By Karen Bliss
There were a few main takeaways on creativity in Bill Henderson’s Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame induction speech during the SOCAN Annual General Meeting at Vancouver’s BMO Theatre Centre on June 16.
The Chilliwack frontman and main songwriter, known for such enduring hits as “My Girl (Gone, Gone, Gone),” “Watcha Gonna Do,” “Crazy Talk,” “I Believe,” “Fly at Night,” and “Lonesome Mary,” talked a lot about inspiration and even likened it to herding deer.
Inducted by fellow songwriter Shari Ulrich — his one-time bandmate in the acoustic trio UHF, alongside Roy Forbes — Henderson’s 15-minute speech was like no other.
A member of the Order of Canada and an inductee of the Canadian Music Hall of Fame with Chilliwack, recipient of 10 SOCAN Awards, plus the coveted Special Achievement award, Henderson called his Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame honour “a really wonderful award. I’m really so thrilled to get it.”
He then launched into a 15-minute speech, guitar in hand, that largely seemed off the cuff.
He recalled when the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame started, which led to a story, not about Chilliwack or his own writing at first, but rather to his admiration of the late Leonard Cohen and his classic “Tower of Song.” He even started strumming a bit of it and singing some lines. “One of the things I loved about what he says there is ‘a hundred floors above me. ‘ He was venerating Hank Williams, a great songwriter, and I feel the same way about him.”
He paused to thank his many co-writers over his five-decade career, including Howie Vickers, Claire Lawrence and Ross Turney from his previous band, the Collectors. “Once we started going, man, we wrote every day,” he muses. Lawrence and Turney continued with him in Chilliwack.
He then mentioned the late Brian MacLeod. “That partnership was legendary,” he said. “We’d write every day, and we’d have a really great time. My daughter Camille was about 9 or 10. I think she was in love with Brian and she’d be peaking around the corners.”
He then tells the audience their nickname for her was Camel, and MacLeod made up a song about her. He sang a bit. “Camels have more blonde hair, camels have more fun.”
Henderson then jumps to memories of his mentors, back when he was in grade 12 and at the University of British Columbia. He talked about the chords he learned, as he was “trying jazz,” and strums an “augmented 11th chord” and then of “the heavy-duty chords” in “Tristan und Isolde” by Wagner. He learned about atonal music (“it blew my mind”) and how to write 12-tone rows (“like math”).
The 78-year-old continued in this manner as if these memories were just popping into his mind — and they probably were. It even started singing “The Mock Turtle Song” from Alice In Wonderland.
Anyway, the point is songwriting is magical and largely explainable.
“The thing I like about this award is that songwriting is so personal,” he said. “I don’t mean that it’s so private. I mean that it’s so from deep inside, and it goes so deep that it pretty much connects with everybody. That’s the reason why it means so much to me. People call it the muse.
“The way I would work when I’m writing on my own is I would basically just play the guitar…and every once in a while something comes along. It just sort of appears and you just let it happen and you work with it. It’s like herding deer out of your garden. If you try to get the deer out of your garden, you’re going to have a mess on your hands. You don’t look at the deer. A deer’s there, you look over there. He sees you, she sees you…
“This is what it’s like catching up sometimes with the truth inside you, and this is the muse for songwriters. It’s where songs comes from.”
After talking about a couple of other songs, he invited his band out on stage to play some tunes.
Chilliwack broke up in 1988 after 14 albums, after which Henderson became music director for Sesame Street Canada and president of the Songwriters Association of Canada and SOCAN.
In 1997, he resurrected Chilliwack with Ed Henderson, Jerry Adolphe and Gord Maxwell, which continues to tour to this day.
“What’s cool about this band, we started this iteration […] in 1997 and we’ve been going ever since with one little change,” he said. “I think the band has made a real contribution to the success of the songs and they deserve credit for this award so share it with them.”