Jump to Content

Welcome! You’re browsing the No Depression Archives

No Depression has been the foremost journalistic authority on roots music for well over a decade, publishing 75 issues from 1995 to 2008. No Depression ceased publishing magazines in 2008 and took to the web. We have made the contents of those issues accessible online via this extensive archive and also feature a robust community website with blogs, photos, videos, music, news, discussion and more.

Close This

Town and Country - Shorter Artist Feature from Issue #24 Nov-Dec 1999

David Wiffen

Finding his driving wheel


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.

Enjoy the ND archives? Consider making a donation with PayPal or send a check to:
No Depression, 460 Bush St., San Francisco, CA 94108


Did you enjoy this article? Start a discussion about it, or find out what others are saying in the No Depression Community forum.

Join the Discussion »

Find out what's going on in roots music. Share concert photos and videos, learn about new artists, blog about the music you love.

Join the No Depression Community »

Originally Featured in Issue #24 Nov-Dec 1999

Buy our history before it’s gone!

Each issue is artfully designed and packed full of great photos that you don‘t get online. Visit the No Depression store to own a piece of history.

Visit the No Depression Store »

From the Blogs

  • Dylan, "Desire" and the (other) Story of Hurricane: A Lesson In Fatherhood
    Reading of the death of former pro boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter today awoke an old memory which reminded me how lucky I was to have, what in retrospect, was a pretty cool father.  I should add by "cool" I do not mean some kind of "over the hill hipster" who, in a desperate attempt at trying to stay relevant smokes pot or acts […]
  • Lachlan Bryan and The Wildes – Black Coffee (Album Review)
    After a successful solo outing, Aussie country singer Lachlan Bryan got his old band back into the studio and came up with this cracker of an album. It was released in the autumn of last year in Australia and subsequently picked up a major award as “Alternative Country” album of the year. Such acclaim means any belated praise from me is superfluous, but I’m […]
  • Album Reviews: Gord Downie & The Sadies, Bruce Springsteen, Lost & Nameless, The Annie Ford Band
    Gord Downie, The Sadies, and the Conquering Sun The lead singer of one of Canada’s most influential rock bands gets together with one of the best live bands ever for a collaborative effort and the expected results could range anywhere from confusion to straight ahead awesomeness. Thankfully (and not surprisingly, given the players involved) the semi-eponymou […]
  • Blackberry Smoke Is the Goddamn Truth
    Southern rock is a stylistic hodgepodge--a musical mutt.  Yet in this gumbo pot of a country, its impurities and cross-breeding make it the most American genre of all. And with the Allman Brothers drawing down, southern rock's current standard bearer is Blackberry Smoke, a lofty perch they hardly jeopardized during a lively set last night at Seattle […]
  • Goldie and the Gingerbreads: The First All-Female Guitar Band
    It could only happen in America: In 1947, a 7-year-old Polish-Jewish girl named Genyusha "Genya" Zelkovicz arrived in New York City's Lower East Side with her parents and a sister, speaking not a word of English. They were the only ones in their family to survive the Holocaust. Genya's mother nicknamed her Goldie, and thus began her Ameri […]
  • Wayne Kramer - Lexington (Album Review)
    Wayne Kramer is someone who's life story I'd very much like to read. From lead guitar in the Mighty MC5 to prison inmate to social activist (he recently interviewed Pussy Riot, and is constantly active in speaking out against such injustices) to new father, Kramer's life has an interesting story in every chapter. His latest record release (and […]

Shop Amazon by clicking through this logo to support NoDepression.com. We get a percentage of every purchase you make!

Subscribe To the No Depression Newsletter

Subscribe to the No Depression Newsletter