The day Thelon Oeming moved into an apartment in a working class area of Toronto, he saw a hunched-back man shouting to himself in the middle of the street.
Soon after that, the sounds of an accordion filled the air and Thelon discovered that this apparently tormented man was Vern Nash, a talented musician and his new neighbor. Thelon’s instincts were to record Vern, and maybe even to help him.
Who is Vern Nash? was produced in 2005.
Thelon Oeming has written and produced several radio plays and documentaries heard on CBC Radio, ABC Radio, Chicago Public Radio, and podcast on the internet. A graduate of the National Theatre School of Canada, he was a member of Factory Theatre's new play development lab from 2004 to 2006 and is a founding member of the Dark Horse Theatre.
Steve Wadhams is a longtime producer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, who, over the course of his 30 years at the CBC, has set himself apart as a masterful documentarian. Wadhams’ work has been recognized by a Prix Italia, two Major Armstrong awards and the gold medal at the New York Festivals.
BEHIND THE SCENES with Thelon Oeming
I’m curious about the chronology of this piece. How long after meeting Vern did you decide to start recording him and why?
It started with a vague idea of a sound project I wanted to do about my neighbourhood and the gentrification movement. I was recording everything I heard, random conversations between strangers, people shouting, the guys panhandling outside the liquor store, police sirens, traffic noise. So I was carrying my microphone around with me everywhere. I introduced myself to Vern for the first time with a microphone in my hand. At that point I was lured by his music and went over to record him playing on his front porch, which he was happy to do for me.
The rest of the chronology is pretty much the way it unfolds in the piece: first I saw (or heard) this strange man raving in the street, then I heard his music and introduced myself, then I started speaking to him whenever we passed by each other and I discovered that Vern was doing daily perimeter patrols of neighbourhood to exorcise demons hiding in their various strongholds.
He called it “religious business” but he was evasive when I asked him what exactly he meant. It was mostly this overwhelming desire to understand in some way what Vern was thinking that I started inviting him over and recording him. One summer afternoon during a break in an interview on the front porch I accidentally or intentionally left my mini-disc running on the table and he began talking into it in my absence, telling his story in a surprisingly clear way. I realized what he shouts on the street isn't just incoherent rambling. It’s a very precise telling of how schizophrenia destroyed his music career. When I listened to the tape that evening I was disturbed by the torment in his voice shouting and shouting.
When did you decide that Vern and your relationship to him would make a good story for radio and why?
I made my first documentary the previous year under the mentorship of Steve Wadhams at CBC and was eager to do another one. I played some early tape for Steve and discovered that Vern was a few too many times indecipherable. He mumbles a fair bit which I suppose I’ve gotten used to but others just listening in for the first time might not understand it. So for a while I didn’t think that it would make a good radio story at all. I couldn’t find any of Vern’s old friends or any of his family. But Steve was very good in assuring me that some kind of story was emerging and he encouraged me to just keep going. in the end when I had all the pieces together and saw the full tragedy of Vern’s life.
Vern grew up in a small mining town in northern Ontario. His father was run over by a police cruiser and crippled, uncompensated and unable to work. His mother developed schizophrenia and Vern, as a teenager, took to the road as an accordionist touring in small jazz quartets. In the mid-60s he made his way to Montreal and lived the night life at the end of the jazz days. Vern left Montreal to go work in the States and then returned to Toronto, moving into a boarding house where three youths in the room next to him tried to convert him to Satanism. When he refused to join them they vowed to plague him for the rest of his life.
What was it like to befriend Vern while also recording him as the subject of this story?
I gave him my spare change when I could and he quickly learned to call me by my name. At first I wasn’t sure how aware he was or if he’d even remembered our previous interactions. Once Vern got used to getting change from me and my roommates he started to come by on a regular basis -- sometimes daily, sometimes hourly. We can always tell when Vern is at the door by the way he rings the doorbell. In fact he wore our doorbell out so that now it moans strangely.
I think sometimes when you try to help someone less fortunate than yourself you might do it as it suits your schedule, and if you find they are more demanding than you like or needy at the wrong times you can just turn your back on them. But with Vern I felt I owed him my compassion for him letting me into his life, which isn’t easy to do when he’s shouting and ringing my doorbell at three in the morning. Doing the radio piece committed me to Vern.
How did Vern feel about being recorded?
Vern was awed by the recording of his music; I think he was surprised by the quality of the digital playback on headphones. He joked about selling it to a studio. I think in this way, starting with the music, it made Vern comfortable around the microphone. Vern agreed to a first interview to get back at the demons. He said that there were hidden demon tape recorders in his boarding house and he could expose them to the world by talking to a “real human tape recorder."
There’s specific point in the piece -- when Vern comes to visit you -- that you record him on the intercom system. It’s such a revealing moment and adds to the intimate quality of the piece -- but did Vern know that you were recording him?
In that moment Vern did not know. I wanted to capture one of his callings so I had the microphone ready for the persistent doorbell. When I came to the door with a microphone Vern knew I was taping but he quickly forgot. Sometimes I don’t know if Vern remembers telling me his stories because his memory is fading. I played him some of his own music a few months ago and he didn’t remember it, but he enjoyed it.
Did the process of making Who is Vern Nash? Solidify your friendship?
Definitely. Vern really is a gentleman with a sincere smile and deep penetrating blue eyes. He keeps a comb in his jacket pocket and worries how he look without his dentures. When he has a good day - usually around the beginning of the month when his cheque comes in - he can be charming. On Christmas Eve I roasted a chicken and invited Vern over for dinner - we were both alone for the holidays. He didn’t eat anything, preferring to stick to beer. After dinner I fixed his accordion and he played song after song. He told me he was in love with his social worker. I asked him what his plans were. He said that once he gets his teeth back he’s going to make a return to the music business and marry her. He said he was growing younger by the day.
Do you still feel that you can help Vern’s fight his demons and make his life better?
No, I don’t feel I can help him fight the demons. I was naive to think that I could and I realized my naivete very quickly. Vern’s demons are deeply imbedded and I suspect will be with him until the end. But I do feel I can help make his life better. I can let him know I understand what he means and what he’s fighting against and continue to give him a drink or some spare change when he asks for it. In the past few months Vern has become more agitated and he shouts to the demons now with an intensity I haven’t seen before. He seems to be losing weight, too. So I feel the least I can do is be open and charitable to him.
Are you still recording him?
Yes I am, but not as frequently. About a year ago Vern was beaten up in his boarding house and had his dentures broken. Since then he’s been harder to understand so I haven’t recorded as much. I still have lots of great tape that didn’t fit it into this piece because of the way I’d framed everything around my interactions with Vern, so I think if I did a follow-up it would be more a retelling of Vern’s story but told by Vern himself.