Sex, Drugs, and Fiddling Revisited

by Alexandra Molotkow

What was your first concert? Mine was an easy-rock radio festival in the park down the street from my parents’ apartment. I was 12 years old, and that was the afternoon I inhaled an entire balloon thinking it was filled with helium, then lost the next several seconds to a strange daze of color and commotion. I thought this had just been a memory glitch until one high school friend got a job at a party supply store, and another high school friend asked if he could hook her up with a canister of nitrous.

Anyway. As I recall, Ashley MacIsaac played that day. Who is Ashley MacIsaac, you ask? Why, a Canadian fiddling legend! You may remember him from his appearance on Conan O’Brien, when he wore a kilt without underwear and flashed his basket to the audience:

(MacIsaac has said this was staged.)

If I am remembering correctly, this would have been right in the valley of his career during which his manager dropped him and he developed a crack habit. A couple of years earlier, he’d talked to Maclean’s magazine “about his underage boyfriend and his fondness for a particular sexual practice involving micturation,” as Rebecca Mead put it in a very enjoyable 1999 New Yorker profile, published when MacIsaac was 24. “The magazine ended up running a disapproving article that reprimanded MacIsaac for his ‘stunning recklessness about his image.’”

My childhood friends and I remember that well. It was Canada in the 1990s, and, in short, Ashley MacIsaac was an outspoken, bad-ass, gay punk-rock kid, who happened to be steeped in a tradition native to Cape Breton, a very special island off the east coast of Canada. In 1992, he was sighted at a square dance by New York theater director JoAnne Akalaitis, who had a home nearby; she brought him to New York to work on a show composed by Philip Glass, who compared MacIsaac to Ornette Coleman. MacIsaac said, of that time: “I went to the Limelight every night. I got laid a lot. I was considered a cute little boy.”

Rebecca Mead called him “a scruffy lord of misrule, somewhere between the Pied Piper and Pig Pen,” as well as “disturbingly sexy.” They walked together around Ottawa, notably one of the most boring cities in the world, where MacIsaac yelled “Death to Serbia!” at a group protesting the US bombing of Yugoslavia, gave $20 to a homeless man, and convinced a young couple to lend him their canoe. The following night, Mead watched him take acid before a performance and then smoke “a couple of joints,” followed by more acid, and more weed, once his band arrived. He killed it. By that time, he told her, his drug issues had “semi-cleared. Because if it was completely clear, it would be boring.”

The Ashley album I grew up with was his smash-hit Hi™ How Are You Today?, released 20 years ago. In hindsight, the ™ is a funny joke. The album mixed traditional Cape Breton fiddle music with rock and dance beats and if you’re cringing right now, whatever, express yourself, but this haunting nugget of my youth will never not give me goosebumps:

Ashley is alive and well and seems to take his music more seriously than ever. He is still outspoken and bad-ass but, I gather, more together. Gosh bless u, Ashley MacIsaac, and may you fiddle long.