It’s the kind of trick so difficult to pull off that few artists risk attempting it: turning something profoundly and deeply painful into a work of transformative beauty. On a chilly late-September night in 2012, at a crammed Little Mountain Gallery just off Main Street, Rodney DeCroo did just that, leaving a lucky hundred-or-so Vancouverites moved to the point of tears.
The occasion was the local singer, songwriter, and poet’s debut performance of Allegheny, BC, a collection of childhood reminiscences that’s been presented to the world as both a book of poetry and an album of spoken word set to haunting soundscapes. The rules on that fall night, as set out by DeCroo, were simple: those in attendance were asked to hold their applause until the end of the night, hopefully ensuring that the spell being cast would not be broken.
Against long odds, that’s exactly what happened.
No one dared make a sound as DeCroo—backed by double-bassist Mark Haney—brought the stories of Allegheny, BC to life, revisiting a childhood with no shortage of scars, both mental and physical.
Given the subject matter, the night should have been epically bleak on the scale of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Instead, it was gorgeously life-affirming.
Interviewed nearly a year after that show, in an East Vancouver back yard not far from his Commercial Drive home, DeCroo is anything but the picture of the tortured artist. He’s met up with the Straight to discuss his mounting of Allegheny, BC for a 10-date run at the Cultch’s Culture Lab as part of the Vancouver Fringe Festival. With the help of veteran director Jane Heyman, with lighting and set design by Gal Minnes, the Little Mountain show has been expanded into a theatrical production.
On this day, it’s hard to reconcile the self-effacing, easy-going artist who’s hanging out on a gorgeously sunny summer afternoon with the kid that Allegheny, BC finds shotgunning warm beers at age 13, doing his best to keep out of the way of an abusive stepfather who smells of tobacco, sweat, beer, and coal dust, and swimming in the polluted river of the title track, enviously watching “the rich kids carve into the current/White-tipped waves/Bronzed bodies balanced on single skis behind small, sleek powerboats.”
It’s obvious that the traumas of growing up near the Allegheny River in small-town Pennsylvania—the ominous-sounding Harmarville, to be exact—still haunt DeCroo today. The message he got from his formative years, time and time again, was that the world is full of ugly fucking people doing indescribably mean things to each other.
“All the adults I knew, with the exception of my grandma and maybe a couple other people, were fundamentally not decent people,” DeCroo says, more with a sense of wonder than bitterness. “It was, like, ‘There’s the kind thing to do,’ and they never did it. They always did the fucked-up thing.”
This was driven home the moment that the singer entered the world on December 29, 1966. The album, simply titled Allegheny, opens with the devastating “On the Night of My First Breath”, in which DeCroo attempts to make some sense of the fact that his biological father was out of the picture before he was born. Over the often-eerie work of Rob Malowany, who provides the musical backdrop for the seven tracks, DeCroo starts with: “On the night of my first breath in a delivery room at Allegheny County General Hospital, my birth father whom I will never meet is asleep on a bus disappearing into the mid-west. His name is Frank Houser. His jacket is crumpled between the side of his face and the window. It is the 29th of December, but he dreams rain coming down so hard, long strands strike the glass as if to shatter it.”
His father is feeling blessed, but not because he has a son: “When he looks down a sparrow is nesting as if in the crook of a tree,” DeCroo intones. “Warmth like joy fills my father’s body because so delicate a creature has chosen him for safety. He lightly strokes with the tip of a finger the small brown head. The bird begins singing into the darkness of the bus. Its high, sweet trilling goes out among the sleeping passengers, drawing each breath into its praise. My father knows he is as much this song as anything else in his life.”
“That’s me, through a poem, filling in the gaps,” DeCroo explains. “But it’s also more than that. That poem is about forgiving him, recognizing that he was incapable of being a father for reasons that I can’t even tell you why. I don’t know why. That poem is an expression of my finding a way to put it behind me and not staying resentful. Because it’s pretty easy to resent a guy who abandoned you.”
That statement is a good indicator that Allegheny, BC—which started as a collection of poems—isn’t a work that’s out to paint a picture of blacker-than-cancer darkness. Instead, it’s DeCroo’s way of making sense of the abusive shitshow that was his childhood and then coming to some sort of peace with it.
“This is really hard shit to talk about, and I’m not good at it,” he says. “I write poetry to kind of make sense out of my own life. Poems, for me, give meaning, order, beauty—which is not a word you hear thrown around too much, and some people would say is hokey—dignity, and substance to what has been, for a large part of my life, a difficult life. A lot of it was kind of ugly and tawdry.
“The purpose of the record was to not get into self-pity or be maudlin,” he continues. “One of the things that the poems allow me to do is detach myself, to create enough distance that I can put things down and make something of it rather than wallowing in self-pity. I mean, fuck, I can be a miserable, self-pitying, whiny bitch. I really can. And it’s something that I really have to work at, because being that kind of person is a waste of my time and everyone else’s time.”
There are parts of Allegheny, BC where DeCroo’s childhood sounds almost golden, like something from Stand by Me, the coming-of-age film based on Stephen King’s “The Body”. Consider, for example, “Behind the Gasworks on Railroad Avenue”. On the track, DeCroo recounts a summer day in Springdale, a town right next to Harmarville: “My brother and I push our bicycles into a vacant lot of dust and far apart trees that throw skinny shade against a white one storey brick and concrete building that was once a factory. We lay our bicycles on the ground and sit with our backs against the coolness of the brick wall. Our legs thrust out before us in the dust. It doesn’t matter that we are wearing cut off jeans and our legs will be stained with the dust and our sweat. We are too young to separate ourselves from the day with its load of sunlight and dirt. We are tired and do not talk, we turn the dirt through our fingers. And my brother says look and holds his hand out to me. Two pieces of pig iron in his dirt smeared palm. They’re as black as crow feathers I say. He puts them in his pocket. Says quietly, crow feathers, boy that’s a good one.”
As potent and moving a snapshot as that is, DeCroo doesn’t hesitate for a second when asked whether his childhood was flat-out awful, or instead an okay one that just happened to have some bad patches.
“I don’t make any bones about it—if someone was to say, ‘If you could go back and relive that?’ I’d say, ‘No.’ It was really painful—really fucking painful. And I was really fucked up, and I continued to be for a lot of years. But pick through the shit and you find a few diamonds. What this was was an excavation process—or maybe a reclamation project. I went back and found the things and moments that mattered, that sustained me, and then I hopefully made something out of them.”
That people have embraced the record Allegheny has surprised him. DeCroo has spent the past decade carving out a following as a singer-songwriter, his discography including critically lauded releases such as 2006’s War Torn Man and 2008’s Mockingbird Bible (songs from both of which were performed at his Little Mountain Gallery show). He admits that moving into spoken-word territory wasn’t something that he did because it seemed like a good career move.
“I didn’t have big expectations for this record,” he says. “I wasn’t fucking worried about ‘Is it going to get played on college radio? Is anybody going to pay attention to it?’ This wasn’t a lark, but I had no expectations because no one gives a shit about records of poem-songs, right? Everything is so stratified now, so rigid, where there is this kind of music, and that kind of music, and these are the kinds of things that get played, and these are the things that don’t. A record of poems doesn’t really get played.”
Except that Allegheny has somehow found an audience, for reasons that DeCroo thinks he understands.
“I think people gave a shit because it affected them,” he offers. “I dunno, I mean, fuck, hopefully they listen to it and hear something that they can relate to.”
Based on last September’s performance of Allegheny, BC that’s definitely been the case. For the Fringe, DeCroo has, as noted, fleshed out the show to make it more of a theatrical experience.
“I brought Jane Heyman in to help me make this into a piece of theatre,” he says. “We took some stuff out, put some stuff in, and dramaturged it to create as much of an arc through the piece as possible. We’re doing theatre now, we’re not just doing a concert.”
Some things will likely remain the same, however. You will perhaps be asked to hold your applause for Allegheny, BC until the end of the performance. And when that performance is over, you will have been moved to tears, amazed that something so painful could be made into an experience so profoundly uplifting. The Allegheny that snakes through the coal town of Harmarville is, as DeCroo describes on his poem-song album, a “filthy river”, but from it has come something so beautiful and pure that the trauma might have been, on some abstract level, almost worth it. Almost.