His rambling now over, Dave Watson left us laughing

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      Dave Watson's
      Rambling into eternity
      Part 1
      Part 2
      Part 3
      Part 4
      Part 5

      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.



      Craig Takeuchi

      May 15, 2008 at 11:36am

      When Dave's Dot Comment column vanished from the paper, the reaction was immediate. Out of all the writers who have come and gone, Dave's absence generated the largest response I had seen during the time I was manning the general e-mail inbox.

      He was one of the coolest contributors we had—really easy-going, humourous, friendly, and low-key.

      True to his techie nature, he even sent in a few columns by Blackberry, believe it or not. He was the only contributor who did that.

      Brian Lynch

      May 15, 2008 at 5:29pm

      Dave was one of those very rare people who could have you laughing within minutes of meeting him for the first time. Charming, self-deprecating, and curmudgeonly when it counted.
      I remember writing a few items for a Best of Vancouver issue a few years ago, back when I started with the Straight—Dave went out of his way to mention to me that he thought they were funny, and I was chuffed.
      I didn't share his love of gadgets and electronics, but I read his column every week, just because it was so consistently entertaining, sharply written, and filled with personality.
      We all miss him.


      May 15, 2008 at 11:11pm

      Very well covered, Charles... I'll add a couple of details that I've always carried around with me for some reason; Dave was always coming up with things that stuck...

      His piece for Discorder, where he reviewed the reviewers, basically consisted of him asking each one, "What makes you so fucking smart?" and then seeing how they responded...

      On his "blue piece of paper" for crossing the road (he got ticketed for jaywalking), Dave noted, "Mankind has not evolved for 50,000 years to be told by a blinking light when it's safe to cross the street."

      Another favourite was when he was sent to Dave "Tiger" Williams' roller hockey camp and gamely put on the skates and pads... Dave wrote something along the lines of "I've been told I'm a wiry guy, which I've always thought meant that I'm composed of just a few wires..."

      Crap. These quotes are all we've got now. And I've probably got them wrong anyway. What a loss. You will be missed, Dave.

      Gail M. Johnson

      May 16, 2008 at 9:26am

      A lot of writers have big egos. Dave wasn't one of them. Witty, self-deprecating, and pleasant, he always made a point of asking how you were doing and taking the time to talk.
      I was so saddened to hear about his diagnosis. I was also so thankful to him for writing those five columns about it. I read them and reread them and will never forget them. He may have left us laughing, but through those articles he also made us pause and reflect. I didn't know Dave well, but I'm sure glad to have been among the countless acquaintances who always loved to see him.


      May 16, 2008 at 10:55am

      Okay, there obviously wasn't enough room in the obit for all the good Dave Watson stories, most of which are stories he told himself. But this space is an infinite space. So, to begin, here's a longer excerpt from June 3, 1988's "Dave Crosses Over":

      "Jaywalking. What kind of crime is that? Not a very important one, but big enough to be ticketed $15 for. What a stupid law. Millions of years of evolution went into the development of our acute senses, clever minds and quick reflexes. Eventually we became the most powerful and dangerous species on the planet — and for what? So that a lightbulb can tell us when it's safe to cross the road? I think not...

      "Why did the critic cross the road? The answer to that would entail a metaphysical discussion, and life's just getting too short for 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."

      More later.

      Steve Newton

      May 16, 2008 at 11:08am

      Beautiful piece, Chuck. I remember the first time I ever talked to Dave. He interviewed me over the phone for that Discorder cover story on local rock critics, and when the story came out he lambasted me pretty good. Kinda started a trend that would carry on for the next 20 years or so. He stopped short of calling me useless, though, and did mention that I was a bit of an expert on heavy-metal. But who can hold a grudge against a guy like Dave? Before long I was hangin' out with him at Georgia Straight house parties, bumming smokes off him on the front porch. I remember he chuckled when I told him I was "tryin' to start". A shared love of awesome music fueled our friendship, as we were both huge Blue Oyster Cult fans. Way before it was common practice he was burning me bootleg copies of Jeff Beck and Allman Brothers concerts. Knowing my fondness for loud rock, he offered to print me out an FAQ on Iron Maiden. After he explained to me what an FAQ was ("frequently asked questions"), I agreed, and a couple days later a 40-page manifesto on the Brit headbangers wound up on my desk. That's the kind of guy Dave was. I'll really miss him.


      May 16, 2008 at 11:53am

      Thanks, Charles, for this great tribute and reminder of what a wonderful person Dave was, and thanks for introducing us. Beyond being a great - and sadly underrated - writer, Dave was a person who went out of his way to help. Being a bit of a Luddite myself, I often called on him for advice on computers and software, and to ask him tech questions, and he was always quick to respond, no matter how inane my questions. It's hard to believe he's gone. I'll miss him a lot. The Straight - and this city - will never be the same.

      chris dafoe

      May 16, 2008 at 12:34pm

      I think I may have been Dave's first editor, if "editor" is not too grand a word for someone who was only beginning to learn the basics of design, layout and copyediting and who spent most of his time trying to persuade drug-addled college radio DJs to write something -- anything -- for a fledgling program guide called Discorder.
      I don't know how Dave found us, but when he did, he made Discorder instantly better. He was smart and funny and he wrote like a dream (and, if I recall correctly, submitted very clean copy, a real boon in an operation where blue pencils were at a premium) And, bless him, he was willing to work for what we paid -- i.e. nothing.
      Of course, it was only matter of time before someone with an actual editorial budget (however stingy) recognized Dave's obvious talent and lured him away from us with offers of paying work (damn you, Bob Mercer!). But I was tickled to see that people still remember Dave's story on Vancouver rock critics. And I take some comfort in the knowledge that, while I may have been the first editor that Dave made look smarter than he actually was, I was most certainly not the last.
      I also took some comfort in Dave's final five stories, which I re-read last week after hearing of his death. If, as Charles notes, Dave felt that he had lost his voice as a writer, the Rambling into Eternity series was irrefutable proof that he had found it again, in the most trying of circumstances. The gentle wit, the deft turn of phrase, the generosity of spirit - all those things that made Dave a pleasure to read and a pleasure to know -- shone out in those stories, along with a quiet courage and wisdom.
      Dave left us far too soon, but those stories are a remarkable parting gift.
      Chris Dafoe


      May 16, 2008 at 12:37pm

      What can be added to Charles Campbell's masterful encomium of our dear Dave Watson? Well, the sound of Dave's voice. He had one of the coolest voices ever, which undoubtedly helped him a lot during his adventures as a standup comedian. In many of the places where Dave and I met, the music was too loud to allow standard conversation. But, I'd get a tap on the shoulder and I would turn and see that great chiseled jawline, that low never-to-recede hairline and Superman forelock. "Hey, what are you doing here," he'd say and proffer a drink or a sip of his. And his low jittery voice would utter a few amazing, self-deprecating tales of his life and we would laugh --his cheeks pulling into cowboy dimples. And often, we would just stand there watching the band, nudging each other when a musician got off a good one. Just standing with Dave was more fun than talking with most and we were always comfortable, secure in a deep and long-lasting friendship and spiritual kinship.
      I hadn't seen much of Dave for the last decade, but a couple of years ago we met at Greg Potter's book launch. I thrilled when that long unheard voice barked beside me, "Hey, what are you doing here?" We caught up, told some war stories and then went off to a bar for a legendary one, during which I met his lady love. That was the last time I saw him, last time I heard that cool voice looked at that great face crinkled with dimples. It was a good and fitting farewell. But that occasion will haunt me forever, because I always thought that there would be another time I would hear that voice and now there won't be. But, whenever I'm standing in front of a band, some part of me will always be waiting for the tap on the shoulder and that odd low quaver, "Hey what are you doing here?"
      Then again, maybe I will hear it again sometime, wherever it is that old rock critics go, at some other gig.

      Until then, Dave,

      Les Wiseman


      May 16, 2008 at 4:58pm

      As production and IS manager at the Straight a decade or so ago, I got to work with Dave in a few of his many incarnations (writer, critic, technological gadfly, and all-around enfant terrible among them). However, it was about five years previous to my time at the Straight that i actually met Dave for the first time, when he was working at a Burger King in Surrey with a friend of mine from high school. My first exposure to Dave Watson was thus the BK softball team, which would play against other restaurants in the chain and was supposed to have a cool sports-franchise name thought up by the staff.

      Dave's entry — "Fred: The Team".

      I know there are already better anecdotes about Dave's life and work on this page, but here's why that one is important to me.

      Dave Watson was not only a writer of supreme creativity and imagination, qualities rare enough in and of themselves. He was the even more rare individual who seemed to find it impossible to ever turn off that imagination and creativity. Every conversation you ever had with Dave, no matter how fleeting the time, no matter how mundane the topic, was an exercise in undermining one's ability to accept the world for what it was. Sometime back in the mid-80s, in a couple of fleeting conversations about things mundane, Dave Watson showed me that you could find a kind of beautiful absurdity in just about anything if you were willing to look for it.

      I'd only talked to Dave a couple of times since fleeing the Straight in '96 (and Vancouver a short while thereafter), but I took every opportunity to continue to read his work. Now, I will hate myself indefinitely for every missed opportunity i had to drop him a line to thank him for what he did.

      Thanks, Dave.

      (A postscript: As i set up an account just now on straight.com so i can post this, one of the words that pops up in the captcha is "groin". Dave would have had something to say about that sort of thing.)