John Mann, whose voice rang through countless Canadian celebrations as the lead singer of Celtic-inflected Spirit of the West, has died after a battle with early onset Alzheimer’s. He was 57.
The Calgary-born singer and songwriter, who was perhaps known best for the boisterous pub anthem “Home for a Rest,” died peacefully in Vancouver on Wednesday from the disease with which he was diagnosed several years ago, said Eric Alper, the band’s publicist.
“Surrounded by friends and loving family until the end, all were reminded of John’s rich legacy,” Alper said in a statement.
“He was a potent force in music, acting — onstage, in movies and on television, and was world renowned as a songwriter.”
A four-time Juno nominee for his work with Spirit of the West, Mann and his band became underground heroes for their politically savvy, musically diverse songwriting, which fused traditional strains of folk, Celtic and turn-of-the-’90s alt-rock.
Spirit of the West sailed on a wave of interest in the Canadian folk music scene, which later picked up other acts such as Great Big Sea. Unlike many of their contemporaries, they found inspiration in post-punk bands such as Edinburgh’s the Waterboys, and that energy worked its way into their live performances.
But like many homegrown Canadian bands, they struggled to find success in the United States.
In his later years, Mann survived cancer — and wrote about it — only to suffer from early onset Alzheimer’s, though he determinedly continued playing music as he faced the condition.
Mann’s struggle was captured in the 2016 documentary “Spirit Unforgettable,” which recounts the toll the disease took on his ability to perform. The film tracks the musician as he prepares for a goodbye concert at the historic Toronto concert venue Massey Hall alongside a number of his closest friends.
By that point, he was relying on an iPad to remind him of the lyrics he wrote years earlier.
“Music is really comforting to me,” he says early in the film. “It just makes me feel good.”
Watch: Musicians tell Trump to stop playing their music at events. Story continues below.
Born in Calgary, Mann initially moved to Vancouver to study theatre at Langara College’s Studio 58.
In 1983, he hooked up with Geoffrey Kelly and J. Knutson and formed the trio Eavesdropper, though they would change their name to Spirit of the West by the time they independently released their self-titled debut in 1984.
More attention was drawn by the group’s sophomore record, 1986′s “Tripping Up the Stairs.” With all songwriting credits split evenly among the trio, the record was an eclectic stunner, several songs built around traditional Scottish and Irish jigs.
In 1988, the band solidified its reputation with the acclaimed release “Labour Day,” and its wryly titled breakup tune “Political,” credited to Mann alone. The song gave the band its first real hit, and their first Juno nomination.
Spirit of the West attracted the interest of major labels, signing to Warner Bros. Records in 1989, and releasing “Save This House” the following year, which gave the band its first platinum album helped by the single “Home for a Rest.”
Their sound evolved perhaps even more dramatically with 1991′s “Go Figure,” which funnelled the band’s rootsy influences into a significantly harder-rocking framework, with songs taking aim at former prime minister Brian Mulroney. Even “Political” was re-recorded, newly jolted by electronics, though some fans resisted — a London, Ont., audience petitioned the band to perform the original version, for instance.
While Spirit of the West’s evolution toward rock did rankle some, they’d never been more popular. They struck platinum again with 1993′s “Faithlift,” tackling issues as heavy as riots, the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal and Yellowknife’s Giant Mine explosion.
Radio embraced the single “And If Venice is Sinking,” a song Mann wrote about his honeymoon. He was married to playwright Jill Daum and had two children, son Harlan and daughter Hattie.
Spirit of the West remained prolific even to diminishing commercial returns, releasing three albums in the back half of the 1990s, and as the band wound down and eventually went on hiatus, Mann kept busy.
He rekindled his long on-hold acting career with roles on “Stargate SG-1,” “Smallville,” “Battlestar Galactica” and “Intelligence.”
In 2002, he went solo with “Acoustic Kitty,” and released two more contemplative solo records in 2009 (“December Looms”) and 2014. That last record, “The Waiting Room,” tackled Mann’s long fight with colorectal cancer.
He learned he was sick in 2009, and spent months confined to a hospital bed. He’d fully recovered by 2011, but that was not the end of Mann’s suffering.
“How these fellows band together and support each other in adversity, I just think is stunningly beautiful.”
In September 2014, he made public his diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. In a note on his website, he said the diagnosis was not a shock because he’d been harbouring certain “fears and suspicions.”
“But I don’t want to spend any more energy trying to hide my symptoms,” he said. “I don’t want to feel embarrassed. I want to accept what has happened and live. I will continue to make music and I will continue to do shows.”
“Spirit Unforgettable” captures Mann in those years as he leans on his wife to push through the band’s final performances. Together they often found levity in difficult moments and reflecting on the past.
“How these fellows band together and support each other in adversity, I just think is stunningly beautiful,” Daum said of her husband’s band in a 2016 interview.
Daum also used her own art to help find catharsis. She worked on a script for a play entitled “Forget About Tomorrow,” about a family coping with Alzheimer’s. Mann wrote two songs for the production, “Forget to Forget,” and “Tom’s Song.”
“We could take what we were going through, and put it into a piece of work that other people could benefit from,” she said.
Musicians helped raise funds
Last year, Mann’s disease reached a point where he was unable to attend the Victoria premiere of his wife’s play.
“We’ve just gone through a really rough patch with him,” she explained in a January 2018 interview.
“But he’s still beautiful Johnny. He’s still snapping his fingers. There’s a lot of love for John in this show.”
In his final years, Mann’s musician friends rallied around him, participating in the “Spirit of John” fundraising concerts.
Artists including Alan Doyle, Jim Cuddy, Sarah McLachlan and Ed Robertson, recorded a rendition of “Home For A Rest” to help raise funds for Mann’s extensive care.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Nov. 20, 2019.