“The Poetry & Lyrics of Jay Semko”
By Jay Semko
Published by Wood Dragon Books
$19.99 ISBN 9-781989-078631
“She ain’t pretty she just looks that way.” If you’re a Canadian of a certain age, there’s a good chance you’ll recognize that lyric from the song “She Ain’t Pretty” by The Northern Pikes, a Saskatchewan-based band that rose to popularity in the 1980s and still records. The Pikes’ bassist and a vocalist, Jay Semko, also penned many of the band’s songs, and now he has released a book that’s “a mixture of song lyrics and ‘stand alone’ poems written over a 25-year period.”
The Poetry & Lyrics of Jay Semko begins with the artist’s abbreviated autobiography. Semko was bullied as a grade-accelerated child in rural Saskatchewan; became passionate about learning guitar and writing songs in his teens; and enjoyed career success both with The Northern Pikes and as a solo artist (10 albums plus music composition for film and television). We also meet the Jay Semko who is “a recovering addict ... living with bipolar disorder.”
Sharing his experience “helps [him] immensely, and is crucial to [his] own personal recovery.”
“Write what you know” is a common literary adage and Semko — who has done much touring — does indeed steer us across the map of his experience. Many of these offerings feature movement and a desire for change, and I suspect they may have been written on the road.
In the opening piece we read “the odyssey continues/ghosts of the deer I have killed on the highway/will come back to haunt me,” and “make up new words/draw a new roadmap” appears in the next selection. In “Adventure on My Breath,” Semko writes “Siberia/at least that’s how it seems/in a Greyhound skating down a highway.”
The singer/songwriter frequently alludes to mental health issues, and alcohol addiction is another demon he has wrestled with. “Detox, rehab and psychiatric centres” are a part of Semko’s map; writing about life’s valleys is good therapy. “Heartaches and Numbers” begins “you roam these halls every night/the paintings all seem to be haunted.” It includes: “in a couple of days/you’ll feel so much better/the shakes will wear off.” In the notes that follow the poems/songs, Semko shares that this track from 2010 was written while he was “jonesing, trying to stay cool,” and “addiction [is] personified in this song.”
The collection includes a few love poems and pieces about faith and aging, but the death of Semko’s mother is what inspired the most touching of these diverse works. In “My Mother in the Hospital” he recounts how difficult it was to be on tour “with a busload of other ancient former vagabonds/preparing to rock across the nation” while his mother was dealing with terminal illness and was on the home/hospital/palliative care train. “St. Paul’s/mom now in a coma/the hospital death lady/explaining much too pleasantly/the science and the inevitable.”
Many of these poems document the artist’s darkness, but I expect readers will finish the book feeling pleased that they got to know the Jay Semko who has survived stormy seas — like all of us — and lives to write and sing about them.
This book is available at your local bookstore or from the Saskatchewan Publishers Group www.skbooks.com