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The Ambitions Of David Grimes

That master of autobiographical fiction, Thomas Wolfe, once told us you can’t go home again. For him, home was Asheville, N.C. The son of a stone carver whose creations dotted local cemeteries, Wolfe may have feared that ghosts from his past would hinder his art even as they fed it.

Ipswich native, David Grimes, had no particular fear of ghosts when he returned to Ipswich from Toronto, Canada, in 1986.

The second son and third child of the late Dr. Arthur and Connie Grimes, David grew up on Ipswich’s South Side. Following in the footsteps of his maternal grandparents, both classical piano teachers (and against the initial objections of his parents) David was determined, at a young age, to pursue music.

Leaning Towards The Classical

While some Clam Town contemporaries of his era, like Mike Girard and Stacy Pedrick, went the rock route, David’s tastes ran more towards classical and the Big Band sounds of Glenn Miller and Stan Kenton. In his high school days, his instrument of choice was the trombone, befitting his lanky frame.

That pursuit brought him first to Boston’s renowned Berklee College of Music, where he majored in classical arrangement and composition. After receiving his undergraduate degree, he then headed to the University of Toronto.

While some Americans ended up in Canada due to opposition to the Vietnam War, Grimes, who had drawn a virtually untouchable draft lottery number, 317, was there primarily for the music. The University of Toronto had North America’s second-oldest electronic music studio (after Columbia) and was an electronic genre hothouse.

Excelling In His Field

To say that Grimes thrived in Toronto would be an understatement. In 1976, he won the prestigious National Radio Competition for Young Composers. By 1977, he was co-hosting a popular radio program on the CBC called “Two New Hours.”

In 1971, he, along with musical legends like Order of Canada recipient David Jaeger, the late Larry Lake, and James Montgomery, founded The Canadian Electronic Ensemble – today the oldest continuously performing live electronic group in the world.

The Canadian Electronic Ensemble in the 1970s. David Grimes is front right. Other members are Larry Lake (front left) and rear from left: James Montgomery and David Jaeger. The two men in the rear are still playing with the group (courtesy photo).

He and his wife, fellow Ipswichite Sharon (Carter) Grimes, acquired many friends and produced three offspring. Their Toronto roots went deep.

A Return To Clam Town

Yet, in 1986, they left all that behind to return to Ipswich. I recently caught up with David at home to ask a simple question: Why?

Displaying his dry sense of humor, David, now 72, said, “My standard answer is that I wanted my kids to have the same disadvantages that I had.”

David Grimes

“But in reality, there were also family considerations. Sharon’s dad, Leyland Carter, had passed away, and it was an opportunity to help out Helen, her mom. Plus Ipswich is a beautiful place to be. So I decided to continue my (musical) career in Ipswich.”

A Move To Teaching

By most measures, that career move would be judged a success. He has taught at his alma mater, Berklee College of Music, and is currently on the faculty at Northeastern. He has been active as a composer, arranger, and sound designer, both working on his own and in collaboration with others, producing musical backdrops for games, films, and corporate events.

While I am no expert on music — I flunked flutophone at Winthrop School — I find his ability to select voice clips and match them with musical accompaniment in pieces like his “#28: The Draft Lottery” to be deeply moving.

What He Left Behind In Canada

Looking back, did he ever have any regrets returning to Ipswich? After all, he was a celebrity in Canada, to the extent that he is remembered there to this day.

“Sure, at some levels I occasionally regret leaving, musically and personally. We have many friends there,” he said. “When I went to Toronto, I had a pretty typical view at the time that I was entering a kind of white Mounties’ kind of place. What I found was one of the most diverse cities anywhere.”

Can You Ever Go Home Again?

But it was clear, as he rattled off the names of our mutual Ipswich-era friends, he feels comfortably home — even though the town itself has changed immensely.

“The Ipswich I left had a working-class feel. It had an Irish parish; a French parish; a Polish parish. Those are gone. The town I came back to had not only grown in population, but had become so expensive that some who grew up there couldn’t afford to live there,” he added.

He paused. “At one point, I went to a town meeting and hardly saw anyone I knew. That’s how much things have changed.”

That’s the way it is. Leaving the town where you grew up and returning years later is a little like stepping into a river — it is never the same twice.

But as John Updike wrote 1972 about Ipswich, “A town starts out being anyplace, but ends up being The Only Place.” 

Sounds like a good starting point for a new David Grimes composition.

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About The Author
Robert Waite
Robert Waite
Robert is Managing Director at Waite + Co., a communications firm with offices in Boston, Ottawa and Toronto. He also teaches at Seneca College. He has more than 35 years experience leading communications, marketing and government relations functions for some of North America’s largest firms, including Ford, IBM, CAE, CIBC and Canada Post. He served as Press Secretary to Senator Edward W. Brooke (R-MA) and Senator Bob Dole (R-KS) and in the Reagan Administration. He is a three-time winner of the New England Press Association’s Best Column Award. He can be reached at [email protected].
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