In August 1984, someone put their hands around Lenny Breau’s neck, squeezed the life out of him and dumped his limp body into a swimming pool.
And that is what first tweaked Pierre Brault’s theatrical interest.
But when the Ottawa-based playwright and actor started investigating, he soon discovered Breau’s life was much more interesting than his death.
“World famous guitarists will tell you that when Lenny came along there was nothing like him,” said Brault. “And there hasn’t been since.”
But most people have never heard of him.
Brault remembers being “gobsmacked” after grabbing Breau’s Five O’Clock Bells at a secondhand CD store a number of years ago.
“I’d never heard anything like it,” he said. “I thought, ‘How many guys are playing? It can’t be just one guy,’ which is a very common occurrence for people who listen to Lenny for the first time.
“So I had that Lenny moment – he’s either that person you’ve never heard of, or to hear him is to love him.”
Born in Maine to professional country-and-western musicians Hal Lone Pine and Betty Cody, Breau grew up playing guitar, and by the time he was 15 he was four times better than the guitarist in his parents’ band. So he replaced him.
Breau was still playing with his folks when the family moved to Winnipeg and caught the interest of a teenage Randy Bachman. The two boys became friends and Breau taught Bachman to play guitar.
“But nobody ever could, or will play like Lenny Breau,” said Brault, mentioning Breau’s uncanny way of finding harmonics – if they didn’t exist, he created them.
And that search for harmony is an undercurrent in Brault’s production Five O’Clock Bells. Breau was always trying to fit in, said Brault, mentioning the troubling relationship he had with his father Pine.
“I think Pine had greater ambitions that were unfulfilled,” he said. “And Lenny had greater talent, but less ambition.”
After leaving the family band, Breau started playing jazz in Toronto, Ottawa and New York City. It was the 1960s, and like most jazz guys at the time, he started dabbling in drugs, including heroin.
“It was common,” said Brault. “I mean, Anne Murray’s whole band was doing it.”
But Breau was not a common guy.
“He was a true innocent,” said Brault.
“Lenny could play guitar – name any song and he could play it – he could play it inverted – he could play it upside down.
“But he couldn’t write a cheque or even feed himself, because he spent 10 to 15 hours a day on that instrument, to the exclusion of many other things.
“That was the key problem with Lenny, he couldn’t understand anything outside of that fretboard, which led to a disastrous string of relationships and allowed him to be pulled into drugs easily.”
The saddest thing is that Breau had just gotten his life back together and had been clean for a few years when he was murdered, said Brault.
His wife Jewel Breau was the prime suspect, and that’s who Brault points a finger at, but the case remains open.
“Think of possibilities of what we lost and will never have again, just because someone wanted to play God,” he said.
Brault, trying to tie up the pieces of a relatively undocumented life, happened to stumble across an article by a guy who was writing a biography on Breau, and the author was kind enough to send him his manuscript, which had more than 200 interviews.
Brault latched onto seven key characters who he believed were the most important people in Breau’s life and matched them with the strings on Breau’s seven-string guitar. “So I sound off each string to try and create Lenny’s voice as he would do on the guitar with artificial harmonics,” he said. “And I create Lenny out of that negative space, so in some ways the audience itself becomes Lenny, as they’re being addressed by the characters.”
It’s a different biographical approach, but for a man of few words and much music, it works, said Brault.
Each night, after telling Breau’s story, Brault is approach by people who’ve never heard of the jazz genius and plan to listen to some of his music. And, he’s approached by audience members who have their own Breau stories of seeing him play, or lending him money. Of letting Breau sleep on their couch, or getting high with him.
Performing the one-man show for Breau’s daughter was very emotional, said Brault. “But it’s also a way for many people to finally say goodbye, because his death was so sudden.”
Five O’Clock Bells is not easy to perform, he added. “It’s very emotionally draining, and people are very protective of Breau, because he was so innocent.”
The hope is to inspire “someone after the show to go and listen to a bit of Lenny Breau and appreciate what we lost,” said Brault. “Because we’ll never have it back again.”
Five O’Clock Bells is at the Yukon Arts Centre February 4 and 5. Shows start at 8 p.m.
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