Vancouver digs, “and I realized I wasn’t talking to almost any of them. I’d burnt all those bridges. And I said, ‘Rodney, if there’s a stink in every room you walk into, you’re bringing the stink. It’s not these other people—it’s you. You gotta change. This has got to stop.’ ”

      For those of us who love his music—and we’re a passionate bunch—there’s finally some good news. DeCroo was on the verge of bigger things with his 2010 release, Queen Mary Trash. His subsequent breakdown and sabbatical from music weren’t absolute; a trio of projects examining his blighted childhood in depressed and haunted western Pennsylvania included a critically lauded spoken-word record (Allegheny) and widely praised stage show (Stupid Boy in an Ugly Town), the latter featuring a handful of new and characteristically searing songs.

      But Campfires on the Moon, which will be released by new label Tonic Records on April 28, is what you get when you put one of Canada’s most sensitive and brilliant singer-songwriters back in the studio after a half-decade of intensive recovery. It’s been almost 20 years since DeCroo was first diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder, but it took 2010’s flame-out to get him to do anything about it.

      “A friend of mine,” he explains, “a Vietnam vet, he said, ‘PTSD will kill you if you don’t get help. Just like your other problems you had to get help for, you have to get help for this too.’ ” DeCroo, a recovering alcoholic who had used his fists and an acid tongue to solve problems in the past, was subsequently fast-tracked into the care of Dr. Greg Passey, a trauma specialist who’s worked extensively with the military. DeCroo suspects that Passey had a particular interest in “PTSD that was handed down”. And this is where the story gets a little thorny.

      There isn’t much in the way of décor in DeCroo’s tiny one-bedroom apartment, but a U.S. Marine Corps sticker on his fridge tends to catch the eye. “I have that in memory of my dad,” he says, but DeCroo is apprehensive about elaborating. He’s already made it clear that he’d prefer—for once—if we could produce an article that focuses more on his music and less on a life story riddled with childhood abuse and adult violence.

      To that end, Campfires on the Moon is an indisputable triumph. Inspired as it was, Queen Mary Trash was a clattering migraine of a record. “The way I sing is an assault,” states DeCroo. “My PTSD was in charge.” In contrast, Campfires offers the pellucid sound of the artist accompanied by two of his most sensitive collaborators, double-bassist Mark Haney and pianist-vocalist Ida Nilsen, presented inside what is easily the warmest and most inviting context DeCroo has managed to drum up in his entire career.

      The sound is spare, with chamberlike arrangements supporting DeCroo’s weathered voice and Nilsen dipping in and out of the frame like a watchful angel. Equally, the transparent anguish of those earlier records has been replaced with something more oblique and captivating. The songs are as personal as ever—“Stupid Boy in an Ugly Town”, “Ashes After Fire”, and “No Saviour Big Enough” have the clear ring of autobiography—but DeCroo is convinced that he’s finally made a record that “anybody could pick up and like”.

      “My other records weren’t like that. It’s an attempt to reach out to more people than just the fuckin’ weirdos like myself who’ve related to what I do,” he continues, referring to William Butler Yeats’s “foul rag and bone shop of the heart” and expressing his desire to attain that most cherished of artistic goals—universality. “A song should be able to survive on its own, separate from the personality of the artist,” he says. “There’s gotta be a kind of detachment. Like an urn, or a painting, and I feel like I’ve managed to do that with these songs.”

      Besides Passey, DeCroo credits one other figure for helping him ease his psychic binds and broaden his creative spirit, and there’s an almost mystical appreciation to the way he describes walking into Roy Duquette’s Spartacus Gym on Commercial Drive. He was looking for a place to work out; he emerged with an interest in an intense form of martial arts and what he describes as a “mentor”.

      “I’m feeling a little bit like Brian Wilson with Eugene Landy,” he jokes. “But it’s the way he teaches jujitsu as a way to break down the ego, as a way to break down that narcissism, as a way to confront the obstacles in your personality.” DeCroo describes being locked into a complex fighting system with a man he reveres for his “artist’s intuition” coupled with the ability to “break every bone in my body”. Passey told him: “I don’t know what it is, but the moment you started jujitsu, your recovery went through the roof.”

      “I’ve been a fighter my entire life and this was the perfect metaphor for me,” DeCroo says. “Up until the last few years, I’ve survived. I didn’t learn how to live in my childhood—I learned to survive. Those things that enabled me to survive turned on me, because they were profoundly unhealthy and unproductive.”

      Inevitably, we’re circling the subject of DeCroo’s childhood again, the one thing he’s eager to avoid. But it’s impossible to ignore exactly what he survived, which was a family riven by religious dementia on one side and utterly destroyed by the Vietnam War on the other. DeCroo’s dad was a marine who landed in special ops, and then drove his family deeper and deeper into the B.C. wilderness after he deserted. He came back from the war a profoundly damaged man who brutalized his children without mercy, and Rodney DeCroo, consequently, was an alcoholic by the age of 13. This, indeed, is PTSD that’s been handed down.

      As a grown man closing in on 50, the son has a remarkably compassionate view of the father. “It wasn’t his fault,” he says, with a sigh. “He didn’t even know what hit him. Eighteen and he’s in Vietnam. This is how fucked up it gets, right? His own father lived a few blocks away from him, and would never see him. He grew up with his own father locked away in his house, drinking, an ex-marine himself. He finally goes to see him before he ships off to Vietnam, in his Marine Corps uniform, and the man tells him he’s a pussy and slams the door in his face. What chance did he have?”

      Perhaps more to the point: what chances does DeCroo have, and what does he intend to do with them? It’s been five years since Queen Mary Trash brought Rodney DeCroo to the last great point of crisis in a life beset with ongoing collapse. He believes he’s finally found the way out—one day at a time—and Campfires on the Moon is a big, proud symbol of his ongoing recovery. In simpler terms, DeCroo has decided there’s just no going back. “Ridiculous, sad, and pathetic” is how he describes—well, all the drama that brought him to this point, more or less.

      “There was a reason, but the reason doesn’t cut it,” he fumes. “It doesn’t wash. You know what? Everybody down on fuckin’ Main and Hastings has got a reason too. But their reasons are killing them, because you fall prey to things like addiction, alcoholism, and I’ve been fortunate that I was somehow given a way out of those things. And now I’m in a position where, yes, I have PTSD, but so what? Big fuckin’ deal. I’m not defined by it anymore. I have to do something about it because I have an opportunity and I don’t wanna end up drinking again, I don’t wanna end up using again, and I don’t have any business, frankly, destroying my life and pissing on the kindness and generosity of other people. I have to give myself zero licence for that.”

      Rodney DeCroo holds a Campfires on the Moon release party at the Fox Cabaret next Thursday (April 16).

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      8 Comments

      Thumper

      Apr 8, 2015 at 3:09pm

      Great story by Adrian about a difficult but deeply talented artist. I hope Rodney is able to make the most of his considerable gifts. I saw his play Allegheny, BC at the Cultch and it was as beautiful as it was traumatic. I hope he can bring his artistic ability to create beauty out of darkness into his personal and professional life. My limited interactions with him were not all pleasant, but his work continues to impact me.

      cranky mom

      Apr 9, 2015 at 10:20am

      Agree with @Thumper beautiful & tragic. Channeling our past into art, whatever that art may be. It really is an excellent article.

      Meatballs

      Apr 9, 2015 at 8:56pm

      Rodney is vintage. He's how it happens. He's always there. Been there. Been happening. East Van. It's the music man!

      a bit wtf

      Apr 10, 2015 at 7:32am

      Not sure why this guy gets the attention he does. Every article about him sounds like it should be something between him and a good therapist, not something in a newspaper. Same with most of the music I've forced myself to listen to. Most of the time it sounds like he's been kicked in the balls before singing, the rest, like he's poorly copying John Prine.

      By the sounds of it, he's a just major pain in the ass that a cadre of people keep pandering to for some reason.

      Really.... 50 years old is waaaay too old to be still crying about your childhood, except maybe to a medical health professional.

      Thumper

      Apr 11, 2015 at 12:07am

      I didn't hear any whining in Mack's article. Sounded to me like Rodney didn't want to talk about his childhood and that he's been working with medical health professionals. I agree that he's not for everyone, but War Torn Man, Spinning Wheel, Young with You, Stupid Boy in an Ugly Town, You Ain't No One, Sacred Ground are great songs as are many others he's written. His book of poetry with Nightwood is solid and the play he created and has toured is beautiful. He is obviously not to your taste wtf but your characterization of his body of work is dead wrong. I don't expect artists to act like accountants- it's not uncommon for them to be difficult.

      whiteshark

      Apr 13, 2015 at 11:12pm

      @abitwtf why so mean jelly bean?

      darklord

      May 9, 2015 at 11:23am

      @abitwtf Sounds like you might benefit from a good therapist as well.