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My best friend Melissa and I were trying on banjo straps in what was once the Music Shop in downtown Dartmouth. Neither of us owns a banjo, let alone knows how to play. The banjos were just a diversion.
Somewhere upstairs Joel Plaskett was looking at guitars and we were not going to leave until one of us mustered the courage to speak to him.
“Play us something!” Melissa said to the poor employee that was showing us the section of banjos. He played and we danced around to the loud steel strings.
We were both 16 years old and knew more about the indie folk-rocker than we knew about ourselves. Joel put down a guitar tuner he was looking at and headed for the door. My feet were walking towards him without me telling them to.
“Joel?” I said to his back.
He turned around and looked down at me.
“Hey,” he said. No one had ever sounded so cool.
“I just wanted to say that I’m a huge fan and, ya know, thank you for the music.”
I turned and looked back at Melissa standing behind me. She cringed, and I knew.
I had never sounded so lame.
That was the first time I’d met Joel.
Our relationship has been a rocky one throughout the years. I’ve been ignored, he’s acted like he doesn’t know me, and never once did he write a song about me.
I don’t take any of this to heart though since, although one sided, our relationship was one that would last. If nothing else, Joel and I had the same roots.
I grew up in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. I’ve smoked on the ashtray rock. I’ve gone to parties with fashionable people doing questionable things. I’ve been down at the Khyber. But most importantly, there is a reason why I love this town.
“They’re talking about selling the Clayton Park cliffs and developing it. If that happens, there’s one thing they have to promise,” Joel told the crowd. “They’re going to lift out the ashtray rock so I can remember who I am, ya know?”
I was sitting on the bleachers at the Harvest Jazz and Blues festival in Fredericton with my notebook open on my lap and press pass around my neck. I should have been taking notes on the performance but his words flashed me right back to Dartmouth.
When I got out of my high school bubble in the suburbs of Cole Harbour, I met people and went to places that made Dartmouth home.
In Grade 12, I embarked on my first relationship. He played guitar, sang folk and smoked cigarettes.
I was in heaven. My parents were not. Melissa ended up with his best friend and the four of us were inseparable.
We lived viscerally and took Joel every step of the way. His albums were the soundtrack for every road trip, every smoke, every skipped class and every pint of whiskey.
These three people were my family and Joel was a part of that. He was an omnipresent figure in Dartmouth. Always around but still unreachable.
His words from the stage took me back to the night that I grabbed my friends hand and he led the four of us up the Clayton Park cliffs. It was pitch black and one by one we walked in each other’s footsteps molded in the snow.
Once we got to the rock we scrambled on top and sat down.
In the distance were the city lights of Dartmouth. I felt like a giant on that rock with my three friends. The dark side of the bridge was, it seemed, lit up only for us.
“It’s crazy that people just think of this place as a dump,” my friend said.
He flicked his cigarette into the trees below. We all looked down at a kitchen sink and garbage bags
strewn between the trees.
I was waiting in front of the backstage curtain for Joel at the Harvest festival.
A man stared at me with his arms crossed and tattoos that climbed up his neck.
Joel was, once again, so close but so far away.
“Who are you waiting for?” he asked me.
I mumbled something about how the stage manager, Rick, was going to come get me when Joel was ready.
“I grew up with Joel,” I said.
“Oh so you know him?” he asked.
Joel was nowhere in sight but Chris Pennell, bassist for the Joel Plaskett Emergency band, walked through the curtain and stood by me.
I told him they played a great set and I was waiting to talk to Joel.
He joked about not being important enough to talk to but then offered me a beer backstage.
I followed Chris past the tattooed man and through the curtain that had seemed like a concrete wall.
“What do you feel like? We have beer or whiskey.”
“A Keith’s would be good, thanks,” I said true to my roots.
Words were spilling out of my mouth. I started biting my nails to stop my lips from moving.
“I think there’s someone back here I’m supposed to talk to?”
“That would be me!” I said and waved. He was standing three feet away from me. Why did I wave?
“Dartmouth is this connection point to the rest of Nova Scotia for me,” Joel said. “I certainly feel very happy and honored to be embraced by Dartmouth but for me that’s the connection. That really sense of small town community that connects the rest of Nova Scotia.”
I just stared. I had no second question ready. Too much time was passing and his big blue eyes were making my hand shake. I wasn’t sure why I was even recording this.
“I also like how slowly things move and how we got a good coffee shop now, Two If By Sea, and everyone’s like, oh my god there’s espresso in Dartmouth. It’s like there’s still room for big events whereas Halifax has one or two of everything at this point.”
We talked for 13 minutes and 17 seconds. During that time I laughed at everything he said. He began talking about parts of Dartmouth being developed for money and I laughed.
He stared at me and I laughed.
When we walked back, Chris Pennell was putting all of the beers in a cooler and looked around at the Emergency, Andy Brown and three young girls.
“Well folks, let’s go back to the hotel and have some drinks there,” he said. “Meghan, you coming?”
I thought about going, but I wasn’t 16 anymore. I didn’t want to ruin a good thing. I knew we’d always
“I think I’ll just head home,” I said.