Over his 69 years of life, Flin Flonners young and old had a hard time ignoring Tony Sulisz.
The musician and local personality passed away on May 26, just days after his 69th birthday.
Sulisz was perhaps best known in the community for the many years he spent playing his guitars on Main Street, becoming one of Flin Flon’s best known and beloved figures in the process.
The son of a tailor who immigrated to Flin Flon from eastern Europe, Sulisz became obsessed with music and the guitar at an early age.
In his teenage years, Sulisz was an intriguing figure. Well over six feet tall and blessed with skills on the guitar, Sulisz was always hard to forget. He started teaching guitar around that time.
Local musician Doug McGregor first met Tony when the two were in high school.
“He was ahead of me a couple of grades. We didn’t hang out or nothing, but when I was 10, 12 years old, I would hear his band play at the [Royal Canadian] Legion. My dad and grandpa were involved in family stuff there and they would hire Tony’s band to play,” McGregor said.
“He was also a straight-A student. He was an excellent pool player. Back then, we spent a lot of time shooting pool and he was one of the better guys in town, without a doubt.”
It was through shooting pool that Greg East met Sulisz. A long-time Flin Flon resident, landlord and community figure, East estimated he first met Sulisz in 1965.
“We got to meet at Royal Billiards. We were both there avoiding schoolwork and hanging out there more than we should have,” he said.
“Everybody has a good Tony story,” said Monique Rainville, a Flin Flon-based artist and painter who met Sulisz when she was young.
Rainville recalled the first time she ever heard a rock-and-roll song in person, it was Sulisz who played it.
“I was like six or seven years old. He was a friend, my sister’s boyfriend was his best friend. At Christmas, he came to the house and he played a Rolling Stones song for us – “Satisfaction.” It was so cool. I’d never heard somebody play the guitar like that.”
Like many guitarists, Sulisz took cues from his idols. However, the players he idolized weren’t rock stars – they were virtuoso players like Andres Segovia, Lenny Breau and Chet Atkins.
As an adult, Sulisz custom-ordered two Ramirez guitars from Europe – the same kind his idol Segovia played – at a cost of thousands of dollars.
“He had them built for him, insured with Lloyd’s of London and shipped to Flin Flon. At the time he bought them, they were $3,000 or $4,000 each, in the ’70s,” said East.
McGregor would sometimes play with Sulisz, including a song that could be played as a duet – Chet Atkins’ “Windy and Warm.”
“He must have showed it to different people, taught it and showed them the tune. I learned it through other people who had learned it from him. It was one tune that me and Tony could play as a duet. So on Main Street, if I sat down with him, that was one thing we could play,” said McGregor.
In a time before widespread knowledge and awareness of mental illness, Sulisz’s behaviour became more erratic after he finished high school. His music began to change.
Rumours began circulating around Flin Flon about the cause of the change in Sulisz’s behaviour – rumours that McGregor and East deny.
What can’t be denied is that, as Sulisz became older, his behaviour became more and more erratic. He lived in his father’s old shop on Main Street, the walls lined with guitars and musical artifacts.
Over the years, more and more often, Sulisz started the practice that arguably made him most known to Flin Flonners – plugging in his guitar and amp and playing for pedestrians. He would play in multiple areas, sometimes playing on the front step of his dad’s shop or at the Sears or SAAN stores on Main Street, where Red Apple is now.
“He would be there almost every day with his amplifier and guitar. People were accustomed to seeing him there, and when he wasn’t there anymore, eventually, people asked about him,” said East.
“Some people said they felt cheated if they came back to town and they didn’t see Tony – ‘Where the hell is he?’”
Occasionally, Sulisz found work outside of his music. After a stint working in the smelter, Sulisz took the money he earned and spent it on new guitars.
Some days, the music was pleasant background noise, and included collaborations with other musicians. On other days, the music seemed like Sulisz’s main way to communicate with the world.
“It just got further down as time went. Music was always the key – you could always talk to Tony about music,” said McGregor.
McGregor said the medication Sulisz began taking for his condition impacted his ability to play.
“He did say to me quite a few years ago, ‘Doug, I get lost on these longer pieces. Part of it is the medication I’m on – I can’t focus. It’s hard to focus,’” recalled McGregor.
“So he would play songs that, as time went on, would start to meander. As he got deeper in mental illness and the meds, he had a very hard time focusing on things.”
Later, Sulisz became harder and harder to understand in conversation. His moods became unpredictable.
“Most people, as time went on with Tony, even myself included sometimes, didn’t want to talk with Tony as things got worse. His conversations were kind of out there. You’d have a hard time comprehending. Most people didn’t want to have much to do with him,” said McGregor.
Eventually, even Sulisz’s main method of communication – his music – deteriorated. The sweet music gave way to something noisy and atonal.
“If you stopped on the street and tried talking to him with his guitar and his amp, he would say something along the lines of, ‘I can’t get the guitar in tune.’ He was perpetually unable to do that, which was really something that was going on in his mind as much as with the guitar,” said East.
“He was playing the same thing over and over, trying to get it exactly right. Eventually, what he could do disappeared and he was just doing the ‘can’t get it in tune’ thing.”
“His head just couldn’t put it together. He couldn’t string together those notes anymore,” said Rainville.
At some point in the 2000s, Sulisz stopped heading out on Main Street for good after spending parts of four decades as Flin Flon’s most visible busker.
Sulisz later suffered a stroke and spent the last several years of his life in the Northern Lights Manor. Some of his old guitars were sold off to raise money for his care.
People he knew in the past would occasionally come in to visit him or bring him outside the home to look around the community.
East would take Sulisz out for lunch and a drive once every few weeks, while McGregor and his partner, Ann Ross, would invite Sulisz for dinners and join him at the manor.
“We could communicate with one another. He would invite me to the manor for special occasions and I went a few times. I was one of his friends,” said East. “When he had to move into the Northern Lights Manor, I would come visit him. I’m not going to pretend I was a doting friend or as good a friend as I should have been – I wasn’t.”
In May, Sulisz was taken to a show held by McGregor and Ross at their home. At the show, Sulisz was presented with a reproduction of a painting by Rainville of him playing on the front step of his father’s shop. Three days later, McGregor and Ross stopped by the manor to give him the picture.
Not long after that, Sulisz died.
Thinking back, East remembers how the community embraced Sulisz. While the public may not have fully understood him or what he was going through, people were always quick to help Sulisz.
“I don’t know if earlier treatment could have helped Tony, but I do know the community was very supportive of Tony,” said East.
“I saw him fall over one time in the street in the winter. Tony was a big guy, 250 pounds and 6’4” or 6’5”, so I pulled my car around, got out and tried to help him get up. Before I could get back to where he was, two other people were already helping him, not even necessarily people that he knew.”
Recently, McGregor found a guitar magazine with the printed music of an old favourite inside – the Chet Atkins version of “Windy and Warm,” the same tune he and Sulisz played together in duet.
McGregor had last played the song for Sulisz at his home last December.
“I heard a guy play it about a year or so earlier and I thought, ‘Man, there’s a lot in that I haven’t played,’” said McGregor.
With Sulisz gone, McGregor’s is missing his partner’s part on the tune. “I’m now learning the pieces that are missing from this piece of music.”
“Tony was good for the community,” said East. “We loved him. I think nobody really disliked Tony. He wasn’t picked on, I don’t think. Even young people respected the fact that he was different and that he was iconic.
“He will be missed.”