EDMONTON — With the news that Joe Bird died Wednesday — felled by a heart attack at the absurdly young age of 41 — Edmonton seems a sadder, drabber, tamer, cloudier place today.
For one thing, we’re now a place where a person won’t, any time soon, catch sight of a man in a skirt, rollerblading down Whyte Avenue with two guitars and a mandolin on his back. That indelible image would be Bird — composer, musician, comic, actor, writer and free spirit — on his way to preside over open-mike gigs at O’Byrne’s Pub.
That gig, along with membership in diverse rock bands, was central to his musician’s life for the past couple of years. But Bird, the sunniest of men, spread his warmth, originality, and a certain puckish spirit of why-not? over every aspect of the entertainment scene here. And that, of course, includes theatre.
In 1985, Bird and his high school pal Wes Borg formed a theatre-sports improv team with an enigmatic name, Three Dead Trolls in a Baggie. A year later, with Paul Mather, the Trolls were revealing their signature combination of kooky and literate in sketch comedy at the Sidetrack Cafe. Cathleen Rootsaert joined, then Neil Grahn.
In the eight years that followed, before the Trolls membership again dwindled to Borg and Bird, the Trolls gave Edmonton and the Fringe Festival “the hottest tickets in town,” as Grahn puts it. “Buzz, energy, excitement.” And that gave the Trolls “a taste of what it must feel like to be rock stars, in our small, goofy theatre-troupe way.
“Actors, real theatre types, would ask, ‘What have these guys got?’ They’re idiots!’ ” says Grahn. “We couldn’t argue with them. We knew we were.” He’d first seen Bird and Borg at Yuk Yuks. He recalls being particularly struck by “the duelling banjos” routine. “It was so stupid,” he laughs approvingly. “They’d start that Deliverance thing, and end up smashing each other over the head with their guitars. … Ah, these guys I like!”
He remembers sublime Troll moments at the old Theatre Network, whose home in the ’80s was a defunct Kingdom Hall near the Coliseum. “We were doing some German expressionist dance number, Freedom. Joe had Cathleen on his shoulders, and ran right off the stage. He just drilled her head into the ground. Beautiful and tragic.”
Bird’s musician chops meant that he created many of the Trolls’ comedy songs, including the hit that landed them a six-show CBC contract: The I Hate Toronto Song, which detailed the shortcomings of everywhere in Canada, except Alberta. Bird was responsible for the Hinterland Who’s Who-type theme that included the daffy Legend of the Little Beefalo Calf and the rousing North Pole union song-gone-wrong that brought down the house in the Trolls’ seasonal collaboration with Atomic Improv in Cry Santa!
The sight of Bird as General Brock in The War of 1812, a subject sadly neglected by musical theatre both before and since, isn’t something I’m going to forget. Neither was Bird as sex-craved Joseph, singing to his pregnant virgin girlfriend, in a version of The Messiah in which the Trolls teamed with the rock band Jr. Gone Wild.
Last summer, Bird did the comedy songs for the CBC Radio initiative The Irrelevant Show, including a theme for Grahn’s “favourite bit, Radio Stunt Man. … Joe wrote this great tune, sort of Peter Gunn and Mission: Impossible.” “My God, he was a beautiful songwriter,” says Rootsaert, who left the Trolls in 1994 to pursue playwriting and acting. Both she and Grahn note the cruel irony of Bird’s comedy song We’re All Going To Die. “Joe was supposed to be killed by killer bees,” she says sadly.
“Joe greeted you, always, with a smile and a hug,” says Rootsaert. “He was also so … lively. I’ve laughed harder with him …”
Grahn, who calls Bird “an equal opportunity hugger,” concurs. “He made us laugh. He was so horribly inappropriate at times, you couldn’t help but love him. So vibrant. It’s really so shocking.”
We all agree. The old theatrical axiom about suspending disbelief was never harder.