Dave Watson defied conventional wisdom. Take that old theatre saying: dying is easy; comedy is hard. It’s been attributed to Oscar Wilde, Groucho Marx, and Donald Wolfit, but not to Dave. Comedy was easy for Dave Watson. Dying, not so much. On May 7, just a couple of weeks past his 45th birthday, Dave died of colon cancer in his home just north of Sechelt.
Many writers have been important to the Georgia Straight. But there is not one who’ll be missed more by the Straight’s readers, staff, and, most particularly, his past and present editorial colleagues at the paper. Dave Watson was the soul of the Georgia Straight.
“We love Dave,” Charlie Smith said on the Straight’s website a few weeks back. “More than he probably will ever know.” Brilliant, humble, hilarious, incisive, and ethical were words Charlie used to describe him.
“I can’t think of anything he wrote that I didn’t like,” said former Straight editor Ian Hanington. “And I can’t count how many times he made me laugh.”
“He was not self-consciously funny,” said another former editor, Beverley Sinclair. “He was just funny down to his bones.”
“And like Thomas the Tank Engine, he wanted to be really useful,” observed senior editor Martin Dunphy.
In this and many other regards, Dave was not normal. He was the guy with no driver’s licence, cadging parts to rebuild a Jaguar named Jezebel. He was a technophile who touted the arrival of the cellphone with the declaration that he could now page one pocket from the other, but in his last days he didn’t know how to access his voice mail. He liked South Korean science-fiction TV shows and old recordings of radio’s Fibber McGee and Molly. He was the prodigious consumer of Marlboro Lights who became an enthusiastic carrot juicer.
I was lucky enough to call Dave a friend since February 1986, when I began working at the Straight as managing editor. My predecessor, Bob Mercer, had recently solicited his services after he wrote a piece in CiTR Radio’s Discorder magazine that skewered the local rock critics who stood between him and his rightful place in the pantheon. “It was just enough degrees off asinine sarcasm to show that he was a humble guy,” Mercer recalled.
The Straight’s readers soon had to accept the idea that abiding affections for Pink Floyd, Skinny Puppy, the Rheostatics, Blue Oyster Cult, Lou Reed, the Butthole Surfers, and Bruce Springsteen could coexist in a single biological organism. Perhaps that’s why Dave always seemed a bit nervous.
His eclectic tastes, however, were never rarefied. “He was the least pretentious person I’ve ever met,” says Straight music editor Mike Usinger. In fact, Watson inspired Usinger—who still vividly remembers Watson stories he read once 20 years ago—in his crazy idea that there might be some point in writing about music.
For several years, Dave wrote a local music column, Undercurrents, that invariably began with an anecdote unrelated to music. Here’s one from 1988: “Why did the critic cross the road? The answer to that would entail a metaphysical discussion, and life’s just getting too short to bother with metaphysics. The fact is I did cross the road, and now I have a blue piece of paper to prove it. The subject is closed.”
Dave’s influence on the Straight eventually extended far beyond its music pages. Not long after I arrived, the tawdry bauble known as Expo 86 overwhelmed Vancouver. The world’s fair and the even more garish media coverage needed to be lampooned. Those who insisted on going needed a little honest help to navigate through all the sideshow pitchmen touting their national equivalent of the hot dog. Dave Watson’s Expo guide was so popular it had to be reprinted.
Dave also created the template for the Straight’s annual year-end issue. He became the anchor writer for the paper’s frequent technology and education supplements. He set the tone for the Best of Vancouver issues and, by extension, the whole paper. In all his writing, his humour shone through. He skewered arrogance, stupidity, and pretension wherever he found it, but like all great comedians, he never spared himself. His satire always seemed to say: “Look at this leaky ark we’re all drifting in—isn’t it ridiculous?” And we’d laugh together all the way to the bottom of the sea.
The 98-pound weakling with a Hawaiian shirt, an abiding aversion to sunlight, and a Commodore 64 museum also proved to be a pretty good adventure-sports columnist. I won’t say he was fearless—he once wrote a piece on horseback riding without admitting that he never actually got on a horse—but he learned to scuba-dive and parasail. I remember this line from his skydiving assignment: “If my reserve chute doesn’t open, I’ll not only buy the farm, I’ll put a big dent in it.”
Then there’s this passage from February 1988’s “Dave Goes Skiing”: “If you don’t ski but want to find out what it’s like without actually having to go anywhere”¦tie four-foot lengths of two-by-fours to your least comfortable shoes and fall down the stairs while practising silly walks. Pour cold water down your pants while shredding money. Then pay $20 for a six-pack of beer and brag about what a good time you had.”
Dave was also way ahead of the rest of us on this Internet thing. He was one of the first students in Capilano College’s pioneering Infotec program, and Cap College prof Crawford Kilian says he was also among the very best. His long-running technology column, Dot Comment, made high tech comprehensible and fun even for Luddites, and he attracted readers who didn’t even care about the subject.
His final assignment from the Straight was to write about dying, and those who haven’t read his last five columns should visit the Straight website for “Rambling Into Eternity”.
Through that wonderful writing, we learned a lot about Dave’s wisdom and kindness and got hints of the crisis of confidence he went through in the past few years. Dave knew something was wrong with him for quite some time, but his doctors didn’t properly diagnose it. For that and other more complicated reasons, he struggled to find his place in the world. He had given up smoking, and then he quit drinking. He felt he’d lost his voice as a writer, and I’m not sure he knew his work was respected. Gainful employment in the media for true iconoclasts is increasingly hard to get. Broke and frustrated, he split up with the love of his life, Niki Walton, and moved to Sechelt. He took a job as a waiter—a surprise to many, but perhaps not to those who knew him from his days flipping patties at New Westminster’s Burger Haven. As Niki said to me a few days ago, he was often most comfortable talking to strangers. He made friends with the old men in the off-track betting parlour at Gilligan’s Pub.
Fortunately, Niki followed him to Sechelt, where they’d long talked of moving together, and bought a house. They’d see each other for the odd lunch or movie. When Dave was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer in October, Niki was there. And when they invited a few close friends up for dinner in November, they surprised most of the guests by getting married.
I can’t overstate what that meant to Dave. He was not a sentimental guy, but it’s pretty hard to overlook love in a crisis. As Niki said in her moving remarks at his funeral in Gibsons last Sunday, they rekindled the trust they had mislaid. Throughout Dave’s dying, those close to them got to see how kind and thoughtful both of them could be. Niki took a leave from her job to take care of Dave. Dave divested himself of his many possessions, to old friends and new ones. He talked in February about the predispositions that take people into one career or another. “I sort things,” he said. He once described his habit as his way of fighting entropy.
Instead of imposing himself on those whose help he sometimes needed, Dave minimized his predicament and showed his concern for others. Martin Dunphy remembers him checking in by phone to see if there were questions about one of his last columns, and when Martin asked about the racket in the background, Dave said, “Oh, I’m in an ambulance.”
Of course, he almost always maintained his sense of humour. He phoned me on the day I was diagnosed with a health condition likely caused by alcohol. “Well,” he declared, “I guess now we know how much is too much.”
Dave, thanks for all you did for us. For the Straight and its readers. For your family and friends. You’ve left us laughing, and we will remember that gift until our own dying days.
Dave Watson leaves behind his mother and father, Lu and Ron, his sister and brother, Joyce and Mike, and their families. A wake will be held in Dave’s honour at the Railway Club, tentatively scheduled for Saturday, June 14, at 2 p.m. If you have a story about Dave you’d like to share, please add a comment.