Cowgirl Junkie

We all have those moments in life, those frozen-in-time moments. 

One of mine occurred in mid 1988.  I was working an investigation that started in one state the night before, and by the early morning hours of the next day I was sitting in my car a couple hundred miles from my starting point in another state. 

When you’re a P.I. staying awake is critical.  Back in my gumshoeing days, gallons of coffee, a carton of cigarettes, and the car radio were my best friends.   Traveling meant different stations; when jammed up I leaned on college radio to keep me alert. 

And then, as I sat there waiting for my subject’s next move I heard the eeriest female voice pouring softly from my car stereo.  And “pouring” is exactly the right word – this disembodieMargo Timmins (People magazine, 1990)Credit: People magazine, 1990d voice oozed languidly and fluidly in a just-whispered sigh.  It was intimate and creepy at the same time, as if this keening woman was gently, and with great melancholy, whispering her song from the bottom of her own grave.

Although there’s more to this story, that sound of exquisite despair coupled with a simple lush quality is why I am madly in love with Margo Timmins.

“O, Canada!”
For whatever reason, most countries in the world are incapable of creating internationally recognized superstar musicians. 

Iceland gave us the cult faves The Sugar Cubes (which, unfortunately, was the source of Björk).  Other than Abba, the Cardigans, or A-Ha, name one mega-huge band from Sweden. 

There are not many long-lived acts of great renown spewing forth from yonder shores – if it weren’t for the British Isles, Germany, and of course the US (Big Yellow Foam Rubber “We’re  #1” finger waving patriotically) we’d be knee-deep in Justin Bieber clones.

Our little buddies up in the Great White North (Take off, ya hoser!) have a spotty record on the popular music front.  It’s not that Canadians aren’t talented (almost half of all Canadians work in the US as actors) but musically they have never spawned much “bigness”.  

That is not to say there have never been any good Canadian rock acts, they’re just few and far between.  April Wine were early hard-rock faves.  Loverboy had a good run.  Heart (while not Canadian) is associated with the country because of their first recordings on Canada’s Mushroom Records.  Then we have Bryan Adams (who went from Springsteen possibilities to schlock) and Nick Gilder (one-hit wonder with “Hot Child in the City” in 1978; he and Bryan Adams had been in a band together called Sweeney Todd before splitting off for solo work with varying degrees of success).  A Canadian band that had great promise but went nowhere was The Kings (whose double-backed single “This Beat Goes On/Switchin’ To Glide” in the late 1970s remains a killer piece of post-punk power pop).

Alanis/Mr. EdCredit: Vic Dillinger™, © 2011

Recent Canadian “superstars” are kind of limited, too.  In the mid to late 1990s the excruciating, overrated bleating and braying of Alanis Morissette took the world by storm. 

Much worse, though, than Alanis (a former child actress on You Can’t Do That on Television) is the mystery that is Justin Bieber.  [I do not consider him anything at all – not a musician, not an artist.  He is a tween idol, Justin Biebernothing more.  Twenty years from now no one will remember his name.]  Sorry, Canada, but you’ll have to do better.  You have detention today after school, and the Bieber fiasco will go down on your permanent record. 

Canada gave us much in the realm of “classic” rock, however: The Guess Who (several singles still played on FM radio), the scruffy Bachman-Turner Overdrive, and of course Rush (inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, something Bieber will NEVER achieve, I don’t care HOW long he lives or how many millions of dollars he makes).  

It is in its quirkier musical acts that Canada truly shines, though.  Think what you will of her: k.d. lang is a phenomenal talent both as a vocalist and as a songwriter.  She and her band, The Reclines (an homage to country great Patsy Cline – “re-Clines”, get it?) created one of the funniest and most memorable moments years ago on US television’s Saturday Night Live.  It was hilarious and exhilarating.  She sang the early 1960s’ classic paean to domestic violence called “Johnny Get Angry”.  k.d. worked the bejeebers out of that stage floor, mock-punching herself in the face and falling down, all the time with a smirk that said, “Can you believe this?” It was a pristine moment for that show, and a brilliant performance by her and her excellent group.

Canada’s quirky folk don’t always come from the realm of the fringe or the underground, however.  The greatest living Canadian musician/songwriter/alien is Neil Young.  Nobody screams outcast . . . raging lunatic . . . snarky social commentator . . . all around screw-up/musical savant more than ol’ Neil.  His career has been built on great songwriting, yowling post-nasal-drip “singing”, and some truly killer guitar work.  Neil couldn’t care less if you don’t like what he does – that’s what makes him great.

A Junkie By Any Other Name . . .
At the other end of the Canadian musical weirdness scale, though, is a quieter form of Sturm und Drang.  The siren whose spectral tone riveted my attention that day in 1988 fronts a band called the Cowboy Junkies.  
The cemetery angel’s name is Margo Timmins, and even today, after these many years, she still gives me a delicious little shiver of dread.
Margo Timmins (2002)Credit: Getty Images, 2002

Many bands come up with names that are contrived or pretentious or plain stupid.  Others, however, try to slap on a moniker that makes sense for the kind of music they play.  These bands also get the attention of the masses if the name is sufficiently odd or lurid.  The word “junkie” pretty much grabs anybody’s attention.  But the odd combination of “cowboy” and “junkie” says more than meets the eye.

If you’re Canadian, and you form a band whose baseline love is in traditional Country & Western music, with some old school Kitty Wells, and some bluesy Peggy Lee vamping and strolling rhythms thrown in, then the word “cowboy” is definitely suitable.  k.d. lang, for example, made albums called A Truly Western Experience, Angel With a Lariat, and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues; these delivered exactly what their titles promised. 

Canadian country/folkies are scarce.  Not many Canadian bands plumb the depths of American C&W or older pop vocalists like Peggy Lee.  Canada’s Gordon Lightfoot, a huge talent, is about the only one who stands head-and-shoulders above his peers in that genre.  His troubadour/travelin’ man/cowboy-tinged songs give him the credibility to be the working class hero he is (he used to be a long-haul truck driver).

So, in the mid 1980s, you have a few punks in Canada looking to start a band.  Oddly they may like punk rock but they don’t play it.  They like Carter Family records, and Dinah Washington’s softer bluesy stuff, and Hank Williams (the real one, not the two knock-offs, Junior and III).  What to do?  Can’t really call yourselves “The Cowboys” now, can ya?  It’s both boring and a turn-off for most people.  Nope, the best move is to marry the word “cowboy” with some other word, something shocking, controversial to some, and attention grabbing. 

And that word is “junkie”.  “Junkie”, just by itself, can cause a reaction in most people.  It conjures up all the negative imagery of heroin abuse, and the inevitable downward spiral.  It is a depressing and lonely existence, and the despair associated with the word is almost palpable. 

Marrying the word “junkie” to “cowboy”, though, was brilliant, just like when Malcolm McLaren called his charges Sex Pistols.  It was a clear shot across the bows of the Old Guard. So, too, is the name Cowboy Junkies.

And the name does say it all.  The languid torpor with which they play their brand of rock (the Junkies never rock, although I know they are capable of it) married illegitimately to C&W and pop standards is enchanting.  And scary.

And accurate.  Anyone who’s ever been a junkie or knows a junkie knows about “the nod” or “nodding off”.  It’s the languor that sets in after fixing, the coasting into Neverland.  And the Cowboy Junkies’ music fits that idea perfectly.  I don’t know which of the original members came up with the name in 1985 but it is about as concise as any other combination could be.  Their music is quiet, depressing, ethereal, spare, dark, and “nodding” – not sleep-inducing, but soporific. 

“No, You’re a Junkie!”
The primary reason I almost quit my job and moved to Canada in 1988 was the beautiful Margo Timmins. 
As the Cowboy Junkies’ vocalist Margo is unique in the same way Deborah Harry is unique – no one sounds like her.  She is not classically trained, and her ghostly, whispering singing voice is her own (instantly recognizable in the same way as the incomparable Pat Benatar’s hyper-driven, fantastic lung-busting, or the gutsy bombast of Heart’s Ann Wilson). 

The song that opens what is ranked (by a critical survey) as the 893rd (out of 1000) greatest rock album of all time, The Trinity Session, is the aforementioned “Mining For Gold”.  Because the record was produced with analog equipment in a primitive environment it has a haunting quality to it, a sonic wallop that neither a CD nor audio cassette captures.  This thing is best heard on vinyl.  Like their DIY début (Whites Off Earth Now!!, recorded in the family garage), The Trinity Session has a homemade quality to it.  It was tracked in a church in Toronto (Church of the Holy Trinity).The Trinity Session (album cover)Credit: BMG/RCA, 1988“Mining For Gold” was not written by any of the Cowboy Junkies, although they do write songs.  They work a lot of standards and traditional folk material into their set lists.  This is one of the latter.  It is a creepy song, sung á cappella by Margo.  The tune is a lament writ larger than its author probably intended because of Margo’s delivery.  In an inspired, conversational singing voice, Margo wails this song of despair.

It is the ironic story of gold miners.  The opening lines, dropped in a lushly hushed tone, “We are miners / Hard rock miners”, sets the somber mood.  The last lines, delivered by Margo in her lover’s voice after a brief vocal crescendo, are “And I feel like I’m dying from mining for gold / Yes, I feel like I’m dying from mining for gold”. 

I still get that little goose-flesh prickle up my arm every time I hear those lines – the irony of being slowly killed in pursuit of one of humanity’s considered precious materials is exquisite. The song is quiet to the point of being nearly disturbing; you can hear every breath Margo takes, every movement of her lips around the words.  She soars on some higher range notes, and then drops back to the intimate hushed sounds.  This song also has the distinction of perhaps being the only one ever written in which the miner’s lung disorder “silicosis” is named.

After that opening salvo that day in 1988 I was hooked on the Cowboy Junkies (no pun intended).  I became obsessed with this band and its lead angel.  I went home and immediately bought a vinyl copy of The Trinity Session.  The front cover of this, their second record, is a dirty colorized black-and-white photograph of the band sitting around in the church where they recorded it.  Margo is not prominent on the cover – she is democratically featured in a casual place among the rest of the band, neither greater nor less than they.  I bought a cassette copy of the record so I’d never be without it.  When it was released on CD, I bought that, too.  It is one of few recordings I own for which I have every format available for it (including downloads on my iPod). 

Baby Junkie
Margo Timmins, the über-Woman of the Cowboy Junkies, was born January 27, 1961, in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  The household held six kiddies, two of whom are brothers Michael Timmins (Junkies’ guitarist and lyricist along with Margo) and drummer Peter Timmins. 

Michael Timmins, a very gifted musician in his own right, was encouraged by a music-loving father.  Michael was also a major influence on his baby sister, and his record collection became her schooling.  Margo’s and most of the other Junkies’ musical influences are worn proudly and openly on their sleeves: Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, and early Bob Dylan.  Margo was exposed to all of this courtesy of big bro Michael.

Although she never intended to become a professional singer she did sing a lot as a kid, in school, at home, in summer camps.  Her aspirations were fairly pedestrian – the young Margo thought she’d simply grow up, get married, and squeeze out some kids.  [Specifically, she wanted seven children.  Jeez, Margo, even a volcano needs to cool off once in a while!]

In 1977 the Timmins’ clan moved from Montreal to Toronto in Ontario.  Margo graduated from high school and started tagging along with brother Michael at night.  Toronto had a blossoming punk scene that never really took off, but Michael formed a band.  Margo helped lug the band’s equipment and gofer’d. 

Her pre-Junkie years were spent in menial jobs, mostly working for her dad around their house with some clerical tasks in between.  She went off to college and started studying social work. Margo’s crowning glory is a full, leonine head of tousled ginger hair: it was in college she began cultivating her coif.

Reluctant Junkie
In 1985, brother Michael formed the germ of what would become the Cowboy Junkies.  Starting a band, any band, is tough.  Commitments from musicians are hard to get, especially when in the early days you make almost no money.  Michael solved that problem by tapping his family for help.  He got Peter to play drums, he handled the guitar work, and he managed to persuade Margo to take on lead vocals. 

In her own words she reported at the time of their break-out she had never sung in front of an audience, had no intention of becoming a singer, nor had any pretensions toward fame.  She was just helping Michael out, same as always.  She had sung in front of him before, but never for anyone else intimately.  Michael knew she had a beautiful voice and wouldn’t let her sidle away.  He also reported she really was a kind of a show-off deep down. 

Margo’s fears were more about doing a good job.  “So when he asked me I was freaked out, but I said, ‘Okay, so long as if I don’t do a good job you fire me.’  I didn’t want to hurt his music, because his music is so important to him.”

Her bashfulness about singing in front of people came to ease somewhat.  In early practice sessions, she would only sing before Michael, then Peter and Michael, and finally in front of theMargo Timmins (2008) whole band (with bass player Alan Anton who’d played with Michael in two of his earlier bands). The earliest Junkies’ shows saw a terrified Margo singing with her back to the audience.  And the nervous trill developed from awkward stage fright informs a lot of her singing. 

She did manage to develop a stage persona over time, however: “In those early days, I wouldn’t turn around to face the audience.  But nobody forced me and I slowly turned around and I slowly opened my eyes and I slowly began to say hello.  And now they can’t shut me up!  I see Mike looking at me as I tell a story that has no relevance whatsoever and I lose track . . . Now, the guys have to start playing songs because my on-stage monologues go on so long.”  She says it took her about a decade to reach this level of audience rapport and comfort. 

Like Cher, Margo suffers from severe stage fright.  She has a routine to help her gear up for a show, though:

“I do two things.  One is, I iron my dress and I post the set list on the wall and stare at it to get a sense of the flow of the songs.  After that, I arrange my flowers.  I always have flowers on stage.  Once they’re arranged, I hand them to my crew guy to put on stage and that’s the cue that we’re about to start.  Arranging my flowers is my meditation.  I focus on the flowers and think about nothing.  I have no problems being on the stage nowadays.  But it’s still difficult for me to get from the side of the stage to the microphone.  Just that initial walking out is hard. I have my tea. I always bring my tea out with me because I think it’s an anchor, it’s something to carry, something to do with my hands.  I stand on the side of the stage drinking my tea before I go out.  That’s my nervous time.  I go out, I say, ‘Hi’, and we go into a song.  Within that song, I calm down, catch my breath and relax.  Then it’s like, ‘Yeah, I like it up here.  I forgot how much I like it up here’.”

Nebraska, Canada
Margo Timmins and the rest of the Junkies made a huge splash in both the alternative and mainstream world with The Trinity Session.  The record is spare, stripped down, and startling.  Most bands open with a huge statement on any disc; The Trinity Session opens with the haunting quiet of “Mining For Gold”, a bold move for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the lack of instruments. 

The rest of the record carries the listener deeper into the despair, loneliness, isolation, and melancholy that is the Junkies’ signature sound.  The choice of material on this disc is both cohesive and eclectic.  They cover songs made famous by Hank Williams and Patsy Cline.  They do their own material which you would swear had been written at the same time as Hank’s “I’m So Lonesome, I Could Cry”.  Margo’s crooning really is other-worldly; she leaves you feeling the after-hours’ lonely of the classic “Walking After Midnight” (a slow vamp).

In short, this band is freakin’ nuts.  Canada’s strangest export was a huge success with this record, though.  It ranked 42nd in the best records of the 1980s.  It is a gloriously dark and disturbing listen.  It is Canada’s version of Nebraska, the most depressing album ever made.

Nebraska was a fluke.  It was a set of demo tunes Bruce Springsteen had taped at home as a precursor to running into the studio in 1982 with the E Street Band.  However, the more he Nebraska (album cover)Credit: Columbia Records, 1982played it, and when others heard it, a momentous decision was made to use the songs as they were: stark, underplayed, and despondent.  A little studio clean-up work, a precious few overdubs, and you have the perfect record by which to commit suicide.  It’s that depressing.

And glorious. 

For anyone who’s never heard it the songs are just Bruce with the barest of instruments (all of which he played).  It is the darkest, most hopeless record ever made in its explorations of the worst life has to offer. 

It offers no redemption or hope.  The opening track, “Nebraska”, is about the murderous Charles Starkweather and his gal pal Caril Anne Fugate.  It gets worse from there.  Broken homes, joblessness, shattered dreams in “Atlantic City”, used cars, lonely night driving – this record has everything a depressive needs to take that final step toward picking up a razor blade.  It is wrist-slittingly despondent.

These songs are the pinnacle of similar themes and styles Bruce had used in one form or another on Darkness On the Edge of Town, but which he more fully developed on 1980’s The River (with three songs that could have been on Nebraska: “Stolen Car”, “Drive All Night”, and “Wreck on the Highway”)

The Cowboy Junkies made their own version of this record with The Trinity Session.  Every song has some semblance of the despair and hopelessness of Nebraska.  It hurts to be alive in Margo Timmins (2002)(66166)Credit: Getty Images, 2002the world of this disc. 

There are many outstanding moments on this set.  The opener, the pastiche to Elvis (“Blue Moon Revisited”), and the C&W standards are all stripped down to their rawest emotive components. 

But one weird track stands out above everything else on this record.  It is the Junkies’ spin on the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane”

“Sweet Jane” existed in two forms from the pen of Lou Reed.  The first was the less rollicking paean to the mess of human life, recorded in 1969 on a live Velvets’ disc.  The better known studio version is the sunnier, raucous take from a year or two later.

The Junkies, of course, covered the lesser known, more depressing version, and I don’t know if it was Margo or some other Junkie, but she restored a verse that had been edited out of the original Velvets’ track.  It is beautiful, with a quiet yet strident bass underpinning; Margo’s lilting style makes it a better song in their version than the Velvets did with the original.

As with Nebraska, The Trinity Session is best heard late at night in a dark room.  Be ready to be startled, though.  As Bruce does, there are moments of surprise – the quiet is interrupted with a harmonica blast that just flies out of nowhere.  It’s a surprising record, one that no one could have any idea of “what comes next” until you hear it.

Junkie Love
The Cowboy Junkies’ career in the late 1980s took off, and they have recorded ever since.  All of their records are simply them doing what they want.  As an example of their oddball spins, oneMargo Timmins (2005)Credit: John W. MacDonald, 2005 of their follow-up records carried a cover of fellow-Canadian Neil Young’s “Powderfinger” (from his 1979 classic, Rust Never Sleeps). Neil’s original is the start of grunge.  The Junkies, of course, subvert it into something greater than a blast of distorted guitar.  As always, it is quietly disturbing, almost ominous.
As a result of their doing what they want, though, their commercial success has been up and down. BMG/RCA’s catalog was sold to Geffen when RCA tanked; the Junkies moved to Geffen.  Then the Junkies moved from Geffen over to their own indie label, Latent, in 1998.  

Margo and her band mates came to the fore a bit later than many.  She was in her late 20s when the band got noticed.  She was also married (still is, to the same guy – a lawyer) and although she didn’t have seven children, she does have one (an adopted son named Edward).

People magazine named her one of the world’s fifty most beautiful people in the early 1990s.  At fifty-three years old (in 2014) Margo is still gorgeous.  Her face is one of great expression, I love her slanted grin, her frowsy mane, and her curves.

Margo Timmins made the Junkies sound what it is.  I love women with artistic or musical talent, and this self-professed non-singer (and her voice is gorgeous, don’t let her fool you) is my cup of meat. 

Margo Timmins is beautiful in the same way Mary of Magdala would have been beautiful: she is the living embodiment of something greater than herself.  Her beauty comes from her persona as expressed vocally. 

This woman holds me in thrall, and she is enchanting.

And that’s why I am madly in love with Margo Timmins.

Canada, you did well this time.  Kind of makes up for Bieber. 



Author’s note: In case anyone cares, the investigation I was working (at least, that phase of it) when I discovered the Cowboy Junkies ended over 40 hours later in yet another state. It was a record for sleeplessness not broken by me for another 15 years.

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