Bill Dillon, who has played guitar with some of the biggest names around, knows first hand that music can save your life.
You probably don’t know the name Bill Dillon but you know the sound of his guitar.
You’ve heard “Showdown at Big Sky” by Robbie Robertson? Dillon. “Possession” by Sarah McLachlan? Dillon. Us by Peter Gabriel? American Caesar by Iggy Pop? For The Beauty of Winona by Daniel Lanois?
He played on all of them and worked with dozens more. No wonder photographer and filmmaker Dave Conlon approached Dillon to be the subject of a new documentary.
Yet Dillon, 70, agreed to the idea reluctantly. “I didn’t want to do the documentary,” he admits. “I’m still alive. I’m the one that did that stuff. To me it’s just part of ‘what did I wear yesterday.’ Just getting on with my days, year after year. Once you finish building a house, it’s just time to live in it.”
For Dillon, it’s about more than the famous names with whom he has rubbed shoulders. It’s more about how the universe led him to those people – the very same people whom, he says, helped save his life. A difficult childhood led him deep into music, philosophy, meditation and self-exploration.
“I underestimated the value of these experiences, you know?” Dillon says. “At the time, it seemed it was what people did in the ’60s. ‘Let’s do drugs and get spiritual and read heavy books.’ But for me, it wasn’t like that. It was a natural, desperate time to get out of the scenario [I was in]. I was 16, 17, 18 years old at the time. I was ready to take myself out. It was a real brutal lifetime up until then.”
Born in Toronto, Dillon’s family relocated to Grimsby, but the budding young musician would make his way all the way back to Toronto’s Yorkville to busk. Closer to home, he met musicians like Ian Thomas and Steve Hogg, played in local bar bands, and eventually crossed paths with a young Daniel Lanois. Lanois, who had just finished building Grant Avenue Studios, hired Dillon to play on several projects – including, eventually, the self-titled solo debut by one of his childhood heroes in The Band, Robbie Robertson. Dillon would play alongside Robertson for the next 15 years.
“The very first meeting, it’s Robbie, and Dan with me,” he recalls. “I sat down and grabbed an acoustic guitar and said, ‘Well I got this one song idea here …’ He wasn’t playing, Dan wasn’t playing, it was just me sitting on a chair staring at him with an acoustic guitar.”
Dillon has many such stories. The once self-described “emotionally autistic kid” was led from one superstar to another as if guided by fate. He recorded with Joni Mitchell because he unknowingly wound up playing a session with Mitchell’s then-husband.
His most remarkable story about synchronicity, however, does not involve famous names. Well, the set-up does: in the 1990s, Dillon joined The Boomers with old friend Ian Thomas. The Boomers, quite unexpectedly, had a hit single in Germany, so the band packed up for an extensive tour of the country. At one show, Dillon befriended a younger couple, and took them up on an offer to come visit in a nearby town. The visit soon turned heavy, as the young man stood up and proclaimed Dillon his favourite musician.
“He started pulling out CDs,” Dillion explains. “He said, ‘What you did on this song, and that song, it helped me not kill myself one night.’”
While amazed that he, himself, could mean so much to someone, he recognized how much it mirrored his own life – a young man who made it to the next day thanks to music.
“I got to meet and talk with and hang out with and share cigarettes and coffee and espresso and music and songs with these people much later in my life,” says Dillon. “It’s sort of pushing it by saying it was all preordained, it’s not really technically like that. It’s more that you know this is the path, that you sort of feel woken up, and it never goes away. It doesn’t matter what I do or what a bonehead I’m being, win or lose or fail, there’s been a synchronicity. Day after day, year after year.”
A Tale of Synchronicity
The Beatles were crucial to Dillon’s development as a musician, and none of them more so than George Harrison. Dillon refers to All Things Must Pass as a “game changer” in his life. Moreover, Dillon was also deeply interested in eastern spiritual practices. The Beatles learned from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi; Dillon, the teachings of the Self-Realization Fellowship and its founder Paramahansa Yogananda (who, along with other SRF figures, can be found in the crowd on the cover of Sgt. Pepper).
In 1988, Robbie Robertson invited Dillon to perform with him at the Festival di Sanremo in Italy. Robertson casually reported, en route, that Harrison and McCartney would be there. “I almost jumped off the plane,” Dillon says.
Dillon had a short conversation with Harrison when they crossed paths in the grand, marble-adorned lobby of the hotel, and then again after the show at a club. “There was no room at the table; we were squeezed in close,” he recalls.
Then the manager handed Dillon a “Tim Hortons’ coffee-sized roll of lira” and asked him to find them something to smoke. Mission accomplished, Dillon returned to Robertson’s suite, where eventually he found himself alone with the former Beatle.
“I was sitting literally hip-to-hip with George, putting chunks of hash on a safety pin,” he recalls. “I didn’t ask him how he played certain chords or what guitars he used. The first thing I said to him was about Yogananda. Eyeball to eyeball, noses almost touching, he grinned and his eyes dilated into these two big black holes and I started to tumble down them as we were talking and I had to snap myself back.”
There was also loose talk about a tour, but the business details never came through. “The synchronicity of that story is it’s not about Bill the musician. It was about my childhood with Yogananda bringing me to this person. The universe said ‘OK, George was one of the most important people in your spiritual development back then, here we go.’”
Need to Know
Name: Bill Dillon
Robbie Robertson: Robbie Robertson, Storyville, Music for the Native Americans, Contact From The Underworld of Redboy, How To Become Clairvoyant
Joni Mitchell: Misses, Dreamland, The Beginning of Survival, Love Has Many Faces
Peter Gabriel: Peter Gabriel, Us
Sarah McLachlan: Solace, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, Afterglow, Wintersong, Laws of Illusion
Also worked with: Dave Rave, The Shakers, Lee Harvey Osmond, Florida Razors, Daniel Lanois, Cowboy Junkies, Barenaked Ladies, Indio, Neville Brothers, Iggy Pop, Gowan, 10,000 Maniacs, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Crash Vegas, Edie Brickell, Gordon Lightfoot, and many more
On the forthcoming documentary, Bill Dillon: A Life of Synchronicity: “I started looking backwards and connecting the dots, and it really woke me up. If we do this documentary about synchronicity in my life, the choices I made and how the heart can actually guide you, we might help some person out there. We could use these big names and my quote-unquote career as the attraction, but I want people to glean out of this the value of the synchronistic events in our lives.”