Medium Rare:
Jamming with Culture

232 pages,
ISBN: 077375752X

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Well-earned Nellies
by Michael Fitz-James

Ken Rockburn is well-known in and around Ottawa as a talented local broadcaster, whose two-hour Sunday evening radio program "Medium Rare" ran on CHEZ-FM from 1987 to 1993. The show was a rarity in providing, on a private radio station, magazine-style coverage of music, popular culture, the literary scene, and politics-all dished up by Rockburn while he wore a second hat as the station's news director.
Such stuff on radio is usually the preserve of the CBC. It is a testament to Rockburn's remarkable abilities as a hard-working arts broadcaster that he could keep an arts program going so long elsewhere. The show also earned him three National Radio Awards (or "Nellies"), a feat that only Peter Gzowski has bettered.
While he has now moved over to the CBC radio in Ottawa with a weekly arts program, "Rockburn and Company", he has published Medium Rare as an eclectic book that recalls some of the best material (and outtakes) from the earlier program, along with his own footnotes, updates, and reflections thrown in for good measure.
Rockburn has an easy and conversational style that works as well in print as it does on radio, with thumbnail profiles of writers, poets, musicians, and politicians he has interviewed-usually personalities who passed through Ottawa and appeared on his program to promote their books or concerts.
So we find Margaret Atwood appearing as a control freak and a tough interview, who always wants to take over the questioning and to interview herself. But the public view of her, she tells Rockburn, is really that of her "uncontrollable twin"-the real Margaret Atwood is "back in my room with my page."
And we find Senator Keith Davey promoting his book The Rainmaker: A Passion for Politics. In a disarming interview he confesses to Rockburn: "I'm without guile. I'm being very honest with you-I really am not interested in being a power player." Rockburn felt very good about this interview, which won him his first National Radio Award, but later he punctures his own balloon by describing Davey's hypocrisy at a Liberal leadership convention, where he does act out the political power game.
Christopher Ondaatje promotes his book The Man-Eater of Punanai, and we see Canada's legendary business predator seemingly inclined to renounce his rough-and-tumble commercial past and go on a journey of reflective self-discovery to his native Sri Lanka, where he uncovers a notable secret about his father. But shortly after the interview, Rockburn describes Ondaatje giving a "fire-and-brimstone" speech to shareholders of his newly acquired Sri-Lankan conglomerate, denouncing the welfare state as bankrupting North America.
"Wrestling with John Irving" is one of the best chapters in the book, though it takes only six pages. Irving gives many "tips of the hat" to other authors. For example, he acknowledges that the scene in A Prayer for Owen Meany where Owen kills his best friend's mother with a baseball is a "mischievous parody" of Boy Staunton's snowball in Robertson Davies's Fifth Business. He also tells Rockburn that the title character is based partly on Oskar Matzerath (they share the same initials), the diminutive hero of GŁnter Grass's The Tin Drum. And Garp's vegetative father in The World According to Garp "was consciously modelled on that terrible victim in Joe Heller's Catch 22, yet I read almost nothing about that, and the first person who ever said anything about it to me-who said, `Hey, I got that'-was Joe Heller."
There's a sad description of an aging Carolyn Cassady, who was closely connected to two of the central characters of the Beat Generation, Jack Kerouac (she was his lover) and Neal Cassady (she was his wife). Carolyn Cassady seems genuinely baffled by the revival of interest in two people she evidently knew as regular guys, and Rockburn does a wonderful job of bringing out the woman's contradictions and banality, while she was attending a 1987 Quebec City literary conference on the Beats.
On the musical side of things, we hear a tough-minded "business seminar" on the economics of the recording industry from the singer Bonnie Raitt, and learn about the bizarre break-up of Jim Kweskin's Jug Band when one of its members decided to found his own religious cult.
We find out that the folkie Ramblin' Jack Elliot started life as a Connecticut prep school boy who wanted to be a cowboy, while the singer Tom Paxton says folk music continues to be successful because "it's still a great way to meet girls."
With Rockburn we attend the eightieth birthday dinner of Irving Layton and hear the still vital poet speak movingly about his "haunted and troubled" life.
Once, Rockburn yanks the rug out from under his own achievements, when in a chapter called "The Ego Has Landed", he recalls an interview with Peter Gzowski, whom Rockburn describes as "a virtual folk hero, while I was just a guy who got lucky."
As the interview's winding down, Rockburn asks Gzowski: "So, you want to come down to my office and look at my Nellies?"
"`I have five,' Gzowski shot back. Then realizing that he sounded a touch too aggressive, he turned it into a bit of schoolyard humour with a `Nyaa, nyaa' taunt and laughed.
"I laughed uneasily along with him. When I aired the interview, I carefully edited that part out," Rockburn writes.
Ken Rockburn has written a fascinating and quirky book which chronicles many of the cultural icons of the past decade. It's a very good piece of contemporary arts journalism and for those who never got to hear "Medium Rare" on air, the book not only recreates the spirit of the program in print, but adds the subtle reflections of its sane and compassionate host.

Michael Fitz-James is Toronto writer and broadcaster.


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