Remembering Dave Bookman: The Spirit Of Radio – May 30, 1960 to May 21, 2019

Toronto radio’s quiet legend, Dave Bookman (“Bookie” to everyone) died today just after midnight, after a month-long hospital stay. We’ll always remember: we lost Bookie on what would have otherwise been a beautiful, 18 degree, late May day, with a light breeze and patios calling us out of our extended winter hibernation of false starts and stops, killing frosts and bros in shorts in lively night time pubs when it drops to a little above freezing, still happy as clams, their mood, on other nights like this, impermeable.

Such is May in Toronto. During this time of weather mayhem, with birds migrating back and forth to Florida seemingly daily in confusion, folks with green thumbs visibly itching to get out there and start their own kind of physical therapy, and people like me planning music trips to California partly in search of consistent, stable weather for once,  and still moving away from the shadow of our own aneurysm caused ICU stay, Dave Bookman, his loved ones, and medical team, quietly fought for his life.

Those closest to him would have missed this usual weather roller coaster because they were on a different one. A terrifying, heartbreaking one, seeing only glimpses of mercurial spring through the end of the hall hospital corridor windows, the places where you go to make private, furtive phone calls that are really fractured prayers. They would have sat under-dressed and over-dressed and immune to everyday discomforts, becoming detached from their own bodies in sympathy, now just a heart, a hand that reaches another still one, stuck, stick straight, alongside a grey-beige plastic bed rail, like no one ever should midway through a big life, utterly powerless.

In the ICU, love and friendship is boiled down to its essence: a cup of ice chips or a cup of water. Or both. Do you want both? ICU life, for the one sitting vigil, is on another plane and one avoided by the less brave. They are large, cluttered rooms with no privacy, only illusory curtains on rails that are never oiled, where nurses pop out of from either side like grim but reassuring puppet shows, and where that one private glassed-in quiet room you briefly pine for is not an upgrade you ever want. It’s a hive full of people doing baffling and noisy but essential life-saving work on 12-hour shifts, amid alarms going off and intercoms crackling, as the person bedside unknowingly gets permanent tinnitus they will not notice for weeks, for love. For what is love, if not a stoic attention to another, a cause, a career, a band? A dream?

As for the patient laying hooked up in sci-fi confusion, part of the machine like a brightly-lit mid 1990s Industrial music video, their thoughts and discomforts are only known if they are not comatose, are awake, seem-better-today, can even drink a Timmie’s coffee, have crossed that finish line where their body is stable enough to want food again. A hospital complaint from a patient is a secretly joyous assertion of life. Those who most need to be there have higher concerns than all the things we think of as normal, and unspoken by all is the truth that they are, already, elevated, angelic, different. Many have gone, still and wordless, even voices like Bookies’ which seemed too important to ever end in our time.

And the ice chips and the ice water are for the lucky loved ones. The ones who are on the recovery road, can cheer up the person who’s swerved the crash, making incremental gains, like a flight path. Not straight, rather changing altitudes and reliant on gulf streams. These family members who are devoted will still hold their breath for two years before trusting the doctors.

Absurdly, this strange cacophony you can only laugh about later, if the person in medical crisis gets a later, is not so different than the hum of a rock club setting up for another great night out. Absurdity and surreality are the hallmarks of life in the ICU that no one outside medicine can ever be prepared for. Like the mysterious, exciting, world of live music and broadcasting, things that soundtrack our private and public moments, dull commuter drives, and favorite ever trips up north alike, most of what makes this thing tick are unseen, behind a veil, that just keep us all on the planet upright, standing, spiritually or literally, still sucking air.

For me and my friends, babies raised on CFNY, The Hip, Alan Cross’s Ongoing History, Strombo, MuchMusic and Big Shiny Tunes, Toronto radio has never existed without Bookie’s voice. I know this extends to Buffalo, New York, too, where there was no alternative radio, no college rock, no indie, only our own 102.1. The stories have poured out today like a steady open faucet on social media, these times when social media is its best: its immediacy and unfiltered, live wire nature crackling like a thousand pirate radio broadcasts all over the world, in unity, in solidarity, in harmony. The stories are still erupting as I write, from kids-now-DJs, kids-now-musicians, kids-now-writers, or from Bookman’s radio peers (more than a few of whom were each Bookman’s best friend), various legendary Daves, and giants of Canadian music. The pirate radio of love beams today from entities we think of as insentient: like Scotiabank Centre, Live Nation, and the Legendary Horseshoe itself, slouches in grief today.

Gord Downie could conjure the words for this in one line. Gord is missed like hell, loss echoing and ricocheting on loss, all so fresh, so vital, good men felled in their prime and there is no fairness in the universe today. Birds calling are little assholes. The sun dappling and a gentle breeze is ludicrous. Indie 88 goes live with full, open-hearted, tear-voiced grief, playing us song after song Bookie liked or make them think of him. They go all in, Radiohead. Neil Young’s Heart of Gold fells us, as it never has, but was made to do. There’s only one song in my mind: “The Spirit of Radio” as covered by Catherine Wheel, spun hundreds of times on 102.1 throughout the 90s, always blared from the various cars we drove around those years, our Toronto anthem. Peak CFNY’s anthem. A beautiful song written by Geddy Lee and remade completely for us kids that says ALL THIS MACHINERY MAKING MODERN MUSIC CAN STILL BE OPEN HEARTED.

Dave Bookman is The Spirit of Radio. Someone else on Twitter said it first, not me. It’s a blur. But there it is.

What was more intimate, more influential to us in the 1980s and 1990s but the local radio? The announcer warming up a concert we’d waited months for, of our favourite band? I never saw him, or knew him to see. But we loved him. The ribbon of grief carries the most private and loveliest of memories from Bookie’s lifelong friends and people he worked with – usually both – who share them with all of us out here in frequency range.

I have only one micro personal story of Bookie. When we started writing, despite being decidedly indie and without any support from local media friends, I mustered the nerve to message Bookie through Facebook to ask if he might send young aspiring writers our way who were looking for experience. His response was kind and cordial, and unexpectedly, followed up with him giving our publication an on-air plug and a thoughtful recommendation to check out “these good people covering music arts and culture in the city”. He had checked us out and decided to go above and beyond, giving our little website air time.

The stories large and small and multi-part and still to come all matter and form the ribbon of sorrow that helps us publicly grieve public figures who we love, legitimately, even from a distance. Grief is finally authentic and beautiful, alternative and upstart and punk and denim-clad and unwashed. Grief is finally cut free of the stuffy funeral home, the procession, and the sickly sweet flowers that you always wish were his favourite treat for his recovery at home. Grief is ours for today.

Give Dave Bookman a day where the hockey fans rally outside. Rename a venue. Host a benefit. Rename a street, a good one. It is public, it must continue to be so.

Jacqueline Howell

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