By Kyle Mullin
As the nation mourned an icon, Steven Page granted a dying wish.
The former Barenaked Ladies frontman stood before a tearful crowd and sang ‘Halleluiah,’ just the way Jack Layton wanted it, bringing all in attendance to a roaring ovation with a uniquely gentle, almost spoken word rendition. The New Democratic leader’s state funeral, held at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall between August 25 and 27, 2011, drew a devastated throng bigger than any audience Page had ever imagined – but he was only fixated on a few of its members.
“I walked onto the stage and looked directly in the front row where his kids and his widow sat, and I was standing about a foot from his coffin, so even keeping it together was a huge challenge at the time,” Page says of the performance for his friend and fellow Torontonian, whom he had always vigorously supported by singing along on campaign trails as if they were stadium tours. “I was very touched that Jack and his family asked me to be part of it before he died, it was a nice homecoming for me.”
That homecoming was long overdue. For years Page had been a national prodigal son. He’d started off wholesome enough, leaving the AM airwaves smitten with The Barenaked Ladies at the turn of this century, singing playful hits about how much Kraft Dinner he’d buy as a millionaire. But that all changed in 2008 after Page was arrested for cocaine possession.
Co-founder Ed Robertson and the rest of the band left him behind, releasing an album on their own in 2010 dubbed All In Good Time. The former front man’s rebuttal was a pair of solo discs that same year, aptly titled A Singer Must Die, and Page One.
“I don’t think Ed stole the band from me, he kept it for himself after I was gone,” Page says of the bitterness that is slowly fading after the split. “There wasn’t much I could do about it – I wasn’t going to take the name with another band together and call it Steve Page’s Bare Naked Ladies.”
Page and Robertson have always been stuck between reconciling and resenting. In fact, that’s how they met- quibbling not over song arrangements or drug busts, but over friendship itself.
“My best friend and I both went to an elementary school for gifted kids – he got there one year after me, and wound up in Ed’s class,” Page says with a chuckle about his first of many neurotic squabbles with Robertson. “They became buddies in his class. So until I was 18 I probably held that against him in the back of my mind, although eventually I realized Ed did not set out to steal my friend.”
He tries to maintain that wry amiability when thinking of, referring to, or meeting up with his former bandmates. But Page admits it was tougher to be so civil when they released All In Good Time. In fact, he still hasn’t listened to that disc, admitting he would have nitpicked every note.
“I had to focus on moving forward instead of looking back on what could have been or should have been or anything else.”
But he hasn’t abandoned his past. In fact, he thought of nothing but old friends during his most impassioned performance of all. Standing by Layton’s casket, he recalled teasing the once city council man for his earnestness. He invited another dear friend to help with that tribute— former BNL band mate Kevin Hearn, because Page could “think of no one better,” to play the piano while he recited “Alleluia,” like a preacher. While he admits to not being a very religious man, Page says gigs like that are enough to make him believe.
“I think being an artist gives you an outlet of the spirit that people who aren’t passionate don’t always have access to.”