This past week, winter got a little colder, a little sadder, as Canada said goodbye to a media icon. Stuart McLean, writer, humourist, and the creator of CBC’s Vinyl Café, lost his battle with melanoma.
Listening to McLean tell his stories of Dave and his second-hand record store was like curling up in front of a fire to hear your grandfather or favourite uncle explain the secrets of the universe. Without that funny mothball smell.
He had his radio show, collections of his stories on CD, electronic media, and books, live performances, and even a television special, Stuart McLean’s Vinyl Café Christmas Pageant. His audiences ranged from teens to seniors, with an emphasis on the seniors.
Yet when the news broke, I wondered with some cynicism how many Canadians still knew of this 68-year-old CBC radio man. He didn’t tweet every ill-conceived thought and tantrum that came to mind. He didn’t overshare his personal moments on Snapchat. His Vinyl Café does have a Facebook page in which he shared moments with his listeners. But he was hardly one for a selfie.
While other media giants are constantly on social media desperately trying to stay relevant and top-of-mind like a bunch of Sally Fields circa 1985 crying, “You like me!”, McLean just quietly went about writing, producing, touring and acquiring a devoted following. In real life.
So I was pleased to see that Twitter blew up with messages about his passing. From the Prime Minister to former colleagues, people mourned. Others talked about sitting in a parked car long after they’d arrived at their destination just to hear the end of one of his stories. (And I thought I was the only one.)
As I read numerous online memorials, I discovered that despite listening to McLean for so many years, I hardly knew the man. It was so easy to confuse his infamous Dave character with Stuart, himself.
McLean was said to be quite frank with his opinions. He also sometimes “swore like a sailor” according to one close friend. While his stories had a sentimental sweetness, McLean, himself, had a dark sense of humour. And he had no problem laughing at himself.
Which makes him the epitome of the Canadian character, a study in contrasts: in public, seems sweet and harmless, and will go out of his way to help a stranger; in private, is painfully forthright and honest, and will face down a moose. Or Donald Trump.
In true McLean fashion, when he recently decided to take a leave for further cancer treatment, he chose not to re-air old shows. He felt it cheated his loyal listeners and took time from other hard-working and creative people whose fresh new work deserved to be heard.
Obviously, Canada will survive without Stuart McLean. But it won’t be the same. Thankfully, his stories will live on in recordings and books. After all, you haven’t laughed till you’ve heard about Dave’s Christmas turkey or toilet-training the cat.