Tuesday, February 23, 2010


The story of Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue is the kind of inspirational Olympic tale that makes the whole sordid affair exciting in the first place: a come-from-behind victory, cute young athletes, a friendly rivalry, and a few fleeting moments of pure grace, artistry and athleticism. Watching their performance was moving and inspiring; no words were necessary, and thankfully, the CTV announcers agreed.

Until, that is, the final dramatic pose. Everyone watching knew the couple had nailed it, that no matter what the outcome, this was the performance of a lifetime. So, while we were still exhaling and revelling in the moment, what were the first words we heard being exclaimed by an overzealous announcer?


And there we have it, a summation of everything that is wrong not only with Own the Podium or the endless hand-wringing of the Canadian media’s Olympic coverage, but with Canadian identity itself.

"Is it enough?"

Those three simple words, that one simple question, summarizes centuries of cultural anxiety, a colonial legacy, a crippling modesty that believes nothing we ever do will ever be enough.

It doesn’t matter, it seems, if we’re confident in our own performance. It doesn’t matter, of course, that we achieve a personal best. It doesn’t matter if we come from behind and make it onto the podium in the first place. The only thing that matters is if we beat our rivals—conveniently, in the case of both ice dancing and hockey, our rivals are our perpetually overbearing continental neighbours, in whose shadow exists everything we produce as a country: culturally, economically, politically.

Granted, “Cautiously Approach the Podium” doesn’t have quite the same call-to-arms ring to it as our much-maligned and much-funded 2010 boosterism program. Of course we should strive to be the best in the world. But if, in the end, we end up a mere fifth, like Mellissa Hollingsworth, we shouldn’t have to convene a press conference and apologize to the nation, in fear of otherwise being hanged for treason.

Vancouver 2010—as a cultural event—is failing miserably in its attempt to show off Canada’s good side. We sound like a bunch of babies. Our neuroses and anxieties are on full display. We’re acting like the country will crumble at any moment unless every minute detail is an unqualified success. We’re politicizing every small gesture. And for a nation that prides itself on its modesty, we’re acting like either whining bullies or self-flagellating masochists. We default to one of two positions: either attempting to shut down any criticism, or basking in our failures.

"Is it enough?"

For Virtue and Moir, their performance was enough. But that’s not the point. Every artist in this country is plagued by that question almost every day. They’re told: yes, you’ve made a great work, but is it enough to be a hit? Is it enough to crack the States? Is it enough to be big beyond borders? Is it enough to satisfy our insatiable need to prove that we’re worthy of sitting at the big folks’ table? Because if it’s not, then we’ll settle for giving you a little pat on the head and we’ll forget about you tomorrow.

There is no pleasure in the present. If it doesn’t mean something to someone else, then it means nothing to us.

Is it enough? If you have to stoop to ask, then it never will be.

Friday, February 19, 2010

February '10 reviews

These reviews ran in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury this month.

Briga – Diaspora (Festival)

Balkan music is not only powerful and passionate, but it can also be lightning quick—usually for brass players. Briga is Montreal’s Brigitte Dajczer (Les Gitans de Sarajevo, Geoff Berner), who tackles impossible tempos on her violin with the help of an equally awesome, jazzy band behind her. The production is a bit too pristine for those who like their worldly sounds raw, but the power of the playing is undeniable. And because she needs to take a breather, the second disc here finds her crooning in a French chanson style—it’s somewhat less successful than the instrumentals, but proves that she’s got the whole package. Expect her to be the talk of the folk festival circuit this summer. (Feb. 11)

Briga plays Hugh's Room in Toronto on Feb. 23, with more central Canadian dates in the ensuing weeks.

Download: “Couscousescu,” “Hora Martisorului,” “Qalbi”

Bruno Capinan – Gozo (independent)

There is no doubting Bruno Capinan’s Brazilian roots, even if he made this, his debut album, in Toronto with many of the city’s finest players. But while he sings in Portugese and there’s a very clear influence from bossa nova and tropicalia, Capinan is by no means a traditionalist. And nor is he the kind of artist to simply slap coffeehouse electronic beats onto his indigenous music.

Instead, Capinan charts his own course, with his smooth crooning leading the way through string arrangements, jazz leanings, electronic shadings, and occasional art-rock leanings. The track Astral features a dubby Massive Attack groove, a melancholy violin evoking European cabaret, and a sci-fi theremin thrown in for good measure. Capinan’s anything-goes approach is put to the ultimate test when he transforms Hank Williams’ “Your Cheating Heart” into a whispered rumba—a daring move that doesn’t sound the least bit unnatural in Capinan’s hands.

Apparently just after this album’s release, Capinan headed back to Brazil after seven years in Toronto; that’s our loss, because Gozo is sure to be one of the most inventive and rewarding albums of 2010 to be released in this rock’n’roll country. (Feb. 11)

Download: “Astral,” “Tantas Horas,” “Your Cheating Heart”

Chicago Underground Duo – Boca Negra (Thrill Jockey)

The “Chicago Underground” is much more than a duo; in the past 12 years there have been 11 releases involving the core duo of cornet player Rob Mazurek and percussionist Chad Taylor, along with various players from the infinitely fertile Chicago experimental scene. But it is as a duo that these two flourish and explore the seemingly endless limits of their creativity.

Boca Negra starts subtly, with Mazurek playing little more than glissando scales, and Taylor riding rolling waves on his toms. But by the second track, we’re immersed in what sounds like birdsong and gamelan, and on the hypnotic “Hermeto,” there is neither percussion nor trumpet. The dynamic duo are entirely devoid of any predictability; one minute they’re seemingly entirely esoteric and arrhythmical, the next they’re in a hard funk groove.

Mazurek’s cornet paints with colour more than melody, and much of this album really belongs to Taylor, who has been moonlighting in pop music recently with Iron and Wine and sounds excited to be let loose again here. (Feb. 25)

Download: “Spy on the Floor,” “Confliction,” “Left Hand of Darkness”

Matt Epp – Safe or Free (independent)

This overlooked gem from late 2009 is a lovely introduction to this Christian troubadour from Winnipeg. These songs were written on the road from Newfoundland to Toronto to Mexico to the West Coast, with a lot of time to stare out the window of a passing vehicle and ponder philosophy. Epp’s husky voice works in every setting here, whether it’s just him and his acoustic guitar, fronting a raucous rootsy rock’n’roll band, or harmonizing with guest vocalists Amelia Curran and Eliza Gilkyson (both underrated songwriters in their own right). His songs don’t need much help to shine, but there’s a stellar cast of players here that flesh things out in every direction, including the Waking Eyes’ Rusty Matyas on various duties, including “alienesque spacezoid ambience.” Being the restless soul he is, this promising album suggests Epp is ready to go anywhere and everywhere—both literally and artistically. (Feb. 4)

Download: “This Old House,” “Working Holiday,” “They Won’t Find the Bodies”

Fire in My Bones: Raw, Rare and Otherworldly African-American Gospel 1944-2007 (Tompkins Square)

There are those that think that the path to spiritual enlightenment can only be reached by competing with pop hits to reach the heathens. This album is not for those people.

The subtitle is perfect: this is as raw as gritty gospel gets, made by true believers in tiny congregations, by lonely bluesmen with electric guitars, by full choirs and small vocal groups. Both the vocals and instruments are often too loud or large for the microphones: the organs and guitars are distorted at volumes meant to reach the heavens, and the voices cannot communicate the power and glory of God into the technology of mere mortals.

Compiler Mike McGonigal has gathered 80 tracks, representing various African-American gospel traditions, and spread them out over three discs, purposely avoiding any thematic, geographical or chronological threads. The material from the ’70s isn’t any higher fidelity than that from the ’40s; there are proto-rock’n’roll tracks from the ’50s, and solo blues recordings from the ’80s that sound like they could be 60 years older. Boogie-woogie piano, soul music, fife and drum, blues, country and straight-up preaching all appear here; it’s the diversity, and the mix of the amateurish and the awesome, that make this compilation work.

It’s an embarrassment of riches, of course: this is four hours of music, and it’s way more gospel than even hardcore collectors can digest easily. But once you stray from the canon of the great gospel recordings, Fire in My Bones can fill in all the rest of the blanks. (Feb. 4)

Download: only available on CD

F---ed Up – Couple Tracks: Singles 2002-2009 (Matador/Beggars Banquet)

When this Toronto hardcore punk band snatched the 2008 Polaris Prize for their album Chemistry of Common Life, it shocked mainstream observers. But it was the culmination of almost a decade of work and a prolific recording output.

Most of that output has been captured on seven-inch singles, and it says a lot about F---ed Up’s dedication to the form that this double CD is their second collection of singles.

That makes it an obvious must-have for fans. But more importantly, it presents a side of the band that’s much more exciting than the over-cooked, too-ambitious epic that was Chemistry of Common Life—an album that, despite its acclaim for breaking out of the hardcore genre, seemed to bleed the band dry and neuter their raw power. Here, on the other hand, they’re consistent, concise and leaping out of the speakers like it’s the last three minutes of their life—exactly what punk rock should ideally sound like.

The attempts to diversify beyond punk go no further than a Christmas song (“David Christmas”), incongruous hardcore versions of twee U.K. indie pop songs (“Anorak City”), and incorporating samples of Spanish Civil War movies and Palestinian prisoners—but it all works.

The only fault here is the volume of material. As a vocalist, Damian “Pink Eyes” Abraham doesn’t have the off-stage charisma to carry two CDs worth of material; thankfully, the rest of the band make up for it in ways that isn’t evident on the full-length albums—and it’s easy to compare, as some album tracks appear here in different and drastically improved versions (“No Epiphany”).

Thirty-five years after punk was born by declaring war on bloated album rock one single at a time, F---ed Up aims to balance both worlds—and it’s obvious here that the singles win. (Feb. 18)

Download: “Generation,” “Toronto FC,” “I Don’t Wanna Be Friends With You”

Peter Gabriel – Scratch My Back (Universal)

Peter Gabriel has always seemed to exist in another world: his recordings are always mysterious, high-tech tours-de-force; his stage shows are elaborate and theatrical; his tastes tend to be global and more esoteric than most.

And yet here we find him sitting at a piano with nothing more than a string section behind him, singing stripped-down versions of some of his favourite pop songs. His source material includes some of his contemporaries (Paul Simon, David Bowie, Lou Reed, David Byrne), but also a younger generation of writers (Regina Spektor, Elbow), some of them on small-scale indie labels (Arcade Fire, Bon Iver).

The good news is that Gabriel is in fine voice, and the string arrangements sidestep clichĂ© and revel in the possibilities of pulling the original song apart, as on Radiohead’s “Street Spirit” and the Talking Heads’ “Listening Wind.” The songs that are the least recognizable—like David Bowie’s Heroes—are often the best, and certainly the most revelatory.

The bad news is that every song is dragged to a dead-slow tempo, and Gabriel’s ponderous vocals render some of the lyrics ridiculous—Paul Simon’s “Boy in the Bubble” and the Magnetic Fields’ “Book of Love” in particular. Even though the latter is supposed to be satirical, by making it morbid Gabriel slips into the downright silly. Arcade Fire’s “My Body is a Cage,” despite the stripped down arrangement, manages to be unnecessarily even more bombastic than the original (and that’s saying something).

It doesn’t help that Gabriel pronounces the latter title like “my buddy is a cage.” Some of the songwriters here might say the same about him. (Feb. 25)

Download: "Heroes," "Listening Wind," "Apres Moi"

k.d. lang – Recollection (Universal)
k.d. lang – A Truly Western Experience (Bumstead)

There’s no dispute that k.d. lang was the musical highlight of the Olympic opening ceremonies this year: one of the greatest singers in the world singing one of the greatest songs in the world. And no doubt it helps her career even more that her appearance coincided with a new compilation of her adult-contemporary pop years, one that features not one, but two versions of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (a song that she herself has called for a moratorium on).

But dial back 22 years and recall, if you will, the opening ceremonies of the 1988 Calgary Winter Games, where a then fairly obscure country singer tore it up with a two-step fiddle tune. It’s easy to forget that, before she had “Constant Craving,” she made her mark on country music by being one of the most bold and brash singers in any genre.

That side of lang—and many more—is heard on the 25th anniversary reissue of her debut album, A Truly Western Experience. Here we hear the rowdy cowpunk (“Bopalena,” “Hanky Panky”), the balladeer (“Busy Being Blue,” “Pine and Stew”), the traditionalist (“Stop Look and Listen”), and even the performance artist (“Hooked on Junk,” “Johnny Get Angry”). Not only is lang on fire throughout, but the first incarnation of her band the Reclines—especially keyboardist Stewart Macdougall—rise to her occasion.

This reissue is enhanced by the two tracks from her debut seven-inch single in 1983 (featuring Amos Garrett on guitar), three live tracks of unreleased cover songs, an early demo, and a bonus DVD with three videos. The 2006 compilation Reintarnation offered a full retrospective of k.d.’s country years, but A Truly Western Experience easily stands apart from everything else lang has ever done.

Recollection is a badly needed compilation of the last 20 years, where lang’s albums have been spotty, and some of her best work has been scattered on soundtracks or charity compilations. So along with the obvious hits, here we get duets with Tony Bennett and Jane Siberry, and covers of the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, and Cole Porter. Most importantly for any serious fan are two long-orphaned soundtrack songs: her stunning duet with the incomparable Roy Orbison on his classic “Crying,” and her own “Barefoot,” the haunting song from her lone starring film role, Salmonberries.

k.d. lang is at a point in her career when she can afford to coast on her reputation alone—a reputation that boasts such frequent accolades as “one of the greatest singers alive today”—and these two releases are welcome peeks at how she earned that reputation, note by note, song by song. (Feb. 25)

Download: “Barefoot,” “Crying,” “Help Me”
Download: “Bopalena,” “Pine and Stew,” Mercy”

Le Loup – Family (Hardly Art)

The most acclaimed album of 2008 was the Fleet Foxes’ self-titled debut, full of folkie vocal harmonies singing gorgeous melodies over unconventional song structures that were still undeniably pop, despite all the banjos involved. In 2009, the most acclaimed album was by freak-folk/electronic-manipulator hippies Animal Collective. Along with sharing a fondness for wildlife monikers, Le Loup takes the best of both acts and spins their own brand of magic. They write stronger melodies than Animal Collective, and are more willing to strip down their songs to one chord than Fleet Foxes, floating on trance-like rhythms from acoustic percussion, and bathing the banjos and tambourines in reverb for full psychedelic effect. And yet for all its adventurism, it’s not as off-kilter as one might expect: there are rousing anthems and many moments of sublime and subtle beauty. Le Loup might be behind the pack when it comes to mass attention now, but they’re already artistically ahead of their peers. (Feb. 4)

Download: “Beach Town,” “Sherpa,” “Forgive Me”

Massive Attack – Heligoland (EMI)

As important and influential as Massive Attack was to the ’90s, there was always something inescapably icy and distant about them—and it wasn’t just the terrible lyrics that tried to be as profound and ominous as the music.

But for whatever reason, they return from a seven-year hiatus—and by saying “they,” that includes returning member Daddy G, who was absent from 2003’s 100th Window—sounding refreshed, relaxed and even warm.

For a band that attempted to fuse British goth mystery with American R&B to create a spooky stoner vibe for the digital age, Heligoland—inexplicably named after the first British-German naval battle of WWI—is looser and has less clinical digital precision, evident in something as simple as the handclaps that punctuate “Paradise Circus,” where guest vocalist Hope Sandoval sounds considerably more earthy (and American?) than most of their other fabled star turns of the past (Sinead O’Connor, the Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser).

This time out the guest list includes Tunde Adebimpe of TV on the Radio (a band that owes a small debt to Massive Attack), who does a passable job on the opening “Pray for Rain.” But it’s safe to say that Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz) delivers the worst vocal of his career on the turgid “Saturday Come Slow,” where he warbles a question that he’d really rather we not answer: “do you love me?”

Guy Garvey of Elbow turns in a surprising vocal performance on the skitterish, abstract Bjork-like beats of “Flat of the Blade,” a track that takes everyone involved admirably outside their comfort zone.

It’s consistent collaborator and reggae great Horace Andy who really steps up, as always, on “Girl I Love You,” a song that’s much more inspiring than its title, and is in fact one of the strongest tracks in Massive Attack’s entire discography—as is the funky fantasia of “Atlas Air,” where vintage organs replace the synth sheen that’s been a staple of the group’s sound.

Apparently plenty of tracks and high-profile collaborations were left on the cutting room floor during Heligoland’s long gestation period; with the exception of the Albarn track, it’s obvious that the meticulous editing process paid off for these veteran innovators. (Feb. 11)

Download: “Atlas Air,” “Girl I Love You,” “Splitting the Atom”

Pit er Pat – The Flexible Entertainer (Thrill Jockey)

Despite their delicate name, Pit er Pat make a lot of noise for a duo. Not loud, obnoxious, dense noise—but heavy grooves created with both live drums and an MPC drum machine, disorienting electronics, and simple guitar lines. Much of the aptly titled The Flexible Entertainer continues to draw from dub, industrial music, surf guitar, experimental rock and psychedelic electronics, with plenty of space left for two people to pull it off live—this album was written for a specific tour after they lost their third member, and they’ve lost none of their complexity or sense of adventure in the process.

Some listeners hear more hip-hop influences on this album, part of a prolific discography that has largely existed outside of any musical genre. And that’s true on a track like “Water,” which would work perfectly as the backdrop to one of The Clipse’s more ominous narratives. But no matter what influences are absorbed by remaining members Butchy Fuego and Fay Davis-Jeffers, their unique sound remains rock solid. (Feb. 4)

Download: “Water,” “Chavez Ravine,” “Specimen”

Sade – Soldier of Love (Sony)

Listening to the title track and first single off Sade’s first album in 10 years, she sounds tougher than she has since her debut album—not that she was ever particularly tough, but most of her material doesn’t cut the mustard outside the cozy confines of the bedroom. “Soldier of Love” boasts a bigger beat than we’re used to hearing from Sade, with chunky electric guitar accents and a cinematic quality that could almost pass it off as a James Bond theme.

Too bad it’s a red herring: much of this album is far too pacifist and passive, more sedative than seductive. And not just the grooves, as her lyrics are often equally lazy: “My heart is a lonely warrior/ it’s been to war.” The less said about the wretched “Babyfather” the better, but it is worth quoting once: “Child don’t you know/ your daddy’s love comes with a lifetime guarantee?” Too bad the album doesn’t come with a money-back guarantee. (Feb. 11)

Download: “Soldier of Love,” “Bring Me Home,” “The Moon and the Sky”

Gil Scott-Heron – I’m New Here (XL)

Everyone loves a comeback story—especially when it’s as potent as this one, in which a once vibrant and powerful political poet survives horrific addiction issues and federal incarceration, resurfacing as a weathered shell of a man reflecting on the losses and loves of his life. And intriguingly, he does so against a sonic backdrop that pulls him both back to acoustic blues and forward to dark electronic beats and textures that make his death’s-door delivery that much more compelling.

In 1971, after publishing two novels, the 21-year old Gil Scott-Heron debuted his combination of jazz, funk, poetry and social justice with the iconic song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” and later landmarks like “Winter in America” and “B-Movie.” The last 30 years have not been as kind to him, to say the least, and hearing him croak through “New York Is Killing Me”—with its line “eight million people and I didn’t have a single friend”—is heartbreaking.

As is the rest of I’m New Here. Unlike Rick Rubin’s recordings with Johnny Cash in the twilight of that great artist’s life, this sounds more like resignation than resilience. Heron talks of being circled by vultures (“Your Soul and Mine”), of dealing with the devil (a cover of Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil”), and a “savage beast that once soothed his brain” (“The Crutch”). The lone line of solace on the album comes in the title track (a Bill Callahan cover), where he insists: “No matter how far wrong you’ve gone/ you can always turn around.”

Of the 15 tracks, only eight are actual songs as opposed to short spoken interludes, and three of those are covers—albeit well chosen by producer (and XL label head) Richard Russell, who coaxed the album into existence.

Russell gives Heron the bare minimum of instrumental backing, in either acoustic or electronic settings—allowing all the focus to sit solely on Heron’s cracked vocals. This is both for better and worse, as Heron’s profundity has waned considerably, with the lone exception of “Running”: “It’s easier to run/ easier than staying and finding out you’re the only one who didn’t run.”

It’s a welcome sign of life for this once towering figure, who had become a ghost of a man. And yet it’s as uncomfortable as it is curious; the only real reward is hearing him once again stand tall and proud and back from the dead. (Feb. 18)

Download: “Me and the Devil,” “New York is Killing Me,” “Running”

Yukon Blonde – s/t (Nevado)

The appeal of this Kelowna band is entirely Fleeting—not in the ephemeral sense, but in the breezy West Coast pop sound whose 35-year lineage extends from Fleetwood Mac to Fleet Foxes. Vocals are at the forefront, shimmering guitars colour every corner, and classic rock chops put some muscle behind the arrangements. More importantly, every song features hook-heavy earworms. And even though Yukon Blonde never stray from their sunshiny sound, the songs themselves don’t stick to three chords and standard verse-chorus-verse structure. There is much to love here for fans of Sloan or My Morning Jacket, and don’t be one bit surprised if, by the end of 2010, Yukon Blonde become the biggest indie pop band from B.C. since the New Pornographers. (Feb. 18)

Download: “Blood Cops,” “Kumiko Song,” “Wind Blows”

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Wavelength 500

When a 10-year institution throws an anniversary party with reunions and reflections galore, it can easily be accused of nostalgia.

But at Wavelength 500—the five-day festival marking the end of the Toronto weekly music series that, it has been argued, changed the way the city’s music scene saw itself—there was no looking back, especially when the MC of the party was constantly—and I do mean constantly—hectoring the audience to be a part of the future, and demanding that they all go home and start bands.

Carl Wilson wrote in the Globe and Mail last Friday that Wavelength had become “a solution without a problem.” The problem in 2000 was a serious inertia in the Toronto music scene, a time when rock’n’roll was dead as a genre, the music industry was starting to collapse, and no one even seemed that interested in live music of any kind anymore. Cut to 2010, and one finds that Toronto is constantly opening new venues, not shuttering them, and there’s no shortage of live audiences for every possible genre. And furthermore, even our fringe artists—like the incredibly prolific doomcore guitarist Aidan Baker of Nadja—get international acclaim, long ago freed from the albatross of attempting to crack some pre-conceived notion of what Canadian culture was or should be.

And so the challenge of carefully curating three bands every Sunday night became a burden for the four men who were in charge of Wavelength in its final years, and they decided to retire that aspect of the project and focus on larger events. And what better way to kick off a retirement party, than with a five-night-five-venue-five-bands-a-night extravaganza?

I was lucky enough to be at every show, though I can’t claim to have seen every act that played. While I saw amazing sets by Bruce Peninsula, Diamond Rings, Professor Fingers, Holy Fuck, the Bicycles, the Constantines and more, it was the final night, the Sunday at the Garrison, that answered the eternal question: What Does It All Mean?

Having missed the first act, Boars, the evening then began with two bands that played the first Wavelength ever in February 2000: Neck and Mean Red Spiders. I’d never heard the former; I remember only that I was never impressed with the latter. Though both are obviously beloved by the Wavelength crew—and Jonny Dovercourt played bass in Neck—it became obvious to me that both bands were part of the problem of Toronto in the late ’90s, and what Wavelength’s children eventually sought out to destroy: music that was non-descript, no fun and missing soul. (To be fair, I also loathe the act each is compared to respectively: Mission of Burma and My Bloody Valentine.) Both bands were interminable. Both were merely “there,” not so terrible that I felt I had to leave the room. If they had made me angry, I would have respected them more.

(If such criticism sounds harsh and antithetical to the whole point of Wavelength, I’ll admit that it is. And in the interest of fairness, two other bands that drove me crazy were the rapturously received reunions of From Fiction and Rockets Red Glare, even though I have maximum respect for individual musicians in each of those bands.)

Ultimately, it was the contrast with what followed on the rest of this closing night that illuminated the changes that had happened in Toronto during Wavelength’s reign.

Barcelona Pavilion predated the short-lived tempest-in-a-teapot scene controversy known as the “Bad Bands Revolution” of 2006, though they surely inspired much of it. As they insisted on the short, sharp call for a “New Materiology,” “NEEDS MUST DICTATE FORM.” Singing and screaming about semiotics in German and English over primitive programming and two bass guitars, they dared to ask the one question that plagued Toronto, aka what hip-hop heads call the “screwface capital”: “How Are You People Going To Have Fun If None Of You People Ever Participate?”

Steve Kado and Maggie MacDonald were Hidden Cameras who were itching to unleash their supersized personalities outside the confines of the Cameras’ one-man operation, hence spawning Barcelona Pavilion. Kat Gligorijevic was a fan swept in the new spirit of Toronto at the turn of the decade. Ben Stimpson was recruited because Kado thought it would be funny to have his friend attach a laptop to a strap (like a strolling ballpark food vendor) and stand on stage and do nothing. Gligorijevic and Stimpson were stoic and nerdy cute; MacDonald and Kado were white hot and combustible, hilarious loudmouths and strong personalities who eventually had a (perhaps inevitably) bitter falling-out. All of them embraced immediacy and amateurism, although in Kado’s case it’s entirely deceptive: for all his railing against “men who practice,” he’s an intuitively gifted musician, and his melodic bass playing is a big reason why Barcelona Pavilion works in the first place.

Their whole ethos is equivalent to one of MC Doc Pickles’ many rants this past week: don’t think, DO. “How is your hangover? How are your bedsores?” taunts Kado on “Participate” (to which he coyly added, in a fit of self-consciousness about staging “dinosaur act” reunion shows, “How is your gray hair? How is your mortgage?”). You know that something like the Barcelona Pavilion can only be born of frustration, of dissecting a dominant situation and deciding that anything has to be better than the bill of goods we’re being sold.

And most importantly: the music of Barcelona Pavilion makes you feel alive, like life is waiting to be discovered, like wallowing in self-pity is self-inflicted cultural genocide, like what’s happening right now is the most important time in your life.

That latter point makes a reunion show a bit of an odd notion, and there were more than a few on-stage jabs at over-glorifying the mid-decade movement of Torontopia, which was most closely associated with Kado’s pontificating at the time. No matter. That time produced a sense of possibility that still exists today, even if some of its originators have moved on.

Barcelona Pavilion was followed by Kids on TV, who haven’t changed much at all in the past six years. Why would they? They’ve improved—as hopefully anyone would—but, like Barcelona Pavilion, how “good” or “bad” they are is entirely beside the point. There is pain, pleasure and politics mixed in with the party, and the spectacle is the thing.

The night was originally supposed to end there, but Owen Pallett was added to the bill at the last minute, along with one half of his current live line-up, a man known only as Thomas. Thomas and his band are hard to describe, and even harder to appreciate on first exposure—which this was, for many people there. Right up to its closing hours of its final Sunday, Wavelength was still introducing new talent.

Many performers have graduated from Wavelength to go on to great things, but Owen Pallett’s solo project—originally known as Final Fantasy—is perhaps the least likely. When he debuted it at Wavelength in 2004, Final Fantasy was one of about a half-dozen projects Pallett had on the go. And a solo violin looping project seemed the least likely of them to turn into a viable project—except that Pallett’s combination of his virtuosity and a balancing act between classical, pop and avant-garde moves made it a “winning formula.” That’s the kind of phrase that most Wavelengthers would recoil from, but there are precious few who begrudge Pallett his success. His homecoming here was beautiful and brief, a confident display of how what was once a daring and bold move has become everyday excellence—a perfect metaphor for Wavelength itself.

It didn’t end there. After what Doc Pickles called a “Saturday Night Live” moment, with all the organizers past and present on stage in a group hug, the Hidden Cameras took the stage. Ah yes, but which Hidden Cameras? Seemingly half of Toronto’s music scene has been in the band at one point or another, with bandleader Joel Gibb the lone consistent member. This one-song set, however, was a reunion of much of the original line-up, which included Steve Kado, Owen Pallett, Maggie MacDonald, Mathias Rozenberg, Magali Meagher, Gentleman Reg, and Dave Meslin, joined by Lex Vaughn, Thomas, and Kevin Drew.

The Hidden Cameras’ “I Believe in the Good of Life” is a Wavelengthian, Torontopian anthem if there ever was one—the “Rockin’ in the Free World,” if you will, of this generation’s time and place. It was preceded, as it would have been in 2002, by Dave Meslin making a brief plug for his latest civic engagement initiative. And it ended, as it would have in 2002, with dozens of people hauled on the stage to join the party— participatory democracy in action, if you will.

After the final chord and the final hugs, Doc Pickles was still on stage at 3 a.m. on this Sunday night, telling us that culture is not what Ben Mulroney and Jian Ghomeshi and Rogers Media tells us it is, that we are the culture, that we have to go home and make art, that life’s what you make it. The legacy that Wavelength helped create should never be taken for granted, never be lulled into complacency.

The only time you should rest on your laurels is if they’re lining your coffin.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Liz Worth: Treat Me Like Dirt pt2

More from Liz Worth today regarding her oral history of punk rock in Toronto and Hamilton, Treat Me Like Dirt.

Part one is here.

Ms. Worth has several upcoming appearances to plug the book, starting at Soundscapes in Toronto this Saturday, Feburary 13 at 5 p.m., where she'll be part of a panel moderated by Liisa Ladouceur and featuring filmmaker Suzanne Naughton (Afternoon at New Rose), Sheila Wawanash (editor of '70s music mag Shades), and Zero (musician).

On Sunday, February 14, she'll be in romantic London, Ontario (home of the Demics) at the London Record show. On Saturday, February 27 at 4 p.m. she'll be signing copies of the book at Dr. Disc in Hamilton alongside Gord Lewis of Teenage Head, Mickey DeSadist of the Forgotten Rebels, and producer Bob Bryden.

And the book tour goes out of province to Montreal on Saturday, March 6 at Sonik Records. All details can be found at her website.

After I finished the book and was flipping through it to prepare for this, I realized the significance of opening with Chris Haight (Viletones) and John Hamilton (Diodes) together, and how their respective future bands define the dichotomy in the scene. Yet this is something you don’t care to point out or flag for the reader; it’s all there for our inference, if we’re looking for it. Did you worry about context for the people that weren’t on the scene at the time? Were you tempted at all to put signposts in the text?

I really wanted to let the story tell itself. I had a broader audience in mind, rather than just the people who were there. Of course, I wasn’t there, and I wanted it to be a book that someone like me would read. I knew there would be interest beyond the original Toronto scene, and that younger people would want to read it.

But what I like about oral histories is that you can have four different versions of the same story, because I like subjectivity. Subjectivity is reality—we often don’t know what’s really happening at any given time. If you have 10 people in a room, one thing happens, and everyone will remember it differently. Who cares what really happened? Something happened, and all the versions are interesting.

Your first run of 500 evaporated almost immediately. How quickly did these disappear?

Pretty fast. A week, maybe? I’ve been getting emails from people in England and other faraway places.

Was it not anticipated off the top?

I expected that people would be interested. I didn’t think it would happen so quickly.

You have what, 150 people in your cast of characters, so all those people are going to want it, and then this was supposed to come out in September, so there was advertising for it around then. Nonetheless, it’s amazing to see the response, especially because you talk about how a series of publishers rejected it for being too niche-y. That might be true—but it’s a large niche.

People thought it was too Toronto. Some people suggested that if I expand the focus and make it geared toward punk scenes across Canada, then they’d be interested. But I didn’t think that would work. There wasn’t crossover between scenes everywhere. And history doesn’t make everyone equal. To put certain scenes beside each other would give them equal footing, and I think that stuff that happened in southern Ontario was so strong that it needs a book of its own. I don’t think it’s fair to share with everyone else in Canada, just because you’re afraid of leaving someone else out or not selling 20 copies in Halifax.

It’s striking how self-aware everyone is of their Canadian status; they’re very conscious of creating something new in Canada, of changing the cultural landscape here, even though secretly they know that they—as first-wavers—are least likely to benefit from it. And so even if Canadian colonialist defeatism ultimately does them in—both internally and externally—their Canadian identity is still very important to them, even just as something to be angry about, like Mickey DeSadist’s upside-down flag.

People do talk about Canada having a second-best complex. Toronto especially has to be more arrogant, and it has been in the last several years, with the Utopia books that Coach House has been putting out, Spacing magazine, a lot of the writing in Eye Weekly and the Toronto Star and to some extent the National Post, where they’ve been writing more about Toronto. It’s strange that it’s taken that long to even do things like that. As much as it seems to bother people, Toronto is the biggest city in Canada, and things happen here. Culture is driven here, and we welcome culture from all over. A lot of people have to come through here to get their creative careers going. We’re always trying to keep Toronto down to appease everyone else in Canada—it’s so bizarre.

Which comes through in publishers’ reaction to your book as well.

That’s a big part of why Toronto has been held back for so long. Canada tries to treat all its cities as if they’re equal. When really, we don’t have a lot of communication with each other. Winnipeg and Toronto are so far away that we don’t have a lot of crossover with each other…

There’s certainly enough Winnipeggers here, though.

But you can’t travel to Winnipeg to hang out for a night, is what I’m saying. Canada is so spread out, and I don’t see what’s wrong with saying: this is what’s happening here, it’s cool, let’s talk about it. And we can do that for all the cities. But because we’re always trying to be democratic about talking about things happening in the country, we end up just suppressing a lot of things. In the States, New York is New York: so big and loud and it lets you know it’s there, and everyone’s cool with that, because it’s New York. L.A. does the same thing, and whatever. Canada is so weird.

The rest of Canada hates us already, so we should just deal with it.

Also, people have to understand that Toronto does drive a lot, not just culturally but economically as well.

Are you doing a national book tour, by any chance?

(laughs) Probably not, after this interview.

What did you learn about Hamilton?

I always liked Hamilton. It’s very underrated. I grew up in south Etobicoke, which was a very industrial neighbourhood, so I felt a kinship there. Hamilton is like a big south Etobicoke. I like the working class element there, because that’s how I grew up.

Was it on your radar when you started this?

Oh yeah. I knew Hamilton had to be included in this book. Talking about punk in Toronto, you have to talk about Teenage Head and the Forgotten Rebels. And if you talk about those two bands, then you have to talk about Simply Saucer, because they’re a big part of what happened in Hamilton.

That surprised me. I knew a fair bit about them before, but I had pictured them as precursors and not contemporaries. I pictured them as doing Stooges/Floyd stuff in the mid-’70s, but had forgotten that they co-existed with this scene.

They started much earlier but they kept going. They had a fairly long career, especially compared to some of the other bands who only lasted two or three years. Later on Simply Saucer’s career continued when Cyborgs Revisited came out in the ’80s and Half Human Half Live came out a couple of years ago. Their cult following has grown over the years and they have fans like Thurston Moore. So it was great to learn how the Hamilton scene started, and a lot of it revolved around the party houses. Hamilton has always been known as a rock’n’roll town, but it was still hard for a band like Teenage Head to play. They were up against a lot of the same challenges that bands in Toronto were facing.

I was in Hamilton a lot in the ’90s, and what struck me about it was that this scene never went away there. Whereas in Toronto, a lot of these people didn’t really go on to other bands after 1985. But in Hamilton, there was always some incarnation of Teenage Head going, Mickey DeSadist always had some version of the Forgotten Rebels and you’d see him around the Corktown. And they were kind of sad characters to people of my generation, who were 20 years old in 1991, like, “Oh, those old guys,” and obviously we didn’t know much about their history.

It was a bit of a joke—like any band who sticks around forever, there’s the golden period, the waning period, the joke period, and then the respect that eventually comes with endurance and legacy. And the flip side of that is that Hamilton always had a connection to their history, a living history, whether or not you thought they were still heroes or whether you thought they were geezers. Whereas Toronto, with its cultural amnesia, didn’t have that at all.

There is a very tight community in Hamilton—it’s a smaller city. There are fewer venues, fewer people. In Hamilton, you go to a show and everybody’s there and dancing and really enthusiastic. You go to a show in Toronto and maybe there will be people there, maybe not. And if people show up, you can’t tell if they care or not. In Hamilton there’s so much enthusiasm, so much support. They’ve really benefited from having generation after generation sticking around. Younger people coming up can connect with people who are a part of that history. Gord Lewis and Chris Houston are still making music but they also work in a record store there, so they’re involved on several levels.

There are two stories in here about bands not seizing a chance to go abroad. None of the bands had any hang-ups about going to New York, which was seen as the golden chalice, but when the Viletones could have gone to the U.K., Steven Leckie inconveniently “forgets” to get a passport. And the post-Ugly band, The Wild Things, have an L.A. connection but they never make it past Vancouver. Do you think there’s an insecure element of self-sabotage at work?

Not with everybody, but with some people, yes. The B-Girls moved to New York, but they were the only ones. And no one moved to England. These bands had a lot of interest, but there was always something going wrong.

There was also a classic tentativeness: “I don’t know, that’s a big leap, I’m not sure if we should do that.” And with something like punk in the ’70s, it’s probably easier to fall into that trap, because there’s no model of commercial success anywhere yet. If you play poppy prog rock like Saga, then you at least have the confidence that this kind of music is huge all over Europe and you can be stars in Germany. But it’s not like the commercial prospects of punk were that much better outside of Canada than they were in.

And this plays into a theory I have about the Diodes. When you look at the type of comments that people make about them in this book, what people seemed to really resent about them is that they had less self-sabotage than anyone else. Were they actually ass-kissing careerists, or did they just have decent, sensible management and they didn’t burn every bridge around them? Were they not just comparatively normal as opposed to swearing on the air on commercial radio stations and waving Nazi flags around?

I don’t think there’s reason for so much resentment toward the Diodes. I do think there’s jealousy there.

But jealous of what, ultimately?

It’s true. People have to be not so hard on the Diodes. Not only were they a good band with good records, but the fact they put out records is really important. Especially records that, early on, because the Diodes had put out full albums and more than one album or 7-inch, they are one of the bands who have been able to keep the connection to the present and past. So when people have been looking for Toronto punk, at least there’s something out there after all those years. Even though it was on vinyl until the late ’90s, when Sony put out their best-of on CD, at least there was something out there. Which benefits all those other bands. Since there are amazingly nerdy record collectors out there, if some people are into the Diodes, they’re going to look for other stuff: other names, other albums, other seven-inches. So you have to give the Diodes credit not just for getting the first record deal, but for being able to maintain Toronto’s legacy for 30 years while it was falling under the radar.

The lack of recorded material is a major weakness for Toronto punk. Listening again to the ’90s reissues, they don’t hold up as recorded documents for me—but that’s not really the point. I don’t doubt that even if I think someone’s record is shit that it was incredibly exciting at the time, and this book captures, I think, what it must have felt like to be there. In your interviews, did people mention those reissues in the ’90s? I seem to recall some controversy around the way they were handled.

Oh yeah. There is controversy around that label, Other People’s Music, which I won’t get into. It’s all second-hand information for me, so I don’t want to throw any gasoline on the fire. Obviously people are mad, so something happened there and I don’t doubt that. On the flip side, no matter how mad they are, it’s good those CDs were put out. A lot of people who are in their 20s and 30s and are too young to have been there have said this: we’re all happy that at least someone did something and put these out, because that’s when we all found out about it. If that label hadn’t done that, this book wouldn’t be here right now, and a lot of people wouldn’t know any of these bands. Maybe that would have changed with the Internet, but maybe not because there are a million bands there. The CDs came at a time when they stood out. They were in HMVs.

Are they still in print?

I don’t think they’re around now. But I think they should be. [ed note: I later checked, and for some reason, of the Other People's Music reissues, only the B-Girls’ album is on iTunes.]

I find the denouement fascinating, full of the would’ve-could’ve’s. The Diodes say they didn’t want to do the Ontario bar circuit, because it would kill them; that’s what Teenage Head did, and it did kill them, essentially. And yet that’s one of the only options for Canadian bands unless you reach a certain level of success here and elsewhere. Something like the Viletones is destined to burn bright and flame out; you can’t be expected to sustain that energy and notoriety. Even during the course of their short career, Leckie toned down the stage presence and eventually went rockabilly.

What’s interesting is hearing them all reflect now. [Diodes publicist] Ralph [Alfonso] has great quotes about what was realistically possible in Canada. This music failed everywhere else; what were the chances of this actually becoming sustainable in Canada, of all places?

It’s true. Ralph sums it up really well. If you think about it, there are a lot of people wondering if they were in the wrong place at the right time—the wrong place being Canada. People could have left. The B-Girls did leave, and still nothing happened. They never put out an album.

But look at where other people were: Patti Smith only had one song that charted, and it was her song with Bruce Springsteen. Patti Smith is so iconic and so well-known, but she didn’t have a huge level of commercial success. Television never charted in North America, although they did in Europe. The Ramones never charted, and they toured forever. Thirty years have gone by, and every new year a new batch of kids gets interested, and that’s what fuels them.

Now everybody knows who these bands are, but that’s because there has been time for people to write books about them, reissue albums, dig up new recordings, have reunions, all kinds of things.

It’s funny that a lot of these artists complain about a lack of mainstream attention—and yet they’re on the front page of the Globe and Mail, there are articles in the Star, the Sun, Maclean’s, the CBC—even though most of the coverage is dismissive and ridiculous, when you think of marginal movements today, they would never get that kind of notice from mainstream media. That’s partially because niche media has exploded so much, that the mainstream media becomes even more closed to new developments. I was surprised at how much mainstream attention these bands got—not from radio obviously, except for Teenage Head.

These bands were successful. Not commercially, and a lot of them kept their day jobs. But Teenage Head had a platinum record. Teenage Head did chart. So did the Diodes. The Ramones never charted. They did have success; it wasn’t all a failure at all.

One of my favourite stories in the book is about how one night you’re the kings of the Last Pogo, and the next night you’re in Oromocto, New Brunswick.

Welcome to Canada, right?

Who have you heard from already who wants to contradict someone else’s version of events?


Or have you given enough wide berth of conflicting opinions that it all comes out in the wash?

I didn’t know how reactions were going to go. A lot of people who are in the book are very positive about it. Some people wanted more about their bands in it. But I haven’t heard too much about conflicting information. I’m sure there are things that people wish weren’t said, or people are surprised at what other people said about them. A lot of these stories have been talked about for years before. For people in the book, this is stuff they knew was being said.

How did you decide to handles the codas of people's careers, the deaths and reunions and whatnot?

Frankie Venom died while the book was being proofread. I’d had the chance to interview him, and I had no idea he had throat cancer. It wasn’t a public thing. It was really surprising when he died. I don’t think anyone outside those closest to him was expecting it. I didn’t want to change the ending of the book. I liked that Teenage Head had the last word, because they were one of those bands who never stopped.

What’s the worst thing about writing an oral history?

Aside from transcribing hours and hours, this whole project was both the easiest and hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was easy because I wanted to do it, and it was my reason to get up in the morning for so long. I met a lot of awesome people and I learned about all these bands I always wanted to learn about, and it means a lot to me to know these histories of Toronto and Hamilton.

What’s weird about doing an oral history—or any non-fiction book—is that your characters can call you up any time they want to (laughs). Which is kind of strange. It can be really draining when you’re dealing with a lot of sad stories. There are a lot of ups and downs in this book. When that becomes your day-to-day conversation, that can take a lot out of you.

There’s a lot of unloading, a lot of stuff they maybe haven’t talked about in 35 years. There are the guys who go down to their local and talk about it every night, but there are other people who haven’t had anybody knocking on their door asking about this in a long, long time. So you’re part therapist as well?

When you interview people, you’re asking some questions, but you’re really just sitting there listening. You’re not having a conversation. It’s not about you. I would spend entire days never talking about myself. For two years, my whole life was all about other people and their stories. It was a lot of listening. Sometimes people would talk for 45 minutes or an hour and I wouldn’t say anything.


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Liz Worth: Treat Me Like Dirt pt1

Punk rock is dead to me, for myriad reasons that belong in another essay. But let’s just say that there’s nothing more excruciating than listening to aging punks wax nostalgic about the old days—except hippies doing the same thing.

So why, then, did I fall in love with Liz Worth’s Treat Me Like Dirt: An Oral History of Punk in Toronto and Beyond 1977-1981?

Because reading about the birth of punk rock in New York City or London is one thing. Reading about it happening in the cultural backwater that was Toronto and Hamilton in the ’70s is another.

When the book opens, Yorkville was dead, successfully stamped out by a combination of City Hall ordinances and gentrification. Second City and Rough Trade and the gay scene kept a counterculture alive, but it was near impossible to play original music in clubs. A group of students at the Ontario College of Art set out to change this, and soon form a fractious union with street punks.

The Crash’n’Burn club is constructed by an art collective and the Diodes and, for one summer in 1977, it serves as both a musical catalyst and a short-lived performance art experiment. Arguably, bands like the Viletones and The Curse were more important for what they represented than for their musical output; Hamilton’s Teenage Head were simply a new take on classic rock’n’roll showmanship with a connection to the street rather than stadium dreams. And, representing a typically Canadian crabuckit mentality, the Diodes become everyone’s favourite whipping boys for daring to write actual pop songs and sign to a major label.

As a cultural history of Toronto, Treat Me Like Dirt is riveting. The city is portrayed as a ghost town in the opening chapters. By the end of the book it’s a different kind of ghost town: the hollowed-out eyes of heroin users have replaced the vibrancy and wide-open possibility that populated the scene just a few short years before.

More importantly, the characters are fascinating. You couldn’t create a character like Steven “Nazi Dog” Leckie of the Viletones, a manipulative poser and schemer whose juvenile taste for shock achieves both everything and nothing; he’s as responsible for the scene’s audacious gains as he is for its self-sabotage. The women in The Curse and the B-Girls are daring and outspoken in ways that wouldn’t be seen again until the riot grrrls—and even then makes those third-wavers seem tame. The Ugly is led by a mentally unstable career criminal who’s constantly dodging the police and fires guns in his rehearsal hall.

And then there are all the minor characters, many of them freaks and geeks of the weirdest kind—of one Hamilton nutcase, it is observed: “He used to carry bacon around in his wallet. That’s the kind of guy he was.”

Hearing them all speak now, with (some) wisdom and greater life experience, we hear them reflect both rhapsodically and with regret. (Favourite quote, from Lucasta Ross of the B-Girls: “That is youth, and youth is stupid, generally.”) But mostly, we hear deserved pride. Paul Robinson of the Diodes argues that this time period permanently changed Toronto, and it’s hard not to argue with him.

I have very minor quibbles: as an oral history compiled by someone who was born after the time period she’s writing about, Worth often lets many people repeat the same information, at times ad nauseum, and more judicious editing would help considerably. The fanzine-like two-columns-per-page layout is very readable—except for the fact that there’s next to no white space in the inner margins, so you have to seriously crack the spine to even read the text. [UPDATE: publisher Ralph Alfonso has informed me that's not true of all the copies, only a few in the first run]

Of course, this all sent me scrambling to find my filed copies of the ’90s CD reissues of the key acts here, as well old Diodes vinyl. Very little of it holds up to these jaded non-punk ears. (Exceptions: The Ugly, the B-Girls, and obviously key songs by Viletones, Teenage Head, Diodes, and the amazing art single “Raw” by The Curse. Oh, and the Poles' "CN Tower.") But none of that matters compared to the compelling narrative Worth spins in this essential book.

I remember watching 24-Hour Party People—which brilliantly portrayed the mundane beginnings of the Manchester music scene—and, in a fit of bitter colonial rage (to which I’m prone), I lamented that no one ever romanticizes Canadian music that way. This book changes all that. And I hope someone is optioning the film rights as we speak.

This is the first of two parts of my conversation with Liz Worth.

Liz Worth
February 9, 2010

Locale: Moonbean Café, Kensington Market

Is it possible to underestimate how boring Toronto was in 1976?


You couldn’t even buy black jeans, as you point out. And everything changed around the time you’re writing about, with this scene, with the art scene, with the Toronto Film Festival, with CITY-TV all helping to loosen the sphincter of this tight-ass town. What did you know of that time period?

I wish I had a better sense of things. My parents are older; they’re born in 1936. They’ve lived through many decades, but were never tuned into popular culture. They had parties and had fun, but were never a part of any music scene. If I ever asked them details about what things were like at certain times, they’d just say, ‘whatever,’ they didn’t care. But I do remember when I was growing up when Sunday shopping came in and what a huge deal that was for Toronto. People were so mad and divided; some people thought the world was coming to an end if stores were open on Sunday—and that really wasn’t that long ago.

Scarcity was such a source of inspiration for so many people in this book. There might have been one other person in your high school who knew about the Stooges, and the mythology of the Velvet Underground hadn’t entirely taken hold yet. It took work to find other people in a 100-km radius who were into the same stuff you were.

And that passion then extended to everything else they do, and the stakes seemed so high—all of this a remarkable contrast to the ubiquity of everything today. How do you compare these people’s stories to the way you grew up?

Boredom drives a lot of creativity. I thought about that a lot: the influence of the Internet on youth movements and subcultures. It’s an interesting question because you need to be bored. When unemployment rates are really high, that’s when things like punk rock start.

I was 13 in 1995. Kurt Cobain had just died, grunge was still going strong, MuchMusic still played videos—and you had to watch it for hours to see something you really wanted. And you might use a tape recorder to tape things off of TV or the radio. If you heard something you liked, you’d write the band name down and try and find it later, and maybe you would, maybe you wouldn’t. It was hard to find stuff that was cool, and my friends and I would spend a lot of time in record stores looking for things, or waiting for things to come out on a Tuesday if it was something we really wanted. Those things made music special.

And was yours the last generation to feel that?

I think so. We’re the last generation to grow up having to find things without the Internet, and then knowing what it’s like with the Internet, having both worlds. We were coming of age at that really important time when technology hadn’t infiltrated everyone’s home yet. I feel like then, you looked for signifiers: T-shirts people were wearing that indicated someone might be like you, even if those things are so vain and superficial. Now everyone has started to look the same. And there are pros and cons to both those things. Now it’s so easy to find things and get your music out there that people are overwhelmed and almost on the verge of burning out.

Does that then create a new boredom?

Yeah—but in a very bad way, where people don’t care anymore and don’t want to find any new music. It’s also interesting that we’ve come out of this decade of nostalgia, with so many bands reuniting and you see 12-year-olds in Ramones T-shirts, and everyone’s listening to stuff from 15, 20, 30 years ago. Which is fine…

That’s not unusual to this decade, though. That’s been happening since the ’70s, with its ’50s revival.

But it’s weird because we didn’t have anything big and new come up that wiped away everything else and made the kids not care about what happened 30 years ago. It’s strange that everyone is still so stuck in the past, even if it’s not their past. Maybe people don’t even realize that they’re looking for that special feeling of scarcity where they can have their own thing. Because now nothing is anyone’s own thing anymore. It’s just all out there.

When you talk about waiting to hear or see something that speaks to you on MuchMusic, or, in my case, staying up all night to listen to Brave New Waves, you would be exposed to so much other stuff in the process. Whereas now if you like screamo, you go to a screamo message board and find what you want, and everything is so niched.

And in your book there’s a lot of talk about how there is a clear counterculture. You’re either straight, or you’re “this”—and “this” can encompass so much, in art, in film, in music. You talk about the New Yorker theatre and the Roxy, where the music in between films is as much a part of the experience as the films. Now it’s entirely possible to be into underground film without any knowledge of underground music and vice versa—and both those terms are kind of meaningless anyway.

That was something that came up a lot in terms of gay culture. When Club David’s opened up, which was a gay club, at the time it was a very underground thing. David’s was this place where the punks were freaks and the gay community were freaks; no one wanted either of them, so they hung out—even though on the surface they hated each other. But they have to hang out somewhere so they shared their space.

The book doesn’t pull and punches about the thuggery of Toronto punk culture, or the divide between the intellectual side and the defiantly anti-intellectual side.


There’s always been a loogan aspect of punk that gets glossed over in a lot of Greil Marcus-y, academic discussion of punk: an over-glorification of the working-class element without mentioning the flip side of that, which can be quite redneck. And it’s only after the first wave that the second wave becomes more doctrinaire and lefty about what this is all supposed to mean, like the Dischord Records ideology. Whereas in your time frame, there’s a clear conflict between those two camps, who co-exist out of necessity, and how they play off each other.

I’m amazed at how much animosity exists in these people’s quotes, 35 years later, between the art crowd and the street crowd, for lack of better terms. Were people still holding a grudge?

Some people were, which really surprised me. For some of them, they still feel those rivalries and resentments toward certain band members who parted ways on not the nicest of terms. People hold on to things. Not all of them; some people are quite neutral, but others would spout off.

Everybody was 18-25 at the time, and it all seems very high school.

It is. This is obviously a very important time for a lot of these people, and these events took place at a time when everything was important. It was an age when you’re having a lot of your first experiences, so it’s going to resonate a lot more than something that happens to you when you’re 40. But also, we all leave high school and get jobs and then find out that high school never ends—it follows you wherever you go. So maybe it’s not surprising that people hold onto certain things.

It depends too, on what they went on to do. As one friend of mine commented about this book, it’s such a small time frame that it’s almost a gig-by-gig account. Every small event has huge impact.

I also went into a lot of details with people. I had nothing else to compare it to. I wanted to capture as much as I possibly could in one document. Because Toronto was always moving from venue to venue…

And only one venue at a time, it seems.

And so every show at a new venue marked a new era for the scene. Whereas in New York, if everything happened at either Max’s or CBGB’s, you don’t have to pay attention to when first gigs happened, why it happened there. Whereas in Toronto it really jumped around.

And it jumped around geographically, too. Some clubs were in the east end, some in the west end, one of them in what is now the “entertainment district,” one of them at Bloor and Avenue Rd., which now seems like the unlikeliest neighbourhood for any music club, never mind a punk one. And after the fallout from this time period, Queen St. really solidifies as a hub and very few people stray from there in the ’80s and ’90s.

The violence is one of the more incredulous parts of the book. It seems almost cartoonish and ridiculous, but it’s very real and integral. It makes you wonder, what was so pent up in the culture? Were regular rock’n’roll gigs this rowdy, or was there something else that made people want to come downtown and combust? Which you don’t see today.

I know, it doesn’t happen. And it would be scary if it did.

Only one person in the book has a gun. Today there are far more guns, and a lot of youth violence and death by gun. Not music-scene related, per se. But what would this scene be like if they had guns?

I would like to think that a lot of these people would be more sensible than that and wouldn’t go that route, but I don’t know.

Or is it more of a Fight Club thing, more visceral flesh-on-flesh?

(long pause) It’s weird. There are people in my extended family who get in fights with each other. It’s just a thing. They go to a bar, they get really drunk, they get into a fight. And it’s fine. It’s just a different thing. This was a different time, a different generation. There was this attitude: “Whatever, it’s just a fight.” Another thing that people address is that the violence at first was a joke, for fun, and it was fighting just to fight and innocent—as innocent as it can be. What happened was that once it infiltrated the media, a lot of people who didn’t really get it started coming down and they wanted to get into fights. It was more of a jock mentality

Is that the Blake Street Boys element [a group of street toughs who hung around the punk scene and eventually all went to jail for murder]?

That’s different. This was outsiders coming in and thinking it was cool to rough people up. The Blake Street element was something that Steven Leckie of the Viletones brought in. That was his own entourage, which had nothing to do with the media.

It was a neighbourhood thing too, wasn’t it?

Yeah, east end. And the other thing we talked about earlier is: where do all the outsiders go? They have to hang out together. And so the Blake Street boys found an easy home with punk, and they have Steven Leckie welcoming them in.

He’s almost like a Fagin character to them. Leckie seems shocked that after other people watch him abuse himself on stage, that they might want to abuse him. There are the bikers who tell him “we can help you with that,” and there’s the woman who stabs his foot on stage in New York. And suddenly this persona he’s constructed cracks a bit, which betrays an odd naivete: if you’re going to act like that, of course you’re going to attract that element and that reaction. What was your read on that?

There is a point when Steven talks about being stabbed in the foot. He says that girl was trying to marry herself to what he was doing.

Well, that’s a romantic way of looking at it.

It’s very much a Steven Leckie way of looking at things. Of course people are going to react to what you’re doing. We see that through all kinds of singers: the suicides that followed Kurt Cobain’s. There’s something about music, especially when people are younger, with music they feel is really powerful, that has an element of danger and people want to follow that danger. With something like punk, that becomes a lifestyle for people. It’s not like other kinds of music.

Are you talking 35 years ago or today?

Today to some extent, but 35 years ago for sure. People decided this is where I’m going, this is my tribe. It’s not surprising that people would react that way. They’re probably people who look at Steven Leckie and think, “Tonight, Steven is my leader.” As weird as that sounds.

Do you think he’s a dick?

(laughs) Steven… I don’t know. Steven is one of my favourite interviews. I talked to him a lot; there was a period when we talked every day. That’s weird with a project like that; you develop a relationship with people over a period of two years. It’s not like writing an article where you talk to someone once and then never see them again. There’s something about Steven that came up a lot, which is that even though he can be a pain in the ass, everyone still loves him (laughs). He’s so charismatic and there’s something about him; he’s very smart and an interesting person. You can’t be mad at him.

After reading everything that everyone has to say about him, including his old bandmates, I looked at the CD he put out in the ’90s, and there’s Sam Ferrara and Tony Vincent and Steve Koch on it. When he puts the call out, those guys still come.

It says a lot.

In histories about British punk or American punk—less so American—the shock value of Nazi imagery is glossed over, especially in academic approaches, because it doesn’t jive with what they want their intellectual approach to punk to be.

It’s completely unavoidable, however, when you have a singer called Nazi Dog. You don’t shy away from that at all. You know what his modus operandi is; you know what he’s trying to create. It’s loathsome, yet understandable in context; Siouxie Sioux and Sid Vicious flaunted Nazi imagery. And it’s interesting to hear people rationalize it now: “We didn’t really know/understand”; “it was the most shocking thing you could do at the time.” There’s a very frank assessment of it.

Even his own repentance is fascinating, when he talks about beginning to understand his girlfriend’s German parents—though god knows why it took him so long to add it all up, because they started going out when they were what, 16?

What did you learn about that, and what, if any, were your hesitations in addressing it?

I had no hesitations. To me, the Nazi stuff has always been a part of first-wave punk. I don’t care about being politically correct or offending people. You don’t want to intentionally offend someone by being malicious, but I feel like we live in such a sensitive time now, when people don’t want to talk about anything. And just because you don’t talk about it doesn’t mean that it’s not real, that it’s not part of the story. I feel like it doesn’t help anyone to not talk about stuff. What’s the point? You can’t not talk about Nazi symbolism in punk when you have a singer named Nazi Dog.

My interest was in collecting the story as best as I could, and I didn’t want to edit things out. This is a book about the ’70s, before people worried about being political correct, so you have to operate in that context. I didn’t want to do this through the filter of the millennium; I wanted to do it the way it would have been done 30 years ago.

Tomorrow: part two, in which we discuss Toronto, Hamilton, cultural insecurity, the would'ves-could'ves, and the therapeutic nature of oral histories

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Martha and the Muffins live

Far away in time, indeed. Today, Martha Johnson sings “Echo Beach” over an arrangement slower than its original tempo, devoid of drums or sax solos, and with the melancholy memories of a 50-year-old woman, reflecting on past regrets rather than racing to get out of a soul-numbing office job. The urgency of youth has obviously faded; today, escaping to Echo Beach seems more of a wistful fantasy rather than a compelling urge. There’s more resignation, less rage, and Johnson invests more emotion into her performance: rather than sounding like she’s enduring the song the same way she endures her office job, she takes time to sink her teeth into each line.

“Echo Beach” is a song that has defined Martha Johnson’s career with her husband and collaborator Mark Gane, although she hasn’t had to sing it in public for the better part of two decades now. Martha and the Muffins started at the Ontario College of Art over 30 years ago, and were responsible for some of the most exciting moments of Canadian pop music in the ’80s, starting with “Echo Beach” in 1980 through to their third collaboration with Daniel Lanois, 1984’s Mystery Walk, which yielded the equally big hit “Black Stations/White Stations” (which reached #2 on Billboard’s dance charts, falling behind only Prince’s “When Doves Cry”).

Their beginnings were unremarkable, save the enduring ennui of “Echo Beach.” Much of their material was decent, driving new wave pop with deadpan vocals and sax solos. It was when they met Lanois—through his sister Joceylne, who was their bassist—that the material started to get more adventurous, enamoured with similar synth and ethnomusicological experiments that Lanois’ collaborator Brian Eno had been working on with Talking Heads and Jon Hassell. It’s easy for Canadians to simply recall Martha and the Muffins as kitschy new wave relics, but listening to the breakdown in “Black Stations/White Stations,” the arpeggiated Frippotronic guitar in “Swimming” or the pure icy perfection of “Danseparc,” they were a lot more adventurous than many of their local peers (i.e. Spoons, Blue Peter), and their international respect only bolsters that.

And so now, 18 years after the last proper studio album from Martha Johnson and Mark Gane—not counting children’s music and film scores that have kept them busy while raising their now-17-year-old daughter—they return with Delicate, and a pair of intimate live shows at the Music Gallery in Toronto, with a stripped-down band and a curious audience—one where this 38-year-old critic was perhaps the youngest person in the room who wasn’t dragged there with his parents. (Eve Gane and her cousin were working the merch table.)

They take the stage with a trio on bass, guitar and keyboards, and launch into a version of “Black Stations White Stations” that’s far removed from the new wave Afropop of the original; driven by a chugging electric guitar and upright bass, this sounds like a Rick Rubin reinvention for a Johnny Cash album. And in case we were hoping for an evening of faithful renditions, Johnson sets the record straight by changing the line “this is 1984,” to “that was 1984.”

Older material (“Cooling the Medium,” “Swimming,” “Women Around the World At Work”) is interspersed with the new album, to mixed effect. The album itself is sadly unremarkable, but several new songs come to life in a live setting, including “Drive,” “Mess,” the unreleased “Delicate,” and a gorgeous, torchy version of Johnson’s midlife marital crisis ballad “Life’s Too Short to Long for Something Else” (for which Gane was conspicuously absent from the stage). Older material suffers from a lack of a drum kit—“Echo Beach” being an exception, having been transformed into a different mood entirely (the structure was also altered). “Danseparc” features Johnson picking up a midi saxophone for an all-too-brief interlude of inspired weirdness; the song also squeezes in “Paint By Number Heart” into its mid-section. And throughout the evening, Gane—who is an astounding guitarist—appears to keep himself on a short leash.

There was an awkward air to the entire evening—to be expected, considering their long absence from the stage, and perhaps some added nerves because the show was being taped for a possible live album. The band could definitely use some road-testing, and there is some unwelcome tension in the arrangements that suggests Gane and Johnson haven’t fully decided how to present a career’s worth of material.

The name Martha and the Muffins (or, for that matter, M+M) is as much of a boon as it is a bane for the couple at this point in time, and no one would ever suggest it’s easy to return to a creative life after 17 years of a domestic one. And if Delicate won’t be the album to reignite their worthy reputation, here’s hoping it clears out a few cobwebs and sets the stage for wherever they go next.