Nov 14 2020

Nostalgia


I listen to a lot of old music. And when I say old music I mean music from my youth. Studies have shown that we find our favorite song or songs between the ages of 11 and 16, with women being on the younger side of that and men slightly towards the older side. But there is something else about music that has me thinking lately.

Over the past couple of weeks, I heard two songs in a way I hadn’t heard them before. One was, Rhythm Of The Night by Debarge. The other was Under The Boardwalk by The Drifters .

Rhythm Of The Night wouldn’t be a song I remember liking or caring about before this past listen. Up to now, I wrote it off as a piece of ‘80’s fluff. But when I heard it last week, it filled me with a bit of longing or sadness and that sadness could be interpreted as nostalgia. Nostalgia being a desire to return to a time in the past, usually one you associate with a good feeling.

The song gives off a sense of life. The feeling I get is that the singer is planning to head out somewhere fun where good things are happening. Forget about the worries on your mind/you can leave them all behind. What a great message. There is nothing negative or cynical in the lyrics or the vocal performance, just an appreciation of how magical this particular night will be. It made me wish I was having that much fun.

However, the song is symbolic of something else. I think I am hearing it this way because it probably reminds me of the ‘80’s and maybe I was having fun then and I didn’t have any cares or at least fewer than I presently have. There is an idea of the ‘80’s that my mind conjures up. It’s a glamorous time when people dressed up and did their hair and everyone looked a bit stupid though not to each other at the time. People paid attention to how they looked and that kind of made things more fun for them. Dressing up before going out made the going out more of a celebration.

Under The Boardwalk is about summer. I love summer. I really hate cold weather. In the song, the singer is singing about a boardwalk near a beach, a summer scene. When summer arrives, he will head there with his girlfriend and sit on a blanket. But not in the direct sun, under the boardwalk where there is shade and possibly, some privacy. In the song, he is not there, he is dreaming of it. He can almost taste the hot dogs and French fries they sell, he sings.

If you live in Canada or north of the Mason Dixon line in the US, summer is an event. In most places up north, summer runs from about June to the end of August. So, unlike Florida or California or Texas or the Caribbean or any other hot climate on earth, summer is short lived and special, almost like Christmas or Thanksgiving. We experience it knowing that soon it will be gone and cooler weather will take over and then much colder weather will follow that. It makes the entire season feel a bit bittersweet as though you are visiting with a good friend knowing they will soon be gone and you won’t see them again for some time. In the summer there is the beach and people have stripped off the functional clothing of winter and we see who they are. For kids, it means no school and for many adults, it’s the time when they take their vacation from work. Beer tastes better and so do burgers.

For me, the end of summer is the end of the year, much more so than New Years Day. Summer ending almost has a sense of foreboding, colder temperatures, dressing to stay warm, rough lakes that will turn to ice. As a kid, it meant school starting-a new school year seemed much more significant to a kid than an arbitrary date on a calendar like January 1st.

Under The Boardwalk celebrates summer. It was probably written about a boardwalk in a place like New Jersey. So it struck me the same way Rhythm of The Night did, celebrating something finite and in doing so, almost implying that this good feeling is only temporary and that something less than good would follow. That is so depressing I can barely stand it.

This is the value of nostalgia. It can bring us to a place where life didn’t feel so shitty or complicated or worrisome. I think an idea exists that one should always be seeking out new music or new adventures. That’s certainly true to an extent but I am coming to terms with the fact that I may never hear a song that resonates with me the way the songs I remember from my 20’s or 30’s, when music was everything and it accompanied every thing that I did.

When bands like mine play shows now, what we offer people is that. We are giving them a night like they used to have, when they were in college and first heard our records and our music touched them on some level. It’s possible that the experience is even better now because the extra spice of nostalgia has been added. I remember seeing The Psychedelic Furs and Echo and The Bunnymen and being sure I was enjoying it more at that time than I would have when they were both current. Nostalgia has to be part of that. Other things like, they can play better now or they are not as drunk or stoned or jaded as they used to be might also come into play.

Many of you probably don’t know that I released a solo record some years ago. It was called Summer’s Over and it was a metaphor for the best part of your life being over and moving into the colder and darker end of life. The idea of using seasons to chronicle a life is not original. But it was one that made sense to me at the time. My friend Ronald Ramage once sang me a very short song he had written and the gist of it was that when you stop growing up, you start growing old. Pretty depressing stuff. The theme of coming to terms with getting older has been recurring in my music, starting, obviously, with our hit.

Summer imagery is something that resonates very strongly with me. Summer Wind, by Frank Sinatra, Summer Rain by Johnny Rivers, Boys of Summer by Don Henley and pretty much (and especially) anything by The Beach Boys.

There may be no recording group in history that so completely captured the idea of a season than the Beach Boys. Their music evokes the fun of summer and the desire for it to be endless. At this point, even the sound of their voices and harmonies paint of picture of summer in my mind. Which is why I can’t hear even the cheeriest of their songs and not feel melancholy.

I read a New York Times article that stated that nostalgia can, “counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety”. I certainly get the loneliness and anxiety part, remembering something positive seems like at least a partial solution to those things. The article also mentioned that in the 19th and early 20th centuries, nostalgia was considered “melancholia and a mentally depressive-compulsive disorder.” So the idea that nostalgia and melancholy can be related has some basis though I’m sure this has been, at least scientifically, discounted. Many people use the term ‘longing’ when describing nostalgia. Longing is a very appropriate word. The article also states that “couples feel closer and look happier when sharing nostalgic stories.” That’s certainly true. So many of the conversations I have with my wife are about wonderful trips we’ve taken or times when the kids were younger and these conversations always put a smile on our faces.

My mom just died. My childhood home was sold off years ago. I’ve lived the majority of my life already. I’m unclear as to how many summer’s I have left. We are in the throws of a global pandemic that feels like it has no end in sight. The past feels quite a bit more appealing to me than the future does. So I guess that’s why these two songs are pulling at me. The idea of life being carefree seems so foreign to me right now. The weird part is, why Rhythm of The Night? It has no place in my musical vocabulary. I suppose it has less to do with the actual song than the feeling it evokes.

Like everything I try to convey in this space, I would like to declare, this is the power of music. To bring us back, to unlock a memory, to comfort us in a time of loneliness or disconnectedness. To give us strength in a time of weakness or hopelessness. If you’re ever questioning the value of music, put on a record you listened to in high school or college and notice how it makes you feel.


Oct 22 2020

Surf’s Up


My favorite time of day is my morning coffee. I am typically the first one up in my household. In the early days of the pandemic, when most everything was shut down, that meant brewing a coffee and retreating to my studio. Since things opened up a bit, it has meant taking a walk to my local Starbucks where I can order ahead, pick up my coffee, say a huge thank you to my baristas and walk out with a minimum of contact with other humans. During this walk, I have taken to listening to podcasts. This is something I never felt I had time to do up until now.

Podcasts, like everything else, are uneven in quality. Since pretty much anyone can make one, they can be awful, promise more than they deliver or suffer because often they are only as good as the guest they are interviewing.

I’ve been listening to three types of podcasts. Political ones, which I shouldn’t because they make me angry and afraid, something I don’t need any more of in my life, music productions podcasts, which are almost always bad because nerds don’t give good interviews, and general music podcasts which are usually the most enjoyable of the three. My current favorite is one called Heat Rocks.

It’s hosted by musicologist Oliver Wang and music supervisor Morgan Rhodes. Unlike many music podcasts, I feel like Oliver and Morgan actually know what they are talking about most of the time. They both seem to have pretty good taste and are typically informed about the music featured on the show. Every episode, they invite a guest to discuss a favorite album or one they feel is important in some way. Generally, the series skews urban music. Lots of hip hop and old R&B. Not a lot of rock and certainly no commercial pop. Which is not to say they don’t feature so-called, white music. They have had guests talk about Court and Spark by Joni Mitchell and Tapestry by Carole King. But it’s not the usual thing.

Which is why I was so surprised to see the most recent episode was going to feature Surf’s Up by The Beach Boys. The guest who chose the album was African American poet and critic Hanif Abdurrabqib. He appeared very sincere about his appreciation for the record and for the Beach Boys generally. Perhaps because Hanif resides in Columbus, Ohio, which seems like the type of place where the Beach Boys would draw a big crowd at a summer fair.

I imagine that our hosts don’t always love the records their guests pick, though they may only do shows if they can stomach the record. I get the impression they ask guests to pick more than one record in case the guest picks a stinker that Oliver and Morgan couldn’t support on their podcast. As respectful as the hosts tried to be with Surf’s Up, it was pretty clear that they thought they were slumming it. There was a thin veil of, this is goofy, throughout the podcast. They also dominated the conversation in a way that I hadn’t heard before, at least in the episodes I’ve listened to. One reason for that may have been Hanif’s audio wasn’t very good. This episode was recorded during the Covid pandemic so I am assuming, remotely. I’m wondering if the hosts maybe wanted to spare us, the listener, the crappy digitized sound that got worse as the episode progressed. So Hanif may have had something meaningful to say that ended up on the cutting room floor? Would love to know.

So, a long winded way to get to where I want to be which is, Surf’s Up is a great album and the title track, which was hardly addressed in the episode is one of my 2 or 3 favorite songs of all time. And I want to arrogantly insert myself into the conversation with Morgan and Oliver about the album as though I am a special guest on the episode. Because the point here isn’t to criticize Oliver and Morgan, who I think are amazing. Their enthusiasm for almost every record they talk about on the show is frankly enviable. So many people in the music industry eventually start to view music and the artist’s who create it with contempt. That’s what happens when you commodify art for too long.

I was around 4 years old when I started loving The Beach Boys. It was the harmonies that drew me to them more than their actual songs. My older brother, John was the one who introduced me to them and the big song for us was I Get Around and it’s vocally complex intro/reintro. Later on, I became enraptured by The Warmth of The Sun, Please Let Me Wonder and Don’t Worry Baby because they had beautiful harmonies and extraordinary melodies but also a sense of melancholy. That melancholy would become more and more, a big part of the Beach Boys music.

Many people are aware of The Beach Boys artistic breakthrough, which is Pet Sounds. Pet Sounds would have made an infinitely better Heat Rocks episode because of its impact on the culture and its defining of Brian Wilson as a recording genius. Most musical historians know that the next project Brian took on was the most ambitious of his career, the up to recently unreleased, Smile. Not talking about Smile in any discussion of The Beach Boys from 1967 to the mid-seventies means the story isn’t complete. The aborted Smile project hung over the Beach Boys for that whole period and is often cited as the reason for Brian’s breakdown.

Many of the songs that were part of the Smile project ended up on a record called Smiley Smile, which was released in 1967. However, the best song on Smile is the title track of the record that is our subject. The esoteric lyrics by lyricist Van Dyke Parks paint a picture that is both abstract and haunting. Musically, it is the sort of complex chord arrangement that Brian started in Pet Sounds and would inform his songwriting thereafter. There is a moment in the song that is the most transcendent thing I’ve ever heard in music. Brian sings, “I heard the word/wonderful thing/a children’s song. As he sings children song, the reverb is pushed up and gives the last word a sorrowful cry. Then comes an intricate vocal coda with sort of a round against repeats of that wonderful last line. It’s the best thing I’ve ever heard. It’s the kind of thing that makes the Beach Boys matter even though most people think they are a novelty act. By the time Surf’s Up was released, Brian Wilson wasn’t very involved with the group. However, two of the three best songs were his, the beautiful ’Til I Die and of course, the title track, (the other great track being Feel Flows). But ’Til I Die was never mentioned in the podcast and Surf’s Up barely.


The hosts keyed in on the so-called more socially aware tracks like Don’t Go Near The Water and Student Demonstration Time, which they both gave a full diss to. Because it is corny. In fact, much of this record is corny and much of the Beach Boys music is corny. And for some reason, Oliver decided to celebrate, Take A Load off Your Feet, I feel to send a signal his fans how dumb this record is. Because it’s also corny or the humor of it isn’t particularly sophisticated. One track that got a bit of love was Disney Girls, a Bruce Johnson track. This track embodies the kind of existential melancholy that fuels this record. The fading idea of traditional happiness, “a peaceful life with a forever wife and a kid someday.” It’s the kind of dream world that the Beach Boys surfer music lived in. The song is nostalgic for a more innocent time, a time that passed with the escalating war in Vietnam and the civil rights movement and popular arts’ obsession with those things and not with surfing and girls and cars.


One thing that reassured me of how smart the Heat Rocks hosts are is when Morgan commented on how great the album jacket was. It’s a painting based on a sculpture by James Earle Fraser called End Of The Trail. Morgan thought it symbolized getting to the end of the coast, to the water. It’s a very sad image and extremely appropriate for the music inside. I think listening to the album while holding the cover, something I used to do all the time with all the records I listened to, would make the experience of Surf’s Up better.

I’m surprised how much this record and its cover informed my own musical journey. I’ve had a life long preoccupation with the idea of Summer’s Over, (see my next blog) which would have also been a great title for Surf’s Up. Writing about this now, on a cold and rainy October day during Covid-19, gives me a feeling of dread and sadness.

I am encouraging you to check out Surf’s Up knowing that half of it is crap. But the other half is brilliant. A few times in my life, I’ve played people stuff off of this or Smiley Smile and watched their mouth drop open. These are typically people whose experience of the Beach Boys is Fun, Fun, Fun and Surfer Girl. I usually hear comments like, “I had no idea how influential they were.” Yes, there was a time when the Brian Wilson led Beach Boys were hand in hand with The Beatles, pushing the boundaries of the recording studio and pop song composition and it’s a shame more people don’t know about that. Also check out the eventually released Smile. I often wonder what the trajectory of the Beach Boys’ career would have been had they released Smile after Pet Sounds.

What eventually happened is they turned into a nostalgia act-a musical representation of White America. Singer Mike Love has dragged them into the gutter and that’s a shame. Because they should have been so much more.


Jul 23 2020

Edmonton Block Heater

It usually takes a death to get me talking on this space. Ken Chinn, of the legendary punk band, SNFU, has passed. He had been in ill health for some time and I have no interest in going into the details as, I don’t have first hand knowledge of them and it’s nobody’s business.

We know far too much about the personal lives of our musical heroes or musical enemies and it serves no purpose that I can see. Someone’s public persona almost never informs their art. Inspiration is illusive and both swell and crappy people are able to make either good or bad music.

What’s important is Ken was an incredible front man and SNFU were the best band to ever come out of my hometown of Edmonton AB and one of the greatest punk bands of all time.

I met Ken when he was 14. The Edmonton punk scene was pretty small and you got to know everyone, if not by name, at least by sight. My first memory of Ken was him wearing what looked like his junior prom suit, (suits were kind of a thing in the early days of punk) digging on the bands, including my band, The Modern Minds. We were a power pop band that played really fast, like The Dickies or The Ramones with the melodic sensibilities of a band like The Buzzcocks. There weren’t a ton of gigs for bands like ours. Often the gig would be a bar that would slum it midweek and have a ‘punk’ or ‘new wave’ night, knowing that everyone in the scene would probably show up. Back then, there was no such thing as a stand alone nightclub that sold alcohol in Edmonton. Bars were attached to hotels and the only other place to get booze was at a restaurant, (if you ordered food) and restaurants didn’t have live music.

Once in a while, some enterprising kid would rent a hall for a punk show. I remember seeing DOA at one of those shows. There was a guy named Randy Boyd who opened a record store downtown called Obscure Alternatives. It mainly stocked the flood of releases that were coming out post Sex Pistols and Ramones that fit into the category of Punk or New Wave. It became the epicenter of the scene and I remember the night DOA played Edmonton, the band showed up at the store. They scared the crap out of me-they looked like they were in a bike gang. Most of the people in the Edmonton scene were college students or disenfranchised youths who would have been Smiths fans had they been born 7 years later. Which is to say, looking less like bikers and more like pasty white boys.

DOA just tore the roof off of the hired hall that night. The crowd went absolutely nuts for them and I think they got about eight encore calls. I honestly thought they were going to get pissed off at people begging them to keep playing.

Sometime around then, Randy, (I think) rented a place and built a stage in it and opened the doors. Edmonton had its first (non alcohol) punk club. It didn’t have a name but people called it the Suicide Club even though that had been a name for the Smilin’ Buddha in Vancouver. I think it only lasted a month, The Modern Minds played twice, one night had The Modernettes and The Subhumans and I forget what happened the other night. The Modernettes were kind of my favorite band at the time. Randy had organized a trip to Vancouver, which to us, was like a punk rock Mecca. We opened for the Modernettes and a band called No Fun at the aforementioned Smilin’ Buddha. I remember walking to the club, which was in a terrible neighborhood and the first person I encountered asked me, “how much would it cost to get you to kill my wife.” My suburban self walked away terrified. We played our show and then The Modernettes hit the stage. They opened with a song called Confidential and it was love at first listen. It remains one of my all time favorite records.

We released a three-song single as everyone released singles back then. The A-side was Theresa’s World and the B-side had Bungalow Rock, (my ode to my actual hometown of St Albert, a suburb of Edmonton) and She’s Gone. We recorded it at an 8-track studio called Homestead that was run by Larry Wanagas who would go on to manage KD Lang and The Trews among others. The single didn’t sell a lot but aged well and became something of a collector’s item. I would get requests for copies of it from various places, mostly Japan and a company there called Record Shop Base eventually asked if they could press a Modern Minds CD. All we had was the single, so we fleshed out the CD with a bunch of demos. Most of it was recorded live to 8-track, even the vocals. Years later, I was approached by a guy named Simon Harvey who had a reissue label called Ugly Pop who released a vinyl version of the Japanese CD. So it’s been fun, over the years, to see this single fight to stay alive.

I remember the night I left the punk scene. We were playing a show at the U of A, which was another place that would hire punk/new wave bands. We weren’t playing in one of the regular rooms where they ran gigs. This place had a makeshift stage that was only about six inches high. As I said earlier, you kind of got to know all of the people in the scene. There was this guy who was at every show, a big dumb guy. He was also a rich kid, which made him even more unlikable. He always had a nice leather jacket and that sullen, my rich dad knows I’m a fuck up, expression on his face. What some of you may or may not know is that back in the early days, there was an idea that spitting on the band was a thing. I don’t know where this originated but occasionally someone would want to try to be “authentic”-even in Edmonton. Well, on this night, the big dumb guy, who probably didn’t think I was punk enough, stood in front of me, like literally right in front of me, and spit at me through our entire set. His disgusting, pungent gob ran down my face, covered my glasses and gooed up my brother-in-law’s beautiful ‘60’s Rickenbacker. After enduring this abuse for several songs I began to have an existential crisis. This really wasn’t how I wanted my life to go, not how I envisioned being a musician. It never occurred to me that we could just stop the show, I didn’t want to quit and I resigned myself that it was my duty to ‘take it’. As this was all swirling around in my head, a fist flew across my field of vision and knocked Spitty out cold. Some guy had been watching this performance and had clearly had enough. The place went crazy and it felt like the cops were there in 10 seconds. The other thing was, punk shortly thereafter became hardcore and most of the fans were shirtless bald dudes assaulting each other. I wanted to be in a band where girls came to the shows. I would still be a fan but started to lean more towards my melodic side, creating more complex compositions while still playing the odd 180 BPM ditty.

Anyway, Ken formed a band called SNFU, adopting the stage name, Chi Pig. One memory I have is travelling from the suburbs on a St Albert Transit bus that ran once an hour, walking a half an hour to transfer to an Edmonton Transit bus that only ran every half an hour to get to a where they were playing. It was at a bar called Scandals, which was attached to the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Edmonton. I think I was on my third Edmonton band by this point and I had never been in one as good as SNFU. Their set was just blistering. A lot of the punk bands in Edmonton were unmusical, mostly attitude and hadn’t figured out how to use a tuner. But SNFU were incredible musicians, super tight and then there was Ken. Just a dervish on stage with charisma to spare. They signed a deal with BYO and put out their classic debut, And No One Else Wanted To Play. The band went on to become a world famous, highly influential band and one of Edmonton’s most significant exports.

A few years ago, SNFU went back on the road after a long break. They had a show booked in a club called the Velvet Underground in Toronto and this was going to be my first time seeing the band in many years. My status as one of the grand daddies of the Edmonton scene meant that I was always one of the people interviewed when a movie or book was going to feature Ken. It was great to see the band again, even though only Ken remained from that original Edmonton line up. I got a chance to talk to him briefly before the show and he honestly didn’t seem much different than the last time I had seen him decades ago. His voice still had a tiny bit of the timbre of youth and he joked and laughed at his jokes and seemed in a good place. His bass player was Dave Bacon, a guy I had become friendly with, largely over social media and it was great to hear all of those old songs again, played really well by the current line up.

So his death, as death often does, has caused me to reflect and wax nostalgic. Being in a band in Edmonton was so hard that it toughened you up, made you a good musician and tempered your expectations. There was no industry out there, almost no gigs and no real future. When The Pursuit of Happiness broke, even though it was what I had always dreamed of and worked so hard for, it still seemed unreal that it could happen to someone like me. It never would have happened if I hadn’t moved to Toronto and I thank my lucky stars that I was dumb and ambitious enough to move across the country with basically only the money in my pocket.

But there was one weekend in Edmonton where I almost felt that I had made it there. The Modern Minds were hired to do a three-night stand at a place called the Riviera Rock Room in the Riviera hotel. It was at the height of our popularity and I think we sold it out all three nights. That was the only time I remember a Western Canadian club promoter ever being happy with me after a show. It was recorded by a radio station that had to because it was part of their CRTC licensing agreement. I’m told the tape of that show still makes the rounds in Edmonton. That weekend ended up being the swan song for the band. Our bass player, the late, great Bob Drysdale had let us know before the shows that he was leaving the band. But that was as good as things ever got for me in my hometown and I flailed around there for a few more years until I figured out I was going to sink in suburban quicksand if I didn’t get out of there. But lets stop here. This isn’t my autobiography. Rest in peace, Ken.


Feb 8 2018

Arrogance

I just read a Facebook post that had a childless woman berating parents for allowing their children to misbehave on planes and in restaurants. She was aided by another mean girl in this and, from what I read, had alienated and hurt a bunch of moms who probably didn’t need to feel any worse about themselves. In subsequent comments, the childless woman reinforced her opinion that there was a way to raise children so that they would act like short adults and not ruin her good time. Which is to say, she believed she knew what she was talking about when she clearly didn’t. Anyone who isn’t a parent who has advice for people who are parents about parenting just shouldn’t.

These days, this, (not knowing what you are talking about) stops no one. In fact, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find someone who has a clue. But it doesn’t stop there. In 2018, people are creating, making things and starting companies doing things they may not know how to do. Or do very well. But they think they know how or more accurately want to think they know. That is enough for almost everyone.

The craft beer fad is a good example of this arrogance. 20 years ago, much of this beer would be called ‘hooch’. Something a guy brewed in his garage. His buddies would come over and drink some with him and tell him that it was good even though it assaulted their palate. It got them drunk which, for many beer drinkers, is 100% the point of beer. These days, this glorified moonshine is on the shelves of your liquor store, there to make you feel like a rube if you buy a beer made by a brewery that has been making beverages for generations instead of one by a couple of guys in beards with access to yeast and a clean bathtub.

Mrs. Berg and I have travelled to the southern US pretty much yearly for the past decade and a half. I had acquired a taste for southern barbecue while touring and recording in the US with TPOH. My wife and I regularly eat at BBQ places in Georgia, Alabama and Louisiana. I remember wishing, ‘I would love for a place like this to open in Toronto.’ A few years ago, a bunch of places did open up. People, probably like me, fell in love with wood smoked meat and figured they’d try their hand at it and open up a restaurant that serves it. After checking out many of these places, I revised my wish to, ‘I wish someone whose family had been smoking meat for generations would open up a BBQ restaurant in Toronto.’ Because it was clear that merely buying a smoker and some wood chips doesn’t make you a BBQ chef. But in 2018, buying a smoker and some wood chips IS all you have to do to be a BBQ chef.

It’s like when you talk to a kid who tells you, ‘I’ve been a music producer since I was 13.’ Which roughly translates into, ‘I’ve been dragging samples into a timeline in a program I downloaded for free from the internet since I was 13.’ 20 years ago, none of these guys would ever be producers at anytime in their life, let alone when they were 13. But their access to technology has given them an unearned title and they feel completely justified using it.

Can I state here, unequivocally, that this is not a shot at people who create electronic music. EDM, in all it’s subgenres, and hip hop are the present and future of music and anyone who thinks otherwise is thinking wishfully.

At this point, it’s a cliche to state that social media and 24 hour news stations are largely to blame for this. At a time when democracy is in peril in so many other ways, the media is completely democratic, socialist even, where everyone’s opinion carries pretty much the exact same weight. I never get tired of watching that scene from The Newsroom where the actor from Dumb and Dumber who isn’t Jim Carrey talks about ‘giants who were revered.’ when talking about newsmen. Yes, people who spent their life in pursuit of the truth without regard for political gain.

My fear is that people are ignoring how hard it is and how much work it takes to be good at something. About musicians working at their instrument their entire childhood, teenage years and well into their adulthood to finally have some success. And that many who pursued this path still didn’t achieve anything because there was someone else who tried and practiced and sacrificed a bit more than they did. Also, people who took recipes handed down from their parents who got them from their grandparents and great grandparents and still worked for years to perfect them before attempting to serve them to the public.

(This is maybe a right turn or maybe on course, I don’t know). A few months back, my Italian food loving sister was in town. Mrs. Berg, myself and my sister went to a restaurant in one of Toronto’s Little Italy’s. We arrived and noticed that the entire staff was Asian. So much for authentic Italian food, we chortled. Then the chef, an older Japanese fellow, came to take our order. As we got to talking, he told us about the years he had spent in Italy learning to cook. Then taking his skills to Japan and opening an Italian restaurant there and perfecting his recipes for a decade. Then bringing all of this knowledge and experience to Toronto to cook in a tiny little place that, I’m assuming, barely makes enough money to keep the lights on. He complained to us about culinary programs in Canada that had people who didn’t know the first thing about Italian cooking teaching students in our colleges. I thought, joke’s on us, here is a guy who has devoted his life to learning to do something he loves. He didn’t appear to have become rich doing it. I thought the meal was great but honestly, I know crap about authentic Italian cooking.

It seems like the only true meritocracy left is sports and Thank God for sports because it’s one of the only things left on earth that you can only do if you are frigging great at it. That last pursuit where you have to work your ass off for your entire life to maybe have a slim chance of making it at. I don’t see that changing with the rest of the world, although with NFL boycotts based on political beliefs, maybe there will be a RFL starting up that will have players with the right politics playing a substandard version of the game for fans of the right politics. Nothing would surprise me at this point.

As I read this back, I feel a bit old. Am I just cranky? There is another way of looking at this. These nouveau pit masters and brew masters are starting companies and employing people and injecting life into the economy. So that’s great, right? And bedroom producers, if they stick with it, could end up making interesting music. And that’s also good? Is the learning curve getting easier to manage, is world knowledge making it easier to perfect things that used to take much longer? I guess the proof will be in the results. Hopefully, there will always be people who care. Who will want to be great at something and not just good enough to satisfy people with diminished expectations. You have to start somewhere? Maybe my kids will be able to enjoy the beer and bbq made by the children of todays brewmasters/pit masters and it will be awesome. Maybe those children will have the humility to understand how hard it is to be really good at something. Or else people will have moved onto a new fad. In the meantime, I’ll pop the top on a Heineken and start saving for my next trip to the Deep South.

 


May 24 2017

Atlas Shrugged

Before we start, Objectivists will find this blog irrelevant.

At this years Canadian Music Week, I attended a panel that featured a speech by my friend Graham Henderson, a well respected member of the music community. He started out as a entertainment attorney, spent some time at Universal Music and has been the head of Music Canada for several years. Graham was my lawyer for many years and is a kind and generous man and also extremely intelligent.

The panel began with Graham giving a passionate talk about the present inequity of the music business with the technology companies in the hot seat as the new villains. Graham used Ayn Rand’s classic novel The Fountainhead as the example of the sort of unregulated capitalism that You Tube et al demonstrate with their business practices. The artist is in the familiar position of being the cattle lead to slaughter by the boss man. At a time when artists are fighting over pennies while You Tube and Spotify and other social media/streaming sites are raking in billions, I suppose one could invoke the kind of Darwinian capitalism Ayn Rand espoused.

What I believe the panel, which also included Songwriters Association of Canada President, Eddie Schwartz,  was telling me was that the industry cut a bunch of bad deals with technology companies, post-Napster, to keep them semi-afloat that, as usual, kept the musicians and songwriters at the bottom of the heap. Now, people like Graham are lobbying to sweeten these deals so that artists will get two crumbs instead of one. A solution to a crisis.

Except that the story is much older than that. The misunderstanding of who creates the wealth in the music business is as old as popular music and the recording industry. The music business has long been in denial as to which side their bread has been buttered. Think of the music business as a fridge. While no one doubts the value of the refrigerator, it’s utility depends on whether you have any food you need to keep cold. Otherwise, its a big clunky thing taking up space in your kitchen. I’ve often described someone in the music business with no music to sell as a food-less fridge. If there wasn’t any music to sell, what would they do? Stare at a phone, sharpen their pencils, go for lunch with people who aren’t musicians? Without musicians and songwriters, there is no business-none. Artists have never figured this out and since the supply of artists has always been plentiful, most have felt grateful to have their 15 minutes of fame, which for most of them, is all they get. The music industry happily cashed in on this renewable resource for 3/4 of a century until Napster changed the game.

The goal, expressed or unexpressed, of almost every artist I’ve ever met is to get signed. Get a record deal, a publishing deal, a manager, an agent, a number one record etc. When your goals are business goals, it puts the business people in the drivers seat. So no wonder they believe they are running things. And they are. The point remains, the artist can survive without the business but the business cannot survive without the artist. So how can artists use this to their advantage?

Today’s world, the world that Graham was railing against, works on the concept of exposure. That if someone can bring what you do to some kind of major attention, then and only then are you able to make money. Which is to say, your content has no intrinsic value, your song, your video, your article for Huff Post or your speech at any number of conferences being held daily across North America. This is something different than the old model which was, we can take your raw (quantifiable) potential, invest in it, market it, then when we find an audience for it, we can take most of the money. The good thing about that was, the artist almost always got something good in that deal. And while the artist has also largely been judged by the marketplace, there has always been an idea of something being of the highest quality even if it wasn’t the most popular thing. But in the world of social media your status is completely measured by clicks, likes, subscribers, views.  In fact, many of the people making it on You Tube are largely the mutant offspring of Seinfeld’s fictional show about nothing.

I should say that I think You Tube is awesome. Not just awesome, incredibly awesome. It has given many people a voice who wouldn’t have one. It contains a staggering amount of useful information.  I can now fix my fridge. Mrs. Berg has a very successful You Tube channel that has allowed her to get her message to the world and pursue a lifestyle of her choice. The democratization of culture that You Tube allows has been liberating. This is in addition to all the great music on it. But the new exposure culture has also done a slight of hand with things of value. Its idea of free and freedom doesn’t apply to itself. While the exposure culture leaders are trying to convince creators their content has little monetary value, they are getting fabulously wealthy.

The Fountainhead reference made me think of the next Ayn Rand novel, which is Atlas Shrugged. For those who may have waded through it’s 1000+ pages, it involves the ‘great minds’ of the world going on strike. Based on what I was hearing at this panel, I started thinking, this was a great idea. What if all the musical artists stopped supplying content to the technology companies. What if they told their audience, the only way you can hear our music is to come and see us perform it live? They would not be releasing any new music to any technology or streaming sites. Of course, the only way this works is if everybody does it. So Radiohead and Chance The Rapper and Beyonce and every other band that could make these companies hurt would have to join the revolution. Then anyone who is able to would take down any of their pre existing content.

The best thing is that I believe the fans would buy in. They would see this as their heroes’ struggle and they would want to join the cause. And, most artists have already discovered that playing live is the only real way to make money anyhow.

Both Graham and Eddie Schwartz assured me that it couldn’t happen because of the binding agreements artists and record companies have signed with streaming and other social media sites. I didn’t really know what they were talking about but I couldn’t help but wonder what artists/record companies got from these agreements. Deals in the main make sense when everyone gets something. Even in the old days of the record company Camelot, often an artist would get a bit rich along side their bosses. But a deal where the artist gets nothing sounds like indentured servitude.

So based on what I heard that day artists, or their rights holders, the labels/publishers, have forsaken all the of the gains artists made in the ’70’s and we are back in the ’50’s again. This is why the strike makes sense. Maybe some of the rights and money can be clawed back through political means but most people who are making music today might be past their prime by then. Would the artists have to break the law or risk being sued for this to work? Maybe. Revolutions often involve a bit of blood. But I have a feeling a strike wouldn’t take long to change things. Faced with an empty fridge, the technology companies might throw a few pennies at the content providers to keep the food supply plentiful.

Nice to think about but I know this idea is bizarre, fantasy. Just like an Ayn Rand novel.

 


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.