Tuesday, April 28, 2009

There's a Fire Truck on My Ceiling: Windi Earthworm Remembered

Windi Earthworm was an institution of the radical anglo left in 1980s Montreal. A crossdressing openly gay street musician who took it upon himself to educate the public about the Vancouver 5, the genocide of Indigenous peoples, the destruction of nature, and the miseries of life under capitalism, Windi was a frequent performer at benefits put on by the scene. Indeed, generally he was by far the most popular act.

Michael Ryan has written the following for my new webpage memorial to Windi, who died of AIDS in 1993:

There's a Fire Truck on My Ceiling

In 1978, the first time I met Windi Earthworm, he was sweeping (there’s no other word for it) out of the apartment of a mutual friend as I was entering, his grinning face framed by a flaming bush of hennaed red hair, wearing a loose-fitting shirt and a skirt your mama would’ve died for. A quick introduction and he was gone.

It wasn’t the first time I had seen Windi, mind you. I was familiar with him as the most idiosyncratic and mesmerizing of Montreal’s legion of buskers. Among the Dylan and Beatles covers, the occasional tasteful jazz or classical and the many traditional Latin American bands playing for quarters, Windi stood out. Aggressive, frenetically in motion, chiding, cajoling, even baiting his audiences – sometimes in drag, not feminine drag, no one would have mistaken Windi for a woman, this was a guy in a dress. His lyrics were hard and real and torn from his own life: drug deaths, homophobic attacks, militant resistance, street youth suicides, slumlords, ravaged prostitutes. But Windi wasn’t just some street poet of the underbelly, and his relationship to the street wasn’t reserved for his riveting performances. Many were the frightened young people who ate his food and slept on his couch, or perhaps you’d see him on the street dressed in his nun’s habit, so realistic that I once heard the cops address him as sister, handing out condoms or clean syringes. Never as part of a movement. Windi didn’t do movements – movements had rules – Windi wasn’t very good at rules.

Eventually, Windi and I became good friends. Brought together by the Vancouver 5 defence campaign. Windi had known some of the 5 well during the period he had lived in Vancouver. But again, Windi didn’t join the Free the Five Defence Committtee – groups and all that. The Vancouver 5 simply became part of his act. When AIM activist Gary Butler was transferred to a Montreal area prison, some of us set up a support group; Windi developed a rant that became an overall lesson in the oppression of Native people in North America. How many people read the leaflets we so painstakingly created? How many people stopped to listen to Windi’s rant? I’m pretty sure Windi wins.

Then, when I was living in West Germany in 1985, a letter came from Windi. He’d been diagnosed HIV-positive, still a death sentence at the time. By the time I got back to Montreal a year later, Windi had moved to the country. He was living in a shack with no electricity or running water – and trust me, Quebec winters suck. He was raising chickens, had a few goats, a garden and a sheep dog named Taj. For the next few years, Windi was my source of eggs and occasional fresh vegetables.

When Windi’s health started to noticeably deteriorate, he left Quebec for the West Coast, settling in Victoria, B.C. He knew his time was short, and he had a daughter in B.C. he wanted to be closer to. Windi died in 1993; I had visited him in Victoria a few weeks before. The disease had ravaged him; his once long red hair was cut short, gray and wispy. He slept most of the time I was there. From Victoria, I went to Colorado to visit friends. Shortly after I left, Windi was hospitalized for the last time. Every couple of days, I would call the hospital and we’d make small talk – what really was there to say – he was dying, and we both knew it.

The last time I spoke to Windi, he was less than 24 hours from death and in the grip of dementia. The last thing he said to me was, “there’s a fire truck on my ceiling.” Of course there was.

Unlike Michael, i never knew Windi very well - by the time i left home and joined the anglo anarchist scene in Montreal in 1986, he had the somewhat unreal quality of being well-known and well-loved by almost everyone i met, and yet he just wasn't around so much any more. So apart from a few casual conversations in friends' homes, at the Café Commun/Commune, at the Art dans la Rue anarchist arts festival, i never really knew him.

So i guess like many others, my relationship to Windi was a relationship to his music. And of course to stories of his exploits - stories that he himself would recount as he performed - the mental image i have constructed of his chaining himself to Anita Bryant is as real as if i had seen it with my own eyes. But over time he became to me someone who existed as his music, recorded on tapes that slowly degraded as they were played year-in-and-year-out. (Don't believe what anyone tells you: the advent of mp3s was a very good thing as far as recorded music was concerned!) And then finally, most likely in the fire that gutted the apartment i was living in back in the early nineties, the tapes themselves were no more.

So when my pal loaded up my usb key with music earlier this year, and i saw folders full of Windi's music, it was a both very pleasant and surprising! i'd just assumed those old bootleg tapes were the only form the music had existed in, while in fact people had been translating them into mp3s and sharing them around, quietly and low-key, amongst his friends and family.

These mp3s of Windi's music were recorded in the 1980s, one set live at the Café Commun/Commune - a collectively run restaurant that was cornerstone of the anglo radical left at the time - the other, Alive!, was a collection of some of Windi's favourite tunes, assembled as a demo in the hope of drumming up potential shows or possibly even a recording contract.

They are made available here with the permission of Windi's daughter.

Windi Earthworm -
Live at Café Commun/Commune

Windi Earthworm

click on the above links to play the song - right-click to download or else click on the following to download all of the above in a great big zipfile (203mb)

Working on putting up the Windi Earthworm Remembered webpage, i googled Windi to see if there was anything up on the net i should be aware of. While there are a few mentions, as of this writing it's not much.

i did find two articles mentioned at the National Archives, which i went down and photocopied. They're both from Montreal gay newspapers from the 80s, and both are in French. Each in their own way, they both recount the constant harassment Windi endured from the Montreal police, who would routinely arrest him for playing on the street - and this despite the fact that he paid to have a permit to do so. As he explains in the audio news report accessible here, "I draw a large crowd, I sing anti-socially I suppose as far as the police are concerned, I am a transvestite at times and that does stir up the police's blood I think..."

You can read these two articles here:

With the help of google, i learned that there is also a brief entry in Lesbian and Gay Liberation in Canada: A Selected Annotated Chronology , 1964-1975, that in May 1975 one John Windi "a.k.a. Windi Earthworm" was the first chairperson of the newly established Gay Information and Resources Calgary, a group that offered "weekly meetings, a speakers' bureau, political action, and a library."

Enticingly, i also learned that in 1986, Claude Ouellet produced a short film about Windi, entitled Ragged Clown, which was presented at the Gay Film Festival that year. (This film will hopefully be made available on the internet soon!)

More recently, Viviane Namaste has mentioned Windi in two of her books (C'était du spectacle!: l'histoire des artistes transsexuelles à Montréal and Invisible lives: the erasure of transsexual and transgendered people). Both times she refers to the same incident: in 1980 Windi (who had trained as a nurse) was refused employment by the Montreal General Hospital because he wore the "female" nurse's uniform. Seeking support for a human rights complaint, Windi approached l'Androgyne, Montreal's gay/lesbian/feminist at the time; but the bookstore collective refused to write a letter of support, citing the criticism that transsexuality was "sexist". (Note that by today's definitions, Windi clearly was not trans - he liked to be referred to as "he", he made no effort to pass, he stated that he would not perform at a women's festival "because that's for sisters" - but back in the day of course the term could easily have been used by and for someone who liked to dress in drag.)

Windi Earthworm lived at a time where it was still true that to be openly gay was to put yourself in opposition to the way the world was, no ideological hidden agenda required. And the leap to being not "just gay", but to seeing through the other lies of capitalist culture, was not so great as it is now. It was certainly a leap that more than one person made. It may be a different world today, but the lessons of our past, the joys and power of being yourself, of saying what you think, of sailing away from cookie-cutter America and not just hoping to recreate it, all these are worth remembering if not rediscovering.

And while you're at it, enjoy the music.

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