Back in the 1970s, we thrived on basement tapes. It was a rare event when we would get to hear a great piper live in our little piping backwater. The pipe bands of the Scots Guards or the Blackwatch would occasionally perform at the civic auditorium as part of their national tours. Every now and then, pipers from Kansas City would swing by, give us a lesson and play us a tune. Our parish, though, was not a stop on on any tour. Recordings of notable pipers would sometimes pass our way, though. We never know where the cassettes came from, but we welcomed them. Some were live recordings, some obvious bootlegs. To us, the cassettes were news from the outside world. We were able to hear the great pipers of our day.
It was a tape of Bill Livingstone.
Tapes were prominent in the seventies not only as a medium for recording but also as significant artifacts in history. As Bill Livingstone notes in his memoir, Preposterous - Tales to Follow, a tape scandal played a role in the downfall of President Richard Nixon. A “Tape Scandal,” as the Aberdeen Press & Journal described it, also led to Livingstone's, albeit brief, demise.
Having placed second in the 1974 Gold M edal piobaireachd at the Northern Meeting, Livingstone was accosted by one of the judges, Major General Frank Richardson, on the second day of the competition.
“Now, Livingstone, you went to bed last night thinking you had foxed the judges, and we can’t have it.” An audience member, Richardson added, had informed the judges that Livingstone had made a mistake during his performance.
A rat in the audience. One sympathizes.
Richardson addressed Livingstone in a “stentorian voice and plummy officer’s accent.” One can almost hear Richardson's English public school inflection come to life.
Class condescension. One sympathizes even more.
Despite admonitions from the organizers of the Northern Meeting, Captain John MacLellan, one of the judges, had taped the performances with “a cassette tape recorder, kept under the blanket that draped the judge’s table.” Richardson, MacLellan, and Seumas MacNeill, the third judge, reviewed the tape and discovered that, indeed, Livingstone had made a note error.
The judges stripped Livingstone of his second place finish. All of the remaining competitors moved up one place. Despite the adversity, Livingstone went on to finish first in the March, Strathspey and Reel, and the Jig.
One is reeled in, hook, line, and sinker.
Livingstone won virtually every medal at the highest levels of competition. In 1981, a time when non-Scots were disparaged by some in the piping world, Livingstone won the Clasp. He repeated this achievement in 1984. In 1987, the 78th Fraser Highlanders, under Livingstone's leadership as Pipe Major, won the World Pipe Band championship, the first non-Scottish pipe band to win the competition. In 1987, the 78th's concert in Ballymena, Live in Ireland, was, and still is, considered a landmark in the world of piping. The Live concert was reprised in 2016 in Glasgow.
Livingstone wrote Preposterous - Tales to Follow in two sections. In the first section, the section that would, most probably, be of interest to the general reader, Livingstone peels back the layers that cover his life and weaves tales of his piping career in and out of stories about growing up in Copper Cove, Ontario, his law school years, and his family.
Many memoirs can be painful to read. The author often tries to overly justify controversial aspects of his or her life to the point that we, as readers, put down the book and utter, "please!" Livingstone, in contrast, is honest and forthright. He reveals aspects of his life that he "never concealed," but adds that he hadn't "taken out billboard ads to trumpet my situation." We may remember Livingstone from the pictures in International Piper, smiling, as he received one of his many awards but we are reminded that a picture only reflects a shadow of life. In Preposterous - Tales to Follow, Livingstone remembers his challenges in a straight-forward voice. His tone does not elicit sorrow, rather, we feel sympathy, almost empathy, with the difficulties that he faced.
His tone is direct and challenges many of the phrases that are found in the narratives of many memoirs. For example, Livingstone and his wife, Lily, battled with poverty during his law school years. “We have all heard the old saw,” Livingstone writes, “about how hardship and poverty builds character. If I may say, that is pretty much a load of crap. Poverty grinds you down, steals your will, shames you, and robs you of every shred of self-esteem and pride, and it took me a long time to recover from that. Looking back on those times, it’s striking how much Lily, and also piping, helped me up and out of all of that.”
In the second section of the book, the section that would be of interest to pipers, Livingstone discusses his teachers and tutors including John Wilson, John MacFadyen, Andrew MacNeill, John MacLellan, and Donald MacLeod. Much of his tuition was conducted, not ironically, by cassette tape including his lessons with MacLellan and MacLeod. In reflecting on his tuition, Livingstone notes that there is a "distinct difference in the performance style that I was taught by all of my tutors, from that which is heard today. Piobaireachd playing today can be very slow indeed, and it is a feature I find that I frequently comment on negatively when judging." He brings the point home in remembering a slow air that he played, as a young man, at a tempo that prompted his father to say, “Bill, come on, even grief has a tempo.”
Livingstone also discusses, the inception, development, and ascendancy of the 78th Fraser Highlander's Pipe Band. Livingstone was the Pipe Major of the band for 28 years. The 78th Fraser's "revolutionized the concept of the medley." The band invented the concert formation and "made music that is still fresh and well loved." They "took risks in competition settings, both with material and style; introduced 'round reels' and jigs; and fostered a climate of creativity and compositional excellence within our own ranks." Livingstone writes that "we were concerned with what we saw as the artistic element— it was not about setting the chess pieces in the right positions to assure victories. We of course were thrilled to win, but the intensity of the band—and there was a huge amount of that—was directed at what we could do in musical terms. I always thought of it as a petri dish of musical invention and creativity, with ideas appearing from many corners. It is not disingenuous to say that it was all about the music, not the prize."
While Livingstone recounts tales of many pipers, not all tales are characterized by heroism and achievement. Indeed, he exposes something that we often do not want to admit, that there is an unseemly underbelly to our parochial little world. Livingstone recounts the tale of one individual who usurped his father's position, through treachery rather than talent, as Pipe Major in the Copper Cliff Highlanders Pipe Band. Livingstone's father was devastated. The interloper had the temerity, later in life, to claim that he had taught Livingstone the bagpipes. A tale that was not true.
What ultimately emerges from Preposterous - Tales to Follow is the tale of a man who is serious about his art. To the non-piper, it may come as a surprise that an individual can stretch the highland bagpipe, an instrument often reviled as clownish, to such musical heights. To the piper, the tales will provide insight into a dedicated and creative musician's mind. More importantly, though, Livingstone, in recalling tales of a lifetime dedicated to piping, reminds us that the art is a human endeavor and, as such, is subject to our strengths, and weaknesses, as humans. We may have a conception of some sort of ideal when we consider our art. Livingstone notes, throughout the book, though, that the that ideal is interpreted in numerous ways, often times contentiously and vociferously, by various individuals.
Preposterous - Tales to Follow is the type of book that you will not want to put down. Livingstone's honesty is, unlike so many memoirs, refreshing. It is well worth reading.
The cover photo for Preposterous - Tales to Follow is copyright © 2017 by Stuart Lowe. It is reproduced here with the permission of the photographer.
It is worth noting that Stuart Lowe stretches his art, just as Livingstone has stretched his, and has produced compelling photographs of noted pipers and musicians. It is worth your time to take a look at his website, http://stuartlowe.com/.
Livingstone played MacCrimmon's Sweetheart at the Toronto Indoor Games and tied for first.