Untimely death of off-the-wall radio mentor spurs memories of life lessons imparted
Published on: April 14, 2016 | Last Updated: April 14, 2016 4:00 AM MDT
Reid Dickie was a mentor to a young Steve Burgess. ROSENA FUNG / SWERVE
Many pop-culture giants have died in 2016. David Bowie; Glenn Frey of the Eagles; Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane; Maurice White of Earth, Wind, and Fire; Reid Dickie of Shoal Lake, Man. I realize that last name will lack resonance for most people. But in my world Reid Dickie was a rock star. He was that rare treasure some people find—a mentor, a role model. A personal giant.
Reid died on Feb. 21 in Winnipeg. My shock upon seeing his obituary on Facebook was twofold. There was the fact of his death at only 66, and the fact that other people had taken notice. But why wouldn’t they? Reid Dickie was a legend in Winnipeg circles, a pioneer of alternative FM radio, creator of bizarre music videos for the likes of Pere Ubu, and, later, along with his beloved late wife, Linda Tooley, the proprietor of the Corydon Avenue clothing store If You Have to Get Dressed in the Morning. Together they founded the DickTool Co. to showcase their art. As a young man he self-published a book of poems called Prism Prisons and later created an art piece by nailing copies of it to a wooden frame and leaving it outdoors all Winnipeg winter. He called it “Reverse Miracle—bad poetry treated badly.” One of his projects was titled “Typographical Man Beheads Himself With His Own Acts.”
So the fact that Reid’s death would be publicly noted should not have been surprising. Yet I was still surprised. Because in my illogical universe Reid seemed like a personal spirit, like the “familiar” of ancient mythology who acted as one’s otherworldly helper. My long-ago friendship with him was so much a part of my personal history that I forgot he also existed for other people.
I was 14 years old. Our family home in Brandon, Man. was just down the street from the headquarters of CKX Television and Radio. At the time, CKX was the only game in town in both of those media. Reid Dickie was the late-night DJ. Benefiting from the lack of management scrutiny at that hour, Reid would play an eclectic array of music that would have been remarkable even on a station that didn’t typically feature the likes of Paul Anka and Tony Orlando & Dawn.
One night I called to request a song called “Satori Part II” by the Flower Travellin’ Band. He dutifully spun it, then followed up by saying, “Yeesh, that was terrible.” (He had a case. It’s on YouTube. Judge for yourself.)
Incensed, I called back. We ended up chatting for two hours. He invited me to drop by the station some night. And I did. I would creep quietly to the phone and call first so he could leave the side door open. Then with a careful tread across creaky floorboards I would slip out the back door and down the dark street. Reid would buy me a soft drink from the station’s vending machine. I would sit in the control room while he spun records and we would shoot the breeze about music and whatever.
It all sounds potentially sordid. It wasn’t. Perhaps I was naive but, if so, I was also lucky. Reid was not seeking teenage groupies to satisfy dark lusts. He was a 23-year-old guy stuck playing records in the middle of the night in the middle of cultural nowhere. I was a precocious and enthusiastic lad with a lot to say, perhaps not all of it youthful drivel, willing to keep him company through dreary all-night shifts. We were pals. Unlikely ones, but still.
Reid was wise enough to worry about appearances. Part of my eager embrace of counterculture involved early drug use, and Reid was rightly concerned not to be seen as corrupting a minor. Still, he would allow me to visit his basement suite on Saturday mornings—Saturday was his day off. There I was introduced to his enthusiastic amateur art career. Reid was always doing something creative. Decoupage was a favourite medium—he would cut out magazine photos and create sweeping visual epics that he insisted told specific stories (which he would then explain while guiding you through the imagery). Reid was also the uncredited inventor of Toilet Art, which involved putting colourful kitchen ingredients into the bowl and flushing for a brief but brilliant effect (some elements, like uncooked spaghetti, would survive the catastrophe). Reid’s favoured perspective was the absurd. I recall listening to the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band and Frank Zappa among countless other discs on those Saturday mornings. He celebrated the bizarre and the ridiculous wherever they could be found or created. “Hello, freak!” he would greet me, and I knew there was no higher compliment.
He eventually escaped to Winnipeg and, while I visited sometimes, we lost touch. Long after his radio career ended he launched a blog, readreidread.wordpress.com, that revealed a deep love for prairie landscapes and architecture. He published books: Manitoba Heritage Success Stories, Carberry Heritage Walking Tour, and a novel, Play the Jukebox. After decades of silence I was amazed and delighted to get a LinkedIn message from him last year in response to some update I had posted. “Way to go Steve! Nothing but blue skies and green lights ahead. Be happy, Reid.” I answered but got no reply. I did not know he was unwell.
During my teenage years, Reid had been my cool older friend, a source of personal pride, a badge of hip, evidence that I could hold my own with a genuine grown-up hipster. What I was to him I can’t say. Nor did I realize at the time what effect our friendship would have on me. It was more profound than I could have grasped at the time.
It seems most obvious in the fact that I would later spend 15 years on my own trek through Western Canadian radio, spinning my share of vinyl on lonely overnight shifts. But my radio career never seemed to be Reid’s most important influence. He used to tell me, earnestly: “Remember—you can be anything you want to be.” That stuck. More important still was Reid himself—his values, his example, the means by which a role model shapes your life.
Reid was brilliant but not particularly talented. No matter. He lived the creative life with full commitment. He neither had, nor to my knowledge ever sought, financial comfort. Reid possessed the true spirit of the artist—his greatest desire was to live a life of creation. That was the example I found most enduring. That’s why he has always loomed so large on my personal horizon.
And even more crucially, he cared. He took an interest. Reid Dickie saw something in me that he considered worth encouraging. Simply by granting me respect and acknowledgement, he provided me with an entree into a larger world. That’s the generosity of spirit at the heart of mentorship. Young people who find such angels can count themselves among the luckiest.
I can’t live up to Reid’s standard. Good role models do that, too—remaining forever just out of your grasp so that you must always keep chasing. I wish I could have spoken to him again. I hope he understood just how much I appreciated his friendship and support. A young person could have no better example.