Recently while out for a drive, David Wiffen lost control of his car, took out two sections of fence, dodged five hydro poles and slammed into a 7-foot-high hedge.
“I held on to the steering wheel for all I’m worth with the left hand and dove into the passenger seat and hoped for the best. I should not have gotten out of the car alive,” recalls the 57-year-old singer-songwriter.
Despite the jarring crash, he performed at a local club the next night, convinced that if he was a no-show, the six years he spent on his fine new album, South Of Somewhere (True North Records) — and the years he had spent rebuilding a career that went off the rails in 1973 — would be lost.
“If I didn’t play, people would say: ‘He’s still the same. He doesn’t care.’ But I do care. I bloody care very much,” he says. “There are not enough hours in the day. Every time I sit down, I write something.”
If Wiffen had been a no-show, you could hardly blame people for assuming the worst. But these days, he is determined to make up for lost time. Nothing, it seems, will deter him from picking up where he left off in the 1960s and 1970s, when he was at the vanguard of the Canadian folk movement, his songs covered by Tom Rush, Eric Andersen and Ian & Sylvia Tyson. Even in a scene full of talent, it was Wiffen — with his striking, lanky frame, his rich, warm voice, and his flair for dramatic, blues-tinged songwriting — who seemed destined for greatness.
Born in England, Wiffen reveled in Soho’s blues and skiffle scene as a teen. His father, a military engineer, moved the family to Toronto, where he had trouble adjusting to his new home. He gravitated to the coffeehouse scene in the ’60s, recording a live album in 1965. Landing in Ottawa, he joined up with Bruce Cockburn and other folk stalwarts to form The Children.
Wiffen then joined the group 3′s A Crowd, which in 1967 got a U.S. deal with RCA Victor and recorded the LP Christopher’s Movie Matinee, produced by Mama Cass Elliott. When 3′s A Crowd finally split, he landed a U.S. deal with Fantasy and released his eponymous studio debut, which included the oft-covered “More Often Than Not” and “Lost My Driving Wheel”. Even Harry Belafonte drew from Wiffen’s songbook.
“Then the bottom just kind of fell out of singer-songwriting,” Wiffen recalls. He toured with diminishing returns and ploughed his frustration into 1973′s Coast-To-Coast Fever, an unbearably sad song-cycle about the frustration of unrealized dreams which ought to be considered a classic. “He played his tunes to empty rooms right on down the line/But before they went, the money got spent on good times, whiskey and wine,” goes the title track.
“Well, you know me and my past. I drank a lot of booze in my time,” he says. “The guy who was writing those songs was a persona…Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, all the bad boys. I believed in it, and I believed in having a good time.…We were desperadoes.”
Being a desperado provided no shortcut to success. As his pals Cockburn and singer-songwriter Murray McLauchlan prospered, Wiffen bottomed out. “[Watching] Bruce and Murray was very hard,” he says. “I got very sad a lot because of that. I didn’t have to compete, but I thought I did. It gave me a lot of anguish, and it screwed up my head.”
He married, became a father and got by as a limo driver, then as a bus driver for the handicapped. One day, while pushing a wheelchair, Wiffen damaged discs in his back and suffered agonizing pain until corrective surgery. Eventually his outlook improved. He quite drinking 10 years ago, took up painting and, after a few tentative shots at songwriting, took ginger steps back into music.
Working with producer Phil Bova, he spent six years recording South Of Somewhere, a collection of newer works and new versions of favorites from his two earlier albums. A new generation of musicians is starting to discover his work, too. The Cowboy Junkies have made “Driving Wheel” part of their repertoire; fellow Canadians Blackie & the Rodeo Kings did “Skybound Station” on their new record; rock band Junkhouse is set to record “Lucifer’s Blues”. An upcoming Byrds reissue will include “Driving Wheel” too.
“The days are brighter now/The darkness in my soul seems to have passed,” Wiffen sings on “Climb The Stairs”. The line was written in 1973, but you can tell this time he means it.