Mar 10 2017

Bye Bye Mon HMV


Word is HMV is closing shop. This follows a trend that started over a decade ago and appears to be coming to a final curtain. Which is, the end of the chain record store.

For my entire life, record stores have been like church to me. They were where I went be around my favorite thing. Music. Which records, more than anything else, represented.

When I was a kid, we didn’t have a lot of money. Buying a new record was a pretty big deal. That didn’t stop me from hanging out at record stores. I’d spend hours just looking through the racks, reading the credits, making a mental wish list and just enjoying being around records. I remember gong to what many would call the fair, which in our case was a carnival, midway and exhibition called Klondike Days. There were rides and games and carnival food. There was also a marketplace and in it was a pop up record shop. Instead of going on rides or playing the games of chance, I would spend a big chunk of my time at Klondike Days just perusing the records, even though I didn’t have enough money to buy one.

The only time I almost stole something. There was a $2.99 sale at Kelly’s in Edmonton. Previous to this, my older brother John had bought both Masters Of Reality by Black Sabbath and the original Rock Opera version of Jesus Christ Superstar, the real one with Ian Gillan. I loved both of these records and played the crap out of them. In the sale bin there was Black Sabbath’s Paranoid and the original cast recording of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which I’d never heard of but was by the same guys who wrote and produced Superstar. I could only pick one so I went for Joseph. As it turned out, the Joseph record was a London cast recording of the stage play and kind of sucked. Or didn’t suck but wasn’t what I was expecting, which was a rock opera like JCS. Disappointed, I took the bus back into Edmonton the next week hoping I might be able to exchange it for Paranoid. I was a very nervous kid and edged my way up to the counter and said, “do you give refunds on the sale records?” to which the clerk of course said, “no”. I meant exchange. Feeling angry about it, I thought about tucking the Joseph record back into the bin and slipping the Sabbath record into my Kelly’s bag. But I didn’t. I went home and listened to the Joseph record 40 times to try and like it. Because that’s what you did when you could only buy a small amount of music, you gave it a chance.

Diversions were few when I was a kid. Television was terrible. So finding time to listen to music was easy. On those days that I actually had enough money to buy a record, I would take it home and listen to it. Not listen while I was doing something else. Just listen to the music. I would listen to any record I bought hundreds of times. This experience was not unique to me and I’m sure many reading who are of a ‘certain age’ can relate to what I’m saying. I remember an interview I once read with Pete Townsend where he talked about loving books. Just touching them and having them in your hands. I have also felt that way about books and book stores.

My obsession with records and record stores lasted well into my adult life, actually until very recently. When we were on the road, I’d go to the local Towers or whatever record store was handy and check out what they had that I couldn’t get back home. Sometime’s our record company would let us pick out a few CD’s after an in store and I would drive the band batty while I meticulously combed the bins to find exactly what I wanted. One of my big regrets is leaving a sealed, vinyl copy of Music From The Magic Christian by Badfinger under the mattress of my bunk on a tour bus.

When Sonic Boom opened in the Annex, I was there pretty much every day. At that point I was flipping through CD’s instead of vinyl but I was still spending an hour or so, checking out what they had and what I might be able to buy. This was post Napster. Some habits are hard to break.

I imagine people look at the generation that follows them and wonders if their experience of the world is as idyllic as their own. So I ask myself, are kids missing out on something because most of them never set foot in a record store? Most of them don’t buy music in the way we used to. (This doesn’t even address radio, which was another bounty of musical experience that shaped me as a kid).

Let’s examine how a young person might access music today. They can purchase music online without ever leaving their house. The catalog of recordings that is available through iTunes outstrips any record store from my youth. Then there are sites like Bandcamp, Reverbnation and Soundcloud where they can discover indy music. Finally there is YouTube where almost every recording known to man, not to mention live performances and more amateur music than you could listen to in a lifetime, exists. There is also Spotify, where kids can listen to music without having to empty their bank accounts to buy it. Just pay a few bucks a month to have access to a wide catalog of music.

If I think of a song, or am wondering about a song, or am trying to tell someone about a song, I can access any of these sites and be able to hear the song pretty much instantaneously. If I could have done this as a kid, you would have had to pry me away from my computer.

The downside, of course, is that the internet has devalued music. Because music was so ‘rare’ in terms of my ability to access it, I was happy to pay for it when I was able to. A kid once said to me, “if I had to pay for music, I wouldn’t have half the music that I do.” Yes, you would be me as a kid. I didn’t even have 1/50th of the music that I wanted.

So are things better now? I guess it’s all about context. Was my experience as a kid better than the experiences of a young music listener today? I’m going to say no. Here is what was bad about my experience. Early on, the supply of music wasn’t so vast and most music could be found in your local record store. As popular music grew and certain recordings became hyper successful, I’m talking about you Frampton Comes Alive and Saturday Night Fever, both record companies and retailers became fixated on making and selling recordings that would sell in huge quantities. So records that didn’t or stopped selling as many copies as labels and stores wanted them to, were deleted, banished to history and obscurity. This got worse and worse over the years. So finding a song like, Mr. Dyingly Sad by The Critters or Crazy Jane by Tom Northcott was virtually impossible unless you could find it in a used record store.

The internet has given people access to songs that have been abandoned by the powers that controlled music. This is the best part and is the part that trumps any nostalgia that I can conjure up about record stores. And while I may lament the closing of HMV and before them, Tower, A&A, Kelly’s and Cheapies, for my own personal reasons, it’s been replaced by something so magical, my younger self wouldn’t have been able to imagine it.

And the fall of the chain record store doesn’t mean the end of the record store. The resurgence of vinyl has created a boom for the independent record shop. So as much as I remember my youth with fondness, life for the music fan has never been better. Now for the musician….

Post Script. It is now looking like Sunrise Records might be buying some of the HMV locations. Not sure how they are planning to make that work but stay tuned, maybe this isn’t over?

Nov 4 2016

Where Have All The Protest Songs Gone

(In which Moe uses lots of italics to convey his irritation).

This blog will seem like its about something else for a few paragraphs but I assure you, this is not about the upcoming US election.

Not long ago, I was in a restaurant, sitting at the bar having dinner alone. To my left were two gentlemen, talking politics over beers. Their conversation was one you are hearing all the time right now, (Fall 2016). The gist was, the two candidates for president of the United States, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are, equally bad.

It doesn’t take much to find flaws in Mr. Trump, whether you are for or against him. And Secretary Clinton has some issues that have dogged her campaign. But I was curious as to why they thought Mrs. Clinton was equally bad. Notice, not an undesirable candidate or, has her own problems or flaws but, equally bad. From what I was able to infer from the tone and substance of the conversation, they thought she was equally bad because…. someone else had said that. They didn’t bring up anything in particular about her but just said she was bad. I also got a sense from their tone that, part of it was that she was a woman and there were things about the way she looked and acted in terms of how women look and act that made her equally bad.

I should say now that it was cheap wine night at the restaurant and I was fully engaged in that. And, possibly because of that, became more and more irritated by how moronic the conversation was. So I drunk Facebooked something about it. My post was admittedly a bit harsh. I got a fair amount of response to it. The majority of it was very supportive and a bit of it was not. That is to be expected when you say anything remotely political on Facebook. And it might have seemed out of character as I rarely post anything political on my page.

Some people took great offense, which I felt a bit bad about. I’m fairly moderate, politically speaking. I get that some people see the world differently than I do. And in hindsight, I regret the post and have deleted it. I don’t necessarily regret the sentiment but it was directed at the guys at the bar and not necessarily at anyone who might be reading. Which wasn’t obvious.

But there was a particular type of asshole who responded that I want to mention and this will get us to the heart of this piece.

Moe, you’re good at music but not very good at this. Stick to music.
Moe, you’re just not informed. If you were more informed, you wouldn’t post this.
Which always means, if I was informed, I’d agree with their opinion.

I checked these guys out to see if maybe they were journalists who worked the US political beat or maybe professors of American Politics. No, they were just Joe Average fuckwits. Which is to say, no more informed than I and possibly a good deal less so. I’ve had an amateur interest in politics for most of my adult life. I went through a phase where I read ferociously about politics, especially US politics. I must admit, it was a bit of a journey, I held some strange and immature views and it took decades to get to the point where I felt reasonably comfortable in my political skin. In my old age, I’ve become quite a bit less interested in the whole thing.

This is neither here nor there. What was so offensive was the implication that my obvious ignorance stemmed from the fact that I was a musician and that being good at music somehow meant that I wasn’t able to acquire knowledge about anything else, especially politics. This is an idea that has some legs. Regularly, I hear people call out any rock star or famous person who dares to express their political opinion as though the only people who are allowed to speak about politics are, the not famous people. (I guess the only famous people who can speak about politics are radio and television commentators.)

If I’m being honest, in the past, I may have thought this myself. But I have realized that little is gained for any famous person who speaks out about pretty much anything. And often, there is much to lose. And certainly, some famous people probably don’t know what they are taking about. Which would make them, as a group, about the same as any other group in society. Except that the risk involved in speaking out might make them more careful about what they say, so it’s possible that the percentage of idiotic and irresponsible opinions and statements by famous people might actually be lower than in the general population.

Some people think artists shouldn’t use their fame to expose political beliefs. What is it about being an artist that means they can’t participate in democracy? And one should know that, historically, artists have loudly spoken out and written about the state of the world.

In the sixties and into the seventies, every artist was saying something about the world around them. The term folk music was almost interchangeable with protest music. Even a group like Grand Funk, who many thought of as the One Direction of the time, promoted activism and wrote almost exclusively about environmental concerns and their opposition to war. This was pretty much standard with big artists as like the Jefferson Airplane, Stevie Wonder, even Chicago!! In the R&B community there were plenty of voices of activism and protest, The Isley Brothers, Marvin Gaye and, wait-it’s ridiculous to name artists as almost everyone had at least one political song in their repertoire. Then punk rock and hip hop came along, fueled by protest.

However, in the ’80’s, the so-called Me Decade, we started to see a lot less of this. Sure there was U2 and Midnight Oil, Sting and, occasionally Bruce Springsteen but largely we were being asked to pour some sugar on our artists and, into the ’90’s, to hit them one more time. Hip hop all but abandoned politics for consumerism and fantasy. And that’s okay, really. I don’t need to hear a steady diet of serious issues lyrics. But how about an occasionally protest ditty, especially when the times call for it?

Recently, when the anti-LGBTQ laws were being passed, the silence from the artistic community was, as they say, deafening. You heard plenty of noise from corporations who weren’t going to do business with States that enacted these laws but not a peep from our artists. This was one of the most confounding situations I have ever witnessed. The game had been dumped on its head. The traditional bad guys, the corporations, were now the good guys and the traditional agents of social change, artists, were cowering. The exceptions were Bruce Springsteen and someone else who I now forget. Two people.

No one helped Pearl Jam in their fight against Ticketmaster, admittedly not a political protest but certainly a populist one.

Having said all of that and based on the reaction to my post, it may be that the fault for this lies with the popular culture audience. We don’t want to hear it. And because of that, there is great risk involved with artists who speak out. Certainly the Dixie Chicks had excrement raining down on them for an off hand comment about George Bush. And I read a horrific story about the abuse singer Tim Mcgraw got for playing a Sandy Hook benefit to raise money for the protection of children from gun violence. He never even said he was against the Second Amendment, just wanted to help out people who had been through the most unspeakable terror. (a member of his band had a friend who lost a child in the Sandy Hook massacre). Even his own musical community publicly called him out. Coward and B list singer, Billy Currington who was touring with Mcgraw, dropped out of the concert. Mcgraw’s Twitter account was in flames with outraged NRA-inspired vitriol. In other news, supermodel, Chrissy Tegan’s Twitter account had to be closed down after she was attacked by these same people when she expressed her thoughts about the epidemic of mass shootings in the US.

So why would you want to bring that on yourself? And why would I want to set myself up for insult by a bunch of shit for brains know-it-alls whose mom bought them a PC?

Sad, really.

Aug 23 2016

The Tragically Hip


I just got home from watching the final Tragically Hip show. When the tour was announced, I had posted on Facebook that I thought it would be a great idea for the CBC or someone to televise the final gig. I felt that the coming together and celebrations that occurred across Canada would happen. Not that I had anything to do with it being televised but I am glad that the people who could make this happen did and that the people who could have prevented it, didn’t.

I watched it at The Bloor Cinema in Toronto, a place where I occasionally DJ before music movies. Its a wonderful theatre with a big screen, good sound and an intelligent, respectful crowd. So I figured there would be a minimum of yahoos wrecking my experience. It was a bit emotional, as I thought it would be. It certainly wasn’t a normal concert experience. Canadians from coast to coast were at a place like the Bloor Cinema or their local bar or at a friend with an amazing TV’s house or at a community centre, having a shared experience of watching Canada’s band play their last show. So there was a dark spectacle surrounding this-the idea that this amazing man was going to die and we were watching him do the thing we love to see him do for the last time. What does tomorrow look like for him and for us? The memory will likely haunt some people, it will haunt me.

IMPORTANT NOTE. The chronology of the following will be completely off.

The Hip and The Pursuit of Happiness, (and the Cowboy Junkies, Grapes of Wrath, some other bands) came of age around the same time. It was a great time for Canadian music and Canadian bands. We weren’t chasing anything, we were all being ourselves and that’s what led to all of our successes.

I’ve seen the Hip many times often because my band was sharing the stage with them and sometimes just as a fan. The first time was at the Copa, which was a dance club in Yorkdale that also featured concerts. When I moved to Toronto, I was amazed that there were concert tickets at record stores or clubs-free concert tickets. The Copa was one of the places that you could always find a free concert ticket-I saw Eric Burdon and Johnny Winter and lots of local bands. I recall, just after we recorded Love Junk, that we came home and played a Toronto Film Festival gig at the Copa, where our publicity person introduced me to Tiny Tim and Roger Ebert. But I think I saw the Hip before that.(?)

As I recall the show now, with the exception of Gord Downie, the band looked exactly the same as they did tonight. It’s as though it’s the next day and the band were wearing prosthetics that aged them. They all have the same hair and clothes that I remember from then. As it was for many, it was Gord Downie who caught my attention. I remember thinking there was a vague Stones-Doors idea here but the singer had some jump to him and I have always been a sucker for an engaging front man.

Not too long after that, we sort of blew open and went on a year long tour having pretty much the best time ever. One night in New York, Gord showed up at either a record company dinner or in a record company suite we were hanging out in. He’d come straight from the airport. He was was also in New York for a record company meeting. Where’s your luggage? He held up a Crown Royal bag then began pulliing out the contents, naming each item.

“A comb, a toothbrush and a fancy eating shirt, (a long sleeved button up shirt that he’d rolled up into the size of a large cigar). I’m not taking my boots off so I don’t need socks and the hotel with have shampoo.”

We all found this outrageously funny and, for years thereafter fancy eating shirts became part of the TPOH venacular.

The band’s full length, Up To Here came out somewhere around this time and was very successful. We did a New Years Eve show with them in Kingston and it was pretty fun and you could see they had something major going on. We got too drunk. My memory was taking a sip off of a Corona and involuntarily spitting it on Gord’s sister-in-law’s leg. She looked at me with pity and graciously decided not to make much of it. Unfortunately, TPOH’s early history is riddled with this kind of sorry behavior and disapproving looks from women. But that’s another story. At this point, I still thought we were kicking the Hip’s ass.

Every year Molson Park, just outside of Toronto was the scene of something called Edge Fest. Our slot was near the top of the bill but the Tragically Hip closed the show. Our tour bus was leaving and as I walked through the crowd to get to it, the Hip were launching into Blow At High Dough. Coming out of the intro as the band kicks into the song, “I can get behind everything’, the place just went crazy and it was just a sea of bobbing heads and I was thinking to myself, people fucking love the Hip. But whatever, we’re in Rolling Stone and People and Musician and every other magazine and I never hear about them down south. (years later, the band actually said this to us-hey you guys are always in the big magazines and they never have us. I thought, well a few critics, who don’t pay for records, like us and EVERY PERSON IN CANADA LOVES YOU. Not much of a trade.)

The band called me up one day and asked if I wanted to come over and listen to the mixes of their new album, which was going to be Road Apples. So I went and they put it on and we had some beers. I remember thinking it was a bit jammy, maybe it was going to be their sophomore jinx record. I liked it but I didn’t hear any songs that I thought were going to be, for lack of a better word, hits. Anyway, had a great time that night, one of their girlfriends started DJing playing cool stuff and I thought it was nice that they had me over. As it turned out, the sophomore jinx was going to be ours and Road Apples became a gigantic hit and any illusions I had that we were more popular or even AS popular as them vanished for good.

A radio station in Washington DC was doing a July 4th concert and thought it would be funny or something, to have a couple of Canadian bands play at it. Concrete Blonde was the headliner and The Hip and TPOH played in the afternoon. Someone had the idea to hire a tour bus for the gig and both bands would ride down together. Much Music came by just as we were leaving Toronto and asked if Gord and I would say a couple of words. Gord was not into this at all and gave a very cranky interview. I felt like I had to fit in with this vibe though I likely came off pretty inauthentic. We had a very fun trip to DC with lots of drinks and road stories. I think the Hip played before us and just slayed the crowd. We played next,  but it was obvious that they blew us off the stage. At the risk of sounding immodest, getting blown off the stage rarely happened to us. But it definitely happened that day.

Time went on and the Hip rose to legendary status. The biggest band in Canada by miles. We had moved to a new record label, Mercury Records after the president of Chrysalis, our old label had taken the helm there. The Hip were playing Ontario Place, which was a concert in the round with a revolving stage. It’s now the Molson Amphitheater. They asked us to open. This was just before we were about to head into the studio to do our third album, The Downward Road. Our record company decided to come and see us play so we opened with Hard To Laugh, played eight or so of the new songs and closed with Adult. That set list was one of the biggest regrets of my professional life. Who tries out their new material in front of 10,000 people in an OPENING SET? Gord came out to introduce us and it was a typical, poetic, angular Gord reading which apparently Kevin Drew from Broken Social Scene memorized and can still recite. The Hip should have told us to piss off after that stupidity but they continued to be nice to us then and in the years that followed.

Somewhere in all of this, we did a couple of benefit shows with them, one at the Phoenix and another at Fort Henry. At that show, I asked them if they would play Highway Girl, a song off their EP that I loved. The EP version is good but I had heard them play it live once and it rocked so hard it may have been my favorite thing they had done.  They said they’d play it for me at sound check but didn’t want to play it at the show as they were sick of it or something. It has one of those killer, hypnotic riffs that the band can mesmerize their audience with. I found out later there was a legendary performance of it where Gord tells a long story of a double suicide. Anyway, as I imagine it now, it was like I got a private performance of the song. That’s some good guys right there.

In later years, the Hip had us on a couple of their Another Roadside Attraction festival concerts and were always extremely gracious to us. At one of these shows, we received an ARA laundry bag that I used from that moment until if finally gave out about a year ago. We also opened a show for them in a field somewhere in Minnesota where Gord was just completely and utterly hallucinogenic, putting on the most bizarre and compelling show I think I ever saw him give. People talk a lot about how the Hip never ‘broke’ in the States but there was a large crowd that night loving every minute. My understanding is that they were pretty successful on a club level, probably more successful than a lot of Canadian bands who brag about how big they are in the States.

Back home, the band continued to be in a league of their own, (a cliche but in terms of popularity, during the peak of their career, they had no peers) and I slowly disengaged myself from show business, writing fiction and producing records. My writing led to me getting gigs doing book reviews and one day I was asked to review Gord’s book of poetry. Relieved that it didn’t suck I gave it a good review and it ended up on the front cover of the Globe and Mail Book Review section. So I have Gord to thank for that as it was clearly the subject matter and not my writing prowess that led to this honor.

So these are my Gord Downie/Tragically Hip stories. There are a few more, a favor or two that I asked for, which Gord fulfilled with grace. Some that I’ll likely remember after this is published.

No one could ever accuse the Hip of pandering or selling out. They played the music they wanted to and everyone loved it. Their success was a pure as it comes. Even the show tonight wasn’t a greatest hits show, they represented all of their albums. So if you’re looking for heroes, they are a good place to look. For people outside of Canada it would be hard to describe how connected they are to the fabric or psyche or some important word, of Canada. No other band could be broadcast on national TV and have the entire nation watch. No one. There is no bigger Canadian band and there is no band that more represents the Canadian music fan than the Hip. Neil Young and Joni Mitchell moved to California. Bryan Adams has never shown much of a connection to his homeland. The closest thing would be Rush but Rush are not popular with everyone like The Hip are.

The way they brought the country together tonight is like the Super Bowl or the Canada Russia Summit Series. It’s staggering. Each guy in the band can carry this night with them for the rest of their life. Tonight, they were the most important thing in Canada.

As a live band, they have no equal. They lull their audience into a state of hypnosis with their groove and then Gord takes the crowd on whatever journey he imagines that particular evening. I’m sure many fans have the equivalent of a religious experience at a Hip show. It’s a dying art, the live show. Live music is all show biz, vocals on tape, dancers, lights. That a band could take its recorded material to the next level in front of an audience and give them a unique experience of it-that doesn’t really happen much anymore.

Musically, the band seemed to grow with each new release. In my view, they made a gigantic leap on Trouble In The Henhouse, which is pretty cool considering it came halfway through their career. Which is to say, as popular as they were, they still pushed themselves to be better. The opening track, Gift Shop is in many ways classic Hip, a jammed out riff over which, Gord waxes poetic. But it was like they had finally perfected their ‘thing’. The opening is beautiful and spacey. Melodically, the song was more sophisticated than usual. Then, when the band kicks in, it rips into you as though you were watching them play it live. And Ahead By A Century may be their finest moment. Certainly my favorite Gord lyric and just an exquisite musical track.

Rumors are swirling that perhaps this wasn’t the last show. I’m not going to speculate on whether this may not be the end for the band. That’s not important now. Quite honestly, I’d be thrilled if Gord felt well enough at some point to play another show or two only because that would mean he felt healthy enough to do the thing he loves. I’d be thrilled if Gord was able to comfortably live longer than medical science might predict. I hope somehow he defies the odds. I hope he gets to spend more time with his children and his friends.

But if this is the end, how amazing was tonight? What those five guys accomplished tonight is historical. Like, where were you when, historical. Yes, tonight will haunt me.


Apr 26 2016

I Don’t Have Anything Profound To Say About Prince Dying.

Not sure how I first found out about Prince. I might have been listening to The Black Experience In Sound, which was a radio show on the University of Alberta’s radio station, CJSR. I’ve recently discovered that the host of the show was Cadence Weapon’s dad. TPOH’s drummer, Dave Gilby sold me 1999 at the discount he got at the record store he worked at. I played the crap out of it. Not only the vinyl but taped it and listened to it on my oversized Walkman as I walked to and from my job at Tops Supermarket on Whyte Avenue.

At the time, I was getting into funk, hip hop and all the black music that was missing from the radio in my very white town. Grandmaster Flash, The Sugarhill Gang, Earth, Wind and Fire were all great new secrets I’d recently discovered.

What was interesting about Prince though was that, like many fans, I didn’t necessary perceive it as ‘black music’. It was funk and pop and psychedelic and rock and soul. But more than that, it was driven by synthesizers and drum machines so it also had post new wave affectations. So while many compared him at the time to Sly Stone, (high praise), he was actually a lot more complex.

Then there was the musicianship. Prince was a multi-instrumentalist and producer just like two of my other heroes, Todd Rundgren and Stevie Wonder. Like them, he was a one man operation who wrote, arranged, produced and performed everything. He was a killer guitarist but it was his overall sound that really grabbed me. There was a unique idea of ambience on his tracks, using delay on his drum machines, the timbre of his synth patches-it was completely his.

However, we are getting ahead of ourselves. 1999. It was the music, for sure. But just as importantly it was the lyrics. Their completely raw sexuality. Prince’s lyrics didn’t sound sleazy like those of a hair metal band.  Rock bands didn’t write songs like Little Red Corvette where the woman was sexually intimidating. 1999 sounded authentic, real-the kind of feelings a young man has when he is actually discovering sex, not just a rock star’s view of sex. Prince used the real terminology of sex, it was explicit, but 1999 was glamorous not dirty.

My next step was buying his self titled record and Controversy, which I may have bought on the same day. Controversy had two killer tracks, Private Joy, with it’s amazing harmonies and Jack U Off, a high octane jam that talked about getting the girl off. I also bought Vanity 6, a Prince written and produced project starring his girlfriend. Nasty Girl, off of that release, is quintessential Prince, if Prince was a woman. It’s one of his best grooves.

So it was in this completely besotted state that I walked into, (was it the Varscona or the Garneau) theatre to watch Purple Rain the first week it played in Edmonton. This was a real rock movie where a real rock star played a rock star. Melodramatic, corny and totally fucking awesome. I saw it twice more in the next 10 days. I remember being out with my girlfriend at the time’s family and completely ignoring them as I listened to the soundtrack on my Walkman. From then on, Prince became a real artist. Like Todd Rundgren and Lou Reed, he was a prolific songwriter who released an extraordinary volume of material. Like them, he followed his muse, some of his releases resonated with the marketplace and others didn’t and either way, it never seemed to matter to him. Prince was on his own path and you were welcome to follow him or not. But he never drank the Kool-Aid, he never tried to release Purple Rain 2 and none of his records ever sounded like he was pandering for success. He had the occasional hit, most notably Kiss off of Parade, (which had two amazing tracks, New Position and Girls and Boys) the soundtrack to his follow up film Under The Cherry Moon. Was Sign O’ The Times a hit? I remember getting a promo 12” of it when we were on the road somewhere in the States. It had the most infectious bass line almost an antidote to the bass-less When Doves Cry.

He didn’t labor over a record for 3 years to make the perfect, commercial product. A writer writes, a painter paints. A songwriter/musician/producer makes music. Will there be anyone like this again? Was Prince the last of a dying breed?

Living in Edmonton, there wasn’t much opportunity to see Prince live. My friend Alan Kellogg, through his job as a music writer for the Edmonton Journal was flown to Toronto to see him and i was green with envy. I moved to Toronto not long after but never saw Prince live. I became busy with my own music career and also, started to hate going to big shows in arenas.

Recently, he announced two nights of shows in Toronto, intimate performances with just him and a piano in a theatre. My friend Nick was lucky enough to have scored one of the very scarce pairs of tickets available. When his daughter couldn’t accompany him, he asked if I wanted to go. It was an amazing night. Prince just noodled at the piano, playing a bit of this hit, a bit of that one, some Bob Marley, an amazing rendition of Joni Mitchell’s A Case Of You. He still had all the swagger of his early days and the audience ate out of his hand. He strolled off and on the stage for encore after encore and I think we would have stayed all night. In the light of today’s events, I am extraordinarily grateful that I had the opportunity to see that show.

The Pursuit of Happiness would often cover When Doves Cry in our encore. When it came time to record two new tracks for a greatest hits CD, we decided it would be one of them. I don’t know if Prince ever heard it, probably not.

The news of him dying today was so shocking. There have been an unusual number of rock deaths lately, maybe a sign of the times? But there are people you don’t expect to die quite yet. One would have thought Prince would have continued to pound out material for the next 20 years, challenging himself and his audience. I don’t have anything profound to say about Prince dying. I can only speak about my experience with his music. There was a time in my life when his music dominated my life and transformed me as a writer. This is the great thing about being a fan. You fall in love with rock stars and their music and they give you joy. Who wants to die if it means you can’t listen to your favorite record anymore? You want to create great music because of the great music you just listened to. When I listened to 1999 or Purple Rain or Sign O’ The Times, it made me want to get on stage and do something even half as cool.

The loss I feel and the loss I’ve felt through this epidemic of death in music is (cliche alert) the loss of my youth. About how much music used to mean to me. I don’t worship artists like I used to. Sometimes when I listen to an old record I think of where I was and what I was doing when I really loved it. During the height of my love affair with Prince, my music career was just about to take off. The world was opening up to me.

But that doesn’t matter. What’s important today is to celebrate the lives of those who give us so much and to remember how important music is.

As a post script, since I wrote this and before I am posting this, a story. I was hired to DJ the Bloor Cinema’s showing of Purple Rain. I’d done this twice before over the past year and a half. The vibe in the theatre is always great for this movie, people often dance in the aisles to my set and cheer and sing along with the movie. It’s like a less showy Rocky Horror Picture Show. I was hired two months ago to do the gig. Then three days before the showing, Prince died. The advance tickets for the show very quickly sold out. They added a midnight show to accommodate the overflow.

I often DJ music movies at the Bloor and always take pains to not play songs by the actual artist featured in the movie. However, this was going to be different. I needed to do some kind of tribute to Prince which meant playing his music. It was hard to know what to play, and so I played a bunch of my favorite Prince songs. The only exception was that I played Sinead O’Connor’s version of Nothing Compares 2 U because I thought people would want to hear that. I think I kind of bombed. Not sure what people were expecting, maybe not Delirious, Jack U Off and Dirty Mind? Maybe they wanted to hear Purple Rain tracks which I avoided, (obviously). Anyway, who cares. I was given an opportunity to pay my personal respect to Prince and I took it.

Prince. Thanks for the music and the inspiration. Your music will live on for generations to come, which is the great hope of every artist. But I hope your example of what an artist is will influence the next generation to not be such fame hungry pigs. I hope young people will go explore their muse, their creativity and we’ll get a new Prince.

Apr 4 2016

Bad Musician, Good Rock?


Recently, Keith Emerson, keyboardist for ’70’s prog rock pioneers Emerson,Lake and Palmer died. There was certainly no Bowie/Lemmy outpouring of grief over this particular rock passing. Two reasons, one Emerson wasn’t particularly relevant since the very early ’80’s when the style of music ELP created went out of style. It never really made much of a return so he’d been toiling in relative obscurity since then. And two, there is something off putting about progressive rock for many music fans. Which is to say, Keith Emerson wasn’t cool.

Progressive rock was music played by rock musicians that incorporated ideas of classical and jazz music in an attempt to make rock and pop a higher art form. It was in many ways a reaction against the hit single, AM radio and the simplicity of much of rock and pop music. This genre was over represented by British/European musicians if that matters.

The great writer, (check out his definitive Nirvana book, Come As You Are and also This Could Be Your Band), Michael Azzarad posted on Facebook something to the effect that he had a minor affinity for Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s live record, Welcome Back My Friends To The Show That Never Ends but ultimately bands like ELP were what drove him to punk rock. I have to say, this mirrors my own experience right down to the actual album. It’s been well documented that punk rock and disco, (and later hip hop) were a reaction against what many felt was the pretentious, overwrought and unglamorous music that FM radio played. Songs were long with lots of instrumental soloing, and were either structurally complex or else more like jazz pieces where the theme would be introduced and then the soloists would take over until exhausted and the theme would be reintroduced at the end the song. This was especially apparent in live performances, I had a live Mountain record where their song Nantucket Sleighride took up two full sides.

There was also an idea of corporate rock. This was music that appeared to pander to corporate profit imperatives, music that was created to move massive amounts of units. Fleetwood Mac, The Eagles and Peter Frampton created multi-platinum blockbusters that appeared to change record companies’ business models. As Todd Rundgren once put it, if one record can sell 10 million copies, why can’t all of them sell 10 million copies? The musician as artist was being replaced by the musician as a commodity, (though I may be overstating this-I’m sure many in the music business thought of musicians as commodities since the start of the recording era).

Punk rock sprang out of New York city with a big fuck that to both of these stimuli. Deconstructing rock and roll back to it’s origins as a simple music form that pretty much anyone could play, it also brought a snotty nose defiance and anger that really hadn’t surfaced in popular music maybe ever. Punk rock also brought fashion with it, something that had been lacking in all but glam rock in the post-hippy rock world.

Disco was the other side of the same coin. It was totally fashion oriented, bringing a new sense of excitement, glamour and romance to music. People could dress up, do their hair and go to a dance club to party and engage in the mating ritual. This again gave the middle finger to long haired, blue jean wearing, pot smoking players who soloed for hours in front of an audience who looked pretty much the same as their heroes. It is important to note that not all of these rock bands or even most of them, were progressive rock bands. However, with their pretentious classical leanings and their fairies and hobbits lyrics, prog rock bands were looked upon as the worst of the worst.

Long historical set up for this, apologies.

The whole reason for this piece is, why doesn’t Keith Emerson or his music matter to most people? Keith Emerson was an extraordinarily talented musician with a classical background who had clearly put in Gladwell’s 10,000 hours. ELP were a trio of virtuosos (or at least two out of the three) as were the musicians in most prog rock bands. On the other hand, punk rockers needed only a rudimentary knowledge of their instrument. In fact, playing too well was often seen as a negative in punk circles, the Bad Brains notwithstanding. Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols did not get the bass gig because of his chops, he replaced a much better player in the band. His fame was a result of his ability to inhabit the anti-social caricature of the punk rocker.

Since then, maybe before then but definitely since then, there has been an idea floating around popular music that there is something honorable or authentic about being a bit crappy. That if you play too well or sing too well or your song is too well written and catchy that you suck in some existential way. Looking at the history of rock and roll, there has always been an element of wildness, abandon and a theatrical not-giving-a-shit that really does define much of the more exciting music of the past 50 years. Starting with Jerry Lee Lewis banging and stomping on his piano to the MC5 and the New York Dolls and Iggy and the Stooges to the original punk bands from the ’70’s to Guided By Voices and (maybe) Pavement in the ’90’s, this idea of a general looseness to the performance is seen as high art to many music lovers. IT SHOULD BE NOTED HERE THAT THESE ARE SOME OF MY ALL TIME FAVORITE BANDS.

My problem is not with these bands as, see my capitals. My problem is with the idea that the art form that has dominated my life can be properly performed badly. No one says the same thing in the literary world, in film making or any other art form. This offends me. I would love to think that the greatest music was performed by the greatest musicians and was written by the greatest songwriters just like the greatest novels are written by the greatest writers.

Keith Emerson was certainly a great musician. He was also a pioneer in terms of his use of the synthesizer in a live context. His Moog part in Lucky Man was likely the first time many people had ever heard a synth on the radio or ever. Were he in another art form, he would likely have been revered, not just at the peak of his popularity but in perpetuity. However, for the last 40 years, he and his band were offensive to many, a joke to more and worse, uncool to most. Why, I need to ask? I am also asking myself this question. No one laughed harder at the CREEM Magazine review of their album Works, which had the headline, But Only As A Frisbee. I embraced the Ramones, Sex Pistols and Clash while discarding any affinity to ELP. Yes and even Van Halen, (temporarily). The only progressive rock I held onto was Utopia because, well, Todd Rundgren!!

This didn’t last too long. As I’ve written before, being narrow minded and snobby about music is pretty much the stupidest thing you can do. I snapped out of it. A couple of years ago, I actually impulse-bought the aformentioned, Welcome Back My Friends To The Show That Never Ends, a 3CD live set that was the only recording of theirs I really liked. There is a killer version of their best piece, Karn Evil 9, First Impression. (Boy that title really brings back memories of why I stopped liking them).

Sometimes people will play me music that they’ve done or are working on and it’s dissonant and unmusical. I might point that out to them and they’ll say, “well that’s what I was trying to do. That’s what I like.” So you like shit, I think to myself? I think that’s it for me, people justifying their inadequacies. Maybe because they mistakenly believe they know something that others don’t. Or because someone else might have done something less than perfect in a perfect way before them. What that means is the bands I spoke about earlier in this piece may have not been perfect in terms of their virtuosity but the end result ended up being revelatory in terms of its artistic expression. But that’s them, it doesn’t give lesser artists the right to claim their own looseness is all that matters without the payoff of a song as original and culture changing as Blitzkrieg Bop or God Save The Queen or Search and Destroy or Bulldog Skin. I remember reading in, (again) CREEM Magazine, a writer complaining that the trouble with Bob Dylan is that he made people think they could write about nothing and it would seem meaningful. Which I took to say, you can do something in the style of someone else but without substance it remains, without substance.

Let me try this. Music may be more sensual than other types of art. Which is to say, it is not like a story or other narrative art. It enters your consciousness in a different way and makes you feel it, (or not) in your heart, mind and body. So you might like or not like a song based on your own predispositions of beauty. It’s much harder to articulate why you like a song than it is to say why you like a book or movie or play. You say, I like the Dolls because I like that they sound out of control and I like that feeling. Or I like Steve Aoki because all I want to do is dance. This helps me a bit because it means that it’s okay to like a recording of your grandma singing her favorite gospel song more than Steve Vai playing 10 notes a second for two minutes. Because one touches something inside of you and the other doesn’t.

This doesn’t negate my, relative, disappointment over the lack of respect so many hip music lovers gave Keith Emerson. Someone who is that talented and who was honestly attempting to push both musical and performance boundaries should be remembered only fondly. Even if you didn’t actually like his music.

Jan 9 2016

Stay With Me


A while back, I did a DJ set at the Bloor Cinema in Toronto ‘opening’ for the movie, A Poem Is A Naked Person. In my set, I played the Faces track, Stay With Me-probably their biggest hit. As always, I was amazed by the incredible energy of the track, it seemed to leap out of the speakers. To this day, it sounds as close to the essence of what I believe rock and roll is as I have ever heard.

Then I thought to myself, you never hear anything like this anymore. I’ve never heard a track with this much rock power in decades. And it made me kind of sad. I finished my set and sat down with a big bag of popcorn to watch the movie. The film was a documentary, mainly about Leon Russell who was a session musician, became part of Joe Cockers band and then became a headline performer himself. He released some pretty good records in the 70’s and had a hit single with a song called Tightrope. The film was directed by legendary documentarian, Les Blank. There was a quasi avant garde aspect to the movie as this was the ’70’s but, mostly, A Poem Is A Naked Person is live and studio footage of Leon Russell. The studio footage is the real prize here. In addition to Leon’s sessions, there is a great moment where the late, legendary country singer George Jones performs Tell Me with just a vocal and acoustic guitar. Beyond amazing.

The Leon Russell studio footage had a huge number of musicians all mic’d up and performing. The illusion, if it was an illusion, was that the entire track was going all at once, vocals and all.  This may have been staged or it may have been just the bed tracks and many of the parts were going to be overdubbed later. But judging by the leakage that would have occurred from all the open mics, especially vocal mics, I’m inclined to think that maybe this was how it was going down. Which is to say, live in the studio.

When I left the movie, I thought about what I had played and what I had seen. Stay With Me. What an amazing track. It was clearly recorded live with probably few overdubs. The Leon Russell studio session seemed to imply a similar process. And, appraising both things, I thought, what am I doing with my life? The music I produce appears to be perfect, everything is perfectly in tune and in time. This is what modern recording has become in the digital age. This has its own value. Back in the day, many musicians didn’t play on their own recordings. Studio musicians who could actually play would be on the recordings and and the band would be in the photos and the live shows. So what we do, in a way, serves the musicians we work with.

But that’s not even my point, that’s just existential pondering. The point is, why don’t we have music like Stay With Me by The Faces anymore. But the real question should be, why would we even want that? Do I need to hear the same song over and over? If some band came out sounding like Bill Haley and The Comets would I think, that’s awesome? Probably not. Music progresses, it moves forward and unless we are willing to move with it, we will just be grumpy old men and women stuck in another era.

I think what I may be wondering is, why don’t we have music like Stay With Me in terms of its power and excitement and relevance to a large group of the listening public? The issue here is, what are we settling for? Liking music because it’s ‘new’ or ‘modern’ is meaningless. Those terms have no musical value. While it may be true that we don’t need to hear the same song over and over, we do need to hear a good song. We do need music that is vital, exciting, beautiful and evokes an emotional and intellectual response.

We also have to decide whether things like great songwriting, great musicianship and great singing matter anymore. Most new music forms are technologically based. You can create a complete album of tracks without every playing a single note on an instrument. This has been true for some time but seems more commonplace and acceptable today. Any kid with a computer can download a recording program from the internet and after a relatively short learning curve, start creating music, even if that music only involves dragging and dropping pre recorded and pre written, packaged music samples.

In the ’80’s both hip hop and post-disco dance music came of age. In some ways, the music forms were similar in that they were electronically based and introduced the idea of the DJ as producer. But it many ways, they couldn’t be more different. Hip hop continued the funk and R&B traditions of American music while dance music went the way of European ideas of music birthed in part by disco producers like Georgio Morodor. Hip hop was sample based, DJ’s would sample parts of records and combine them to form a track. This was often an extremely painstaking and creative process. House music and it’s progeny was more about sequencing synthesizers, programming drum machines and creating a danceable groove that usually followed the four on the floor beat that defined disco. Hip hop music was ultra reliant on great lyrical content as the lyrics were spoken. Those lyrics often explored the African American experience, political ideas or, especially in the case of someone like Ice Cube, extraordinary story telling. Musically, the tracks often had incredible grooves sampled from the greatest drum beats in the history of recorded music. When a producer programmed his or her own drum beats, they still reflected that sense of groove, again referencing ideas of funk and other American forms of music.  Listen to the drum program in LL Cool J’s Kanday as a reference.

So while hip hop used technology to create an incredibly vital, meaningful and exciting art form, can we say the same for Electronic Dance Music? Is a form of music that is largely about the party and involves mostly computer science a lasting idea of music? This is a question, not a statement. The purpose of dance music has always, mainly, been about getting people to dance. That is the art of it so lyrics, vocal performance, creating emotional response are largely irrelevant. It’s almost completely hedonistic, which isn’t a bad thing. But does it have the indicators of great music that we are accustomed to? Having an intimate connection to the artist and the song, being moved or spoken to in a deep and lasting way so that the song becomes part of your personality-does dance music do this? If it doesn’t, does that matter? Have our priorities as a culture changed? Is EDM the perfect music for our disposable culture?

(It should be noted here that most popular music of the past wasn’t particularly deep. Even Stay With Me doesn’t have an extraordinarily meaningful lyrical message. Perhaps my attachment to it has more to do with my musical aesthetic? However, the conditions of most musical forms allow for more ponderous messages than we have seen in most post disco dance music. Maybe a revolution is coming?)

(It should also be noted that I am speaking, mainly, about current trends in EDM. House and techno music that originated in the late ’80’s in to the ’90’s had an extraordinary amount of creative energy attached to it. There was a purity about a music form that had almost no commercial potential in terms of the mainstream and was being created almost exclusively to get people to dance. However, is there a ‘song’ from that era that really stuck out and united the culture?)

This sounds like I’m dumping on EDM, which I don’t think I am. I am asking questions about the future of music and since EDM is a huge part of that future, how does it fit in with the traditional place music holds in our culture and, our souls? EDM currently dominates the commercial music world, with producers like Zedd, David Guretta, Avici, Calvin Harris all scoring top ten hits. Most of the other tracks you hear on hit radio have electronic or electronic dance music elements. So EDM’s relevance is undeniable, it is no longer a fringe music form.

So the new Faces is not The Sheepdogs or Monster Truck. Those bands, as great as they are, are retro bands, they invoke a time gone by. The new Faces are someone yet to be identified, at one time they were Public Enemy or NWA or maybe not.  I’m not talking about the next big thing, like Nirvana. I’m talking about someone who releases a track that pretty much anyone who listens to popular music would find pretty awesome. Because, for an entire generation and the echoes of that generation, that’s what Stay With Me was.



Aug 9 2015

Keith Richards Thinks Sgt. Peppers is Rubbish

I’ve linked to an Esquire interview with Keith Richards. Facebook was a flutter with a particular statement in it where he referred to The Beatles much celebrated album Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band as “rubbish”. He suggests that there’s “not a lot of roots” to it, like that was a superlative? I saw this on someones feed who had a long string of comments. Feelings seemed to be mixed in terms of whether Keith was right or not. I made a brief comment like, “can’t see the point of him saying that,” or something to that effect. I realized I had much more to say.

Let me say right from the beginning that I am a huge Beatles fan. I am also a fan of many artists who were also big Beatles fans. I also like the Stones. and I am not here to bash the Rolling Stones. The Stones with Keith have had the longest career of any rock band and have released a crap load of amazing songs. Sgt. Peppers is not my favorite Beatles album. It’s great and an incredible achievement but I like most of their other releases better. However, it is the furthest thing from rubbish. In fact, Sgt. Peppers and the Beatles musical adventures of the ’60’s are why people still care about Keith Richards.

When rock and roll started it was, an extension of the blues, rockabilly and country music-12 bar derived, making use of the newly popular electric guitar. Coming along side this was emerging R&B and all of these music forms were what both The Beatles and Stones cut their teeth on, their roots. Though as British youth, their roots were even more varied. While the early Stones records reflected this southern American influence, the early Beatles records had more diverse musical concepts and were largely popular because of the, for lack of a better word, pop sound of many of their tunes.

So if one were to get snarky, the Stones built their success on the cultural appropriation of another country while the Beatles basically used their influences to create a new sound. So if Keith is challenging the Beatles authenticity, he’s barking up the wrong tree. (Though that is being snarky, I believe you should be able to perform any music that you feel inspired to perform).

The Beatles created this curry of pop, blues, rock and roll and R&B and kept pushing it with each release until it became something else less definable. They became so successful doing this that they began to lead the culture. And everyone else, including the Stones followed. Everyone’s music became more melodic, then more psychedelic, then more challenging, then experimental with regard to new recording techniques, all because the Beatles were doing it first. The Rolling Stones developed into pretty good songwriters and musicians and in fact created their own style as well. But had they not pushed themselves, or better yet, been pushed by the Beatles,The Rolling Stones could have gone the way of Bill Haley, or they could be like Sha Na Na, a traveling nostalgia show, playing three and four chord rock and roll for blue hairs.

Sgt. Peppers came after three increasingly experimental and challenging releases. Since the release of Rubber Soul, The Beatles had begun experimenting with sounds, recording techniques, new instruments, more complex song arrangements and less sunny and more thought provoking lyrics. This was also influencing another young man, Brian Wilson, who’s historic creation, Pet Sounds was the most daring pop/rock recording of its time. Upon hearing that, The Beatles realized they needed to up the anti and began work on their most experimental album. The idea was to do something completely different to push rock and roll into an even new frontiers. The fact that they were able to do this yet still create an immensely listenable record, with lovely melodies and interesting lyrics is an incredible achievement.


Brief aside. Some people who hate the Beatles remind me of this guy who used to live on my street. He knew that I’d written a song called Gretzky Rocks. Whenever he saw me, he’d run up and say, “Gretzky sucks. He wasn’t any good. Not as good as Bobby Clarke.”  So Gretzky sucked at being, in hockey perspective, a thug, which is what Bobby Clarke was. What he was really saying is, “I hate people who are great, who are really good at something, because their specialness exposes in my own inadequacy. Their greatness makes me feel small so I will belittle them and their achievement so I can feel good about myself.”

The point here, if I haven’t already clearly made it is; Rock and roll survived as a music form because The Beatles pushed the (cliche alert) envelope with every release. Everyone else followed that example and rock and roll went from Rock Around The Clock to Strawberry Fields Forever, Tommy and Gimme Shelter. Dozens of other bands began to create amazing music and rock and roll splintered into many sub genres. It became the soundtrack of world youth culture and it made music the most important art form in our culture. Until recently. But that’s another blog.

I think it’s interesting that this is coming out now when Keith is promoting a new release. He may have said crazy stuff like this before and I just didn’t know about it before Facebook but my feeling is Keith is more media savvy than he’d probably like people to know. A statement like this could rally his troops and in a way, God Bless him for that. He comes off still a bit rebellious or least not an ass kisser. And that’s great. But he’s still wrong.

Aug 6 2015

The Mystique of the Rock Star

When I was a kid, rock stars were gods to me. Alice Cooper, Brian Wilson, The Who, Queen-they lived in almost another universe where I would never cross paths with them. I liked that-they were stars and I was a fan and that was mostly what made the relationship exciting. They were like the superheroes I read about in comics or watched on TV. Instead, I read about them in CREEM Magazine. If they were just like me, why would I care about them. The fact that they were extraordinary was what made the idea of being their fan logical. However, it wasn’t just big stars, anyone who was in a band lived a different existence than I did. I was not them.

This idea of the rock star as a celebrity lasted a long time. When the so-called grunge movement appeared in the early ’90’s there was a bit of a change in terms of the barrier between the artist and the fan. This happened as hair metal was reaching it’s climax as the dominant music form in popular music. (Hip hop was emerging as well but in a parallel stream and to a lesser extent). Hair metal was largely apolitical, sexist and consumer culture based and the stars were definitely rock stars who wore costumes not completely unlike the way super heroes wore costumes. When grunge hit, it came with more liberal political attitudes, egalitarianism and a more progressive attitude towards women. It also came with an idea of fashion and posturing that blurred the line between the musician and the fan. Artists dressed down, there was an idea that rock stars were jack asses and we are just like you except we are in the band. But that doesn’t necessarily make us any better than you. Some of this was from punk rock, which many feel grunge was just an extension of. But punk had a glamour to it. Though it was also political, I remember it being anti-establishment but also kind of nebulous in terms of social politics.

Years later, I was playing at the Edmonton Folk Festival, which is quite a marvelous event full of all kinds of music, not all of which is folk. A woman named Loreena McKennitt was performiing as well. She had amassed a fairly large fan base as an independent artist and made a ton of money selling her CD’s at the merch table. After her performances, she would towel off and make her way to where her CD’s and t-shirts were and sign CD’s for fans. Apparently, this boosted sales significantly, enough so that she was doing major label numbers as an indie. (I think, eventually, she ended up being distributed by a major, Warner I believe) At the time, I looked at it as a shrewd marketing strategy, I might have even been a bit suspicious of it.

With the rise of the internet, accessibility to ones fans reached an all new high. Sitting at the merch table, meeting every fan and signing every CD became commonplace. Fan clubs became more sophisticated and you could get access to material and other perks before the general public through mass emails that seemed like they were for you only. I heard The Barenaked Ladies used to call up their fans. You could read your heroes Tweets and see their candid photos on Facebook and Instagram. Record companies trimmed down their marketing and promotion teams as the artists could now do a lot of this themselves. (though honestly, very poorly).

Brief digression. I remember seeing Jane Siberry play sort of later in her career. She was doing a one-woman show that was lots of talking and some playing songs. At one point she declared, “I’m not like you,” or maybe, “you’re not like me.” I can’t think of why she would say something like that. She sounded like a total dick even though she was right. I think these things are best shown and not told. If it isn’t obvious that you are different from your fans, saying it will only make you look bad. And saying it will make you look bad even it it is obvious. No one needs their face rubbed in the fact that they are not particularly special. The fact that you are in some way better than your fans, this is an unspoken truth.

Okay, so anyone who read my last post will know how important I believe it is to be nice to your fans, to take them into consideration when planning your set list, even recording your music. However, as a fan, I also believe in the separation of fan and star. I think that mystique is what gives rock stars value. The idea that you are special is part of the reason why people pay money for your music and to see you perform. Otherwise, they’d just stay home and watch their mom play the guitar and sing for them. That specialness, the scarcity of talent and abilities is what makes the rock star valuable.

When I used to play, we would answer fan mail, that is tradition. We’d also let some fans backstage after the gig. That’s because we liked to party. But no one forced us to do this and no one expected us to do this. I should also say that I became friends with some of our fans. But that was natural, it’s like making friends at work. We also made sure that someone else set up and tore down our instruments. It seemed common that someone who had songs on the radio would shlep their own gear.

I love the Internet and I love YouTube and streaming and Soundcloud and a million other things about it. But I hate that it’s turned rock stars into crap eaters that kiss their fans asses. It’s undignified and unglamorous. I hate it that artists beg their fans on social media to come to their shows and “bring some friends”. I hate it that bands solicit their fans for money so they can make a new record. If you disagree then I pity you that you didn’t live in a time when rock stars were gods and goddesses. It was great. (though it doesn’t stop you from worshipping the Kardashians and the losers on Teen Mom or 19 and Counting). And maybe that’s why the Kardashians are so big, because they live in that other world that we have no access to. (Though why the Kardashians are famous is complex.) And I guess the really big stars like Katy Perry and Taylor Swift and Maroon 5 are still untouchable. I guess what I’m talking about is an idea that is taking hold that being common is a way to build your career. That you have to make your fans one by one by being their friend and then when you get big enough, maybe you get to dump them. It’s just a way for record companies to get out of their responsibility to build your fan base and market and promote your record. But that’s less of a concern to me than kids growing up thinking that people who make music are no big deal. They are, people, they are.

Jul 15 2015

The Contract

Years back, The Pursuit of Happiness had just finished an album for our new record company, Mercury Records. The president and a few other soldiers decided to come up from New York to hear us play. We looked (and maybe they did too) at it almost like a showcase. But here’s the problem. We were opening for the Tragically Hip at the old Ontario Place in the round thingy. So there was 10,000 people at this, “showcase”. So what did we do? We opened with Hard To Laugh, played the whole new album, then ended with I’m An Adult Now. Must of been bewildering for the audience almost all of whom were very familiar with our band. Must have been bewildering for the Hip who probably thought we were going to entertain and ‘warm up’ the audience before their show.

This was totally unnecessary. I’m sure we could have gotten away with playing half the album, playing three or four more of our ‘hits’ and everyone there would have had a much better time. Or we could have scheduled a free show at a small club and let everyone coming know that they were only going to hear new material. There may have been some big fans that would have been excited to hear the new album and didn’t care that they weren’t going to hear Two Girls In One. Instead, in the words of Spinal Tap, we subjected a festival size audience with the equivalent of Jazz Odyssey.

When I released my solo album, Summer’s Over, I went out and played shows, just me and a guitar and, occasionally, a beat box. I thought, I’m not going to play any TPOH so everyone knows this is a solo show. What a stupid idea. People left, pissed off at me that I didn’t at least throw them a bone of She’s So Young or an acoustic version of Adult. I made zero fans this way and disappointed many people who paid good money to see me. I remember hearing one woman grumbling as she left, “he didn’t play any of his songs.” Of course I had, just not the ones she wanted to hear.

These examples show me how out of touch I was with being a fan. If any band pulled that on me, I’d been very mad at them.

When you have success as an artist, it’s like you have formed a partnership with your fans. It’s like a contract. You create beautiful music and they buy it. They pay money for tickets and you perform a concert for them. You say, I’m performing for an audience of 2000 tomorrow night. I’m performing FOR AN AUDIENCE of 2000 tomorrow night. That’s an important part of the statement.

Here’s some things artists do to break that contract.
1. They don’t play their ‘hits’. I’ve always wondered why a song is no longer any good once it becomes popular. You wrote the song, you liked it enough to record it. Then people liked it and helped make you famous, maybe even rich (ish). Then you resent the song that helped you quit your day job, allowed you to travel the country, the continent, the world. I can understand getting bored of playing the same songs over and over, every night. And some bands, like Elton John or U2 have so many hits over such a long period of time that it is impossible to play all of their hits. But the tunes that allow that concert to even happen need to be played so the people who spent money on tickets, parking, transit, beers, maybe even a babysitter can go home thinking you aren’t a dick.

2. They play their hit or hits but walk through them, letting the audience see what torture it is to play a song they themselves wrote and recorded and everyone loves. Again, what is the point of this? What do you want your audience to feel? Sorry for you? Ashamed that they like the great song you wrote? Some may. Many will think, ” the show was good but their version of HIT SONG was super lame. It was like, they didn’t even care about the audience. If I did my job that poorly I’d be fired.”

People often say this. “I make my music for myself. I don’t care if anyone else likes it.”

Cool attitude, dude. Here’s the problem with that.

If you want to make music in your basement, record it and listen to it while you take selfies, knock yourself out. You truly are making music for yourself and you really don’t have to care who likes it. I would greatly admire someone who did this. However, once you book a show or release music for the public to buy or even make it available on the web for perusal, you have brought other people into the mix. You are in essence saying, “listen to this and I hope you like it.” Better yet, “I hope you buy it, buy more tickets to future shows of mine.” You might even be saying, “buy my T-shirts, follow me on twitter, like my Facebook page and generally, stalk me on the internet.” You are not saying, “show up and boo, give me the finger, walk out saying “you suck”.” Post on my Facebook page that my music is a steaming pile of crap. Unless you are a sociopath.

Important to say here, just because you are interested in people enjoying your work, that doesn’t mean you have to pander to them. I never wrote a song for the expressed purpose of having a hit or getting a mass audience to like it. I always just wrote the best song that I could with the hope that other people would like the same things I like. I think writing a song with the idea that it will be a hit is a losing game. Writing a hit is almost impossible. So you’re better off writing something you think is great and hoping that others will notice it. At least that way, you’ve written a great song that you can be proud to perform. What I am talking about has more to do with your attitude towards people that you are hoping or even expecting to enjoy your art.

Which brings me to the point here. One of my pet peeves is exactly that, people who take their audience for granted. And also, people who take the fact that they get to make music for a living, even if it’s not their entire living, for granted. There are millions of people who would love to be able to sing and play for money, have people cheer for them and be able to stand on a stage and share their creative vision with others. So you are a lucky duck. And believe me, luck has a TON to do with you being able to do this. There is so much right-place-at-the-right-time, culture-swinging-your-way-or-against-you, fates that make some people stars and other, just as talented, people nobodies.

Sometimes you’ll hear an artist say, “I hate doing interviews.” You know what is worse than doing interviews? Not doing interviews. When no one wants to talk to you because no one cares about your music. So be grateful that there are people who want to hear what you have to say about your music. Every job is at points boring and exhilarating. Being an artist has many more moments of exhilaration than paving roads or cleaning office buildings.

To be clear once more, this doesn’t mean you have to be a kiss ass. No one even likes a kiss ass. You don’t need to be something that you are not, no great music happens that way. And it doesn’t mean, don’t play your new songs. Your new songs might be your future hits. And your fans most likely want to hear something new as well.

What this means is, be a decent human being, take your fans into consideration, have some gratitude for the good fortune that has befallen you and not thousands of other musicians who wish they were you. You may feel that breaking the contract means you are a REAL artist who follows his own road and caring about what your audience wants or thinks means you are a sell out. But it doesn’t mean either of those things. Breaking the contract and taking your luck for granted makes you a jerk. Disappointing your fans means you probably disappoint the other people in your life, your family, your girlfriend/boyfriend, your friends, (I’m sure I also did). And unless you are one of the extremely lucky few who have multiple decade careers, eventually this will all come to an end. And that’s no time to come to the realization of how great it is to have people love your music.


Jul 3 2015

Dead Heroes

Joni Mitchell’s health has been in the news off and on over the past couple of months. It’s a bit hard to get a straight story but it appears that all is not well with, arguably, the greatest female singer/songwriter of all time.

The past few years have seen a lot of my childhood musical heroes go to Rock and Roll Heaven. Many of my guitar influences, Rory Gallagher, Johnny Winter, Ronnie Montrose and some of my songwriting heroes most notably Lou Reed. If I live long enough, eventually Todd Rundgren, Marshall Crenshaw, Iggy Pop, the various Sex Pistols, Pete Townsend, Eric Carmen, Brian Wilson, Burt Bacharach and the remaining Beatles will also leave this earth.

I was invited to an intimate performance by Joni at Much Music several years ago. Afterwards, I got her to sign my copy of Court and Spark. She did and when I looked into her eyes, they had that sparkle that I’ve seen in some other heroes of mine’s eyes that says, “I’m smarter and more talented than you.”

When Joni released Court and Spark she was without peer in terms of sheer intellectual power and adventurousness as a songwriter while still being incredibly musical and dare I say it, commercial. After purchasing the album, used, at The Wee Book Inn, I spent the next four or five months listening to it. Many point to Blue as a high point for Joni but although there is some fine songwriting there, especially River and Carey, I don’t think it shows Joni fully formed. In most ways, it sounded like any other female singer/songwriter albeit a very good one. Her next album, For The Roses, really identified her musically. Which is to say, it is the record that showed her as being unique, no one else could have made that record. In terms of musical structure and lyrical complexity it’s quite breathtaking. Joni was exploring open tunings on the guitar and coming up with some lovely chords. Those chords would find their way onto her piano keys and would help define her music for several years afterwards. What differentiated Court and Spark from For The Roses was it’s accessibility. I think there were three singles off of that record, Help Me, Raised On Robbery and Free Man In Paris. And they weren’t just singles, radio played the crap out of them. Structurally and melodically, the album was pretty easy to follow and sing along with. But the depth of the songs is incredible. The lyrics are cinematic and, as one tends to believe with Joni, jarringly personal. Some might quibble with what they perceive to be cliches, like “ and you could complete me, I’d complete you,” in the title track but honestly, I don’t think I’d ever heard that said before. Maybe she coined that cliche? The accessibility of the record was aided by the fact that it was her most produced effort to that point. LA session musicians fleshed out most of the songs, which made them more radio friendly. The next album, The Hissing Of Summer Lawns was more experimental. She may have flinched at being so popular with the masses and felt like she needed to show people that she was no sellout. Hejira was when she hooked up with Jaco Pastorius and started to shift into jazz, (though that was always in her music). At a point her releases became infrequent and eventually, she kind of went off the grid.

I’m stopping there because I don’t want this to turn into a discography review. I mention the other recordings only to set up Court and Spark and I’m only talking about Court and Spark because it was such a seminal album in my musical development. Music has been my life, my career and my meager living, so a record and an artist who helped get you there is important.

There is something strangely different about a hero who’s lived a life, maybe is long past their prime, dying compared to a rocker who dies young. I’m trying to figure out what or why that is. When Jimi Hendrix or Kurt Cobain died, it was tragic, a loss of potential, like all young people’s deaths. When Lou Reed died, it was more like losing an uncle, someone who gave you wisdom as you were growing up, wisdom that stayed with you for the rest of your life.

The young dead heroes become myths. Movies are made, old recordings are found and released, conspiracies about their deaths are raised. They become the subject of a long but static conversation. In death, they lose their privacy, every detail of their life is uncovered by zealous fans who can’t let them rest in peace.

But the old dead heroes lived a life. Many of their fans forget about them or just ignore them most of the time. Their artistic output usually slows. Their place in the culture is often diminished. They may no longer have a major label deal and they are rarely in Rolling Stone magazine anymore. When they do re-enter the spotlight we decide whether we are interested or if we’d rather just throw on Transformer and revisit its greatness and/or nostalgia value. Some of these lives are a bit dark at the end. You hear of musicians who should be enjoying their retirement, out on the road to try to make ends meet. They should have been spared the indignity of waning audiences and shrinking guarantees.

Joni Mitchell isn’t going to make any more albums. Even if she did, I’m not sure I’d care. Which maybe sucks of me. Because she was there when I needed her. If she hadn’t made Court and Spark, I wouldn’t have written many of the songs I did or they would have been very different. I also would have had to listen to music that wasn’t as good as hers. We all need to be grateful to our influences and maybe pay more attention to them even after we are done being taught by them. Just like we need to call our uncles and aunts and even our parents more often to make sure they are okay as a thank you to them for all they did for us.

Easy to say, I guess. As much as we all hate to admit it, we are music consumers. Often, we like something, then we don’t like it or we don’t like it as much as this new thing we like. Or we like this one thing by an artist but nothing else by them. Sometimes we like something and later, we are ashamed we liked it. Like Peter, we deny our former gods. But mostly, they just outlive their usefulness to us. It’s a rare artist that can hit a home run every time at the plate or keep the high standards and vitality of their early work into their twilight years. So my plan is to take a good long listen to Joni’s last full length record, Shine, which I sadly admit, I haven’t heard a single note of.