Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The honesty's too much!

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THERE are several good rea­sons to read this sentimental but surprisingly engaging memoir.

Its author, '70s shlock-pop icon Dan Hill, dishes lots of fascinating backstage gossip gleaned from his current gig writing songs for the likes of Celine Dion, Reba McEntire and Alan Jackson.

On a less trivial note, he tells the important story of his father, who, prior to his death in 2003, was a significant public figure in Ontario, as provincial ombudsman and founding director of its human-rights commission.

But Hill's shmaltzy tale also strikes universal chords. It depicts a rebellious son who refuses to bend to the will of his domineering father. Moreover, it paints an unvarnished portrait of a mixed-race Canadian family that pioneered the progressive attitudes many liberal Canadians now accept as articles of faith.

 

Hill's dad, Daniel Grafton Hill III, is not just the centre of the story, he occupied the centre of Hill's life.

A descendant of American slaves, Dan III was born in Missouri in 1923 into what Hill calls "the Negro bourgeois." Both his father and his grandfather earned PhDs in divinity. After Dan III served in the U.S. war effort and moved to Canada with his white wife in 1950, he too eventually obtained a PhD (in sociology).

Always needing "to out-white the whites," he passed his fierce belief in the value of higher education to his three children, the oldest being Daniel Grafton Hill IV, born in 1954.

The early chapters of I Am My Father's Son drip with a syrupy Leave it to Beaver quality. But they are saved by the eccentricities of the Hill family, one being their standing as left-wing secular humanists in ultra-conservative '60s suburbia.

"It did feel a little isolating at time," Hill writes, "having atheist parents who thought skiing was a pretentious extravagance, believed America should stay out of Vietnam" and "regarded Valentine's Day and Mother's Day as 'meretricious, capitalist flim-flam.' "

There was also the race thing. One of their neighbours in gentrified Newmarket, Ont., circulated a petition asking them to leave. Later, in his school yard in gleaming new Don Mills, Hill suffered numerous incidents of casual racism; he recalls once being taunted by classmates with the highly offensive epithet "nigger lips."

But Hill's biggest source of emotional pain was his father. Dan III withheld his approval from his children, just as his father had withheld it from him. Hill paints the old man, perhaps unintentionally, as a prideful pompous blowhard, an NDP Great Santini.

Dan III discouraged his son's precocious musicality. By the time he left high school to pursue pop stardom, Hill reports, "we were like two superpowers locked in a cold war."

Even after Hill achieved fame and fortune -- his signature hit, Sometimes When We Touch, came out when he was just 23 -- his father warmed up only slightly. Hill provides an admirably honest assessment of his minor place in the pop firmament, focusing on the emotional turmoil wrought by short-lived fame, legal and tax problems, financial ruin and sexual promiscuity.

Hill's songs are nothing if not touchy feely, and this memoir has moments where the reader is tempted to shout, "the honesty's too much!"

But as he ages into adulthood, Hill learns to cope with his own failures and his father's weaknesses. He clearly recognizes how much he has become his father' son, sharing his Type A personality, his narcissism and selfishness and even his genetic predisposition toward diabetes.

Indeed, Hill admits to expecting his own son, David (not Daniel V), to conform to his wishes. A year ago, Maclean's magazine published Hill's revelatory essay about David's own troubled adolescence, in which race also figured. It looked to be an excerpt from this memoir in progress, but that chapter does not appear in the finished book.

Hill's other immediate family members might not be missing, but they do play minor roles. This criticism applies most notably to his mother, Donna, who battled manic depression and whose own background we learn little about.

His baby sister, Karen, has also been dogged by mental illness (which haunted Dan III's family, as well). Meanwhile, middle child Lawrence, a former newspaperman, has become an acclaimed author, thanks to his award-winning 2007 novel The Book of Negroes. One wishes for more fully rounded portraits, especially of Donna, whose marriage defied 1950s convention.

Hill gives Winnipeg more ink than any Canadian city outside Toronto. He notes that his father kept a 1965 Winnipeg Tribune article taped to his office wall as a reminder of Canada's backward attitude toward minorities: Negro and Jew Spearhead March by Indians.

During his wild years in the late '70s, Hill says, he was threatened with a gun outside his Winnipeg hotel by an angry woman he had dated. "She booked strippers for a living," he recalls, "and concealed weapons for the Hells Angels." (Yup, sounds local.)

On a positive note, Hill writes, when Lawrence left his reporting job at the Winnipeg Free Press in the mid-1980s, he was given a souvenir page headlined Dan Hill's Smarter Brother.

"Dad," Hill recalls, "finding the poster as hilarious as I found it mostly unfunny, had taped it across our Christmas tree."

Although he boasts a strong narrative instinct and writes serviceable prose, Hill is no Michael Ondaatje as a stylist. Worse, he receives little support from his editors, who evidence a weak grasp of English grammar.

Thus Hill's sentences are studded with annoying dangling modifiers: "The only brown face for miles, his actions ... amplified his Blackness"; "Barely 90 seconds long, the melody was a cinch"; "At 60, Dad's undimmed charisma fooled people."

Yet these are minor sins in a compulsively readable memoir. It is a fine contribution not just to Canadian showbiz lore but to our country's social history.

Arts columnist Morley Walker edits the Free Press books section.

 

I Am My Father's Son

A Memoir of Love and Forgiveness

By Dan Hill

HarperCollins, 396 pages, $30

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 15, 2009 D6

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