Wayne Flebbe is having one hell of a time picking last year's best album. Ask him the question and his eyes widen, seemingly stunned as if images from his mental catalogue of 2011 releases are flashing rapidly before his eyes. He stares off deep into the ether.
"Oh wow. Favourite." He gives an exasperated sigh. "That's a hard one, you know. I've got a lot of favourites. Ooooooh." He places a hand to his temple and rolls the pads of his fingers on the small curls of his greying hair. "That's a hard one isn't it? I couldn't pick a favourite album."
And there's no doubt. The man is a music junkie of extraordinary proportions. For his 60th birthday this week, his friend Ace McKay-Smith is throwing a special edition of Big Sexy Funk 45 at the FireRock to celebrate his eclectic taste. His CD collection consumes an entire wall in his spare bedroom, and another quarter of the adjacent wall. His LP collection is stacked on a bay of shelves in his living room, storing thousands of vinyl records. Beside the shelves are more racks filled with 45s, some of them dating back to '60s, when he first discovered rock and roll.
And these are just the physical copies that he owns. There's a whole other continent located on the hard drive of his computer.
Since his brother Rick died suddenly in 2009 from a brain tumour, he's had no access to a vehicle, and therefore no access to Vancouver where most of his collection was purchased. For the 20 years before that, he and Rick would take weekly trips to the city and return with stacks of CDs of the latest music.
The brothers were inseparable. If you saw one at a live show in Whistler, the other wouldn't be far away. Rick was Wayne's protector, his unofficial guardian and his best friend. He relied on Rick for just about everything and together they fed Whistler bars with the latest and greatest music. It's a legacy that's easy to overlook but important not to.
Now, having hit 60 on Tuesday, Wayne has found his independence. He lives on his own in a refurbished basement suite in Alpine. The living room is decorated like a boutique record store: Debbie Harry's silhouetted face is displayed atop the crate of 45s. A signed poster of the Airborne Toxic Event adorns one wall. Music magazines sit in neat piles around the apartment and biographies of David Bowie, Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones are displayed purposefully on ledges under his rounded coffee table in the centre of the room.
His knowledge is encyclopedic. He could hold his own in a game of musical Jeopardy! in a Williamsburg bar full of hipsters, if such a thing exists. Yet he can't pick a favourite album of 2011. In thinking about it, he flips through the music library on the computer, flashing recent albums by Frank Ocean, Fucked Up and Future Islands. Atlas Sound filters through the speaker woofers and segues into Jay-Z and Kanye West's "Niggas in Paris."
Wayne's one of the more recognizable figures in town. He's affectionately known as "Disco Stu" to complete strangers, despite a style that is blatantly hipster — the skinny black jeans, the poof of curly, greying hair, the Coke-bottle eye glasses, the purposefully mismatched Chuck Taylors. He can be seen at every single live show — usually the oldest guy in the room, a touch out of place among the 20 to 30-somethings — with a camera in hand. The only evidence that this is a man pushing old age is the greying at his temples and the hearing aids occupying both his ears.
And as far as he knows, he holds the crown for top music junkie in town. He's never met another who could beat him (and neither have we).
Born in Chilliwack, he and Rick moved to Vancouver in the '70s. In the '80s, they were well-known regulars on the live music circuit, often hitting concerts every night. They were the subjects of several newspaper features, thanks in no small part to Rick's cowboy get-up and alpha personality.
In 1988, they moved to Whistler so Rick could start the first postcard business. Together they ran the company — Rick handling all creative and business aspects, Wayne making deliveries. During Whistler's heyday in the '90s, Rick also worked as a promoter and was instrumental in bringing live shows through town.
"I miss those days," Wayne says. "Like in Buffalo Bills... you could see live music almost every night. It was the good old days."
At least four times a week, starting at 1 p.m., Rick and Wayne would make their rounds through the village. They'd stop by some pre-determined bar, drop off the latest mix CD that Rick and Wayne had carefully created from the stacks of albums they had recently purchased, and over beers, chat with the bar staff about the music.
Wayne still lives by this routine. Bar staff in the village have come to depend on his visits. By 5 p.m., he's picked up his groceries and he heads home to make his dinner and, naturally, tend to his ever-expanding music collection.
"Music has always been a big part of my life," he says.
It's noon and he's sipping a vodka and water. The ice cubes clink against the sides of the glass when he moves, in his characteristic jerky manner, about the room, to show off some piece of memorabilia.
The vodka, he says, is to help calm his nerves. Even though he's been in newspapers before, this is the first time he's been the sole focus of a feature.
"My brother was always the one being interviewed and having the feature on," he says. "And now —" he sighs. "My brother did say shortly before he passed away that it's all about me now. It was about him but it's about me now."
He stares off into the ether again. Light streaming in from the window of his music room glimmers off the moisture in his eyes. The moisture wells and threatens to spill over the sides.
The ghost of Rick Flebbe haunts this house. Every corner of the room seems to hold some memory of Wayne's brother. Pictures hang on hooks on most of the walls. Three of his cowboy shirts hang in a row above the racks holding Wayne's 45s.
"It was not expected," Wayne says. "Health-wise it was the best he'd been. It was just something that was unexpected. In here." He points to his temple. "A tumour. Not a cancerous tumour but a benign tumour that got bigger. It would have been fine if it stayed small like it had been since he was a ...a baby," his emotions getting the better of him for a moment. "It got bigger and he had a heart condition."
He laughs nervously and sucks the air in through his teeth, supporting the top of his wrist on his hip so his fingers point loosely at the ceiling. The tears threaten to spill ever more urgently.
Rick's passing was sudden and Wayne was left with very little. He didn't know how to use a computer and had only the vaguest idea of what the Internet was. No credit card, no bank account, and no driver's license, which meant no access to new music.
"It was like an elderly couple, when one goes the other's not far behind, do you know what I mean?" says Harrison Stoker, one of several people who knew both Rick and Wayne from their rounds and who stepped in to take care of Wayne after Rick died. "I kind of identified that right off the bat and thought, 'Whoa, I got to keep this guy busy with the stuff that he loves.'"
Rick left Wayne an inheritance, including the postcard business, but it took about a year for the money to come through.
"I had to teach him how to get his music for free basically because he couldn't afford to buy CDs anymore, and without music he was toast," Stoker says.
Stoker, along with McKay-Smith and Adam Wilson, helped Wayne secure some sense of independence. They'd help with the menial talks — laundry, garbage, etc. Stoker helped him buy a laptop and taught him how to use it.
"He didn't know what a spacebar was. It was crazy," he says.
But today, Wayne downloads all his own music. He subscribes to Internet radio. He streams movies online. The Internet is now officially the supplier to feed his addiction. He lives off the income from the postcard business, which gives him just enough money to live comfortably, but even still he's eager to sell it off.
"It's too much work for one person," he says. "I couldn't get anybody to help me out. Some of the people I know, they have their own life. We can't get just anybody. Nope. I can't trust anybody who's a stranger. It's too hard!"
And once it's sold, he'll be officially retired. There'll be nothing at all to distract him from the only passion he's ever had. I ask him if he plans on moving back down to Vancouver where he can have access to more frequent live music.
He shakes his head.
"I'm always going to be here," he says. He's sitting on his computer chair, clutching the end of the armrest with one hand and the vodka-water in the other. His shoulders are hunched forward as if he's caving in on himself and he's bathed in pale sunlight from his living room window. "I'm not going to go anywhere else. There's no place else to go. I'll just stay here."