‘Beautiful Scars’ is Tom Wilson’s straightforward account of a raw, memorable childhood with a mother he lovingly describes as a she-warrior and a father who flew in the Second World War and came home damaged but determined to provide for his family.
He grew up in Hamilton, and after reading the book, I understand why they call it Steeltown. Wilson describes a rough post-war town where the kids kicked your ass, the neighbours judged you, and people took care of their own.
Wilson always felt like he didn’t belong, that there was something about himself that he didn’t know, which set him on a decades-long path of self-destruction and self-indulgence. Sex. Alcohol. Drugs. A music industry that accommodated his worst instincts – that encouraged them, in fact – made matters worse. Wilson did it all, and it nearly killed him.
Once he tamed his demons – which was, of course, much more difficult than I’m making it sound here – he went looking for the truth that his parents would never tell him. I won’t spoil anything (though there are plenty of clues in the book), but it leads to a Mohawk reserve in Quebec and a re-thinking of an infamous incident in Canadian history.
There’s lots in the book about Wilson’s addictions and rehab, what it did to his family, how he nearly lost everything, how he got it back. It’s a well-known story, iconic, even, and that’s satisfying. Fans of Wilson’s music will appreciate it as a window into the experiences that shaped him and his work; Canadian music fans will appreciate it as a piece of our collective artistic history.
What makes ‘Beautiful Scars’ special, though, is Wilson’s rough-and-ready poetic prose. It’s a combination of Hamilton street kid and Hemingway – like nothing I’ve ever read before. I just love it.