One day, sometime after cancer killed Mark Evans—the man who’d become a kind of surrogate father to him—Rodney DeCroo had an epiphany. It came after the release of the Pittsburgh-raised, Vancouver-based singer-songwriter’s confessional 2015 release Campfires on the Moon. And before his powerful new album, Old Tenement Man, which has arrived at the same time as a book of poetry titled Next Door to the Butcher Shop.
“I was walking down the Drive one day, and I was thinking about Mark and how he’d passed away,” DeCroo remembers, on the phone from Saskatoon, where he’s in the middle of a Canadian tour. “I wanted to write an album that was in some ways a nod to him. That’s when I said to myself, ‘Dude, you’ve been living on this fucking street for over 20 years. Why is everything that you write about Pittsburgh?’ ”
The easy answer would have been that the steel-manufacturing town where he grew up has provided endless inspiration. As those who’ve followed his story since he started building a following with albums like War Torn Man and Mockingbird Bible know, DeCroo had an upbringing that might charitably be described as fucked. Poverty, violence, and abuse—physical and mental—were all part of a cocktail that left deep scars well into adulthood.
But as survivors of shitty childhoods know, sometimes there’s a weird upside. After drinking and drugging his way through his teens and 20s, DeCroo started channelling the darkness into something positive at age 32, teaching himself to play guitar and write songs. But even as he won accolades in Vancouver for home runs like “Queen Mary Trash”, there were still periods when the demons rose up. And when they did, Mark Evans—who inspired the driving Old Tenement Man tribute “Lou Reed on the Radio”—was often there for him.
Evans was the 60-something man who lived below DeCroo in the Commercial Drive apartment building that he has called home for years. The two became friends, with the older man occasionally playing a role that was something more.
“Mark helped me through a lot of trauma, including when I was going through a lot of PTSD therapy,” DeCroo remembers. “There was one point where I was so disabled by it—when I was at the bottom of the PTSD cycle—that I was having suicidal thoughts, really suicidal thoughts. I know they were serious because I tried it—I tried killing myself in 1999 and was hospitalized for it. So I knew that I was in trouble. I couldn’t work, couldn’t keep my shit together, and this guy, who was just a working guy, a construction guy, knocks on my door and hands me my rent for the month.”
Clearly overcome by emotion, he pauses to get hold of himself and then continues. “He said, ‘I know you can’t make rent this month, Rodney, so here’s rent money.’ He helped me deal with the alcohol and the drugs and get over the worst of the PTSD.”
His various traumas have been eloquently, painfully, and poignantly documented on past outings. See “Stupid Boy in an Ugly Town” on Campfires on the Moon. Or almost every track on Allegheny, a record on which his darkly poetic spoken-word reminiscences of growing up are set to the moving soundscapes of Rob Malowany.
Right from the feedback-splattered, blood-and-buckshot opening number, “Jack Taylor”, Old Tenement Man is a record that suggests something’s changed for DeCroo. Where most of his back catalogue slots somewhere between thinking man’s country and unvarnished folk, the guitars have been cranked up this time out, much of the pyrotechnics courtesy of Calgary producer Lorrie Matheson (Art Bergmann, Rae Spoon).
“I’m a songwriter and I’m a competent rhythm-guitar player, but no one’s going to be hiring me to come in and lay down some sweet licks on their album,” he says with a laugh. “I mean, they could, but no one would be happy with the results.”
Old Tenement Man is a record of noisy peaks (the distortion-blazed “Jacob’s Well”) and delicate valleys (the lovely acoustic exorcism “Little Hunger”).
The record is important because it showcases DeCroo as someone who—like Neil Young and Lou Reed—is capable of reinventing himself sonically. But just as important has been his growth in other areas. As one would expect, there’s darkness, heartbreak, and grimness in both Old Tenement Man and Next Door to the Butcher Shop. Some of that bleakness is DeCroo drawing up desperate characters for songs like “Ten Thousand Feet Tall”.
“In my mind, he’s like this burned-out gangster living on skid row who fucking hates the world and is going slowly insane as his mind is eaten by alcoholism. He sits there fantasizing about the end of the world.…I think characters like that are emblematic of what we’re seeing in the world right now.”
For a window into bottoming out in the real world, immerse yourself in the poem “The Debt” and lines like “I’d been approached by men before, but I was hungry and it was winter so I went with him/We spent the day and deep into the night drinking at a bar filled with old men who sat alone with sleeves of pale draft beer tasting like vomit and piss.” Or cue up the Americana-tinted pop of “I’ve Got a Mirror, I’ve Got a Gun”, whose title is pretty much self-explanatory.
There’s also a sense of humour that hasn’t always been front and centre in DeCroo’s work. Suggesting that 50 years on the planet has given him perspective, he throws the line “Portrait of the young man as an arrogant ass” into the poem “Next Door to the Butcher Shop”. Elsewhere, the collection has moments that are funny because they’re so twisted. Consider “Why Is Your Poetry So Dark?”, which consists of DeCroo rattling off one deep-seated, misanthropic, cancer-black thought after another.
He’s also unafraid to poke fun at himself on Old Tenement Man, from the album’s title to lines like “Your poetry is flawless, you’ve mastered every form/But since we’re being honest man, it’s such a fucking bore.”
Consider all this a sign that DeCroo’s epiphany was a profound one. After being obsessed with Pittsburgh and its ghosts for as long as he can remember, the singer and poet is determined to live in the present. The world’s an ugly place, especially for those unable to escape their troubled pasts. Sometimes, though, someone can come along and make things just a little better. And, even if for only a while, pull one away from things that can’t be changed.
“The things I have inside of me haven’t gone away,” DeCroo says. “And I might lose the battle to them one day—that’s totally on the table because I don’t consider myself cured. The day may come when those thoughts overwhelm me. But I think that if I keep writing poems and songs, the chances are that’s less likely to happen. But then again, I’ve been obsessed with that since I was a teenager. It’s just part of who I am.”
Rodney DeCroo headlines the Cultch’s Historic Theatre for his Old Tenement Man and Next Door to the Butcher Shop release party on Wednesday (May 31).