See Al, Hear Al, Know Al
Meet Al Tuck, Canada’s most ignored music genius
by Emmet Matheson
AL TUCK (WITH JASON COLLETT)
On the sprawling, 10-minute folk epic title track of his last proper album, 2009’s Food for the Moon, Al Tuck sings of a forgotten folk singer whose “name is in the brackets of every old record store.” The song is about Gene MacLellan but the parallels between the song’s writer and the song’s subject are too interesting to ignore.
MacLellen, a regular on Don Messer’s Jubilee, most famously wrote Anne Murray’s classic “Snowbird” as well as the oldies station CanCon staple “Put Your Hand in the Hand”. He released four albums in the 1970s, from which he scored a few minor Canadian hits, including 1972’s “I Get Drunk on Monday”. Elvis Presley, Bing Crosby and the Oak Ridge Boys recorded his songs. Yet MacLellan himself remains a fairly obscure figure in the annals of Canadian pop and country music. As a performer, Gene MacLellan was best known in the Maritimes where he lived until he took his own life in 1995.
Al Tuck is from Prince Edward Island, MacLellan’s last home, though he’s spent most of his career based in Halifax. Like MacLellan, his name is mostly mentioned by other musicians — and when they do it’s in admiration and awe. He was an odd man out as a singer-songwriter during the great East Coast pop explosion of the early ’90s that brought success and acclaim to guitar-driven rock acts like Sloan, Jale, Thrush Hermit and Eric’s Trip. Performing as Al Tuck & No Action, he did have the best billing of the bunch. Nonetheless, his contemporaries adored him and still do. In 1994 Sloan released his first two records on their Murder Records label. Arhoolie and Brave Last Days didn’t exactly set the charts on fire, but they did reveal, especially on tracks like “Buddah” and “Mr. Fixit”, a strong voice with a nimble command of songcraft and a rare talent for turning a cliché in on itself so that it reveals something fresh and exciting.
“Too much blood on the cutting edge,” he sings at the opening of “Buddah”, the story of a young singer who leaves his island home only to lose his voice upon the sight of Californians in bikinis. “Never make no name for yourself, never make no name for no one else,” Buddha is later told by his fans. “They’ll just shit on it. They’re all just gonna shit on it.”
By the end of the song, young Buddha (the name is apparently spelled traditionally in the song lyrics) has laid waste to Vegas and Nashville and is himself wrecked on coke. Tuck closes the song by calling back to the song’s opening lines, “Too much blood on the cutting edge /stay in vein where you belong.”
Given this dim view of the music industry put forth so early in his career, it’s no surprise we didn’t hear from Tuck again for another six years, with 2001’s The New High Road of Song. Between that and last year’s Food for the Moon, he released only one album, 2005’s My Blues Away, and he’s toured out west not at all — or if he has, it’s been under great secrecy.
Canadian musicians continue to sing his praise. Julie Doiron, Leslie Feist and Joel Plaskett are all fans — Plaskett’s solo records reveal Tuck’s influence, and Plaskett even recorded Tuck’s “Wishing Well” on his 2005 album La De Da. This fall, Tuck released All Time Favourites, sort of a greatest hits album for someone who’s never had any hits, collecting songs from his first four albums. It’s a document of the progress of a master songwriter, a glimpse into a talent that, by all indications, has yet to peak.
In “Food for the Moon”, Tuck sings of the scarcity of Gene MacLellan recordings: “In vain will you search for the man’s own music /unless you go look in the very top drawer.” When you find that top drawer, you can bet there’s an Al Tuck & No Action album in there too. Welcome back, Al.