In their prime, Newfoundland folk rock band Great Big Sea was a bestselling music group, and was once known as Canada’s biggest party band. Singer and musician Séan McCann spent 20 years of his life as a founder of Great Big Sea.
But all that partying was a convenient cover for McCann’s alcoholism — and the drinking was his way to tamp down the trauma of abuse that he carried with him since his teenage years. It was only when his wife Andrea Aragon gave him the ultimatum, “Stop or I’m leaving,” that McCann changed his life for good.
McCann and Aragon are the co-authors of One Good Reason, a memoir about music, addiction and recovery. They spoke to Shelagh Rogers about writing the book.
Where we’re from
McCann: “My people are from Northern Bay and Gull Island. I got the privilege of growing up in both St. John’s and around the bay.
“Newfoundland is divided into two populations — townies, which is the city-state of St. John’s — and everyone else who live in our ports around the island, who are called baymen.
“Back when I was growing up, there was always religion. It was always a big part of our society and our culture and determined who we were allowed to hang out with and date and things like that.”
Aragon: “I don’t remember a whole lot, but what I do remember is when I became a young adult, from the ages of 10 to 14, I distinctly remember knowing some certainties in my life —one being that my father was very angry most of the time.
“My mother was mostly disconnected most of the time. But to the outside world, and to everybody else, everything was fine in our family. I want to say faking it, but there was a lot of just getting by.”
The shadow of the church
McCann: “I grew up in the shadow of the church. My parents were good people, they were decent people. They loved me very much. I’ve come to believe in the theory of intergenerational trauma and that emotional trauma can be passed down through the generations.
“I think the church played a large role in enabling what happened to me. I was abused when I was 16 years old by a priest who we had come to trust. But my parents were conditioned to a state of compliance to just not see what was really happening. I believe that indoctrination is a dangerous thing.
I’ve probably forgotten more than I remember. I’m not proud of that.– Séan McCann
“The priests were the rock stars of the day. No one was cooler or a bigger or stronger than the local priest, Monsignor or bishop. They were the gatekeepers between you and God, we believed that 100 per cent. When this priest became involved in my life, we met in the confessional. I met him by confessing my 15-year-old sins to him — that’s how he chose to strike up a relationship. Which, in retrospect, was a huge red flag.”
Road to recovery
McCann: “I’ve probably forgotten more than I remember. I’m not proud of that. We did promote the ‘kitchen party’ brand. I think we coined the term ‘kitchen party.’ I think we can take credit for that. The band started before we had videos, but after the cod moratorium collapsed in 1992, Newfoundland started to embrace its economic potential as a tourism destination. But we knew that there were Newfoundlanders everywhere and we knew that this was a feel-good brand. This, ‘You’re OK, I’m OK. Let’s just drink up.’
“We were able to sell that and aggressively market that in the form of Great Big Sea. We had a great time doing it and we all worked really hard.”
I almost lost my family. The consequences were extreme.– Séan McCann
Aragon: “Before we had children and before I got pregnant, I would go with Séan as often as I could because I had moved to Newfoundland in 2003. That’s when they were touring a lot. He was gone more than he was home. And I was in this foreign place in the North Atlantic.
“He would take me with him whenever he went. We had a great time. I was a great drinking pal for him, and he for me. And if we were home we would sleep until noon, have something to eat, lay around, go out party until 4 a.m. and sleep until noon. It was amazing, it was fun. And then it got to be really not fun.
“The night that he quit drinking I did actually give him an ultimatum that night. But that’s the night that he quit drinking because he hasn’t had a drink since.”
McCann: “I always celebrate that day because it’s my recovery day. But I know that day was a devastating day. I almost lost my family. The consequences were extreme. I managed to do it and made the right decision — and will be forever grateful that she gave me the last chance.”
Séan McCann and Andrea Aragon’s comments have been edited for length and clarity.