Profiles

REASON TO LOVE: Because taxi-driving troubadour William Hawkins taught the city how to rock n’ roar

This article was originally published in the September 2015 edition of Ottawa Magazine

William Hawkins. Photography: Bill Grimshaw

Call it a Cinderella story: poet and songster catches fame in the late 1960s thanks to involved lyrics, melodies that carried the freight, and poems that howled from lampposts.The city recognized William Hawkins as an Outstanding Young Man in 1965; the Ottawa Citizen likened him to Bob Dylan.

The latter distinction was more fitting (he reputedly used the city plaque to divide hashish). He dropped acid with Leonard Cohen and partied with Jimi Hendrix. Bruce Cockburn says Hawkins encouraged him with his songwriting.

“I learned how to play guitar from Bruce, so it wasn’t a one-way street,” says Hawkins, who turned 75 this year.

William Hawkins. Photography: Bill Grimshaw

Hawkins penned a hit single for The Esquires, recipients of the first RPM Award, the precursor to the Junos. He performed at Pierre Trudeau’s victory party in 1968 and published poetry at pace with the rising stars of Canadian letters. Then things fell apart. It was 1971. Details are hazy.

“There were too many balls in the air,” Hawkins says. “In that environment, you end up drinking a lot and taking all kinds of strange drugs. I ended up in the hospital.”

He gave up drinking and fame and started driving for Blue Line.

“I met a lot of wonderful people,” he says. Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson was a customer and friend, as was politician Roger Gallaway.

“Mainly Liberals. I don’t do so well with Conservatives,” Hawkins gibes.

Over 300 people were on hand when he stepped back into the spotlight in 2005 with Dancing Alone, a volume of selected poems. A tribute album of the same name followed in 2008, featuring, among others, Cockburn, Lynn Miles, and Murray McLaughlin.

This year marks yet another milestone: a definitive volume of his poems. The Collected Poems of William Hawkins has been generating a lot of interest for publisher Chaudiere Books and is making waves in Canadian literary circles.

“It’s surprising,” Hawkins says of the attention. “That’s one of the reasons I started writing songs. I didn’t think anyone was reading poetry.”

William Hawkins. Photography: Bill Grimshaw