Confessions of a Groupie

How many of you in this audience would admit to being a groupie or a huge fan of some musical group, artist, sports team or politician? I’ve been thinking about this phenomenon ever since realizing that I fit into this category. It’s not easy for me to admit this.

When you look at me, if you see an elderly guy who might well have been a career civil servant, you’d be right. For most of my life I was a buttoned-down bureaucrat, a “suit” as Bill Engleson would say. I helped to run government programs and led a pretty conventional existence.

But behind this bland exterior was, and still is a groupie. How does the Concise Oxford Dictionary define the term? “A groupie is someone who follows a pop group or celebrity, specially in the hope of a sexual relationship with them”. Well, that goes a bit too far in my case, but in the twilight of my life, I feel it’s time to come clean.

Of course, there is no logic about becoming a groupie. If logic came into it, I’d probably have chosen someone cooler, like Bob Dylan, or maybe Joan Baez, or perhaps Jimmy Hendrix. But like falling in love, becoming a groupie usually defies reason. For example, I have a friend who is a respected university professor, author of books on economic and environmental policy, whose not so secret passion is stage productions of “Les Miserables”–which he has seen 65 times! And recently, I learned of an otherwise very level-headed citizen of Denman who has admitted to having been, in her youth, a massive fan of Tiny Tim, that falsetto-voiced ukelele strummer from the 60s and 70s. Why, once, she even once arranged to meet him and to this day, treasures his autograph.

Like these examples, the object of my groupiedom was not really or cool or edgy. I was enthralled by that great singing star of the 50s and 60s, Petula Clark, fondly known to her legions of admiring fans as “our Pet”.

It all started during my growing up years in England. Petula, born Sally Olwen Clark in Wales, had been 9 years old when she started singing for the British troops during World War 2, and by 1953 when my family emigrated to Canada she was a regular performer on BBC radio and television. I loved her perkiness, her voice and her ever-present smile. But sadly, I was only 11 years old, and I had to give up on any romantic notions, as she married an older man, a Frenchman, and added French and Italian songs to her repertoire.

Then in the 60s came “Downtown”, “Don’t Sleep in the Subway”, and so on, and she became an international star, including movie roles in “Goodbye Mr. Chips” and “Finian’s Rainbow”. My devotion did not waver, and when I learned she would be coming to Ottawa in 1964, where I had a minor government job, I was determined to see her perform. I managed to get a ticket through my apartment-mate who was a journalist for the local paper. He’d been asked to cover the show and write an entertainment review.

As expected, I was blown away by her. But not everyone in the crowd had the same reaction. She evidently knew that Ottawa was the capital of Canada and accordingly she sang a number of songs in French. To my astonishment, several people in the audience booed her French songs, and some even walked out. It did not deter her and she gave a marvellous performance. This was a time when bilingualism was a touchy subject in Ottawa, and she’d inadvertently stumbled into one of Canada’s classic and long-running cultural issues.

My friend Bruce decided to write an editorial for his paper and with his tongue firmly in cheek, he admonished Petula for not realizing that only 23.4 % of residents in the Ottawa area were French-speaking and reminded her that she should allocate her songs more in keeping with the exact composition of her audience’s language preferences.

The resulting letters to the editor were bewildering: Francophones were enraged that an international star should be told what percentage of her program should be in French. Anglophones, in the main, agreed with the editorial. Irony clearly did not work in 1964 Ottawa. Maybe not today either…

I wanted to apologize to Petula. And I did, but it took almost 40 years.

I was on my last assignment in government about ten years ago, and heard that she was coming to the National Arts Centre to star in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, “Sunset Boulevard” about an aging movie star trying to make a comeback. I felt that this was my chance to finally meet “our Pet”.

So, I wrote her a letter, telling her I’d been a fan since the 50s, welcoming her to Ottawa, saying I was sure she’d get a more civilized reception this time, and asking if she would have a coffee or drink with me. I took the letter to the stage door of the NAC and asked someone to make sure Ms. Clark got it.

I was in my late 50s by then, and reasonably senior in the civil service, and I thought what would my colleagues think of me if they knew what I’d done? When you are a groupie, these thoughts may cross your mind, but they don’t deter you…

A couple of days later, I returned to my office and saw there was a message on my phone. I picked it up, and guess what I heard? “Hello Stewart, this is Petula, I’m staying at the Chateau Laurier, and was so pleased to get your letter, why don’t you come backstage after the show and we can have a chat?”

Do you know how many times I replayed that message?

Nervous, but highly excited, I went to the show with my sister, who was the only person I knew who would not make fun of my devotion to Petula. And Petula was fantastic in the show, both in her singing and acting. At that point she was in her late 60s, and she brought emotion and genuine sadness to the role of Norma Desmond.

After the show, my sister and I went backstage, and there she was, Petula Clark, my idol of 50 years, still lovely and dressed like a celebrity, with a fur coat, dark glasses and a jaunty black beret. I hardly remember what we spoke about, I was so moved by this personal encounter with her. My sister took a picture, and here it is: one of my most treasured possessions.

Now, Petula is almost 82, and still performing. She has released a new CD, including a wistful and moving new version of “Downtown”, as well as some new songs. Her voice is still vibrant, her ability to convey a song’s message still very much intact. Some of you may have heard Michael Enright interview her a few months ago on his Sunday Morning CBC radio show. She was modest, forthright and utterly charming.

She’s has sold over 70 million records and has been a performer for over 70 years. Will this groupie meet her again? Probably not, but I will be a fan until one or both of us retires from this world.

So if there are any of you in this audience who have a secret or not so secret love affair with a movie star, or with the Toronto Maple Leafs, or even with an author at this festival, do not despair. Others probably share your passion and if you are kidded about your obsessive enthusiasm for a person, pastime or hobby, just throw back at them that the word “fan” comes from the Latin “fanaticus” and it means “inspired by a god”.

So, as an unrepentant groupie, I leave you with Petula’s immortal words, and if you know the words, please join in, “When you’re alone, and life is making you lonely, you can always go…Downtown!”

by Stewart Goodings
July, 2014