An Unscripted Life

September 2, 2008

The way he tells it, the first time Jurgen Gothe stepped into “scenic subterranean Studio 20” at the CBC building on Hamilton Street, there was a problem. Arriving one day in September 1985 to kick off DiscDrive, the eclectic music show that’s made him—and CBC Radio 2’s drive-home slot—a ratings success for 23 years, Gothe sat down only to face a wall. That was CBC tradition for hosts, but Gothe wanted an audience, someone to talk to. So he rearranged the furniture to have eye contact with the technician in the control room. “I have a little bit of the performer, the showman, in me,” he says. “I wanted to see that visual reaction.”

Reaction of that sort—of any sort—ends on Labour Day, when CBC winds down DiscDrive, the last of the long-time national weekday shows originating in Vancouver. The slot goes to a singer-songwriter showcase hosted by an East Coast hip-hop performer named Buck 65. Meanwhile, Gothe will take on a one-hour Sunday show provisionally titled Farrago and spend the rest of his time in the Mayne Island home he and his wife, the photographer Kate Williams, share with Chloe, a poodle cross rescue dog. Gothe’s departure from the show—by mutual consent, as the CBC tersely describes this and many other recent changes—marks the end of what he himself views as a long detour from the path he set out on decades ago.

From the beginning, Gothe was an unlikely marquee host for CBC. In the mid ’80s he was a private-radio broadcaster and freelance PR guy, writing radio copy for local businesses (including Eaton’s, Pacific region) and hosting a Sunday-afternoon concert show for the Mother Corp. called Front Row Centre. But he was becoming restless. In his early 40s, he was going through a divorce. He’d had enough of radio. Once the weather cleared, he figured he’d move to the Gulf Islands and try his hand at writing mystery novels.

[list:#|Food, Wine and Music Picks from Jurgen Gothe]

But then life intervened: producer Tom Deacon invited him to make a pilot for a three-hour drive-home show, and Gothe, always intrepid and open to serendipity, was happy to give it a shot. CBC heard the pilot and bit, and starving authorhood went on hold for a year. Then two. Then three. “DiscDrive has been a very seductive safety net,” he says, with the uncertainty of someone about to have the net removed. “There’s a comfort factor that comes with a steady gig, especially one that has some satisfaction and pays reasonably well and has adoring fans.”

Janet Lea, one of DiscDrive’s original associate producers, says that from the start the show explored new territory with its eclectic mix and Gothe’s seat-of-the-pants hosting style. “In those days, CBC was like taking a spoonful of cod-liver oil,” she recalls. “Maybe there was the assumption that learning about music had to be a little bit serious, even painful.” DiscDrive, by contrast, for all its painstaking research and concern for high fidelity, was meant to seem lighthearted, irreverent. And so it has been for almost a quarter-century.

A recent, and typical, show segued from Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll” sung by Johnny Mercer to Chet Atkins’s guitar rendering of “Vincent” to David Shifrin conducting the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s third movement of Bach’s Concerto Grosso from the Brandenburg Concertos. “That’s his great appeal,” says colleague Vicki Gabereau, who worked down the hall for many years. “He’d mix the dead-serious, then hit you sideways with something goofy. He’s just the best: the whole packaging, how he delivered it, how he talked about it.”

“ In so many ways,” says Lea, “Jurgen and DiscDrive changed the face of CBC and its music programming. Now, in an attempt to become more inclusive, they’re populating Radio 2 with all these singer-songwriter and ethnic-fusion types of music. I think the pendulum will swing back; unfortunately, in the meantime, we’ve had some losses—like DiscDrive.” For her part, Gabereau calls it the natural order: “We went from being upstarts to being journeymen to being old. You’re only good for your time. It has to change.”

Gothe rarely chose the show’s music himself—that was the producers’ job—and though he’s the sort who would rather ignore the second-rate than bad-mouth it, he’s been known to sound less than hyped introducing certain selections: Strauss waltzes, say, or various marches or yet another piece by Poulenc or C.P.E. Bach. (“So you’d always come to the studio armed with a few pieces of musical candy,” recalls Lea.) It’s his perceptive and, at times, mendacious patter that’s been the show’s hallmark. Ask him about the comic bits with which he filled the spaces between songs, and the afternoons of a half-million Canadians, and he demurs. “It’s actually much easier than people think. It’s not like doing a monologue or a talk show, because you’ve always got that piece of music during which you can regroup and think, ‘Did that work? How can I fix it?’ ”

Any idiot, he says, can read out a canned biography of Stravinsky. “Whereas I would extrapolate and say, ‘Why did he write Rite of Spring? Well, maybe he was pissed off at the landlord.’ It’s indulgent, but I’m nothing if not self-indulgent. Besides, everybody knows the facts. Who cares about facts?” And when a piece of music moves him, listeners know. “I can’t see myself coming out of a good recording and saying, ‘That was so-and-so performing the often-heard…’ No! This was somebody who played the ass off it and their fingers are bleeding. Let’s say that!

“Don’t forget I’ve been working in front of a microphone for over 50 years,” he continues. Or not in front. It’s not uncommon for him to wander out of range altogether, roaming to examine something in the studio or to air-conduct the cut being played. When he is on mike, though, he’s right there, says Lea. “He speaks very, very softly. So it gives it that intimate sound. Plus, he always talked to the people in the control room”—that furniture rearrangement on day one. “That was terrific because for whoever was producing the show, you had this three-hour dialogue with Jurgen.” Gothe would spend the minutes while the music played answering mail, talking on the phone, writing newspaper columns, and researching musical matters both common and obscure. Often simultaneously. “But when he looked up, he expected to see you paying attention. You were there to be there for Jurgen because it helped his performance.”

Grant Rowledge, veteran technician and now senior producer, says he can hear the effect his presence behind the glass has had on Gothe. “Believe me, I don’t have delusions of grandeur when I say this, but it was sort of like the Johnny Carson/Ed McMahon relationship. Ed was there to be the fall guy, the support, the anything. But Johnny was the man. In a small sense, I see our relationship the same way.” That relationship now stretches over two decades and, says Rowledge, “I consider him a good friend. Yet there are still things I don’t know about him, and I expect never to know.”

WHEN JURGEN GOTHE was a kid in Medicine Hat, the younger son of a father who fell into baking in Berlin for want of other work, he typed up a science-fiction story he figured was pretty good. Since there weren’t many literary mentors in the Hat, he went to the library and found Ray Bradbury’s mailing address. Bradbury read the story and counselled the would-be writer to keep writing (asking in a postscript just how old he was, anyway. Answer: 14).

Gothe took Bradbury’s advice and, the next year, to fund his literary efforts, got a job selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door. The money he earned got him as far as Carberry, Manitoba, where he found a job at the gas station. At 15, he lived in the Carberry hotel, landed a weekend gig playing drums, and bought his apricot brandy from the local Mountie. In Grade 10 at Carberry Collegiate, he lasted a month. He never went back.

“I’m completely autodidactic. I dropped out of school because I was bored and thought I could teach myself anything I needed to know. So far, so good. To me, learning is self-motivated. That’s how I’ve learned everything.”

As in the WKRP theme song, he moved from town to town, up and down the dial, hosting, writing ad copy. “You learn to write for the voice—not necessarily your voice, but somebody’s voice.” One of those somebodies was the children’s entertainer Burl Ives, who was doing the narration for a film. He wrote Gothe to compliment him on the natural flow of the script. “I was gratified, flattered. But I guess I didn’t know any other way to write.”

Gothe wound up writing creative for wine and spirits clients of Hayhurst Advertising, presenting bits and pieces on Vancouver’s CHQM, then hooking up with a young UBC commerce grad named Anthony von Mandl, now proprietor of Mission Hill Family Estate. He made Gothe vice-president of advertising. “If I’d stayed with him,” Gothe laments, “I’d be rich by now.” Somewhere in there, Western Living editor Liz Bryan saw something she liked and asked him to write for the magazine, first on wine, then food. A few thousand bottles and meals have come and gone since then.Why wine? “I fell into it when I was very young: Grade 2. We were asked to write a paragraph about food; I wrote a multipage essay about these three bottles that meet in a landfill. The wine bottle got all the good lines.” And food? “A lifetime of eating.” Somehow it worked: in 2000, Chatelaine magazine voted him one of the 12 most influential Canadian foodies of the millennium.

He may also be the most plain spoken. Harry McWatters, founder of Sumac Ridge Estate Winery and a godfather of the Okanagan wine industry, treasures Gothe’s populism. “When he writes, he shares his enjoyment of the product he’s been consuming. He uses terms like ‘guzzlable,’ and I can relate to that, as opposed to, ‘Maybe this should be cellared for the next five or six years.’ With so many wine writers, there’s an air of arrogance. Jurgen doesn’t do that. He says, ‘I tried this wine, and God it was good.’ ” As a consequence, McWatters says, Gothe’s opinion is valued. “I don’t know of anyone in the industry that’s ever said a negative word about him.”

Gothe calls a lot of what passes for wine writing “fairly pretentious.” Maybe other critics can taste 15 different things in a wine, he says. “Or maybe they’re just covering their ass. I pick just one or two descriptors. I identify with ordinary people when it comes to wine, and ordinary people don’t taste wine—they drink it. And at the end of the day, when I’ve done the tasting, I like to sit down with a bottle of wine and say not ‘Why is this good?’ but ‘I like this. It makes me feel good. It makes me happy.’ ”

MOST PEOPLE REMEMBER where they were when the World Trade Center crumbled. Gothe was driving across the Lions Gate Bridge. When he arrived at his office, there was a message from his doctor. The biopsy was back. Could he come in for a chat? “I phoned and said, ‘Just tell me over the phone. After today, how bad can it be?’ ”

Bad enough that his cancer, of the prostate, would take six months of chemotherapy, six of hormone therapy, and another six of radiation, plus surgery, to beat. “They tell me they’re pretty confident they got it all, but eventually it’s going to get me. It could be a while, though. I hope it’s a while.”

In the meantime, Gothe had to face more immediate threats: loss of his income (he took only four weeks off DiscDrive), and his bankable palate—the chemo drugs wiped it out, and he was terrified his sense of taste might be gone forever. Before chemo began, he built up months of wine-tasting notes—“I was drunk most of the time”—in his meticulously organized binders, which go back to the Western Living days. But his palate gradually returned with his health. You can call that luck, but the Okanagan’s McWatters, for one, chalks it up to Gothe’s optimism. “I think he’s here today because he had such a positive attitude. He just beat it.”

Gothe and his wife had been scouting for property in the Gulf Islands, and the cancer stepped up their search. By 2004, they’d found their home on Mayne and begun the long transfer of their lives and their many, many things from their Alberni Street apartment. Most of his loves are in the charming, cluttered upstairs living room: Kate and Chloe, of course (missing is their daughter Colette, a server at Joe Fortes), but also good music (his CD collection numbers in the tens of thousands), fine wine (there are, say, 700 or 800 bottles in the cellar downstairs, which is about what wine agents send him each year), rich food. All around are the treasures of two voracious collectors: tchotchkes in casual disarray on every surface, every wall. A music-box decanter in the shape of a carriage. A recipe for anchovied eggs. A clock that runs backwards. A standup bass built from a kit.
With the lights of Vancouver dim across the Strait of Georgia, it feels like the right time to unplug, the chirr of frogs infinitely preferable to the daily grind of traffic, a trip to the recycling depot better than a trip to the broker’s. And for all the successes at CBC (including highest ratings in Canada, and an unmatched three golds from the New York International Radio Festival), Gothe leaves DiscDrive with little more than memories. “I always thought, ‘I can’t go on staff, because that means I can’t go work for any other radio station.’ In retrospect, would I have gone on staff? Yes, because now I’d be pulling down a rather nice pension. But you can’t undo that. I was so neurotic about losing flexibility and freedom, which I’d had all my working life. In retrospect, it was a bit dumb.”

In retirement, and until the whodunit royalties roll in, he imagines a career producing and marketing theatre in a city that does the former well but the latter badly. (He’s produced and acted in a couple of stage shows, with more pending.) Or taking a page from DiscDrive and musing freeform for a living. “I’ve always thought that my ideal job would have been to sit in a room somewhere and come up with ideas. By the end of the week, I have to come up with three ideas that have a possibility of being converted into some kind of reality. One of them could be a concert of drum music, one could be a skyscraper, and one could be a whole new way of cooking turkey.”

And then, of course, there are those novels he put on hold in 1985.

“ I’m one of those people who always thought anything I really wanted to do, I could do,” he says, sipping eau de vie.

“ I still feel that today.”

[list:#|Food, Wine and Music Picks from Jurgen Gothe]

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