A few months after my return from Christ the King, my parents announced that they had arranged for my accordion lessons, which had stopped prior to my entering the seminary, to resume – with a new Teacher. My previous instructor had been Mr. Wilf Trim, a kind, if rather earnest and humourless man who worked out of the Bob Dressler Accordion Studio on Marine Drive in North Vancouver. I liked Mr. Trim because he never criticized my playing, even when I hadn’t practiced, which to my recollection, was often. I was displeased that I would not be returning to Mr. Trim and sulked until the day of my first lesson with the new teacher, a Mr. Bill Collingwood (not his real name).
Mr. Collingwood, a pianist, gave music lessons in a converted garage behind the old house in which he lived with his mother. The studio was surrounded by flowering shrubs and vines, and beside it was parked a late-1950s model VW Beetle. A friendly and enthusiastic keeshond greeted my father and me as we approached this rustically welcoming little scene, and already I felt my resentment begin to melt away. Mr. Collingwood himself, in his mid thirties at the time, short, with a round smiling face and dark-framed Dave Brubeck/Bill Evans glasses, dressed in a brown corduroy sports jacket and holding a burning cigarette, disarmed me utterly with the warmth of his greeting and the casual nature of his appearance and demeanour. Mr. Trim vanished from my consciousness.
Over the next couple of years my weekly music lessons in that cozy wood-paneled, smoke-filled little studio were like a bowl of Ken-L Ration offered to a starving dog. For thirty minutes Mr. Collingwood – “Call me Bill!” – showered me with kind, non-judgmental, encouraging attention. Before long he convinced me to switch from accordion to piano, and every week he dazzled me with rollicking boogie-woogie or note-perfect arpeggios on the jazz standards he rolled out of his repertoire and onto the keys of that beautiful old upright like sleek locomotives leaving a stately urban railroad station. I do not remember exactly at what point in those years of lessons it happened, but he eventually began to intimate that I had the talent to be a musician like him.
Bill Collingwood found his own bliss as a young teenager and pursued it with discipline and passion. His passion was jazz piano – in the style of Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, George Shearing, and Errol Garner – and he devoted the requisite ten thousand hours to mastering the instrument and the genre and to making the art his own. Curiously enough, however, he was not interested in a career as a jazz musician, a career in which he could easily have achieved great success; his dream, rather, was to have a steady gig in the lounge of one of the finer local hotels, a dream that he was never able to fully realize.
The teenager that showed up every week at the backyard studio clutching his binder of handwritten tunes was a deeply troubled young man – socially awkward; passive and unmotivated in school and at home; desperately lonely; both fearful and resentful of his parents, his brother, his teachers, and his classmates; and sexually naïve and immature. Bill Collingwood was the father, the older brother, the teacher, and the friend I needed so badly, and naturally I adored him for the seemingly unconditional love he gave me. When I was with Bill I felt safe.
As I got a bit older Bill began taking me out to some of his favourite haunts: to the Tomahawk Restaurant on the Capilano Indian Reserve in North Vancouver for breakfast, to Isy’s Supper Club on Georgia Street to see Errol Garner, to Vye’s Steak House in Chinatown for steak and fries cooked in chicken fat. We smoked Dunhill cigarettes and we drank whiskey from a mickey he kept in the glove compartment of the Beetle as we drove through Stanley Park. He talked to me of music and of the meaning and value of friendship and loyalty.
I was too naïve and too (platonically) smitten to understand that Bill Collingwood had another dream, one that was perhaps related to that hotel lounge gig dream. Too late did I realize that he saw in me the personification of his vision of a life partner who shared his love of and commitment to music. I was unwittingly being groomed as both musician and lover, and by the time the sexual overtures began, I was already in a psychological snare. I was neither physically attracted to nor in love with this man, but the trap had been well baited and there was no escape. The fairy tale turned into a nightmare.
I cannot say for sure that I had been led on with calculation; it is quite possible that Bill was unaware of how troubled I was and took my passivity and apparent enthusiasm for his attentions as an invitation to nudge our friendship to the next level: sexual intimacy. Perhaps by the time he realized that having an intimate relationship with me would be problematic at best, he had already fallen in love. Like many artists he possessed a powerful personality, one that entirely overwhelmed my weak and fearful and inhibited character, and when he began to realize that the path to his ideal was not going to be a smooth one, I experienced a new form of bullying – accusations, recriminations, hectoring, guilt trips, and more.
I could tell no one of the emotional and psychological torment I was experiencing. Talking to my parents about my dilemma was about as far from my mind as Jupiter was from our home on Delbrook Avenue, and I had been drawn so deeply into Bill Collingwood’s circle that I no longer had close friends of my own. The thought of suicide did enter my mind but of course I was too weak and timid to seriously consider taking my own life.
The sexual intimacy (such as it was) did not last long; I eventually found the strength of character to end that aspect of the relationship and to move out of Bill’s house. I gave up the idea of becoming a piano player and made the decision to return to university. But I did not have sufficient courage to disassociate myself entirely from this powerful man; in fact, I allowed him to maintain a degree of psychological control over me for another twenty-five years, until his sudden death in 1996.
The fear engendered in this relationship was far subtler than the fear of physical assault or of ridicule resulting from bullying or intimidation by my brother or my teachers. I had been set up to demonstrate unstinted loyalty to an idol I worshipped; failure to live up to that standard – or at least to make every effort to do so – meant that I was displeasing that idol. I knew his displeasure and I feared it.
One of the immediate effects of being bullied, especially in adolescence, is a loss of motivation. From the time I left the seminary and entered Cartier College, I had little interest in schoolwork, even in the subjects at which I naturally excelled. My grades, while not bad, were lower than I could have achieved with some effort. At the end of grade twelve I received the French and Spanish awards for being the top student in those two subjects, yet I can recall doing very little sustained work in either. I entered university at age 17 but left after one year, having failed forty percent of my coursework and hardly having excelled at the rest. My plan to be a high school language teacher was placed permanently on a shelf.
I was also musically talented, but I was not motivated to practice with any diligence, even when my parents sent me to a teacher who took what appeared to be a genuine interest in me and encouraged me to develop my talent, even when I “decided” to become a jazz pianist. The utter dysfunction of my relationship with Bill Collingwood destroyed whatever desire I might have had to pursue a career in music.
Years of bullying had built up a wall of fear that obscured the pathway to bliss; I was not to find it again until 35 years later.
“VW Beetle” by pyntofmyld. Creative Commons Flickr. Some rights reserved.