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Hard-won wisdoms

PREVIEW

LONNIE JAMES & THE HIGH FIVE GANG

with By Divine Right, Dodge Fiasco

Saturday, Feb. 14. Lee's Palace, 529 Bloor W. $8 at door.

BY CINDY McGLYNN

Sitting in a worn booth in a Queen Street diner, I'm watching Lonnie James munch on a grilled cheese sandwich as I try to get a handle on both my strong coffee and what I'll call James' Zen enthusiasm.

Chances are good you know Lonnie James -- he's the quintessential pick for a Canadian music industry game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, having played drums with about 30 bands, including The Superfriendz, The Lawn, Yeti, The Nils and Possum. (Add that to a part-time job at La Hacienda and it's almost impossible not to link him to every musician that ever came through Toronto.) If you do know Lonnie, you'll know what I mean by mentioning his special enthusiasm.

There's no hiding the boyish smile that takes over and lifts up his every feature when he talks about This Land Is Your Land, his first solo release. And of course he'll be delighted if you like it, but you get the sure feeling you're dealing with a guy who got most of the satisfaction by simply doing the work.

As James says, "It's just me, you know. I just wrote a bunch of songs and did them up on a four-track [with the help of By Divine Right's Jose Contreras]. I didn't really plan to do anything with them, but here it is. If you like it, that's cool. If you don't, that's cool, too. It's just my songs."

Lonnie says he's been making tapes for friends for years. But it was only in the wake of the recent break-up of The Superfriendz -- prompted by the departure of Matt Murphy, a decision James respected but did not agree with -- that he finally stepped out from behind the drum kit to go hard at his own tunes. Sappy Records released a seven-inch last year, and that was followed by Teenage USA agreeing to put out the four-track songs James and Contreras had been working on.

His songs are spare (he says he edits lyrics meticulously) and peppered with a gentle wisdom that shows he's paid attention to his own 36 years of life -- and learned a crafty thing or two from years of listening to idols like Woody Guthrie and Stompin' Tom Connors. James isn't afraid to say he was really after sharing some of what he's learned. "Yeah, it is something I wanted to do, you know. Because I'm not 18. I'm 36 years old. And if I was still screaming or filled with angst, well, that would be just silly. I've been playing music in front of people for 20 years -- I'd better have some wisdom, otherwise I'm in big trouble."

Some parts of This Land Is Your Land are a little rough, and James thinks some songs would be better realized with a band. Largely, though, I find it quite compelling with lean, honest lyrics and some terrific arrangements. I like this record an awful lot.

We talked about why he waited so long to put out a collection of his own songs. As a drummer, Lonnie says it's particularly easy to let those who "take" the stage make the songs. If you don't push yourself, it's easy to not think of yourself as a songwriter. Still (and not surprisingly), Lonnie says he has no regrets. For one thing, he couldn't have made the record he made now five years ago. For another, he likes how the years are passing.

"I'm in no rush in my life. I'm old enough now to realize it's going to be good to be old. I wanna be like 60 years old and sitting on the porch. You can be grumpy. You can walk down the street in your bathrobe, unshaven." Lonnie laughs before adding, slightly more seriously, "No, getting old doesn't scare me, man. Just the experience of years is a heavy thing."

There was one other thing that pushed him to centre stage, Lonnie says. It was the punk "I can do that too" sensibility, which is a sentiment filled with hope, if you think about it. Lonnie captured that essence by ending his record with a lost verse of the Woody Guthrie song "This Land Is Your Land." The lyric, which was apparently a bit too militant for a song Guthrie hoped would replace the American national anthem, goes like this: "There was a big high wall there/ Tried to stop me/ There was a great big sign there/ Said private property/ But on the other side/ It didn't say nothing/ That side was made for you and me."

That pretty much sums up where Lonnie James is at.

"It just kind of fit in with me stepping out and saying, 'Hey, man, there is hope,' " Lonnie says. "I was bummed out, but now I'm OK again."