For most of his 50 plus years, Tom Wilson thought he was a “big puffy Irish guy,” but he was wrong. “I’m actually a big puffy, sweaty Mohawk guy,” said the heart and soul rocker known for his work with Junkhouse, Lee Harvey Osmond and the Canadian super trio Blackie and the Rodeo Kings.
He learned, at age 53, after years of uncertainty and quiet questioning, that the people he thought were his parents, were, in fact, his great aunt and uncle. And the woman he thought was his cousin was his mom.
His unique journey in music and in life is revealed in the book Beautiful Scars: Steeltown Secrets. Mohawk Skywalkers and the Road Home (Doubleday Canada).
Why reveal this very personal story?
“It’s more what got revealed to me,” he said by way of clarification. “It’s a dramatic headline to say I have been living in a lie but it is a fact that I have been living in a mystery most of my life.
“Finding out that my mother and father were actually my great aunt and uncle and also finding out woman who has acted as my cousin my entire life was actually my mother. Finding out after growing up an only child that I now have six siblings living in Kahnawake … those are revelations and they still keep coming my way.
“I was asked to write a book which I didn’t think I would be asked to do. I thought I would tell the story. All this information I just told you, it leaves me as the last man standing. I have to be the guy to bring the truth out, not only about the situation I was in but of my adoption and my heritage and the road of how I ended up still alive.”
The book idea was pressed by Dave Bidini of Rheostatics fame. When he suggested it, Wilson reacted: F**k no, that sounds like too much work. But,” he said, “I needed a moment to believe in myself. I am a Hamilton guy.”
Even after he decided he would do it, there was another hurdle.
“I didn’t know how to write a book. I figured I’d come in, they’d tape me and then they’d write it up.”
Not the way it works, his editor said. So he sat down and wrote it up.
“I wanted to bring poetry to the story. It’s not like I am a politician writing a memoir. I don’t consider this a memoir; I consider this a collection of stories that all drive down the same road.”
Wilson describes a life in a house that was run by his “mother” Bunny, whom he knew as a loving caring person. His “father” George was blinded during the Second World War and ran a small concession stand. The Wilsons of Hamilton were poor but proud.
Still, for the young Tom, there was always an uncertainty. He suspected something wasn’t quite right, but he didn’t press the issue.
The uncertainty did affect him however, he says.
“I did the best job I possibly could to mess myself up.” That’s on him, he says candidly. Wilson is nothing if not candid in conversation.
Still “I can only liken (my life) to watching the movie The Truman Show with Jim Carrey.
“That movie was how I felt all my life … that everybody’s in on (the secret) except for me. It leaves you at a disadvantage. It also leaves your emotional development back in the dirt while everybody else is running ahead of you.
“As a result I have had difficulty with commitment, intimacy and all those things. I don’t try to make excuses for myself but I can definitely say that my adoption mystery, that feeling that I am was the wrong place contributed to my entire life cycle.”
People keep secrets. They keep a lock on things and put them in a corner in the basement where they hide them. It’s not that they deliberately want to hurt anyone, Wilson says, it’s that they actually want to protect them.
“It’s quite unfair to the person you are keeping the secrets from.”
Now that he is a grandfather of two, he says he believes, “the best protection that I have is telling the truth now.”
His early life wasn’t easy. There were Christmases without presents, but it was not a joyless home, he says.
“I was surrounded people who were trying hard and who loved hell out of me. And I try not to take anything away from them, only to praise them, but at the same time … there is the maternal bond. There is bond I have with my kids that I didn’t have with Bunny and George. You can’t manufacture that.”
The book is not a sob story, he says, but it still does occasionally make him anxious.
“I lie awake at night now sometimes thinking about what have I done. It’s one thing writing three verses and a chorus and it’s another thing writing a 70,000 word love letter. Lots can go wrong. I’m still wondering if I have done the right thing.”
One thing he does know is that he didn’t write his story to capitalize on the public discussion of issues such as the impact of residential schools or the infamous Sixties Scoop.
“I didn’t write a book stating proudly that I’m a Mohawk (as) Indigenous issues are making their way to the top of the heap. I didn’t mean to do that.
“I also didn’t mean to write a book about adoption. But every night (on a book tour) I get somebody from the audience saying their mother of uncle was adopted and they didn’t know. These are common stories. I’ve end up with bikers in the lobby of a theatre in Winnipeg crying and saying ‘I know your story because it’s my story’.”
He’s hoping that he can be a positive influence and give people some strength to sort out these emotions.
The flip side of this story is the one-time only child now has an unexpected and big family of brothers and sisters and cousins.
He’s met all his siblings save one sister “who is not very interested.”
Wilson understands. “It’s tough for a family. It means their father, my father who passed away in 1991, had kids outside the family. That can be hard to swallow.”
But he does enjoy his new relationships.
“They are characters. My family is not lumped in with the Mohawk culture that is approaching me. I feel that when we open up our heart and show respect it comes to you when it is time. And meeting my family has come to me when it was supposed to happen. It does feel right.”
He knows his life could have been much different.
“I was in Hamilton watching the Oka crisis on television. I followed it because I knew I had some family down there through Bunny.
“My (new-found) brothers made out wills, picked up arms and went into the woods to fight a war that they didn’t expect to come home from. That’s rather intense. That’s a life I didn’t get to live.”
He has also been introduced to the fraternity of Mohawk ironworkers, the men who basically built the skyscrapers of North America.
“My great-grandfather is one of those guys sitting in that famous photo eating lunch on top of skyscraper.” In Kahnawake, every home, he says, had a father, brother or uncle working on the high steel.
He is thoughtful about his new culture.
“I was born a Mohawk baby and I have just become a Mohawk man. I’m not some white guy whose going to head to the sweat lodge on the weekend and burn some sage and try to connect with something. That’s not my game. It wasn’t my game when I was just a guy from Hamilton. Now that I am a Mohawk man for me the culture and my place in it is all about respect.”
In many ways, writing the book, Wilson says, has “enhanced my life the same way painting has and same way writing songs has. It’s the life I wanted when I was four years old. It’s the life I chose when I was 14. If I walk out into the street and get hit by a car, I’ll go to my grave having done exactly what I wanted to do with this life.”
All through the book Wilson’s fascination with guitars is evident. He is a fan of Gibsons. He has a very special guitar that he treasures. The 1952 Gibson J45 once belonged to the late Willie P. Bennett, who is the inspiration behind the Rodeo Kings.
“That one doesn’t go on the road,” he says.
In town: Tom Wilson will be at the Royal Oak on the Canal on Nov. 21. at 7 p.m. Joining him will be singer-songwriter Lynn Miles. Tickets and information: octopusbooks.ca